What’s happened to the University? Lessons from America

Sunday 23 October, 14.00 - 15.30 , Cinema 2 Contemporary Controversies

In Association With:

This year’s announcement that UK universities will be able to raise tuition fees further under the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework, alongside plans to abolish the maintenance grant for low-income applicants, has provoked yet more debate about the accessibility and value of higher education. For critics, such moves represent another step towards the inequalities of the US college system in a year in which tackling student debt became a major campaign issue for both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, top UK universities maintain that raising fees will provide the funding necessary to compete with well-funded rivals in the Ivy League. Recent university rankings suggest they are closing the gap while attracting a diverse, international student body.

At the same time, US universities themselves appear to be undergoing a similar existential crisis. An endless series of stand-offs with students over ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ has generated much discussion about the apparent fragility of ‘Generation Snowflake’ but also genuine consternation at how often university authorities indulge and give in to illiberal demands. For some, the US experience, coupled with recent high-profile instances of similar student protests in the UK, offers a stark warning of the inevitable end-result of the privatised academy. Yet, as the New York Times’ David Frum noted, the post-Sixties view of the university as hotbed of liberal radicalism is itself an aberration from the university’s gradual transformation from ‘an institution intended to transmit knowledge into [one] designed to serve the technocracy.’ Meanwhile, major employers have increasingly declared they are dropping demands for academic qualifications in favour of vocational training and apprenticeships.

Why, despite unheralded levels of funding and international demand, does higher education seem so uncertain of its purpose or value? Do attempts such as TEF offer an important motivation for universities to focus on education as well as research, or undermine their function as homes of scholarship and knowledge? Why do universities seem perpetually to disappoint both those who see them as skills factories and those who see them as seats of learning? Why are universities in crisis?