Posted tagged ‘Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in England’

Higher education in a market?

December 14, 2010

Yesterday I wrote about blogging university heads, so let me just take as my theme for this post a comment made by one of them, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Salford, Professor Martin Hall. In his latest post, Professor Hall takes a closer look at how a university education is now being treated and how, if at all, this relates to what we might call a market transaction. As the price students have to pay for their education is described, at least in popular parlance, as a ‘fee’, he thinks it would be reasonable to expect this to be a payment for a service on a par with fees we pay to banks, lawyers or certain pay-as-you-go public services like refuse collection. So, he asks, is all this a market?

His answer is complex, but interesting. It cannot be a market, he suggests, because in England the payment methods (after graduation, subject to income) are too irregular, and the price is controlled by government and has little enough to do with supply and demand. As too many universities will opt for the £9,000 fee option, it is likely that there will be further regulatory controls on its availability and on the conditions that universities charging it will need to fulfil.

As critics of government policy (in various countries) have sometimes claimed that higher education was being commodified and marketised, it is worth saying that there is no evidence of this at all. In fact, there is an argument for saying that we might be much better off if it really were the case. Rather, we are witnessing a curious kind of bureaucratisation, in which governments are replacing money with new controls and constraints: the view that the state cannot afford to pay the cost of higher education, but should dictate to a much greater extent than before exactly how it is offered, monitored and evaluated. There is probably an understandable instinct in all of this, a kind of apologetic statement by the government to the citizen: ‘Sorry, we cannot fund higher education, but we’ll try to compensate for the effect of our financial withdrawal by  closely controlling everything that gets done at college.’

In the new world of higher education, nobody is actually ‘buying’ a commodity, or even a service. Rather, we are moving towards what you might call ‘targeted taxation’, under which the cost of education is being funded much more directly by those benefiting from it, with some level of subsidy coming from the wider society. It isn’t really a fee, but rather a kind of educational equivalent of a capital gains tax, if you like an ‘intellectual gains tax’. There is nothing really wrong with that in principle, but it needs to be set into a much more coherent policy framework that explains what is actually happening. What is missing also is a more coherent perspective on what we still expect the state to do in subsidising higher education – a point on which Britain’s recent strategic review (the Browne report) is, in my view, really rather weak.

I think we need to accept that the old taxpayer-pays-all system of higher education is now unmanageable and unaffordable. But we need to have a framework that replaces it that shows some understanding of what higher education is actually for, and that can explain to a tetchy population why the old model could neither fund higher education satisfactorily nor make it equitable. If we can get a better policy framework for this, it may become easier for countries uneasy about these changes to make their own necessary reforms.

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.

Freeing the universities? Or killing them?

October 14, 2010

It seems likely that the discussion about the real effect of the Browne proposals for higher education in England (Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education) will go on for a while, and will probably get another shot in the arm when the UK government reveals its spending plans shortly. The latter is important because the impact of the recommendations, if implemented, will depend to a large extent on what level of public funding may still be available. At the moment speculation ranges from the idea that current levels of investment will continue and fees will be additional income for institutions, to the more or less complete withdrawal of public subsidy. Browne himself assumes that a fee income of £7,000 per student will represent the status quo, which would suggest a fairly dramatic reduction of public funding.

Reactions to the proposals have, as would be expected, varied depending on who is speaking. The Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has welcomed the report, saying that the recommendations will ‘help to support a sustainable, high-quality university system open to students from all backgrounds’. On the other hand the University and College Union has stated that they are the ‘final nail in the coffin for affordable higher education’. The response of Universities UK is measured, and on the whole positive. The journal Times Higher Education has today published an editorial in which it suggests a somewhat apocalyptic vision:

‘UK higher education is in for a tumultuous and brutal time that could include mergers, aggressive takeovers, private-sector competition, university break-ups and failing institutions. And with sweeping cuts ahead, the sector may find it has no alternative but to accept these huge structural – and philosophical – changes.’

What the reality will be may be too early to say. But it is also clear that while the report addresses England only, other parts of these islands, including Scotland and Ireland, will be fundamentally affected. In Ireland it must be likely that the Browne report will influence thinking on higher education funding in the context of the Hunt report (always assuming that this ever sees the light of day). In Scotland the question must be how public funding of higher education can be sustained at manageable levels in the absence of fees and in the light of dramatic cuts in England. In that context it is remarkable that Sir Andrew Cubie, who ten years ago presided over a report that led to the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland, is now arguing that Scottish graduates ‘should make a contribution’.

One way or another, there are interesting times ahead.

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.