James Panton: Selling out universities

James Panton: Selling out universities
James Panton is a lecturer in politics at Lady Margaret Hall and Carlyle Scholar in the History of Ideas, Faculty of Modern History, University of Oxford.

While UK education secretary Charles Clarke has published a watered down proposal for the introduction of variable tuition fees, and opponents claim they will fight on over the principle of free education, it remains clear that neither side has any proposals for how to improve the state of higher education (1).

This is chiefly because they lack any idea of the purpose of higher education. The supporters of the government proposal seem to see the issue as one of accountancy - those who benefit from a university education should pay. Opponents of fees, by contrast, argue that fees won't plug the funding gap, or that young people are too weak to cope with the possibility of incurring debts. The idea of the university, as a place where students are challenged improve their understanding of the world, doesn't figure.

Let's make no mistake that the university sector has some serious financial woes. As a result of the 1992 Education Reform Act that allowed polytechnics to apply for university status, the number of universities in the UK doubled in the early 1990s. Between 1976 and 1989 public funding per capita in the university sector fell by 20 per cent; from 1989 to 2002 it fell by a further 37 per cent. In today's money, this means a reduction between 1989/90 and 2003/4 from £8000 to £5000 per student. Over the same period, the number of students in the university sector increased by 94 per cent (2). The average staff-student ratio in universities in England and Wales is currently 23:1, a figure that compares badly with the further education sector, where the ratio is 15:1 (3).

This dire state of affairs might explain why university heads have been so keen on government proposals. As a report by Universities UK - the organisation of university chief executives - put it: 'substantial investment is now required to maintain current levels of activity, let alone to cater for the new growth in student numbers the government is seeking.' (4) That proposed growth is to increase the proportion of school leavers entering higher education from its current 40 per cent to 50 per cent by the end of the decade.

The Tories oppose fees, but they lack any real proposal for improving the university sector. Instead, they propose to solve the funding crisis by halting the expansion of higher education. They seem to want to restrict university education to a minority of naturally intelligent individuals, and leave the majority of cerebrally challenged to vocational education. Arguing that there is 'a severe shortage of technical and vocational skills in our economy', they propose to replace the expansion of the university sector by greater expansion in vocational training, promising to 'allow children to start vocational training much earlier than they do now, involve employers in the teaching so that it is practical and relevant, and allow more schools to specialise in technical education' (5).

This merely amounts to the claim that there are too many students in the university sector who lack the ability for academic training. And given that it was the under Conservative governments that the recent expansion of the university sector began, in large part in an attempt to push people into education and off unemployment statistics, it seems a bit rich now to complain when they can't find a decent plumber.

Other critics point out that the proposed tuition fees will do little to tackle the funding crisis. Universities UK claims that the university sector needs to find an extra £2 billion. The Liberal Democrats calculate that 'top-up fees will generate at most £1.5 billion, and now the government is telling universities that around a third of this must be spent on bursaries for poorer students, leaving only £1 billion.' (6)

According to the National Union of Students' 'Stop Fees Now' campaign, the average total cost of a university degree is now £20,000 (7), leading NUS president Mandy Telford to explain that '£3000 is not enough to plug the funding gap, something the government itself has admitted. Quite clearly that figure is just in place to try and somehow soften the initial blow of top-up fees. If the government succeeds in getting its proposals through Parliament nobody must believe that the cap will remain at £3,000.' (8)

Professor Michael Sterling, chair of The Russell Group, the organisation of elite universities in the UK that supports the introduction of fees, said that the government's proposals were 'a step in the right direction' that has 'laid the foundation stones for how universities are going to develop.' However, he warned, 'Nobody pretends that it's enough' (9).

Perhaps the opponents' more substantive point is that fees will mean the marketisation of the university sector. Former foreign secretary Robin Cook was 'deeply offended', claiming that fees meant the introduction of a market in higher education that seems 'totally contrary to everything this government is trying to achieve - a fairer more egalitarian society' (10). Mandy Telford argued last week that 'what the government is trying to do is create a market place in higher education. This will allow some universities to charge higher fees than others' (11). But for all their moral outrage, these critics seem to have only just woken up to a process that has been in full swing for the past two decades.

Tuition fees are merely the latest stage in the ongoing marketisation of higher education. Successive education ministers have understood the university sector as a business enterprise to be justified in economic terms. The government white paper, 'The Future of Higher Education' recognises the role of universities in 'educating their students to live life to the full through the acquisition of skills…' (12). These views are mainstream today. Universities UK comments that 'the government wants to increase participation in higher education' because 'it judges that additional graduates will be needed to sustain the growth of the economy through the first half of the twenty-first century' (13). The Higher Education Funding Council for England sees its mission as the promotion and funding of 'high-quality, cost-effective teaching and research', which meets 'the diverse needs of students, the economy and society' (14).

In place of ivory towers engaged in the unbridled pursuit of knowledge we have the teaching of quantifiable skills that will be relevant to the needs of the economy. In order to sell education to their customers in a competitive environment, universities must provide a decent 'service' and have quantifiable outcomes. As Ellie Lee points out on spiked, we've moved a long way from the 1963 Robbins Report on the expansion of higher education, which argued that the 'search for truth is an essential function of the institutions of higher education, and the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes in the nature of discovery' (15).

When higher education is understood to be a consumer good, it is logical that graduates should pay for it. Once a university education is understood as no more than a route to a job for individuals, and as a means to economic expansion for society as a whole, tuition fees seem reasonable. And since some universities clearly provide a better product than others, why not charge variable fees? Opponents of tuition fees crucially fail to challenge the assumptions on which fees are based.

Although, as one scholar puts it, 'there is no rigorously proven causal link between the number of university graduates a country produces and its economic prosperity' (16), the thesis that expanding education will lead to great economic prosperity is rarely challenged. Worse, there is no challenge to the ongoing process of commodification of higher education, which has had a profound and destructive impact upon universities. Rather, we have no more than assertions that 'education should be free for all' and that 'poorer students are put off going to university by debt or the fear of debt' (17).

The idea that young people who aspire to the intellectual challenge of higher education will be put off by the possibility of having to pay off debts, presents a pretty patronising view of young people. The real problem is that young people with the aspiration to be challenged are likely to find themselves in an environment that praises learning outcomes, quality assurance, and the teaching of transferable skills - and places little value on intellectual creativity, curiosity, or challenge.

Read on:

Stressing out students, by James Panton

A third class proposal, by James Panton

spiked-issue: Education

(1) See A feeble excuse for politics, by Brendan O'Neill

(2) What's it worth?: The case for variable graduate contributions (.pdf 900 KB), Nigel Brown, Universities UK, 1 December 2003, p2

(3) What's it worth?: The case for variable graduate contributions (.pdf 900 KB), Nigel Brown, Universities UK, 1 December 2003, p2

(4) What's it worth?: The case for variable graduate contributions (.pdf 900 KB), Nigel Brown, Universities UK, 1 December 2003, p2

(5) A fair deal for students, Conservative Party

(6) Why oppose top-up fees?, on the Scrap Tuition Fees website

(7) See the stopfeesnow.com section of the National Union of Students website

(8) Top-up fees will not raise the money universities need, says new report, National Union of Students, 4 December 2003

(9) Top-up fee rebels vow to fight on, Michael White and Rebecca Smithers, Guardian, 9 January 2003

(10) Fury over university fees, Angela Harrison, BBC News, 26 November 2003

(11) Blog, 8 January 2003, Mandy Telford, National Union of Students

(12) The Future of Higher Education (.pdf 610 KB), Department for Education and Skills, 22nd January 2003

(13) What's it worth?: The case for variable graduate contributions (.pdf 900 KB), Nigel Brown, Universities UK

(14) Mission section of the Higher Education Funding Council for England website

(15) Whatever happened to the university?, by Ellie Lee

(16) David Smith, 'The Changing Idea of a University', in The Idea of a University, ed David Smith and Anne Karin Langslow, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999, p172 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(17) Blog, 8 January 2003, Mandy Telford, National Union of Students

Spiked, 14/01/04