This article is more than 7 years old

Keep calm and speculate wildly

Does anyone really know what's going on? Martin McQuillan thinks not, warns against believing in false prophets and wonders if there are bigger things in the world for universities to worry about than the outcomes of Green Paper.
This article is more than 7 years old

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

When a colleague whispers in your ear that they have the inside track on the Green Paper and the Government’s plans for English higher education, you would do well to ignore them. The proximity of the autumn budget statement, Green Paper, Nurse Review and the call for evidence from Lord Stern’s committee on the future of the REF, have made wonks of us all.

It is not unusual to hear senior managers in UK universities talk wonk but since the January 15th deadline for responses to the Green Paper, in the absence of detail from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, there has been a decided increase in chatter around the water coolers of English HE.

Some of it takes the form of predicting all the complex permutations that might occur, some of it concludes the opposite and knowingly insists that nothing at all will happen. If I had a pound for every time I have been told ‘for certain’ that there will be no resulting HE legislation, I could have covered this year’s RAB charge. Both views are undoubtedly mistaken.

Firstly, the view that we will be subject to an array of complex metrics and a baroque system of surveillance fails to take into account the uncertainty around almost everything in the Green Paper. The civil servants at BIS are currently wading through 600 responses, submitted by everyone from the Confederation of British Industry to the Standing Conference for University Drama Departments. These responses are full of mutually contradictory suggestions as well as significant challenges by key players to some of the core principles of the Green Paper.

A statutory duty to consult is not the same thing as an obligation to listen, but the volume and density of responses may now be helping the Minister understand just how complicated the higher education landscape really is. Ambitious as he might be to make his name with successful legislation, he may be wishing that he had never started the thing in the first place.

In contrast to the on-the-hoof policy formation of the Coalition, the timescale for the TEF was never intended to be quick. Level 1 is available from the academic year 2016-17 to any institution that has had a successful Quality Assurance Review. The details of Level 2 do not kick in until 2017-18 after another technical consultation, which is to say that the BIS response to everyone else’s responses (supposedly due before the summer recess, but don’t hold your breath) will probably not tell us all that much about the future shape of the TEF.

However, it will tell us that there is going to be one, hence the view that there will be no legislation and no change is just as mistaken as the more fevered imaginings of all the red tape that will bind universities. Those dreams of rigour and penalty are more the expression of a fantasy on behalf of the sadomasochistic apparatus that wants to dominate teaching in the sector than the genuine intention of the Government.

There are several kites that were flown in the Green Paper that will be blown away in the coming months. For example, it is extremely unlikely that universities will be made exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The idea that the Universities of Oxford or Manchester need to be excused FOI in order to compete on a level playing field with the London School of Business and Finance is absurd and any sector spokesperson who has had the chutzpah to suggest as much in recent weeks should think about applying to Google for the right to be forgotten.

Equally, Parliament is extremely unlikely to cede its powers over the tuition fees cap to a minister. Advocates of tuition fees rises beyond inflation will have to wait until another Parliament in which the Conservatives, should they wish to enact such a thing, have a more robust majority. At the moment, there is no appetite in government or on the backbenches (and certainly not across the opposition or in the Lords) to support tuition fees more than £9,000 for universities “awash with cash”. So, the marginal increases associated with achievement in the TEF are the only game in town.

Not that the link between fees and TEF-ology are quite as certain as they once were. The majority of the sector’s responses are concerned about the ways in which minor financial incentives will lead to perverse academic outcomes. If the Minister takes on board what the consultation is telling him about the TEF-fees link, then he will drop it, and there would be no route to increase fees in this Parliament at all. So, who will compromise first over that one? History tells us it might be the vice chancellors.

A subset of the ‘nothing will happen’ argument is that some institutions will be exempt, or able to opt themselves out of the TEF. This is to misread the Government’s intention. In so far as universities are all in hock to the student loan book (big and small, elite and aspirant) they will all be in the TEF because being TEFed is something the Government will do to you. It’s not optional, a bit like the Freedom of Information Act.

But see how easy it is to fall into the speculative malady of Green Paper fever? We have had such an oversupply of policy events recently that the sector has began to behave like wonk junkies, desperate for its next hit and breaking out in a sweat of wild conjecture the moment the taps of Whitehall rumour are turned off.

This is not to say, that there is not a great deal to sort out in higher education in England, including the regulation of private providers and future agency architecture. But none of it is about to be resolved soon, let alone by BIS in response to its consultation. If there is one thing that we know about consultation exercises it is that the final response is seldom final. However, what the Government wants to do with the sector (and by that I mean industry) will, at some point, require primary legislation.

What any such bill can carry through both Houses of Parliament will be the determining factor for the future of English HE. It is, accordingly, much more likely to be a nimble Ninja-like volume than the metric-laden mule of policy buckaroo currently being played in university boardrooms. The reality of law making with a small parliamentary majority is that 60% of policy ideas never make it past exposure to a select committee, hostile media, or lobby group.

In the meantime, while we await the outcomes of the Green Paper consultation, if universities want to get their fix of supposition and futurology they need look no further than the electoral calendar of 2016. There are elections in the devolved assemblies, at least one of which is certain to result in a new minister for higher education as Huw Lewis has indicated that he will not seek re-election to the Welsh Assembly.

The Holyrood election will likely strengthen the SNP’s hand over issues of governance in Scottish universities and exacerbate the paradox of an inviolable commitment to no tuition fees while the student loan book continues to grow as the Scottish Government’s single biggest asset, currently at £2.7bn. A new Mayor of London will have new priorities for universities in the capital. However, the outcome of a possible European referendum could make the Green Paper and regional elections all look totally irrelevant.

If the UK votes to leave the European Union this summer, then all bets are off with respect to any predictable syllabus or schedule for policy formation. What would be at risk in such a move is not just the classification of international students or access to Commission research funding but the entire legislative programme of this Parliament and beyond, coupled with a likely Conservative leadership election, a possible repeal of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, a subsequent general election, maybe a second Scottish independence referendum… It would be a dynamic shift in the political landscape of the UK precipitated by a tectonic displacement within the attitudes of the UK electorate.

As the borders of the UK were remade and possibly unmade, in a public discussion obsessed with immigration and national identity, what would it all mean for universities and their global brands, inward investment, labour law and mobility, scientific inquiry across borders, the cultural economy, and the life of the mind?

If the UK voted to leave Europe it would more than likely result in a quick end to David Cameron’s second term as Prime Minister. His successor would almost certainly be from the euro-skeptic wing of the party, and one of their first acts in office would be to meet the new President of the United States, a prospect that might yet Trump anything we have seen so far.

In their present form it could be said that the science-denying, war-mongering, God-fearing, FOX-watching wing of the GOP constitutes a possible threat to the survival of the species. So, when you really think about it, the outcome of the Green Paper consultation is really the least of our worries at the moment.

The much greater risk to universities is managerial tunnel vision and group think which finds comfort in picking over technocratic detail but fails to pay attention to the wider and infinitely more significant forces at play in the society that universities serve. One day the Green Paper will be a footnote in the annals of wonkery, the future of universities is political not technocratic.

4 responses to “Keep calm and speculate wildly

  1. Dear Martin
    You have one of the sharpest minds that I know!
    Hope to see you soon.
    Best wishes

Leave a Reply