Monday, 17 January 2011

Cambridge University dons in silent protest are missing the bigger picture

Academics at the University of Cambridge are staging a silent protest today against, as the Guardian reports, the government's "devastating" higher education reforms.

Turning up in black gowns and hoods, like a macabre intellectual wake, they say it is a display of "discontent" at the proposed increase in tuition fees (for full-time undergraduate UK students, remember) and the perceived "marketisation" of higher education in this country.

There is a peculiar irony here.  Undergraduate tuition fees might be doubled or trebled under the Government's reforms.  The fears of staff at less prestigious institutions about the potential imapct on access are understandable - if also answerable.  Yet staff at the University of Cambridge ought not to be so vexed, and this is why.

Cambridge is one of only two British universities that can rival US institutions in terms of endowment funds (the other, unsurprisingly, is Oxford).  According to college and university data from 2008-09, Cambridge's total endowment fund runs to just under £4 billion.  This would put it towards the lower end of the top ten US institutions - far behind Harvard (on a breathtaking $25.6 billion), Yale ($16.3 bn), Stanford ($12.6 bn) and Princeton ($12.6 bn), but ahead of the likes of Columbia ($5.8 bn), Chicago ($5.5 bn) and Pennsylvania ($5.2 bn).  To put this into context, behind Oxbridge the next highest endowment fund in the UK belongs to the University of Edinburgh (£200 million), unaffected by the Government's reforms.

This vast wealth allows Cambridge and its constituent colleges to erect an arsenal of bursaries that other institutions in this country can only dream of.  The university's financial statement for 2010 informs us:

The University is committed to admitting students of the highest intellectual potential, irrespective of social, racial, religious, financial or other considerations. The University ensures that individuals from all backgrounds can benefit from the opportunities afforded by a first-rate education and are not unreasonably excluded from those opportunities by the charging of fees. The University ensures that bursaries are available where necessary and outreach activities are undertaken to improve participation by under-represented groups.
Who else, other than Oxford, is in such an enviable position to fulfil these commitments?  Cambridge staff ought to be welcoming the increase in tuition fees because it permits the university to extract financing from those with the willingness and ability to pay, therefore creating an even bigger fund for the creation of bursaries for those equally willing but less able to pay.  In other words, only Cambridge and Oxford are in a position to practise the purely needs-blind admissions system one sees at the likes of Yale and other major US institutions.

At Harvard, only 5 per cent of students pay the full level of tuition fees.  Although the maximum fee can be as much as $50,000 (including accommodation and supplementaries), the average fee paid is more like $12,000.  If your household income is less than $60,000 (£37,700) you pay nothing at all.

As long as the system for university funding in this country remains wedded to an unrealistic past (and yes, if we are to continue expanding the number of students attending university, it is unrealistic) a purely needs-blind admissions system is impossible.  Even with the present reforms it is unattainable for almost all universities because fees of up to £9,000 only just meet the cost of education, and it is very likely that many institutions feel that they cannot charge much beyond the lower threshold of £6,000.

Yet Cambridge (and Oxford) have that opportunity to achieve the egalitarian educationalist's nirvana - world class higher education irrespective of ability to pay.

There is a wider aspect to the dons' protest, in that they are concerned about how the Government's reforms might affect not only the University of Cambridge but higher education in the country as a whole.  I have some sympathy with that honourable sentiment but my response to it is this: the Government's reforms present universities with a chance to become truly liberated from central interference and to pursue their own means in reaching top quality academic ends.  University administrators and academics have been demanding less state interference for generations, if not centuries, so why stop now?

Moreover, isn't this an opportunity for Cambridge, if it is so concerned about the wider sector, to offer help and assistance to sector colleagues who are struggling?  Opportunities abound to run joint programmes (as many universities already do), sponsor joint awards, extraneously merge institutes and faculties and even just offer some advice.  Cambridge and Oxford have the history, prestige and investments that permitted them to build up such large endowment funds over time but from what I am told by people in the industry, they are also a long way ahead of the pack when it comes to professional fundraising.  Can some of this expertise be shared?  A healthy HE sector is in everyone's interest.

There is a troubling problem with the 'cuts' narrative, which is that fiscal retrenchment seemingly offers only trauma and backward steps.  It reveals a depressing lack of optimism.  All over the apparatus of the state are presented opportunities to re-think the way public services function in better, more appropriate ways for the twenty-first century.  A great business analogy was mentioned to me recently by a Conservative MP: when private sector managers have to increase profits, cost-cutting is usually a necessary part of that, but by far the best route to increased profitability is in growth.

The same could be said for higher education.  I would love to see a world where university degrees were free but we left that world behind us long ago.  The present reality throws up difficult challenges but it also brings exciting opportunities, most obviously for the likes of Cambridge University.

Perhaps the Cambridge dons protesting today are so ensconced in their ivory tower that they just can't see how valuable that tower is.

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