Rising fees, Government policy and international marketing has meant that UK Universities have become increasingly monetized, with the potential effect of devaluing higher education. Much of this shift has been due to the financial pressure on universities to survive without public funding and grants, which translates to more fees, more international admissions, and more private sponsorship and investment. Whether this shift, which has been gathering momentum in the past ten years, will ultimately devalue education is debatable, but has undeniably set up the potential for further strain on the role of universities to focus on intellectual curiousity, rather than a financial bottom line.
The main problem faced by universities has been gradual cuts to public services, and the reorientation of higher education establishments from fee-less centres for learning into tightly budgeted businesses under New Labour and the Conservative Government. The pushing through of deregulated fees by David Willetts and the Conservatives has led to most universities now charging £9,000 for fees.
The explanation given is that more competitive fees will emulate the American college model and drive the best students to the top paying institutions. An open market for education will consequently encourage better achievements from the best resources, and will put more pressure on quality standards across different institutions, while generating new levels of international investment.
More universities are also relying on international students to come to the UK for their studies. There is no cap on international student fees, which can be 50% more than domestic students, and on paper represents a more lucrative option for universities, with most students coming from the Far East. However, this pursuit of international students has led to criticism of universities accepting students without the academic ability to pass courses, or a lowering of standards to do so. There are also fears that offering places to higher paying international students will shut out high achieving UK students. A recent announcement of the need to clamp down on illegal immigration via student visas has consequently led to fears that universities could lose this pipeline of money.
Universities and the Government argue that it’s harder to run a higher education institution on a romantic notion of education for education’s sake, and that degrees need to be more easily quantified. Investments from private companies also means that research targets are becoming tougher to meet as funding dries up, especially in the humanities.
The long term danger of adopting this approach, however, is that universities will devalue degrees by trying to satisfy students as consumers. Those willing to pay £9,000 for a degree may expect to receive a good degree, regardless of achievements. This consumer-driven culture might also result in more efforts to standardise assessment and reduce innovation in teaching.
The end result could be that universities have to become more pragmatic about what they are achieving in terms of academic and financial success. While it is difficult for universities not to follow the business option without a major rethink of public spending, there is a danger of going too far over to a demand economy that will dilute degrees by lowering standards, as well as by producing a divide between students that can afford the best education, and those that cannot.
Liam Ohm is a regular blogger with a passion for the education sector. He highly recommends Lansdowne Sixth Form College as the ideal place to further your education.