The New York Times has recently reported that British universities are facing a big problem – student enrolment is falling for the first time in years. Not among British students, who are still taking out their £9,000 loans to pay for tuition every year, having been told that you need a degree to get a job (and then finding out upon graduation that there are no jobs to be had anyway). Rather, it is foreign students who are starting to turn their backs on the British educational system, particularly when it comes to one-year Masters degrees – in which foreigners make up the majority of students.
This is worrying for British universities because those foreign students pay considerably higher fees for the privilege of attending a UK school than domestic students do. Of course, that might seem like the most immediate problem here – not only are fees already higher for foreign students, but they have been rising rapidly in the past five years, ever since the government lifted the cap on the amount universities could charge. Although things are getting worse for domestic students, it’s important to remember that foreign students from the Commonwealth and other rising countries like China have long been the exploited cash cows of the British university system – paying extortionate amounts of money for half-baked, underfunded courses in exchange for the ‘prestige’ of studying in England, and not even having the safety net of the student loan system that native British students can fall back on.
For both domestic and foreign students, the recent rise in tuition fees has been a part of the neoliberal project to fully integrate education into the capitalist economic system, in a way that it had previously managed to resist to some extent. Education in the UK (and other countries) is now being treated as a business rather than as an intellectual pursuit – departments that focus on topics which are considered ‘economically useful’ are funded (business, chemistry, physics, etc.), while others are told that they are of no use in the modern world and suffer huge cuts (English, history, philosophy, etc.). Meanwhile, students are made to see university as an ‘investment’ that is only available to those who have money or are willing to take on debt, and consequently their expectations change – lecturers all have numerous stories about students who expect to get top marks no matter what they hand in, ‘because we’re paying for it’.
What is unsaid in the New York Times piece is the possibility that foreign students are increasingly realizing that they are only important to the universities in terms of those economic equations. Their hopes, dreams, and futures are of no importance – they are just seen as useful figures on a balance sheet, and they only get attention paid to them when they stop showing up on that balance sheet with as much regularity. Hopefully, at least part of this drop in student numbers comes from the realization that the British educational system is now nothing more than a business based on exploiting students (and, in many cases, their badly-paid professors and lecturers).
It’s time for a change in the university system, and hopefully this drop in student numbers will be the first step. We need to encourage people who want to learn purely for the pleasure of learning, rather than seeing everything as a calculating economic move or encouraging students to see the world as an unending competition between themselves and everybody else. And we need to help poorer people from all countries attend university to better themselves and to achieve their own goals – rather than simply to fill up the bank accounts of the universities themselves.