End of Term Report: The Willetts principle and the shifting ground in the battle for Higher Education

Posted: Thursday 19 Jul 2012
on Friday 20 Jul 2012

It is now over 18 months since the UK parliament voted to raise the cap on university tuition fees to £9,000.  As we approach the end of the academic year and await the first intake of undergraduate students who will be asked to pay these fees in September 2012, it would appear as if the Coalition government has won a decisive victory.  However, following the long delayed HE White Paper and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills interminable and ultimately equivocal response to it, the future of Higher Education policy remains very much up for grabs.  Given the controversy surrounding the government’s HE agenda BIS has effectively kicked further reforms into the long grass.  In response to the consultation on its own White Paper it has instigated a series of further reviews that are unlikely to come to many meaningful conclusions in time to be implemented before a 2015 general election.  At the same time, the secretary for state David Willetts recently told the BIS parliamentary select committee that an HE bill was clearly needed to produce a meaningful legislative framework for the new HE landscape created by government reforms.  When asked when the bill might be forthcoming, the minister telling replied ‘who knows?’  It is this uncertainty, this ‘who knows?’ (let us call it the Willetts principle) that continues to be the most defining characteristic of present HE policy.

However, given the uncertainty surrounding higher education in the UK, it might paradoxically be said to have a future.  Universities and Vice Chancellors traditionally do not cope well with ambiguity and indecision: the present circumstances looking to many like the gaping chasm of insecurity and doubt, which on the face of it seems a bad way to run major public institutions.  However, the ‘who knows’ principle of Higher Education today also presents us with the possibility for useful leverage in responding to the government’s agenda for our universities.  At present there is no programme to deal with future events, this remains to be invented in the face of the unknown.  On the one hand, universities will have to respond to whatever arrives in September when this years’ notoriously difficult to read application figures materialize in the form of actual life-choices made by 18 and 19 year olds. This response will also have to be a taking responsibility for: universities will just have to make the best of it, whatever happens, in the new academic year.  Their leadership has for the most part been complicit in the path that led to £9,000 fees.  They will also have to make the best of the new technocratic arrangements around Student Number Control that will be in place for the short term until 2015.  On the other hand, if the Coalition has exhausted itself into several years of policy blight, then sufficient time remains in advance of the next election for the formulation of an alternative HE agenda.  One that actually works, and one that might take into account the opinions of people who work in universities, and those legions whose job it is to analyse and critique the HE scene.

What then are the issues that such an alternative policy set must address?  The following is a by no means exhaustive list of what those doing the thinking need to think about:

  1. Tuition Fee commitments for 2015 election manifestos: the £9,000 fee/voucher is unsustainable from a Treasury point of view due to the present design of repayments, and unsustainable from a universities’ point of view because its value declines with inflation.  Either the repayment scheme is fixed (e.g. in the form of a graduate tax) or cash is routed to universities through other means (e.g. a lower and more secure ‘graduate contribution’ and a return to fixed grant aid from HEFCE for all subjects).
  2. The Student Loan book and the statutory rights of graduates: at present the government is looking to sell off the pre-2012 loan book, it has said that it has no plans to do the same with the new fees regime.  On the one hand, this tells us that the new arrangements are so risky that no one wants to buy them.  On the other hand, it shows that unless present repayment arrangements (what school children were told would happen if they applied to university) are written into law then there remains the possibility that repayment terms will change when the loan book is sold on.  This has already happened in New Zealand, the UK government refuses to guarantee present terms into the future.
  3. Privatization and the autonomy of the sector: the Coalition’s desire to support ‘new entrants’ in a competitive market has paradoxically resulted in ministers taking more powers over HE in order to fix that market to achieve their desired outcomes.  At the same time the Tory-led agenda is to see constitutional changes to universities to allow greater private sector (financial) involvement.  Who knows how that will all end and this is why a legislative framework is required, at the moment it all feels a little like the Wild West.  Privo-Nationalisation is beginning to look like a threat to university autonomy around questions such as admissions policy.  Which leads us to:
  4. Participation rates and access: as a result of the fiscal cost of the new fees regime, degree places are in decline and student applications in England are falling, especially amongst mature students.  At the same time access schemes such as the Educational Maintenance Allowance have gone; a proposed ‘student premium’ is yet to appear and anyway is not based on any new money to the sector.  These issues are at present badly framed as a debate around ‘social mobility’, which is not the same thing as, say, ‘social justice’ and is in all honesty just tinkering in relation to the big picture issues of HE today.
  5. Regulation and what the Daily Mail likes to call ‘standards’: as government departments and Quangos attempt to drive down their administrative overheads, we have for a while been moving towards ‘light touch’ quality assurance (less intrusion, bigger penalties) both in terms of teaching oversight and research peer review.  Given the unhappy history of light touch regulation in the UK banking industry, this might not be the best way to go in a world where students are paying such large fees for their courses.
  6. Research, development, science and what to do about the RAE?The government through HEFCE seems to have all but abandoned the principle of funding research excellence wherever it is found in favour of increased concentration of funding.  This has as much to do with the cost of the overheads of administering research as it does with the desire to appease the insatiable and self-selected elite.  However, it will be necessary to think about how to support big science projects like the Hadron-Collider as well as the microclimate of the arts, humanities and social sciences.  The other question here is how long are we going to persist with the present regime of national research assessment?  We should not begin to start thinking about the offspring of REF 2014 on the other side of a possibly complex election landscape.
  7. International students and visa madness: the government’s ideological obsession with immigration figures has placed universities in an invidious position and will undoubtedly damage one of the few ‘export successes’ in the UK economy.  It’s a no-brainer to fix but would require the combined will of politicians and universities to take on the divisive discourse around immigration that pervades public debate in the UK.
  8. Postgraduate students, further study and training: as the new fees regime works itself out the government has created a long-fuse problem for universities, with debts in excess of £40,000 how will students afford to take on postgraduate study and training?  Already, universities are either rebalancing their portfolio away from a postgraduate offer towards guaranteed undergraduate fees, or, raising their PG fees to match their UG prices.  This will no doubt have significant consequences with the loss of certain postgraduate subject areas and the increased concentration on vocational masters work.  Given that the PG provision in the UK was effectively already a private market of pure choice, its decimation in favour of Whitehall-regulated, voucher-wielding undergraduates seems something of an own-goal for this government.  The future of postgraduate study certainly falls into the ‘who knows’ category.  Possible solutions may involve micro financing from universities or extending the student loan book to 1 year of Masters study.
  9. The pernicious influence of mission groups and the health of the HE pyramid:  one of the reasons we are in the state we are in is that although Higher Education is a multi-billion pound industry that feeds the UK economy, HE policy is driven by the self-interested demands of university mission groups.  Governments like mission groups because they allow for the division and rule of the sector, and it’s always possible to encourage some knighthood-hungry VC to publicly support any government position no matter how ludicrous.  However, the greater eco-system of education in the UK stands to be done enormous damage by this behavior, e.g. if you think things are bad in universities, just look at the decline in numbers in our Further Education colleges next year (50% on some estimates).  That ought to be a matter of real concern for government and universities.   Who government listens to and where it gathers its evidence base for decision making from is a huge stake in all of this.
  10. Internationalization and foreign campus developments: some of our more gung-ho Vice Chancellors have embraced a future in which UK universities, like the Barclay’s Premier League, will open up new markets in the Far East and become global brands.  This is all cross subsidized by the tax-payer at present although BIS are asking Goldman Sachs to advise UK universities on possible investment partners.   The future of UK Higher Education may well be international but the razor cuts both ways, in an age of globalization the old world certainties around the graduate salary premium and employability no longer pertain.  The opening of UK Higher Education onto global markets goes hand in hand with the complication of life opportunities for UK graduates and so in turn potential university applicants.

These are just the most urgent issues that need to be addressed in the here and now.  However, they would all be better informed if someone actually took the time to step aside from ad hoc policy fixes and the technocratic management of Treasury commitments to think about what universities are for and what the nation would like to get out of its still considerable investment (through pre-borrowed, pre-approved UG vouchers) in Higher Education.  The whole point of universities, compared to say opinionated journalism, is that the thinking that takes place in them does so over long, considered periods of time.  So why should thinking about universities be so make-shift? We need a thinking that is not based upon a polarized debate about who gets to go to Oxbridge or around silly ephemera such as the ‘student premium’ and social mobility.  Rather, it must be a mature evaluation of the role of Higher Education in the world today (and tomorrow) and how it is to be paid for given all the other competing demands on the public purse in that complex world.  It cannot start out exclusively from the set of assumptions we have at the moment around the infallibility of markets, the light touch regulation of self-declared elites, and the vocational employability of graduates.  If we are to give our universities a future, this alternative thinking of policy must embrace the ‘who knows’ of the changing global tomorrow.  A thinking of what universities are for and will need to be in the future should be the basis for a national master plan for Higher Education.  This plan should affirm the economic, intellectual and cultural importance of the university and tertiary education to an advanced industrial nation.  It should explicitly and thoughtfully address questions of access, opportunity and national need as well as sponsoring quality across a vibrant, rainbow sector.  It will have to unpick all the present short-termism that risks rendering the sector unsustainable and put in place a long-term approach to funding that supports the global success of UK Higher Education as an investment in the infrastructure of the nation as part of a strategy for growth.  Such a plan will require a reaffirmation in what is irreducible in the mission of the university: a commitment to the production of knowledge and its transmission for the social good.  Who knows? Such an affirmation, underpinned by sustainable finance, might contribute to economic growth and national recovery.  It might offer our young people a viable future beyond debt and utility.  It may even lead to something like a new Enlightenment.  Who knows?

Leave a comment

LGS 2017 Summer Academy Progamme: '1967'

Tuesday 09 May 2017
Posted in Blog

This is the final programme for the 2017 London Graduate School Summer Academy in the Critical Humanities, on the topic of '1967': Monday 26 June 1pm...