The Government must change its mind: Universities should not be run for profit

Universities are increasingly being run against the best interests of students

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The Independent Online

Call me romantic, but I’ve long thought the purpose behind higher education is to educate. I’ve been clinging to that idealistic notion that universities exist for the most part to facilitate learning, rather than as factories to turn out insta-employee after insta-employee.

The Government don’t appear to share this view, as headlines from the past few months attest: former Universities Minister David Willetts recently asked whether universities might underwrite their own loans and there have been discussions over the possibility of Oxbridge charging £16,000 tuition fees for some time. Though these ideas may come to nothing, it’s disheartening they have even been considered; the two schemes perpetuate the idea of students as consumers, not participants, and universities as service-providers. While such an approach can be sympathetically viewed, economically speaking both notions are fraught with holes which suggest our Government’s idea of university has gone awry.

Asking universities to underwrite their own debts is particularly curious. By shifting the responsibility of debt-collecting from Government to university, universities apparently stand to make more money by ensuring loans are more stridently repaid. Willetts put it like so: "The main point of the idea is to give universities a stronger incentive to focus on the jobs and the earning prospects of their graduates and to keep the graduate and university in contact with each other."

This is well and good – so long as practicalities are ignored. How do universities propose to keep tabs on thousands of students each year? How will they pay for it? How will the cost of extra administration be covered? Is it possible to cultivate a relationship with so many graduates year after year? Will graduates even want this? It’s interesting the idea of purchasing loans remains attractive when 45 per cent of them are expected to be written off - even the most sanguine universities must have their doubts about turning this around. It doesn’t seem desirable that universities should metamorphose from educator to creditor. 

Should students choose courses based not on their interests, but on advertised future earnings - which are bound to be totally inaccurate? The obvious danger is a graduate population who’ve all been educated with the same skill-set, and consequently compete for work in the same sector. It’s hardly the best way to increase youth employment.  

Will courses whose students earn highly will be valued more keenly than courses which produce less wealthy graduates? After all, higher-earning students will pay back more. If this affects subjects offered, it’s troubling, not least because some of the less-esteemed subjects subsidise traditional courses.

Tied to this was news that Oxbridge could charge £16,000 yearly tuition. Supporters argue that different universities offer different things, making it curious all institutions are able charge the same amount. This is fine, so far as it goes – but consider the unpalatable alternative, where students are forced to make a decision based on what they can afford. The daunting thought of burdening oneself with £16,000 debt each year (plus all the costs of living) can hardly bode well for social mobility, either. Interestingly, when the £9,000 fees were being discussed, 600 academics from Oxford and Cambridge wrote to oppose the rise.

When university is talked discussed in figures, the snide suggestion is that education is something the tax payer indulges: God forbid anyone would invest in the teaching of future generations. After all, who would want a critical, analytical workforce? Or a workforce who’ve had a chance to find out what they want to do for a living? When 49 per cent of workers dislike their job so much they’re thinking about a career change, encouraging people to put their interests aside seems particularly unsavoury.

Worryingly, both ideas are university-centric, rather than student-centric – both ask how universities can change for the benefit of the economy, when the opposite would surely be preferable. Willetts has looked at higher education one dimensionally, in cold, fiscal terms, as though universities were businesses who must only accept those they can guarantee a return on. That serves the elite, but his successor Greg Clarke must ask - what about everybody else?

David Ellis is the editor of Student Money Saver

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