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United Kingdom: Ambitious school reform initiatives

Of all the reforms of the Tory-Libdem coalition government which was voted into office in May 2010, none inspired greater expectations than the plan to expand choice and competition in schools. The brief was entrusted to Michael Gove, one of the more cerebral cabinet members, who was broadly supported by the Liberal Democrats.

At first those great expectations looked naive. The coalition wanted academies (governed by the ministry of education rather than local authorities) to proliferate, and entirely new “free” but state-funded schools to be set up by parents and charities. Yet only a dozen or so free schools were approved in the summer of 2010 — in line with ministers’ predictions, but fewer than the hype portended. Nor was there a deluge of academies.

Like most Tory cabinet ministers, Gove was originally prevented from choosing his own special advisers by Andy Coulson, formerly the government’s head of communications, who wanted them to answer to Downing Street. Gove also struggled to prevail over sceptical civil servants, teachers unions who vehemently opposed his plans, and Ed Balls, his Labour opposite number until October.

Almost a year on from the election, reformers are more sanguine. After Coulson quit in January over a phone-tapping scandal connected to his previous life as a newspaper editor, Gove was able to hire his own staff. David Cameron, whose prime ministerial style was at first that of a hands-off chairman, has become tenacious in backing his education secretary’s fight with what some Tories now bitterly call “the machine” of Whitehall.

The numbers are up: 357 schools have converted into academies since September and 547 secondary schools, one in six, now have academy status. The ratio could reach one in four within a year. Ministers privately define success as half of all secondaries becoming academies by 2015. They are on course. By contrast, it took Labour four years to open the first 27 academies, and the previous Tory government five years to open 15 city technology colleges, forerunners of academies.

The huge number of conversions has overwhelmed teachers unions, who had hoped to take on schools aspiring to academy status through a combination of targeted PR campaigns and legal challenges. (Academies represent a serious threat to the power of the unions, as they are not bound by the deals on pay and conditions negotiated at the national level.) They now have too many targets to aim at.

Despite the profusion of academies, the government will not be satisfied until free schools take off too. These are intended to add capacity to the state sector, and to embody prime minister Cameron’s vision of a “Big Society” in which citizens collaborate to provide services traditionally monopolised by the state. Ministers are confident: most interested parties were never likely to take the plunge in the first year, they say, and 17 free schools had been approved by February, out of 323 applications. Some, though, think the ban on for-profit firms setting up free schools might have to be lifted.

That would further rile the unions. But Gove is now used to fighting.

Higher education fees muddle

The unseemly scramble by most british universities to raise annual tuition fees to the maximum level permitted by the state, £9,000 (Rs.6.57 lakh) from September 2012, is a headache for the Tory-LibDem coalition government. Not only does it make university education in the UK as expensive as in the US, a burden that will in many cases be borne by the taxpayer, but it also seems to rule out creating a genuine market in higher education, with institutions competing on price. Ministers had thought that universities charging top fees would be exceptional. Alas, when they submitted their final plans on April 19, it was clear that most had aimed high.

Under the government scheme put forward last year, undergraduates will borrow from the state at modest interest rates to cover costs of their tuition, repaying the debt once they graduate and start earning more than £21,000 (Rs.15.33 lakh) per year. Ministers expect that 30 percent of the money lent will never be repaid. Asking all taxpayers to fund what only some consume has pernicious effects: it drives up demand for higher education even when prices become eye-watering. In England, tuition fees will have risen almost seven-fold over the decade to 2012, yet demand so far has robustly outstripped supply.

In Britain, many see a university degree as an essential first step into the world of work these days. But another academic market offers a useful lesson. Curiously, the tuition fees that undergraduates in England will pay are not only consistently high, they are also mostly more expensive than the unregulated fees charged to postgraduates at the same institutions. According to Mike Reddin, who collects information on tuition fees, 85 percent of English universities currently offer Masters degrees for less than £9,000. Being a whizz at maths will gain you entry to both a Masters in finance and a Masters in theoretical physics, but Imperial College London charges £27,500 (Rs.20 lakh) for the former and £5,230 (Rs.3.8 lakh) for the latter. The costs of providing the courses are roughly the same.

So far, the state has avoided subsidising postgraduate degrees and doctorates, and so has set no limits on what universities can charge for them. People who embark on higher degrees take out a commercial bank loan, find an indulgent sponsor or earn the money first. That has focused attention on making them affordable.

Undergraduate fees, however, are political dynamite, so withdrawal of state subsidies to dent demand and thus reduce price is not one that will appeal. But demand is only half of the equation. David Willetts, the universities minister, hopes to cut costs by increasing supply, encouraging new entrants into the market. In this he has scored a modest victory: on April 13 BPP, a company training accountants and lawyers to which Willetts granted university-college status last year, announced it will offer cheap law degrees to students enroled at New College, Swindon. It may be years before deregulated providers of higher education exert discipline over the old-timers, but it’s a start.

(Excerpted and adapted from Times Higher Education and The Economist)