The new world of higher education: a ‘supply side revolution’?

For those grappling with the question of what exactly the British government wants to achieve in higher education, here is the answer offered by Daily Telegraph pundit Benedict Brogan, who is thought to have access to Downing Street thinking. What Universities Minister David Willetts, backed by David Cameron, is wanting to introduce, he says, is a ‘supply side revolution’. If you need to stop and think what that actually means, let me draw it out briefly. ‘Supply side’ is an economists’ perspective that suggests that growth will be maximised if barriers to production are lowered, and if restrictions are removed (such as tax, regulation and so forth).

Applied to higher education, this could mean removing restrictions stopping universities from recruiting as many students as they can accommodate. In his blog Brogan suggests that the following is intended:

‘The idea, as I initially heard it, was to consider easing the cap on admissions at the upper level by allowing the top establishments charging the full £9000 to let in more top students – those scoring 2 As and B minimum – than they currently are allowed to. And I’m told another change being contemplated would lift the admissions cap on those universities serving the cheaper end of the market. New institutions inexpensive two year degrees, for example, would be free to allow as many students in as they could cope with.’

How such reforms would work in terms of public funding and public borrowing is not immediately easy to see, unless the government were to adopt policies that would impose no burden on the taxpayer by these universities admitting larger numbers of students. Furthermore, what would happen to the universities in the middle ground who are thought to be neither ‘top establishments’ nor on the ‘cheaper end of the market’? And how could this scheme be arranged without having the ‘top establishments’ also become socially elite institutions largely catering for the rich?

However, if there is a major policy perspective that lies at the heart of the British government decision-making (which for now merely looks chaotic), then it might be a good idea to articulate it clearly rather than releasing it via a journalist’s blog (however important we might think blogs to be). One must presume that it may be stated more clearly in the much delayed White Paper.

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5 Comments on “The new world of higher education: a ‘supply side revolution’?”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    *However, if there is a major policy perspective that lies at the heart of the British government decision-making … then it might be a good idea to articulate it clearly rather than releasing it via a journalist’s blog (however important we might think blogs to be).*
    Ferdinand, while acknowledging that blogs (and other new media for that matter)are important you seem to underestimate the strategic role that they play in contributing to articulate, present and, above all *test* new policies *before* they are fully defined. Parliaments are not the only avenues for political discourse any more, the (political) blogosphere is an integral part of it. In an age where politicians are acutely aware of the importance of gauging public opinion via the media we’d better consider such factors very carefully. I for one happen to think that the there is a major policy perspective at the heart of the British government decision-making, as you put it, such policy perspective however is not fixed in stone (after all we are living in a ‘liquid society’, as Zygmunt Bauman remind us), hence the strategic use of the media becomes part of the policy itself. The same now (in)famous interview of Mr Willetts to the Today BBC Radio programme a few days ago could be read exactly as an attempt to test a crucial aspects of such policy of full privatization of higher education. The most important thing is for the media (old and new)not to become the ‘chorus’ of some main goverment inspired storytelling but to keep on performing its critical role for the benefit of us all.

    • Vincent Says:

      But the issue isn’t the blogs, but that the blogs have become online versions of the Telegraph/Mail/Times, only on speed. In that they have a cohort of vehement followers that will eviscerate anything that moves outside of a extremely narrow orthodoxy. Tossing the bones of a White Paper at them will see it out the other side holding a saber to shoulder ready to ride down the nearest oik/pleb or other non-public school notion.

      • anna notaro Says:

        ‘But the issue isn’t the blogs, but that the blogs have become online versions of the Telegraph/Mail/Times, only on speed’. That is not necessarily the case Vincent, there is currently a big debate regarding the future of journalism and new media (especially blogs and twitter) and great differences remain as to their specific function and communicative strategies..

  2. Perry Share Says:

    Interesting take on the marketisation of universities in Howard Hotson’s recent article in the London Review of Books, Don’t Look to the Ivy League. Suggests that the privatised US model is not all it is cracked up to be.

  3. jfryar Says:

    I’d argue that universities, by definition, must be discriminatory towards large numbers of students – they must discriminate against students who simply are not capable of completing the course. Everyone likes the nice, happy, touchy-feely, inclusive ‘let’s allow more students into college’ message put out by politicians but what happens when these students fail? The institutional dropout rate in Ireland is about one in every four students. As I pointed out at the time of the student marches, if 40,000 students took to the streets of Dublin about 10,000 of those needn’t have bothered. Harsh, but true. In some science courses that’s now closer to 40% of students failing/dropping out. What happens when we allow additional numbers into colleges and the students suddenly find the job market saturated? What happens why universities have to publish stats that say 50% of their students are ‘not available’ or ‘seeking employment’ on websites? Again, what we have is politicians putting out feeders, seeing what the response is, without any thought. All it confirms is that the ruling class is totally bereft of ideas.


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