The commercialisation of higher education in Britain is, in part, a by-product of its success. “The proportion of young people in England going to university has passed the symbolic 50% mark for the first time”, the BBC reported in September 2019. “It comes almost exactly 20 years after then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, called for half of young people to go into higher education”. He recently called for the level to be pushed up to 70%.
In 1959, less than 4% of university age youth received a university education. In 1963, the Robbins Report on Higher Education recommended that university places should be available to all who were qualified by ability and attainment. During the 1960s the number of UK universities doubled, from 22 to 45. Today 130 are receiving funding from government – plus a few private universities - each competing to attract the brightest students. The cost to the tax payer has risen proportionately. The introduction of tuition fees in 1998, £1,000 then £9,250 now, to help with funding, was a crucial stage in attaching monetary value to a university education.
British universities are now large institutions serving on average 18 thousand students. But Government does not give them enough money. UK students’ tuition fees do not cover the cost of their education. For the last two years, as they switched on lap-tops in their rooms for the day’s lectures, students themselves have been clocking up debt. Students from abroad, paying £31,000 per annum, barely keeping the good ship academia afloat, are sought out by academic marketing departments. Universities little by little are turning into businesses to survive, a few of them tottering on the brink.
Universities of course differ in campus position, the ‘old civic red brick’ and Oxbridge versus those situated outside or on the edge of towns, in endowments, in ethos and reputation for a particular academic expertise, as well as their entry standards and research quality. In addition ‘student satisfaction’ is measured and graduate prospects that both feature in their - much criticised – annually published ranking. Many universities are facing significant deficits in pension funds and offering salaries that academic staff do not see as commensurate with their training and workload. Lecturers chafe at demands to shine both in teaching, in student satisfaction ratings, and research increasingly for the income it brings.
Asking what universities are for is an interesting question and the answer has changed over time. By the end of the 19th century the idea that moral and religious education should be an inseparable part of university teaching had weakened. By the end of the 20th century ‘cultivation of the intellect’ as the prime purpose of universities’ was also eclipsed. Far too ‘ivory tower’. Encouraged by government, the main purpose of the British university now is to meet the needs of an advanced economy. Universities cultivate ‘graduate prospects’, meaning the promise, or at least the expectation, of a good job after graduation – defined as a starting salary of at least £30,000-£35,000 - so easy for students to measure the return on their investment . Even the subjects taught in universities are evaluated by students and university management alike as developing, or not, future useful and lucrative professional skills. The mind-set and language of economics has infiltrated many aspects of life and the universities weren’t spared.
During and since the pandemic, much attention has rightly been given to the disruption of school life, the impact on school and pre-school children. Much less attention is given to the current state of Britain’s universities, their staff and their students. The pandemic deprived all students, whatever their age, of the social experience which being in higher education traditionally gives. But this impact on university life came on top of changes transforming the size, ethos and very idea of a university.
Size seems to matter. St. Andrew’s in Scotland and Aberystwyth in Wales have around 10,000 students each. They top the student satisfaction league. Manchester with over 40,000 and University College London (UCL) with over 45,000 – half from overseas - have opted for gigantism in response to demand and in the hope of economies of scale. Both come 104th out of 128 (no figures for Oxbridge) in student satisfaction ranking despite getting good results. Both have experienced strikes by university about pay, pay gaps, pensions, workload and casualization. But so have many others.
The University and College Union (UCU) negotiate staff pay. This year they have been campaigning against zero-hours contracts. According to UCU research, an astonishing 6,500 lecturers working in 46% of universities and 60% of colleges are on zero hours contracts. A further 68,845, many working in research programmes, are on fixed term contracts.
Graduation ceremonies have always been rites of passage. A symbolic event closing ceremonially three years of new – and lasting - friendships and rewarding study, marking entry into the adult world. This year the pandemic back-log meant that double the numbers graduated. At UCL, with its huge numbers, this meant a week of three sets of students a day graduating conveyor belt style in the drab barn-like ExCel Exhibition Centre in London’s docklands. Tickets sold at £35 each and gown hire was £47 - if you got the discounted price. A pre-recorded message from UCL’s provost appeared on a large screen. At the same time the ExCel Centre was hosting a business conference and a marine biology conference. A less than grand finale for students who missed a great deal working their passage through a disrupted university system increasingly commercialized and all at sea.
John Henry Newman, Anglican theologian who became a Catholic Cardinal, published his The Idea of a University in 1858, a compilation of nine lectures based upon his experience and thinking as Rector of a new Catholic University in Dublin. It is frankly hard-going. He wanted the university to be a place where “intellect [was] disciplined for its own sake” where ‘inutility’, as he called it, was to be cherished. But he did concede that if the utility of university education was to be considered, it should be to prepare students “to fill their respective posts in life better…. making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society”. Newman also had a prescient word on the dangers of demanding both good teaching and research from lecturers. “He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new”. Many of today’s lecturers would agree.
Learning is not a commercial transaction. Education should not embody the ethics of a business enterprise. The task of universities in national life should not be promoting only the kind of research that makes money, nor make filling the top end of the Labour Market their limited vision. They are being driven in this direction. I like to think of the small university I am associated with, St. Mary’s Twickenham, 30th in the student satisfaction tables and with distinctive Catholic values, as part of the resistance.