Last time I posted here, I attacked Professor Les Ebdon’s plan to poison the well of British higher education by subjugating the admission criteria of our best universities to ‘progressive’ political priorities.
However, before and after that article I’ve found that ‘merciless meritocracy’ is insufficient to sway some of my progressively-minded student friends. Equalising university access chances between high-achievers and the rest is ‘fair’. So entrenched is their opposition to selective and private education, or even the ‘internal market’ of parent choice, that the argument that it is schools that have failed similarly go nowhere.
So we who support the continued excellence of our top-flight universities need a new argument. One less vested in meritocratic principle not shared by our opponents, and grounded in something that both sides understand. Something like money, for example.
The case is fairly simple. Since Tony Blair engorged it, higher education in this country has become very expensive for the government to provide. As a result, governments have had to introduce fees, which have not been popular with students. Yet the fees for enfranchised domestic students have been held down by the much higher fees charged to international students.
International students are one of the financial keystones of UK higher education, worth “billions” of pounds per annum. The Guardian figures from 2009 show that foreign students were facing fees of up to £20,000 a year.
International students are willing to pay such fees, for now, because the UK’s best universities rank amongst the best on earth. With access criteria designed to ensure global competitiveness and attract the best and brightest from around the world, universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College et al are maintaining their global position despite the slump in the UK’s relative performance in secondary education exams.
However, if we start channelling less capable students into these institutions in the name of ‘fairness’, what do we think will happen?
For a start, the universities will have to expend ever more time and resources bringing their entry-level students up to the standards required for rigorous undergraduate study. It is also probable that the standards of attainment by graduates will fall as people who weren’t ready pass through the system.
Sure, in domestic terms the government can undoubtedly nobble these results: we will doubtless start seeing ‘value added’ degrees to maintain the illusion of attainment if the likes of Ebdon have their way. But in international terms, our comparative results will slump.
Much more directly than secondary education results, this will matter. If our universities are not internationally competitive, they won’t attract the same quality or volume of international students. The cost in global connexions and revenue could be astronomical.
Once the universities lose this lucrative source of funding, the only ways to make up the shortfall will be higher fees for students or higher taxes on the general population. Poorer students will find themselves taking on more debt for degrees whose value is decaying.
All in the name of ‘fair access’.