Jo Johnson: your proposals for HE will not yield the competitiveness you seek

Dear Mr. Johnson,

I read this morning the report on the Conservative Home website about future plans for British higher education. Although we await the Green Paper, this piece reads as though it knows the contents and given Conservative Home’s past record for accurately pre-empting policy, I propose here to treat it as such. I wish to make some points on this.

First of all, UK HE is extremely competitive in an international context. Indeed, this Conservative Home piece is incorrect when it states that “Some British Universities are among the best in the world, but the international league tables that measure their work search for research excellence, not teaching quality”. This is not true. The QS World Rankings, for example, includes several measures of teaching and student provision in its methodology, such as student-staff ratios.

Secondly, though, if you want UK HE to be competitive, we must consider what is meant by competitiveness. Competition compares like-for-like or similar commodity items or services and allows them to demonstrate comparative value. There are many fundamental problems with considering higher education to be a competitive commodity good or service and it is arguable that HE is never comparable if done correctly, since research (new knowledge not yet found elsewhere) should inform teaching and vice versa. Students are also usually poor market customers in such a context. Most have only been and will only go to university once, so on what basis are they comparing and evaluating their experiences?

This aside, at the moment, however, UK HE can be compared with other successful institutions and systems around the world because we balance research and teaching. The worrying emphasis that you seem to propose to put on teaching at the expense of research will make UK HE incomparable to other systems worldwide. It could well be the case that at institutions in America, for example, students who study English, Politics or Physics will be taught by active researchers who are shaping the field and creating new knowledge, while those in the UK are taught only by standardised teachers. This will make UK HE entirely uncompetitive and unattractive to students. Without a balance between research and teaching, which is always a process of negotiation, there will be nothing “higher” about the education; it will just be an extension of school.

Thirdly, on the role that new providers might play in making the UK HE space more innovative, there is little evidence of this working. In your recent speech on UK HE, many noted that you compared the systems of quality assurance and validation (in which an existing university must validate new institutions) as being “akin to Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant”. However, this analogy is deeply flawed (and offensive to be frank; students are not customers buying sausage meat). If anything, it is the new providers that are the McDonald’s – just look at the behaviour of the new providers, costing taxpayers a huge amount of money. To call the validating influence of Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester, London, Bristol and many others the McDonald’s to the new providers’ Byron implies that you have scant regard for the value of Britain’s institutions of learning and are unaware of how badly the introduction of new providers has gone.

This is not a matter of “some universities don’t want to be challenged by new entrants”. It is that new entrants have been appalling and damaged the international reputation of our country and its world-leading HE system.

Fourthly, the Conservative Home piece claims that with respect to HEFCE “there is too much stress on giving money to Universities – hence ‘funding council’ – and too little on how it is spent. Johnson [you] want[s] this to change.” However, this seems to ignore the fact that efficiency and control are, by most accounts, in opposition to each other. The way that HEFCE allocates money, for instance, is hugely efficient. It costs you less to support our excellent universities in this way, which is something that I am sure you want for the taxpayer. Instead, if you want to control how this money is spent, you will create a more expensive system for our country at a time when the government is saying that we cannot afford a more expensive system. Your proposed TEF will also end up being as expensive as other systems of audit and red tape.

Finally, the idea that “Universities that teach better will be allowed to raise fees in line with inflation from next year” is in conflict with the fact that already the loan system is more expensive than previous ways of funding. As the ConHome piece notes: “Government [already] spends more, subsiding the loans system to the point that, for some students, it turns out not to be such a system at all”. If you allow providers to raise fees, you will see a commensurate rise in the RAB and the long-term cost of ensuring the success of British higher education.

I implore you to rethink these ideas. They will not lead to the competitiveness that you seek.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Paul Eve

This post originally appeared on Martin’s blog here.

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