Privatising Universities: An Unattainable Dream Or Impending Reality?

Sir Roy Anderson, rector of Imperial College London, has recently stated that the elite universities in Britain should form a US-style Ivy league system and be able to charge much higher fees. 

Anderson believes that institutions including his own, as well as Cambridge and Oxford universities, should be freed from state control to allow them to charge students more than the current £3,140 capped fees and recruit greater numbers of international students to boost their income. 

According to him, elite universities are in danger of loosing their high national and international standing because of underfunding and a lack of government vision. 

The “top” universities – which would also include the London School of Economics and University College London – could be allowed to “float free” of government funding.  With university enrollment already a multi-billion pound industry for ‘UK plc’, privatised universities would give the potential to earn income for Britain while attempting to offer large bursaries for students from poorer backgrounds in order to maintain equal opportunities. 

Nevertheless it remains to be seen whether the government would agree to elite academic autonomy and such a ‘capitalist’ venture.  Equally critics argue that although the very poorest students may benefit from enhanced bursary or scholarship schemes, the ‘middle ground’ of society, in which the largest amount of elite universities’ current intake is contained, may loose out financially and academically as a consequence. 

Others complain that if universities were free to charge what they wanted, the economic value of a place at an elite university would considered more greatly than its academic integrity, quite possibly leading to a backward step for many middle-income household students. 

Privatising a university makes the institution dependant on a market that cannot always support it, exemplified by Harvard’s recent cuts in academic spending and bursary allowances due to the current economic climate.  It is contested that privatised education leads to the embellishment of class antagonisms and slowdown of social mobility, particularly in times of economic slowdown.

The government is due to launch a review of higher education funding by the end of the year that will consider whether to lift the cap on fees or more radically overhaul the funding system for students.

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