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November 09, 2012 11:00 AM Fighting Back

By Daniel Luzer

Declining public support for higher education isn’t exclusive to the United States. In the last 15 years the United Kingdom, facing its own budget problems, has forced British students to pay more and more for their university educations. At the same time, like in this country, pundits often speak of improving “efficiency” in higher education so as to make the universities more “productive.”

That’s enough, say many academics. According to an article by Shiv Malik in The Guardian:

Lord Bragg, Alan Bennett, Sir David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins are among 65 writers, broadcasters and thinkers who have jointly founded the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU), to be launched next week.
The group’s manifesto, also backed by former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Booker prize-winner Dame AS Byatt, playwright Michael Frayn and astronomer royal Lord Rees, claims the basis of a degree is under threat.

Or, more specifically,

Historian and former British Academy president Sir Keith Thomas said “the very purpose of the university” was being “grossly distorted by the attempt to create a market in higher education”. Students, he wrote were “regarded as ‘consumers’ and encouraged to invest in the degree course they think most likely to enhance their earning prospects”.

The main purpose of the group appears to have something to do with restoring the “independence” of the British university, and apparently trying to remove the system from market influences.

Will it work? Well, it’s hard to tell. Realistically it’s not just the perceived importance of learning, particularly as advocated by a group of academics and cultural leaders, that causes citizens and policy makers to be more supportive of academic independence in colleges; it’s also the presence of actual funds. Historically, when the economy looked flush, people don’t worry so much about academic “productivity.”

More debt and greater finical pressure to reign in costs in public institutions throughout the country means that it’s unlikely Great Britain will soon return to the polices of, say, the 1960s, when universities were prohibited form charging students for their education, and the national government left the universities largely to themselves.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer