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Thirty years of HE policy – and the future

The latest in our HE futures series sees Roger Brown's final article on HE policy. Roger looks back over his incredible thirty year career in national and institutional HE policy, and draws conclusions as to what the future may hold.
This article is more than 6 years old

Roger Brown is the former Vice-Chancellor of Southampton Solent University

It’s now more than thirty years since I first became involved in higher education policy at the national level, as a DTI civil servant promoting links between business and higher education. Since then I have worked as the Secretary/CEO of a number of HE agencies (the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council, the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics, the Higher Education Quality Council), as Principal/Vice Chancellor of a middle-sized university, and as a Professor and Visiting Professor in several others.

I have written extensively on many aspects of higher education and more recently on “political economy” more broadly. In this valedictory piece, I reflect on some of the key developments of the past thirty years and then attempt to predict what may happen over the next thirty.


Probably the most important development in UK higher education since the mid-1980s was the enormous expansion of the sector. This took Whitehall completely by surprise. Between 1987 and 1989, I served on an interdepartmental group trying to agree how many places we should be funding in the 1990s. The Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Employment favoured an expansionary approach, the Department of Education and Science – and the Treasury – were more cautious. But by the time we reported the numbers applying for university were already well beyond even what we had been pressing for. The main reason was the success of the new GCSE in enabling more youngsters to stay on into the sixth form. I’m pretty sure that if the Secretary of State, Keith Joseph, had realised that this might happen he would not have agreed to merge GCE and CSE!

The expansion had various consequences of which two were of special significance. The first was that it greatly increased the pressure on public expenditure so that tuition fees came onto the agenda (and have never left it). The second was the institutions’ responses to the expansion. While the polytechnics and colleges eagerly recruited the extra students almost whatever the cost, most of the existing universities chose to preserve their unit of funding. This in turn cost them their privileged position, and was the catalyst for the abolition of the “binary line” in 1992.

Into the mainstream

These two factors led to higher education moving into the political mainstream – where it has remained ever since. The days when issues like funding allocations or eligibility for research grants could be settled over a quiet lunch at the Athenaeum between the Under Secretary for Higher Education, the Chairman of the University Grants Committee and the Chairman of (what is now) Universities UK, are now long gone.

The other major development has been the growth of a higher education “market” with all its neoliberal underpinnings. So at the same time as political and state control over higher education has grown, that control has increasingly been exercised to make the organisation and supply of both teaching and research as much like a market as possible. Universities have had to be reinvented as PLCs, university campuses have to look more like shopping malls, vice chancellors have to be restyled as CEOs, governing councils have to be more like company boards, academic departments have to be treated as revenue generating units, staff have to be assessed and rewarded according to their contribution to the “bottom line”, and students have to be reimagined as adroit consumers and as investors taking out loans now to increase their purchasing power later.

So what can be learned from this very cursory overview? I see two possible scenarios for higher education, with all the caveats that it is very difficult, if not futile, to try to predict the political and economic shape of higher education in the UK thirty years hence.

More markets…

The first scenario is that marketisation continues, and even accelerates. This will mean an even greater fragmentation of the sector and an even clearer dividing line between the more prestigious universities and the rest. Tuition fees will continue to cover most of the cost of teaching but there will likely be some amelioration of loan terms.

There will be a substantial rationalisation of the sector as institutions, subjects and modes that lack market support disappear, as is already happening to part-time study. “Market failures” of these kinds will increase: they are not only bad for higher education, but bad for the wider economy. Particularly vulnerable are the institutions in the middle of the pack that cannot compete with the Russell Group on status, and also cannot compete with FE colleges, private companies or international education chains on cost and flexibility. Progress with widening participation and social mobility will continue to be slow, not least because of the neoliberal policies of competition, choice and underfunding that are also visited on the compulsory sector of education

…and more regulation

It would be good to think that, in accordance with neoliberal theory, this increased marketisation will be accompanied by reduced regulation. But all evidence and experience suggests exactly the opposite. The very increases in competition have already led to behaviours and practices that then lead to calls for further regulation. The 2017-18 brouhaha over grade inflation is a current case in point. To be sure, grade inflation is a complex issue. and few can doubt that increased competition is an important factor. Yet the new Office for Students – with a remit to increase competition – has been tasked by Ministers with investigating: you really could not make this up!

What are the wider conditions that could lead to this dystopian scenario? The fundamental requirement is the continuation of neoliberal thinking that has dominated British politics since the mid-1970s but that has been applied with particular force since 2010. This means that the value of higher education will continue to be seen mainly in economic terms, and as a private good, so that it can be justified as a mainly private investment. What public expenditure can be extracted from our increasingly enfeebled economy will go on more “popular” things like the NHS, schools and prisons.

English universities will find themselves sharing the fate of their American cousins – the state universities and colleges – as increased private funding corrodes their originally public purposes. The fact that these neoliberal policies have actually weakened our economies and nearly destroyed our societies – as witness Brexit and Trump – is neither here nor there in this context.

There is an alternative

However, there is an alternative scenario. This is one in which our political leaders and the media and other interests that have supported them own up to the blind alley up which these policies have led us over the past forty years or so. They are prepared to explain to the electorate that you cannot have European levels of public services with American levels of tax (and tax avoidance). They are no longer prepared to put up with the excuses of what is left of UK-owned business for their failure to match international standards of investment (including investment in people) or even the investment record of foreign-owned firms in Britain (at least pre-Brexit).

They are willing for the Government to be more actively engaged in managing economic demand, in combating market concentration, and in promoting and supporting industrial innovation. They work with the EU and other governments to control the offshore and other activities of multinationals and to regulate the cross-border movement of goods, services, capital and people. Above all, they believe in and extol the virtues of public goods, working with civil society organisations like universities to rebuild the public infrastructure and the (now frighteningly decayed) public realm.

What would this mean for higher education?

I have written often about the need for a more balanced and equitable higher education system. I make no apology for repeating this now.

The key features would include:

  • stricter control over provider entry to the higher education market;
  • funding for teaching split 50:50 between grants and fees;
  • limited competition on fees, with overall resourcing discrepancies (both revenue and capital) unwound through teaching grants;
  • all universities to migrate over time to ‘fair’ intakes based on regional/local proportions of disadvantaged students;
  • maintenance grants to be reintroduced;
  • selective funding mechanisms for research and teaching limited to those needed on strategic grounds;
  • research and teaching to be genuinely linked through a variety of means;
  • quality to be monitored by a system-wide agency answerable directly to Parliament (not the Government);
  • and genuine diversity to be achieved through legally grounded local collaborative systems covering universities, FE colleges and sixth form colleges with local credit systems and proper progression routes.

At the moment such a vision seems utopian. Certainly, the earlier dystopian scenario looks the more likely at present. But if there is one thing I have learnt in my thirty years in HE, it is that the future is neither certain nor predictable!

3 responses to “Thirty years of HE policy – and the future

  1. There was an interesting discussion of marketisation at the PAC hearing on the HE Market and I look forward to its report. Of course h.e. as a public good has gone down the tubes at the same time as all the so-called managers make loads of money trying to pretend that they could run a business. No chance. At some point there will be a catastrophic failure. Watch this space. I know I’ve been moaning about this for years but I am convinced something is going to snap soon. And we can go back to basics.

  2. Thank you Roger. It was so refreshing to see such humanly-engaged critique and understanding from someone with your cultural capital and connections. When did I EVER hear of someone of your ilk advocating a collective politics? It must have been difficult for you being surrounded by people at Southampton and further afield who accept aggressive individualism, with a veneer of British politeness, as a default setting.

    Your address at Edge Hill University (14/6/18) was inspiring. It was not just a model of a clarity and of a calm, forensic dismantling of neoliberal ideology – its claims, myths (about economic growth – except for an elite) and its reductionisms – all of which place huge constraints on imagination, innovation and human conviviality whilst claiming to meet diverse needs. I liked the link in your analysis of trends in HE to how our society has developed over the past 30 – 40 years and in human social service provision in particular. It is symptomatic of a wider social malaise.

    Supporters of the status quo have the nerve to blame the left for a politics that, in a race to the bottom and leveling down (how insulting), homogenizes and destroys creativity. I appreciated your portrayal form of neoliberalism as a form of social engineering (achieved through education, academization and enterprise in education etc). Yet another charge that is misdirected at those wanting a more egalitarian society. Your message about how the push towards (tedious and reductive) income generation has eclipsed and even compromised academic independence, diversity and creativity makes resisting the whole structure & commoditization process even more urgent.

    I think you are honest about the prospects for challenge/resistance from civil society and the wider populace. Whither the organic intellectuals? Just how incompetent and cruel do the Tories have to be to get voted out? People have learnt to see collectivism as a failed & short-lived experiment in Eastern Europe and partly in Britain from Beveridge to the 70s and a threat to individualism, which is just human nature – collectivism is unnatural – against the grain of human nature and societies.
    How we need critical insights more than ever!

    However, there were notes of optimism as one questioner noted and around hegemony. I think you reprised Owen Jones’ conclusion – in The Establishment – a damn good read – that current orthodoxy was, back in the 1950s and 60s – nothing but the mad, impossible rantings of rabid right ideologues who were thoroughly marginalized until the Oil Crisis/international threat to social democracy. Then Thatcherism advanced and helped normalize this ideology that now suffuses our everyday lives… The centre of gravity of politics has shifted so far rightwards that Corbyn can now be constructed as a scary, hardline Marxist. He isn’t. He’s a strong social democrat and wouldn’t look out of place in most post-war Governments until that of Ramsey McCallaghan in the mid 70s. But, what we can draw from this is that if they can do it (in about 25 years) so could we but from a different and more humane angle.

    What your talk really brought home to me was the failures of the Blairite project – I despise these self-serving technocrats and their project much more than Thatcher for their capitulation to neoliberalism and their cowardly, self-serving abandonment of collectivist politics (as a failed post-war experiment unsuited to the modern age). Remember the ‘dinosaur’ accusation that accompanied their ‘modernization’ agenda?

    Anyway, thank you, again. I will be e-mailing my VC to ask (nicely) how he intends to advance your project – beyond mere applause – within EHU and beyond. I suspect he supports your kind of agenda but that there may be many neoliberal insterests worrking within our University.

    Very best wishes

    Dr Paul Simpson
    Senior Lecturer, Sociology of Health & Social Care

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