The mythology of funding – moving UK universities into the real world

I have a bunch of American friends who describe themselves at Italian-Americans, mostly because they have a somewhat recent relative from Italy and they have, through this relation, some sort of connection with this ‘old world’ Italy, which usually contains olive oil, great wine and prosciutto – but other than that seems to have not much real connection with the Italy of today. Italy is a modern industrial country (with the world’s 7th largest GDP in 2008), most Italians I know anyway don’t pick grapes or live in a village or press their own olive oil. Italy has moved on from the culture that the Italian-Americans I know identify with, yet this almost mythical idea of the old world still exists. When times were better and so the story goes, life was simple and concentrated entirely around good food and family.

But I think this is partially a myth and every culture has its myths. America with the good old pioneer spirit and livin’ off the land, when in reality most modern Americans really grow up in the suburbs. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a myth, a nice novel, a great memory, all good stuff. However it does become a problem when you live the myth believing it’s reality; in the fantasy world instead of the real one.

UK Higher education business models are quickly looking like they are based on some kind of myth, reminiscent of the myths we have in the new world about the old country of our ancestors. The education myth is that greatest education on the planet is in the UK, that many foreign students are dying to pay for it and that, in turn, supports the indigenous students and brings higher education to the forefront by increased funding, what’s not to love?

There is lots not to love, as pointed out in last week’s Economist, the ‘rich-world students’ now have more choices and, in short, UK universities need to stop being so complacent. This is a good point and this idea that foreign students will always come is also steeped in psychological mythology. The idea seems to rest on the old world appeal of Oxford, Cambridge, etc. and assumes it will always be there (the appeal not the Universities). And indeed it probably always will be, but that doesn’t mean that lots of (or indeed more) foreign students are going to continue to pay for it.

The Economist explicitly says they (Westminster and the individual Universities) need to “…concentrate on making British Universities as good as possible”.

And what does this take? Ideally, more higher education (HEFCE) funding, but that isn’t going to happen. At this point we know that isn’t going to happen, we can lament about it, but, at least now with the current government, it isn’t going to happen. I think the Con/Lib government (I am still wondering with the Lib went but this is another matter) are happy to just live under the current myth, so much so they actually CUT HEFCE funding – though Gerald Warner of the Telegraph disagrees and calls the cuts disguised increases, but that is another story.

So without the ideal, what does it take to keep universities at their best? One thing I think almost everyone agrees on is that they have to have money, its the only way to employ the best lecturers and professors; and importantly for science, pay for the equipment and laboratory space essential to its success.

So if universities have to have money and the government isn’t coughing it up, where can it come from?

Some of it has to come from student fees but not foreign students alone. The Economist suggests that domestic UK students should start paying for their education. I agree, ideally this wouldn’t need to happen, but thinking that the money is going to come from where it traditionally has at this point is living in myth. The old UK higher education model is that university is free for qualifying domestic students, but this old model only allowed a very small proportion of students to go to University, because it wasn’t so expensive for the state. But now an ever increasing proportion of (domestic) students are attending, hence the addition of top-up fees, and the idea that the government and foreigners can just pay for it, is again a big fat myth and not sustainable.

The caveat here is that there must to be funding available for less well-off students, but this is something that can be sorted out. A student loan service, like that which exists in the US, may be an answer for the UK. Student loans can be deferred until the graduate has a job which allows them to pay more easily and they put money, albeit indirectly, back into the institutions for others that benefited them. Done correctly, this could be a very potent social economic model for graduates and universities.

It is high time to start thinking about new economic models for UK universities and I agree with the Economist – a psychological change is needed. This new model cannot be based on the old idea that university education in the UK must be free for all (or almost free viz top up fees). Is it ideal for students to pay? No, but it is simply not realistic to think we can continue to live in the 1950’s under some elite mythological model where the government pays for everything. They don’t have any money and, at least in the current government, even if they do, they aren’t going to give it to Higher education anytime soon.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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3 Responses to The mythology of funding – moving UK universities into the real world

  1. Agatha Bardoel says:

    I did not know that indigenous students in the UK did not have to pay for university! Yikes. What world are you all living in? Even in Canada in the 60s, with all the wonderful social services we had, we had to pay university tuition and residence fees, even poor immigrants like our family.
    We got student loans, and paid them off later. Wake up, UK.

  2. Lab rat says:

    University student from the UK here and yes, we do have to pay. Never used to, but we now get loans from the government which we have to pay back once we’ve graduated. The more you start charging, the more poorer students are gonna think “well i don’t want to spend the rest of my life in debt” and just not go.

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