Why I think top-up fees are irrelevant to the future of higher education

January 2, 2004

The government's policy for variable university fees is not relevant to the real problems of higher education in the UK.

Vice-chancellors have persuaded government that they are seriously short of funds for their institutions, but what they are really short of are new ideas about what a higher education should mean in the 21st century.

In all recent discussions about the funding crisis and white paper proposals for variable fees, one theme remains constant and unquestioned: that a higher education equates with the kind of education on offer in British universities. The gold-standard degree within this model takes three years of part-time study (most academic years are no longer than 30 weeks) and is organised around a medieval calendar of clerical terms.

The gold-standard student (the rest are "non-traditional") is between 18 and 22 years old, mainly middle class and often spends more on drink than on books. Great concentrations of them distort the housing markets and blight the communities of many university towns, bringing in their wake rapaciously greedy landlords, traffic congestion and petty crime. On graduation, many take up jobs and careers that do not require graduate-level qualifications.

The gold-standard teacher is an academic pursuing a research career and competing for points in the rat-run of the research assessment exercise.

The typical learning experience is of didactic teaching in overcrowded, ill-equipped teaching rooms, delayed feedback on assignments and fruitless book-searching in underfunded libraries.

A caricature? Of course! A fuller description would mention pockets of world-class research (with spin-off business parks), semesters, mature students (though a declining group), new methods of teaching and learning - for instance, distance learning, and highly qualified and committed (though seriously demoralised and underpaid) staff.

It is a useful distortion, nevertheless, for it highlights the features of an alternative system, one that could meet the country's need for a higher education system that is different: one that is accessible on a lifelong basis with an entirely distinct, richly diverse student constituency. All learners could be engaged critically and intelligently through research and scholarship in building the knowledge and skills, values and institutions of a peaceful, democratic, open and sustainable society. Such a system could not be merely an extension of the one we have, for this meets a narrow range of needs in a narrower way. The model needed would enable those who experience it to improve their minds, their skills and their contribution to the cultural and economic capital of society. This can be achieved only in institutions that are democratically organised and accountable. Higher education responds best to the narrow interests of business, whose managerial mentalities it has tried to emulate.

A modern society requires policies that compel and reward higher education managers and academics who redesign their institutions and build new constituencies of learners and new models of research and scholarship.

Society needs ideas and inspiration. We will know it has reached this point when, faced with more cuts or challenges to their intellectual independence, people take to the streets behind banners saying "Save our universities". They will not do that to prop up what we've got, but they might if they saw something new in what universities offer the society that supports them.

Neither current higher education policies nor systems of university governance will open up the flow of funds that a new system requires.

Vice-chancellors are addicted to public funds to enable them to maintain their institutions. If we give them more, the result will be more of the same and, like all addicts, they'll come back for more. That is not what we need.

Bill Williamson, emeritus professor of continuing education, University of Durham.

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