Master's Degree Meeting Market's Demand

10/21/2008 07:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last June, students at British universities were in the midst of the exam crunch. To ease the tension, a joke that echoed down the hallowed halls of elite universities went something like this: "As long as you speak English, you'll do fine!"

Around this same time, BBC published a series of "whistle blower" reports by British academics complaining about the over-acceptance of under-qualified international students. As an American postgraduate student in London, I read the reports with more than a little interest. Shortly afterwards, the Guardian ran an article in which two noted professors published an open appeal to the Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Skills and Science requesting an independent inquiry into higher education in the U.K. Although they began with, "On the face of it, all is well," an ensuing, bullet-point list detailing familiar and recurrent problems suggested otherwise, and its conclusion was most damning of all:

"British higher education has a good and generally well-deserved reputation for the quality of its programmes and the standards of its awards. This reputation is the key to its high international standing. This in turn is the key to its attractiveness to international students and the revenue they bring, without which the sector would, literally, be bankrupt."

That American universities are commercialized is an old complaint, and in fact one could argue it's the tension between institutional academic integrity and profitability that keeps the quality of American education high. But in the U.K., the system seemed to work fine without a profit motive. Until twelve years ago, a high quality university education was part of the welfare state--highly selective and very free. Now, universities are under unrelenting pressure to secure new sources of funding, and the international students are bearing much of this burden. Faced with a faltering economy, competition from foreign universities, and skyrocketing science and technology costs that now command the lion's share of an operating budget, U.K. universities are, increasingly, shifting to a more laissez-faire, market-driven approach.

Like any major political and financial issue, there are two camps sitting squarely on opposite ends. To meet rising costs, a number of top universities have co-opted the American model of partnering with pharmaceutical companies and corporations. Others have enlisted the services of professional fundraisers, marketing researchers and public relations experts. These are the pragmatists and they believe British undergraduates should pay as much as the market will bear. (Their fees are still capped at around three thousand pounds.) The anti-elitist "old schoolers" won't give up on the idea of equality and believe that everyone should have equal access to state-funded education. Many of these educators support the Bologna Accords, which calls for a single European education system. The "Oxford Question," posed by Timothy Garton Ash, an academic who divides his time between Stanford and Oxford, asks: "Can we, in Europe, have social justice in higher education and world-class research universities? Or must we choose?" It is not an understatement to say the U.K. university education system is in a state of extreme flux.

It's not surprising, then, that British students are being squeezed out of their own system as the ratio of overseas to British students is approaching nearly 50/50- led by Chinese, Indian, Greek, and American students, in that order. After all, the least controversial way to get more money is to continue raising international students' tuition.

And what of the current students -- what of the roughly 13,000 postgraduate American students? Many students I met this past year are disgruntled, disenchanted, disappointed. They arrive in the U.K. attracted by a one-year degree at a prestigious British university, one that doesn't require the tedious G.R.E., and with the allure of Europe out the backdoor. Most of these students want a determinedly different, more international perspective, as many programs in America are increasingly Amerocentric. Yet many of these same students, used to higher standards in American Universities, are complaining about poor facilities, substandard library shelves in ramshackle buildings, and, most seriously, an absent level of professionalism. In fact, according to the Independent adjudicator for Higher Education, official complaints were up 44% from the previous year.

Judgments depend, of course, on what you want out of a university education. If postgraduate degrees are indeed the products of "diploma mills" or "master's factories," slammed as such by both the British press and public, then it's about leveraging the logo and getting the job. At the London School of Economics and Political Science, for example, a recognized leader in one-year master's courses (boasting ten new taught courses and approximately an 8% increase in tuition for foreign students this year), JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs visit regularly, as do WPP, the World Bank, the IMF, and do-gooder nonprofits. Last year, the U.K. government announced that any overseas student who completes a degree is eligible for a one-year visa extension to work in the U.K. Perhaps students can one day even become shareholders in their Alma matter rather than donors?

Yet there is the other side, those notions about knowledge, about global citizenship. Take, for example, the master's program in Law and Anthropology at London School of Economics. The campus, though rather ugly, is housed near historic Bloomsbury, next to the British Museum, where the relics of Imperial Britain lie. Law and Anthropology is one of the "newer" postgraduate degrees, five years old, and this year, hosting the largest class in its short history.

Take, for example, the first day. Twenty students enter the nondescript, sixth floor classroom and take a seat around a u-shaped table. At the front of the class is the committed Anthropology professor, absent is the Law professor. The class itself is like a model United Nations: five are American, four are English, two are German, two are Canadian, two are Brazilian, one is Indian, one is Icelandic, one is Sri Lankan, one is South African and one is Cuban. Only no one is trying to represent their country, everyone is representing themselves, as students, as consumers. English is the spoken language and with the exception of two, everyone speaks it well, though with different accents and with different slang. All are intelligent, interesting people with varied background and experiences, relatively young and eager, which is attractive in terms of learning from one's peers, but is distracting in terms of academic cohesion and structure.

By December, the frustrated class holds an emergency meeting with the frustrated professors. What are we studying? The anthropologists don't think there is enough ethnography; the lawyers don't think there are enough cases. Though a general theme of the course, ironically, is translation between disparate laws and systems, there are so many perspectives that one girl announces she is about to give up. Another actually does, and transfers to Oxford. Over beers afterwards at the campus pub, with students from various courses, people complain about the obscurity of the subjects, about the unavailability of the professors and administrators, about the dirty bathrooms, and then everyone goes out to dance at a hot, new club in East London before leaving for holiday.

By June, in the throes of the exams, there is satisfaction. Facing the end of the year, with the grey London winter behind, with the city awash in the colors of spring, everyone is glad they are getting a degree from the prestigious L.S.E. At the same time, a number of students also claim they wouldn't recommend the university. They wouldn't want friends to feel "ripped off."

The value of a university education is hard to measure, because by which markers should it be measured? There are various contradictions working against each other, most obviously the unleashing of individual potential in an economically competitive institution. So you look at the pieces of the package, beyond the theories of Baudrillard and Bourdieu, beyond the new international friends and beyond the vacations around Europe. In the end, perhaps these degrees are just as much a life lesson, a life experience: it is the frustration of rigidly bureaucratic institutions; it is the frustration of expectations not met. It is being a foreign graduate student adrift among the old buildings and sleek architecture of one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities. But that sounds impossibly romantic. Could one not obtain the same knowledge talking with and listening to the locals in Paris, or Buenos Aires, or Hong Kong, or Cape Town?

When, in 1902, Cecil Rhodes created the Rhodes scholarship for Americans at Oxford to develop "an attachment to the country from which they have sprung," foster an "understanding" to make "the strongest tie" between the two countries, one could say he started a sentimental tradition. But with fees nearly equivalent to American universities, the medieval origins of U.K. education are inevitably clashing with the modern form. Universities, like almost everything else in the world, are in a period of great change, struggling to keep up with the growing global consumer culture. While it's absurd to look back to the old grandeur of an Oxford or a Cambridge, where universities were beacons of culture, it's also important to understand and respond to the demands of the present. It's both an unnerving and comforting thought that so much of university higher education -- in America and now in the U.K. -- sits squarely in the lap of the market.