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Set the Universities Free

After pensions and healthcare, higher education is the third great public service in serious trouble in many countries, notably in Europe. Proud Germany, the inventor of the modern university system as most of the world currently knows it, now sees its students ranked at the bottom in tests of knowledge and competence. The nature of the trouble in higher education is similar to that affecting all the public services: a massive growth in demand that can no longer be met from the public purse.

This means, above all, that the much-vaunted middle classes are being asked--or soon will be asked--to contribute more toward the costs of these services, either by higher taxes or through privatisation of the financial burdens. Additional private pensions in Germany, rising charges for healthcare everywhere, and "top-up fees" for university students in the United Kingdom have become hot political issues bedevilling governments almost everywhere. For the most part, the quick fixes they have imposed so far have not been very successful.

In the case of higher education, there is of course an alternative. In the absence of sufficient funds, one can simply let the universities deteriorate. On the European Continent this has been happening since the 1970s. Overcrowded classes in often inadequate physical surroundings without necessary equipment have led to ever longer periods of study, a deterioration in the quality of degrees, and much unhappiness among both students and professors. In the United Kingdom, where this did not happen in the 1970s and 1980s, every university place could have been filled with a Continental European trying to escape declining institutions at home.

Now, however, the miseries of expanding the number of university students without adequate public finance have invaded Britain as well. Even Britain's Secretary of State for Education admits that higher education would need 18 billion additional euros in the budget merely to return standards of education to where they were ten years ago in terms of staff-student ratios and the condition of buildings and equipment. Within a decade the funds available per student have declined by 40%. Where can the needed funds come from?