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An article of blame or an article of faith?

Responding to Sonia Sodha's article in The Observer which strongly criticised universities, Andy Westwood asks if the sector has got the balance right in the debate about value and diversity in the system.
This article is more than 6 years old

Andy Westwood is Vice Dean for Social Responsibility in the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester

‘Our Arrogant Universities Must Embrace Innovation’ wrote Sonia Sodha in the Observer. She describes a ‘dinosaur-like tendency to do things the way they’ve always been done’ and welcomes an admittedly imperfect Bill and a regulator with ‘real teeth’. Does she have a point?

Sodha deserves a response, and I’ll try to be balanced… after all, I agree with a fair bit of what the article says.

Let’s start with the title. Are universities and their leaders arrogant? Some? Definitely. All? No. Are they better funded than other public services across the UK since the austerity drive after 2010? Yes. But compared to what other countries in OECD spend on research? (what Chris Patten was complaining about) No. And while Sodha is right that English universities are now in the most expensive public system in the world, it’s clearly the excepted Ivy League that Patten is comparing their alma mater, the University of Oxford with. But enough about him and them.

It’s also true that when the £9k fee was first introduced it represented a 28% increase in funding for tuition. But at that time it also coincided with cuts to capital funding – especially for teaching – and in time, further cuts to funding for widening participation and for students with disabilities. Since that time the real terms value has also fallen too. I’m not trying to say that in the context of austerity this wasn’t a comparatively good settlement, but rather that fee income also had to cover other things too. That doesn’t make arguments for more transparency or value for money any less important, but it does make them just a little bit more complicated.

But to take the article’s central accusation, the sector is increasingly dominated by the three-year full-time undergraduate model. I have been pointing this out for some time (I first described it in a paper for HEA in 2014): the English system is an outlier in the OECD, not just because of its cost, but also because of its over-reliance on a single model. As a result, we have the youngest graduates with the least experience of the labour market in the advanced world. In his speech to Universities UK on Friday, Jo Johnson himself said that the three-year full-time model ‘has increased from 68% of provision to 79% in just four years’.

None of this is an argument for less of them or for less investment in universities. But do we need more diversity in our system? Yes, we do. And why is the higher education system like this and how best do we address it? Sodha suggests that this is down to the reluctance of universities. The government also believes that a lack of innovation, choice and quality is down to universities too. In 2015 when he first introduced the white paper, Johnson said to the APPG that higher education was ‘a market that hasn’t had sufficient demand side pressures to work in an optimal way’. But I would argue that this comes down to a narrow policy framework, incentivising narrow competition rather any disinterest of universities.

Does the Bill have the answer? As ministers have continually explained, they believe that enhancing market mechanisms and strategy of ratcheting up competition will increase innovation, quality and value for money. There are many that have their doubts. Martin Wolf is perhaps the most consistent critic of the suitability of a market model for improving higher education. He said last month:

“The White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, repeats the word “competition” 50 times. This then is the animating notion of the proposed reforms. It raises profound questions. How far, in fact, is market competition a desirable or workable system for governing higher education? The answer is that a degree of competition is desirable and even inevitable. But the idea of a competitive market in this sector is flawed: it is neither desirable nor workable.”

I agree with him. A degree of competition is desirable. But it doesn’t cover everything and nor is it likely to solve everything. Are two-year degrees a good idea? Yes, they are. But by the looks of the new proposal, even that takes a direct intervention from ministers to ‘stimulate the market’ and to fix a price. In other words, it anticipates the market’s failure to deliver against this Conservative (and Labour) manifesto objective. And the market has already failed in other areas.

We all know about the 50% plus falls in part-time study and amongst mature learners since the new regime of higher fees was first adopted. Take a look at the Open University – the last moment of real institutional innovation according to Sonia Sodha. Unsurprisingly given these statistics, its income and student numbers have been under intense pressure since 2012.

So for me, the crux of the issue is that increased competition and most new providers entering the HE market has happened within the young full-time model. Outside of it, competition has, thus far at least, had of more limited effect. You can blame universities for that if you like but the real causes are much, much wider. But there is a real danger here that part time, work based and non-honours degree higher education may wither away completely. That would be bad news for students, universities, ministers, taxpayers, employers and for the economy as a whole. We should all do more and care more about it.

The question we should then be asking is how we stimulate provision (or a market if you prefer) outside of this traditional model before it is too late. The new market ushered in by the HE Bill as it moves closer to legislation, doesn’t obviously challenge this homogeneity. I’m not sure that’s the explicit fault of either our universities or the government. Both have been busy paying attention to other things. But the more we concentrate policy debate, incentives and resources on full-time concerns, the more we further marginalise provision that should matter more to all of us. For what it’s worth, I think this matters a great deal to both Sonia Sodha and Jo Johnson too.

After recent amendments, there’s now a duty for the Office for Students to consider diversity in provision as well as for providers. I hope it’s enough. More part time, more mature learners, more work based degrees, more higher technical skills and qualifications too are all vital if our mass higher education system is to be affordable and effective. Expecting any one party to sort that out is impractical and naive. It will take more than a regulator ‘with teeth’ or even a market with ‘sufficient demand side pressures’. It will take more than ruffling feathers or poking hornets nests.

If you think it’s that simple you are probably wrong. That’s always the way with difficult questions in any area of public policy and it is certainly the case here. On that basis, it requires so much more than either an article of blame or an article of faith.

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