Coffee House

The university funding debate continued

16 August 2010

University funding is beginning to dominate op-ed pages. Yesterday, Matthew
d’Ancona put the case for a graduate tax from the
conservative perspective
; and to which Douglas Carswell has responded. Today, Professor Alison Wolf, a specialist in Public Sector
Management at KCL, makes the point that any debate about higher education funding is prejudiced because Britain’s politicians and policy makers are predominantly Oxbridge educated, and the
structure of Oxbridge undergraduate degrees is radically different from anywhere else. Writing in the Times
, she asserts:

‘I’ve sat in many meetings, in Whitehall and Westminster, where people have talked up credit systems (a modular system of assessment) without the faintest idea that we have one.
The middle-aged were educated in a different system; at Oxbridge, our future rulers still are. There, full-time students take final examinations set centrally, not by the people who teach them.
They learn in tiny groups, and receive weekly personalised feedback on non-assessed work: by far the best way to learn, and something that has pretty much vanished elsewhere. And they are
selected through intensive scrutiny of their work, and face-to-face interviews.

It is splendid and expensive. But students at Oxford and Cambridge pay exactly the same fees as in Newcastle or Plymouth. They do not see how different these universities are, or that the
Oxbridge system is highly precarious, maintained by enormous cross-subsidies, endowments and rich alumni.’

Chris Patten acknowledges how precarious the Oxbridge system is and he wants to part privatise it,
arguing that endowments and fees will preserve the tuition system (and therefore international competitiveness) and afford greater bursaries for the underprivileged. If the tuition system is the
best way to teach undergraduates, as Wolf claims, then why not protect and extend it by giving the nation’s best universities the maximum financial flexibilty?   

More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us now.

  • David Bouvier

    Chris Cook – and economics is physics, which is why the forecasts are so accurate. Not.

    Your comment embodies a category mistake. You might say we can no more be short of BANK NOTES than short of small pieces of paper. But kilogrammes are an abstract unit of measure, and money is a aggregate sum of some class of objects.

    To be precise, government cannot easily allocate more resources to the activities it seeks to promote without causing unacceptable economic misery or a crisis in the debt markets with worse consequences. But the articles would get really long and boring if everything had to have a treatise on economics written in. It would make Tolstoy look like chick-lit.

    I am guessing you subscribe to some monetary heresy you feel gives you “THE ANSWER” that most of us really should she but don’t.

    I am guessing you think state-sanctioned partial-reserve banking is a crime against nature. What are you? Perhaps a Gold Bug? A Georgist? Free-Banker? What?

  • TomTom

    “My son-in-law is a professor at a leading German University.”

    and is probable a Beamter or Civil Servant working for the State Government. German Universities were brought under State control when Hitler absorbed charitable foundations. German Universities wet down the route of debased degrees before Britain with degrees in Tourism.

    British Education Secretaries are invariably public school educated and have no knowledge of State education. Now they have created Comprehensive Universities they cannot fund them.

    It was John Major that destroyed Higher Education and Dearing that was used by Labour and Conservative Parties to find a way to pay for it without consulting the electorate

  • PayDirt

    I know next the nothing about Oxbridge, but from personal experience of universities in the UK and USA I know that a whole lot depends on (a) the ambitiousness of the students, they are there to learn, get good grades, having a swell time comes second and (b) the quality of the teaching. The idea that tutorials in small groups beats all is way out. I suspect that too often the tutorials in UK uni’s are run by foreign postgrads who are not really cut out for teaching. In the US I found universities much better organised, staffed and maintained. I know that’s a general comment, but here in the UK I fear the universities have an awful lot to do to catch up.

  • Chris Cook

    @ Trevor’s Den

    Money is only in short supply because we give banks the monopoly to create what we think of as money.

    In fact there can no more be a shortage of money than there can be a shortage of kilogrammes or metres.

  • TrevorsDen

    What is it about typing? We have all done it. But I am still embarrassed, and on an education thread too.

    ‘there’ = ‘their’

  • JohnAnt

    “There, full-time students take final examinations set centrally, not by the people who teach them.”
    What? “Not by the people who teach them”?
    When was that ever true? The same dons who lecture and teach set the exams, in rota, and always have done, in saecula saeculorum.
    There is often one external don on the board, whose input is tactfully ‘guided’, and gently downplayed when it dissents from that of the in-house examiners.
    You might as well say the Eurovision Song Contest is centrally ajudged.
    As for ‘learning in tiny groups’ – the amount of ‘learning’ depends on the quality of the groups, however tiny.

  • TrevorsDen

    In the good old days Isaac Newton or Robert Hooke would turn up to give there lectures to an empty hall.

    The only reason we are having this debate is that the interest payments on our national debt are already higher than the higher education budget and are heading towards being higher than the total education budget.

    Thank you Gordon. But its thanks to him that money is in short supply.

  • Rabyrover

    My son-in-law is a professor at a leading German University. The local State government has decreed that in 2012, students will start University at 18 instead of 19. And that the Universities will have to take both cohorts of students that year. He tells me that the freshman class in his department will probably number 800 students instead of 400. When asked how thay managed 400 at present, he said easy: many find Science and Engineer hard and change courses, or they fail the exams. Within a year numbers halve.

    In comparison British Profs, especially Oxbridge ones, are mollycoddled.

  • Private Schultz

    As a graduate from a Midlands university in ’81, I’m way out of touch with modern university life, but one thing struck me recently.

    One of my subjects was Geography and there were, I think, around 300 undergraduates in the department and about 25-30 staff (including non-teaching). I had occasion to look at their website recently found that for a total of 500 undergrads, they now have 75 staff listed.

    Must admit I was surprised at the staffing levels, given the wailing and nashing of teeth one hears from various Vice-Chancellors.

    Surely the improved staff:student ratio should allow for more than the one tutorial per week we had, not the abolition of tutorials?

  • George Laird

    Dear All

    Let us think the thinkable.

    Split university funding into two separate parts; teaching students and research.

    Remove charitable tax status from universities which provide no charitable benefit to the community

    Shut down some universities to ease financial burden to taxpayer.

    Every staff member in management made to reapply for their jobs on reduced terms and conditions.

    Sell off university land assets.

    Foreign student universities only.

    Remove university staff from funding councils, conflict of interests.

    Boost local colleges.

    Introduce requirements that vocational courses must be offered at all universities.

    Yours sincerely

    George Laird
    The Campaign for Human Rights at Glasgow University

  • Commentator

    There are no limits to the deviousness of these people when it comes to screwing yet more cash out of hard-pressed families to prop up Labour’s failed experiment in mass collectivised dumbed-down higher education.

Can't find your Web ID? Click here