Come on in, but only if you have lots of money

The UK is unlikely to ever resurrect its past spirit of exporting education for free, laments John Sutherland.

One of the few consolations for having served a full, 40-year academic career (four life sentences, ten PhDs, 20 Californian marriages, as I like to calculate) is that you can see the long pendulum swing of the ironies of university life.

I recall the first dons' protest meeting I attended in the late 1960s at Edinburgh University: an era when footballers' shorts were short and university teachers' ideals were high. It was mobilised against a plan to impose fees on overseas postgraduates. Today, UK universities earn £1.4 billion in foreign fees. But back then overseas students, like their domestic counterparts, received tuition free.

Speaker after speaker rose to denounce this outrageous tax on knowledge. I recall particularly Peter Ritchie Calder, professor of international relations at Edinburgh, who with a majestic retrospect, pictured the university's free intercourse with overseas students going back to the Middle Ages. During the intellectual blaze of the Scottish Enlightenment, scholars from across Europe had been attracted to Edinburgh like moths to a flame. The decades of Empire saw the export of learning doing as much, in a missionary sense, as the Kirk. In a postcolonial world, the winds of change having blown all the red off the world map, free education was the most civilising, cost-effective form of overseas aid the mother country could offer. Damn these fees.

It was stirring stuff. The audience of university teachers was enthusiastically in agreement. Putting a price on tuition was as grotesque as charging for sunshine or the air we breathed.

The protests did no good. The fees (a modest £50 a year, as I recall) were imposed. The thin end of the wedge was inserted, and thicker wedges inevitably followed. Every so often the levy would be increased. Then came the years of Thatcher and the doctrine of "market value". Now only First World graduates could afford to pursue their graduate studies in the UK, and overseas funders increasingly decided that they could get as good a deal at home as abroad. Finally, only the abnormally rich overseas students, and Americans, could afford it. Fortunately, the quality of British higher education was such that it continued, and continues, to attract them.

The academic community can no more change this real-world state of affairs than meteorologists can change the weather. All dons can do is adapt and take advantage of a situation that they never wanted and that historically they have deplored but could still turn to good ends.

The department in which I served, English at University College London, took advantage early. In the 1970s, my colleague Stephen Fender outlined how we could mitigate the severities of the "cut-and-freeze" years by selling educational services to North America. Why not, he suggested, introduce an "affiliate" programme for Americans who specifically wanted the peculiar enrichment that a short stay could offer? Studying English in England, alongside English undergraduates, was a powerful selling point.

Combined with the "London effect" and the differential between North American and British fee levels, this created a stream of income that lifted the department over the economic rocks. The department gave itself a tap that could be turned on, or off, as the economic situation required.

Now, if one walks down the corridor at the beginning of the academic year, one hears as many American accents as English. In 1994, my final teaching term at UCL, I had 14 tutorial students, 12 of these were American affiliates.

I have to say, I now welcome the cultural effect of this segment of the university having become, in effect, Anglo-American and profit-driven. It is mutually enriching. Americans add a exhilarating fizz to the home-student base. European students are, meanwhile, no-shows. Why? Because free exchange programmes such as Erasmus mean that they bring no money to the UK institution. Americans do - hence the welcome mat.

Lord Calder's plea is again relevant. Offering the bounty of free UK education would be a very enlightened form of aid to new Europeans such as the Poles. But will it be ignored, as it was 40 years ago.

Of course, we shall continue to sell our educational services to overseas buyers. Nothing can reverse that. Universities would go broke if they didn't. But we should also, in the spirit that has informed universities since their monastic origins, give as much education away to those who most need it and are neither very rich nor American. I had high hopes in the mid-1960s, but very few now, that this will happen.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe professor emeritus at University College London.

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