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UK report on Higher Education funding – another step towards privatising education

October 12th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

The UK government enquiry into the future funding of higher education, headed by Lord Browne, former Chief Executive of BP, has delivered its report.

At the moment, the government pays students’ fees while they are university. Once they graduate, and are earning £15,000 or more, they start to pay back £3,290 for each year of their degree.

Browne has proposed lifting the cap on fees with universities free to choose what they wish, with students repaying fees when they start earning £23000. It is unclear how the system would work and what interest rates would accrue on the loans for the fees.

The main motivation of the proposed reform  is to switch responsibility for university funding from the state to students and their families; for every £100 a student borrows to defer the payment until after graduation, the government pays about £35.

The elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge have welcomed the report, as have the research intensive universities. Interestingly the Open University has also supported the report, mainly because it extends loan support to part time students, who are excluded under the present scheme. But the report has been condemned by both the National Union of Students and the University and College Union which represent lecturers.

So much for the technicalities – if readers are interested in finding out more about the proposals, which have yet to be approved by Parliament, see the Guardian newspaper’s reports.

What does it all mean? Essentially it is a further (large) step forward in the privatisation of the education system in the UK. Browne says: “Under these plans universities can start to vary what they charge but it will be up to students whether they choose the university. The money will follow the student who will follow the quality. The student is no longer taken for granted, the student is in charge.” Or rather the students with money (or their parents with money) are in charge.  Higher Education is no longer seen as a right, but rather as part of a market mechanism. University courses become a market driven commodity. The arbiter of quality becomes the ability to monetarise on investment in taking a course. Academic quality counts for nothing. The university system has traditionally been class based, this reform will tweak the system to ensure new money is as good as old.

It is interesting to note too, that universities will be free to charge differential fees for different subjects and courses. But Browne also says the government may remove public funding from all but “priority” subjects, such as medicine, science and engineering in pursuing a”closer fit between what is taught and the skills needed in the economy”.

Browne calls for an overhaul of the careers advice and guidance system to ensure that students receive adequate advice as he says happens in the (private, fee paying) public schools. I know nothing about how careers advice is organised in public schools. But the truth is that for most working class students a spreadsheet of comparative fees will become the most important aid in choosing universities. And how Browne expects better careers advice at a time when careers services are facing cutbacks of up to 40 per cent is hard to see.

Essentially people are now being expected to pay for their own higher education. But why should the government stop there? Already there is talk that individuals may be expected to pay for vocational education. And despite the lack of take off of the so called free schools (free in that they are run by businesses not local government) we can expect to see further moves to cut school spending and privatise the school sector in coming years.

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