In a little-noticed (except probably where it matters) move on Monday, the relatively new rector of Imperial College, Sir Roy Anderson, fired off the latest salvo in the War of Cameron’s Ear – which the Animal discussed here last year.
Speaking to the Evening Standard, and also covered by the student media here, Sir Roy eulogised the US’ elite Ivy League institutions and called for what he claimed were the top five UK universities to be privatised and “float free” of the state.
This is part of what appears to be a carefully co-ordinated strategy on the part of the research-intensive university vice-chancellors. Their sole aim is to get as ‘favourable’ an outcome from the forthcoming review of tuition fees as possible – i.e. a total removal of the current cap. You didn’t know there was a review due? No wonder – such is the silence on the subject from both main parties that one begins to imagine a conspiracy not to discuss the subject. The problem for both of them is – time is fast running out. The commitment following the 2004 legislation bringing in top-up fees was that the current cap on fees would be sacrosanct until the 2010-11 academic year. But that surely means that any decision on the future funding of Higher Education must be made within twelve months – either late in this parliament or early in the next. All parties are going to have to deal with this hot potato in election manifestos, so the silence is ominous.
But evidently the ivory tower grandees are not yet convinced that the deal is yet sealed with a likely Cameron-led government. So the noises off about break-aways and privatisations continue – and are likely to continue until such a time as Royal Assent is given to the Higher Education Act 2010, allowing for at least a 100% increase in the cap. For all the free market drivel that emerges from portions of the Conservative Party, the declaration of UDI on the part of the ‘jewels’ of Britain’s HE sector is not something the party would want to cope with in its first few months in office. Likewise, a Conservative administration, for demographic reasons, is likely to take less of a hit than a Labour government if it went through with a lifting or discarding of the cap – especially as the current government has shamefully sought to make the case for the partial marketisation of the sector.
So, how bad is the nightmare scenario with which Sir Roy and his friends are threatening the next government? Well, if you believe in equity in access to the higher education sector, or that there should be life in HE beyond the self-appointed league of five, then I reckon its pretty bad indeed. Sir Roy is proposing that the British Ivy League, like its US counterpart, would have the freedom to charge whatever fee levels it wished and to opt out of government regulation on access. Well, the privatised US university sector certainly uses those freedoms. In 2006/07, private universities charged feeswell over double those for public institutions. In the north eastern states that are home to the Ivy League colleges, the discrepancies are even higher. Given the obvious desire of the UK research-intensive universities to ‘compete’ with the Ivy League, we can assume they are looking for similar fee levels – in the case of Harvard, for example, these amount to around $48,000 (£29,000) per year – and if a figure like that doesn’t deter a debt averse first-time HE entrant, I don’t know what will.
The cry of course now goes up from the proponents of a US-style approach to funding: what about the scholarships? Well, indeed. There is no denying that the Ivy League colleges provide relatively generous scholarships – according to this article, at least half of Harvard students receive scholarships averaging $40,000 per annum. To take the flip side of this, however, is to demonstrate that more than half of the college’s students are either receiving no scholarship at all or one that leaves a significant gap between their income and their tuition fees, without even taking into account costs of living. Which begs two possible explanations: either many of the college’s students are living in extreme hardship, or the intake is massively biased towards the wealthiest sections of US society.
But that is a problem for further down the line. In the first instance, the British Ivy League would have to set up its scholarship schemes. The real Ivy League funds this through massive endowments, which have been part of the culture for wealthy American graduates for a good hundred years or more. Many of these funds have had decades to be invested, re-invested and harvested, meaning that a reasonably generous scholarship package is easily affordable for the colleges, alongside astronomical fee levels. There is no such history in Britain. Scholarship endowments at most universities, even the ‘elite’, tend to be very small and limited to tiny numbers of students. Such large donations as do occur tend to be spent on physical or academic infrastructure.
Given a century, it is entirely possible that Britain’s top institutions could run up a comparable scholarship budget to the Ivy League, but it wouldn’t appear overnight. It is even less likely to appear right now, at a time when the expected benefactors, such as ultra-rich graduates and big business are feeling themselves squeezed by the economic situation. With no regulatory structure to prevent fees being sent through the roof without a scholarship system in place, there would be nothing to stop the universities in question opting out of equality of admission altogether. Indeed, the Chancellor of Oxford is already on record as denying higher education’s role in fostering social mobility.
The second key issue with Sir Roy’s proposal is that it fundamentally misunderstands – and seeks to undermine – the nature of Britain’s HE system. The five universities that he proposes for privatisation (Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL and LSE) are not a separate elite floating above the rest of the sector. For a start, they are already members of a self-appointed research eliteof 20 institutions. Quite what the other 15 universities think of Sir Roy’s proposal isn’t on record. Yet even that grouping leaves out numerous institutions that are at the fore-front of select areas of research – excellence in UK HE is by no means exclusive to the Russell Group. Snobbery between new and old universities certainly exists and persists, but overall there is a strong degree of co-operation and overlap. A free-floating elite will destroy that, and effectively ghettoise those institutions that serve the vast bulk of students. Perhaps the most damage would indeed ensue for those 15 remaining members of the Russell Group – basically, what are known as the Red Brick universities: Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh, etc. With a new premiership having been created above the existing first division, these currently high-ranking institutions will lose academic kudos, research income and the ability to attract high-achieving students for whom cash is not relevant. Suddenly you enter a downward spiral for these institutions, with top academics trotting off for higher pay packets in the new elite and businesses with research contracts heading straight to the ‘top’.
The end result of this could be the devaluing of the education recieved by the majority of UK students, with the research elite universities becoming the preserve of well-off home and international students. Freed from any central control, there would be nothing to stop these universities eventually throwing undergraduates out altogether (the whinges about them being ‘loss-making’ won’t stop with higher fees). The key reason why Britain’s HE sector is one of the world leader’s is because it is broadly based and has increasingly fuzzy hierachies. Any move to rebuild those hierachies will not only damage Britain as a society, but end up damaging British HE as a whole.