The Squeeze on British Higher Education

The Squeeze on British Higher Education

Jeffrey Williams: The Squeeze on British Higher Education

British college students took to the streets in London on November 10, protesting the new government?s recently unveiled policy to raise tuition across their university system. You might have even seen pictures in the news, since a contingent of them occupied Millbank Tower, the Conservative headquarters, for a time. The protest march was led by the National Union of Students; although the union?s president distanced himself from those who occupied Millbank, attributing the action to anarchists, the bulk of those in Millbank were students according to most reports.

The new policies were inspired by the report ?Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: An Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance,? which appeared a month ago. It was spearheaded by Lord Browne of Madingley, who was Chief Executive of BP until 2007 and whose cost-cutting policies are considered by some to be responsible for BP?s troubles. He?s turned a similar cost-cutting eye toward higher ed (there?s a video with the report that, at least to my unlordly eyes, seems to echo A Clockwork Orange).

Like many European countries, Britain had a largely state-funded system until recently; tuition was only instituted under the Thatcher regime, and its costs were modest. Most recently, tuition charges were capped at about £3,000 ($4,764). The Browne Report advises raising the cap to £9,000 ($14,293). This would make British universities similar to American universities. The United States has always had a consumerist system, reliant on an amalgam of tuition and other funding (state and donations), even at so-called public universities.

Another key part of the Browne report was ending block grants to universities for teaching. Universities had received lump sums based on the number of students at a school, and they could distribute the sums as they saw fit; the Browne report would make it a directly consumer-driven system, with funding reliant on specific course enrollments. Thus the report advised a kind of Spencerian survival of the fittest among disciplines, with most thinking this bodes ill for the arts and humanities.

The idea behind the Browne report is that university is for job training, and thus, like any service, the university should no longer be directed toward dross and frippery like art. This turns on end centuries of thinking about higher education, most notably that of the Oxford alum Cardinal Newman, who believed that the university should build character and not be utilitarian. Now, 150 years after his Idea of a University, the utilitarians have won.

There is a good response to the report by the British intellectual Stephan Collini in the November 4 issue of London Review of Books. Collini grants that one good thing about the report is that it unifies an otherwise ungainly system, but he is appalled at both the rise in tuition and the evacuation of the humanities. He is particularly good at skewering the idea that higher education should be based on consumer satisfaction?that an eighteen-year old could decide what should properly be taught at university. See also Angela McRobbie and Nick Couldry?s ?The Death of the University: English Style,? and a petition against the cuts.

The bottom line of the protests is that people do in fact like public services and expect them. While the model of the welfare state has been criticized, denigrated, and dismissed, it seems people don?t really like the brave new world that follows its removal. That?s the one thing that the marketeers don?t seem to realize; the so-called free market seems to work much better when it has the backing of the welfare state.


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