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March 31, 2011

Universities, Fees, and Students: an Opportunity Missed, says Jeremy Black

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Government has flunked its opportunity to radically reform universities, argues Jeremy Black - Professor of History at the University of Exeter and author of Ideas for the Universities: The Case for Independence.

Student fees are at the front of public interest and discussion, but are scarcely alone as themes for discussion in universities. The Coalition government has posed a greater range of challenges than might have been anticipated and these challenges do not relate solely to finances. In particular, there has been a degree of direction over fees and bursaries that offers a yet further turn to the already-established process of eroded autonomy.

It is disappointing to see Conservatives party to this process as it provides a basis for fresh intervention under a future non-Conservative ministry. With government already too powerful and extensive in Britain, it would have been preferable to leave the universities to arrange their own finances, and take the consequences. Not doing so leaves the ministry overly exposed to complaints and these will increase as the very nature of transformation in this sphere challenges established assumptions. That these assumptions are psychologically grounded, notably in narcissism on the part of students, entitlements on that of parents, and a sense of special rights on that of academics, makes the situation more difficult.

Given the variety of assumptions, it would be better if universities had been encouraged, through autonomy if not independence, to offer markedly different courses and cost-structures. This has not been the case, as the range of courses, conditions and fees is relatively modest.

Aside from denying what should be possible in the case of choice for domestic students, this situation leaves only a limited range for foreign students. Given that higher education is a major British export industry, this is unfortunate, and also leaves a flawed basis on which to plan for the future.
Containing entrepreneurial opportunities will hinder the response to new or developing means of teaching, notably in distant learning. Opportunities, instead, will be grasped elsewhere in the Anglosphere. The disappointment is one of a preference for the short over the longer-term, for control over entrepreneurialism, for governance over business, and for one generation of students over future generations. Maybe nothing else was possible politically, maybe these were the requirements from the Liberal Democrats, but the long-term consequences are pernicious. The opportunity to lessen the trammels and power of government has not been taken. There will probable not be another for many years.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of Ideas for the Universities: The Case for Independence.

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