BRITAIN’S universities are in an awful spin. Top universities were overwhelmed by the 24% of A-level applicants sporting indistinguishable straight As; newer ones are beating the byways for bodies.
Curiously, both images of education—the weeping willows of Cambridge and the futuristic architecture of UEL—are cherished by the government. Ministers want to see half of all young people in universities by 2010 (numbers have stalled at 42%), without relinquishing the worldclass quality of its top institutions.
Many argue that the two goals are incompatible without spending a lot more money. Researchers scrabble for funds, and students complain of large classes and reduced teaching time. To help solve the problem, the government agreed in 2004 to let universities increase tuition fees.
Though low, the fees have introduced a market of sorts into higher education. Universities can offer cut-price tuition, although most have stuck close to the $3,000. Other incentives are more popular. Newcomers to St Mark & St John, a higher-education college linked to Exeter University, will receive free laptops.
As universities enter the third week of “clearing” , the marketing has become weirder. Bradford University is luring students with the chance of winning an MP3 player in a prize draw. Plymouth University students visited Cornish seaside resorts, tempting young holiday-makers with surfboards and cinema vouchers. These offers suggest that supply has outstripped demand.
Not so the top universities that make up the “Russell group”, however. Their ranks include the likes of Imperial College London and Bristol University along with Oxford and Cambridge. Swamped with applicants, only half offer any places through clearing. They have a different problem: they need money to compete for highcalibre students and academics, both British and foreign, who could be tempted overseas by betterheeled American universities or fastimproving institutions in developing countries such as India.
Higher fees and excess supply are causing students to look more critically at just what different universities have to offer. And the crunch could become more acute. The number of 18-year-olds in Britain will drop around 2010 and decline over the following ten years, according to government projections.
Bahram Bekhradnia, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a thinktank, says the government hasn’t a hope of getting 50% of young Britons into higher education by 2010. And the decline of home-grown student numbers will have a “differential effect” on universities, he reckons. Those at the bottom end will have to become increasingly “innovative” about whom they admit and some may not survive.
The Cambridge shades evoked by Rupert Brooke were gentle, nostalgic ones. Many vicechancellors today are pursued by far more vengeful spectres of empty campuses, deserted laboratories, failed institutions. Markets, after all, create winners—and losers.