Free trade in higher education – no protectionism required for learning

In the Guardian recently, Michael Arthur and Wendy Piatt, representing the Russell Group of the 20 leading British research-intensive universities, made the following plea:

Our politicians must take a responsible approach to the funding of higher education and recognise that it is one of the jewels in the country’s crown, worthy of protection because of the extraordinary value that it brings to our society, international competitiveness and economy.”  

Unfortunately the special pleading of powerful interest groups for protectionism is now centuries old and all previous attempts to protect so called “national champions” have all failed miserably. Therefore the protection of national champions in higher education (or “jewels in the country’s crown”) will only restrict competition, discourage innovation and encourage inefficiency, thereby depriving students of lower prices and/or greater choice. As a result the sector will continue to stagnate and we will all be worse off.

As previously noted by Neelie Kroes (European Commissioner for Competition Policy) in 2007, protectionist pressures can and must be resisted and “[t]hose who put up barriers, or who don’t want to take them down, need to know that they are acting against the interest of their economy and their citizens.” In 2006, the EC Competition Director General was far less charitable when he described national champions as being illegal, immoral and fat!

I’d just like to point out that just as the “Ivy League” of American universities is often wrongly used as a shorthand for the leading US universities (in fact, it is an association of East Coast Universities and doesn’t include many of the leading US universities, such as MIT and Caltech), the “Russell Group” is wrongly used as meaning the top UK research universities. The Russell Group is a group of LARGE research-based universities, and therefore doesn’t include many leading, but smaller, research-based universities, such as Durham, St. Andrews, York and several London University colleges, which are instead part of the 1994 group.

If the Russell Group of universities are so wonderful, why do they need protection? Are we approaching a situation where nothing in this country can survive without government ’support’?

Around 2000, the higher education sector in Pakistan was completely dominated by the public sector, with only two notable private sector universities in a total of around 28 universities. Since 2000, two things simultaneously happened (its an open question whether one caused another or was it just a correlation). The public sector increased the higher education budget by 10 times, so as to dwarf total spending on education. At the same time, the private sector also invested extensively in the higher education. Now Pakistan boasts around 130 universities; and HALF, nearly half of them are owned by the private sector. Overall, this has bode well for both quality and access in higher education.

Some years ago I wrote a couple of pieces arguing that HE ought to be opened up to the disciplines of international trade through the GATS mechanism (something which the EU has rejected). Amongst other things I argued for liberalising the requirements for setting up as a university (although partially achieved in the UK, most countries have very tight controls), and for giving students any subsidy (for example, the HEFCE UG subsidy) as a voucher which could be spent in the private sector or with a university in another country. More UK students getting their HE in the States or Australia or Canada (or anywhere else with a half-decent system) would be great.

I’m beginning to wonder why the government should have any say on who can use the word university. Didn’t this word exist long before democratic governments were invented? If so, what right do governments have to claim that they now own the exclusive right to use and restrict the use of this word? One wonders what would happen if they attempted to regulate the word ’supermarket’ to the same degree? The same questions can also be applied to the use of the word degree. Are these perhaps the two most highly regulated words in the English language?

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