Wednesday, February 09, 2011

And the fees race is on... The future of Higher Education in the UK

So, Cambridge University jumps first in stating ALL courses will set fees of £9000 per year (that's approx. 14,500 US Dollars)*.

I can't imagine the Universities who believe themselves to be 'high status' will be far behind (indeed, Oxford has made similar noises).

The logic behind charging the top amount that will be allowed by the new government-set maximum fee?

An internal report seen by the BBC News website argues that to charge any less than the maximum would be "fiscally irresponsible" and would raise doubts about the university's "commitment to excellence".
Oh well, that makes it alright then. As Cloud said last night, "It's the same logic that banks use to justify bonuses: it's the only way to ensure we get the best." Well quite.

Our response to the Oxbridge logic = cobblers.

So much for the Parliamentary idea that "fees of £9,000 will be allowed only in 'exceptional circumstances'" (as said by David Willetts. universities minister) . Watch the Russell Group et al leap to match the Oxbridge stance.

Thing is, it isn't as straightforward as saying that poorer students will be put off going to University (or even from applying to 'good' universities - good for what? good how?). I don't doubt some will be - much as at the moment. Rather, as has been the case since the Higher Education system became something explicitly paid for by students (whether during or after graduation), there will be an increased expectation that - whatever the course - the product (the degree) will be expected to be awarded. And nothing less than a 2:1 will do. The product purchased by all those fees isn't 'an education' but the final classification of degree: as one student said recently to a tutor "I only got a 2:2 mark - what are you going to do about it?"

I don't believe that better teaching cannot be delivered to enable students to do as well as they are able, but this idea that the effort to improve should come entirely from the tutor is surely unsustainable and will lead to a devalued degree system and marking. How will external moderation of marking work effectively? The two-tier nature of higher education has never gone away, but these fee changes will surely reinforce it --- and not in a good way.

I feel pretty miserable about the future of Higher Education in the UK** I wish I didn't, but I do.

* Yes, I know many US Universities and colleges offering higher education qualifications charge this and more.

** Actually, education full-stop isn't looking healthy at present. The whole thing has lurched from reinvention to reinvention since the early 1980s and not much has made the situation better (or at least is still going to survive the cuts of the current government...)


Rob Buckley said...

It's tricky. I hate the idea of charging yet the reality is that £9,000 per annum is still nothing compared to what a top US university charges: Harvard will set you back $51,000 in fees per year. So how is Cambridge supposed to compete internationally if other universities have access to such vastly higher amounts of money? Equally, how can the state afford to cover these costs itself without significantly higher taxes which would be levied on everyone, whether they went to university or not?

I think the problem is that we're stuck between models: the traditional state-paid system and the US self-funding model. Parents in the US start saving for their kids' college funds as soon as they're born; there's also a significant system of scholarships in place at most universities. If the government could say to universities, in 20-30 years' time you'll be able to start charging US fees, provided you have a similar scholarship system in place, and we'll put you on a ramping system until then, with maximum fees going up in stages, everyone - parents and universities alike - could prepare themselves for the future and UK universities could properly compete. And with that kind of money being charged, universities (in my experience the least customer-responsive, least efficient organisations in the country - my wife, for example, has only just been given a contract for the job she started six months ago. Oh and she's only just been paid for it, too. And this is a major London university we're talking about here) would actually be able to hire people who could enable them to manage themselves properly - and if they didn't, they'd lose students, who aren't going to give that much cash to a rubbish university.

But this half-arsed approach isn't going to do anything but shut out the poor from universities while underfunding the universities themselves. It's the worst of both worlds.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

I think you're onto something here with that 'worst of both worlds' issue. Thing is we are RUBBISH in the UK about actually making transitions. It's usually half-assed and hopeless. Lojng-term planning: definitely not a strong point.

I think as well, coming back to your wife's experience, that there is a still a residual idea that the HE sector is still as it was 150 years ago. VERY small numbers in it (both sides of the desk) and accordingly an element if 'you can afford to be here'. Hence crappy delayed contracts etc --- though frankly in this day an age actually HAVING a contract of any sort is an achievement. I spent long enough in the supremely exploited posts of temporary lecturerships to know how joyful that can be and it STILL continues apace.

There is also the issue of what HE is for: again, it's a transition thing. Elsewhere, there are MANY higher educations doing different things for different people - and accepted for their equal but different value and purposes. Ways of learning (part-time, evening, long-term, short-term) and what is being learnt (traditional academic subjects, professional qualifications, vocational or pratical qualifications). There is also the issue of ways of teaching (lectures, seminars, laboratories, self-study etc) and ways of learning and assessment (formative assessments that allow development of skills and formal summative assessment that counts to the final qualification --- exams, Multiple Choice Questions, short/practical activities or practice-based assessments, essays/reports, dissertations etc etc). HE in the UK is still somewhat stuck with the old systems of all of these from when Universities were for a VERY small number of students and a significant number of others came through Technical College routes or equivalent. And that was GREAT in most cases.

Making every institution a University did not help clarify what was offered and looking at how other national systems of education are run I do think that in many ways our HE system is better and more demanding (and I've taught in just about every variety of HE provision setting and delivering HE level courses in other settings).

We demand more critical thinking for one but as numbers have increased in this country we've artifically tried to hold onto the old ways of teaching and learning, with old systems of delivery and study practices as if it was still the Oxbrodge model of 1-2 students meeting with a single tutor at a time.

Jane Henry said...

As a parent of four am feeling rather desperate about the future quite frankly. We have been saving for ours, not quite from birth, but for a very long time. All the available cash we've had for the last ten years has gone towards their university funds, and with interest rates low/possibility of inflation it just won't be enough. I hate the thought of my children starting out in life saddled with debt, so we will pay for them if we can, but it won't be easy, AND we're fortunate to have a good income.

I agree with Rob about universities like Cambridge having to keep up, but apparently they've said they won't allow students to work - even with the savings we have, our kids will have to work their way through uni, it's going to be the only way for many many families.

AND if they and the other Russell universities start charging top whack, they have got to deliver too. I know I've been out of the system a long time, but I certainly didn't get a whole lot of help/direction from the majority of my tutors. If my kids are going to be paying for it, I think they deserve a more professional attitude. (I might be talking out of my arse here, but I know my sil who's recently retired from teaching has been very cynical about some of the support her ex pupils have had).

I'm not sure what the answer is, but it does seem we'll do the usual English mish mash nonsense. And the majority of people I know with teenage kids are really panicking about the future. And that can't be right.