Higher Education and New Labour

Higher Education and New Labour

One of the greater oddities of British politics this winter has been the Labour Party’s travails over higher education. The government issued its White Paper on Higher Education in January 2003-“White Papers” are arcane BritSpeak for the publications in which British governments set out their finalized views on what legislation will contain when it is eventually put before Parliament-but only brought its legislation before Parliament in late January of this year. The delay was testimony to the extraordinary passions that higher education policy has aroused in the past three years. Even more striking, this government, with a majority of 161, only got its bill through the House of Commons by five votes.

The White Paper was in fact described as “Greenish” a year ago-“Green Papers” are the consultation documents that governments issue, either to test opinion and provoke more debate or else to deflect attention for long enough to bury an issue without further action. The oddity is that in many respects higher education has been a British success story, so government timidity on the one side and public fury on the other side seem hard to explain. So, what has been happening?

Anyone with a reasonable understanding of higher education in the United States will find the British scene both very familiar and very alien. It’s familiar to the extent that during the 1980s and 1990s Britain experienced something very like the surge in enrollments and the change in demographics that American higher education experienced in the 1960s. The percentage of young people going to university rose from around 15 percent to around 40 percent; where universities had been the destination of better off eighteen-year-old, white, young men, they now took in more mature students, more women, more ethnic minorities, more part-timers. And this all had an impact on the educational offerings available to students. Liberal arts courses did not diminish in absolute numbers, but they diminished very dramatically as a proportion of course offerings. Studies related to business became overwhelmingly the most popular courses for the new students. None of this would surprise an American observer who took it for granted that Britain experienced the social transformations that the United States experienced, but rather more gently and twenty years later.

The alien aspects of British academic life are harder to explain, partly because most of them can be found in some shape or form somewhere on the American scene. So, we should begin with the most alien feature of all: Britain possesses only one institution of higher education whose teaching receives no assistance at all from the taxpayer. This is the University of Buckingham, a tiny college founded some thirty years ago and that has proved beyond much doubt that the British will not support private higher education if they can get the taxpayer to provide instead. In the...