British universities are amongst the best in the world, beaten only by the United States, a country with five times the population. They attract high numbers of students from virtually every country. Even with America, the British system compares favourably. Fees are much lower- for UK and EU students they are capped at £9250 ($11905) per year, and for non-EU students they are around £18000 ($23169) per year. Most undergraduate courses only last for three years, lowering costs further. The relatively small size of British universities mean that students enjoy regular contact hours with a lecturer or tutor they know personally. And the recent surge of investment means things like sports facilities and on-campus shopping no longer compare as unfavourably to their American counterparts as they once did.
However, British universities are currently the subject of severe criticism, from students, staff and wider society. To an outsider, this may seem odd. The recent surge in student numbers and investment surely points to a successful model. International student numbers haven’t dipped by anywhere near the amount it was predicted following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Record numbers of working class students are attending, despite recent increases in fees.
But it is this financialisation of higher education- seeing it as a business rather than an aspect of public provision- that is at the root of student discontent. The government recently lifted the cap on student numbers, allowing universities to admit as many people as they wanted, provided the students could afford the fees. This had the effect of universities aggressively expanding to fit as many students as possible. The result was increasing overcrowding of campus facilities, a shortage of accommodation and therefore higher rents, a decline in academic standards as students with lower grades were admitted in higher numbers, overwhelmed staff, and a general feeling that students were being treated simply as customers, rather than valued members of the academic community. To make matters worse, senior university figures have awarded themselves six-figure salaries, when the value of a higher education is increasingly questioned.
The financialisation of higher education has not just affected universities, it has had an impact on the wider economy. Since more people are getting degrees, each degree is worth less. Employers are raising their requirements. It is no longer good enough simply to have a degree. In many cases, only students from the elite universities will be considered. In some cases, you can only be an employee if you have a very high degree classification. Students are paying more in fees and accumulating more debt, only to face a more competitive graduate job market.
For the Left, the answer to all this is a government takeover of higher education. Fees should be abolished, reducing the amount of debt students have to go into. The cap on student numbers should be reintroduced, to prioritise the quality over the quantity of the student intake. Universities should be subject to regular audits, and penalised if they are found to be wasting money. For most students, this is a very appealing policy programme. It’s no surprise that in last year’s general election, Labour won the overwhelming majority of the student vote, despite the Labour leader Corbyn’s radicalism and past Euroscepticism. Labour also find favour with a significant proportion of university staff, who are seeing their pensions reduced and are often underpaid.
But the Left needs to be honest in its higher education proposals. Maintaining the current level of higher education participation, while abolishing fees and increasing staff salaries and pensions would be immensely expensive. In most countries with free or heavily subsidised higher education such as Germany, the proportion of people attending university is much lower. Taxes would have to rise. And since Labour has ruled out higher taxes on 95% of the population, the consequence would be a clobbering of business owners and investors, at a time when Britain desperately needs the confidence of both.
Britain needs to accept some of the Left’s critiques of the higher education system, while maintaining the parts that work well. The financialisation of universities post-2010 has been a disaster. The government needs to properly regulate and oversee universities, to prevent waste and unsustainable expansion, and to maintain standards. More money ought to be given to low-income students who struggle to fund their education- the now-scrapped Education Maintenance Allowance should be restored. Pay ratios should be introduced to ensure the vice-chancellors do not earn excessive salaries relative to the cleaners and junior academics.
Having said that, the country cannot afford to provide a free education to everyone that wants one. Students from middle to high income families should pay at least as much as they currently do. To pay for assistance to lower income students, overall student numbers should fall. The cap on student numbers should be reintroduced, and the cap on fees should be extended to non-EU students to prevent them from being used as a cash cow. The overall aim should be a sustainable, properly regulated system which a decent proportion of the population can enjoy, regardless of circumstances.