Do we really need (yet another) major review of higher education?

Our closing plenary at The Festival of Higher Education wasn't so sure

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

“Who knows about this sector better than people who work in it? Why do we need to government to tell us what to do?”

The words not of an idealistic academic or a passionate student officer, but of Universities UK chief executive Vivienne Stern. The closing panel of The Festival of Higher Education, after two packed days of policy chat, ended with what I can only describe as a modest proposal.

Rather than waiting for the government to appoint a “random banker” to chair a review of higher education (or tertiary?) funding with uncertain political independence and a questionable remit, Stern called for the sector to the work ourselves to address three simple questions – what would constitute a better higher education system, how do we address the needs of those (students, staff, the public) who have a stake in it, and how should we get there?

Stern envisaged a white paper, with chapters contributed by invitation from specialists around and beyond the sector, which could be presented as a sector-owned diagnosis of the key issues the sector and nation is facing alongside a consensus on implementable solutions. The plan attracted the admiration of many in the room, including the impressive Essex SU VP Education Joe Holmes, who noted that the student voice would be key to any such attempt, and suggested that an ongoing process rather than a single publication could yield more impressive and wide ranging results.

There was plenty of expertise on the panel that could easily be prevailed upon to contribute. Researcher Clare Calendar suggested that it would not be possible to review sector finances without taking in the whole tertiary sector, and noted that student maintenance funding would be a key task – noting that current levels of student poverty are “unacceptable” and that the current system was “inadequate”. The bank of Mum and Dad is not as financially stable as it used to be given prevailing rates of inflation – and the growing phenomenon of parents repaying loans at the same time as their children.

Her current research concerns the longer term impact of graduate loan repayments – and the glimpse of early findings was a shocking one. Those who had not taken out a higher education loan are now more likely at age 25 to own a home rather than rent, and to have moved out from the parental home. A sizable minority of graduates report that both the perception and the reality of debt and repayments have an impact on their life choices – everything from what job to apply for, to whether to marry or start a family is considered in the light of what is now 40 years of repayment at 9 per cent of income.

No session on sector reviews is complete without a sense of history – David Eastwood was on hand to run us through the long and complex history of the “major review”, having played his own part in the (largely unimplemented) Browne Review of 2010. For him, too, any new review needs to be tertiary in scope, but should be modelled after Dearing – broad-ranging, properly supported, with multi-party political support and independently chaired by a “remarkable person” with relevant expertise. I could see more than a few very plausible candidates in the room.

As much as the financial pressures that came up again and again over the two days of the Festival, there needs to be considered thought about the reputational standing of the sector. As things are, the standing of universities in the national conversation is at the lowest ebb for more than two generations – simply asking for more money won’t cut it if we can’t bring society along with it (we’d earlier seen a walk through of the latest poling from Public First’s Jess Lister that suggested this may be a difficult task.

But it is on the funding settlement our sector leaders want to be judged. For Vivienne Stern, if the unit of resource is still falling six years after her appointment, she should be fired. Let’s hope things don’t come to that – but the scale of the task she has set herself should not be underestimated.

2 responses to “Do we really need (yet another) major review of higher education?

  1. Interesting article thanks. Small note that “bank of mum and dad” feels like an outdated phrase for WonkHE. I can tell you that bank of mum and mum / dad and dad aren’t financially stable either.

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