David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Ever since Dearing, the question of tuition fees has dominated policy conversations about higher education.

The “major reviews” that followed – Browne and Augar – focused (or were interpreted to be focused) on the way higher education is paid for to the detriment of any consideration of quality and value outside of a nominal monetary value.

Those of us who have been around for a while have lived through earnest debates around “top up” fees, and any number of de-facto sticker prices. I’m sure I’ve marched against them enough times.

But is it time for another review as far reaching as Dearing was? With Labour casting around for policy ideas in this space, I’d argue that something like that would be a big help.

Investing in people

Fees discourse has been a path into a conceptualisation of the section rooted in a notion of competition between providers based on a calculus of “value” (as variously defined) against notional cost – higher education as a personal investment plan.

As things stand, the system in England is world-leading regarding the proportion of the cost of teaching and the cost of living as a student covered by contributions by those who benefited from it. Proposed reforms to repayment terms may push us above US prices (we’re already ahead of all but the priciest Ivy League and out-of-state offers, which – of course – at least take a nominal account of the total cost of attendance).

In a way, the argument for more state contributions to tuition is currently harder to make than the argument for state contributions to student maintenance. After all, at the point graduates begin to repay loans, they have an above-average income (however carefully defined) – at least some of which, it is fair to assume, has some basis in the skills they develop at university. The individual is not the only person that benefits from this, of course, and I’ve long thought the state and employers need to chip in a bit more, but that’s an argument for another day.

Scheduled maintenance

The maintenance burden, in comparison, has both an immediate impact and a long-term detriment on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is already the case that the maximum student maintenance loan fails to cover even rent for some students. Vanishingly few have access to the full loan, but parental contributions are assumed – based, as Jim Dickinson has noted, on an enormously outdated calculation that fails to adequately take into account the cost of living for students or their families. Students from low-income backgrounds struggle to fully participate in university life due to the low availability of both loans and parental support, but pay more over their lifetime (for a worse experience) than peers with parents who are able to cover rent and living costs.

Any policy developments based on equality of access to higher education urgently need to take the total cost of attendance into account. A welcome further addition to the portfolio of policies borrowed from the US would be the requirement for providers to publish a credible and transparent total cost of attendance for undergraduate study – which could form the basis of the availability of a mixture of loans and grants predicated at ensuring that every student (whatever their parental background) has access to funds at a level that would allow them to study and participate in the networking and personal growth that constitutes wider university life.

One immediate issue here is the high and rising cost of student accommodation. We’ve bet on deregulated private sector expansion, which (with some notable exceptions) has tended to focus on the more luxurious end of the spectrum in larger (and multi-provider) locations. As we’ve seen this year and last year, decoupling accommodation considerations from unplanned and opportunistic university expansion. Demographic pressures are only going to turn the screw – scarcity will drive up prices and worsen the student experience, and the variable nature of demand makes it impossible to get ahead of this.

Managed expansion

While nobody would wish to constrain the expansion of capacity on popular courses to meet applicant demand, we do need to see the actual expansion of capacity – and this should include the expansion of staff numbers and the expansion of accommodation and campus resources. The declining value of home fees to providers means we can no longer assume a natural relationship between inputs and outputs – and much as I’d love to think otherwise, a further injection of cash into the sector seems unlikely.

In the past, HEFCE would approve planned expansion as the primary source of funding for tuition. The government no longer has that particular lever, but there is a world in which we could require an approved (at local and national level) expansion proposal that set out where additional students would live and study before access to additional fee loan income (or Tier 4 visas) is made available. There’d be room here to ensure that applicant demand exists and to link some expansion to local or national skills needs.

The knock-on here, of course, is that expansion (especially in the under-regulated postgraduate taught marketplace) is often used as a way to cross-subsidise expensive home undergraduate provision elsewhere. There is an OfS review of high-cost funding (now referred to as strategic funding) already planned – this should focus on the actual costs of provision and could do so if skills policy is shifted to a managed expansion basis.

Managed expansion would also address concerns about quality and standards – there’d be no room for the archetypal “bums on seats” accusations if every additional place is made available based on a fully costed and approved proposal. There’s room here, too, for a traditional quality assurance process (based on academic or professional review) alongside the more modish analysis of likely student outcomes.

Far beyond HERA

The Lifelong Loan Entitlement has the potential to reduce our reliance on three-year residential higher education – but I’ve yet to see any evidence of significant demand for this offer. Shorter courses could ease the pressure on popular courses, but present a complex regulatory challenge.

However, it is increasingly clear that the current regulatory approach – characterised as a mix between dashboarding and waterboarding – is not fit for purpose. While the approach set out in the original regulatory framework had some merit, combining as it did a light touch academic review with a more systematic approach to outcomes analysis, what we have currently is very different.

Despite the 2018 regime approving registration of the majority of what are regularly described as “world class” higher education providers, we seem to be undergoing a series of regulatory interventions (in those selfsame large, established, providers) similar to what might be expected for provision that is actually dangerous. Either provision has got markedly worse under the stewardship of OfS, or the original assessments made by OfS were done badly – unless we are prepared to accept the notion that a regulator may not be working in the interests of the provision it regulates we have to conclude that it is regulation rather than provision that appears to be the problem.

A world where England deviates from the internationally standard practice of academic and student-led approach to quality and standards to the extent that the Designated Quality Body has to demit the role is one that should concern us greatly. The esteem afforded to UK higher education around the world is at risk – a bizarre state of affairs given the high underlying quality of what is on offer. The issue is confidence in the regulator and the regulatory system in England – this needs to be addressed.

Have we got reviews for you?

What I’m trying to sketch the shape of here is a new (Dearing-esque) expert review of wider higher education regulation and student support – perhaps (as has happened many times previously) to be commissioned on a cross-party basis across a general election period. Unlike the Augar review, this new review should be fully independent, and the remit should be drawn broadly to allow for cross-domain problem solving and radical thinking.

The question of tuition fees has sucked a lot of the air out of the national debate around other aspects of higher education. Interventions nominally about quality and value – far more visible since the fiscal illusion lost its lustre – have too often been possible to read as attempts to reduce demand for higher education by reducing esteem. The need to prop up another illusion – that of a market driving up quality – has prevented most serious discussion about the size and shape of the sector.

We can’t afford to leave these questions to those who believe that universities are merely machines for turning young people into Labour voters. There are fundamental issues with the way higher education is regulated and resourced – it’s past time there was another serious look at the whole piece.

2 responses to “Is it time for another major review of higher education?

  1. Dearing – and Robbins before it – tackled higher education in the round: what is it to be educated at the level of higher education and what is it to be a university in the modern age. Both these matters need to be tacked and tackled together.

    Some issues:
    – being educated in a context of climate and continuing global crises
    – implications of UNESCO’s SDGs for higher education & the student experience
    – what is meant by ‘graduateness’ – the values and virtues to be expected of graduates
    – does the idea of the student as ‘global citizen’ make sense?
    – the idea of ‘critical thinking’ seems to be disappearing precisely when it is more needed than hitherto, and warrants a rethink to include having the dispositions of criticality (being critical) as a citizen (not just critical thinking ‘skills’ within a domain)
    – the university’s responsibilities to its graduates, with regard to their lifelong learning and development
    – ‘breadth and depth’ – educating the whole person for a complex world
    – the student experience – stretching, challenging, facing students with problems without absolute answers and forming open learning situations
    – trans-disciplinarity – discipline-bound curricula are no longer acceptable.

    This quick list can easily be extended. The point is that this is a challenging and interconnected world and we have a right to expect university graduates to assist in addressing the challenges of this world. This is why every generation or so a major inquiry is needed to revisit the fundamental issues of the idea of the university and of higher education.

    Ron Barnett

  2. Of course as well as policy for funding universities, we are now innovating in the space of policy for fining universities when graduates fail to secure graduate level jobs – perhaps this is a clever way for universities to be incentivised to move precarious teaching staff onto permanent contracts?

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