The Future Politics of Higher Education

We’re now only 7 months from a General Election, and HE is somehow not quite on party radars yet, even after million+ and NUS ran fringe events at recent conferences. Lib Dems may be reticent after their previous pledge not to increase tuition fees (which disappeared after entering coalition), Labour have hinted at £6k cap on fees, but have yet to announce much. The conservatives have said little and UKIP are happy to remove students from the net migration figures (there’s a surprise, and puts them out of line with the Conservatives).

Clearly the financing and regulation of HE (recognising a changed environment, increased marketisation and entry of new providers) will be critical to the success of the sector and the individuals who work and study within it.

Into a vacuum though, something will always flow, and this week sees two sets of neoliberal views being promulgated.

Firstly an article in this week’s Times Higher. I’d like to describe it as muddle-headed, but t’s not that good.

Written by James Martin, a former adviser to Michael Gove, specious claims are made with little evidence, such as:

  • our universities’ failures on academic rigour and widening participation
  • too many higher education courses are of poor quality
  • with the number of firsts doubling in a decade, we need an honest debate about grade inflation and the culture of low lecture attendance and light workloads it supports
  • too many providers are weak imitations of the ancient universities.

No evidence is provided of failures of rigour (unless all degree courses have to be PPE). Poor quality is defined, based on the failure to pay back loans. The comments on grade inflation again are related to small earnings premiums

As a solution the following is proposed:

The first step in a prioritisation of education is to move universities into an enlarged Department for Education after the general election. The Secretary of State should immediately commission a genuinely independent review to determine which degrees are a sound investment or of strategic importance. Only these would be eligible for three-year student loans. Some shorter loans might encourage more efficient courses. Those who will brand this “philistinism” could not be more wrong: it is the traditional academic subjects that are valued by employers (philosophy at the University of Oxford is a better investment than many business courses). I am not arguing for fewer people to go to university. We need more students from poorer backgrounds taking the best degrees.

 

So this the heart of the proposal – move HE away from BIS, and to the Ofsted and target-obsessed regime of the DfE. Secondly, relate the funding of HE to graduate employment, since it is assumed that quality of education is all about the amount you earn afterwards.

grad cartoon

 “© Schwadron, Jantoo.com”

In other news, the Institute for Economic Affairs ( a right of centre thinktank) has produced a discussion paper, “UNIVERSITIES CHALLENGED: Funding Higher Education through a Free-Market ‘Graduate Tax”

This report recognises that the graduate premium varies between courses and individuals. Instead of the existing loan scheme, or a graduate tax however, the IEA proposes that:

Universities should individually or collectively offer contracts to their students, who would agree to pay to the university they attended a given percentage of their earnings. That percentage could vary by course and institution, though some agreement between universities could be helpful to achieve standardisation. Essentially, the university would be taking an equity interest in the graduate premium earned by the student, although any student who chose to do so could, alternatively, pay the full fees up-front prior to beginning their studies.

·      If universities needed additional cash to finance their current expenditures, they could sell their rights to the graduate equity income stream through a securitisation mechanism. With or without securitisation, the risk of obtaining a low graduate premium will be reduced for students and be minimal for universities as their exposure will be diversified across many students.

·      This approach will ensure that universities have a much stronger interest in the employability of their graduates. That interest will continue after graduation. As such, universities will have an incentive to invest in careers advice and related services and in continuing to provide such services after graduation.

Wow. free marketisation, red in tooth and claw.The IEA goes on the propose that since universities will no longer depend on the state to provide loans, then they would also no longer need to be regulated for undergraduate awards. Indeed they would be free to innovate and engage in competition leading to a race to the top “because universities would have a direct economic interest in the success of their students”.

Both of these reports focus on higher education as a passport to a graduate job, improved employability and increased earning potential. Higher education is more than that, but the sometimes necessary obsession with league tables and other comparative metrics means that ideas such as these become seductively attractive to those who see education purely as a financial transaction, rather than a transformational impact on all aspects of an individual’s life and life chances.

We can expect more of this over the next few months. Within the sector and within our institutions do we need ask and answer questions of ourselves about what we are here for?

We should develop a strong argument for the mixed economy that our HE sector currently comprises, the wide range of benefits that obtain from HE and the need for open debate about how we fund and properly support our universities in the future.

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