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?

58 thoughts on “A Poisoned Consensus on Higher Education

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  • ingo

    great to hear you re emergence from the home improvement front and on such an important issue. I had this vision of you emerging from a underneath a pile of empty card boxes.

    Nobody is talking of targets of 50% university students anymore, very refreshing.

    Vince Cable had to eat humble pie over higher education and it looks like the Lib Dems at large are going to support his u turn as there is no joy in abstentions, they cannot scupper the Government over this unless they have considerable support from EdLabour, previous noLabour.

    Lord browne and many others who enjoyed free university education should, if they really believe in this principle, be the first to pay back a graduate tax, it should apply to all and sundry, not just those currently trying to make ends meet.

    Some students have to take drastic steps, they are making ends meet with lap dancing and stripping, not your usual student job.

  • Sam

    Great to see you blogging again.

    I wanted to believe in the Lid Dems, I really did, but it seems they’ve had their animal farm moment.

    What next? The coalition is about to commit economic suicide in the pursuit of an outdated and discredited ideology. Who is opposing them? Without a credible opposition, support for parties like the BNP will inevitably grow.

  • Anonymous

    Of course with the new model, how long before the Sudetns get savvy and sue the universities for sub standard tuition? or even better for courses that could be reduced to 2yrs instaed of 4?

    BTW I with you on this one, hey lets make tax avoidence a hit on the University funding. A good start would be recovering the large £4billion + HMRC has let vodaphone off the hook with (as reported by Private Eye)

  • Education Law

    If these proposals go ahead it will get to the stage where many will start looking at value for money. Is a degree worth £20,000, £30,000, £40,000? For example is someone going to earn £40,000 more over a lifetime because they have a degree? In many cases they won’t.

  • glenn

    Wonderful to see the blog active again – Craig, it was a struggle keeping it alive in your absence! Starting strong too,

    It’s honest of Vince Cable to admit to tossing out any remaining Lib Dem principles, when he officially abandoned the pledge on tuition fees (in The Observer last Sunday). Good of him to tell us yesterday that principles would have been held, but only “in an ideal world”. It wasn’t in an ideal world that I voted for them, however, it was this one.

  • Leo

    One generation got free education and in return paid for the next generation’s education. Now the next generation are told they have to pay for it themselves.

    The government have effectively stolen an entire generation’s higher education funding to use on blowing up brown people and bailing out banks.

    It started with New Labour and the Tories (no surprise) and LibDems (sigh) continue it. Who the hell do we vote for if we want to live in a civilised, educated society?

  • John Maher

    Hi Craig,

    I’m also one of the lucky generation having retired seven years ago from Bristol where I lectured in Inorganic Chemistry. I went to IC 1957-63, on a grant from Eastbourne CC, then on a DSIR grant for my PhD, then Chicago as a postdoc, then straight back to Bristol as a junior lecturer. Rather a closeted background, but I would never wish to change anything. The research fascinated me, and I probably became a better teacher with time! University workers have an excellent pension scheme, it was FSSU, then changed to USS. I have benefited from this in retirement. I wonder whether that will be the next target for the politicians? I’m appalled at what is being done to the universities both as educators and (probably soon) to research in the UK. The local MP here in Bristol is Stephen Williams, he seems a little more aware of the Liberal pledge than some of his colleagues, so I wrote in support of the “Science is Vital” campaign, http://scienceisvital.org.uk/

    It was very noticeable that there was no mention of that campaign during yesterdays report on student funding, even though there was a lobby of parliament on the subject yesterday, and only the briefest mention of the rally on Saturday. You can count the number of educated scientists in parliament and the media on the fingers of one hand. I picked up your web site and blog on facebook.

    A final thought! Maybe a campaign to cover the other aspects of university work, and like ‘science is vital’ would be apposite. All forms of scholarship are vital to our society, and they need to be passed to the next generation. University should be regarded as the end of schooling, not something tagged on for those that can afford it.



  • alan campbell

    Too right. Thank Christ we have the Lib Dems in government to take their principled stand against tuition fees.

  • Jeremy Hughes

    Good post, and I’m broadly supportive.

    A little query about the statement ‘And higher education is an investment that pays well’ (which I’ve heard elsewhere):

    I’m fairly sure it held true when 13% of students went on to universities, but is it (will it be) true when 40%-50% of the workforce has a degree?

    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.

    Having said that, ‘return on investment’ is not the only (nor the strongest) argument.



  • Vronsky

    As a former techie I’d normally be inclined to go along with the ‘science is vital’ thing. I note with concern, however, that there is talk of differentially axing the arts and humanities courses, apparently on a who-the fuck-needs-that-kinda-stuff basis. Looks to me like the continuing process of making our universities simply a branch of the vocational training business. Get good at making things to sell, but please to goodness never develop the faculty of wondering if they’re worth selling.

    Not that real science fairs terribly well anyway. This is from a Time Educational Supplement, 8th Sep, 2000:


    An IPMS survey earlier this year found that unethical behaviour is shockingly common: a third of scientists working in government or in recently privatised laboratories had been asked to change their research findings to suit the customer’s preferred outcome, while 10% said there was pressure on them to bend their results to help secure contracts. In Britain’s handful of top research universities, dependence on private sources of income is acute, often amounting to 80-90% of the total research budget.


  • Vronsky

    Kept staring at that, wondering what was wrong. Of course it should be ‘Not that real science *fares* terribly well’

  • mike cobley

    Universities exist to produce people who can think, not to create profits. The prevailing, mean-spirited, small-minded orthodoxy seems to be that all the insititutions of civil society should contribute to the profitability of the corporate sector. Hah hah hah, methinks not. Only a return to the pre-Thatcher system of student grants will guarantee access to university-level education on the basis of ability. Anything involving loans, fees, or graduate tax is a ploy to filter out the riff-raff and tighten the elite’s stranglehold.

  • actgreen

    Sanity returns to the blogosphere.

    Welcome back.

    The whole world has been missing you – or should have been.

  • mrjohn

    This isn’t going to be a very popular opinion but I do think that something has to be done about higher education overall, and it is typical that it will be enforced via the purse strings.

    Ideally those that are really motivated to study should enjoy the facility free of charge irrespective of their parents’ income and wealth. Education is one of the pillars of a secure and progressive country.

    However it does appear the concept of higher education has been watered down to the point of being meaningless. People who would be better off starting a career get suckered into 3 years of pretending to study with people pretending to teach subjects we pretend have meaning. They come out with a debt and a piece of paper.

    Would it not be better to have university as a path for a few who truly are academically motivated, rather than as a pre-requisite for a job in an unrelated field.

    Perhaps the best thing British citizens can do is re-adjust their attitudes as employers and to look at the potential of young people for themselves, rather than placing their faith in a fundamentally biased system. It’s privately educated Oxbridge candidates who run the country and most of the major companies, and it’s a bloody mess, don’t think things need to be much clearer than that.

  • Roderick Russell

    As Craig says ?” “The proponents – across all main parties – of this extremist doctrine are under the delusion that they are following the American model. They are not.”

    No, they are not following the American model. But, as in so much else, when their model fails, they will still blame it on the Americans and the British people will believe them.

  • Lucia Helena

    After excellent “Diplomacia Suja” I discovered one great man. You’re a rich soul. One creature generous and principally correct,equitable and lucid.

    Thanks,thanks, thanks, for all moments elucidates during emotive lecture .

    Good luck to you, Nadira and your sons.

    I’ll save this blog in my “favorites”.

    Craig: Here, in Brazil we say: Be united and mixed. And I complete: Alawys!

  • Paul

    Craig: “But the benefits are much higher than the dismal science.”

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

  • Alfred Burdett

    The university degrees that may add nothing to lifetime’s salary:


    ‘Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education, said that despite the expansion of higher education, the financial returns to graduates were high by international standards.

    “Independent analysis suggests the average premium over a working life remains comfortably over £100,000 (before tax) in today’s valuation,” ‘

    Wow, “comfortably over £100,000” — before tax. LOL.

    Has it not occurred to this moron in charge of higher education that people who get university degrees tend to be members of the more intelligent and more cultured half of the population, whereas, despite many exceptions, those who do not go on to higher education tend to be among the less intelligent and less cultured half of the population. Why then should one assume that pissing away four years in an “institution of higher education” under the tutelage of the kind of people who brought us Climategate will do anything at all to enhance someone’s lifetime earnings.

    If young people don’t like the idea of borrowing tens of thousands to pay for a university degree, I’d advise them to give the thing a miss.

    If they want to learn to think for themselves, then what are they waiting for? Never before has the World’s knowledge been so readily accessible to ordinary folks. Just get a library card, an internet connection and save the public the cost of the next wave of university expansion.

    And if it’s money they want, that’s easy: start a business and work seven days a week for many years and the probability is they will earn far more in a lifetime than the average accountant or Cambridge-trained mathematician.

    Universities should go back to being what they used to be be: places for scholars not careerists, where truly able students with an academic inclination can get a real education not a credential based on proficiency in completing multiple-choice questionaires.

  • somebody

    How can they ‘sell’ the idea of accumulating £30,000 of debt to someone from a family that is not well off and that has always avoided being in debt.

    £30,000 is the estimated debt that would be incurred by a medical student.

    The Philistines are definitely in office. Shame on those who voted LD and put Cameroon in office.

    From medialens –

    It was nauseating to watch Nick Clegg.

    Posted by rippon on October 13, 2010, 6:37 pm, in reply to “Ed Milband’s first PMQs – a beeline for the ‘squeezed middle-class'”

    It was nauseating to watch Nick Clegg.

    He eagerly nodded in agreement with every rebuttal that Cameron gave to arguments from Miliband about unfairness; the scale of Clegg’s hypocrisy was breathtaking ?” for Clegg’s complete lack of self-awareness ?” because Miliband’s arguments were exactly Clegg’s arguments before he chose to suckle at the bosom of the Tories (or Cameron’s d*ck).

    His smiles at each of Cameron’s ‘point scores’ illustrate the warm glow he is feeling inside at finally having made it into the big boys club (apparently unfazed that the price of his admission is to be a rent boy to the big boys).

    I find it amazing the extent to which Clegg has so readily embraced his loyal puppy-dog role. It is so brazen and transparent that I wonder if Cameron might be feeling some twinge of embarrassment for his obsequious new pet.

    Surely many LibDems are feeling embarrassed by the hypocrisy and betrayal of their leadership. I think there are some in the higher echelons of the party who have some principles, e.g. Sarah Tether: maybe I’m just imagining it, but she did seem somewhat uncomfortable on the front bench of the Tory (sorry, ‘Coalition’) government.


    Re: It was nauseating to watch Nick Clegg.

    Posted by Ed on October 13, 2010, 7:07 pm,

    I think the most nauseating one is Vince Cable.

    He was on Galloway’s Talksport Radio show quite a few times before the election, talking some sense about the banking bailouts and giving it large about the fundamental unfairness of New Labour and Tory policies.

    Now to hear him basically say “since I said those things the situation has changed and the unfair Tory policies are now the only way to go” and see Cameron pat him on the arm in The House Of Commons after he spouted hypocrisy worthy of Tony Blair really is vomit inducing.

    What a cowardly turncoat!


  • Ishmael

    Making sense of the muddle they presented, to what looks like an attempt to obscure the facts. Power? Ha bloody ha

  • Alfred


    I liked Jesse Ventura’s piece too:


    Ventura, one-time state governor, US Navy Seal, pro wrestler, Harvard lecturer and now author, is perhaps the most intelligent politician to comment on 9/11.

    But two other points about the value of higher education.

    First, members of the professions earn many times the average wage by virtue of the fact that the professions restrict entry and thereby extort from the public much higher incomes than they could otherwise earn. This advantage is all to do with restrictive practice, not university education. If the salaries of professionals are omitted, the statistics might show no income advantage associated with university graduation. After all, a graduate loses at least four years of income by staying longer in school.

    Second, statistics on lifetime earnings of graduates must reflect the incomes of graduates of all ages. That includes people like me, and many of my juniors such as Craig Murray who graduated while the graduating was good. I believe at the time I entered university only about 2% of school leavers obtained university degrees. Naturally, our job prospects were excellent, especially in a country such as Britain where the Government of the day was openly protectionist. Now with a third or more of the population graduating from university and the corporations that own the government outsourcing to Asia as fast as they can, job prospects for university graduates are lousy, especially in many technical fields — the worst, I believe, being computer science (unemployment rate among UK computer science graduates being higher than in any other field).

    Third, is the cost to the taxpayer of a largely unproductive, and possibly wealth destroying, higher education system. Slash the size of the universities and lower taxes and most people might be significantly better off — even the professors who, if they really are people of talent, can surely earn better money in the private sector than the classroom.

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