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Independence or the State? The Cahill Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (top) at Caltech, a private American university ranked first in the world (photo: Flickr/Dhilung)

If the Conservative government plays one card right, Britain could soon boast of the best university system in the world — better even than America’s or Australia’s. The previous Conservative government of 1979-1997 devastated higher education, so let’s hope the current one redeems the party’s record.

On coming into office in 1979, the Tories actually started well by introducing tuition fees for international students, who had hitherto been educated at the British taxpayer’s expense. That step required courage because the new fees were universally denounced, yet after the initial hiccup of a year’s fall in rolls the numbers of international student numbers then soared, and their fees have since helped keep our universities financially as well as culturally viable.

Margaret Thatcher then cut the universities’ core income (which also translated into cutting their research income) and that too required courage as that cut, too, was violently denounced: in 1985, indeed, the University of Oxford insulted her by first offering and then withdrawing an honorary degree. But Mrs Thatcher argued that Britain was spending more per capita on higher education than almost any other OECD country yet our economy had tanked. She needed to make savings and the universities had proved a poor investment.

She was right, but as the economy recovered during the later 1980s and ’90s the Tories failed to increase the universities’ income pari passu, and when in 1992 John Major turned the former polytechnics into universities — while simultaneously imposing an unpleasant regulatory regime on the older institutions — British higher education hit a nadir of low quality, poor funding, low morale and oppressive supervision. By 1997 the UK was spending only 1 per cent of GDP on higher education (19th out of the 27 OECD member states) while over the previous five years its expenditure per student had fallen by 21 per cent, down to 12th in the OECD. And we were only 19th in the OECD for the proportion of young people enrolled in university. In short, our universities had descended to the level of continental Europe’s.

One of the great international paradoxes of higher education is the poor quality of French, German, Italian and other continental universities, many of which are little better than institutions of mass alienation where remote academics pontificate at anonymous students across impersonal lecture theatres. The British university, in contrast, has always aspired to be an alma mater where student drop-out rates are low and where staff and students engage in the joint enterprise of education, but by 1997 that aspiration was almost forgone. And then Tony Blair won.

Blair believed in universities. He increased their government funding, he increased their private funding by introducing undergraduate fees of £1,000 pa, and he reformed the regulations. Then in 2003 he proposed increasing the undergraduate fees to £3,000 p.a. His intention was not only to increase the universities’ income but also to help shift their culture into one of greater independence and entrepreneurship. That step required vast courage because those fees were opposed by, inter alia, almost every Labour and Lib Dem MP — and by  the Tories, who seemed to rejoice in the squalor to which they had reduced the sector.

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