Mr Gadgrind would be very pleased. Higher Education at a price has arrived in the UK and at last our young will be taught a lesson in the value of learning.
Well not quite. The UK ( I only include England and Wales in this as Scotland has gone it’s own way) has arrived at the usual fudge.

Around a third of all higher education national students pay a thousand pounds a year towards their education, two thirds do not. All are means-tested and it is usually the least wealthy of the typically divorced parents who fill out the forms to gain the best deal. *Students from happily married parents tend to lose out and have to pay. There’s a lesson in that somewhere.

By a half-assed agenda that exists here, the money paid in doesn’t actually go to the Universities and Colleges, instead it is a kind of tax on higher education. Worse than that, each year the government reduces the amounts it pays to these institutions, which in turn means less and less staff available to teach, less contact time, bigger seminar groups and a tutorial once a year if you are lucky.

Purchasing equipment or maintaining what you have is right down the list, as there is a priority to appoint more ‘management’ of higher education institutions, who must be paid at least twice what academics earn. It is a kind of ‘rule’. There are usually two managers for every full time academic staff member, supported by around five new clerical jobs to generate more paperwork.

Going to a British College or University is a lottery at best and the value of a degree varies from establishment to establishment, judged by ‘perceptions’ and a national league table that lists the top 400 higher education providers using such criteria as residential places for students, the amount of managers per square inch and research by the academic staff. (It doesn’t seem to the relevance of research).

To combat this hit and miss situation, there is a proposal to list only the top 20 institutions and only these would be recommended by , say the British Council Overseas, and they would be able to charge more for their ‘superior degrees’, to UK nationals and Overseas students. A lot more.

Of course, the UK is a class based society, so this is very normal concept to establish a two-tier higher education. But do not think this is like comparing a two year community college degree with mainlining at MIT. This is Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol saying we are the top table and rest of you are scum.

Everyone graduating elsewhere would be condemned for life to be second class - (even if they have a first). Worse, the elitist structure of UK life is reflected at the very top. The Prime Minister has surrounded himself with eleven advisors at Number 10. Apparently ten of them are from Oxford. The entire government is riddled with Oxford/Cambridge advisors as are quasi governmental controlled organisms such as the BBC. They in turn hand out contracts to yet more of their fellow graduates. None of these people think ‘manufacturing’ matters.

They all earn their living in this intellectual capital service industry. Thus we have, as our lord and masters, a group of very influential people who are abandoning manufacturing and taxing entrepreneurship out of existence. It is a self-perpetuating elitist sub-culture that eats away at the UK soul.

We shall reap that whirlwind no doubt as no country in the world aside from Saudi Arabia can exist by imports alone.

It is worth pointing out however that the top self-appointed 20 Universities may not be the best places to study. (Job contacts in the BBC and the Government aside).

At a mooted price of around £4,500 per year for UK nationals and more than double that for overseas students, would they be getting value for money?
The top 20 tend to specialise in theory and although good research goes on in many of them. They are very reliant on reputation. You’ll find first class libraries , good pubs and a social life, but if you are paying, is this necessarily enough? Will it carry weight when you graduate and go back to Indiana or Calcutta or Jakarta. You might then be competing with students who for a similar price went to Harvard or Washington State, or Miami, or UBC or Queens in Eastern Canada. Each of these places has more modern equipment, better,(possibly) more accessible teaching staff, much better facilities, many publications, their own TV stations, newspapers, radio stations, Olympic sized pools, sports arenas, theatres, excellent computer to student ratios, bookshops, canteens, art galleries and alumni associations than most of the the UK Colleges and Universities lumped together!

It is intimidating to go to a place like Miami or Washington State and see what facilities students have and what potential they have to achieve life goals. There is no UK Higher Ed institution that can compete, except on ‘history, tradition, meat pies and beer.’

Take Film Studies, offered at many places in the UK. Three years of watching films and analysing them will prepare you for what job exactly? Substitute Film for Mediaeval Studies, Creative Writing Studies, Media Studies, Social Studies.
Start paying nearly five grand a year for this and your rent and food, the courses offered in the UK start to look very bad value for money indeed. Want to study film? Forget a degree. Go to the Vancouver Film School for 8 months. Pay around $15,000 Canadian and learn everything there is to know. Digital editing on the latest equipment, filming, sound, writing, producing. Graduates get jobs. Employers come looking.

That‘s the point isn’t it? If students are to pay and be asked to pay for the privilege of going to an elite establishment, it had better start offering value for money. It had better start offering vocational courses with highly specified marketable skills.

I have been to smaller colleges that offer more than big UK Universities. Small community art colleges such as Flagler in Florida or big private expensive ones such as Savannah College offer a students such facilities it just makes one laugh to think we should charge anyone for what we provide in the UK. And when we do start charging lots more, don’t think that students and parents won’t wake up to the fact that for a few dollars more their kids will have better opportunities and better degrees or diplomas from US or Canadian Institutions.

Right now, given the strength of the pound a degree at SFU or UBC in Vancouver is great value for money (even for an overseas student) and the skills you can learn there are perfect for the web based world we are heading towards. You probably won’t get mugged on your way home every night (or be advised to carry tear gas as Luton students are) and nor will you live in a damp room with condensation streaming down the windows or be forced to socialise with people with worse teeth than the average Romanian. Sure you might crave the cultural diversity of Bradford, but pay for it?

Currently about 15,000 UK students study abroad every year. That number will only increase.

There are some good modern UK Universities, such as Nottingham Trent or Sheffield Hallam, but they won’t be allowed in the elite top twenty. Too modern, too resourced based, too vocational. You might learn something useful. No Ivy. Of course you might resent having to pay nearly five grand a year to study in Sheffield and that’s the other thing. The value of the social ammenities and the surroundings will be just as important in a pricing structure. Given a choice between a College with a beach and sunshine and Sheffield, even if it does have an Olympic sized pool and some brilliant courses, at similar prices, students will probably think twice.

If overseas students knew how underfunded our institutions are over here or how demoralised the staff and just how worthless a 2.2 is from the bottom 100 in the league tables, they wouldn’t come. If they knew just how many lecturers are pressured into passing through students by cash strapped University accountants or that the entire higher education system entirely depends on them coming here to get a second class education for a over-inflated price, they’d go elsewhere. Go to Singapore where they take education seriously or Australia. If you really want value for money, try UCT in Cape Town. It’s a brilliant University with great staff and facilities. If you really want to study social engineering, go somewhere like South Africa and see it happen.

The lesson?

In the future it is imperative to buy the education you need at the place that is prepared to invest enough to deliver it. Students will pay, but they’ll want to emerge with real vocational and intellectual skills and get real jobs.

That’s no theory.

© SAM NORTH 2000

* Now spare a thought for the students who had to wait for their A Level results this August - as the computer software went haywire.