It’s time for universities to make the case for public education

mortar boardA journalist recently wrote that higher education has been ‘weaponised’ as an issue for the forthcoming General Election. An eventuality that might now be contemplated ruefully by the nation’s Vice-Chancellors who, in future, might be careful what they wish for.

After years of relative invisibility in the public sphere, mentions of universities in politics and the media are now as frequent as mentions of cricket. The optimists among us can congratulate ourselves that this signals a welcome democratisation of higher education.

Those with a glass half empty may point out that much of the publicity is damaging to the reputation of the sector. Politicians from all quarters have charged universities with failing to address social inequality, failing to turn out employable graduates, failing to teach relevant courses, failing to prevent student radicalisation, failing to prevent illegal immigration, failing to give value for money, failing to tackle sexual assault on campus. Day after day, we learn that universities are failing, failing, failing. Indeed, only 38% of MPs think that universities spend money efficiently, according to a recent report. This does not bode well for the inevitable review of spending after the 2015 election.

And yet, the UK arguably has the most successful higher education system in the world, so it is worrying when we see the frequency, and the glee, with which these accusations are levelled. It seems that, with increased student numbers and £9000 tuition fees, has arrived more searching scrutiny, and often misplaced criticism.

Student satisfaction, according to HEFCE, is at a 10 year high with a headline-grabbing figure of 86% of students who are satisfied with their course. It is worth bearing in mind that this is four percentage points higher than the 2013 figures of satisfaction ratings for iPhones, and we all know how much students cherish those. So students who may appear to be victims of an inflated fee regime, and debts that may never be discharged, may, paradoxically, be the beneficiaries of a new priority of satisfying the ‘customer’.

There is no doubt that marketisation, especially since the 2010 Browne Review, has propelled universities into a student satisfaction arms race. Superb ensuite student residences have colonised any brown field site available. Sports facilities will never rival those in the US, but are improving. Libraries, WiFi-enabled and reconfigurable teaching spaces have thrust upwards and outwards in a kind of Great University Build Off.

And yet, as one Twitter commentator has observed, the vultures are circling. Private providers want a share of the action, or, more importantly, the money. We recently saw a salvo from a leading champion of private higher education that public universities cannot afford to ignore. It contains an echo of President Obama’s recent question: “Why does college cost so much?” BPP, a private university which specialises in Law, Health, Business and Finance courses, thinks that publicly-funded universities waste money. Carl Lygo, the Vice-Chancellor, is delighted to tell us that BPP charges between £12,000-£18,000 for the whole undergraduate degree to home and EU students.

In a sense, Vice-Chancellors set themselves up for this when their representative organisation, Universities UK, sent a letter to The Times newspaper designed to stifle Labour rumblings of a tuition fee cut to £6000. Their case against what at the time had yet to be confirmed as Labour policy, is that it would compromise the student experience. Furthermore, it would require £10bn of additional public funding to close the gap, and would consequently leave universities vulnerable to future cuts to public spending.

So why are public universities so dependent on tuition fees in the region of £9,000? Firstly, post Browne Review, courses other than science and medicine receive no public investment; the money only comes in to universities as fee-bearing students are recruited. Secondly, universities have a mission to teach, but also to conduct research. Private universities do not, to any significant extent, undertake research, and none was entered in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. Their focus is on credentialing, rather than developing the next generation of scholars.

Whatever should happen after the election, whether fees are lowered, remain the same or are uncapped, it is time for universities to make the case for public education. One thing that unites Vice-Chancellors, academic staff and students is fear of massive cuts to higher education after the election. The question of how universities should be funded, sadly, is more likely to divide them.

Dr Liz Morrish
Principal Lecturer in Linguistics
School of Arts and Humanities
Nottingham Trent University



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