In this post I want to share my thoughts about a new system of Higher Education (HE): one that is open, inclusive and equal. 

Over the lockdown months I’ve been reading (and occasionally writing) about different books, including: Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery; Invisible Woman by Caroline Criado-Perez’; Jason Hickel’s assertion that the developed Western nations are still extracting resources from developing nations; my own reflection on where Glasgow’s history overlaps with the slave trade; Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed; and the troubling and complex issues of class and wealth hierarchy that I believe underpin our history.

As these different ideas bounced around my head, I found I’d been enrolled on Strathclyde University’s ‘Online/Blended Learning for Programme Leaders’. (I’m not sure I would have enrolled myself. Leadership’s not my strong suit: I’m a better innovator and follower.) As part of this course we need to read, and reflect on, the University’s 5 year strategic plan. There were three passages from the first section that stood out to me:

As a socially progressive institution, the University is enabling access to education by people from the widest possible range of backgrounds, and all ages and stages of life..”(Goal 1, 2020-2025, Strategy document)

“Strathclyde welcomes anyone with the willingness and ability to benefit from a university education…” (Aim 1.1, 2020-2025 Strategy document)

“We strive to ensure our population is representative of society and that we address under-representation in all parts of our University.” (Aim 1.1, 2020-2025 Strategy document)

I need to change tack slightly and describe some of my recent historical wrestling/reflections until I can circle back to the University. As I studied Glasgow’s history and it’s involvement in the slave trade, I came to see that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was deeply integrated with capitalism and mercantilism (mercantilism is a system of commercial protectionism that encourages exports but restricts imports). The economy of the 18th and 19th centuries wasn’t run by people who were deliberately ‘evil’, any more that those who run today’s economy. Businesses, investors, buyers, sellers, traders and suppliers saw money as a goal, and chose not to see, or couldn’t see, or weren’t shown, the suffering of the people behind the profit. As I point out in the conclusion to my previous history post, we do the same today.

I’ve recently started reading, Forgotten Women: The Scientists, by Zing Tzjeng. The descriptions of the ways in which female, professional scientists were treated seems unbelievable to modern eyes: for example, the dismissal of woman from organisations once they were married. (The Australian radioastronomy, Ruby Payne-Scott, hid her marriage for 6 years before being ‘discovered’ and forced to resign her post!) The reason cited was that married women were dismissed to make way for men to do the same job thus ensuring that way families could be raised – by women – and provided for – by men. This reason only makes economic and logical sense if an economy has a fixed number of jobs, whereas we hope that more working people, leads to more taxes, more spending, and even more jobs. But, even if the number of jobs was static, the policy would be unjust, prejudicial and unfair. Perhaps at the time allowing unmarried women to work at all was seen as progressive! From a modern perspective, I can understand the the logical part (even if I think it’s wrong), but I struggle to see why my predecessors couldn’t see the inherent injustice in that approach. However at the same time, my view (based on Freire’s ideas) is that we are likely to miss the injustice and disparity in our own modern practises. What are the current policies that control and regulate people’s lives and opportunities that in 50 years time will be seen as unjust?

So how do my thoughts of a society’s economic priorities and their cultural and institutional blindspots overlap with higher education, and Strathclyde’s ambitions? In my mind, this happens when I think about the fees paid by foreign students.

On 9th August 2020, Good Morning Scotland (on BBC Radio Scotland) did a 30 min piece on the funding challenges faced by Scottish Universities. I already knew the principles but not the specific details. The Scottish government pays the tuition fees for Scottish and EU students (although not English, Welsh and Northern Irish students): the fees money that Scottish universities receive covers 90% of the actual tuition costs. The research done by universities is funded by research councils, charities and industries, but that money only covers 80% of the cost of research. These two financial shortfalls need to be made up from other sources, which could be legacy funds, alumni donations, and so on, but most universities across the UK need a large cohort of non-EU students who pay perhaps twice the tuition fees of local students. (See note 1). The Good Morning Scotland article made the normal economic arguments of sensible/necessary financial management, but it didn’t mention the moral or ethical arguments of such an arrangement: it failed to ask (let alone answer) the question of why students from non-EU countries should be supplementing the tuition of Scottish students? Nor did it ask the question of why our Scottish government blows it own trumpet about the ‘free University tuition’ policy, while not actually paying the full cost, forcing Universities to ‘pay to teach’.

There is an argument that foreign students use more resources while they study: perhaps English language support, or more time with tutors. However, for me, there are stronger counter arguments. It would be inconceivable to think about asking for increased fees from students who struggle with wellbeing because they might be more likely to require access a University’s support services, neither would a University charge women more because their toilets needed cubicles (and so more floor space and higher building costs) and sanitary bins. It would be illegal to refuse a woman a job because she might need to take costly maternity leave. There are several examples where additional costs are absorbed into the general finances of an institution, so why do UK universities charge non-EU students for additional services that they may, or may not, use?

I want correct a generalisation I’ve made here, that the UK is wealthier and more intellectually developed than all the non-EU countries. However, my point still applies –  I can’t understand why fees be charged depending on the scientific ranking of a student’s home nation, or the wealth of it’s government. Isn’t charging a higher price for ‘rich folks’ extractive? A contractor might size up a client and consider their ‘bid’, but imaging if you went into a shop and they asked or your NI card so the shop could confirm your last tax return and change the price of the items in your basket accordingly! As I reflect on these ideas, I can see the economic and financial arguments, but I can’t see the ethical ones. My dream (and we were asked that on the Leadership course) is that it’s time to remove the higher fees paid by foreign students for access to UK university courses, and for Scotland, as a society, to start paying it’s own way for the tuition of local students and stop educating it’s own by extracting money from other countries. (Perhaps a dream like this makes it obvious why leadership and I are not compatible dance partners!)

Scotland can ‘pay it own way’ by two systems: increasing government funding, or re-aligning teaching systems. So, can we realign/refund higher education so that local student costs are covered and foreign students get the same education for the same price? Covid-19 has forced HE into embracing an expanded role for online learning, and this brings with it the opportunity to re-align teaching, expand the learning opportunities for individuals and reduce costs to allow a flat fee structure to be adopted. However, the rapid adoption of this technology bring with it risk to students, teaching staff, institutions and society. The risks to students come from whether they will be able to adapt their learning from the normal ‘face to face’ environment to the online environment in a way that is as effective. The risks to staff come from the uncertainties around the creative rights to digital teaching. Face-to-face teaching ensures that a university needs to hire ‘a face’, if ‘the face’ creates online learning, all a university need is the latter and can fire (or most likely just not renew the contract) of ‘the face’. Personally, I’m convinced that technology can only enhance real-life learning: learning occurs for many people in social frameworks, looking at real-world problems, and (at the moment) we will need human tutors to do that. The risk to institutions comes from my belief that digitization leads to monopolies not diversification. The idea that an ‘Amazon University’ (which has already happened here) could produce and deliver courses which would eliminate the competition (smaller local colleges and universities) is easy to understand and predict. Any of the Big Four tech companies has powerful brands that they could use to advertise their courses and reputations for forcing out, or buying over, any competition. There are also risks for society: businesses, government, the public, private and charity sectors need well educated graduates where online learning has enhanced, and not dumbed down, intelligence, critical thinking and analysis.  

As a critical thinker I should now ask the question “Where could I be wrong?” Firstly, I may misunderstand the finances: I have no inside knowledge into HE finances, only what information that’s in the public domain. I may misunderstand the full costs to a university linked to teaching foreign students and so it may be that the tuition of local students is not subsidised in the way I’ve suggested. Most UK universities operate at a loss, with some risking collapse: so even with the existing financial arrangements it appears that the UK governments – and by implication society – have priorities other than proper, equitable university funding. Secondly, it may be that the new tools Covid-19 has forced the HE community to use will – in practise –  compromise, rather than enhance, student learning. (In all likelihood HE will need to use these tools to expand efficiencies in teaching rather than being provided with the funding to expand the facilities and resources for teaching.) When I read the published literature I often find a very small evidence-base for pedagogical tools or ideas (including the really popular ones like Bloom’s levels of learning, flipped classrooms or MCQ tools) and I suspect this is because, for many students, their learning requires relationship, connection, or some social structure, that is difficult to measure and quantify. Thirdly, there are unknown-unknown (unk-unk’s in engineering speak!) and so why should any university take a risk on experimenting with it’s fees structure when society sees them as ‘free market operators’ who are unpaid for the educating students and should balance their own books by whatever mechanisms are legal, and – if said university choses the wrong economic path – be allowed to fold?

Finally, back to Strathclyde University. I’ve written about the history of Strathclyde University before: and in his will John Anderson left his property for the ‘good of Mankind and the Improvement of Science’ by the establishment of Anderson’s University. If the proposal is for a universal fees structure for all students regardless of nationality, I’d like to think that John Anderson would have agreed.


Postscript:Interestingly enough the original post was published on the same day UKRI announced that it’s scholarships would now be open to UK and international students. The twitter thread contained several comments related to the higher fees for international students and, while the UKRI move was welcomed, the scholarships offered would only be enough for UK student fees, meaning that foreign students would need to find additional sources of funding.

Note 1: I’ve recently have had to investigate the fees Scottish students are charged if they have to repeat a year or swap over to another degree course. Scottish students who need to pay fees are charged £1820, while non-EU students are charge £20,650 (See here, accessed 24/10/2020): I had used the figure of 2 fold in the original post, but the value may be over 11 fold.  


1 Comment

  1. Interesting article Steve

    I believe you’ve got the nail on the head by asking a long standing question which most international students I’ve known have asked over the years about disparity over fees.

    Higher Education has certainly seen international students as cash cows. The actual support international students receive from student support services remains limited. There’s limited bi-cultural awareness or competence amongst staff.

    There are also questions around capped numbers on home (Scottish students). Whereas no such restrictions exist for international students.

    Not is there any discourse taking place why we require 4 years studies for an undergraduate degree. How about following the Buckingham university model of 2 year degrees (private university). Where one can complete a Master’s degree with an additional year.

    I believe given Covid 19 a question all universities need to ask is it fair to charge high fees for international students for providing in effect online or distance learning education!

    Possibly a Pandora’s box has opened where more questions need to be asked within and outside the HE sector.

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