ACU: UK shifts focus of overseas policy

September 5, 2003

David Jobbins and John O'Leary report on the Association of Commonwealth Universities conference in Belfast.

Ministers are preparing a shake-up of UK educational aid, education secretary Charles Clarke told ACU delegates in Belfast.

In a speech that included an uncompromising defence of the government's plans for top-up fees, Mr Clarke said he wanted to increase the priority given to overseas collaboration. A fresh initiative would be announced at next month's meeting of Commonwealth education ministers in Edinburgh.

Responding to criticism of British policy by a number of delegates, Mr Clarke conceded that educational links with developing countries needed rethinking. He hinted that future support might focus more on the development of higher education systems in partner nations, rather than concentrating exclusively on bringing students to Britain.

Mr Clarke said: "I am prepared to acknowledge publicly that this is an area that we need to give more attention than we have in the past. The problems of Nigeria will not be solved by ensuring that more students come to university hereI The only solution across the world is to build strong university systems in each country."

However, some African delegates claimed that government policy did not often live up to ministers' claims. One vice-chancellor said that his personal assistant had queued for almost a week to secure a visa for him to attend the conference at Queen's University. Another said support for the British Council had declined to the point where he could find performances of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw only in the French Cultural Centre.

Governments all over the world were grappling with the dilemma of how to fund higher education adequately while expanding student numbers, Mr Clarke said. He said the proposed top-up fees in England were in line with those in other developed nations. Within the Commonwealth, some courses in Canada and Singapore already cost more than the £3,000 a year planned at English universities.

Mr Clarke said much of the opposition to fees was based on an unrealistic view of the alternative for universities. "There is a certain utopianism about some of the players in the debate, who assume that we can go on as we always have and that money will drop out of the sky. It won't."

Mr Clarke added: "Closing the funding gap (in higher education) entirely through taxation simply will not happen. There are other ways to spend increases in funding for education, such as breaking the cycle of poverty through education for the under-fives. And that is without considering the other services competing for funds."

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