David Blackburn

The university funding debate continued

The university funding debate continued
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University funding is beginning to dominate op-ed pages. Yesterday, Matthew d’Ancona put the case for a graduate tax from the conservative perspective; and to which Douglas Carswell has responded. Today, Professor Alison Wolf, a specialist in Public Sector Management at KCL, makes the point that any debate about higher education funding is prejudiced because Britain’s politicians and policy makers are predominantly Oxbridge educated, and the structure of Oxbridge undergraduate degrees is radically different from anywhere else. Writing in the Times (£), she asserts:

‘I’ve sat in many meetings, in Whitehall and Westminster, where people have talked up credit systems (a modular system of assessment) without the faintest idea that we have one. The middle-aged were educated in a different system; at Oxbridge, our future rulers still are. There, full-time students take final examinations set centrally, not by the people who teach them. They learn in tiny groups, and receive weekly personalised feedback on non-assessed work: by far the best way to learn, and something that has pretty much vanished elsewhere. And they are selected through intensive scrutiny of their work, and face-to-face interviews.

It is splendid and expensive. But students at Oxford and Cambridge pay exactly the same fees as in Newcastle or Plymouth. They do not see how different these universities are, or that the Oxbridge system is highly precarious, maintained by enormous cross-subsidies, endowments and rich alumni.’

Chris Patten acknowledges how precarious the Oxbridge system is and he wants to part privatise it, arguing that endowments and fees will preserve the tuition system (and therefore international competitiveness) and afford greater bursaries for the underprivileged. If the tuition system is the best way to teach undergraduates, as Wolf claims, then why not protect and extend it by giving the nation’s best universities the maximum financial flexibilty?