Sunday, 13 February 2005

....at least they're full of poor people

by Ted Hoffman

If there is a vital public service provided by blogs it's the lengthy critisism of Guardian op ed columns. Here is an interesting article, my comments are inserted.

Sorry, you can't afford a degree

Universities' obsession with research is threatening to make them a no-go zone for the less well-off

I used to teach an "international MA" in journalism at a British university. The only international thing about it was the students. One Korean was, they told me, very clever. I could never check because we had no common language - his English was rudimentary. Two things I do know about him: if there was any benefit to be derived from my teaching, he missed out on it; and he must have been wealthy, for the fees were very high.
I thought of him when I read that Oxford University may take a higher proportion of its students from overseas. Its chancellor, Chris Patten, thinks that universities should be able to charge whatever fees they like to undergraduates, as they do for postgraduates, otherwise the decline of top universities will be "ineluctable" (a wonderful Oxford word). Richard Lambert argued on these pages that "a world-class university" should have a higher proportion of overseas students.
Turning university education into a market will produce more students like my Korean. Hungry universities will ask not "can this student benefit?" but "has he got the dosh?" That's how markets work. Does Tesco check if you know how to cook a product before it sells it to you?

The (rather obvious) flaw in this analogy is that Tesco might not check, but you do. If you couldn't cook the food you wouldn't buy it. Most sane Koreans wouldn’t spend thousands of pounds, and 3 years of their life to read a University course they were not even basically equipped to do. Regardless, most institutions in this country insist you pass an English proficiency exam if you are not a native speaker, and it's not easy.
But surely our top universities need more money to compete on the world stage. And since no political party with a hope of power is going to provide it from public funds, aren't undergraduates the only possible source? These statements, repeated so often that they acquire the status of established fact, need closer examination than they normally get.
"Top universities" is an elastic phrase. Depending on the audience, it sometimes means Oxford and Cambridge, sometimes half a dozen ancient universities, and sometimes all 19 members of the Russell group. "World-class university" is even more imprecise, and what it usually really means is "as rich as Harvard or Princeton". The common thread is research. You can't be "top" or "world class" unless you do a lot of well-regarded research. The Russell group universities distinguish themselves by claiming to be "research-intensive" - that is, to have a bigger proportion of research, and a smaller one of teaching, than the rest.
So we are being asked to increase student fees, and the proportion of overseas students, in order that undergraduates should subsidise universities' research.

Whilst scientific research is frequently rubbish, at it’s best it is astounding and one of the most worthwhile of human endeavors. If passing on knowledge helps fund gaining it, what exactly is wrong with that? Regardless Cambridge lost 17m GBP last year, mostly on undergraduate study. In reality, the graduate students often prop up departments.
And the same people who want to charge unlimited undergraduate fees also want an end to rigid staff pay structures, so they can offer telephone-number salaries to "world-class" academics to improve their research reputation. John Kay, the first director of Oxford's Said Business School, walked out because he was not allowed to do this.
I am not sure I want my children to amass even bigger shedloads of debt so that universities can hire American management gurus to teach MBAs.

Me neither, but it is not in any obvious way the implication of the proceeding paragraph. I would certainly want the option for my children to have the very best education. If more money is required to persuade “world class” academics to teach here then it seems reasonable for some institutions to wish for this, and to try to get the funding.
Oxford academics mutter that if they are not allowed to charge unlimited fees to undergraduates, they will go private; and then, like those private American meccas, they can wallow in oceans of cash. They won't because they can't - and they have tried. The US has traditions of corporate generosity and alumni giving that are absent here. As long ago as 1989, Oxford's then chancellor, Roy Jenkins, identified the problem. Britain was "uneasily poised ... between the US and continental Europe, without the private generosity of the former or the more adequate public funding of the latter".
If we lift the cap on tuition fees so that universities can charge what they like, and increase the proportion of overseas students in "top" universities, we will not get better undergraduates, but worse ones. We are promised scholarships for those who are both very poor and very brainy. For the rest, it will start with admissions tutors wondering if a student can afford the fees, and end with the one question that matters: have you got the money?

Nonsense, what will actually happen is that places will be offered regardless of government quotas, and ability to pay. Then the candidate will be invited to show how they will afford the course. If they can't, the university may offer to help, depending on how much they want the candidate, or the candidate will be able to take up an offer elsewhere - or save up for a few years. This already happens now - people going for the fast track graduate entry medical degrees are made offers, and then have to show how they will fund themselves. There is no state funding for these people, yet the universities seem to be able to administer places in a fair way.
Even Sir Martin Harris, the emollient head of the Office for Fair Access, admits that with uncapped fees, he would not have the power to ensure that university admissions were not skewed towards the rich.
There is another way. The basis for abolishing tuition fees was laid in the 1944 Education Act. Six years later, in 1950, fewer than 2% of the age cohort went to university. It's now nearer half. In 1950, in many professions that now normally require a degree - journalism, nursing, the law, pharmacy, engineering, banking and others - employers provided and paid for on-the-job training. The number of all-graduate professions increases every year. The process has transferred much of the financial burden of training from industry to the state. And a fairly small levy on pre-tax profits would pay for it.
It would not, of course, give our posher universities the luxuries, the almost unlimited research funds and the lavish top academic salaries they pine for. Mr Patten would still be talking about an "ineluctable" decline. But our great universities would be able to teach our young people, the not-so-rich as well as the rich, and that matters rather more.

No it doesn’t, if our top universities can’t afford the facilities, the best research and world class teachers, that would be a tragedy, having a percentage more poor students would be no compensation or justification of any sort.

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