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HE White Paper: a reckless gamble with university education

The Government’s White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, is a reckless gamble with university education in England. An opportunistic, ideologically-driven document, it uses the excuse of deficit reduction to transfer much of the burden of financing undergraduate degrees, which it conflates with training for employability, to the individual graduate; it promotes consumerism and competition with a view to producing a wide variation in the resources available to institutions so as to stratify degree quality; it misrepresents social mobility accordingly by advocating the slotting of ‘talent’ into its appropriate tier; it presents a charter for privatization with a calculated attack on the notion of the public university, both creating conditions that support new, ‘alternative’ providers with public money (some potentially for-profit) and promising to make it easier for established universities to ditch their charitable status to increase access to private finance.
This article is more than 9 years old

Andrew McGettigan is a journalist, researcher and commentator on higher education.

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The Government’s White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, is a reckless gamble with university education in England.  An opportunistic, ideologically-driven document, it uses the excuse of deficit reduction to transfer much of the burden of financing undergraduate degrees, which it conflates with training for employability, to the individual graduate; it promotes consumerism and competition with a view to producing a wide variation in the resources available to institutions so as to stratify degree quality; it misrepresents social mobility accordingly by advocating the slotting of ‘talent’ into its appropriate tier; it presents a charter for privatization with a calculated attack on the notion of the public university, both creating conditions that support new, ‘alternative’ providers with public money (some potentially for-profit) and promising to make it easier for established universities to ditch their charitable status to increase access to private finance.

There is a danger that in focusing on the botched detail of the loan scheme, or the consequences intended or otherwise of the student numbers controls, the broader intention of this White Paper is missed.  It is a disastrous vision, which amounts to sacrificing the excellence of our sector to privateering lobbyists, management consultants and venture capitalists.

In order to create a ‘level playing field’ for private and public universities that very distinction has to be challenged.  This is achieved by:

  1. abolishing the teaching block grant to arts, humanities and social science subjects thus ensuring that no subject offered at a public university has lower fees than those offered at private establishments;
  2. providing equal access for students at ‘alternative’ providers to the publicly supported loan scheme (provided those institutions agree to meet the regulatory conditions);
  3. ‘rationalising’ the process for the granting and renewal of degree awarding powers and, in effect, lowering the barrier so that more institutions can offer their own degrees without the need for the direct patronage of validation arrangements;
  4. providing easier access to the ‘university’ title currently denied to ‘for-profits’.

The Policy Exchange report, Higher Education in the Age of Austerity, published in the Autumn of 2010 called for changes of this kind on behalf of the private sector and the White Paper has delivered.  The proposed regulatory framework erases any difference between private training institutions and universities who have advanced broader social goals and participate within a wider economy.  These missions were recognized structurally by the teaching grant; universities will now have to review their cost base in new ways before contemplating any civic or public service.

In addition, the overall numbers of students will continue to be directly controlled and lowered, with last year’s additional 10 000 places removed.  By proposing an artificial supply-side mechanism to conjure more competition in the recruitment of students, we see a rigged market that spares the most selective handful of our public universities, but fetters the majority so as to prevent them from outcompeting newcomers, who are effectively nurtured in the early days until they are able to undercut the established provision with a cheap tier of low quality degrees.

The White Paper is sanguine about institutional failure (§6.9b) since those that ‘perform poorly under the new funding arrangements will primarily be those that fail to recruit enough students’.  But as we know from the Browne review’s figures about unmet demand for university places, any failure to recruit would more likely be the result of the new numbers controls, no overall expansion in student places and more providers, not to mention the complexity of the financing scheme with its potential to dissuade applicants.

This same paragraph (§6.9b) also insists that the current Government is only continuing the approach of its predecessors in not guaranteeing ‘to underwrite universities and colleges’.  This is not the case.  The White Paper, from its opening sentence on, is keen to dismantle the idea of the public university in every regard: even Policy Exchange recognized that, as the backer of last resort, previous governments kept institutions facing difficulties afloat.  The framing intentions and established practice of our current higher education legislation will be jettisoned as we are softened up for two further eventualities:

  1. the takeover of a failing public institution by a for-profit multinational;
  2. the pre-emptive transformation of corporate structure and charitable status by a public university ‘to make it easier for them to attract private investment’ (§4.35).

The details are as yet vague – particularly the wordings on asset-stripping (§4.36) which appear to weaken those currently drafted for post-92 universities – and will be wrapped up into the BIS consultation on the proposed regulatory framework that launches in August and closes in October.  ‘Who owns the university?’ is a blunt and reductive question but will be to the fore if the proposals go ahead.

Sketched out in the Westminster environs by vested interests who only care about higher education as an investment opportunity, the manner in which these proposals are being rushed through exacerbates the dangers.  I worked for most of the last five years in research management and administration; I am far from convinced that most university senior management and governing boards have the requisite ‘institutional wisdom’ to operate in this new financialized terrain: many will see the cash on offer, but not the moral hazards.

Public money was invested over years, but we are now instructed to consider ourselves as private sector employees and to erase the history and ethos of the institutions in which we work.  University staff are otherwise ignored by the White Paper (we are not mentioned, we have had no meaningful consultation): there is no sense of how academic life has been maintained and reproduced collaboratively by all colleagues in spite of the recent declines in per capita student resourcing.

Members of a number of campaign groups have come together to initiate a call for an Alternative White Paper to give a voice to all who work in higher education.  Contributions can be sent to altwhitepaper [AT] live.co.uk by 2nd September 2011.  To kick things off we have produced a preliminary critique, Putting Vision Back into Higher Education, but now seek a range of submissions that promotes and strengthens the excellence of our diverse universities and makes the case for public higher education, otherwise traduced by David Willetts’s desire for market solutions, tendering and further privatization.

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