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Coalition’s Education Plan is a Worrying Import from the US

Coalition’s Education Plan is a Worrying Import from the US
Comment Piece by Alexander Smith, University of Huddersfield
First published in the Yorkshire Post 11/11/2010
MUCH recent media coverage of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s proposals to reform university funding in England and Wales has focused on the subject of tuition fees. They sparked this week’s violent student protests in London. But the Government’s plans go much further.
Following the spending review, it was announced that university teaching budgets would be slashed by 83 per cent. Only a handful of subjects – science, technology, engineering, mathematics and possibly some modern languages – will continue to receive a public contribution for teaching.
Other subjects – arts, humanities, law and social sciences – will receive a 100 per cent cut in their teaching contribution, which will leave universities little choice but to charge tuition fees in the range of £6-9,000 not sure of style hereper annum to try to cover the shortfall in their teaching budgets.
In addition, the coalition is piloting a scheme that could lead to further education colleges, some secondary schools and private, “for profit” companies being able to offer degrees. 
The Government argues that these new educational “providers”, which will be able to charge fees and compete with universities, will help drive efficiencies across the sector.
However, there will be no requirement on those seeking to undercut universities to invest in research-led teaching, which is often considered the benchmark of a modern university education.
How this will help strengthen our country’s research base is difficult to fathom. Indeed, these proposals have got many observers, including those who are convinced that Britain needs to tackle its national debt as a matter of urgency, scratching their heads.
What is being proposed certainly goes well beyond the case for “austerity Britain” and will likely result in the wholesale privatisation of English and Welsh universities. But if these reforms are ideologically-driven, as the Labour Party would have us believe, from where do these ideas spring?
According to various coalition Ministers, their market-driven proposals work well in the United States. The model they seem to have in mind appears to be that of the wealthy Ivy League colleges, which include some of the very best universities in the world and which charge tuition fees in the tens of thousands of dollars.
But this is an elitist view of education. The Ivy League educates a tiny percentage of college students in America’s diversified higher education landscape. Many more students enroll in a system of large research-intensive universities within their home states. Teaching at these universities is funded from the public purse and a more-modest fee charged to the student.
The funding arrangements for these universities, among which are also some of the very best in the world, are much more analogous to those universities we have in Britain that are publicly-funded and research-intensive.
Those who would most approve of the UK Government’s market-driven proposals for higher education include the far Right of the Republican Party, which for several decades has lain siege to the very idea of the value of the public university in American civic life.
This line of attack has even found traction in cosmopolitan California. There, conservative Republicans seeking to slash public spending have begun dismantling the University of California system, which for many years has probably been the best publicly- funded university in the world but which they see as an indulgence their bankrupt state can no longer afford.
In the debate over Higher Education reforms in the UK, the most amiable of coalition spokespeople might be surprised to find that their most committed political allies on this issue across the Atlantic include the most stridently radical voices on the Republican Right.
And what of the Government’s plans to deregulate the university sector? Here, too, progressive coalition MPs might be disturbed to find themselves breaking bread with some surprising ideological bedfellows.
A decade ago, my sister won a sport scholarship to study for an undergraduate degree at a selective college in San Francisco. She flew half way across the world to take up this opportunity. But the college turned out to be run by a conservative Christian cult.
On arrival, she was required to sign a pledge to attend church every day – where she was expected to speak in tongues – and to avoid associating with atheists, homosexuals and other “sinners”. She was lucky, though: she managed to escape at the end of the first semester, but not before her college tried to compel her to stay by threatening her with a lawsuit if she did not repay several thousands of dollars of tuition fees granted in scholarship money.
One consequence of a deregulated higher education market must be that extremist religious groups will vie to be among those who seek to offer degrees in competition with UK universities. While the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is correct when it says that the mechanism for funding higher education in the UK is “broke”, those of us with personal experience of the American university system remain deeply sceptical about their proposals to fix it.

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