Privatising higher education

Last week, the universities minister David Willets rushed to deny suggestions that the government would allow elite universities to sell off super-expensive extra places to wealthy students. But the furore led to another proposal receiving very little attention – the suggestion that private companies and charities should be allowed to fund their own university places.

Both proposals appeared as suggested ways of providing an extra number of places in higher education, by adding places that would not be funded by the state. The shortage of places has arisen because of the government’s cuts and the hike in fees.

The National Union of Students, the University and College Union, the Student Christian Movement and students’ unions across the UK rightly condemned the plans. In the face of this outrage, Willets quickly backed down and said that he had no plans to allow the rich to buy extra space.

I’m delighted that the backlash against the proposal was so great. But to me, the other plan is even more alarming. Funding university places by charity seems to be taking us back to an age when working class people could receive formal education only because of philanthropy and not as a right. Allowing private companies to fund places would be likely to give them undue influence over the curriculum and other matters.

If you doubt this, have a look at the influence that corporations have already gained when they have become involved in higher education funding.

The multinational arms company BAE Systems provides funding for a number of courses, particularly in engineering. As a result, BAE representatives sit on a number of course committees. Undergraduate engineers at Loughborough University are offered bursaries by BAE – as long as they work for BAE during their industry year. Tom Taylor, who graduated from Loughborough in 2007, says that “elements of the course were tailored to BAE’s requirements”.

Allowing corporations to fund extra university places would dramatically increase this tendency. I can imagine oil companies offering places on courses in environmental science. This would help them to greenwash over the realities of their business as well as to have considerably more influence over those studying the issues.

This government is undermining the fabric of higher education in the UK. We must not allow them to privatise university courses under cover of solving the problems that they have themselves created.

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