Posted tagged ‘Browne review’

Turmoil in Britain

December 10, 2010

In some ways it is gratifying that higher education is still capable of causing such excitement as we are now witnessing in the UK, and indeed in Ireland. But it has to be asked where all this is leading.

Let me not focus on the events of yesterday in London – the vote in the House of Commons, and the accompanying protests and incidents on the streets of the city. Let me turn instead to the information published earlier in the week by UCU (the University and College Union). In order, I imagine, to help make their point about the impact of under-funding and the increase in tuition fees, the union published a wholly different type of league table of ‘universities at risk’. According to the document itself, this is what it is intended to show:

‘The University and College Union (UCU) has analysed the government’s university funding proposals and discovered which institutions are most at risk of impact from the proposals. Universities at risk not only examines which institutions are most at risk, but also looks at how local economies will be affected by the government’s radical proposals.’

The union used research done by a team at Stratchclyde University for this purpose, which aims not just to create a table of universities deemed to be in danger of collapse, but also to show how such a collapse would affect the local economy. By way of illustration they say:

‘The impact on the local community of a failure by Sheffield Hallam to recoup the lost income would be substantial. Every £1m in income lost by Sheffield Hallam would lead to a combined loss to the regional economy of £2m, according to the regional multiplier formula created by the Strathclyde researchers in their work on the economic impact of higher education.’

I can’t quite help wondering whether Sheffield Hallam, or its UCU members on the staff, welcome that particular example, but you get the point. Funding cuts have an onward impact beyond the universities.

Having then explained the methodology underpinning their league table, the union produce a list of at risk institutions in four categories: (1) very high level of impact from the Browne proposals (i.e. universities at ‘very high’ risk of institutional failure); (2) ‘high level’ of risk; and (3) ‘high medium’ level of risk. This is a league table you don’t want to be in.

There are four universities listed as being subject to ‘very high’ risk: Bishop Grosseteste University College, Lincoln; Edge Hill University; Newman University College; Norwich University College of the Arts. These are not perhaps household names (though I know the first very well, as it was a linked college of Hull University when I was there). However, the ‘high risk’ list contains 23 universities, including some prominent regional universities. The ‘high medium’ risk list contains 22 names, which interestingly includes the Open University.

Is this table a good idea? The immediate risks inherent in such an approach became obvious on Wednesday evening when UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt was backed into a corner on television and had to deal with the persistent questioning of the interviewer why the ‘at risk’ universities, as they were clearly not satisfying demand, should not just all be closed. Something tells me that the institutions listed there may not be all that happy about the exercise, either. The list could take on the character of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I have little doubt that a small number of English universities are at risk, but I doubt that 49 of them are. There is a possibility right now that the collective scaremongering of parts of the sector will have a highly counterproductive effect. I also have serious reservations about the wisdom of actually naming the allegedly at risk institutions. After all, the government isn’t likely to change course in a hurry, and so the immediate impact of the table is to undermine the institutions named in it, potentially for example affecting their creditworthiness and their ability to raise funds or donations.

As it happens, the more I consider the fine print of the Browne proposals, the more sceptical I am becoming about whether they are appropriate. I still favour realistic tuition fees – there really is no alternative – but the asset stripping of the humanities is, in my view, crazy. But this needs to be debated calmly and rationally. Putting out loud cries about university failures (even if correct) will not help one bit; and neither, for that matter, will violence in central London. Those involved in these campaigns should not just act, they also need to think.

Going to the market?

November 4, 2010

Malcolm McVicar, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, yesterday published an opinion piece on the Guardian website in which he made the following comment on the Browne review (on university funding):

‘As a matter of principle, I do not believe market forces alone should determine the allocation of the country’s higher education resources. The principles on which you operate a multinational oil company are not those on which you should operate a higher education system.’

Dr McVicar doesn’t particularly explain in what way the Browne proposals (whether good or bad) suggest that the ‘market’ should determine higher education resources, or how they are derived from the operation of oil companies; but he does get some backing in comments added to the article by readers. One of these suggests:

‘How many humanities places should be funded? How many for science, or for medicine? What percentage of the population should go to university? Where should our universities be – concentrated in the big cities? Regional? Teaching distributed at local FE colleges? Those are big choices. They can be made in a way that benefits the whole of society, if we accept that Big Government can make these choices in a way better than the Dead Hand of the market. But if we allow the Dead Hand to make these choices for us, then rest assured that not only will education be more expensive and even more difficult for the poor to attain, but that the entire system will be structured for the benefit of the individual, especially individuals in the elite, and not for the good of the country as a whole.’

I am raising this because, over the past week or so, I have regularly encountered critical comments suggesting that the government in England, and perhaps in Ireland, are introducing market mechanisms into higher education, and that this must be bad. I guess this may be based on the idea that tuition fees will reflect student supply and demand, and that less ‘in demand’ universities will attract lower fees and thus face financial risk. But actually, the financial fortunes of universities have long been heavily influenced by student demand, and some newer universities have responded very skillfully to that, and probably will be able to do so again in a fees context. In any case, I am not sure that those who fling around market accusations actually have anything very specific in mind when they do so, beyond wanting a term that shows their disapproval of what is being proposed.

My concern is that the ‘market accusation’ is an intellectually lazy way of arguing, in which it is suggested that markets (as capitalist devices) are being inappropriately harnessed to undermine educational values. I fear that if this particular view takes hold of people’s minds they may start to conclude, as the person who added the comment to Dr McVicar’s piece did, that the answer to this aberration is tighter government regulation (or bureaucracy). Of course governments make policy judgements about the allocation of facilities and resources in the public interest, but it is far from clear that tight government management of university strategies is the answer to the problems faced by higher education.

The key requirement for success is institutional autonomy within a framework of resourcing that allows innovation and intellectual curiosity to flourish and diversity to be maintained. I suspect most people and commentators would subscribe to that. Rather than letting fly with insults, it would be better to explore how this can be realised within current financial constraints and in a way that protects higher education excellence and diversity for future generations.

A Northern Ireland view

October 23, 2010

As the fall-out from the UK government’s spending review and from the recommendations of the Browne review (Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education) continues, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster, Professor Richard Barnett, has strongly attacked the shift from public funding to tuition fees.  Speaking on Tuesday of this week to a group of visiting Northern Ireland politicians, he said:

‘What these fees proposals are about is the privatisation of higher education. That is what a small self-appointed group of self-serving universities have been pushing for over a longer period, and they may now well be getting their way in England. They recruit largely from private schools and do little for widening access… These elitist universities don’t understand the widening access issues that we at the University of Ulster are passionate about. We at Ulster believe that all sections of society should benefit from higher education and not just those with deep pockets.’

It is clear that Professor Barnett feels strongly about this, and it is obviously easier for some universities than for others to manage the implications of rising tuition fees; but it is not clear that his comments are fair. Taxpayer support for wealthier sections in society is not a pre-condition for access programmes for disadvantaged students, as his statement appears to suggest. Targeted financial support for the disadvantaged is ultimately a better bet.

Northern Ireland’s position in all of this has yet to be determined by the Assembly in Stormont, and Professor Barnett’s rather strong language is presumably calculated to influence political thinking. There may also be a fear that some of the University of Ulster’s potential student recruits could, if fees were raised considerably, opt to study in the Republic. This may explain Professor Barnett’s suggestion that English ‘elitist universities’ forming a ‘self-appointed group’ are responsible for the idea that there should be student contributions to funding. Whether that is an objectively reasonable comment is another matter.

Principles of higher education finance: the Browne review

October 13, 2010

Perhaps one of the things that is different about the report (Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education) of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance (the Browne review) in England is that it has set out a series of principles which, the group recommends should inform decisions on funding. I say this because often when I have raised questions in this blog on student fees I have had the response that I should specify how high the fee would be and what the precise financial implications would be. I understand that no actual proposal could be implemented that does not contain such details, but they are very much secondary when set against the principles of higher education funding. So, whatever about the merits of Lord Browne’s proposals in detail, his group got the general approach to this right, to a greater extent than I have seen in any other such review.

So what principles does Lord Browne out forward? There are six in all, on pages 4-5 of the report:

1. ‘More investment should be available for higher education’. To those of us working in higher education, in whatever jurisdiction, this seems obvious enough, but it is hugely important that this should have been stated clearly in the report, as there are still influential people who believe that higher education can absorb further reductions in funding. One might add, for Ireland, that Irish universities already receive far less funding per student than British ones, even before any changes resulting from Browne may have kicked in.

2. ‘Student choice should be increased’. As a principle this also seems to be absolutely right, though there is merit in assessing what the implications might be, and how sustainable and stable the overall system would be in the wake of any changes.

3. ‘Everyone who has the potential should be able to benefit from higher education’. This, I believe, must be our absolute commitment, that nobody who has the ability and the qualifications to enter higher education should be turned away from it or discouraged from pursuing it, for any reason.

4. ‘No one should have to pay until they start to work’. This principle is new, in that it suggests that students should not pay anything for their tuition while they are doing their programme of study.

5. ‘When payments are made they should be affordable’. Here Browne recommends (with details) how payments should be calculated and levied, and how the amounts should be kept to an affordable level based on the graduate’s current income. It is a good principle, but with potential complications, as it raises the issue of what happens to those debts that will have to be written off, and how this will be handled in the system.

6. ‘Part time students should be treated the same as full-time students for the costs of learning’. This is a principle that we have, in Ireland, manifestly failed to apply, notwithstanding our apparent public commitment to lifelong learning.

Given some of the discussions we have had in Ireland, it is interesting that the group considered and dismissed the viability of a ‘graduate tax’ as the best way of funding higher education. I have never been persuaded by the concept of the graduate tax, so I welcome this particular conclusion.

What happens now will depend initially on the political process, and this will depend in particular on how the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party handle the matter. Both of them will almost certainly have difficult internal debates.

England: Browne recommends lifting the cap on fees

October 12, 2010

The review by Lord Browne’s group has now been published: the report, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in England, can be seen in full here.

The key recommendations of the report are:

• the current cap on tuition fees should be removed, so that universities would be entitled to charge whatever they think the market will bear;
• fees should not be payable at the time of university entry, but after graduation;
• fees should be payable when earnings reach £21,000;
• fees above £6,000 should be subject to a government levy to fund student finance;
• the taxpayer’s investment in higher education should remain at current levels;
• all students would have access to maintenance loans, and there would be a grant based on means-testing.

The report also contains a number of other recommendations not directly related to funding, some of which are highly interesting. More on this in another post later today.

It should be noted that the report refers to England only, and does not apply to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. However, its recommendations may have an indirect effect on these jurisdictions, and indeed the general recommendations and the arguments in support of them may be influential further afield, including Ireland.

Cutting English higher education

August 13, 2010

According to Times Higher Education. the heads of England’s universities have received  a rather chilling warning from the British cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell: they were told ‘it would be prudent for the sector to plan for 35 per cent cuts over 2011-15’. It is difficult to translate this statement into precise funding predictions, because public spending on universities comes in many shapes and sizes, from capital to recurrent, from teaching to research. But perhaps the message is simply intended as a fairly crude warning of heavy pain to come. The suggestion has already been made that this will be the most severe cut since the 1930s.

What this situation re-emphasises is the unreliable nature of the taxpayer as the sole or main funder of higher education – there are other examples of this in other countries. Economic cycles push governments into sudden changes in expenditure, and for better or worse governments always assume that higher education is capable of absorbing sudden funding shocks. In fact, it is doubtful whether it is; but more importantly, higher education is the key driver of economic growth in an advanced economy, and creating an unpredictable funding environment seriously undermines its capacity to play this role.

In Britain the ‘Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance’ (the Browne review) may provide a basis for more rational resource planning for the sector, as in theory the Hunt review may do in Ireland. But if we really believe that universities are the engines of economic development, we had better find a different system of paying for them. Fast.