Academic staff and students march to protest tuition fees, on March 14, 2018. Credit: Barcroft Media 

by Tom Welsh, Telegraph

To say that Britain has a genuinely competitive university system is a simple lie. The best undergraduate degrees cost much the same as the worst. Universities have little interest in the employability of their graduates, since they receive the fees regardless of whether the student goes on to pay off their loan. Evidence of massive grade inflation, highlighted in yet another report last week, or of courses offering scant return on investment has not broken the back of the tired assumption that success in life is determined by a piece of paper.

It is also a pretence that universities are independent. The paradox is that, even as grants from the state have fallen, dirigisme and regulatory interference have intensified, with the latest example being the threat of sanctions for universities not meeting ministers’ expectations over student diversity. While they are often private institutions, universities act effectively as arms of the state, propped up by a funding mechanism that encourages them to churn out graduates of dubious quality, who go on to infect society with their disappointment.

What might we do differently? The current review into higher education funding assumes more of the same, and the Tories will never be able to outbid Labour’s lunatic offer for the government to pay for half the population to take a degree. But there is an alternative: universities should reclaim their independence from the state and privatise themselves.

It would encourage them to think differently about their finance. The student loans system is poisonous, requiring high interest rates because so many graduates never earn enough to pay back the cost of their education. Private institutions like the Lambda School in the US, however, show what creativity and autonomy can achieve. Students pay nothing upfront but sell “equity” in their future salaries to the school. It creates a direct link between the student’s future performance and what the institution receives, and it better reflects the fact that investing in education is risky. You pay nothing back if you never get a good job, but without the psychological burden of an unpayable debt.

Perhaps there are better ideas, but they won’t materialise without competitive pressure. For we should also want some universities to fail. A complacent education establishment seems ill-inclined to offer anything new or distinctive in their courses, or to tackle the anti-Enlightenment ideas leaking out of campuses.

For the majority of students, “micro-aggressions” and victim culture are as mystifying as for the rest of us, but they are poorly served by university chiefs culturally attuned to see risk as a dirty word and who thereby prefer to capitulate to a mob-like minority than defend their customers’ interests.

Privatised universities are no silver bullet: Harvard is being sued for admissions policies that discriminate against Asian-Americans, for example. But the current situation bakes in complacency and mediocrity, leaving taxpayers on the hook for billions in unpaid loans. Surely our “world class” universities can do better than that?

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