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Review: IPPR’s Critical Path

Sometimes in reading a report you spot what is missing before you see what is there. In reading through the new IPPR report 'A Critical Path: Securing the Future of Higher Education in England', one is struck by the lack of references to another (comparatively recent) report, “Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education“. Such has been the slump in fortunes of the Browne review that a report just three years later covering almost identical ground does not see fit to offer it a single mention. David Kernohan takes a look at the similarities between the two and the successes and failures of IPPR's HE Commission's new far-reaching report in to higher education.
This article is more than 10 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Sometimes in reading a report you spot what is missing before you see what is there. In reading through the new IPPR report A Critical Path: Securing the Future of Higher Education in England, one is struck by the lack of references to another (comparatively recent) report, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education. Such has been the slump in fortunes of the Browne review that a report just three years later covering almost identical ground does not see fit to offer it a single mention.

Despite this, there are a number of eerie echoes between the two:

  • both call for a merger between HEFCE, OFFA and the QAA, ignoring the QAA’s UK-wide remit, and the legendarily efficient way that the three bodies already work together.
  • both make a lot of noise about an improved deal for part-time students, but do not offer any real answers. (Browne suggested wider eligibility for loans to counterbalance a rise in fees – it turned out only a third of part-time students were eligible, and only 20% of them actually took the loan. IPPR suggest slightly relaxing ELQ rules [where the government refuses to support students studying a qualification of equivalent level to the one they have], slightly addressing the former problem whilst completely ignoring the latter)
  • both wring hands about the need for increased government investment in HE (currently among the lowest in the developed world, Fig 2.9 in the IPPR report) but stop short of calling on the government to invest more.

The IPPR review harks back instead to the Robbins report of 1963, a far more radical document which explicitly called for greater government investment to support social mobility. Lord Robbins produced a report that is still seen favourably by government and academia, something which Lord Browne and his committee appear not to have managed.

And social mobility remains an issue for the university system, as a recent Guardian FOI-led story shows.

The IPPR answers to the rise in fees-led decrease in social mobility are twofold; one – sensibly – is to end the money-saving presumption that student bursaries should be in the form of fee waivers, the other – questionably – is to extend the questionably attractive Coventry University College model of cut-price degree courses. Neither of these really addresses the issue of local students living at home studying to fulfil local needs (chapter 4 of the IPPR report), but at least the first idea breaks down the barrier of living costs for full time study – a more pressing issue for 18-year-olds without rich parents than the amount repayable during their post-graduation working lives.

Other coverage is likely to centre on the rebadging of FE institutions offering employer-linked courses as “polytechnics” and giving them degree awarding powers. This is a politically powerful announcement, playing to a common-sense conceptualisation of the recent past – but changes nothing from the current state of affairs, where colleges are often delivering courses at a number of levels linked to employers and are free to apply for degree awarding powers should they so wish.

There is also an expectation that new open online course models (or MOOCs) will take some of the widening participation strain.  Despite the only recommendation in this vein being that the OU offer accreditation to students studying on their FutureLearn MOOC platform (something that they have explicitly said they would not do, not least because of no arrangements yet being in place to address quality assurance and plagiarism detection), the real interest comes from a complete absence of the MOOC boosterism in the recent IPPR publication An Avalanche is Coming (though there is a grudging mention in the bibliography). With both the Browne review and “Avalanche” ignored, Sir Michael Barber (a key part of both) must be looking carefully at the IPPR entry on his Christmas card list.

An initial delight in seeing the bold (and emboldened statement) “we have concluded that the current student funding system is unsustainable.” is mitigated by the realisation that the bought-in analysis (with figures from London Economics, the same place as last months Million+ report on the same issue) is riddled with errors, both technical – there is a frequent confusion between immediate government spending and long term financial exposure – and ideological, in that there is no countenance offered to the idea that the government just needs to spend more on HE. To anyone seeking a more thorough and reliable examination of these issues, we could only recommend a read of Andrew McGettigan’s The Great University Gamble.

It is good to see that the continuing crisis in postgraduate support is at least being brought to the attention of politicians, but again the report offers few lasting answers – the introduction of fee loans would compound the financial black hole that the undergraduate support system is already dragging BIS into.

This report is probably only of interest to two groups – wonks like us who want to unpick the politics and positioning, and politicians who want a policy idea for a headline. Like the Browne review it is unlikely to be referred to much in three years time, but (also like the Browne Review) it foregrounds the need for a proper examination of funding for higher education in England and in the UK.

7 responses to “Review: IPPR’s Critical Path

  1. It is a lot more comprehensive that Browne and so I think stands a better chance of holding up in three years (or two which is the more important milestone).

  2. David – get in touch: we’ll take you through the funding modelling in the million+ report – no errors as you assert but seems that you may not have understood the technicalities or the modelling. We argue for more HE £s but model on a cost-neutral basis for Treasury on 2012 figures / system for comparative purposes. Overall ippr appears to accept reductions in unit of resource in both teaching and research (not our position).

  3. A mixture of thoughts…

    Mark, the IPPR report is a lot more comprehensive than Browne but that’s hardly saying anything. It’s good to see MOOCs treated with more scepticism than a lot of papers on the future of HE. I wonder if Pearson is feeling short changed on their support for IPPR?

    A general question to anyone, what are the arguments in favour / against of merging HEFCE, OFFA etc?

    The report does contain certain good parts:

    “degree-awarding powers should only be given to those institutions that exceed demanding quality thresholds, that such powers should never be bought or sold, and that the title of ‘university’ should be reserved for institutions oriented towards the public good.”

    “Education cannot be treated like a transactional service or a consumer good, in which a teacher simply imparts knowledge to a student. It requires students to be actively involved in the process of learning, and to build trusting relationships with tutors, peers and the broader academic community.”

    The report has a good criticism of the national scholarship programme and its critique of the Government’s approach, page 93, is unnecessarily buried.

    However, in spite of citing Robbins, this report has none of that report’s idealism and frequently slopes off into a dull technocratic language. For instance, it says that letting a university to fail would be “problematic”… Not wrong, not completely unjustifiable given that it’d be the result of failing to recruit enough students in a rigged market despite demand continuing to exceed supply, but “problematic”…

    Where’s the passion, where’s the criticism of the fact that we are now in a society where banks are kept on life support by taxpayers for countless billions but universities are to be offered up as a sacrifice? Robbins was a neo-liberal in his day, a founding member of the Mont Pelerin society but he didn’t think there should be a market in HE, he didn’t mention for-profit providers or talk about letting universities fail! By today’s standard, his ideas and principles seem to be too radical for a “centre left” think tank…

    The report also fails to address incredibly relevant dilemmas such as the management of universities. It was a shame that it did not even engage with debate on the role of academics in the management of universities and the shift towards VCs acting as both the managers and owners of universities.

    Most annoyingly, the report ducked making the case for actually expanding investment in higher education despite the present economic difficulties. If HE provides positive returns on Government investment then surely we should be borrowing to invest now, at a time of unbelievably low interest rates for the Government. Throughout the report it talks about how HE is such a good investment, how “universities must be at the heart of… [England’s] economic strategy” if we are to have any growth or rebalancing, how we should learn from Sweden by protecting “public services that supported employment and economic growth.” It then seems to cop out of the logical conclusion as it does not argue for more overall investment in HE.

    The report cites Robbins in a positive manner but simply does not match up to its frank honesty on the fact that if you want to expand higher education, you need to invest in it.

    The fact is our investment in HE is absurdly low, both in comparison to other countries and historically. When Robbins reported, we spent 0.8% of GNP on HE when 8% participated
    . If you want 40% to study at a tertiary level and for universities to undertake major research with high costs, then you really do need to invest more.

    Just to compound this point, only the other day Vince Cable said that the UK would be investing more in HE in a rational world!

    Lastly, this line was brilliant: “With both the Browne review and “Avalanche” ignored, Sir Michael Barber (a key part of both) must be looking carefully at the IPPR entry on his Christmas card list.” Bravo…

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