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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Harrods Model of Higher Education

Monday, March 28, 2011

If the stakes - the potential decimation of the UK's world-leading Higher Education system - were not so high, it would be tempting to feel a sense of schadenfreude at the way in which universities are setting their next generation of tuition fees. Every day brings news of the latest university to announce where it will set its tuition fees, and as virtually every university has set fees at or near the maximum £9000 mark, it is hard not to imagine the government squirming a little more uncomfortably in the hole they have dug for themselves.

If the majority of universities charge at or near the maximum, the high cost to the treasury, which bears the up-front burden of tuition costs until loans are repaid, will make the government's plans impossible to execute in their original form. When the traditional, research-intensive universities like Oxford and Cambridge, or Durham and Exeter, announced £9000 fees, few would have expected anything less; high fees here do not disturb the government - if anything, they prove that our top universities are prepared to pitch themselves as the premium product in the Higher Education marketplace. But now the likes of Aston and Leeds Metropolitan are pursuing similar figures, the writing seems to be on the wall for the whole sector. And the edifice gradually being built does not conform to the government's free market architecture for Higher Education: universities seem less like branches of Tesco, where discerning Higher Education consumers pick and choose from a range of degrees to their taste and wallets, some premium and others better value, and more like a single large store of Harrods, where there is still lots to choose from, so long as it costs the earth.

Should fees at or near to £9000 prove to be the norm rather than the exception, this will prove how muddled and counter-productive the government's Higher Education strategy has been, with everyone losing out in this new system. The public finances will have to contribute more up-front into Higher Education than would have been the case with more direct public subsidy; in a saturated graduate jobs market where salaries are suppressed, loans will not be repaid rapidly; students will be deterred from attending university, to the detriment both of social mobility and the economy that is allegedly calling out for graduates; and universities will still face a funding shortfall due to the government's savage cuts to HEFCE grants, which even the highest fees only partially offset. The ideology of free-market Toryism has been exposed here: some institutions only work through public funding, and the monopoly of public finance is not necessarily a bad thing, if the alternative is a fixed-price monopoly facing the "consumer," in this case, the student.

When every university charges the same as each other, this is not a market, but a ransom to younger students. If a student wants to go to university, he or she cannot shop around for the "best value" degree, because there will be no such thing. When more than the anticipated number of universities charge above the ideal £7500 average, the government will be forced to cut the number of student places nationally: this will make a mockery of the claim (one which originates with New Labour) that tuition fees will open up Higher Education, churning out the increased numbers of graduates necessary to match our competitor economies. And when those fees apply across the board at a university rather than differentially to subjects of different economic value, this will not encourage more students to go into engineering or accountancy, but just to do those subjects they happen to be good at and to hell with the job prospects (not that those under the age of 25 have many in any case).

Browne's free market vision of a flexible intertwining of business and Higher Education, such that business would tell universities what skills they wanted in any given moment, with students queuing up to pursue only those degrees most in need at a particular time and thus of lowest cost, has failed. Unfortunately, it is hard to see how the situation can be recovered. Tied to its ideological cuts agenda, the government is unlikely to find any additional, central money for universities to allow them to lower or vary their fees. The last regulatory thermostat which the government retains, having turned Higher Education into a free market, is the number of students it permits nationally to enter universities each year.

Sadly, this has implications for the arts and humanities in particular, which were already hamstrung by the withdrawal of central teaching funding. If the Higher Education marketplace had, somehow, actually worked, then even despite the reduction in teaching funding arts and humanities courses at some red brick universities could actually have benefited. For example, at my own institution we have around 30 students for every place we can offer. Freed from government stipulations on student numbers, we could have expanded our English Department - with degrees that are cheaper to deliver than those in the sciences - tenfold (admittedly, we would probably have narrowed our socio-economic student profile by the same amount). However, if the government has to operate the last control it has, student numbers, in order to check the burgeoning loan bill then it is all but guaranteed that it will suddenly forget its free market beliefs and order that priority for places has to be given in science, technology, engineering and medicine subjects. In the Harrods of Higher Education, you will be able to have any degree you want, so long as it is STEM, and so long as it is exclusively expensive.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:20 pm


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