The commercialization of higher education in Britain is, in part, a by-product of its success. “The proportion of young people in England going to university has crossed the symbolic 50% mark for the first time,” the BBC reported in September 2019. “It comes almost exactly 20 years after the then Prime Minister , Tony Blair, has called for half of young people to go into higher education.” This week, he called for the level to be pushed to 70%.
In 1959, less than 4% of young people of university age received a university education. In 1963, the Robbins Report on Higher Education recommended that university places should be available to all who were qualified by ability and achievement. During the 1960s, the number of UK universities doubled, from 22 to 45. Today, 130 receive government funding – plus a few private universities – each competing to attract the brightest students. The cost to the taxpayer has increased proportionately. The introduction of tuition fees in 1998, £1,000 then but £9,250 today, to help with funding, was a crucial step in making a university education more monetary.
UK universities are now large institutions, serving an average of 18,000 students each. But the government does not give them enough money. Tuition fees for UK students do not cover the cost of their education. Over the past two years, as they fired up the laptops in their rooms for daytime classes, the students themselves went into debt. Overseas students, who pay £31,000 a year, barely keeping the good university ship afloat, are sought after by academic marketing departments. Universities are slowly turning into businesses to survive, with some of them teetering on the brink.
Universities, of course, differ in their position on campus – the “old civic red brick” and Oxbridge versus those outside or on the outskirts of towns – in endowments, ethos and reputations. particular academic expertise, as well as their entry standards and research quality. In addition, “student satisfaction” is measured with prospects for higher education; both feature in their much-criticized rankings published each year. Many universities face significant deficits in pension funds and offer salaries that academic staff do not consider commensurate with their training and workload. Lecturers chafe at demands to shine both in teaching, in student satisfaction ratings, and in the growing quest for the revenue it brings.
Asking what universities are for is an interesting question and the answer has changed over time. By the end of the 19th century, the idea that moral and religious education should be an inseparable part of university education weakened. At the end of the 20th century, the “cultivation of the intellect” as the primary goal of universities was also eclipsed. Far too “ivory tower”.
Encouraged by the government, the main objective of the British university is now to meet the needs of an advanced economy. Universities cultivate “graduate prospects”, meaning the promise, or at least the expectation, of a good job after graduation – defined as a starting salary of at least 30,000 £35,000 – so easy for students to measure the return on their investment. Even the subjects taught in universities are evaluated by the students as well as by the university management as developing or not developing useful and lucrative future professional skills. The mindset and language of economics has infiltrated many aspects of life and universities have not been spared.
During and since the pandemic, much attention has rightly been given to the disruption of school life, the impact on school and pre-school children. Much less attention is paid to the current state of UK universities, their staff and their students. The pandemic has deprived all students, regardless of age, of the social experience that higher education traditionally provides. But this impact on university life has been added to changes that have transformed the size, ethos and very idea of a university.
Size seems to matter. St. Andrew’s in Scotland and Aberystwyth in Wales each have around 10,000 students. They are at the top of the student satisfaction league. Manchester with over 40,000 and University College London (UCL) with over 45,000 – half overseas – have opted for gigantism in response to demand and in hopes of economies of scale . Both rank 104th out of 128 (no figures for Oxbridge) in the student satisfaction rankings, despite performing well. Both have experienced university strikes over wages, pay gaps, pensions, workload and job insecurity. But many others too.
The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) negotiates staff compensation. This year they campaigned against zero hour contracts. According to UCU research, an astonishing 6,500 faculty working at 46% of universities and 60% of colleges have zero-hour contracts. Another 68,845, many of whom work in research programs, have fixed-term contracts.
Graduation ceremonies have always been rites of passage. A symbolic event solemnly closing three years of new – and lasting – friendships and enriching studies, marking the entry into the world of adults. This year, the pandemic backlog meant that the number of graduates had doubled. At UCL, with its huge numbers, that meant a week of three groups of students a day graduating, treadmill-style, in the dingy barn-like ExCel exhibition center in London’s Docklands . Tickets sold for £35 each and dress hire £47 – if you got the discounted price. A pre-recorded message from the UCL provost appeared on a large screen. At the same time, the Excel Center was hosting a business conference and a marine biology conference. A less than grand finale for students who have missed a lot for two years working their way through an increasingly commercialized university system – and all at sea.
John Henry Newman, the Anglican theologian turned Catholic cardinal, published his The idea of a university in 1858, a compilation of nine lectures based on his experience and thought as rector of a new Catholic university in Dublin. The book is, frankly, hard to live with. He wanted the university to be a place where “the intellect [was] disciplined for its own sake” where “uselessness”, as he called it, was to be cherished. But he conceded that if the usefulness of university education was to be considered, it should be to prepare students “to better occupy their respective stations in life…by making them more intelligent, capable and company assets”. Newman also had a prescient word about the dangers of requiring both good teaching and good research from lecturers. “He too who spends his day dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers probably has neither the leisure nor the energy to acquire new ones”. Many speakers today would agree.
Learning is not a commercial transaction. Education should not embody the ethics of a commercial enterprise. The task of universities in national life should not be to promote only the type of research that brings in money, nor make filling the top of the labor market their limited vision. They are pushed in this direction. I like to think of the small university with which I am associated, St. Mary’s Twickenham, 30th in the student satisfaction charts and distinctive Catholic values, as part of the resistance.
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