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Gambling on higher education: When the fun stops, stop

As the LEO data about to be published could be framed as a huge bet against the future of students, Martin McQuillan weighs up the odds on the general election that stands in its way.
This article is more than 7 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

I have often thought that a university struggling to keep its head above water in the current funding climate, might want to pursue the strategy Rupert Murdoch has followed to keep his failing titles afloat. The Sky TV platform in the UK is cross-subsidised by the highly successful SkyBet, while the terminal decline of The Sun’s circulation figures is offset by the SunBet brand.

Universities have a captive audience (both impressionable and digitally literate) who have access to full student loans. It would make perfect sense to supplement the educational enterprise with an online ‘entertainment’ offer. Pop ups could appear in the Virtual Learning Environment offering in-lecture betting opportunities.

Along with the usual markets of Premiership football and horse racing, you could have upper and lowers on this year’s NSS results, the risers and fallers in the latest university league tables, and odds on the next President of NUS.

In 2016 Britons lost more money through online betting than they contributed to the European Union. U-Bet (there is already a company called UniBet) would be exemplary ‘third arm’ activity, diversifying income streams and ensuring that student-spend stayed within the higher education environment.

It could finally be a way to monetise MOOCs and would provide new purpose to Maths and Statistics departments struggling to recruit suitably qualified school leavers. Speculation would no longer be the preserve of the philosophy department. Rather, by opening franchise shops, universities could connect with communities previously excluded from the experience of higher education.

Fees and finance

If this all seems a little Swiftian for your tastes, then you might want to take a look at the Conservative Party election manifesto published last week. If returned to government, the Tories promise a significant review of funding for ‘tertiary education as a whole’. The use of that phrase and the prominence given to technical education in the manifesto surely implies a rebalancing of funding between universities and FE.

It does not mean the fees and loan system will be unpicked, rather, it means that Longitudinal Education Outcome data will be used to inform loan allocations for individual students, types of course, and specific universities. I would expect a return of plans once mooted by David Willetts to encourage universities to buy up their own students’ debt.

Leading commentators have been warning about the dangers of LEO on this site and elsewhere for several years. While advocates for LEO imagine it to be a predictive tool for managing the risk of the loan book, it is, in fact, tantamount to betting on the future of students.

One ought to be angry about it, for it is the reckless financialisation of the educational resources of the nation. Equally, one ought to be angry with all those who are allowing this to happen. That includes the hapless Labour Party whose own manifesto literally includes more policies on live music venues than it does on universities. Labour has nothing to say about the potential of universities to contribute to the knowledge economy, innovation, skills, culture and creativity, international collaboration, or even what their future might be after Brexit. Instead, it makes a totemic promise on abolishing tuition fees, something the Labour government in Wales has notably failed to do.

The problem with free university tuition fees is not that they are a regressive redistribution from the well-off old to the well-off young. The young could do with catching a break. Rather, they necessarily imply a cap on student numbers and so can be deleterious to the very agenda of social mobility they are supposed to support. That is the nut that has to be cracked, and no thought has been given to it whatsoever. The Labour manifesto shows that in its current configuration the party is way off the pace of thinking about the present state, and future, of universities and of education in general. It is providing no meaningful opposition to Conservative excess when it is needed most.

Not so strong and stable

What should otherwise be a normative policy offer for a European social democratic party will be buried under the Conservative landslide on the morning of June 9th. It will be associated with Corbyn’s failure for a generation, at least.

Even with a large parliamentary majority, it is unlikely that Mrs May will want to devote more parliamentary time to a second HE bill. LEO will devour HE through stealth, via secondary instruments with as little public scrutiny as possible. The non-specialist media will have Grammar Schools and the drama of Brexit to distract them.

The complexity of the interplay between long-term tax returns, the arcane student loan book and the opacity of university funding will not be on their radar and will surpass the understanding of most. It will, however, transform English higher education, its mission and governance, beyond recognition.

It is a gamble in every possible sense. It takes a chance on the future of individual universities and multiplies systemic risk across the sector. At a time when the nation needs the educational resource of universities more than ever, a future Conservative government will turn a world class higher education sector into a trading floor.

‘Strong and stable’ will mean, for higher education, the spin of a roulette wheel. For those at the top of the pile, there will be the right to compete over what will remain of the ‘brightest and best’ international students still willing to come to this diminished country. For everyone else, there will be the buying and selling of student debt, instrumentalist education, and the precarity of a casino market devouring a once public resource.

At the moment this is just implicit in the Conservative manifesto, soon enough it will become the reality of a transformed sector in which the regulator has the final word. Attentive journalists, if they could ever get near a Cabinet minister, might want to ask some questions about it.

The real fun

Meanwhile, we await the inevitable outcome of this dreary election campaign. There is no point speculating on the identity of the next Prime Minister; it is as inevitable as exams and taxes. So instead, let’s ask where does value lie in the betting market for June 8th?

As we will all soon come to learn ‘value’ in the context of gambling means where are the bets in which an informed punter thinks something has a better chance of happening than the odds priced by the bookies suggest. If you think a Tory victory is inevitable and someone offers you an evens bet on it, then that’s value.

Most bookies will offer odds on the size of a winning majority or the numbers of seats won by each party. At BetFred, odds of 2/1 for a Labour share of the vote of between 25-30% looks like a good bet. PaddyPower will offer 6/1 for Labour falling below 25%, which some might be tempted by.

The Irish bookmaker is one of several offering odds on individual constituencies, which might make for profitable singles or an accumulator bet come election night. For example, they are offering a generous 3/1 on Labour holding Cambridge, the seat where Nick Hillman, HEPI Director and former advisor to David Willetts, stood in 2010. Odds of 1/6 at SkyBet for Julian Huppert to take the seat for the Liberal Democrats look relatively mean but may be good news for fans of the candidate.

Gordon Marsden, Shadow HE Minister, is a large 5/2 with most bookies to hold onto his Blackpool South Seat, although Ladbrokes will give you 11/4. Bet365 has the most generous odds of 2/7 on the Tories taking it from him; most others think it’s curtains for Marsden offering 1/4 for a Conservative victory.

London is likely to be a more keenly contested election battleground than other parts of the country. Keep an eye on former sociology lecturer Rupa Huq in Ealing Central & Action and ex-NUS President Wes Streeting in Ilford North. Both are sitting on wafer thin majorities for Labour but have done much to establish themselves as constituency MPs since 2015.

My former colleague, Rupa has built her own progressive alliance with the Greens and an Independent withdrawing to give her a clearer run. Bet365 have the most generous odds of 10/3 for her to hold her seat. They and Paddy Power have the Tories on a miserly 1/5 to displace her. Wes Streeting is given an 11/4 chance by SkyBet to hold back the Conservative tide. Bet365 is only offering a Conservative victory in this seat at 1/7.

Over in Twickenham Vince Cable is 2/5 with William Hill for a return to parliament, the best value amongst the bookmakers who all think it more than likely that the former Secretary of State will be a voice once again at Westminster.

They also have Nick Clegg as a shoe-in for the university seat of Sheffield Hallam with BetFred going as low as 1/10. Labour came second here last time but are a very generous 16/1 with Winner to topple the former Deputy PM; you can still get 12/1 at William Hill and BetFred. Given that Clegg scrapped over the line in 2015 on the back of borrowed Tory votes, that one looks interesting.

Betfair Exchange will not offer you a bet on Jo Johnson retaining Orpington for the Conservatives while Paddy Power has him as a racing certainty at odds of 1/200. That is hardly worth the effort, but Kingston and Surbiton looks more interesting with bookies thinking it is too close to call between incumbent James Berry (son of a former vice chancellor) and former Energy Minister Ed Davy. You can get evens on a Conservative win at Bet365 and the same on the Lib Dems at Ladbrokes

Why not try Moray in Scotland where Angus Robertson is defending a 9,000 majority. Both Betfair and Paddy Power have the Conservatives at evens to decapitate the SNP leadership at Westminster; the other bookies think it likely that Robertson will lose his seat.

If you decide to sit up for it, election night is going to be a hard slog for most working in universities so why not enliven the proceedings with one of the many free bets offers on the market at the moment. Academics should understand that betting on Labour losing is not class betrayal; it is much more like embracing the opportunities of Brexit.

[Note: Wonkhe does not condone or encourage gambling, ‘when the fun stops, stop’, please binge responsibly. Can we cut this here or offer him a daily string on the website for odds updates? —Ed].

If we think it is in bad taste to speculate for financial gain on the future of politicians, then why should we tolerate a higher education system that will do exactly that with its own students in the next parliament?

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