Thursday, 16 December 2010

Turning to the future

So, it's all over on the higher fees front. English universities will be able to charge £9,000 a year.

Most of them will - whatever Ministers say about restricting costs. If they want universities to charge less, there'll have to take statutory powers to force costs down. Then we'll all be in the courts wrangling about education 'cartels'. Fantastic.

So now we've got to look to the future. Put aside that the new university system will be one of the worst-designed structures ever to emerge from public policy. That's gone.

What will the new world look like?

1. Teaching will become more important, but in uneven ways.

The Research Excellence Framework that will judge academics' performance in 2013 won't go away: research funding has been protected, while teaching monies have been obliterated. Champagne corks (above!) will still pop for good results in the REF. So the 'revolution in teaching quality' that David Willetts talks about is unlikely. Academics have absorbed the lesson that research is the most important thing they do for more than two decades. Turning that around immediately just isn't going to happen.

2. Private universities will open and proliferate.

Pearson has jumped in already - IBM, Microsoft and the like will probably follow. American providers such as Phoenix (online) and perhaps universities which already have UK campuses (i.e. NYU) won't be far behind. Business, publishing, marketing and law courses in more 'traditional' universities (i.e. not for profits) are going to have a lot of competition. These new providers will start off validating degrees with existing HE institutions; soon there'll open new campuses, recruit faculty, start teaching thousands of undergraduates. Pearson University, Oxford, anyone? These new entrants might help to drive down costs - but only in the medium term.

3. The fees cap will come off.

In the rather likely event of a solely Conservative administration after the next election (in May 2015), the cap on fees will come off altogether. This is what Oxford and Cambridge want; Conservative Ministers overwhelmingly went to university among 'dreaming spires', and Oxbridge VCs are the internal voice they are temperamentally inclined to listen to. Fees will rise in that case to perhaps £20,000 a year for science courses by the end of the decade. That's what the Russell Group of universities have wanted all along - £16,000 a year was bandied about in this round alone. That's what they'll eventually get. Fancy £80,000 for a Chemistry degree? Come off it.

4. Students will become more demanding - and frustrated.

Ministers have now adopted, nearly wholesale, the concept and discourse of universities as 'sellers' or 'providers', and students as 'consumers'. They're not, by the way - they're citizens engaged in the collective search for truth (if that's not too highfallutin'). But young people will increasingly bend this language to their own ends, just as left-wing campaigners drew on 'consumerist' modes to campaign against government in the 1960s. Expect to see a lot more on-campus conflict - occupations, sit-ins, complaints, confrontations - as this rhetoric collides with reality.

A baleful prospect.

Welcome to your future!

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