Markets versus Publics: The New Battleground of Higher Education

By Holmwood, John | Harvard International Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Markets versus Publics: The New Battleground of Higher Education


Holmwood, John, Harvard International Review


Recent policy changes initiated by the British Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government represent a paradigm shift in the organization of higher education. In 1963, the Robbins Report on the long-term development of higher education in Britain and the principles which should inform it inaugurated mass higher education and a public university system in the UK similar to that of the California Master Plan at about the same time. The architect of the latter, Clark Kerr, called the modern university a "multiversity" for its multiple functions and roles. The announced changes to higher education in the UK derive from a radical, neo-liberal approach that now seeks to transform the multiversity into a market-based monoculture. As with all monocultures, the problem is not only the value of what is lost, but also the effective reproduction of what remains. The policies, I shall suggest, are self-defeating, but they are also deeply damaging to the university's democratic mission.

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The Robbins Report set out the principle that higher education should be available to all with the ability to benefit from it, and none should be dissuaded by reason of cost. The expansion of higher education had an economic rationale, but it was also promoted for its wider social and political value in contributing to culture and an inclusive democracy. In addition, universities were provided with a social mission to facilitate social mobility and to help dissolve existing status differences. This was so in three respects: first, university education would no longer be the preserve of a social elite; second, publicly funded higher education would mitigate the effects of a mixed system of private and public secondary education that provided educational advantages to those prepared and able to pay; and finally, although status differences would remain associated with particular institutions, the same undergraduate degree course would be similarly funded at all universities, so those differences would be diminished in their social effects.

With the caveat that university education would be available only to those with the ability to benefit from it, higher education assumed the status of a social right. The universalization of the aspiration to higher education in subsequent decades has been a testament to the success of the Robbins principle. A recent survey of new mothers reported that 98 percent aspired that her child attend university. Of course, the opportunity to do so is restricted both by the number of places as well as social and educational disadvantages. However, the wider public's endorsement of the role and importance of higher education is significant. The British Social Attitudes Survey in 2005, for example, indicated that 70 percent felt that the value of a university education was greater than simply the prospective economic return associated with it.

The basic framework of UK higher education remained relatively unchanged across the decades since Robbins, albeit with a student contribution to fees introduced in 1998. However, this remained at a flat rate across all institutions and was accompanied by continued public funding. It is this expected contribution that has now changed in much of England. There will be no public funding for the arts, humanities, and social sciences, although high-cost science and medicine courses will retain a limited public subsidy. The existing student loan system is to be extended with income-contingent loans, where students will be required to repay their loans only after reaching an earnings threshold of 21,000 pounds, with remaining debts discharged after 30 years.

Universities will also be allowed to charge differential fees. Currently, these are capped at 9,000 pounds, but it is likely that, at some time in the future, the cap will be removed, so that some universities will charge higher fees (in the order of the levels currently charged to overseas students). …

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