Comment: Universities are in need of reform - but further commercialisation is not the answer
Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, discusses the Higher Education bill, the public value of universities and the need for a different funding model.
Universities are in need of reform - but further commercialisation is not the answer
by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 9 January 2017, published by The Daily Telegraph
I want to tell you about an important matter for you, for your children, and for our country's future. The Government says it is trying to get better teaching for students, and break the grip of a higher education 'closed shop' that has unreasonably restricted the growth of private university provision.
Focusing on teaching is a noble goal, and one to which I have dedicated a large part of my life, but there is much more at stake.
The UK is desperately short of many of the skilled people our economy will need. The expansion of universities has not delivered on this crucial goal and the further expansion of private provision is unlikely to help. In fact, it is more likely to damage our ability as a nation to do so. Let me explain. As we go into 2017, the question facing the UK is this: "How can we build a country which can thrive economically outside the EU?"
The government has declared its ambition to be once more a great trading nation and our universities are fully behind the drive for prosperity.
However, what will really make this possible is not just strategy, but the right people, properly trained. We need the Engineers and Scientists in particular who will give us the global edge and the products the world will want to buy. And we know from industrialists like Sir James Dyson that we are falling behind.
Like many companies in times of trouble, the UK has been scrimping on the budget for training the skilled people we need. We now need a long-term strategy to build and support the businesses that will support innovation and a fourth industrial revolution, but building a fighting-fit industrial force won't happen by accident. Just as with the Olympics, it will take investment and a plan for Team GB to succeed.
That is why the Higher Education Bill, being discussed this week by our parliament is so important. But will it deliver what the country and young people really need? I really don't think it will. The danger is one we have seen in other aspects of public services. Without great care and attention, commercial operators cherry pick the most profitable parts of a nation's infrastructure, and leave the other parts of what it needs underfunded.
This is not the time to encourage companies to cream off profits from a system of loans which burdens taxpayers and the young as they spend ever higher proportions of income on marketing and less on teaching
Professor Sir Keith Burnett
So what am I proposing? That we just reject these changes and leave things as they are? Certainly not. There is lots of work needed to deliver the Higher Education system our nation needs. I have before me the example of a country that is already a world leader in trade and with whom we have a whopping trade deficit. And it is not China. It is a country that takes no risks with its future and has persistently trained its youth to be ready for that world of industry and trade - Germany.
Germany is so committed to the importance of skills that it makes absolutely sure no-one is put off going to college or university by fees. They have challenging standards and a longstanding focus on technical education, but the very idea of UK-style fees would seem to them to be dangerous and wrong. Not only is tuition free in German universities for their own students, they even make it free for foreigners, in particular Indian and Chinese, so they can gather the maximum amount of talent to their own economy. Our own recent policy for higher education has been just the opposite - one of rapid expansion and hefty individual fees borne by students and paid for by loans. If you are a student, or the parent of one, you know this only too well. If you are a graduate, you may now really be feeling the consequences. And if you are an international student, and you got past increasingly tight visa restrictions, you are paying even more.
Ok, I hear you say, but why should I pay for someone else's benefit or even whim? You may think that students generally secure increased salaries over their lifetimes and they should pay. There is some truth in this, but we should remember that society also benefits from the increased taxes they pay. We need the higher productivity that a highly-skilled workforce brings to the economy. Politically it is tough. Some will ask, how can we invest in the healthy young when we have so much need in our NHS that the Red Cross says it is witnessing a humanitarian crisis? It is easy to forget that if we do not make our economy work, there will be even less money to pay for hospitals in the future.
You may think there are too many courses that don't bring enough benefit to the country, and I agree. I do believe universities must change. Many universities are already working damned hard to respond to a changing employment world - from partnerships with the automotive industry in Warwick and Coventry to cyber-security in Leicester. There many examples of deliberate change up and down our land. But it is tough and expensive work, in particular in technical and practice based subjects, and not driven by profit. The areas the UK really needs more trained people require laboratories with equipment and full-time technicians to run them. Engineering and Science are expensive to teach and are rarely in the minds of private providers.
Universities, as charities, meet these needs by using the surplus from one area to keep the others going. In fact, many Engineering courses are only viable because of international students paying heightened fees. So if Government liberalises the system even further, resources will be squeezed yet more and there is little reason to think the country will get the skilled workforce it needs. I am not against private companies and have worked with some of the best. But you only have to look at the examples of privatised rail or communications to see that the first casualty of wholesale marketisation is national purpose. Think about the cost and service from privatised train operators, or your poor internet connection and patchy mobile phone coverage. We have seen the way commercial operators naturally seek to monetise high-reward areas rather than invest in the infrastructure we need as a nation. That task is rightly the role of Government, to take the long view and plan for success. It is the true defence of the realm. A souped-up regulated market in Higher Education will not deliver what Britain needs.
This is not the time to encourage companies to cream off profits from a system of loans which burdens taxpayers and the young as they spend ever higher proportions of income on marketing and less on teaching. I applaud the desire to get a good deal for students, but the proposals on the table are not the way. I talk to students all the time. They are no mere customers, they are members of our university and they are appalled by what they see as yet further measures to increase fees and marketise their future. I have been a tutor most of my professional life and the bonds with those I taught runs deep. They keep in touch, tell me about the birth of their children and what happens when those youngsters eventually become students. I also see the changes in the job opportunities, the cost of housing and the fear of debt. I see those who graduated recently struggling to secure a mortgage even when they are in excellent jobs. I see the pressures to seek high-paying careers such as finance rather than the application of science.
This is not only a UK problem. In the U.S., higher fees and greater student choice is still leaving the country short of many skills its industry needs. If everyone who goes to college wants to be a doctor, lawyer or a CEO, who will be the makers and innovators of the future? The Clinton plan was to make state universities free. The state of New York is now planning to go ahead with it. There is a reason that both Sanders and Trump talked about education and jobs. It is no use talking about capitalism working for everyone if you are sawing off the bottom rungs of the ladder. The UK is starting out on a new era of our economy, setting sail in a global trading ocean. Success will depend on the innovation and skills which will only be provided by the very highest-quality training and innovation in the areas of greatest need from vocational education to degrees and research. Our nation has some of the world's best universities to help in this effort.
We have a proud history and the autonomy to determine how to think originally and work with industrial partners to be world-beating. We must not exchange this for an even more market-driven system which cheapens provision at the expense of national interest and which mortgages the lives of our young people to pay for it.
The UK’s universities should not be forced to compensate for real-terms reductions in public funding by raising fees yet further. We should admit the errors we have made and boost public investment so we can lower fees, if not remove them completely, in the national interest.
This is not an idealistic leftie dream, it is a rethink of what our country needs. The HE Bill is a missed opportunity. We should admit our errors and invest in our future prosperity, or else watch our nation fail to build the economy on which we are all relying.