Daily Archives: October 13, 2010

A Poisoned Consensus on Higher Education

Lord Browne was once well known for living an Elton John lifestyle. He still doesn’t have to go without lunch. His thoughts on the motivations and problems of poorer students and potential students are somewhat vague. He does however get along famously with University Principals and Vice Chancellors – spectacular beneficiaries of the incredible salary leap made by senior public sector staff under New Labour. Browne’s review reflects precisely the view of University Principals.

This group have bought entirely into the notion that universities should be viewed as businesses with turnovers of hundreds of millions. This is unsurprising, because it is the notion that they should be rewarded at the “market rate” for chief executives o fsuch businesses which justifies their own colossal salaries and emoluments. Governing bodies of Universities have swallowed the same fashionable line, as did New Labour, and as has The Guardian.


In my time as Rector on Dundee University court we were continually looking at ranking tables designed by the University administration to encourage us to axe poor performing departments, Performance was ranked purely on financial criteria – basically cost against amount of research income brought in. This was a consequence of under funding combined with the fact that research was the main source of variable income. It led to a dreadful under-appreciation of teaching and a view of students as paying customers rather than part of an academic community.

Browne brings us the apotheosis of this disastrous policy – a system where teaching will be 90% funded by the students, an almost total privatisation of higher teaching and learning.

The proponents – across all main parties – of this extremist doctrine are under the delusion that they are following the American model. They are not. Here are just a couple of little acknowledged but extremely important facts:

– The federal government in the USA already spends more per university student – 13% more – than the UK does.

– Seven of the top ten universities in the USA are state universities.

There is nowhere in the Western world a viable model for the almost complete withdrawal of state funding from University teaching as now proposed in England. This is a potentially disastrous gamble with the future of our country.

I am especially concerned for social mobility. Introduction of differential tuition fees will lead quite simply to rich men’s universities and poor men’s universities, with ordinary people simply priced out of prestige courses at top universities. This is socailly regressive reform of the worst possible kind. Those who claim that borrowing £70,000 is the same prospect to a family on £30,000 a year as to a family on £200,000 a year are talking self-serving cant – and tend to be in £200,000 a year families.

The Treasury fights tax hypothecation tooth and nail. You cannot have a separate tax for Trident missiles. Why, uniquely in the area of higher education, is tax hypothecation an acceptable option?

We are sagely advised that we cannot keep 40% of the relevant population in higher education from the public purse. Really? Yet we can keep 100% of the relevant population in school. A prisoner costs the state eight times what a student costs, but we can have unlimited numbers of those. We can afford any sum to invade and occupy countries across the globe. This small island apparently needs to spend hundreds of billions to have a nuclear capacity to destroy half the world. But we can’t afford higher education?

And higher education is an investment that pays well. Browne argues that a degree greatly increases earnings power, so the student should pay. If he were not so blinded by free market rigidity, he would realise that he has defeated his own argument. Degrees greatly increase economic productivity. Higher education is a vital component of a modern economy. That is why the state should make it a public good.

But the benefits are much higher than the dismal science. Knowledge is in itself a good, a great thing. Dispelling ignorance massively enhances the quality of life. A highly educated society is one worth living in, and one where old social distinctions are irrelevant. How have we come to forget all this?

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