Do UK Universities Need to Rethink Their Future Role?

The funding formula for UK universities has undergone a substantial change in the last several years, the Guardian reports, with the burden slowly shifting from government to private sources. With this change has come more pressure for the schools to justify the additional expense that many have passed on to the students through a jump in tuition fees. In order to do that, Ken Starkey, a professor at Nottingham University Business School, advises that universities must redefine the narrative to cast themselves, rather than business institutions like banks, as the "true engine of growth," thus selling an investment in higher education to both students and the government as an investment in the future of the commonwealth.

Even before major cuts in government funding to universities, the UK spent less on higher education than average for a country on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development list — and this funding formula has been defended by Universities Minister David Willetts and others while several other OECD countries are considering a similar approach. Still, one only has to look across the Atlantic to see the potential problems that arise when the collective student loan debt load grows too high. For a country where the debt load is set to triple this year, that is something to be seriously concerned about, with control suggestions including finding ways to reduce the number of UK students pursuing university degrees.

So do these changes constitute revolution or evolution? With institutions responding in a variety of ways, some slashing staff and courses, there are many in the UK who fear the former. But reaching a firm conclusion is difficult as it seems the much maligned HE White Paper is unlikely to result in a parliamentary bill. What is clear though is that uncertainty around funding is hampering the ability of both families and institutions to plan for the future.

The fear that the appeal of a university degree might fall substantially as prices go ever higher remains premature as long as a degree remains one of the surest vehicles for social and economic mobility in the country. However, to maintain that image, schools need to fight the ever-present perception of themselves as "elitist ivory towers," and one way this could be accomplished would be bring more transparency to their admissions policies and their student recruitment efforts.

What better way to counteract the idea that universities in the UK serve as a pipeline from public schools to business and government than by releasing demographic data about their student body that proves this isn't so?

Arguments about excellence and global competition do not seem sufficient if fairness is forgotten. Similarly, placing the blame for poor performance only at the door schools feels like a cop-out. Given high rates of unemployment addressing fairness – or the lack of it – is only likely to increase in importance, though sadly the revolution that many hope for currently feels unaffordable.

09 17, 2012
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