Self-regulation and public ownership in higher education?

Labour’s National Education Service policy first proposed in its 2017 manifesto, ‘For the Many, Not the Few’, promised for the first time in the history of British social policy a “cradle-to-grave” education system, free at the point of use.

However, beyond the promise to abolish tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants in higher education – both crucial steps to de-commodify HE and restore its public mission – the NES remains somewhat vague as to what specific policies it would introduce into the sector.

What is the alternative?

Putting flesh on the bones of its NES policy is particularly important now that the Conservative Government has published the results of its long awaited Augar report, which arguably does nothing to fix the systemic problems created by decades of market reform. In my submission to Labour’s National Policy Forum 2019 Consultation, I put forward several proposals that I think build significantly on the promise of the NES policy, which, if implemented, would not only restore HE’s public mission but put the sector to work on solving pressing issues facing society, such as climate change.

I urge Labour to create a democratic body for tertiary education – intrinsically linked and co-operating with a similar body in compulsory education – that can allocate funding according to a national education strategy informed by robust and democratic feedback mechanisms. This body should have an elected board, with representation reflecting fairly the mutual interests in tertiary education: academics, teachers, administrators, parents and communities, students, trade unions, civil servants, and Members of Parliament from all political parties. Once established, this body should begin a wide-ranging, patient and inclusive consultation with all the above stakeholder groups, to create a framework for self-evaluation and collaboration within tertiary education.

Labour should protect the public interest in universities by placing each university’s assets in a nonrevocable trust – after the model of the John Lewis Partnership – which would hold the formal legal title to the organisation’s assets. With the Augar Review’s proposal to cut fees to £7,500 without top-up public funding for majority of “economically useless” subjects and Michael Barber’s promise not to bail out universities in the event of financial insolvency, there is a serious threat of a hostile takeover by for-profit education corporations.

Aside from protecting public assets from predatory corporate interests, asset locks would lever universities away from the destructive market behaviours that have driven this financialisation within the sector in the first place.

In my recent pamphlet, Markets, Monopolies and Municipal Ownership, I argue that market behaviours were first introduced into the sector through ‘incorporation’ in 1992. By encouraging universities to behave like private-sector corporations, the Conservatives created a ‘bottom-up’ process of marketisation that would not be expunged by abolishing tuition fees alone. Asset locks would put an immediate break on this corporatisation at a local level. Complementing the national consultation proposed above, local consultations can then begin to address the multitudinous governance issues uncovered in recent years that have resulted from corporatisation.

Search engines

Drawing on the work of Rebecca Boden and colleagues, I suggest that Labour should support the University and College Union, in conjunction with the Trades Union Congress, local trades councils and community organisations, to set up “search conferences”, with the long-term aim of establishing new democratic forums like citizen assemblies. These search conferences would seek to find out what local communities need from their local universities, in terms of local re-skilling and employment needs, but also in terms of  socially useful research that could be undertaken by academics, where appropriate, through practices of co-inquiry with the public.

Going well beyond the tokenism of current corporate social responsibility programmes, as well as the disappointing UPP Foundation report, “Truly Civic: Strengthening the Connection Between Universities and their Places”, these search conferences could turn universities into truly civic institutions imagined at the turn of the 20th century. Finally, I propose that Labour should explore alternative models of ownership in higher education, as it has with other public services like utilities and in line with its wider alternative economic strategy.

The asset lock proposed above provides an ideal transitional form towards co-operative ownership models, for example. The creation of a Co-operative University is currently being explored by the Co-operative College, and examples of co-operative FE and HE already exist in the UK and abroad, as well as in compulsory education. Furthermore, by sourcing their services from local co-operatives where possible, while integrating social needs into their corporate plans to create “people’s plans” – like those seen recently in Manchester and London, as well as earlier examples like the Lucas Plan – democratised universities could become anchor institutions for genuine, inclusive growth at a regional level.

The vision of HE presented above, of democratised universities acting as co-operative anchor institutions and hubs of collective intelligence, also provides an institutional framework for the implementation of Labour’s Green Transformation programme. While Cleveland and Preston models of municipalism show how wealth can be kept within local and regional communities, democratised universities acting as socially useful anchor institutions can research green technologies, help green co-operative start-ups thrive and teach young people and adults alike how to live in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

2 responses to “Self-regulation and public ownership in higher education?

  1. Returning to public ownership would be complex, especially for the cadre of universities that were never publicly owned. Nationalising universities has been threatened in the past, but mostly funding nudges have worked.
    It’s worth noting that that the Poly directors successfully argued for incorporation (in 1988 not 1992) because of both the bureaucracy & the ideology of local authorities.

  2. Some (English) Polytechnics were already incorporated within the local authority framework well before 1988 – the five ILEA ones were limited companies, not departments of the GLC/ILEA statutory local authority corporation framework; but it was claimed they were as closely regulated as their notionally unincorporated LEA-based sister institutions – some argued even more so under a quite strongly directive ILEA member and officer framework during the 1980s. There were also several Polytechnic and other institutions run by joint local authority committees of more than one authority with complex oversight and political geographies.

    The National Advisory Body for Public Sector Higher Education (NAB) spent a significant sum in 1987 investigating ‘Good Management Practice’ and produced a large report that suggested that incorporation within the local authority framework was probably the way forward, but before the ink was dry on the pages the Thatcher government produced the White Paper that said that Polytechnics and other colleges with greater than 55% HE student FTEs would be taken out of the local authority framework. (In an issue close to data wonks of the time’s hearts, one Poly failed to meet the 55% threshold, due to a bizarre calculation of student FTEs for short courses by the DES, and the student data was ‘reviewed’ in order to ensure the Poly passed the threshold for incorporation).

    The Committee of Directors of Polytechnics (CDP) did not argue against a link with the LEAs, they just felt that incorporation within the LEA framework would give them more autonomy – it’s hard for a Principal to understand that s/he doesn’t have the power to decide how many staff to appoint.

    The 1988 White paper proposals on Polytechnic and college demuncipalisation was part of an overall attack on elected local government from the Thatcher government of the time that involved a whole series of attacks on mainly Labour-led elected authorities, including outright abolition (GLC/ILEA/Met Counties), removal of functions/forced privatisation, and budget control (‘ratecapping’). At the time of demunicipalisation on April Fool’s Day 1989, I think someone calculated that over 20 of the 29 (original) Polytechnics in England were under Labour-controlled local authorities – it was as blatant as that! It’s worth pointing out that the NAB had two levels – Board and Committee, one of which was Ministerial-DES led and the other of which was LEA-led. Institutions tended to come off worst in any tussles between the two tiers of politicians mostly from opposing political sides.

    There were some in the sector who argued that removing (English) Polys and other colleges from LEA control and handing them over to the newly created PCFC was tantamount to ‘nationalisation’ anyway. With Bill Stubbs moving from control over the 5 ILEA Polytechnics and other colleges to being in direct charge of the entire English P&C sector without the ‘inconvenience’ of those locally elected politicians getting in the way.

    Universities in US state systems have to live with this democratic political relationship every day of course, and some are very successful among the best in the world

    The reference to Preston’s model of decentralisation and municipal control as being relevant to HE is phooey. Every one of the County borough LEAs in Lancashire lobbied hard for the Polytechnic to be located in their town but Preston won out purely because it had a site. But the Polytechnic there was actually set up in 1974 following local government reorganisation by Lancashire County Council, when it’s geographical boundaries were larger. When the former Preston Poly became a University the growth in student numbers was fueled by a network of colleges across Lancashire and Cumbria (and even parts of Merseyside and Greater Manchester) delivering HE across a much wider area – Preston may have the University campus but it isn’t even the largest town in Lancashire. Preston’s Labour City Council is trying to do things differently – and as a former resident I wish them good luck – but the real municipal powerhouse in Preston still resides in Tory-controlled County Hall at the other end of Fishergate, there’s a limit to how much you can do when you’ve only got responsibility for bin emptying, despite the rhetoric. Any comparison with Cleveland Ohio is like comparing a grape with a melon, they’re both fruit ….

    Scotland’s Central Institutions were de-municipalised many decades before 1988, and under close control of the Scottish Office Education Departments.

    There is a need for local democratic input into the role of Universities, other HE institutions and of course links with FE, but none of old fashioned municipalism or Morrisonian nationalisation or Thatcherite laissez faire-ism are the right way.

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