The business of higher education

Sunday, September 9, 2018

 It is likely that no member of David Cameron’s coalition government, elected in 2010, could have imagined the permanent and profound impact they would have on the future of university education in England. Despite widespread criticism, levelled primarily at Nick Clegg for abandoning a central campaign promise, Cameron’s government allowed a three-fold inflation in university fees – which could now be set at up to £9000. Since then, universities across England have been driven ever further into commodification, altering forever the landscape of higher education.

 

Since their introduction under Labour in 1998, university fees have experienced a geometric increase every few years. Most recently, 2016 saw universities become entitled to charge up to £9250 – a 2.8% rise. These more recent changes were supposedly justified by the new ‘teaching excellence framework’, which meant universities were required to meet minimum quality requirements for teaching in order to set higher fees.

 

Ultimately though, the teaching excellence framework was an arbitrary and piecemeal measure to justify a damaging increase in the cost of university. This is clear given that, remarkably, no university in England failed to meet the requirements necessary to implement higher fees. Should students not already be entitled to expect quality teaching and resources from an institution they are paying thousands of pounds in loans to each year?

 

So currently an average British student at an English university will pay £9250 in fees per year. And yet there is an additional, unavoidable and even higher cost. Simply the cost of living – that is, accommodation, food and travel – can add up to tens of thousands of pounds over three years at university. It is yet higher still for those living in London.

 

The disparity between non-science compared to sciences students highlights further the economic focus that now lies at the centre of the English university system. It is widely accepted that the cost of teaching a humanities student (as well as arts, finance, law and other such subjects) is a fraction of the cost of a science student. A medical student at King’s College London can have upward of 20 contact hours a week, including lectures and practicals. A philosophy or history student would often be lucky to exceed ten contact hours per week. Essentially, science students are getting their money’s worth. Arts and humanities students are not, yet both pay the same fees. Undeniably, science students are heavily subsidised by those studying arts, humanities and other similar degrees.

 

Fundamentally, university education has become a commodity, bought and sold for the mere cost of £9250 per year. Inevitably universities are being run as businesses; paying students, or rather customers, are their primary source of income. Overseas students are particularly valuable in economic terms, as they are charged upward of double that of home students.

 

This commodification of university education is saddling students with a life-changing amount of debt upon graduating. A debt that they are obliged to pay back at a not insignificant interest rate of 6.3% after their income exceeds £25,000. And paradoxically, after 30 years the loan is written off regardless of how much has been repaid – and the taxpayer is burdened with the bill. So even now that students pay the upfront cost of university, the expense of higher education still ultimately falls on the taxpayer.

 

In the meantime, however, the culture in universities is becoming monetised to an ever greater extent. It’s not enough to pay over £9000 a year. Or thousands in living costs. While universities become more reliant on the money brought in by students, and more isolated from government funding, focus becomes less on top quality research and teaching and ever more on greater numbers and more top marks to satisfy the paying customers. Nowadays universities in England are obliged to cover all teaching costs with student fees – sparking fears amongst vice-chancellors about the financial stability of their institutions.

 

Not unreasonably, the outlook of students is changing also. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator reported that in 2018 complaints from university students increased by 8% on previous years. The most frequent cause of complaints was issues regarding ‘academic status’ – that is, exam marks and degree results. Figures such as these reveal the dichotomy now weighing on universities across England: the need to attract and appease paying students with the desire to maintain high academic and scholarly standards. The rapidly growing number of students achieving first-class degrees suggests the former is proving a stronger influence.

 

As universities become less supported by state funding and more dependent on student fees, they are cast out into an unfortunate grey area. Of course, universities are not businesses. But neither are they now the government-regulated organisations of the past. And thus, what emerges are a series of clumsy attempts to navigate this unforeseen middle ground between business and regulated educational institution. Universities are being forced to operate within a competitive higher education marketplace; desperate to increase student numbers in order to survive, yet unable to predict their income and plan for the future, as any ordinary business would. A shortfall of not even 100 students can represent a loss of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

 

To conclude, it would appear that we need to drastically reconsider the university system in England. At its heart university should be about education and research, yet somewhere it’s lost its way. When an educational institution is made to run as a business, naturally the priority will become money: much to the detriment of the experience of many students.

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