Green Paper: the closer you look, the less you see

The government’s long awaited Green Paper on the future of higher education has arrived. Clocking in at around 35,000 words, the document is far heftier than expected. But whilst it is indeed long, and covers much ground, it barely skims the surface of many deeply important issues.

The government claims “it’s a green paper and therefore will necessarily ask big questions”. But this is not the end of the story – the sector will want to know: why these questions are being asked? What do they indicate about the government’s view on any number of issues – particularly the bigger existential questions that universities frequently grapple with: what is a university? Why do we teach? What is our place in society? Not to forget the most popular and pertinent for today: what do the current government think the answers to these questions should be?

Without an overarching narrative or a solid explanation for the changes being proposed in the Green Paper, we have to fill in the gaps ourselves.

Try looking closer at the question of tuition fees. We know the government wants to improve teaching, and it has devised what could turn out to be an epic piece of machinery to achieve this: the much discussed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). But trying to imagine how this might work, as we have been busy doing on Wonkhe, leads to numerous maddening dead ends. For instance, the government talk about differential incentives between different TEF Levels 1 – 4. But apart from the reputational uplift that comes from being able to demonstrate “exceptional evidence of excellence”, what else will there really be?

Perhaps a failure of drafting has led to numerous references in the document to different levels of “fee caps” – higher being awarded to biggest winners in the TEF. The claim therefore that the government only intends to allow the current £9,000 fee cap to rise with inflation, stretches credibility. With inflation so low, the difference between levels one and four would be a measly few quid that would hardly register on the balance sheet of universities, as has now been pointed out by several commentators. More than one “cap” suggests that the cap itself – currently set at £9,000 could be raised and lowered to suit the different TEF levels. Multiple “caps” is a completely different thing to having one cap that moves up with inflation.

Try and look closer. Why create such a complex system based to such an extent on financial reward, only not to allow for any real financial reward? It is telling then that the government consistently refuse to rule out raising the actual fee cap, or setting new caps in the future. Looking closely at the Green Paper it appears that raising the cap for some institutions is their ultimate intention, but decided to delay the political battle to do it until later on. After all, it will be years before a university is awarded a shiny new Level 4 TEF.

The fees issue is compounded by the fact the Green Paper also suggests the power over fee caps should rest with the Secretary of State. It is currently with Parliament and in the past the House of Commons has voted to move the cap up, always against the backdrop of huge public controversy. The House of Lords has a veto over the fee cap vote and after their recent battles with the government over benefit caps, this month would have been a very bad time to take on the Upper House once more on such a contentious issue which so closely echoes the battles over benefits.

Furthermore, taking their power away over the fee cap and giving it to the Secretary of State is a bizarre fight to pick because it is unlikely that Parliament would ever concede such an important duty. Some MPs might be grateful never to have to vote about or get lobbied on tuition fees ever again. However I suspect the majority – particularly in the Lords – would view this as a crude and undemocratic power-grab that would fatally damage the link between universities and the public by undermining the democratic contract that underpins the current political and funding settlement we have reached, and enables our universities to thrive.

That fees are subsidised by the public (because so much of them are written off by the state) and that MPs and Peers have to go through the lobbies to decide how HE should be funded, is fundamentally good for universities. It keeps them honest, and on a macro level, accountable to the people that pay the bills. Greater accountability of universities achieved through the TEF could never compensate for such a shift because TEF will yield bureaucratic and systemic solutions, not political or democratic ones. Both are important, but one should not be sacrificed for another.

Looking closer doesn’t help, you won’t find any of these debates in the Green Paper. Like so many of its measures, glimpses of thinking about tuition fees hint at a far-reaching debate about the role of universities in society and their relationships with students, employers and taxpayers. But for now it’s up to us to fill in the gaps.

2 thoughts on “Green Paper: the closer you look, the less you see”

  1. Alex Leonhardt says:

    On your last point (and perhaps I’m wrong in this), but I didn’t taken the Green Paper as suggesting a fundamental change to the current arrangement whereby the SoS sets fees via regulations which are agreed by Parliament – I don’t think ‘power to set fees’ necessarily implies that he could do so without recourse to Parliament!

    1. Mark Leach says:

      Not necessarily. But isn’t ruled out either. They need to make their intentions clear about this.

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