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Increased Competition

By Danny Harrington

uk university funding

UCAS has released figures for applications to UK universities to start courses in the autumn of 2010. They show a nearly 12% increase on 2009, from just under 600,000 to over 660,000, including those from overseas. The UK remains an attractive destination for overseas students and the figures include more than 9000 applicants from China.

This news comes as a funding debate has erupted over the past few weeks since the general election installed Britain’s first coalition government since the second world war. The government has essentially declared war on public funding as the solution to Britain’s economic woes. Regardless of your opinion on this, it means that UK universities are facing funding cuts of GBP200 million this year alone. A report is being prepared on how to realize these cuts without compromising the quality of education or reducing the numbers of students in higher education.

Despite protests from some quarters that too much emphasis is put on a university education, that degrees are becoming devalued or that Britain needs to get back to promoting more vocational training through apprenticeships and the like, the stark fact remains that there are actually not enough graduates in Britain. Less than 50% of people complete a university degree and this cannot sustain a modern knowledge-based economy. Besides which, Britain cannot hope to compete with other countries in industrial sectors where labour costs are vastly lower. The only way forward for the British economy is to continue to develop new industry and this can only happen on the frontiers of knowledge for which learning and the ability to learn are crucial ingredients.

If universities cannot cut costs then the other side of the equation is that fees will inevitably rise. For British citizens, this has caused uproar as they see the “free” education they had expected to receive evaporate. Foul they cry. But education was never free. Someone always paid. The question the public is being asked is not what should be paid but who should pay it, and many concur that the burden should shift from the general taxpayer i.e. society at large to the individual. Economists now generally agree that university counts as consumption rather than an investment good, so it seems only right that the responsibility for payment should fall mostly on those that consume. It is not as straightforward as that of course – do students pay up front or afterwards? Are fees fixed and linked to cost? Should students pay according to the financial reward they get as a result of getting better paid jobs? What is certain is that the debate is likely to be long and hard fought.

For overseas students, the funding issue is less of a concern. They always have paid. The question is whether the funding problems will affect the number of places available and the quality of the teaching provided. It would be a great pity for both the UK and the wider commonwealth if its great institutions were to be devalued or at least perceived to have been devalued. For now however, overseas students can rest a little easier than their UK peers. With the cap on places in English universities, the current applications figures mean that some 170,000 UK and EU applicants will not get a university place this year. The 9,000 from China are more likely to be buying mortar boards this September.

By Danny Harrington

Co-founder of ITS Tutorial School

Dulwich College Singapore

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

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