Michael Chessum: Creating a British divide in education system
HIGHER education may prove be a symbol of the diverging political consensus north and south of the Border.
When unionist politicians talk about British identity, they are not only appealing to some sentimental notion of unity and stability. Often enough, the bonds that tie Scots to England are real and lived: as in my case, having lived on both sides of the Border and having family down south. For decades, higher education has been a mechanism for the exchange of geographically mobile young people, often the next generation of political decision-makers and professionals.
Earlier last month, the University and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) announced a 10 per cent drop in the number of applications to English universities following the introduction of £9,000 fees south of the Border – highlighting an almost total divide with the Scottish system.
However, this phenomenon is nothing new: the Ucas data is just the latest symptom of a process that has spiritually and demographically separated England and Scotland’s universities and school leavers.
The scale and speed of the UK coalition’s reforms in England is hard to overstate. When I came to University College London in 2008, fees were £3,000, but the system was still fundamentally driven by public funding.
In 2012, fees for both undergraduates and postgraduates have tripled, and a catered room in a hall of residence will cost you £190 per week. At an event hosted by the German Max Planck Society earlier last month, the UCL vice-chancellor used his speech to contrast the public “continental” funding system to the now collectively conceived “Anglo-American model.”
Whether for reasons of ethos or of cost, Scots have gradually stopped going to English universities. Between 2000 and 2011, the proportion of Scottish applicants heading south has fallen by more than a third: at the last intake, just 5 per cent of Scottish school leavers ventured to English universities. In some areas, the figure has fallen more drastically. For the north-east of England, once the main English destination for Scottish students, numbers have fallen by almost half: the idea of a porous English border, living and being educated on either side of it, is being slowly eroded.
The indicators are that the introduction of £9,000 fees will have a far more dramatic impact – with applications to English universities down another 15.7 per cent for entry in 2012. At this rate, it is entirely conceivable that the number of Scots studying in England will plummet in the years to come, as the English university system becomes more and more unrecognisable and expensive.
The Scottish education system has, of course, always been different, but these changes go beyond the kind of qualification that students receive; the present battle over English and Welsh university funding is about the very idea of what universities are for.
As funding becomes more and more centralised, sharp tiers of education provision are emerging in the English market. Within walking distance of UCL is London Metropolitan University – the most working class university in England – where students have suffered a 70 per cent cut to the undergraduate course portfolio.
On every level, the higher education in England and Scotland seems to be going in the opposite direction – from the political consensus against fees in Scotland, and for them in England, to the way in which universities are governed. In January, the Scottish Government released the Ferdinand von Prondzynski report. It recommended elected chairs of university governing bodies, elected academic boards, and elected staff and student representation on managerial remuneration committees.
The English experience is the opposite. Here, many university managements have become progressively more unaccountable and overpaid.
As well as curtailing the ability and desire of Scots to study in England, one of the major symptoms of fees and marketisation in England has been a level of contagion directly into the Scottish system.
With fees now set at £9,000, four-year Scottish degrees are themselves some of the most expensive in the world; and with fees and other private money in the system, the Scottish university system cannot wholly escape the injustices and compromises being wrought from London.
Neither is Scottish university governance immune to the kind of executive pay culture more at home in the private sector. A report by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts this year revealed that almost four in every £100 spent in one of the UK’s research intensive Russell Group universities goes on pay for senior staff.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that the experience of being a student in Scotland and the rest of the UK has never before been so different and the exchange of students and graduates – a process of interaction which has bound thousands of Scottish and English young people to an experienced idea of Britishness – is facing collapse, after years of steady erosion.
In the context of a broader debate on Scotland’s future in Britain, higher education may well prove to be a symbolic issue, a clear-cut sign of a rapidly diverging political consensus north and south of the Border.
The same ideology that drives the coalition to subject education to the logic of the market is doing the same across the public sector, not least with the NHS. As with Margaret Thatcher’s decommissioning of British industry, the coalition’s policies are dismantling the very mechanisms by which Scottish people – individually and in communities – came to feel British in the first place.
• Michael Chessum is member of the National Union of Students UK national executive and the co-founder of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: West