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The march against cuts in Higher and Further Education

This is a cross-post from Sarah AB

Today lecturers and students will march in London to protest against the slashing of government funding for Higher and Further Education and the huge rise in fees for future students. The response to these cuts has been fairly muted, even though these changes will mean that the UK will have the most expensive (state) universities in the world. Most reporters have focused on the fact fees will triple, yet as Stefan Collini points out in an excellent recent article in the LRB, this is by no means the only alarming aspect of the proposed changes:

The single most radical recommendation in the report, by quite a long way, is the almost complete withdrawal of the present annual block grant that government makes to universities to underwrite their teaching, currently around £3.9 billion. This is more than simply a ‘cut’, even a draconian one: it signals a redefinition of higher education and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for it.

As Collini goes on to demonstrate, we are being offered a vision of education as no more than an engine of economic growth, of a country in which universities are there to service the needs of employers rather than promote scholarship, enquiry and new knowledge for their own sake.

Wealthier students perhaps won’t be put off studying what they enjoy at the optimal institution for their tastes and abilities. But students from less comfortable backgrounds, without a cushion of financial support, may be driven to the apparent safety of more vocational courses, or feel they have to stay near home even if their local university doesn’t offer quite the right course for them. Certain aspects of the Browne review do seem designed to try to encourage young students not to be put off going to university. Loan repayments won’t be triggered until graduate earnings reach £21,000, and more will be done to support part-time students. Yet it has been suggested that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more debt averse, and that widening participation in HE may be checked and indeed reversed. Of particular concern is the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowances which target younger students (16-19) from poorer backgrounds.

I felt uneasy about one point in Collini’s thought-provoking LRB piece – note particularly the transition which I’ve put in bold:

In the past two or three decades there has been a huge educational enfranchisement of sections of the population that had hitherto been shut out from the benefits of post-school education, and that has been a great democratic good which present financial or other difficulties should not lead us to discount. But this does not mean that all these people are, or should be, going straight from school to study traditional, intensively taught undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts and sciences as full-time students at residential universities. There is a wholly legitimate place in a diversified higher education system for all kinds of part-time, work-related, vocationally oriented, career-break courses, but the social value of the institutions that primarily provide such courses should be recognised and properly rewarded without forcing them to try to ape ‘traditional’ universities when the odds – in terms of resources, reputation and so on – are so stacked against them.

There seems to be an assumption here that students from the sections of society who have been reaped most advantage from widening participation should now be the ones to lower their sights and expectations. And (on a more personal note perhaps!) I don’t care for the implication that less ‘traditional’ universities, and those who work at them, should have to lower their own expectations either.

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