Controversial Changes Proposed to British Higher Education

The United Kingdom's public finances have been hit hard by the global economic turmoil of the past few years. The British government has adopted austerity measures in response to the crisis. One area being considered for cutbacks is the nation's public education system. A plan announced in October of 2010 has led to widespread criticism and highly publicized student protests.

british higher education costs

The Browne Review

British public higher education has long been governed by a system in which universities are given government money to allot to students as they see fit. This system enabled millions of U.K. citizens to earn an education when, due to restrictions of class and finance, they might not otherwise have been able to. Under this system, all courses carried equal financial weight.

In 2009, a commission, called the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance - also called the Browne Review after its chairman, Lord John Browne - was formed to address the future of public financing for higher education. The commission published a report in October 2010 that recommended dramatic changes, including a removal of a cap on fees that a university may charge. Many of these changes are seen as leading to increased financial burden for students, and in late 2010, several large-scale student protests were held in response to the report. Accusations of violence levied at both police and protesters helped make these demonstrations internationally newsworthy.


Shopping for Education?

Though the lack of a fee cap was one of the elements of the report that was most heavily criticized by students, members of the academic establishment have focused on another proposed change. In a December 2010 column for The New York Times, Stanley Fish, literary theorist and professor at Florida International University, questioned some of the changes proposed by the Browne review. One part of the report that Fish focuses on is the plan to price classes individually, based on their perceived impact on future employability.

These proposed changes would turn university course selection into something of a marketplace, with students taking on the role of a consumer, encouraged to purchase the courses that will give them the best value for their money. The idea is to keep classes relevant, with those judged most worthy by students surviving, and those judged irrelevant to future success dying out.

Implications for Academics

Fish points out that subjects typically judged irrelevant to future career success, such as fine arts and the humanities, would be in danger of extinction. The proposed system would also validate the idea that higher education's primary purpose is to enable future career success with the ability to earn a high income. Though these changes may make sense from a standpoint of pure economic efficiency, the spirit of learning for learning's sake appears to be lost.

Another issue is the question of student choice. When all classes are weighed equally and curricula are focused on expanding knowledge rather than on obtaining a career, students often have the opportunity to explore new subjects and learn things that may not have initially seemed useful. Tying economic incentives to course choice seems to put at risk the idea of education based on a student's individual interests.

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