A Terrifying Prospect: Student-As-Consumer Meets British Universities
One may question whether this is desirable, but we can't ignore the question anymore. The market, once invited to the party, always seems to win, and higher education is no exception. We may be experiencing a terminal cataclysm of the British Public Universities: A very predictable crisis in an out-of-touch system triggered by late but fundamental redefinition of what higher education is for. Unfortunately, the answer is getting shaped by the events from outside the academia. Led mostly by Vice Chancellors and Executive Teams from a different era, the universities have so far shown only limited capacity to participate, let alone influence, the public debate: Their reactions were marked by bureaucratic fiddling rather than courage to define the terms of the debate.
However, one may not be despondent: Student as a consumer may be a good thing. Higher Education has always served the needs of the time. One may moan about an imaginary golden age, but when the same age is defined as Higher Education for the privileged, it does not sound that glamorous anymore. One must accept that Higher Education has evolved - from teaching students to be clerics, to teaching students to be citizens and public administrators, and now to teaching them to be consumers. One can see these phases in America: This has now reached Britain.
This was a long time coming anyway, and was prevented by the ubiquitous welfare state which is on its deathbed now. The problem is that when this arrives, it arrives in all its intensity, a fundamental transformation of the whole landscape within the space of two years. Change, when comes without the institutional capability to adopt, which is precisely the condition of the British universities today, can be terrifying: The sector failed to provide a coherent response to changes altogether. The response from British HE to the arrival of the markets is to look for corners of protectionism - to protest against private sector participation in education, forcing the government to delay its Higher Education bill due to be tabled this summer. The more the VCs try to cling to their disappearing world of cosy protectionism, the sector will sink further into despair. It is indeed time for the universities to step out and face the market - as some of the pioneering ones like London Metropolitan University have already done - and embrace the new mantra. However, this does not seem to be in the DNA of the British universities, and they must therefore learn the lessons in the hard way.