Blogs > Cliopatria > UK HE Suicide Pact: Cambridge first

Feb 26, 2011

UK HE Suicide Pact: Cambridge first

Since the UK Parliament passed an act raising the cap from the fees charged by universities in England for tuition of their students, all universities have known that their fees were going to have to rise; the money, as we have said here before, is going to stop flowing from other sources. However, no-one apparently wanted to be first, so much time has gone on arguing against the already-passed measure and less on actually doing the budgets. Once a market level is set, the introduction of tuition fees in 2003 suggested, everyone will cleave to it, but the negative PR of being the first university to raise its fees in the current crisis has put people off. In this climate, especial interest may have been focussed on the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge -- I say 'may' because sources inside them certainly claim it has, but of course we would wouldn't we, and here I am doing so myself -- because these two retaintheir democratic governance structures. (There are big arguments to be had about how democratic those governances really are, but most would have to agree that the final answer would still be 'more than most'.) The fee levels they choose ought, to an extent, to be consensus-based. Now, Cambridge has broken first and is asking its members for permission to ask the UK government for permission to charge the full rate of £9,000 per student, and Oxford is likely to follow suit. The number of ways in which democracy is not present in these machinations is getting fairly horrible to count, but the effects of it all are worse.

The fact that the Parliament vote passed by 323 to 302 indicates the scale of division, though that was already apparent in the make-up of Parliament, but isn't itself undemocratic. It's easy to start racking them up though:

  1. Neither of the parties who form the current government in the UK had the increase of tuition fees in their manifesto.

  2. The Liberal Democrats, who are where they are because at least some people voted for them, were pledged to remove tuition fees.

  3. Both parties have, here as elsewhere, canned these pledges in the light of what they claim is the new information of actually finding out how bad the nation's financial state is; that is, they are using their mandate to depart from the plans on whose basis that mandate was awarded.

  4. The charging of the new fees is forced upon the universities because of a withdrawal of other funding made by the Minister of Education alone, acting under powers embodied in the (Labour-installed) Higher Education Act of 2004, so that no consultation was necessary for that (I'll come back to this).

  5. Cambridge's governance is principally made of a Council, which is small and executive, and a Regent House, which is highly inclusive, consultative and which has a right to vote on matters touching the university's constitution. Council had judged that this was not such a matter and did not in fact consult the membership on the fees levels until they got leaked, though it is putting it before them for approval now. Regent House has not been very happy about this but it is obviously going to be hard for them to refuse it and come up with other plans in the time available before budgets need to be set in March, especially given the Oxbridge universities' short terms both end soon, with a consequent drop in faculty presence.

  6. Oxford hasn't actually left enough time to consult on its new fee levels anyway, and so whatever Council comes up with there will not be discussed by Congregation (Oxford's equivalent of Regent House in Cambridge), though parts of the university that thought this was more important than teaching did spend two days arguing that the government's plans were evil and should be ignored earlier on.1

  7. And the Office for Fair Access makes a mockery of the whole thing anyway, since under the Labour Act of 2004, which has not been repealed in this particular, this unelected office have the right to refuse a university the right to raise their fees anyway. So if for some reason the government wants to cripple Oxbridge, it can just refuse to grant permission anyway, and the Minister for Education has already told the papers that he will consider telling the Office to do this.

I don't actually suppose that the government wants to break Oxbridge for any particular reason, as it happens. It is undeniably true, too, that Oxbridge is a lot better placed to weather the upcoming storm than less venerable and well-heeled sectors of the university community will be, because the government's funding cuts will start this financial year, and we still don't know what exactly they will be, but the revenue from tuition fees, which can only be charged to next year's intake onwards, will not start to arrive until October 2012 at the earliest. In other words, all English universities are about to hit a very nasty budgetary short-fall and their ability to recover from it, or even to guess how much it will be, still remain in the black box of Whitehall policy-making, inside which like Schrödinger's Cat we may already be dead.

It's very hard to say what this government's higher education policy actually is, except that it seems so far to fit in with their refusal to express themselves on policy at all and instead to emit contradictory informal statements about what they might eventually decide to do. If this is policy at all, it may be designed to enable the government to pass legislation that looks less bad than some of the possibilities, and thus look benevolent albeit at the cost of having previously looked extremely indecisive. That's the only way I can make sense of it, but that is going to cost England's higher education, in all sectors, very dear indeed, especially if OFFA's whip-hand is used to prevent full-scale charging, a possibility that will surely force major cutbacks in some universities' provision. The long-term result will be a commodification of education; the short-term will be job losses, students being refused places they were qualified for and the Academy allowing its internal politics to sabotage its overall quality as only it can.

It's possible that that's what the government wants, though horrifying; but I think it might be less horrifying to think that than either that they don't see that this will happen, that think someone else will magically fix it, or that they see it and don't care.

This post rests heavily on the facts and figures provided firstly by Tim Horder in"Notes on a Disaster", Oxford Magazine no. 309 (Oxford 2011), pp. 1-2 and Bruce Beckles,"Notes from Cambridge", ibid pp. 19-20, but also on the comments and links provided by JPG (especially) and others at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe following my previous post on these issues there (which was cross-posted here). Other sources for this post are linked inline.
1. I'm actually quite glad that enough of the University care about this that we got two days' speeches about it down on record, I should say, but I would have to wonder whether letting those who put that before the students, or who have none, rather than the other way about, speak for us is always going to produce representation. This is one of the problems with the idea that Oxbridge is democratic really, the turn-out.

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Jonathan Jarrett - 3/4/2011

Wow, yes, I don't know where you would find something like that in the UK, alas. The idea of doing courses at two universities simultaneously is well off the British map, although that said, Cambridge and the town's ex-polytechnic, Anglia Ruskin University, do share some teachers and one or two courses at each have enrolment that's open from both institutions. That's not the same thing as you're describing, though. Thankyou for the perspective!

Andrew D. Todd - 3/4/2011

In America, the social distinctions are less absolute. I got my undergraduate degrees (in Anthropology and Engineering), in the late seventies and early eighties, at the University of Cincinnati, where my father was a professor of Philosophy. As a "faculty brat," I was entitled to take unlimited numbers of course and degrees, tuition-free, and it was taken for granted that I should enroll in something or other, every term, summers included. I did a lot of taking courses by way of exploration which I could not have done if I had been paying tuition. After I had earned my first degree, in Anthropology, and was studying engineering, I took liberal arts courses on an "audit," or non-graded basis, so that I could depart without formalities if the subject should prove not so interesting as it had first appeared. It was much the same principle as starting to read a book in the library without being required to finish it, let alone to write and submit a reading note.

The University of Cincinnati controlled all the state-funded higher eduction in the area ("French model"), including not only the medical school, but also three or four community colleges. On a couple of occasions, I wound up taking courses in the community colleges, and got to know something about them. I took some standard academic courses during the summers between high-school (a standard practice, one of the functions of the American community college is to provide suitable instruction for advanced high-school students, on a part-time basis), and met the kind of classmates who were, um, synchronizing community college enrollment with the collection of unemployment insurance. Instead of everyone being in their socially assigned compartment (Sixth-Form college, FEC, etc.), there was a kind of cross-stratigraphy of age and ability.

On another level, when I had finished my second undergraduate degree, my engineering degree, and was waiting the better part of a year to get into graduate school, I went and enrolled in a course in woodworking in the University of Cincinnati's equivalent of an English "tech." This was a school known as the Ohio College of Applied Science (originally known as the Ohio Mechanics Institute). OCAS had a range of programs, from traditional crafts, such as woodworking, to styles of engineering only slightly less mathematical than those taught in the regular engineering school. One oddity was a nondegree program in Fire Science, designed to prepare men for the civil service examination for the ranks of Lieutenant and Captain in the city fire department. At any rate, when I first visited the woodworking shop, two things happened. First, I was greeted by a professor of French, who knew my father, and who was doing carpentry for his own amusement. Second, the shopmaster issued me with a piece of wood, a carpenter's plane, and a steel carpenter's square; and instructed me to plane the piece of wood perfectly flat. Perfectly, mind you. Cincinnati is a German-American town, originally shaped by the refugees from the 1848 revolution, and this was craftsmanship in the German manner.

This sort of "larger cohesion" was the sort of thing which seemed absent from the South Thames catalog.

Jonathan Jarrett - 3/3/2011

Thankyou, Andrew, a very gracious and fact-filled response. The last time I wrote about the UK HE cuts here a commentator argued that the tuition fee model seemed to work all right in the US, so what was I worried about? Your exposition of the differences of the situations helps answer that, although I did also think it was reasonable to argue that no-one could sensibly want to step down from a system where the state attempted to provide education on a meritocratic basis to a fee-paying one unless they had to, however shaky it might get.

There are many levels of UK post-school education, indeed: HE (Higher Education) is that sector that awards degrees (often among other qualifications) and Further Education is that which doesn't. FE colleges are kind of the third tier, where the first is the old universities and the 'redbricks' (universities not London, Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and certain others), the second is the various universities whose beginnings were as things like polytechnic colleges, and the third is FE. When we had them, the polytechnics were very much more like the commnunity college model you describe, and offered a very wide range of vocational skills. In the late eighties they were allowed into the broader university funding system and acquired a lot of extra subjects. Some of these places are real powerhouses and not to be dismissed; others, less so. Of recent years quite a number of third-tier places have been allowed to launch themselves into the second tier by acquiring the right to award degrees. But then there's places like the one you mention, South Thames... I don't really feel that they are in the same business as my academic environment, but even they are going to have it harder, because of course all their money is coming from teaching, and it's coming from teaching the poorer end of the demographic.

Andrew D. Todd - 2/28/2011

American out-of-state tuition is designed to channel people, not to raise money. Unless you are rich, or you rate a merit-based scholarship, you go somewhere in-state. Most state universities have student bodies which are ninety or ninety-five percent in-state. Admission standards are higher out-of-state, as well. The two factors tend to coincide. There are very few places which are both expensive and easy to get into.

One might add that in liberal arts departments, advanced graduate students can often register de-facto full-time for one or three hours, paying only a small fraction of what a law or business student (MBA) would pay. The university would prefer that people studied liberal arts, and if they insist on studying law or business, they are made to pay extra for it. In the western states, they have something called WICHE, organized by the Western Governors' Conference. So many western states only have populations of a million or so, and cannot afford to run the range of academic programs which a state like Ohio or Illinois can. So they have a system of exemptions from out-of-state tuition for people from the WICHE states for selected programs. This tends to be applied to professional school programs, typically health-care-related, rather than to liberal arts. The nature of the work is different, being more group-oriented. An advanced medical student might be registered for "the surgical clerkship," or "the obstetric clerkship," carrying sixteen credit hours, which works out to living in the hospital, assigned to a particular service, and being on call twenty-four hours a day, sleeping between cases. The curriculum being so structured, adjustments cannot just be organized on an ad-hoc basis. People who have good reasons for coming in from out-of-state are given appropriate discounts. Programs like WICHE do not mean, however, that freshmen from, say, Idaho are allowed to go to school in South Dakota without the financial penalties kicking in.

Similarly, there are tuition differentials between community colleges, state teachers' colleges, and state universities, corresponding to differences in admission requirements. In borderline cases, people are expected to start in community colleges (doing what would be considered secondary school work in Europe or Japan). They can then move up to state teachers' colleges, and then go on to universities. The point of this is that community colleges do not have fraternities. A certain combination of wealth and academic performance is required to go where one could join a fraternity. To go within the reach of a fraternity, you have to demonstrate that either, a) you can afford to be a playboy, academically, financially, and socially, or b) that you are of a sufficiently scholarly temperament not to be inclined to be a playboy, and are impervious to the fraternity recruiters. There is a delicate balance-- fraternities are allowed to go so far, and no further, in recruiting their drinking schools.

Englishmen, being at a distance, tend to miss these kind of subtleties, and when they set out to create an "American Plan," they are apt to create a rigid bureaucratic monstrosity which no American would have created. That seems to be what is happening in England now.

About a year ago, I heard about something curious. It seemed that an English college was offering a course in wearing high-heels. So I took the trouble to track down the references. It turned out, on inquiry, that the college in question was South Thames College, a "Further Education College" (FEC). This term will probably be instinctively familiar to Jonathan Jarrett, but to Americans at a distance, it takes a certain amount of thought to get one's brain around a FEC.

It seems that a FEC is somewhere between an American vocational high school and an American community college, in other words, a community college with a minimum entrance age of sixteen instead of eighteen. I gather a FEC is the kind of place for kids who didn't do very well on their O-levels (now called GCSE's), taken at the age of sixteen. Looking at the South Thames College catalog, it seemed a good deal grittier than an American community college, and much more relentless in the assumption that anyone with brains had been skimmed off and sent somewhere else. As I read through the catalog, I felt progressively depressed, thinking, "isn't there _anything_ these people do at more than a third-rate level?" An American Vocational High School or Community College tends to have things, not necessarily academic, which it does well. Community colleges tend to deal in practical skills at a high level. You can often learn to fly an airplane at a community college, or drive an eighteen-wheeler truck, or become a locomotive engineer, etc. Then there are various kinds of mechanics' programs. In short, you can learn all kinds of things at a community college which a Harvard or Yale (or Oxford or Cambridge) liberal arts graduate would not have a clue about. It was this sort of quality which seemed to be lacking at South Thames College.

The business about the high heels turned out to be a supplemental course, but the burden of it was that the girl students were being officially informed that they were too stupid to get by on merit, so they would therefore have to learn vamp tricks as well.That seemed rather brutal.



David Michael Fahey - 2/28/2011

An American perspective. The proposed tuition of 9000 pounds is considerably less than out of state tuition at my (public) university. Everybody expects that the next budget will reduce tax funds going to universities in my state (Ohio) and in most other American states.

Not only is higher education becoming less affordable for prospective students, an academic career is becoming more difficult to obtain and less attractive. As a first-generation college graduate and the son of a railroad machinist, I grew up naive about academic life but also tentative. I am now approaching 74. If I were fifty years younger, I would be in law school (admittedly, itself a place of risk). The point of my grumble is that our golden age has tarnished and seems unlikely to return tomorrow.

Jonathan Jarrett - 2/27/2011

Well, it is certainly true that vastly more has been piled into those things than education, but what is going on here is actually a genuine decision to stop funding university teaching in the humanities totally. The defence budget is also coming in for some scrutiny, which will probably cost the UK its last chance to pretend it's a world player when it has to cancel its new aircraft carriers, still on the stocks. (I fear we will keep the plans to upgrade Trident, which even the USA has dropped I believe! I don't understand why.) But while the pressures on the funding have all grown gradually, the actual decisions to cut this stuff are immediate and contemporary.

Chris Bray - 2/27/2011

This is a sad picture, and it seems to me that there's one element missing from this discussion of it. The problem isn't that governments just suddenly decided to stop funding education; the problem is that governments made a series of choices over the last decade (and especially in the last few years), preferring to fund eternal war, a massive surveillance state, and endless corporate welfare, especially for financial institutions. I can't put the onus on university leaders in this context.