In my January despatch in which I expressed cautious optimism about the UK’s secondary education reforms that are at last tackling the disastrous exam grades inflation of the past three decades, I noted that nothing is being done about similar problems in higher education, and the desperate financial situation of many British universities. These two phenomena are deeply connected. Second-rate universities are awarding absurdly high numbers of first-class degrees and lowering entrance requirements to avoid bankruptcy, and their external debt has increased alarmingly.
Not to mince words, the funding of university education in the UK is a mess. When I was a student half a century ago, university education was free-of-charge because standards of admission were high, universities were relatively few, and a university education was regarded as a privilege, not a three-year almost automatic rite of passage for school-leavers regardless of ability or aptitude.
Then came the great expansion as governments courted popularity by redesignating technical and vocational colleges as universities. Everyone had to have a degree, and the inescapable rule that more means worse, has had its inevitable effect. The good British universities are still good, Oxford and Cambridge again being the two best in the world according to the Times Higher Education 2019 rankings. But there are many that are mediocre and provide little value for money.
Students in England now pay for their university tuition, and incur debt to be paid off over their working lives as and when they cross the £25,000 (Rs.22.5 lakh) per year earnings threshold. Currently, the maximum that universities can charge for tuition is £9,250 (Rs.8.32 lakh), and (unsurprisingly) almost all charge this maximum amount, regardless of type of course. Government statistics indicate that 83 percent of all student loans will not be repaid before they are written-off after 30 years. The projection of this write-off in 2050 is a massive £29 billion (Rs.261,000 crore).
Last year’s government budget proposed slashing the maximum annual tuition fee chargeable from the current £9,250 to £6,500 (Rs.5.78 lakh), although for some science laboratory-based courses, universities will be allowed to charge up to £13,500 (Rs.12 lakh). But all this is tantamount to mere tinkering with the problem. The funding and structure of higher education need complete recasting based on some elementary principles, and this will be the subject of my next Letter from London.
For now I shall leave you with India’s depressing showing in the THE World University Rankings. Whereas several Chinese universities are ranked in the Top 100, India’s top-ranked university (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore) is in the 251-300 range, and the next best (IIT-Indore) in the 401-600 range. Bitter food for thought.
(Dr. Peter Greenhalgh is a Cambridge classical scholar and former professor at Cape Town University)