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October 20, 2010

More power to the state

The impact of Browne is less independence for universities

Lord Browne's report must worry every reader of Research Fortnight. The part that explains why students must now contribute significantly to the costs of their education is unexceptional and was indeed widely anticipated.
 
That part of the report has embraced many excellent principles. Government-backed money should follow the student rather than be distributed to universities as block grants; state-funded universities may, within certain upper limits, charge the fees the market will bear; and no student should have to pay fees upfront but will be required to repay loans made on realistic but nonetheless modest interest rates.

Certain large London-based universities might not survive a freer market in fees, but that is the whole point about markets: they weed out the weaker offerings.

But Browne has made another, more worrisome recommendation that is probably justified but which nonetheless needs challenging: he has suggested extending the government fee-loan scheme to cover part-time undergraduate students. Currently these students -- like many masters' students -- operate within a largely free market, with their fees not being underpinned by government support.

Is this really the time to widen public programmes? Part-time students, generally adults in work, are one of the current triumphs of higher education, accounting for nearly 40 per cent of students and proving, on graduation, to earn on average more than full-time undergraduates. So if part-time undergraduate education ain't broke, and if it is succeeding so well without taxpayer support, why is Browne fixing it?

Browne says that some people might be disincentivised by the current market in part-time fees, but the evidence he proffers is slim, and since Browne has in his report already slain one sacred cow (he shows how the 2003 predictions that top-up fees would reduce undergraduate admissions were absurdly wrong) it must worry us to see him create a new one. If Browne really believes that this extension of government support might increase social justice, where is his cost-benefit analysis?

Yet the real anxiety over Browne comes towards the end of his report where he suggests a comprehensive restructuring of the agencies of higher education. There are currently six government agencies on which Browne has designs: UCAS, the Student Loans Company, HEFCE, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the Office of Independent Adjudication (OIA) and the Office of Fair Access (OFFA).

Browne suggests subordinating the SLC to UCAS, which would then act as a one-stop-shop to coordinate both the admissions of students to universities and to process their loan applications. The justification Browne gives for using UCAS and the SLC into a new body he calls Student Finance is that, currently, each of the existing bodies forces students to fill in separate forms. Well, really. If, as Browne claims, students are thus deterred, why not just not ask the two bodies to design a joint form?

Browne further proposes fusing the other four bodies, HEFCE, QAA, OIA and OFFA into one new body, to be called the Higher Education Council. But Browne offers no rationale for this huge merger.

Because Browne has removed from HEFCE one of its two raisons d'etre, he hints that in its new incarnation it would be too small to be viable. Yet the REF budget will still be considerable, so why – since, as Browne admitted in his report, he has made no study of research - can he advise on the dispensation of a research agency, which is what the residual HEFCE will be?

Browne gives no reasons for wanting to merge the QAA, either, into his new body. The QAA attracts its share of criticism, so he presumably feels that it needs to be taken over by someone. Yet the QAA is improving, and no-one has shown that its acquisition would increase its rate of improvement.

As for the OIA, HEFCE already stretches every rule of corporate governance by having been designated, under the 2006 Charities Act, the sector's regulator as well as its funder, yet Browne – perversely – wants to further diminish independent regulation by folding the OIA into a new larger body too. He does not say why.

From his remarks Browne clearly doesn't rate OFFA's effectiveness, so he wants to subsume that too in his new body. Again, he doesn't say why.

British HE is a vast industry with a turnover of £24 billion annually, which is larger than the advertising, pharmaceutical or aerospace industries. Although the Government is pressing for a reduction in the numbers of quangos in Britain, a £24 billion industry merits a proper portfolio of independent quangos, if only to help them monitor each other. The lessons of 1688 and 1776 should not be lost: we need a separation - not a concentration - of government powers in higher education. 

To conclude: Browne has not wasted a crisis, and he has used the bankruptcy of the Government to propose a huge reduction in the universities' financial dependence on the state. That is a good thing, both empirically and morally. Empirically it is a good thing because the international picture confirms that the more financially independent are a nation's universities (the USA is the obvious example) the better are those universities. But it is also a good thing morally, because the prime beneficiary of a university education is the graduate, so he or she should bear their share of the costs.

Unfortunately Browne has also tried to use the universities' residual financial dependence on the state to increase the government's power over them in ways that flout the principle of university independence. Happily, though, the very residual nature of the universities' remaining financial dependence on the state also adumbrates their escape mechanism.

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