UKIP on HE today is less nostalgic but still dangerous

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What is UKIP’s higher education policy? I previously explored this in a blog for Wonkhe four years ago, based on an assortment of documents from local UKIP branches, speeches and videos. There has not been much reason to revisit the analysis until now, with the recent publication of Opening the British Mind.

The report identifies a number of problems which many in the higher education may nod along with, including those who are not used to agreeing with UKIP thought pieces. It rails against student debt and raises concerns about the financial sustainability of the higher education system. It attacks the bureaucracy of research funding, laments research being prioritised ahead of teaching and condemns rapacious academic publishers. However, sympathy is not likely to extend to the proposed solutions. The report is less focussed on recreating a mythical golden past, but its proposals are still concerning.

It is important to note that the report is not a publication from UKIP itself, but is instead from the UKIP Parliamentary Resource Unit Limited (PRUL). Registered with Companies House back in July 2015, UKIP PRUL has Douglas Carswell as one of its directors and is based at his office in Parliament. Despite being UKIP’s only MP, Douglas Carswell has an ambiguous status in the party: he is not listed under the key people section of the UKIP website and is fourth behind three peers in the UKIP in Parliament section. So an early disclaimer is necessary: it is not clear whether the discussion paper will come to underpin UKIP policy, is the preferred approach of one wing of the party or just the views of the author.

However, the report is more substantial than anything put together before by UKIP on higher education, and so it deserves scrutiny. It covers a much wider range of issues than just undergraduate fees, extending to research funding, academic publishing, freedom of speech, applications and admissions policy, and, of course, Brexit. With 143 references, among them HEPI, the IFS, David Willetts and Andrew McGettigan, it is an unprecedented effort from UKIP to actually look at the status quo, and, surprisingly, even cite experts, before recommending policies. Happily, grammar schools are not mentioned once.

The report underlines that copious citations are no guarantee of rigorous thinking or consistency. For example, the author goes, without irony, from emphasising the need to ‘prioritise free speech’ to, just a few sentences later, telling universities that that ‘discussion needs to move beyond unfounded fears to new opportunities’ after the EU referendum. At times, the report strays into the worst sort of ivory tower writing from a think tank writer with no real knowledge of higher education. The assertion that ‘universities do not have to compete for students’ will come as a surprise to HE recruitment teams and admissions tutors.

The author makes various assertions which are, at best, contested, and, at worst, wrong. It is suggested that the current income-contingent funding system has ‘increased student numbers’, yet noted elsewhere that the total number of undergraduates ‘fell from 1.75 million in 2004/5 to 1.72 million in 2014/15’, with no analysis of what £9k fees have meant separately for FT & PT numbers. Gaming the REF and commercial publishers profiting from research publications are characterised as the ‘unintended consequences of overreliance on the public purse for research funding’. The assumption is that the status quo, with the bureaucracy and incentives of the REF, are essential components of funding research.

In fact, in the early 1980s, the state-funded a higher proportion of university research without the same onerous accountability demands. Predictably perhaps, access agreements and policies on equality and diversity in research funding are cited as evidence of discrimination in favour of minorities, rather than attempts to level the playing field.

The report is perhaps most selective with the facts on the issue of graduates working in non-graduate jobs. The author argues that ‘growing numbers of graduates are underemployed, working in jobs that either do not require a degree or do not make use of skills gained from higher education’. This is based on a 2015 report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which is presented as gospel. Other research is not mentioned, such as the UCL report published in September 2016 which found that graduate jobs had expanded in line with the increase in graduate numbers from 1997 to 2012, suggesting ‘over-education’ has not ballooned. Similarly, the report cites HESA data regularly, but, curiously, on this point, the author fails to note the latest DLHE survey, which found 71% of respondents were in professional employment six months after graduation, up from 64% in 2011/12.

Carswell belongs on the more internationalist wing of UKIP, the free trade ‘out and into the world’ section, so the paucity of thoughtful contributions on international students and collaboration is underwhelming. There is nothing on international students, apart from an insistence that EU students should be charged the same as other international students post-Brexit. No case is made for, say, advocating taking international students out of the migration numbers, or even a recognition of their value. The remedies for overcoming the risks of Brexit are empty, warm words – ‘the UK could stand to gain more by expanding research partnerships with non-EU countries than privileging those within the EU’ – which few will draw comfort from. The damage that Brexit will do to staff mobility is not discussed.

Perhaps the worst part of the report are the proposals for change. Far from being ‘the right remedies’, the cures are worse than the various maladies identified. For example, having documented the bureaucracy involved in funding university research, the only solution suggested is to cut direct spending on research. No proposals for streamlining are forthcoming. Instead, R&D tax credits should be increased to encourage other sources of funding. I suspect few frustrated with the time spent on REF admin think that this is the answer.

For a report rightly keen on scorning undesirable, unintended consequences of policy, it fails to consider any possible negative implications of its own proposals. Its major recommendation is the riskiest. To reduce students not repaying their loans with the consequent hight cost to the taxpayer, the report proposes course-by-course RAB charges. I’ve blogged on the problems of differential fees on this basis before. The author’s intention is that universities should expand courses with low RAB charges and slim down or shut courses with high RAB charges. A clear risk is that universities would be strongly incentivised to adjust their student recruitment accordingly to recruit students who are likely to go on to earn more.

The LEO data published so far has shown just how stark the differences can be: David noted that ‘female Pakistani graduates’ median graduate salary three years after graduation is an astonishing £6,500 less than the white males’. A university with an above average RAB charge will be driven towards recruiting white, male well-off students, threatening the widening participation progress higher education has made.

The proposal certainly differs to past UKIP proposals: no longer are fees ‘a retrogressive step’ which ought to be replaced by ‘a student grant system’. However, while the means are different, the end is still the same: fewer students in a smaller sector. Overall, the report is less amateurish and nostalgic than previous UKIP pieces on higher education, but its recommendations remain dangerous.

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