Saturday, 8 November 2008

English and Welsh Universities

The Guardian has a provocative piece entitled Now is the time for a thorough review of our university system. I certainly agree with the sentiment expressed in there. The English and Welsh* University system has been sliding towards mediocrity for years. Here's my take.
  • Student fees do not compensate institutions for the cost of providing world class education. Just look at the comparison between what Stanford or Harvard charge and fees in England and Wales.
  • Fees are however high enough to put some people off going to University.
  • Either we need to raise fees to an economic level, and allow our institutions to compete globally, or we need to remove them, and dramatically increase University funding. My preference is for the latter, but even the former would be better than letting our institutions wither and further.
  • Thus far some of the gap has been made up via charging fees for Master's students. Non-EU students are a cash cow for nearly all institutions in England and Wales; some (like the LSE) even extend that dubious practice to EU students. Many of these Masters courses now have a lower standard than undergraduate degrees. Surely it cannot be to the credit of our University system that a UK MSc is now worth less than a BSc? And even if you ignore the reputational risk and the waste of effort on students who can't even speak English let alone reach the standard of a postgraduate degree from an institution with some self respect, this source of funding is going to be much harder to come by going forward. That, combined with business plans in some Universities which require postgraduate numbers to grow by 10% a year, is going to be a problem.
The Blair and Brown governments have done a reasonably job in dealing with school funding, the academies mess aside. But higher education has not been properly resourced since the 70s. Student fees have failed in two ways: they don't address the funding gap, and they put prospective students off. We need more money from somewhere, and it isn't going to be from yet more non-EU Masters students. If you want a Keynesian stimulus, Universities are one good place to start.

* The situation is slightly different in Scotland as there student fees have been abolished. However, funding issues remain even for the Scottish institutions. To my shame I have no idea of what the situation is in Northern Ireland.



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