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The Changing Face of Higher Education in England

Photonics.com
Dec 2010
Dec. 28, 2010 — Students have taken to the streets of London in recent months to protest a controversial bill that would raise tuition at universities in England to as much as £9000, from the current rate of £3290. And in several instances the demonstrations have turned violent.

In November, protesters occupied the concourse in front of Conservative Party headquarters and broke into the building itself, leading to clashes with the police. Tensions erupted again in early December when the House of Commons passed the bill. This time even Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, entered the fray – literally and, one assumes, quite unintentionally – when a car carrying them to the theater was attacked by protesters.

The tuition hike is drastic, to be sure, especially as the English university system didn’t even charge tuition until 1998. And yet it is only one of a number of measures and proposals reshaping the higher education landscape in the country.

Some of these will serve to bolster science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – though possibly at the expense of other academic areas. In an independent review released in October, “Securing a sustainable future for higher education in England,” the authors make a series of recommendations designed to ensure sustainable financing for teaching at higher education institutions in the country. One of the chief ideas in the report is that institutions “must persuade students that they should ‘pay more’ to ‘get more.’ The money will follow the student.”

Here’s how this works: Rather than financing universities directly, the government will provide funding to students, who can then choose the courses in which to invest (public funding will remain for certain “priority” courses). The costs of courses will be indexed to the potential earnings they provide, while repayment rates will be tied to graduates’ actual income.

The report emphasizes the role of student choice in the proposed model, but the model itself will likely have the greatest impact. According to its logic, courses that offer a greater potential for employability – including STEM courses among others – will prosper. Others, those that make “false promises” as to employability or are simply impractical, will disappear.

As Stanley Fish noted in a recent New York Times opinion piece, “[t]his will hold also for universities, which will either prosper or wither on the vine depending on the agility they display in adapting themselves to student-consumer demands.”

The University of Hertfordshire has come up with another way to shore up resources for teaching and research in the face of shrinking public support. In a commentary in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Graham Galbraith, deputy vice chancellor of the university, described its efforts. “We became what we have termed a ‘business-facing’ university,” he wrote, “focusing our educational activities on supporting business and enabling social and economic growth in our communities and nation.”

To this end, the university has identified three key elements: (1) relationships with business; a commitment to innovation, including a commitment to STEM education and support for small and medium-size enterprises; and an eye on the bottom line. This businesslike and entrepreneurial approach extends to all academic areas.

“It is with great pride that areas of the university that were initially suspicious of our new business-facing mission, such as the School of Education and our philosophers, have excelled in this environment,” Galbraith said. “The School of Education has engaged in commercial training opportunities worldwide, while our philosophers are now winning significant funds for their innovative commercial applications involving ethics and the Internet.”

Galbraith noted that this mission may not be applicable to every higher education institution; as a relatively new university, established in 1992, Hertfordshire felt it simply wasn’t sensible to compete with research-intensive schools, for example. He added, however, that “it's in the interest of all universities to behave in a businesslike and entrepreneurial fashion.”

In today’s economic climate it is difficult to argue against the potential impact of models such as these – especially from the perspective of the optics community, which relies on STEM education and in fact needs more of it. The models will help schools survive even as they contribute to economic growth and development.

As we watch the apparently unstoppable transformation of higher education systems at home and abroad, though, we should take a moment to consider what we may be giving up. As we replace educational imperatives with strictly economic ones, we risk losing sight of the many intangible benefits of a university education – for example, critical thinking skills and deeper understandings of the world all around us – that have been hallmarks of the systems for centuries.




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