This new book is more evidence that analysis of higher education is getting better. Other signals include Michael Shattock’s Making Policy in British Higher Education, 1945-2011, which came out last year, and Everything for Sale: The Marketisation of UK Higher Education by Roger Brown and Helen Carasso, which was published earlier this year. As David Willetts noted in a recent speech, the LSE and the Institute of Education are preparing events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report. Meanwhile, wonkhe goes from strength to strength. This is all good news because the study of higher education as a discipline in its own right has been patchy in the UK.
Andrew McGettigan writes well, explaining detailed points of law and finance clearly. The book builds on his influential 2012 report for the Intergenerational Foundation, False Accounting?, which ingeniously claimed the current higher education reforms would not save money. This time, he takes a broader view with sections on recent funding reforms, marketisation and privatisation. If the prose proves tough for general readers, that reflects the depth of analysis rather than other weaknesses.
The book is an interesting read because the author goes to unexpected places. Just when you think you know where he is heading, he veers off in a totally different direction. So, after laying the blame for higher education’s woes squarely at the door of politicians and Vice Chancellors, he concludes that most universities should have less independence from the state while a tiny minority should have more independence. That such a bifurcation would risk a new form of the old binary divide is no deterrent.
The author would not expect me to agree with his arguments and I don’t. This is partly because they lack historical roots. He claims: ‘Expansion of higher education began under Kenneth Baker’. This is unfair on earlier politicians and officials, local authorities and university administrators – not to mention Lionel Robbins. Later on, he says ‘the government is no longer committed’ to propping up failing institutions, but previous governments did not offer universities a guaranteed lifeline either.
There is an unfortunate tendency among writers on higher education to don rose-tinted spectacles when looking at the past and dark-tinted ones when looking at the present. McGettigan particularly condemns ‘the botched loan scheme [which] means that the Treasury has insisted on an overall cap on student numbers.’ But the need to impose a cap on the total number of students in order to limit the exposure of taxpayers is neither new nor unique to England. Politicians have grappled with the trade-off between student support and the number of funded student places for decades, as I attempt to show in a new article on the history of undergraduate support since 1962 for Contemporary British History. Australia faces the same issue, with some experts warning the country will need to reverse their recent policy of lifting student number controls because of burgeoning costs.
There are other problems too. As well as lacking historical awareness, the book has an odd take on current policymaking. McGettigan repeatedly asserts that the Coalition’s motives are concealed from view. The Government are proceeding ‘without presenting its plans or reasoning to the public.’ Opponents of the higher education reforms have been outmanoeuvred by politicians who call ‘snap votes’, ‘sneak passages’ into legislation and use ‘existing powers quietly’ (his italics).
This doesn’t stack up. The students who poured into central London in 2010 were not protesting at being kept in the dark about the Government’s intentions. The £9,000 tuition fee cap was announced in Parliament and later debated and voted on in both the Commons and the Lords. Other important elements of the student finance package, like the real interest rate, were in primary legislation that went through all the regular parliamentary stages. There has been a higher education white paper and an accompanying technical document as well as numerous public consultations on contentious issues, such as the regulation of alternative providers. Indeed, these documents provide much of the raw material for the book.
Because McGettigan believes policymakers’ motives are concealed, he proceeds to reveal them. But conjecture is portrayed as hard fact. So recent changes to institutions’ own number controls are ‘a deliberate step in a process designed to destabilise them [universities] prior to the entrance and expansion of the alternative providers.’ The potential benefits to students and to the sector as a whole of a more flexible and diverse higher education system are downplayed. Instead of explaining why policymakers would want to do all the things he ascribes to them, McGettigan assumes it’s axiomatic that the goal is ‘creating new outlets for value extraction.’
As part of this, he condemns the Government in fruity terms for meeting with higher education providers not funded by Hefce. (In his words, they are ‘privateers, private equity managers and other profit-making interests.’) But any administration seeking to improve the regulation of alternative providers has a duty to try and understand them as part of evidence-based policymaking. The meetings between BIS and alternative providers are referred to in the book but other meetings, such as those with the author, are not.
The most significant factual error is where McGettigan claims: ‘Dearing recommended a means-tested upfront fee of £1,000 a year’. There are two problems with this. First, the Dearing report of 1997 recommended a flat-rate, not means-tested, fee. Secondly, it said the fee should be backed by an income-contingent loan, not paid upfront. The slip is unfortunate as it suggests the Blair Government’s decision to implement a means-tested fee with no underlying loan was in line with Dearing, and therefore consensual. It wasn’t. As Stephen Dorrell, the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, told the House of Commons at the time, it was ‘a policy that was specifically examined and specifically rejected by Sir Ron Dearing and his committee’. Within a few years, it had been reversed.
There are alternatives to the Government’s approach to higher education and Andrew suggests some. But they usually involve less responsive funding structures, higher barriers for new providers and more rigid student number controls. The Coalition could have set the size and shape of the higher education sector in aspic back in 2010 and slashed the unit of resource instead of shifting further towards loans, but it would have limited student choice, blunted incentives to improve the academic experience and hindered institutions trying to excel.
Overall, this book is polemical, lively and well-written. But while its research on issues like the legal status of different institutions is thorough, its contentions are flaky. The book’s objective, according to its Preface, is to be a primer on recent changes. I am not convinced it succeeds in this because it will be hard for disinterested readers to separate opinion from fact. Yet if you regard it instead as a lengthy political pamphlet, then you do not have to agree with it all to welcome it as a useful contribution to the debate.
You can buy The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education by Andrew McGettigan (Pluto Press, 2013) here.
Win a copy of the book by sending a poem no longer than 14 lines about the Coalition Government’s reforms to higher education to: firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday 14th June 2013. The best entries will be published on this site and the winner will receive a book.