Over-reliance on private enterprise threatens standards in universities, warns UCU

18 March 2010

UCU today warned that plans from both the Labour and Conservative parties for an 'Americanisation of UK higher education' would lead to greater financial instability and grade inflation.

A new report from the union, 'Privatising our universities', reveals that both parties want to encourage the growth of for-profit universities and to make institutions more dependent on private money. The report identifies a number of key policy announcements by Labour and the Conservatives and explores the consequences of following them through.
 
Key findings include how:

  • a large number of America's private universities (such as Harvard and Stanford) have reported losses of up to 30% on the value of their endowments, which many depend on for up to a quarter of their income. The sudden drop in income led to universities axing jobs and closing down entire departments
  • the cost of tuition fees in the US has skyrocketed at four times the rate of inflation over the last 25 years. Putting a child through private university now costs 76% of median family income.  A poorer family not prepared to go private can still expect to spend 55% of its income on a public college education
  • relying more on student feedback to determine whether a course of university is a success has led to grade inflation with lecturers frightened to give low marks, which has created anxiety that  degrees are being devalued
  • profit-making universities that need to keep shareholders happy are particularly prone to litigation from dissatisfied students on grounds of false advertising.

In February, the Business secretary, Lord Mandelson, claimed that the best university systems were those 'defined by a wide range of public and private funding.' The Conservative higher education spokesperson, David Willetts, is on record saying that 'American universities are in a better position because they receive far more donations and are better at building up endowments.'

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'This report should act as a warning for both parties. Wistful glances across the pond are nothing new, but trying to cherry pick certain aspects of a system that is fundamentally different to ours just will not work. We do not, for example, have the same culture when it comes to saving for ludicrously high fees or a similar alumni donation programme.

'Because our system is different we should be looking at ways to celebrate it and improve it - not follow the US example, which will increase the financial barriers to students and their families and price out many people from poorer and non-traditional backgrounds.'

Privatising our universities, Feb 10 [162kb]

Last updated: 11 December 2015

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