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

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Cost Efficient Universities

Thursday, May 19, 2011

At last, someone who can play the government at their own economic game with Higher Education. Howard Hotson provides some facts and figures to expose what anyone working within British universities has known all along: we punch above our weight in research, in teaching, in efficiency, and in access; and the government’s reforms to improve the efficiency and reduce the public spend on UK academe will actually make matters worse.
The government is obsessed by the American neo-liberal model of privatisation, and continually turns to the world university league tables in an attempt to prove that the private, US model of higher education is more successful than our central, publically funded one. With thirteen US universities in the top twenty of the Times World Rankings, and with all bar one of these private institutions commanding tuition fees of around $20 000 per annum, UK policy is guided by the assumption that there must be an equation between the privatisation of higher education and the international standing of an institution.

But the fact that the UK already has four universities in the top twenty Times World Rankings shows the esteem in which UK universities are held in spite of everything. Partly, this is due to tradition. The Ivy League models itself on Oxford and Cambridge; but even whilst the trans-Atlantic sons of British universities have long since outstripped their parents in terms of the resources they wield, that ancestry leaves a reverse kind of inheritance. American alumni who study at Oxford and Cambridge provide geneous philanthropic support that continues to subsidise a highly inefficient teaching and collegiate system, conscious that they would have been expected to do the same had they attended their Ivy League relations. Consequently, Oxford and Cambridge, who of course supply the UK's top two places in the international leagues, has funding more on a par with American institutions, and maintains a "reputation" in the eyes of scholars worldwide, a key measure on the Times Higher Education league tables. But the Oxford and Cambridge effect alone does not account for how well UK higher education performs against its international counterparts. Another key factor is the sheer hard work and dedication of UK academics across the board, who commit to long and underpaid hours to scholarship and teaching. Far from the Cameronian caricature of the public servant lounging on the public purse, researchers and lecturers have been tied to the profession by vocation, not by money.

The figures Hotson helpfully marshals demonstrate quite clearly that the UK’s academy outperforms, pound for pound, person for person, its wealthier US counterpart:
Yet all those journalists and politicians who have leaped so nimbly from league tables to university policy have apparently overlooked the fact that the US is larger than the UK: its population of 311 million is five times the UK population of 62 million. Already, the American three-to-one lead in the World University Rankings looks far less impressive. In fact, over the past seven years, the UK has had more top 20 universities per head of population (one per 15.5 million) than the US (one per 23.9 million). And since the UK institutions in the top 20 are on average slightly larger (20,500 students) than the US ones (17,300 students), almost twice the proportion of the UK population has been studying at top 20 universities (1 in 756, compared with 1 in 1383). In economic terms, the two countries differ by an even larger margin: US GDP (at $14.658 trillion) is 6.5 times larger than UK GDP (at $2.247 trillion). For the past seven years, the UK has been maintaining fully twice as many top 20 universities as the US for each unit of financial resource.
Hotson goes on:
According to the OECD, the UK spends 1.3 per cent of GDP on tertiary education, precisely the EU average. The US, on the other hand, spends 3.1 per cent, far more than any other country in the world. So America not only has 6.5 times the UK’s financial resources, it also spends 2.4 times as much of those resources on tertiary education. That adds up to more than 15 times as much investment in higher education in the US than in the UK. And yet, according to these world rankings, that 15-fold investment nets barely a three-fold return in educational excellence. The UK has somehow managed to maintain top-ranked universities for only about a fifth of the US price.
The game of privatisation currently being played with higher education is scary, but it would be just about acceptable if those involved within it - teachers, researchers, students, society - thought that it would actually improve things. Hotson's argument makes a convincing economic case for saying that it will not. US universities may look smart and manicured, with their faux-Oxbridge halls and towers, but beneath the skin is a vast swathe of administrative bureaucracy, and trivial enticements for fee-paying students: athletics tracks rather than lecture halls, saunas in bedrooms rather than books in a library. Less John Henry Newman, and more the Great Gatsby.

The trouble is, David Willetts only has two brains: one of these thinks in terms of free market competition, the other in terms of efficiency, and both are ideologically repelled by the nineteenth-century idea that publically funded universities might actually perform efficiently, contribute to the national economy and social wellbeing, and sustain a diverse portfolio of research beyond the purely “impactful” – and that they might do this without draining the life savings of generations of young students.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:44 pm


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