A final farewell to the binary divide?

It is no great surprise to see Liverpool John Moores University formally announce today that their fees will be £9,000 across the board. What makes them notable for writers of copy everywhere is that they are the first ‘post-1992’ institution to formally declare that they will be charging the full whack. But others are expected to follow them, and they will in the coming days and weeks.

But a lot has changed on the higher education landscape since 1992. The binary divide between older universities and those that grew out of the polytechnics has become increasingly blurred and irrelevant to the modern discourse on HE. Indeed it has been dying a slow death, and this week’s events should be the final word on this obsolete view of the sector.

Most of the new universities, awarded such status since ‘92, have emerged with global-reach and a sound base of research and innovation. They project themselves with confidence, and in most cases have every right to. They have a good story to tell about the quality of provision they offer and the world-leading research that they undertake. They house centers of excellence in almost every discipline. They attract some of the best and brightest academics.

University Alliance is a relatively new mission group and notable for the fact that it represents a mixture of pre and post 1992 institutions. These institutions are bound together by a considerably more modern narrative about business engagement and innovation. They generally also have an above sector average number of departments carrying out world leading, 4* research – much of which with a commercial focus. Mission groups used to be about a policy war between old (Russell Group) and new (Million+). University Alliance and institutions like their member; Liverpool John Moores, show how this debate is no longer relevant to the current state of the sector.

Let’s look at another Alliance member that has yet to declare its fee levels – Northumbria University. The Daily Mail last week ran a rare and fascinating profile of the elusive Jonathan Ive, Apple’s VP Industrial Design – responsible for designing the iMac, iPhone, iPod and iPad. The article pondered; ‘how did a British polytechnic graduate become the design genius behind £200million Apple’? As if being educated in a world-leading design department in the then Newcastle Polytechnic, now Northumbria University, could be anything short of a tremendous leg-up in the world of design. The same world-class department is there today and is a great example to show that not every discipline grew out of narrow academic elites. The UK has a long tradition of great design, and this is exactly the sort of environment in which it evolved, thrived and led the world. Should Northumbria be any less confident about the value of its provision than Liverpool John Moores? Could they possibly take the risk of charging less than 9k when that is where most of their peers will position themselves? Time will tell.

Private providers are becoming more ubiquitous, and if David Willetts gets his way then the door will be open for many more new providers of HE to enter the landscape. Pearson, Edexcel et al – their presence in the degree awarding market could have radical effects on the shape of the sector. The ‘private’ label will shortly become a misnomer as the majority of HE income shifts away from the state and towards the graduate. Instead, we will soon be talking about ‘new’ and ‘old’ providers. And these new providers could include others such as Further Education Colleges and more besides.

The pre and post 1992 divide looks like an irrelevant distinction today. Even more so now it has become clear that the price of courses will not fall along those obsolete dividing lines. In five years time, describing providers of higher education in those terms will look positively prehistoric. The sector is changing fast, and we need to keep up.

2 responses to “A final farewell to the binary divide?

  1. Hmmmm…

    I think it’s vital that universities, regardless of their institutional histories, are able to set their fees within the funding framework. It would do the country, the sector and our students no good if certain universities, due to their relatively recent accession to that status, were somehow prevented from charging the maximum fee. And of course, if they are offering a very high quality of provision and student experience, then there is evidence that would support doing so (though there may be strategic reasons not to).

    But what I’m not sure of is how helpful the current terms of the debate are. Early declarations of fee levels set a marker: ‘this is how highly we value our provision’ (and therefore by extension, how much you, prospective students, should be prepared to pay). It then makes it difficult for universities to set fees much below that – even if their offer is as good, or even better – unless they are aiming to make a strong statement about their strategic mission (such as London Met). So price-setting takes on a rather defensive character and this effect is potentially exacerbated in parts of the sector that have perhaps not attracted the public perception of prestige they think the quality of their provision deserves i.e. the price HAS to be high to make a public statement about relative status (as well as to seek parity in income).

    That is not to make any comment whatsoever about LJMU, but rather to sound a note of caution about how we interpret the price-setting of institutions in different parts of the sector. Why should we welcome a higher or lower price as a point of principle? Can we really regard it as an indication of something much bigger, such as the end of the binary divide? I don’t think we can necessarily ‘blame’ universities, though; the seemingly ever-increasing average fee levels probably have many contributory factors.

    One is the resilience of historic reputations in the media and public debate that defy evidence or experience to the contrary, such as research performance, quality in teaching and supervision, or emphasis on student experience and facilities. Another is the development of a new funding system in the context of coalition and economic recovery that aims for the benefits of a market (that good courses will succeed through student choice and poor ones fail) but lacks the characteristics of one (and may end up heavily regulated). I am sure there are others. But these do probably conspire to push universities to charge more. (One concern is that an effect of these early declarations could well be to give Government even more time to consider its options for further regulation or claw-back as the average fee keeps rising.)

    Obviously, I’m a committed advocate for a truly integrated HE sector, where historic status has no traction. This should not however prevent a more open debate about the implications of the whole fee-setting process that the sector’s going through. I’m not convinced that it is doing much good for universities or for students.

  2. The perceived division will, I predict, become an increasingly superfluous and internal dissection of institutions which will have little to no impact on the majority of future applicants.

    The logic behind this lies in the logic of the future discerning applicant. Will they care that a HEI has prestige and a long record of churning out successful graduates? Certainly. But will they care about the quality of the degree and the reputation that comes with it? I think more than the former.

    Prestige is nice. It looks and feels good, but it does not necessarily link with quality. As the sector increasingly becomes marketised the reputation and perception of what the institutions have to offer will enable those that grasp the opportunity to redefine themselves to flourish and those that refuse to evolve will die.

    Tis the nature of the market. Things that are popular (for whatever reason) do well.

    There are two ways philosophically that HEI’s can define their strategies:

    1. Diversification. Teach anything and everything, research and invest in as much as possible to appeal to the broadest cross-section of University applicants.
    2. Specialism. Invest in either teaching or research; some subjects over other disciplines. You will lose out on huge swathes of applicant types but will develop a niche.

    Which is more valuable as an approach? These are the criteria that will begin to define the future of HE.

    And is where the private institutes will start to steal neglected territory by the ‘pre-Willetts’ institutions.

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