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Review: The Great University Gamble

Writing here in a personal capacity, Nick Hillman, the Special Adviser to David Willetts reviews 'The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education' (Pluto Press, 2013) by regular contributor to this blog - Andrew McGettigan. Also find here details of a new competition to win a copy of the book.
This article is more than 11 years old

Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and a former Special Adviser to David Willetts, the Minister for Universities & Science.

This new book is more evidence that analysis of higher education is getting better. Other signals include Michael Shattock’s Making Policy in British Higher Education, 1945-2011, which came out last year, and Everything for Sale: The Marketisation of UK Higher Education by Roger Brown and Helen Carasso, which was published earlier this year. As David Willetts noted in a recent speech, the LSE and the Institute of Education are preparing events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report. Meanwhile, wonkhe goes from strength to strength. This is all good news because the study of higher education as a discipline in its own right has been patchy in the UK.

Andrew McGettigan writes well, explaining detailed points of law and finance clearly. The book builds on his influential 2012 report for the Intergenerational Foundation, False Accounting?, which ingeniously claimed the current higher education reforms would not save money. This time, he takes a broader view with sections on recent funding reforms, marketisation and privatisation. If the prose proves tough for general readers, that reflects the depth of analysis rather than other weaknesses.

The book is an interesting read because the author goes to unexpected places. Just when you think you know where he is heading, he veers off in a totally different direction. So, after laying the blame for higher education’s woes squarely at the door of politicians and Vice Chancellors, he concludes that most universities should have less independence from the state while a tiny minority should have more independence. That such a bifurcation would risk a new form of the old binary divide is no deterrent.

The author would not expect me to agree with his arguments and I don’t. This is partly because they lack historical roots. He claims: ‘Expansion of higher education began under Kenneth Baker’. This is unfair on earlier politicians and officials, local authorities and university administrators – not to mention Lionel Robbins. Later on, he says ‘the government is no longer committed’ to propping up failing institutions, but previous governments did not offer universities a guaranteed lifeline either.

There is an unfortunate tendency among writers on higher education to don rose-tinted spectacles when looking at the past and dark-tinted ones when looking at the present. McGettigan particularly condemns ‘the botched loan scheme [which] means that the Treasury has insisted on an overall cap on student numbers.’ But the need to impose a cap on the total number of students in order to limit the exposure of taxpayers is neither new nor unique to England. Politicians have grappled with the trade-off between student support and the number of funded student places for decades, as I attempt to show in a new article on the history of undergraduate support since 1962 for Contemporary British History. Australia faces the same issue, with some experts warning the country will need to reverse their recent policy of lifting student number controls because of burgeoning costs.

There are other problems too. As well as lacking historical awareness, the book has an odd take on current policymaking. McGettigan repeatedly asserts that the Coalition’s motives are concealed from view. The Government are proceeding ‘without presenting its plans or reasoning to the public.’ Opponents of the higher education reforms have been outmanoeuvred by politicians who call ‘snap votes’, ‘sneak passages’ into legislation and use ‘existing powers quietly’ (his italics).

This doesn’t stack up. The students who poured into central London in 2010 were not protesting at being kept in the dark about the Government’s intentions. The £9,000 tuition fee cap was announced in Parliament and later debated and voted on in both the Commons and the Lords. Other important elements of the student finance package, like the real interest rate, were in primary legislation that went through all the regular parliamentary stages. There has been a higher education white paper and an accompanying technical document as well as numerous public consultations on contentious issues, such as the regulation of alternative providers. Indeed, these documents provide much of the raw material for the book.

Because McGettigan believes policymakers’ motives are concealed, he proceeds to reveal them. But conjecture is portrayed as hard fact. So recent changes to institutions’ own number controls are ‘a deliberate step in a process designed to destabilise them [universities] prior to the entrance and expansion of the alternative providers.’ The potential benefits to students and to the sector as a whole of a more flexible and diverse higher education system are downplayed. Instead of explaining why policymakers would want to do all the things he ascribes to them, McGettigan assumes it’s axiomatic that the goal is ‘creating new outlets for value extraction.’

As part of this, he condemns the Government in fruity terms for meeting with higher education providers not funded by Hefce. (In his words, they are ‘privateers, private equity managers and other profit-making interests.’) But any administration seeking to improve the regulation of alternative providers has a duty to try and understand them as part of evidence-based policymaking. The meetings between BIS and alternative providers are referred to in the book but other meetings, such as those with the author, are not.

The most significant factual error is where McGettigan claims: ‘Dearing recommended a means-tested upfront fee of £1,000 a year’. There are two problems with this. First, the Dearing report of 1997 recommended a flat-rate, not means-tested, fee. Secondly, it said the fee should be backed by an income-contingent loan, not paid upfront. The slip is unfortunate as it suggests the Blair Government’s decision to implement a means-tested fee with no underlying loan was in line with Dearing, and therefore consensual. It wasn’t. As Stephen Dorrell, the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, told the House of Commons at the time, it was ‘a policy that was specifically examined and specifically rejected by Sir Ron Dearing and his committee’. Within a few years, it had been reversed.

There are alternatives to the Government’s approach to higher education and Andrew suggests some. But they usually involve less responsive funding structures, higher barriers for new providers and more rigid student number controls. The Coalition could have set the size and shape of the higher education sector in aspic back in 2010 and slashed the unit of resource instead of shifting further towards loans, but it would have limited student choice, blunted incentives to improve the academic experience and hindered institutions trying to excel.

Overall, this book is polemical, lively and well-written. But while its research on issues like the legal status of different institutions is thorough, its contentions are flaky. The book’s objective, according to its Preface, is to be a primer on recent changes. I am not convinced it succeeds in this because it will be hard for disinterested readers to separate opinion from fact. Yet if you regard it instead as a lengthy political pamphlet, then you do not have to agree with it all to welcome it as a useful contribution to the debate.

You can buy The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education by Andrew McGettigan (Pluto Press, 2013) here.

Win a copy of the book by sending a poem no longer than 14 lines about the Coalition Government’s reforms to higher education to: by Friday 14th June 2013. The best entries will be published on this site and the winner will receive a book. 

12 responses to “Review: The Great University Gamble

  1. Thanks to Nick Hillman for taking the time to review the book. Very few of the measures and consultations at issue leak outside the closed circuits of wonkery. Democratic deficit is a general problem and the book attempts to mitigate that by taking those documents, the ‘raw material’, to a general audience. It is good that Nick supports that initiative.

    I take on board his comments but it won’t be clear to disinterested readers where Nick considers the line between opinion and fact to be. For instance, what ‘elements of the student finance package’ other than the clauses on student loan interest rates did use primary legislation? Even there, one can scour Hansard and find little debate as to why real rates of interest – the claimed aim – required the power to set market or commercial rates …
    Moreover, it is disingenuous to nod to the regulation of ‘alternative providers’ without touching upon the main issue – giving them access to publicly backed student loans. Similarly, the main thrust of the Browne review was to make the case for fees so as to support sectoral expansion: the convoluted zero sum game we saw in 2012/13 instead gives competition a very different tint.

    I am still not clear what the benefits of the exact approach to numbers controls are meant to be (especially the new documents about potential redistribution of places in 2014/15) or what success or failure would look like to Nick. What costs is he prepared to accept for the small number of additional students who make it into their first choice university? He seems pretty sanguine about institutional failure … and we need to talk about part-time study.

    I’m also not sure that I do conclude ‘that most universities should have less independence from the state while a tiny minority should have more independence’. Though I do think ‘intuitional autonomy’ is something of a shibboleth and needs to be subject to some hard-headed reconsideration and awareness that this autonomy is often, given the new forms of market and sub-markets, the desire of a university’s executive to act more like its cousins in the commercial world. How an HE system is sustained and funded alongside local, public and civic accountability exceeds the simple terms of liberalisation or central control.

    As Nick knows last year’s False Accounting? raised the link between tuition fees, CPI and index-linked benefits to question whether there had been a proper assessment of the savings claimed for the new regime. With that link ‘ingeniously’ severed for many benefits in December’s announcement by George Osborne, such analysis would now need to be different (as the book notes), but the sustainability of the loan scheme, the potential sale of loan accounts to third parties and the mooted change to terms and conditions for existing borrowers are all live issues where the facts are hard to ascertain and need to be presented to the public clearly and in advance. Debate and our polity would benefit from direct response to the later chapters of the book, but I appreciate that it may not come from Nick’s corner given how contentious these steps would be.

  2. Andrew is right. Nick has missed the point and misrepresented him in saying most unis should have more and a few less dependence on the state. For an alternative review (+ of Roger Brown and Helen Carasso ‘Everything for Sale’) see The Campaign for the Public University website.

  3. Fascinating to see such debate happening publicly and I think regardless of whether you agree with him Nick in particular needs to be applauded for partaking.

    Given the participants, context and topic of this debate it’s hard for it not to be inherently wonky/he, technical and elitist. However I think all of us involved in the HE policy bubble can do better at translating our arguments for a more general audience. The core of our research and analysis can remain unintelligible to most but in this increasingly transparent climate it’s important to make our arguments in different ways and using a variety of different channels. Mark perhaps you could run an infographic or 1 minute video competition too…?

  4. I agree with Louis. Good of Nick to engage publicly with this review.

    A few thoughts:

    Nick argued: “[Andrew’s analysis lacks] historical roots. He claims: ‘Expansion of higher education began under Kenneth Baker’. This is unfair on earlier politicians and officials, local authorities and university administrators – not to mention Lionel Robbins. Later on, he says ‘the government is no longer committed’ to propping up failing institutions, but previous governments did not offer universities a guaranteed lifeline either.”

    The point on expansion is that it really started post 1945, up from 2% to the current level (anyone got an exact reliable figure?). However, it wasn’t an even process, and Kenneth Baker restarted expansion after the flat lining period of the late 70s, early 80s under K Joseph.

    On the point of failure, Nick surely is stretching it by saying that. No government has previously felt it necessary to make clear they are not willing to prop up “failing” universities – failure/success more being judged by whether they were meeting their aims in terms of teaching and research. Of the Thatcher Government, only Keith Joseph was keen to allow a university to fail (according to my research in the UGC archive) – now, I wonder what % of the cabinet would welcome such a failure as proof of a market having been created? More, I suspect, than 1.

    Nick argues that the changes were not concealed from view, citing student protests as evidence of this. The whole point, surely, of Andrew’s book is to go beyond the headline fees alone and look at the issues surrounding privatisation (or the differences forms/nuances of this he suggests), the encouragement of for-profit HE (the summary of the purchase of the College of Law is particularly interesting) and the changes to the corporate structure of universities. There are obscure yet major changes being instituted by the Government which have not been debated in Parliament, ones which do not hit headlines. I doubt a single political journalist has a clue about most of the changes Andrew discusses. The lack of an HE bill and use of secondary legislation does mean the changes have been kept out of serious public and parliamentary debate.

    The pattern was very much the same in the 1980s – most of the radical changes preceded the 1988 act, using financial rather than legal means to press through reform. I thought I had a reasonable knowledge of present HE reforms – Andrew’s book has highlighted how much I was simply unaware of.

  5. Fascinating article. Whilst I’m against a linear education and university ‘elite’ that believe in shoving facts down the throats of our youth, I am all for using new technologies to educate, engage and inspire.

    I’m an online tutor on, this is one of the many ways I feel we can engage today’s youth.

    All the best,


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