When Universities Minister David Willetts said, ‘education is a great British export industry’ his words met with a mixed reception. Many pundits and economists agreed with him. The Jarratt Report of 1985 first mooted the notion that universities were enterprises, comparable to factories with academics charged with ‘delivering’ the product: education. The sector currently delivers £8 billion of income and thousands of jobs for UK workers and this is set to rise.
Others were less comfortable with the concept of promoting education as a product. The fact that the Universities Minister now reports to the Business Secretary, not his counterpart in the Department for Education, marks a shift that has not always been welcomed by academics. The ensuing increase in pressure on HEIs to market themselves as service sector providers requires a competitively commercial attitude which does not sit comfortably with many faculty staff.
Added to this concern is the drive to increase the income derived from exporting our education reputation outside the European Union. And while the Government has promised that the number of students entering the UK by 2015 will decrease by 80,000 through tougher entrance requirements, recent reports indicate that officials are simultaneously calling to increase existing overseas student income to £17 billion by 2025.
If international student numbers are reduced but revenue has to increase, the only solution is to hike fees and that process appears to have started already. According to a survey of 110 universities carried out this month by The Complete University Guide, some overseas undergraduates will pay up to £35,000 in the 2013-14 academic year, against a maximum of £9,000 paid by UK and EU students. The National Union of Students has reacted to these increases by saying that overseas students should not be treated as “cash cows”.
So, it appears that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. The only way to salve our consciences is to offer outstanding value for money. We must rely on the ultimate ability of our academic and pastoral staff to deliver as well as the continued reputation of UK degree courses in a competitive international market.
Ultimately, our HE sector must just make sure they are more than worth it.