LGS Thoughtpiece

‘Goodbye to all that’ by Martin McQuillan

Posted: Sunday 08 Nov 2015
by LGS 0 comments

The green paper marks a key point in the Government’s struggle to create a market in higher education, and it lays waste to the idea of academia as a public service.

Remembrance Sunday marks a moment to reflect on the struggles of the past.  War can be both futile and necessary at the same time. Equally, peace can bring unintended outcomes as well as benefits. Those not attending memorial events today will have a chance to consider the government green paper on higher education published on Friday, Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. It is not an inappropriate thing to do.

The right to access to higher education was enshrined in article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the end of World War II.  Universities in the United Kingdom have a long history of producing students, graduates and staff who have served with distinction during times of war.  And public service is one of the issues at stake in the green paper.

On the face of it, what emerges from the green paper might look like a brave new world of consumer choice and statutory rights, designed to produce a transformation of the higher education sector similar to the revolution in telecommunications that replaced the General Post Office and British Telecom with Vodafone, Car Phone Warehouse, DHL, and Doddle.  Combined with the proposals to index-link tuition fees and to create a “level playing field” for the new private equity colleges, accelerating access to the university title, it would seem that the long battle to create a market in higher education is coming to an end.

The dividend of the green paper peace could see new providers such as the University of Phoenix, DeVry Education Group, and Kaplan International Colleges opening branches in towns all over the UK, driving up quality, challenging the old complacent ways of the senior common room, encouraging the undynamic to embrace “market exit” and allowing switched on consumer-school-leavers, using higher education supermarket websites, to access value for money for their working-life-long loan debt.  Fulfilling our potential, sounds wonderful.

The paper had been expected in early October but was held up as it went through a Whitehall write around — the process whereby other government departments comment on the impact of a policy document.  Reading it, one might suspect that it was also passed around bloggers at The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph, given that it’s extensive scope covers all the higher education bête noirs of the Conservative Party and then some.

Firstly, there is the proposal to merge the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office For Fair Access into a new body, the Office for Students.  This marks the end of two bodies viewed with suspicion by some in the commentariat (one considered akin to a soviet planning agency for higher education, the other a bugbear that threatened to force prestige universities to admit the under-qualified).  While the symbolism of this merger, which is really an annulment, will please some, in reality it marks the end of a process of quango-engineering that has been in train since the last parliament.

When the fees and loans regime of 2010 was first initiated, the then secretary of state David Willetts, had imagined that OFFA would act as a sector regulator, in the manner of OFCOM.  It transpired that OFFA had neither the capacity nor the legal powers to act as the coalition government had expected.  Beyond the influencing skills of its director Les Ebdon, OFFA has been limited in the actions that it can take, with the exception of the lip service paid to access agreements and so the approval of the distribution of (possibly) soon to be defunct student opportunity funding.

At the same time, the redirection of HEFCE’s key duty, the distribution of teaching funds, towards a relation between individual students and the Student Loans Company, left HEFCE vulnerable.  During the last parliament it was not clear if HEFCE actually retained any legal powers to compel universities to comply with its instructions.  Such an ambiguous situation could not continue much longer and would require primary legislation to correct.

There will be debates in the coming months about the future of HEFCE’s other main area of business, the research excellence framework, which merits only two pages in the green paper.  There will be a play for a separate body to run the REF and to preserve HEFCE’s own “world-leading” expertise in this field, but that would not fit well with the desire to simplify research funding.  Others will want to see QR money distributed by the research councils (or their successor) but this will be hard to square with both the principles of dual funding and the devolved context of the UK;  like Jeremy Corbyn’s A-Level results, HEFCE has two E’s and the second one is the more significant one in this context.

The creation of The Office for Students shifts the emphasis of higher education policy in England away from the management and governance of institutions to representing the interests of students as consumers.  It will combine the work of quality assessment with complaint adjudication and compliance with the competition and markets authority.

Extensive in scope as the green paper might be, it fails to account for one thing — higher education itself.  Matriculation at a university is not the same as having a mobile phone contract.

What exactly is the problem that the green paper is determined to fix?  Is it really poor teaching in universities?  It provides no evidence of “lamentable” teaching beyond anecdote and impression.  Is it the skills shortage? Doing an engineering degree depends upon choices made some time before entering university. Is it plugging the non-repayment rates of the student loan book? Increasing the fees cap will not help this.  Is it even the creation of a politically convenient means of raising fees through the apparatus of the TEF?  If it is, then it is a willfully attritional and expensive way to do it, because as the green paper itself reveals index-linking fees does not require a vote in parliament but is a delegated power of the Treasury.

So, what is the point of this green paper? Taken as a whole the reforms proposed by the newly liberated majority Conservative government, are nothing short of a plan to see off the idea of the public university.  Despite what is sometimes claimed, they represent a radical break with the traditions of Robbins and Dearing.  Over time the proposals of the green paper will rearrange utterly the landscape of higher education in England, transforming academia from a public service into a traded commodity.

The temptation will be to take the short-term view encouraged by REF and now TEF cyclical periods in order to maximize income to individual universities in competition with one another.  Given time the green paper reforms will be impossible to unpick and the idea of universities as publically accountable assets in the cultural and economic life of the nation will fade away.  One day in the future children will have to visit a museum to learn about when universities were considered quasi-public entities.

With the Labour party in the midst of a nervous breakdown of its own, is there any voice today that has the political credibility and intellectual capacity to offer an alternative vision for universities in England?  Will one emerge from within the sector?  University leaders should not be distracted by the shiny new bauble of achieving Level 4 TEF status.  As custodians of our universities they need to think about what is best for higher education in England. Is it really the end of the post-war dispensation of public institutions and public service and the opening up of those institutions to global equity capital?  There is a choice to be made here and it is a more profound one than our next mobile phone provider.

This text first appeared as ‘Goodbye to all that’, for ‘The 8am Playbook on 07.11.15 for ‘HE: from Research Professional’, published by ResearchResearch.com. For details on how to subscribe to HE and the Playbook visit their website at http://www.researchresearch.com.


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