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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Higher Education Fail

Friday, August 19, 2011

On the day that students hope to pass their A-Levels, let us remember that today also marks the failure of Higher Education in the UK, as the next cohort of A-Level students will be the first to pay for their university education under the new tuition fee regime. I have blogged many times about why the government's plans for universities are flawed, so I will largely hand over to Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books, who provides an acute dissection of the bloody mess that is the Higher Education White Paper. Each of the "subjects" below were the originally intentions behind the Browne review proposals. Each of them, though, has failed in its implementation. The quotes are Collini's.

Subject: Decreasing costs for taxpayer. Grade: Fail.

The original intention of the Browne Review was to find a way to square a circle: allow more students to attend university, whilst decreasing the cost to the taxpayer. We will come to the former issue in a moment. But with respect to the latter, it seems clear that the immediate costs to the taxpayer will actually increase. As Collini points out, it is strange that the supposedly independent Browne review managed to recommend slashing public spending on universities just before the coalition announced its own spending plans. But it is a disaster that, ultimately, the government's reforms will actually increase public spending:
We now know that when the decision was taken to replace the block grant with a loan system, the Treasury (presumably the real driving force behind the change) calculated that the initial expenditure on loans would more or less match current expenditure on the teaching grant if the average fee were no higher than £7500. But the Treasury had assumed that the Office for Fair Access (Offa), which oversees universities’ admissions policies, had the legal power to dictate how much a given university could charge, ensuring that fees would be kept down to the desired average level. But Offa has no such legal power, as its director was obliged to ‘remind’ the government. A great many universities were setting fees of £9000 (as anyone could have told the government they would). It slowly dawned on the government that not only was the scheme not going to reduce expenditure; it was actually going to be a lot more expensive than the present system. Whether one is broadly in favour of the new fee regime or not, there can be no denying that the policy-making process in the last eight months has been a shambles.
Subject: Increasing university funding. Grade: Fail.

The above would be just about acceptable if it were to mean that universities would be better resourced than they can be through the public purse. Although there are problems with the government's fixation on world university rankings - and especially the American model - in its interpretation of what UK universities can achieve after they are effectively privatised, nevertheless any increased income to universities can only be a good thing. Except this will not happen. The government has claimed that the new regime will see university income increase by 10% by 2015. This seems unlike, as Collini points out:
Willetts has proudly maintained that this policy does not represent a cut to universities, but a boost to their income of around 10 per cent by 2015. It’s just that from now on, he says, the money will be ‘channelled’ through students. But by 2015 the Treasury won’t have recouped a penny of the money it will have given out in loans since 2012, so that this 10 per cent rise must therefore be an increase in government expenditure on higher education above the cost of maintaining the present block grant (even though a loan is an asset not a cost in accountancy terms). After 2015, some students will start to pay some of their loans back, at varying rates, when they start to earn more than £21,000. On the most optimistic figures, it will take 30 years for the Treasury to recoup 70 per cent, at most, of what it provides in loans each year (other economic analysts think the government will never recover more than 50-55 per cent of the amount loaned). And the official figures are based on the Treasury’s assumption that the average fee would be £7500, which even the government must now realise will not be the case. Whatever else is said in favour of this policy, it cannot be maintained that it represents a saving in public expenditure in the short or medium term, even though in the longer term it does amount to a significant shift from public to private funding.

Subject: Increasing access for students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. Grade: Fail.


As a consequence of the increase in the up-front cost to the treasury, the government had to row back on its plans to allow universities to accept unlimited numbers of fee-paying students. Rather than lifting the cap on the total number of students able to go to any one university, the government has actually had to maintain it, only allowing some flexibility at the "margins." At one margin, universities which set significantly lower fees will be allowed to take more students. At the other, universities will be able to take any number of students with top A-Level grades, so-called "gold dust" consumers. Collini states the consequences of this rigged-market approach very well:
In keeping with its wholly phantasmal conception of competition, the White Paper declares confidently that the new system ‘should allow greater competition for places on the more selective courses and create the opportunity for more students to go to their first-choice institution if that university wishes to take them’. But the two parts of this assertion must be in contradiction: if there really will be more competition for the most sought-after places, then by definition opportunities for applicants to get their first-choice places will be reduced, not increased. The actual effect of the changes will be to make the distribution of resources for institutions match more closely the distribution of A-level scores. Just on fee income alone, students at institutions with an AAB offer or better will be better resourced, by quite a long way, than students at institutions with lower entry requirements. This is a naked example of the use of state power to entrench hierarchy in the name of ‘market principles’. By effectively ruling that a large number of universities must charge considerably less than the level it has legally permitted institutions to charge, the government is constructing a system that is bound to reinforce existing social inequalities.

Subject: Allowing universities autonomy. Grade: Fail


Universities have long cherished their autonomy from government policy, being the one public space where research and discourse can be conducted free from the requirement that they give immediate returns on investment. Collini speculates that this is why the government has been so keen to bring universities to heel, as it dislikes the idea of the funding public institutions which do not necessarily have a direct or quantifiable impact on the economic wellbeing of the nation (as if economic wellbeing is the same thing as being of social value). This autonomy looks set to be removed, as government will be able to set recruitment priorities and access requirements, despite the fact that it is primarily students who will be paying for higher education in the long term.
This plan is designed to produce a rigged market in which the ‘top providers’ will do well and there will be the usual race to the bottom at the lower end. The government has introduced de facto price controls, laying bare the hypocrisy in its proud affirmations that universities are ‘autonomous’, that admissions are ‘a matter between the student and the university’, that the government cannot dictate what fees universities set and so on. And it has done this after universities have already set their fee levels for 2012. Universities believed the system would operate by one set of rules, but now they have been told the rules have changed, and that some of them will be punished for decisions they were forced to make by the government’s own rushed timetable.
Subject: Exam Preparation. Grade: Fail


It is worth noting that most of the government's failure in the test of university reform derives from its lack of careful revision. Revision, that is, of the Browne Review.

The usual way for government reviews to work their way into government policy and then into legislation is this: the initial review will outline the general scope of what needs to be improved and the government will announce a consultation period based on its findings; Parliament and other interested parties (such as universities and students) will have an opportunity to make their comments heard, which will then result in a White Paper being set before Parliament, for further discussion; Parliament and the House of Lords will then draft and redraft legislation, putting the White Paper into practice.

However, the government decided to ignore this usual revision timetable. The government announced that it "accepted" the recommendations of the Browne Review, then legislated for its recommendations to be put into practice, telling universities to set their fees under the new proposal; only six months later did it publish the White Paper which contained the fine discussion of the legislation long since announced. Except it turned out that the White Paper did not just formalise a process that had already started. Instead, it quite radically changed its direction. As the government realised that universities were setting more or less maximum fees in an attempt to recoup their cut in central funding, the White Paper added all sorts of qualifications and provisos, such as effectively reinstating a cap on student numbers - something the new marketplace in tuition fees was originally going to see lifted. This led to universities setting fees and putting in proposals to maintain access, without knowing how the final scheme would work.

The government - led by "two-brains Willetts" - seems a bit like a student who has sat up all night cramming for one exam, only to realise the next morning that the exam in front of them is not the one they were expecting to sit. The government intended its reforms to facilitate a free market in higher education, which, they dogmatically assumed, would automatically entail increased quality and value in teaching as students were enabled as "consumers." But in the final test, they have set a policy which is anything but a free market, which restricts student numbers and sets the burden of payment not primarily on students (though they will be impacted in the long run) but on the public purse. The government has failed, ultimately, to realise that some things - such as education - simply are not marketplaces, but need to be publicly funded.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:59 am

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks

12:39 pm  

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