Higher education – is competition always the answer?

The United Kingdom government, acting in this case for England only (as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own systems), has just issued its White Paper on higher education, setting out its policy agenda. At the heart of this agenda is a simple diagnosis of the sector’s problems: that there is ‘insufficient competition and a lack of informed choice.’

To correct this, the British government is planning a new system that will make it easier for what it calls ‘challenger institutions’ – i.e. private sector for-profit colleges – to enter the market. They will have the opportunity to secure degree-awarding powers and to call themselves ‘universities’. The anticipated result of this (and related) reforms is summarised as follows:

‘With greater diversity in the sector, more high quality entrants, and increased choice for students, our primary goal is to raise the overall level of quality.’

The tone of the whole White Paper reinforces this point: that the existing system is a cartel, that new providers should be allowed to enter, that the strategic development of higher education should follow students’ ‘informed choices’, that the tendency to under-value teaching (when set against research) needs to stop. Student choices, according to the White Paper, are made effective through inter-institutional competition, and better information for student applicants. Meanwhile the pursuit of global recognition for ‘elite’ universities should prompt the further concentration of research in a smaller set of institutions.

Most stakeholders have reacted negatively or cautiously to the proposals in the White Paper. However, if they are implemented a major part of the higher education framework in the UK and beyond will start to look very different from what it once was. This involves not just organisational but intellectual and pedagogical  aspects, elements that have not received half as much attention as the debate around the institutional landscape.

As I have suggested before in this blog, we need to get a lucid and agreed statement on what higher eduction is actually about. Otherwise university reform is just a process of bureaucratic and institutional adjustment, focused strongly on inputs rather than results. There is an important place for competition in higher education, but primarily this should be a competition of ideas rather than of institutions.

Some of the objectives set out in the White Paper are reasonable, and they may spark an interesting debate in the global higher education community. But whether the English university system will become a better one as a result remains to be seen.

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One Comment on “Higher education – is competition always the answer?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    “…we need to get a lucid and agreed statement on what higher education is actually about. Otherwise university reform is just a process of bureaucratic and institutional adjustment, focused strongly on inputs rather than results. There is an important place for competition in higher education, but primarily this should be a competition of ideas rather than of institutions.”

    The above statements appear in the first instance commendable, and yet when one starts unpacking them a surprising naivety emerges. The desire for a *lucid and agreed statement of what higher education is about* is as chimeric as the proverbial hen’s teeth. The history of universities proves that such an ideal *agreed statement* has never been achieved because (higher) education has always been about power struggle. Also, somewhat naïve is the thought that one might distinguish between good competition and bad competition once such a potent idea is inserted into the university sector, of course one ends up with a competition of individuals and institutions (or providers, as the White paper calls them) and:

    “we must accept that there may be some providers who do not rise to the challenge, and who therefore need or choose to close some or all of their courses, or to exit the market completely. The possibility of exit is a natural part of a healthy, competitive, well-functioning market and the Government will not, as a matter of policy, seek to prevent this from happening. The Government should not be in the business of rescuing failing institutions – decisions about restructuring, sustainability, and possible closure are for those institutions’ leaders and governing bodies.” (p.10)

    “a healthy, competitive, well-functioning market” is the overall justificatory argument, any collateral damage becomes secondary, and yet the alarming statistics as far as staff and students’ mental well-being should be a cause for concern.

    The White paper has filled me with a mixture of anger and sadness, and mood did not improve after reading Trump’s Emerging Higher Ed Platform this morning
    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/05/13/trumps-campaign-co-chair-describes-higher-education-policies-being-developed

    We have been warned.


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