What’s wrong with Higher Education in the UK? Nothing, if you look at it from afar. The UK has some of the best universities in the world as our VC never fails to remind us. We come second only to the US, and students from all over the world are attracted to study here by the smell of tradition and the shiny prospectuses praising our achievements. Alas, these foreign students are increasingly roped in to fill the funding gaps of a crumbling system, as the recent visit by Universities Minister David Willetts to South America has reminded us. According to a report by the Observer, the Brazilian government is willing to provide up to £18,700 per student in fees.
Wealthy foreign students count as so-called ‘off-quota’ students. This means they are not taking away places from UK candidates, but help universities expand and attract the best and brightest from all over the world. But there are two issues here. Are universities really going to select the brightest rather than those best able to pay? And what is going to happen to all these bright foreign students once they are here? It is great if we can offer them an excellent education and future prospects. It is not so great if we see little clusters of Chinese, Egyptian or Brazilian students huddled together on our campuses with unhappy faces, talking among themselves in their own language, wondering if they will ever make friends among the locals. Those who do integrate well and want to stay in contrast might find it hard to get a job – or a visa for that matter – when they have finished their degree. Can we square that with our consciences, or are we really exploiting them as cash cows?
But foreign students aside, the Government has found another ingenious way of creating divisions in the great community of learning by allowing the best universities to compete in a free market for students with AAB grades (or better). This will undoubtedly mean that the most successful universities can expand and grow wealthier to their heart’s content, while the others will create ‘the rest’ looking enviously at the research money and shiny labs of the better off. The Sunday Times has already announced the creation of a UK Ivy League ‘headed by Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, the London School of Economics and Bristol.’ (I would link to the article, but the pay wall won’t let me). Government reforms are ‘expected to lead to a concentration of students with the highest grades in a small group of universities, starving mid-ranking competitors of some top potential recruits and possibly forcing them to lower their fees from the maximum £9,000′, Jack Grimston writes. Figures to be released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) later this week, are also ‘expected to show that about 40% of the 56,000 students gaining grades of AAB or higher are already concentrated in nine universities’ – something that comes as little of a surprise after research by the Sutton Trust revealed earlier this week that just ‘five schools in England sent more pupils to Oxford and Cambridge over three years than nearly 2,000 others combined.’
It seems all so wrong. The Higher Education reforms by the Coalition Government are taking away money from crucial teaching budgets, leaving universities to fend for themselves in an open market for off-quota and foreign students. Some institutions will clearly benefit from this increasing commercialisation of education, others will die, and the rest of us will hope for a new government.