Confessions of a Political Animal

June 3, 2009

Poison Ivy

Imperial College

Imperial College

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.


1 Comment »

  1. The objective of a “great university” is not to educate or discover, but to dominate society through adoption of the “top” 0.1% of the population. If these elite youth are somehow missed in recruitment (and the competition in the USA is fierce), they can be caught in the graduate business, law, medicine and graduate colleges. From the 17th to the 19th, the Ivy League had a different role. The colleges were to educate and indoctrinate religious leaders and followers, who would become the ministers, judges, and political leaders of the country. Not too much unlike Oxbridge were not too long ago. They were gender, sect, and race exclusive, like the society in which they flourished. Their graduates formed the rulong class of the Northeastern States closed conspiracy, in which Unitarians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians could run the USA as an a club of respectable, middle class, Protestant men. As of 1776 even the Big 3 (Harvard, Yale, and Priceton) were puny, closed minded, orders dominated by powerful presidents. There were no state institutions, although these were usually state aided. The financial support by the sects was much more importand. Most of the colonies had some sort of education for their ruling claseses, often some small Protestant religious foundations. The alumni of these places became powerful, but the political leadership was not rich and did not endow. The next big change was the “Land Grant Universitie.” 1863 and after. These were required to teach agriculture “mechanic arts,” and to offer training for reserve officers. They fought their way to prominence on the football field. The Big 10 in the Middle West, and other regional conferences created institutional competition which still serves building alumni loyalty (and gifts). The idea of Georgia v. Georgia Tech, Alabama v. Auburn etc. wrung money from the state legislatures (incrweasingly populated by alumni) and community leaders to build giant stadia and flapdoodle like anthems, colors, and intra-office competition as the Big Game rolled around. Post WWII, dozens of state teachers colleges grew into universities manque (no medical, law, engineering or graduate schools producing hordes of mediocre business and eduction graduates and little else. The national obsession with the USSR, led din the 1960’s to huge national investments in informally competitive research. University of California and MIT led the military-focused research boom. The few leaders were brilliantly productive. The reception of European scientists in the 1930’s and after (Einstein led)made the US the unquestioned scientific and technological leader. And the money poured into the leading institutions. Senators fought to “earmark” millions for home-state universities. Inferior Ph.D. and MBA factories sprouted like loathsome weeds. Teaching went to hell, as grant-grabbing and publish-or-perish rules taught young assistant professors that to get tenure in the leaders required not just trashy publications, but important and valuable contributions. As the humanities lost their traditional role as intellectual leaders, programs like engineering (especially electrical), pre-med, pre-law , and pre-business) attracted the best and the brightest. Oh, some dancers and musicians were kept around for amusement, but to the brilliant youth who wanted the best institution paid for by the university meant to stick to the big five programs. That was also the way to become rich. To be able to recruit fellow alumni into your organization and to win the struggle for success and leave money to your university. The great American universities are now cherry picking the most brilliant kids from everywhere in the world. The faculty and studemts are more and more often Chinese, Indian, Israeli, and Arab as the numerus clausus against Asians and Middle Easterners are abandoned. You hear Chinese spoken in the halls and faculty clubs (but not the classroom) and it will become more and more often common in the best universities in the future. Every brilliant kid knows that his subject is most advanced in CalTech, Berkeley, MIT, or Harvard etc. than anywhere else in the world. If he or she wants to be great, or near great, he has to figure out how to get there. Fortunately for them, they are welcomed with scholarships, fellowships, on-campus and illegal jobs and public welfare awards. The not-so-brilliant American kids (of all colors) are increasingly crowded out of the very best programs and awards. Today, America; tomorrow the World! Any country that wants to lead in the increasingly competitive world of business, scienc, and had better build their own Harvards and MIT’s. The big five in England must play in the most selective league. Private tuition and fees won’t do it. Private charity won’t do it. Competitive government grants, open scholarship and fellowships (tenable overseas and with matching departmental grants) will identify the people’s choice for the winners and expose those that are noncompetitive universities Helping these 5 institutions hoist themselves even higher smacks too much of the hereditary principle which has produced idiotic leaders wherever it has been tried. Open competition for large government grqnts open to all nationalities and all levels of wealth is the way to go. Selling university places to the kids with the most money is a sad way to prop up a malignant class system. Of course the Etonians and Harrovians will do well, as will the selective government schools. The schools for the masses not so well. But they will learn to cherry pick there best and brightest, or new head teachers will have to be found — perhaps people fluent in Cantonese or Urdu.

    Comment by Hugh Folk — June 16, 2009 @ 4:52 am | Reply

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