A Poisoned Consensus on Higher Education 58

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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58 thoughts on “A Poisoned Consensus on Higher Education

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  • mike cobley

    Old teacher saying – if you think education is expensive, try ignorance. Come back to my original point – universities exist to produce people who can think, not profits for commerce.

  • Alfred

    “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance. ”

    But does what passes for higher education cure ignorance or inculcate it? If it adds no more, and perhaps much less, than 100,000 to lifetime earnings — before tax — one has to wonder.

  • Paul Johnston

    “A prisoner costs the state eight times what a student costs, but we can have unlimited numbers of those.”

    Well not exactly thanks to Ken Clarke, (to the chagrin of the

    Daily Mail) and I do mean thanks for someone who realises prison doesn’t work. Anyway my advice is commit a crime, get locked up and study with the OU 🙂

  • Courtenay Barnett

    @ Jermy Hughes,

    Why do you say this?:-

    “It seems to me there would be a dilution of the positive (economic) benefits of HE in proportion to the increase in the percentage of students going on to university, so it might not hold true”

    When the general educational average rises, why shouldn’t productivity, innovation, research and development, efficiency not all rise?

  • glenn

    I recall Blair’s apologia on BBC1 for reneging “New” Labour’s promise to abolish tuition fees. In his staccato, ever-so-sincere-manner, he explained to his unenlightened detractors that the lifetime earnings of a graduate was likely to be increased by many hundreds of thousands of pounds. Nobody pointed out that – if that was indeed true – then the tax revenue from that person would also be increased by hundreds of thousands of pounds. Given this incredibly obvious fact, why is nobody pointing out that having the state paying for an education is a sound investment? And that’s if we only consider money as being the relevant factor, to the exclusion of all else. As we do in this country these days.

    Alfred – good to see you’ve not abandoned us.

    But to your third point… professors and university chancellors might suddenly decide that given they are in charge of a massively important system in terms of financial throughput, they need appropriate remuneration, along the lines of their counterparts with equally high financial throughput in the public sector. This happened with such vital national resources as the water and electricity providers. Previously, they were public servants – doing very nicely, but still on very reasonable government salaries. But upon doing the same job as CEO of the newly privatised Yorkshire Water Authority, for example, that individual was suddenly transformed to the mighty head of a multi-billion pound industry and had to be recompensed in accordance with his private sector counterparts, with millions in salary, stock options, and bonuses, as befitted a man in his position!

    With the leash taken off, we’re about to see the wholesale privitisation of education. Heck it’s worked so well with the utilities, why not? By “worked so well”, I mean produced a number of very rich people, given shareholders great returns, even if it hasn’t made such an improvement in efficiency and has seriously upped the cost to the students, sorry, I mean customers. But who cares about that when we have this wondrous free market?

  • Phrastus

    @ Paul

    “I don’t understand. Which science is it that you are saying is ‘dismal’? Or have I misunderstood?”

    The dismal science = economics

  • glenn

    Comrades… Comrades! Can we get at least into a few weeks of regular new CM postings before drifting into the seven-eleven/ teabaggers / anti-semitie screachers / troller postings?

  • Larry from St. Louis


    Once again, I didn’t start it.

    I wasn’t the one to point out that about 90% of Craig Murray’s supporters believe that the Towers were pre-planted with explosives.

    You people can’t stop yourselves.

  • Craig

    Wow, it feels like I have never been away. Especially nice to hear from Lucie Helene from Brazil who came after reading Diplomacia Suja.

  • lwtc247

    Lets not be too simplistic and irrationally emotional here; All this talk about ‘the poor student’ and “Social mobility” malarkey. Beneath this veneer, you see the majority of these ‘poor students’ are playing their hand (gambling) in the capitalist society where the ultimate goal means they may no longer be the trodden upon but in fact the one doing the trodding. And if they are successful the capitalist machine will worsen. They will actually be creating more problems for their successive generations.

    I’m against the pimping and of Uni for capitalism which gorges itself of transient wealth embedded in pieces of debt based paper, but it is poetic justice that given the fact Uni’s are to propogate this market mantra that the mouth it feeds should begin to nibble upon it.

    To me, Uni should be a place of knowledge acquisition, sharing and development where the results are put into benefiting the society and not where it benefits the corporations who pretend their success is what benefiting society means.

    That will only ever happen from state funding or by way of an ideologically based philanthropist.

    But Universities have become bloated institutions. How many use Linux> Open Office etc etc etc.

    And what ever happened to practical/vocational training (apprenticeships) for actually developing skills rather than all this management/marketing/media/ shite?

  • somebody

    Our troubles pale in comparison to what the Afghan people are experiencing.

    12-10-2010 News release 10/185

    Afghanistan: war casualties soar in Kandahar hospital

    Geneva/Kabul (ICRC) ?” The number of war casualties taken to Mirwais Regional Hospital in Kandahar for treatment is hitting record highs. The hospital, which is supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), registered almost twice as many new patients with weapon-related injuries in August and September 2010 as during the same months last year ?” close to 1,000 compared with just over 500 during the same period in 2009.

    “This is just the tip of the iceberg, as those who suffer other sorts of injuries or contract disease as an indirect result of the conflict far outnumber weapon-wounded patients,” said Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC delegation in Kabul. Every day, there are mothers who bring their sick children to hospital too late because they are afraid to travel or are held up by roadblocks, and relatives who take patients home before their treatment is completed. “The result is that children die from tetanus, measles and tuberculosis ?” easily prevented with vaccines ?” while women die in childbirth and otherwise strong men succumb to simple infections,” added Mr Stocker.

    The deteriorating security situation is affecting the Afghan people in many ways. Last week’s bombing that left eight children dead in Kandahar, like other serious recent incidents, is an example of how the conflict keeps on raging in various parts of the country.

    Meanwhile, the multiplication of armed groups in all parts of Afghanistan is making the tasks faced by the ICRC all the more daunting. “Our greatest challenge consists in maintaining access to the areas hardest hit by the fighting, but the increase in the number of armed groups is making this much harder for us,” said Mr Stocker. “Nevertheless, because the ICRC is engaged in dialogue with all parties to the conflict, it hopes to be able to maintain its presence among the displaced, the detained, the injured or the otherwise war-affected people of Afghanistan.”

    Now more than ever, there is a crucial need for health-care facilities in Afghanistan. Following many months of planning and construction, the ICRC opened a seventh prosthetic/orthotic centre in the country, in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, to address the drastic increase in the number of weapon-related amputations in southern Afghanistan.

    “Patients will no longer need to make the dangerous journey to one of the six other ICRC centres in the country,” said Alberto Cairo, who heads the ICRC’s limb-fitting and rehabilitation programme in Afghanistan, adding that, as always, “services are free of charge and amount to a lifeline for rural communities surrounded by increasingly violent conflict.” The centre employs 22 people ?” mostly amputees ?” and has a capacity to treat over 1,500 men, women and children every year.

    For further information, please contact:

    Bijan Frederic Farnoudi, ICRC Kabul, tel: +93 700 282 719

    Christian Cardon, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 24 26 or +41 79 251 93 02


    There was an admission on BBC Breakfast this morning from an American that often the US blame the Taliban for the killing and maiming for which the US are responsible.

    Some of the Afghans who found help in the aftermath of trauma through the ICRC’s medical and rehabilitation services are compellingly portrayed by New York Times writer and photographer Adam Ferguson. View the series of portraits. ©ICRC/J. Powell/af-e-01596

    Operating theatre, Mirwais Hospital, Kandahar.

    Operating theatre, Mirwais Hospital, Kandahar. ©ICRC/J. Powell/af-e-01596

    ©ICRC/J. Powell/af-e-01565

    Children’s ward. Mirwais Hospital, Kandahar.

    Children’s ward. Mirwais Hospital, Kandahar. ©ICRC/J. Powell/af-e-01565

  • lwtc247

    I agree with ‘somebody’. We should prioritise working towards the immediate end to these f’ing awful and evil wars first. Then spend effort elsewhere.

  • mike cobley

    “We cannot afford it.”

    This plainly not true – we’re quite prepared to waste billions on fruitless spasms of savagery in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the City is floating on a sea of money. And we cant afford properly-funded tertiary education? Sorry, that doesnt wash.

    “…we probably don’t need to send everyone who can write their name on an English Lit course. And we have so devalued the whole experience that it has become a waste of resources.

    Please – this is an elitist argument. “Yes, yes, we’ve got quite enough BAs in Eng.Lit, so just run along and learn carpentry or something.” The notion of people expanding their knowledge and enriching their understanding is clearly of no worth, then.

  • Carlyle Moulton

    What is the purpose of education? By this I mean what is the purpose of education in the minds of the elite who control how it is provided?

    In some nations the elite leaders see the nation as a whole competing with other nations and they promote a system of education whose purpose is to maximize the value of human capital regardless of the socioeconomic class from which each piece of human capital comes so that they as a nation can compete with other nations.

    In other nations, the elite are focused on internal not international competition and see the purpose of education as being to maintain the correct privilege hierarchy by preventing upward social mobility by the children of poor people from putting pressure on positional goods to which those who already have reached a high enough socioeconomic position are entitled.

    The former is the case in Taiwan and in dynamic South East Asian societies, the latter that in anglophone nations, The UK, The USA and Australia. In these countries there is a concerted campaign to destroy not just University Education but also free public school education as a means of escape from poverty. The agenda is to privatize education and convert free public systems into third rate child minding centres for the children of the poor until these are ready to occupy cells in taxpayer subsidized but privately owned prisons.

    In the anglosphere teaching is a despised profession with a status lower than that obsolete job of night soil carter. Every teacher lives in fear that the dumbest children could completely demoralize them by pointing out that what they are doing is a loser’s job.

  • Jeremy Hughes

    @somebody (October 13, 11:19 PM)

    I described my gut reaction, from a position of relative ignorance, in the context of asking the question.

    Increasing the number of people with degrees does not directly increase the number of jobs available for them.

    Success in finding employment is a key measure of the economic ‘return’ on the ‘investment’ of HE, though not the only one.

    I agree that this does ignore other benefits (both quantifiable and unquantifiable) of higher education.


  • somebody

    How this damnable coaltion was foisted on us.

    ‘It seems the coalition government was formed to constitutional guidance drawn up by unelected civil-servants that was not subjected to parliamentary scrutiny or approval:

    “The secretive Cabinet guidance which helped shape coalition negotiations faces scrutiny from today.

    An inquiry by the Commons’ political and constitutional reform committee will seek to establish how such an important document could exist without being made public.

    The manual offered its own interpretation of Britain’s unwritten constitution, making clear-cut decisions about constitutionally uncertain matters like the monarch’s right to refuse a dissolution.’



  • Ishmael

    Does the current LibbyConversion remind anyone of the bloke from the Matrix Sci-fi movie, agent Smith, who took over his opponents, making them a mirror image of himself. Cable & Cleggy would appear to have been infected in a similar way, while maintaining their previous appearance

  • christian h.

    Apparently in the spending review the government plans to impose immediate cuts of 80% in teaching support and about 20% in research support. Let’s be clear: such a revenue loss cannot be replaced in time to save higher education in the UK. Even if one somehow loses their minds and agrees with privatization, it can’t be done this quickly. Under this plan, Britain will be an academia-free zone by 2020. It’s literally insane.

    I teach at UCLA (one of the top public universities in the US). Our state support (not federal grant moneys, basic operational support by the state of CA) was cut by about 20% last year, and even though state support is only about 15% of our total revenues, these cuts were hard to implement. A 50% cut effective next year would close us down.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    That’s a ferociously cogent analysis, christian h. Says it all. Demonstrates the psychosis of what in essence, both in the USA and Western Europe, is a massive and fraudulent robbery being committed right in the open by the rulers in cahoots with the big financial institutions. A de facto coup d’etat is taking place, right here, right now. Only by massive, organised and sustained action across the social classes in the form of resistance committees, barricades, credit unions, etc. will there be any chance of saving civil society. Let them send in the National Guard (and they will). The choice is between social democracy and fascism.

  • Ruth

    Of course, universities such as Oxford and Cambridge will survive to educate and prime our political masters for their future roles. But higher education for the masses will gradually wither with those actually participating ground down in life after with massive debt and hence submissive. The masses devoid of intellectual stimuli and desperate to find a job, any job will equally succumb and be grateful for a crumb.

    We need to rise up.

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