Postgraduates and the Privatization of English Higher Education

On November 3, British universities minister David Willetts announced

November 16, 2010

On November 3, British universities minister David Willetts announced a proposal to raise the basic tuition fee cap for all UK and EU citizens to £6000, or up to £9000 under certain conditions, as early as 2012. This announcement comes in the wake of the Browne Report, which proposes to eliminate the block teaching grant received by all English universities for all non-STEM subjects. This, argues Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books, constitutes a de facto forced privatization of the university system.

Yet lost in this debate is much in the way of discussion of postgraduate education and the future of research in the UK. Although Conservative-led “reform” is primarily directed at the block teaching grant for undergraduate education in the non-STEM subjects, its effects will not be confined to a transformation of the undergraduate experience. Postgraduate fees for domestic and EU students in most fields are also subject to a cap which will rise in line with those for undergraduates. Furthermore, given the concern that even a fee rise will not compensate for the loss in government funding, it seems inevitable that universities will seek to balance their accounts by enrolling even more non-EU overseas students, particularly into money-making postgraduate courses. In short, these policy decisions are sure to result in a huge collective rise in sticker price for all students seeking postgraduate degrees in England.

Any substantial increase in the cost of postgraduate education will in turn have a huge effect upon those public and private institutions which fund postgraduate research. Either fewer worthy projects will be funded, or fewer projects will be funded well. In both cases, we would expect research students to try meeting their expenses through undergraduate teaching. Indeed, given the cost advantage, it is hard not to imagine UK universities going precisely this route and employing postgraduates for occasional lecturing and tutoring. This will, in turn, accelerate an exploitative process more advanced in the United States whereby, as per Marc Bousquet’s thesis in How the University Works (NYU Press, 2008), receipt of the PhD marks the logical end of a university teaching career, not its beginning.

Receipt of the PhD will be the logical end of a career if this de facto privatization of English higher education becomes reality. New lectureships are certain to be scarce in an age of austerity, even for UK and EU citizens, and new non-EU overseas degree-holders will be faced with stricter visa requirements and a permanent annual cap on highly-skilled immigrants that will limit their job opportunities in England to the near-vanishing point. In other words, the very human capital that the country has cultivated will be lost to it, and in the future much of the potential global talent that the UK currently attracts will simply go someplace else. Overseas students in the UK will be of one kind--the ones from rich families seeking an exclusive-looking finishing school to burnish their reputations back home. These will be relieved of their cash and then politely shown the door.

The attack on aspiring researchers from overseas does not stop at an individual or even collective level solely within the UK--international degree holders also contribute to the general development of their home countries, whose own programmes often look up to the British model and have for a long time awarded considerably more funding to “strategic” or “priority” areas such as the STEM fields. It is truly a bleak situation, and one with the potential to stunt societies around the globe for decades to come with its implicit skepticism of intellectual pursuit as a collective, public good. As overseas students working toward our PhDs at English universities in non-STEM fields, we are in a unique position to hear most intensely the message being sent to all aspiring researchers in the humanities and social sciences: We don’t want you; go away.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media coverage of the November 10 student demonstration in London missed the point. It comes as no surprise that hardly anyone involved in higher education is pleased by the situation, but the problem goes far beyond a mere debate about the increase of student fees. In fact, the very future of higher learning and research in the UK--and of its positive influence upon the rest of the world--is at stake.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Regarded as one of the top manga experts in the United States, she has lectured and published extensively on the American manga publishing industry in both academic and journalistic contexts. She can be reached through her website.

Ernesto Priego was born in Mexico City and now lives in London. He is a PhD candidate in Information Studies at University College London. He has a background in English, comparative literature and cultural studies. His research sits at the crossroads of comics scholarship, history of the book and digital humanities

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