Is the golden era of British education over?
The UK university funding fiasco makes one wonder if this is the end of British dominance in the educational arena.
I was in London with tens of thousands of students from all over UK who were gathered outside the parliament protesting against the recent announcement by the British government to cut funding for higher education and increase the tuition fee.
Students held placards and banners and chanted anti-government slogans. They looked defiant, outraged and disgusted by the government’s plans to lift a cap on the current tuition fees and leave the universities to choose to charge a variable fee.
This march was the biggest in the recent history of student movements in the UK.
What propelled the protests?
The demonstration was held in the wake of the government’s announcement of £4.2 billion cuts in the higher education budget. This announcement came after a commission consisting of members of the House of Lords – which was set originally by the Labour government and is led by Lord Browne – made a recommendation seeking the axing of funding for the higher education sector in order to address the financial crunch facing the government.
This announcement sent shockwaves throughout the higher education sector. Senior university management members have fastened their belts to take a very tough decision. In order to save themselves from the hit, universities will have to raise tuition fees to a whooping £9,000 a year.
So, why are students so vociferous about the rise in tuition fees?
In order to understand this, first of all, we will have to look at the current British higher education system in context. British universities can be categorised into three tiers. The top tier includes universities which are called ‘Russell group universities’ which include some of the most prestigious and oldest institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge. The second tier is known as ‘Post ’65 universities’. As the name suggests, these are universities which were built after 1965. And last but not the least, the ‘Post ’92 universities’ which include relatively new universities, were established in the post 1992 era.
Under the old rules when it comes down to choosing a university, all the universities charge a standard fee of £3150 for home students (the fee for international student is ludicrously high). But once the government gives universities the liberty to charge a variable fee, education in the UK will become a market commodity.
What effect will this decision have?
To anybody’s guess, Vice Chancellors of the Russell group universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College of Universities have lauded this recommendation as it will allow them to capitalise on the brand of their universities. Universities in the last tier will take the worst hit: they will have to downsize their institutions which will result in huge staff redundancies and closure of some of the non-vocational courses. The speculated cut is suggested to be around 40% of the total budget of these universities annually.
And how does it translate for prospective home and international students? Well, for a start, one thing which is crystal clear is that students who come from working class families will be the worst hit. With current tuition fees, the average debt of a graduate at a minimum is £24000 which he will have to pay off the debt after finding a job over a of number of years, although the sight in the job market is not that bright either. As a result of lifting a cap on tuition fees, university education will become more of privilege than a right: one will have to pay three times of what they currently pay. Students will be paying three different types of fee for three different tiers of universities. Consequently, admissions in universities will become a matter of affordability rather than ability.
The current Tory government wants to fulfil its dream of a perfect British society and they want to achieve it by bringing huge social reforms i.e. clamping down on immigration and crime, by getting rid of the fiscal deficit and promoting an 80’s style entrepreneurial culture. Only time will tell whether it will achieve its aims or make a big mess of the society in the process.
Working class people in general, especially from the North of England, do not have good memories of the last Tory government. And trade unions are not great fans of them either. They are very famous for their authoritarian style of government instead of a progressive one. People from the previous generation still remember the pain of industry closure in the northern part of country when millions of people lost their jobs as the then Tory government decided to close down all the tens of hundreds of factories that had been running for decades.
Protests and marches remind one of the '80s England under Lady Margret Thatcher. At that time factory workers were marching up and down the country against the government’s hard hitting and elitist policies.
An uncertain future
But these recent cuts in higher education pose some serious questions about the future of universities. British qualifications are regarded as one of the best and well recognised all over the world and rightly so, because the teaching and learning style here is knowledge-centred as opposed to grade-centred.
Moreover, universities here pride themselves to be the world’s oldest learning institutions. Universities across the UK spend a hefty amount on improving the quality of teaching and learning facilities every year. These universities are fortunate to have some of world’s best renowned academics teaching here. But with the current funding fiasco, universities will have to improvise with the resources available at their disposal: they will to do more with less.
Undoubtedly, many questions will remain unanswered regarding the quality of teaching with rise in the teacher-student ratio. With soaring numbers of both local and international students, there is already great strain on the academics and staff. And with this new bombshell of funding cuts, many post ’92 universities have already announced the closure of many of their non-vocational courses and are due to announce staff redundancies.
It is premature to predict the long term impact of the government’s decision but it does not take a great deal of thinking to ascertain the immediate effect. The generation who will live through the Tories age of austerity will have limited access to the higher education which means less people will be able to go to university and pursue a career, and more people (especially from ethnic minorities and working class backgrounds) will have to find their careers in places like ordinary shops and factories or they might choose to become taxi drivers.
Also, at a broader level, it will tarnish the status of higher education status among the league of world class educational systems. China for example, which is already recognised as a new emerging super power of the world, has pumped a colossal amount of money into its educational system and it has started offering reasonably quality education at a very competitive price. I won’t be surprised if it takes over the education market like it has taken over the financial markets of the world. Not to mention the overseas campuses of some of the famous foreign universities in India and Malaysia. Perhaps if students from countries like China and India stop travelling to the UK for higher studies, it might just prove to be the last nail in the coffin of the British education system.
No one can predict the future, but one thing is for sure: Tories might have the right intentions, but they certainly have their priorities wrong. There is nothing wrong in dealing with the fiscal deficit as substantial as it is (£160 billion) but saving its education should be one of the government’s top priorities. Many students at the protests were holding placards saying: “Bail out education, not the banks” – referring to the famous bank bailouts during the recent financial crisis. It makes a great sense today that societies are built by strengthening schools, colleges and universities not by strengthening banks. Because at the end of the day, the glory of the British Empire began after they excelled in science and technology and other areas of knowledge - not by building banks.
One wonders however if it might be too late by the time they realise this.