The Coming Collapse of UK #HigherEd?

An extremely worrying article in the Guardian paints a depressing picture of the impending consequences for UK higher education if the current trajectory of ‘reform’ continues:

Another pressure point is the falling applications from indebted English graduates to study for master’s degrees and doctorates, especially in the humanities, and this is before the first cohort incur the full debt. Soon, the only graduates carrying on their studies will be the sons and daughters of the very rich or those poorer students who can secure one of the inadequate number of bursaries, scholarships and grants.

Yet graduate education is not just the university’s lifeblood, supplying the next generation of academics, it is one of the core elements in any innovation ecosystem. It constitutes the principal pool from which the scientists, technologists, doctors, lawyers and intellectuals of tomorrow will be recruited. A key societal function is under threat.

Universities across the board are in a quandary. The real wages of academics have fallen by 13% since 2008, one of the largest sustained wage cuts any profession has suffered since the Second World War. Yet, unsurprisingly, students incurring the debt want to see some value for their money. Research has to be sustained. What to do?

Unless there is some bold political leadership, the future is becoming clearer. Oxford, Cambridge and a handful of other top English universities will want to charge more than £9,000 to support their expensive teaching ,while trying not to deter applicants by offering even more generous fee rebates and scholarships to undergraduates and graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

They would preserve themselves in the short term as premier academic institutions. But they would have caused an interdependent university system to fragment, leaving less strong universities in an impossible position, and further entrenching the noxious class stratifications in English society.

The rest of the university sector would increasingly be devastated: it would have to reconstitute itself around a limited range of digital courses and online learning in order to slash fees as students became more and more aware that the debt could not be justified by any job they are likely to get. The very idea of an interdisciplinary university, across the gamut of expensive disciplines, would become impossible. Our economy and society would be immeasurably weaker.

What is needed is a mixed economy of student finance. Universities create the public good of knowledge and thus more wealth; they should be paid for in part by general taxation and in part from moderate student fees on which negligible interest is charged. Fees in moderation are a good financing principle.

But loading the entire burden for university financing on to the shoulders of the innocent young, who are so inspiring to meet, with their ambitions to change the world, while their elders are washing their hands of responsibility, is a disgrace. England will pay a high price for such arrant selfishness.

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