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.