British Intellectuals Add Voice to Tuition Crisis

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About 100 intellectuals, academics and supporters recently attended the founding of the Council for the Defense of British Universities, as concerns grow that rising tuition and dwindling financing are changing the nature of higher education in Britain.

The list of the council's founding members reads like a roll call of British intellectual life: The novelist A.S. Byatt was at the London event last Tuesday, as was the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

In a statement on its Web site, the council criticized the 2010 Browne Review, whose recommendations led to a major tuition increase. The cap for annual university fees paid by E.U. students rose to £9,000 from £3,290, or to $14,200 from $5,200 -- in two years. Average annual tuition is now slightly over £8,000 for European citizens, and significantly higher for foreign students.

"Powerful forces are bending the university to serve short-term, primarily pragmatic, and narrowly commercial ends," the statement said.

"Universities are among the U.K.'s most successful institutions," Howard Hotson, chair of the council's steering committee, said by telephone from Oxford, where he is a professor at St. Anne's College. "Yet the U.K. system is being radically overhauled on a scale and pace unlike anything ever attempted in modern times. Undergraduate study has effectively been privatized across the whole of England."

As part of education overhauls over the past few years, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills has been given greater influence over decisions affecting universities.

"This is because the government sees universities as a business, and we oppose that," Thomas Docherty, a professor at the University of Warwick and the London Graduate School, said by telephone.

Some of the financial support for undergraduate teaching has shifted from direct government financing to school fees. Universities, finding themselves more dependent on tuition, may feel the need to compete for students. "The funding now follows the student," said Mr. Docherty, who also sits on the council's steering committee.

"Students should not be seen as consumers or customers," he said, adding that both domestic and foreign students were being treated like "cash cows." "They should be seen as students who are engaging with the teaching process."

"We've seen a significant drop in applications in students from poorer backgrounds," he said. "Those in the middle class are thinking twice before applying to university."

Problems have extended beyond the classroom. "The research which is encouraged, which is regarded as the most legitimate, is that which serves the market, with immediate economic effect or economic benefit," Mr. Docherty said. "While that is important, it should not be of primary importance."

The council, which will first focus on fund-raising and a membership drive, will serve primarily as a lobbying group.

There are already several organizations that represent British higher education, like Million+, Universities UK and the Russell Group of public research schools. The National Union of Students has held protests against tuition increases.

Mr. Docherty said the new council would focus on "intellectual freedom and academic values."

"What sets us apart is our goal to put university education back into the hands of universities," he said.

In an article in The Telegraph, David Willetts, a minister in the Conservative-led government, welcomed the formation of the council. "The new group will challenge the coalition's policies, and I am sure we will have some robust debates," he wrote. "It would be churlish of me, in my role as universities minister, to oppose any group designed to stimulate such debate about our universities."

Later in the essay, he summed up the government's market-driven view: "Education is already a great British export industry."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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