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.
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!