In Defence of Public Higher Education

Hundreds of academics have signed a document, published today, that warns of dire consequences should the [UK] government’s white paper on higher education become law. The document, In Defence of Public Higher Education, endorsed by a wide range of prominent academics, including Stefan Collini, of Cambridge University, and Howard Hotson, of Oxford, offers an alternative to the government’s vision for the sector in the form of nine propositions about higher education’s value to society. Drawing on recent research, it also argues that the changes proposed are based on ideology rather than financial necessity, and will make no lasting savings…

The document’s nine propositions are that higher education has public as well as private benefits and these public benefits require financial support; that public universities are necessary to build and maintain confidence in public debate; that public universities have a social mission and help to ameliorate social inequality; that public higher education is part of a generational contract in which an older generation invests in the wellbeing of future generations; that public institutions providing similar programmes of study should be funded at a similar level; that education cannot be treated as a simple consumer good; that training in skills is not the same as university education – something the title of a university should recognise; that a university is a community made up of different disciplines and of different activities of teaching, research and external collaboration; and finally that universities are not only global institutions, but also serve their local and regional communities.

A separate appendix makes the case that switching the costs of tuition from grants to loan-backed fees may reduce the deficit in the short term, but is an accounting trick. In the long term, debt could increase as students default or write off loan repayments, and tax revenues from those who reject higher education as too expensive are lost.

It also accuses the government of wanting eventually to introduce a pricing mechanism based on how much of the loans made to students studying specific degrees at specific institutions are repaid.

For the Guardian article quoted above, go here. For the document, go here.

3 thoughts on “In Defence of Public Higher Education

  1. I edited the first sentence to include [UK], since I was startled that Canada did this until I realized you didn’t mean my government (heh). Hope that wasn’t too presumptuous of me.

  2. i’ve found the london review of books’ coverage on the white paper very useful. glad that there is mobilisation against the government’s plans for higher ed.

  3. Isn’t it odd to criticise the UK government for introducing loan-backed fees (which we have already had in England for a while), claiming that this would deter students who are afraid of costs/debt, and then to argue that this whole concept won’t bring enough money into the coffers because students will default or have the loans written off? If the later happens, surely the students wouldn’t be dissuaded from going to university in the first place.
    It should also be noted that the repayment obligation of the tuition fees in England will only set in once the graduate earns more than 21,000 £ and caps the repayment at 9 % of income. That seems reasonable to me, which is why I refused to participate in the student protests in London although I am a student here myself (
    I am a lawyer and I currently study philosophy and economics. Why should the bus driver and the shop assistant pay for my studies with their taxes?

    I only have one problem with high tuition fees: It seems to make universities very reluctant to fail people. I studied law in Germany, without any tuition fees (OK, we had to pay 100 € a year but that covered public transport as well) and in the first year 50 % of my classmates failed. Even in the final exam, 36 % failed and had thus studied for at least 4 years in vain. That shows the academic rigour that I would want from universities, but cannot see when they regard students as “customers”.

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