Amidst a discursive struggle this week over the state of finances for higher education and research in the UK, which reached a crescendo two days ago (e.g., see ‘Universities face meltdown – and all of Britain will suffer‘; ‘Higher education will be ‘on its knees’ after cuts‘), I could not help but note what Prime Minister Gordon Brown had to say in a speech (‘Education as a global growth industry‘) on 14 January:
Today, I also set out our commitment that, working in partnership with you, and our schools, colleges and universities, we will support a major expansion of their activities across the world. Central to this is a new ambition, which I am setting today for Britain, that we double the value of our higher-education exports.
We will do this in four ways. We will welcome students here to Britain on the basis of merit and ability – of course with all the proper checks in place. We are determined to stamp out abuse of student visas and I announced last year we will shortly bring forth proposals on this. I emphasise that all students that come here legitimately, to benefit from our UK education system, will be made welcome, because we are not prepared to put legitimate language courses, and schools and colleges out of business or set back our efforts to expand our educational trade.
Secondly, we want to reinforce and build on the international standing of our qualifications, by offering examinations and qualifications that are rightly highly regarded around the world.
Thirdly, we will work to develop partnerships between UK institutions and universities in many different countries around the globe. Already over the last four years, we have promoted thousands of new partnerships across all sectors, from schools linking to post graduate research through our initiatives for international education. In a global knowledge economy, we know we will thrive, not just by developing our own knowledge, but by taking knowledge and sharing it with the billions of people who understand that education is the key to survival and success.
Fourthly, we will use distance learning to build on the work of our excellent universities that are already making use of great and rapid advances in the relevant technology. As I said, in our higher-education strategy, we welcome and support the work of the group chaired by Lynne Brindley. This task force is looking at how we can expand and develop the use of IT and online learning, not only in the UK, but across the world. Across higher education, we will want to ensure that we maintain and enhance world-class standards in everything we do in our international activities.
This is not about chasing money; it’s about leveraging our higher education system to offer the highest-quality opportunities across the world.[my emphasis]
This argument was matched, on the same day, by Peter Mandelson (the UK’s Universities Secretary) who suggested in The Guardian (‘Our universities are not under threat. Their income is at record levels‘) that:
The Russell Group can take much credit for the world-class standard of British higher education today. But the government inherited a badly underfunded university sector in 1997, which a former Conservative education minister described as “poorer pay, degraded facilities, less money to support the teaching of each student”. This government’s agenda for universities has included more state funding than ever before – an increase of over 25% since 1997. It is against this backdrop that British universities have developed into some of the very best in the world and are a critical part of our knowledge economy.
But this wasn’t simply on the back of state funding. In fact, while government spends £12.3bn on higher education today, total university income from all sources was over £23bn in 2007-2008. Government incentives have pushed universities to seek new forms of income from donations, international students and commercial engagement with industry. These are consistently rising. The decision to introduce tuition fees in England has also provided a new source of income. [my emphasis]
Mandelson carries on to note:
It is for universities themselves to identify where savings should be found, and they are as free as ever to focus on their research excellence and institutional strengths. The search for greater efficiencies should include more part-time courses and a greater range of one- or two-year degrees.
As I discussed earlier in GlobalHigherEd (‘Learning from London‘) the export earnings logic is already putting pressure on some UK higher education institutions, such that they are being driven the create new postgraduate [graduate degree] programs that have hundreds of Masters students supported by a small coterie of faculty. And I subsequently heard, in response to my ‘Learning from London‘ entry, that some London-based Masters programs have faculty sign contracts with students denoting exactly how many hours of “contact time” students can expect (it was a shockingly small number of hours per degree…something like 5 hours for the entire MA, assuming they follow through with the promised hours).
Now, as we also noted in ‘Taking note of export earnings‘, this global growth industry agenda is underlain by an ideological shift:
We would argue that these numbers are being constituted, and debated about, in the context of an ideological transition – one that increasingly enables views to emerge of higher education as a driver of economic versus cultural-political change. For example, a decade or two ago, it would have been impossible to imagine creating tables such as the one profiled in Kate Geddie’s entry in GlobalHigherEd in which education is measured against ‘scrap plastics’ or ‘chemical woodpulp’. Thus, a new organising logic, to use Saskia Sassen’s phrase, is emerging: one that reframes higher education as an urban/national/global services industry, for good and for bad.
Assuming we are right (of course we might not be!), it is interesting to think about how effective a state-enabled fiscal crisis for higher education institutions (in the range of a 12.5% cut so far, then 6.3% in succeeding years over three years “taking the total to about 30%”) will be in propelling this export agenda along. To be sure there is a broader fiscal crisis in UK public finances, but can it really be ameliorated on the backs of UK universities (and students, local and foreign)? All savings via higher ed cutbacks are significant, but in the big picture they are not that significant for the overall UK budget. But the transformation of the values shaping higher education policy, including enhanced state control versus greater autonomy for HEIs, is much more significant, more noteworthy, and certainly worth deliberating about. And the function of the crisis – a “politically mediated moment of decisive intervention and structural transformation” to use Colin Hay’s words* – is also worth unpacking.
In the end, is a UK funding crisis an effective mechanism to spur on a quality-oriented ‘education as a global growth industry’ development agenda? Will it provide a defacto or by design opening for private sector providers into the UK ‘market’, as it is doing now in the US (e.g., see Changing Higher Education‘s ‘For-profit higher education moves to fill gaps left by state budget shortfalls‘)? And who gains and who loses in the process? For example, can those 16-17 faculty and 13 teaching fellows (3 with PhD) I profiled in ‘Learning from London‘ take on even more that the “almost 400” masters students they already have to cope with, support, mentor, and educate? Something has to give, doesn’t it?
* Hay, Colin (1999) ‘Crisis and the structural transformation of the state: interrogating the process of change’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 1(3): 317-344.