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Times Higher Education letter

July 7, 2011

Times Higher Education letter

7 July 2011

The government’s White Paper will undermine higher education in England. It makes frequent mention of the excellence of the system it now threatens and proposes new forms of financing that are more expensive for students and the public than the current arrangements.

The university system serves a range of functions and, like the NHS, is a fundamental public resource providing access for the many. Its value is widely accepted by the public, but is now threatened by an ill-thought-out process of privatisation, including opening the system to commercial “for-profit” providers.

Universities are a fundamental part of our democratic life. They facilitate debate by generating knowledge, evidence and arguments that bear upon pressing public issues. The space for such independent critical thought will be severely reduced as a consequence of these market-led reforms.

The new higher and differential fees regime will discourage many students from attending university, since the long-term debt burden will cast a deterrent shadow over their lives. At the same time, the coalition’s attempt to use competition to reduce fees will have the consequence of cutting resources to many universities (and therefore the quality of what they can provide) while making it more expensive for students.

For the first time since the Robbins and Dearing reports (1963 and 1997 respectively), a government is seeking to use public funds to reinforce hierarchy in higher education rather than mitigate its effects. If these reforms go unchallenged they will put market forces, not students, at the heart of the system, giving those from wealthy families a clear advantage in access and affordability.

 

The White Paper offers us a reckless gamble: a radical experiment in university funding, with no precedent in British experience and no counterpart in any public university system in the world. Worse still, the recent American experiment with private for-profit “universities” provides grave grounds for expecting that these reforms could have precisely the opposite consequences to those intended: driving down quality and value for money; burdening students with debts acquired while obtaining credentials of little value; and ultimately passing on much of the cost to the taxpayer while enriching only private investors and company executives.

Most Britons do not want this funding model. The one piece of research commissioned, but not reported, by the Browne Review concluded that the majority of British people in all social groups want at least half of the cost of university education to be borne by the state.

A number of campaigning groups and academics have resolved to propose alternatives to the White Paper. They will invite contributions over the summer to a comprehensive response to the government’s consultation on the plans, which closes on 20 September. We urge the academic community to engage collaboratively with these endeavours.

Gurminder K. Bhambra, Howard Hotson, Philip Moriarty, Simon Szreter, Bruce Beckles, Brendan Burchell, Fenella Cannell, T. J. Cribb, Thomas Docherty, Naomi Eilan, Michael Farrelly, Robert Fine, Maureen Freely, Robert Gildea, Edward Holberton, John Holmwood, Michael Hrebeniak, Laura Kirkley, James Ladyman, Dennis Leech, David McCallam, William McEvoy, Andrew McGettigan, Hilary Marland, Lucy Mayblin, Shamira Meghani, Nicola Miller, David Mond, Karma Nabulsi, John Parrington, Ian Patterson, J. H. Prynne, Lucy Robinson, Samantha Shave, Bernard Sufrin, Kate Tunstall and Adam Stewart-Wallace.

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