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#ElectionTime: How Cameron’s muddled policies are threatening UK Higher Education

With elections six weeks away, the UK Higher Education community is presumably anxious.

The last election marked a decisive turning point for the sector – the Cameron Government pursued twin strategies of an inadequately thought-through funding reform and a plainly disastrous clampdown on student immigration – which would have long term consequences for the sector as a whole.

With the UK political debate becoming more vicious and backward-looking, the UK universities, many of whom are among the best in the world, are understandably worried.

In the last five years, Higher Education has become more global, except in the UK.  Now that the major parties are all united in an UKIP-inspired fear of Europe, this may turn out to be proverbial nail – and start the eventual long term decline.

One could reasonably expect some lengthier, weightier reviews of the impact of David Cameron’s five years in office on the UK Higher Education sector coming out in the next few weeks.

However, some headline observations are inescapable.

First, through its funding review, the Government has created a system, which works for no one.

It has indebted students more and discouraged them from going into Higher Education, accentuating the class divide even further. 

It has left a big hole in public funding, and when the accounting illusions go away, the UK would have spent more money running the new system than it would have under the old.

Everyone wants to change the system as it is now, including the government, and it would indeed change. 

The government almost officially hopes that the number of people entering Higher Education would go down, a demographic projection which does not take into account the rising aspirations and increasingly common incidences of part time and distance learning. The funding changes have created winners and losers among the UK universities, leaving some of the departments, particularly in Humanities, in clear danger of closing.

Hand-in-hand with this, the Government’s unthinking approach to curb student immigration has successfully persuaded brighter students to look elsewhere, while creating a greater incentive for unscrupulous operators and bogus students.

In the five years, increasingly vicious and sophisticated systems of fraud, sometimes involving larger organisations such as testing companies and banks, have been reported.  While students coming to the UK from China did not decline in absolute terms, a factoid much trumpeted by the Ministers concerned, everyone knew about the relative decline – and indeed, massive reversals in numbers coming from countries such as India (and broader South Asia), which, due to cultural affinity and demographics, was a more potent source of students and influence for the UK Higher Education sector.

In fact, if one was to look, a shift away from the UK, both towards institution building at home and to alternative education destinations such as Malaysia, should be considered the overall legacy of the Cameron Government, which wanted to run a Global Financial Centre without globalisation.

Third – and this is a crucial point – the UK government’s twin changes destroyed the chances of British Private Education companies.

At a time when investments in innovative, globally-minded, private education companies are the next big thing on the other side of the Atlantic (despite the troubles of big For-Profit colleges), cutting off the UK Private Higher Education sector from its international markets was a big mistake.

The effect is visible – American companies are starting to spread across the Commonwealth, a traditional market for British companies – and the next wave, which does not involve student migration, but technology-facilitated spread of education in various countries, would not be dominated by British private players or start-ups.

Would there be some urgent rethinking after the elections?

It can get worse with the realignment of coalitions, and indeed, the UK can leave Europe in the end.

The Labour Party, even if it wins power, has abandoned its traditional left-of-centre worldview, and has become too dominated by posh politicians under the sway of opinion polls.

The only hope of sanity – and I say this because fear and denial are not sane responses to globalisation – rests with parties on the fringe, like SNP or the Greens, and even a depleted Liberal Democrats, which should eventually get rid of its one-of-them leader and find an identity for itself.

Indeed, the SNP will be driven by the interests of Scotland, but a stronger Higher Education sector and a more sensible immigration policy, both of which Scotland may need, independent or not, might work out well for rest of the UK.

Indeed, this is too much to hope for – and we shall indeed get muddled, incoherent policies etc, as we have endured so far.

However, without a clear commitment to build a strong, internationally acclaimed Higher Education sector, Britain’s dwindling stock internationally is in real danger of disappearance.

– Supriyo Chaudhuri works in global Higher Education, and is engaged in various educational projects in UK, Asia and Africa.  He is passionate about innovation and reform in Higher Education.  He organises events on Education Innovation in London and writes a popular blog on global education.  He is an alumni of University College London.

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