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Comment on Privatisation of Universities in the UK

It has been a momentous few months for the higher education sector. Rumours flying, numbers crunching and minds racing. But the key question seems to be where tuition fees will be capped.

It would suit the top universities in the UK to be able to charge whatever they fancy, and with the publication of Oxford Vice-Chancellor Professor Andrew Hamilton’s letter it made it very clear that in order to ease the black hole in funding that the 40 percent cuts would lead to fees must be set at around £8,000. Any addition to this would be a bonus, but with Browne proposing levies on fees above £7,000, universities if left to their own devices might look to start charging fees on a par with the US Ivy League.

Another option being toyed with by universities is privatisation. The London School of Economics was involved in a case of crossed wires with its Student Union over its review of the merits of privatisation. If universities drop out of the Higher Education Funding Council of England then they will be able to charge students whatever they please and not have to cooperate with HEFCE regulations. Again it looks like many of the top universities in the UK see the CSR as an opportunity to rise to the heights of the Ivy League universities like Yale and Harvard.

Many businesses will be gleefully rubbing their hands together at the prospect of private universities. In going private many universities will have to out-source funding from investors, and this would be an opportunity for big business to get their hands on share not only of the high tuition fees it is likely private institutions would charge, but to take their pick of the best candidates emerging from these institutions, or even to set teaching and research priorities. GlaxoSmithKline have recently set a up a partnership course at the University of Nottingham, in name to provide practical and industry standard pharmaceutical training for third year students in and out of the laboratory. In effect it will allow GSK to weed out the best students, but it is also a free pool of labour. With students doing pharmaceutical research in to the drugs GSK are producing, the company benefits from having the university doing its research for it.

Small institutions will be just as eager as the big ones to secure private funding, but for the opposite reason, staying in business, compared to maximising business.

What scares me the most is the idea that academics will have to have their agendas and research proposals approved for funding by private investors. This, I feel, might compromise the intellectual integrity of academic research world-wide.

 

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