The government should provide more money for higher education but should not meddle or try to use Britain’s universities to enhance social mobility, a senior official at the University of Cambridge told other educators Wednesday.
Vice-Chancellor Alison Richard called for greater government funding for Britain’s colleges and universities, warning that the United States, China and many other countries spend a far higher percentage of their national wealth on schooling.
“As institutions charged with education research and training, our purpose is not to be construed as that of handmaidens of industry, implementers of the skills agenda, or indeed engines for promoting social justice,” she said, calling for the “independence and autonomy” of Britain’s universities to be maintained.
Richard was speaking at the opening of the annual Universities U.K. conference, held this year at Cambridge to focus on questions of funding. She emphasized the need for universities to be free to set their own educational and financial policies without outside interference.
Her comments came as Britain’s most prestigious universities, Cambridge and Oxford, are under increasing pressure to admit more students from Britain’s state-supported schools rather than relying on the country’s more exclusive, and expensive, private schools.
She said a university’s core mission was to educate and lead research, not provide social mobility. But by carrying out this mission and diversifying the makeup of the student body, the university does end up playing an important role in enhancing social justice, she said.
Cambridge, which celebrates its 800th anniversary next year, announced last week that admissions from state schools for the current academic year had risen to 59 percent, the highest proportion since 1981.
In one effort to attract more students from diverse backgrounds, Cambridge University officials have been lobbying the producers of three leading soap operas to include story lines about the university to let more working class people know that you don’t need to be rich to attend.
Richard also warned that the quality of the education Cambridge provides, and the university’s ability to attract talent, are both at risk during an era of intense global competition.
She criticized the British government’s desire to shape higher education to make it more relevant to the private sector, and said the government’s increased interest in education may be jeopardizing vital academic freedoms.
Chronic underfunding may lead to a long-term decline in the high caliber of education traditionally offered by Britain’s many universities, she said.
Richard cited figures indicating that Britain spends only 1.1 percent of its gross national product on higher education while the U.S. spends 2.9 percent and China spends 1.3 percent.
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