The Browne review seen from America

I’ve been following the outcome of the Browne review on funding higher education and the UK Comprehensive Spending Review from over here, and it feels like pressing my ear to the door of a room with a big, angry meeting.

For those of you who haven’t been listening in, Browne says: get rid of the cap on tuition fees.  Let students choose their courses with the fee in mind; stop the Government control of university sizes, so the more popular ones can grow;  tuition fees will be paid for by Government loans that won’t have to be paid back until you’re earning £21,000, and will then be stepped to your income. Loans will be available to part-timers; there will be a scholarship fund for poorer students.

The Government’s CSR says: we’re cutting state funding for higher education by 40% and protecting only science and technology.  So, all you Liberal Democrats who pledged to abolish, not raise, tuition fees: unless you agree to the Browne proposals which get more money in from students, higher education will be shafted.

My friend A asked what the reaction was over here.  There’s little so far.  The Chronicle of Higher Education has run a couple of pretty straight, newsy pieces, and Inside Higher Ed is running a Times Higher Ed report.

The New York Times does a more interesting job.   It takes a comparative angle, thinking about whether societies view higher education as a public or a private good, or a combination of both, and interviewing an OECD official.  The overall mood of the article is that the world has moved on: it would be nice to have higher education paid for by taxation, but in these dire financial straits it’s a fantasy.  Except in Scandinavia. (It’s notable that all these American reports mention upfront that Browne is the former BP chairman, as if to acknowledge his potential for evil.)  The other thing it does is to simply assume that prestigious universities will be expensive, less prestigious will not.  I’m wondering whether groups of universities will make pacts about fees, levelling things out.

Of course, the financial situation for students over here is far more complex than just prestigious expensive, bog-standard cheap, as this advice column briefly summarises. They can choose between private and public universities, of course, and different levels of fees at different universities, but there’s a bewildering array of financial aid available too.  The Northwestern aid package page outlines its own scholarships and loans, then there are federal and state programs…

Anyway, to get back to the coverage of Browne, for once readers’ comments are more interesting than the reports themselves, and reflect both what I’ve been thinking and what I’ve been hearing in conversation.

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, the second commenter is sceptical about the idea that students can truly control market forces.  This, to me, is the most shocking thing about Browne: the fallacy that students will be an intelligent market, making well informed choices about how good an education they will get at different institutions and driving up educational standards by paying for the best.  Students who want the best (the most academically ambitious), students who will benefit from the best (the most academically able), and students who are willing to pay for the best (those with no aversion to debt, or able to pay upfront) won’t be the same, even if ‘the best’ were one monolithic thing, which it isn’t.

Then, the comment ‘Citizenship’ at Inside Higher Education says the same thing that an American non-academic said to me at a party on Saturday night: that the US has had a proud traditional view that the electorate must be highly educated in order to participate in democracy as full citizens.  This, to some Americans, is the strongest argument there is for public funding of higher education and for ensuring broad access.

It certainly sounds a bit more powerful, put in those terms, than Michael Gove’s jingoistic ‘our literature is the best in the world… and every child’s birthright’.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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