You have probably seen the images of Prince Charles and Camilla’s car being attacked by a mob during protests at the British government’s decision to increase undergraduate tuition fees to $14,000 a year (£9,000). Although not condoning the violence, the students are right to be angry.
What the government has done is to cut all university budgets by 40%. Even with tuition fees at $14,000 a year, some analysts fear that universities will not be able to balance their budgets, especially if they do not reach their target numbers, as seems inevitable with fees at this level. For instance a recent report by the Universities and Colleges Union based on research done by two professors at the University of Strathclyde states that:
‘Universities at risk – the impact of cuts in higher education spending on local economies’, published today by UCU, places 49 of England’s 130 higher education institutions at ‘very high’, ‘high’, or ‘high-medium’ risk of serious impact from the proposals, which could leave them vulnerable to merger or, in the worst-case scenario, closure.’
The British Open University, which will suffer the same level of cuts as the other universities, is in a particularly difficult position. Its charter to offer open access to a university education depends on low income students being able to afford its fees.
Part of its strategy will be the same as many other UK universities – look for business opportunities to bring in more revenues to subsidize the rest of the university. This will be a tough task for several reasons. First of all, it’s always had an aggressive marketing policy to generate revenues, so somewhere it has to find completely new markets for its services and products. Second, it will be competing with 142 other universities all in the same boat, with a similar strategy to find ways to increase revenues. Third, as with the other universities, this will detract many of its core faculty away from their basic duties of teaching and research to support marketing initiatives.
Expect to see the brain drain in Britain increase as the best faculty look to move to other countries where they can concentrate on research and teaching. Also expect to see the heavy marketing of online courses in Canada and elsewhere from British institutions desperate for money and trading on their former glory. (In Canada, these used to be called ‘remittance men’: The ‘Remittance Men’ who came to Canada were second sons, which under British tradition of the time meant that these individuals should expect to inherit nothing from their family’s estate.)
Basically, the Conservative-Lib Dem government has withdrawn the state from the funding of undergraduate education. It has turned the universities into businesses dependent on selling services. The irony of this is that at the same time, Britain effectively nationalized the banking system – so the UK now has subsidized banks and private universities. As Gordon Gecko says in Wall Street, it’s the dream of every stock market since the Pharaoh’s – privatize the profits, nationalize the risk. Because the government had to fork out such huge money to rescue the banks, it now has to cut all public services to pay for it – the same as in Ireland.
In the UK’s case, it is particularly invidious that young people, potential students, who had no responsibility whatsoever for the financial crisis, are directly paying for the incompetence and greed of the financial sector. This is the fuel to spark a violent revolution, and I say this with real trepidation as all my family are living and studying or working (so far) in England.