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August 05, 2011

Placing uncertainty at the heart of the system

The higher education white paper fails at every turn to deliver the myth of ‘teaching excellence’, says Martin McQuillan.  It's time to put aside naked self-interest and restore sanity to UK higher education.

The Higher Education White Paper is a shallow, anaemic document which sets out a series of technocratic solutions to the cost of the ongoing policy disaster of English tuition fees.  It has been commented before that the White Paper fails to offer any sort of vision for the sector, or mention research, or indeed mention any flavour of university other than the Russell Group.  This is unless one considers the White Paper’s title ‘Putting Students at the Heart of the System’ a vision rather than a tautology: it’s a bit like calling a transport white paper ‘Allowing People to Drive Cars on Roads’.  However, even this talk of incentivising teaching excellence over research is a disingenuous, post hoc delusion.

The Browne Review was charged with solving the problem of addressing the high fiscal cost of an expansion in undergraduate student numbers. The expansion is necessary over a sustained period to maintain the UK’s competitiveness in a global economy, though the growing divergence between funding HE in England and that in the rest of the UK must now be a challenge to that idea.  On its own terms Browne solved this by proposing a market of unlimited fees and crucially an unlimited supply of student numbers, controlled at the ‘bottom end’ by a government definition of a minimum entry requirement for university study. 

This proved unacceptable for a number of reasons, notably that half the cabinet had solemnly pledged to abolish fees altogether, and that such a minimum entry requirement would be a possibly illegal strike at university autonomy.  The White Paper now takes Browne’s proposals and twists them into a mishmash by attempting to create a stratified market within the university sector but retaining the same overall cap on student numbers.  The technocratic solutions offered here are as un-modelled and risky as the original policy failure and are unlikely to achieve the results the government wants.

The so-called market in Higher Education that the WP proposes would work something like this:

  1.  ‘Elite Universities’ who will be encouraged to recruit an unlimited number of students holding AAB at A Level.
  2.  ‘The Squeezed Middle’ who will find intake reduced by the size of the margin of student numbers held back for competitive bidding (they cannot bid for them back because their average fee is greater than £7,500) and by the flight of AAB students to the ‘Elite’.  Given that the average fee in the sector is now £8,267 the ‘squeezed middle’ has quite a long tail.
  3.  ‘The Bargain Basement’ of new private providers, Further Education Colleges and new universities with an average fee below £7,500 who can bid for the margin numbers while remaining relatively unaffected by the movement of AAB students or the concentration of research funding.

This situation is problematic for a number of reasons:

  1. It is not at all clear that any selective university with a balanced portfolio of undergraduate, postgraduate and research activity will want to expand undergraduate numbers.  The ‘Elite’ will not be ‘freed to compete internationally’ by encouraging them to take on more undergraduate numbers.  Further, it is frankly bizarre to suggest that these universities should be encouraged to recruit more international students but need to improve their teaching for British undergraduates.  We might also note that AAB students are probably the better-informed student consumer and have chosen the university they have because they want to do a certain course in a certain locale.  There is no good reason why any of them would want to ‘trade up’.  They certainly can’t trade up to do professional subjects like medicine and dentistry because these courses are capped due to professional supply models and the physical limits of resourcing them.  Everyone with two As and a B cannot train to be pharmacologists in Manchester.
  2. Student numbers is a zero-sum game: expansion by some and the introduction of new providers will inevitably mean the reduction of numbers elsewhere.  The ‘squeezed middle’ represents the heart of UK’s much-valued (by people overseas anyway) higher education system and will now face considerable hardship.  Their only choice is to cut prices to bid for margin students.  Quite how teaching on the cheap to less-qualified students will improve quality is a mystery to me.  Over time as the margin is increased the ‘squeezed middle’ will become increasingly stratified and much educational excellence will be lost forever.  If the size of the margin numbers increases every year in an unpredictable and sudden way (say through a late announcement during the recruitment cycle) then considerable instability will be introduced into the system resulting in very real financial uncertainty for large numbers of excellent universities.  Is this really what the government hopes to achieve?
  3. The 'Bargain Basement’ faces its own problems since their own expansion will be limited to the size of the margin, to be controlled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England which, charged with running a competitive market, will be keen to keep the ‘squeezed middle’ in business.  One should be rightly sceptical of the quality of student experience in any ‘bargain basement’. Nor will its construction encourage ‘widening participation’: there is an overall cap on student numbers; and institutions are encouraged to keep fees low through ‘fee waivers’, which benefit graduates, not bursaries, which benefit students.

In short, the White Paper is about BIS being seen to reduce the cost of mass higher education through a series of ideological obfuscations that fail at every turn to deliver the myth of ‘teaching excellence’.  There is only one real solution to the problem of the cost of the fees and loans system. That is to increase the size of the teaching-grant—including salvaging a T-grant for the arts, humanities and social sciences. This would re-introduce predictability into the system, resulting in a reduction in the price of fees and the overall future fiscal cost of public sector borrowing to fund fees.  Smaller fees cost the taxpayer less and mean they are more likely to be repaid in full. 

The choice between a relatively inexpensive increase in the T-grant versus the possible long-term destruction of the UK’s middle-ranking universities is a no-brainer.  In the discussions that follow the release of the White Paper it is time to put aside the naked self-interest of the mission groups and to restore sanity to higher education in the UK by constructing a funding model that encourages quality in every institution of a rainbow sector. 

 

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