No time to be complacent

As students of the university ranked first this year in the Times Good Universities Guide, there can be no doubt that we as a community are proud not only of ourselves, but of the reputation of the British academic sector in general. We possess a world-class education system, cutting-edge research institutions, and a profligacy of experts in their fields. Yet this is not a given, it is a changeable – and we cannot sit back and value our education in idleness. When it is under threat, it should be defended, and the consensus is growing that higher education (and no, Oxbridge will not be insulated) is set to undergo a profound change for the worse if we do not stand against it now.

 

It is unlikely that too many Cherwell readers will have trawled the Government’s Higher Education White Paper. Even for those of a mind to, the language is deliberately evasive, jargonistic, and seemingly intentionally incomprehensible. The rhetoric and small print hides a monster. Funding cuts are the most obvious part of it. One in five universities stand in deficit, according to the BBC, and many more have surpluses of under 3%. Business Secretary Vince Cable admits himself that many such institutions could be filing for bankruptcy after a swarm of cuts enter in. 

Privatisation is also at stake, which will inevitably place the market before the student. We are seeing this occurring in secondary education, where firms that claim to offer ‘the McDonald’s model of education’, and firms that have sold off the libraries in their schools to pay for risky investments are being allowed to run British schools. According to ‘Education Investor’, universities are already in contact with private equity firms. What do the private sector get from funding higher education? Undoubtedly commercial work – could we see students or professors shoved into market research instead of their degree? 

The Conservative Party claim to be on a crusade against state control, yet this could not be further from the truth – the White Paper is a slew of state-backed crony capitalism. Simon Head points out in the New York Review of Books that “From this bureaucratic acorn a proliferating structure of state control has sprung, extending its reach from the purely financial to include teaching and research… From the late 1980s onward the system has been fostered by both Conservative and Labour governments, reflecting a consensus among the political parties that, to provide value for the taxpayer, the academy must deliver its research “output” with a speed and reliability resembling that of the corporate world.” Hundreds of academics have put their names to an open letter to the government imploring them to reconsider their plan, and calling for a ‘winter of discontent’.

‘Student choice’ has been a catchphrase bandied about by the White Paper’s architects. Logic says otherwise. So does the Higher Education Policy Institute. It claims the sector will be split into a small elite that top-rate £9,000 fees and garners top students at the expense of social mobility, and a ‘lower class’ that charges average fees of below £7.5k (after waivers and not always willingly).


The analysis goes onto warn of less new higher education provision than is forecast, limiting student choice, high future costs to the taxpayer, a scholarships ‘arms race’ that will hit the poorest hardest and universities struggling ‘simply because they misjudge how to ‘play’ the new game’. Already, some 180,000 prospective students were initially left with no university place this year. 

Another pillar of ‘fairness’ on which the coalition case rests is the idea that students ‘should’ fund their own education. Again, this fails to demonstrate a basic grasp of fact; graduates repay society amply, with a higher than average contribution through tax of around £56,000 over the course of their life – surely an investment worth making and encouraging. The Leitch Report in 2006 highlighted the labour market’s changing nature in that unskilled vocations are rapidly becoming extinct.

Despite being internationally renowned for our higher education institutions, the British state seem to display an endemic disregard for it. Other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries display a markedly more progressive attitude. The rhetoric runs that student numbers are becoming unsustainable; we rank below Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic for university participation. The UK spends around 1.3% of GDP on higher education; the OECD average is 1.4%. Surprisingly, in the United States, often the victim of jibes about its education system, 3.1% of GDP is spent, and Yale fields outreach staff to attract talented students from poorer backgrounds in all fifty states. As it stands, UK universities generate 2.3% of GDP and employ 2.6% of the country’s workforce; cuts will engender massive job losses.

Despite this existing funding disconnect; university teaching budgets are taking 40% reductions. It does not take a university graduate to see that we will regress economically in comparison with other nations if we cannot compete in terms of university funding. The plans will also fundamentally change the nature of our education system, into something darker and more ruthless.

What basically amounts to privatisation of universities will no doubt impact heavily on smaller and less prestigious universities, who will lose ‘customers’ and lose funding, perhaps being forced to close. These are the institutions to which a greater proportion of the rise in student numbers can be attributed. In turn, this will proceed to lock poorer students who tend to populate such institutions out of the education ‘market.’

A market consists of buyers and sellers, winners and losers, and is a system as fragile and volatile as it may be dynamic – a cauldron of possibility too dangerous to entrust the future of our youth to. This is not the only disservice to poorer students. Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust asserts rightly that the poor will be discouraged from participation.

The rationale is borne out by the fallout from the top-up fees rise in 2006 – poorer students had no particular disadvantage, and so their application numbers remained unwavering. Participation among those who were hit with rises that are small in comparison to those proposed by the coalition dropped by 3.2% – and this is among the more privileged classes that are in a far better position to repay their debts.

There has been, thus far, an overwhelming focus on economic and social cost. Cultural cost has barely been considered, and just because it cannot be mapped and measured on a performance graph does not mean that it in fact may outweigh any economic impositions. The first sacrificial lambs to the government axe are those courses deemed not ‘valuable’ to society by dry fiscal analysis; the humanities, the arts, those aspects of the sciences that cannot directly contribute to GDP.

This amounts to intellectual impoverishment, a massacre of ideas. Humanities subjects today are being taught in an increasingly more scientific way in a bid to produce ever more market potential, to squeeze more ‘capital’ from the human mind, at the expense of the creativity and imagination that underpins human civilization. Education for education’s sake is the last thing on the minds of the ministers.

Is this about saving money? Not particularly – if we remember, tuition fees cost the state infinitely more in the short term than they saved. In the long term, debt could increase as students default or write off loan repayments, and tax revenues from those who reject higher education as too expensive are lost.

 

“Public investments in education, particularly at the tertiary level, are rational even in the face of running a deficit in public finances. Issuing government bonds to finance these investments will yield significant returns and improve public finances in the longer term”, assert the OECD.  The numbers continue not to add up – a simple look at government ‘statistics’ proves disingenuous, or just shoddy, accounting.

The magnitude of the situation before us should surpass ideological and political boundaries. Oxford students and academics have already rejected the white paper, and many stood against the rise in tuition fees last winter. Continuing the resistance is paramount; Coalition higher education policy is desultory, ill-considered and will have a deeply damaging effect on education as a whole. We must act to save the higher education system we value so dearly, before it is too late.