Public opinion could yet be our undoing

It has been an interesting week. We have grappled with the apparent outcome of the government’s student number policy, we have struggled to understand whether disaggregating international students from net migration figures will really make a difference.

As an academic exercise these are fascinating, layered as they are with perverse incentives and a range of consequences both intended and unintended. Wider public perceptions about higher education and related issues matter because politicians care about what voters think. In HE, there is a growing imbalance between the priorities of the sector and societal attitudes that must be better understood by universities and policy makers alike.

For applicants in the UK, supply and demand seem so imbalanced in some areas that it suggests there has been a narrowing of choice for many.  The impact of tuition fees rises, which we feared might result in a lack of demand, has also had the more subtle effect of driving students towards courses that represent a career investment – which may account for some of this imbalance.  And although the government is declaring the new status quo as a triumph for social mobility, the growth in applicants from less advantaged backgrounds has slowed and indeed we have yet to see which students will actually turn up to enrol, and so the jury must stay out for a while.

For international students, our attitude towards them must seem ambivalent at best.  Due to a clear split of opinion in government we now have a compromise – international students will be counted separately but will still contribute towards net migration targets.  Perhaps more significant for potential students and their parents is the plight of international students stranded far from home and at significant risk of seeing their family’s investment wasted.  As Eric Thomas said at the Universities UK Conference last week, “we have all been found wanting in our duties to these students”.

This has also been the week in which the British Social Attitudes Survey has been published, reminding us that policy is not formed in a vacuum and often has a symbiotic relationship with public opinion.  The results make for disturbing reading, suggesting that we have adopted a survivalist mentality towards the current economic crisis.  Unlike in previous recessions, attitudes towards welfare have noticeably hardened since 2008.  What is more, 51% of the population now believe that immigration should be reduced “a lot” and, while we may disagree with the methodology, this week’s Migration Watch survey that suggests the majority would like to see a reduction in international student numbers seems to have found some resonance.  A quick look at the comments sections of major newspapers’ websites shows the backlash against even the humanitarian spend of £2M to mitigate the hardship caused by our own society’s actions towards bona fide international students.

It is against this backdrop that HE policy will continue to be developed by a Government, conscious of a general election on the horizon and with deeply conflicting internal priorities and politics.  How might these societal attitudes shape the future of HE?  Here are some suggestions:

Reduction of public spending on widening participation: Aimhigher has now been consigned to history but there is still indirect public funding for WP and a determination to maintain progress despite fee rises.  However WP has always been difficult to justify to the lay person, as at first glance it appears to challenge the concept of meritocracy.  To those who don’t understand – or don’t buy into – the idea that there are deep inequalities in society affecting educational and employment outcomes it must seem like an unfair concession to one group over another, for no apparent reason.  I would expect to see a sustained challenge to the wider concepts of WP and a strong policy push towards fair access only.  In fact I believe we are some way down this road already.

Reduction in international student numbers: One cannot help but feel that if the negative publicity surrounding the London Met situation does result in the predicted decline in international student numbers then this might provide a convenient quick win for a government eager to reduce immigration.  In the short term this is sure to be a crowd pleaser and it may take some time for public opinion to sway in the opposite direction.  Of course in the meantime not only will we lose income, but UK students will lose the opportunity to learn in an international environment. 

Loss of the idea of HE as a public good: As HE qualifications are increasingly seen as a private investment in a future career, we may lose altogether the idea of higher level learning as something that is also of wider benefit to society.  Research and development will, by and large, continue to be able to demonstrate their worth, but the benefits arising from a more highly educated and critical thinking society could easily be lost both in public discourse and in policy making.

A smaller sector: This is implied in all of the above; and more generally the idea of lower participation rates may appeal as both the value of a degree to an individual and the value of HE to society is challenged.  All of these pressures may come to bear as student number allocations are decided year-on-year, alongside concerns about the future cost of the student finance package in England. Will fears that numbers will be allowed to dwindle following this year’s market failure be realised? The Treasury could choose to take the 2012 intake as the new benchmark for admissions to drive a permanent contraction.

We knew that the financial and political pressures following the 2010 would create an unprecedentedly difficult set of circumstances for higher education. Now it seems that shifting public opinion may add to those pressures.

Our best hope is if we continue to make the case louder and clearer than we ever have before that in order to meet the global technological, social and economic challenges of the coming decades we need strong universities to produce as many skilled, critical thinking graduates as they possibly can. Where students and graduates succeed, the whole nation does.

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