Universities Challenged

The Government White Paper on Higher Education (HE) entitled ‘Students At the Heart of the System’ has created controversy since its publication in the summer. As the new academic year begins, we take a look at its likely impact.

The White Paper is to form the basis for a new Higher Education Bill in 2012, after the current consultation period ends in a few weeks time. In truth it is the latest in a rather long line of papers and reports setting out a future for HE in the UK since the 1960s. In particular, it follows in the footsteps of the Robbins Report of 1963, the Dearing Report in 1997 and then – most recently of all – the Browne Report of 2010 commissioned by the Labour Government.

During this time, HE in the UK has seen developments that have been similar to those affecting university sectors in many other parts of the world. In particular, there has been a massive expansion in student numbers  – impelled by, among other factors, the conversion of former polytechnics and colleges of HE into what are sometimes termed the ‘post-1992 universities’ and the increased government funding that then allowed them to rapidly expand. There has also been a significant expansion in vocational HE beyond traditional areas of engagement like teaching, law and the ministry. This has been reflected in the growth of what some have considered to be more esoteric subjects like sports management and herbal medicine, and particularly in the development of Business Schools, which only grew to be of any significance in the UK in the 1980s but which are now commonly one of the biggest discipline areas in universities of all kinds.

The previous Labour government famously set a target of 50 percent of school leavers going on to study at university and while this has never been reached, decent enough progress was nevertheless made, prompting some to complain of a ‘dumbing down’ of entry standards. In 1955 less than 5 per cent of school leavers went on to study in HE, a proportion that had risen to 12 per cent by 1980, to 19 per cent in 1990 and then to over 35 per cent for most of the years in the last decade.

This growth, like many things in the market economy, has happened for a reason. As capitalism has developed and its operations have become more sophisticated, the working class of wage and salary earners who operationally run capitalism from top to bottom have needed to have a different and often more developed set of skills than was required, say, a hundred years ago. While the economy of course still needs production workers, miners and other manual and physically skilled staff, capitalism has developed a vast administrative apparatus around buying and selling, the service economy and the state sector which is needed to ensure that this all runs smoothly.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics have shown that the percentage of workers in the UK employed in manufacturing and construction fell from around a third in 1983 to just under 20 per cent in recent years, confirming a long-term trend. At the same time there has been a significant growth in the service sector, in particular. This has necessitated government encouragement for more young people to seek out the type of education and skills supposedly provided by a university education. The problem has been that in doing this, the government has created a huge amount of additional expenditure to be funded out of general taxation, and as we have seen on a range of fronts in recent times, state expenditure tends to have its limits – especially as the burden of taxation has ultimately to fall on the profit-generating sectors of the economy (i.e. the private sector).

As more and more students have entered HE the cost of their tuition as well as contributions towards their living costs have become too burdensome for the state. This has over the last two decades led to periodic attacks on what many students of earlier generations took for granted. These attacks have included the removal of the right for students unemployed during the holiday periods to claim benefits for this, through to the full-scale assaults on the student grant system and the highly controversial introduction of tuition fees (with students loans to pay for them) mooted under John Major’s Tory government but carried out by Labour under Blair.

In this respect, the Government White Paper is but the latest in a long line of initiatives with a common thread and a common purpose.

Main features
There are several aspects to what is proposed currently and little if any of it is genuinely new. Indeed, what is most striking about it is how it usually develops existing approaches or applies other approaches already implemented by government in other fields. The main features of the proposals in this respect are these.

· Increase debt and reduce (or disguise) the burden on taxation. This is a continuation of what occurred under Blair and Brown when tuition fees and student loans were introduced.  The approach this time is more radical (if radical be the right word) as tuition fees will rise hugely from £3,375 to between £6,000 and 9,000 a year, depending on institution. This is to make up for the fact that in England at least (Wales and Scotland will stick to variations on their existing systems for now), the funding that government gives to support student tuition is to be removed almost completely. This will happen to all subjects except those already in receipt of higher levels of subsidy from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) because of their elevated cost levels e.g. science subjects, medicine and engineering. To achieve this change, a modification of the student loan system is to be introduced whereby those earning over £21,000 after graduation will begin to pay back their loan through the taxation system with interest charged at RPI plus 3 per cent. In many respects, this is becoming ever more like a disguised graduate tax, with the advantage for the government that those leaving the country after they graduate will still have to pay it back. Like most taxes – whether disguised or not – it  will eventually mean that wages will have to rise, other things being equal, so that people can pay it, in this way cutting into employer’s profits in an indirect and more subtle way.  Furthermore, the attitude of government to the huge (and about to become even bigger) student loan book is also revealing, as they estimate that the amount borrowers will be liable to repay will have risen to £70 billion by 2016-7. Few seemed to have noticed that the government has just asked Rothschilds to develop a plan for ‘how to monetise the loan book’ including ‘selling [the loans] outright to financial investors, or selling loans to one or more regulated companies set up to manage the loans’ (White Paper, p.24). Clearly the recent financial crisis and its causes has been forgotten already.

· Outsource/privatise where possible, introducing ‘competition’. Until recently, the only private-sector university in Britain was the University of Buckingham, though now BPP University College of Professional Studies (owned by the Apollo private equity group) has acquired taught degree awarding powers and others are lining themselves up to be granted university status. This is in part an attempt to provide competition so that existing universities don’t all charge fees at the higher end of the permitted range (as most are proposing to do at present) while being a philosophical nod in the direction of ‘free markets’. The main problem here is that fears about the quality of academic provision declining in these circumstances have some substance. The proliferation of so-called ‘degree mills’ in countries like the US and Canada has long been an issue (where students can effectively buy a degree) and the largest private university in the world by most counts, Phoenix University, Arizona, has seen its applications plummet in the last two years because it has been subject to legal action by no less than 10 Attorney-Generals in different states over its ‘deceptive practices’. Coincidentally, and perhaps unfortunately, it is also owned by the Apollo private equity group.

· Increase links between the universities and the private sector, binding the two ever closer together. Again, this has been happening for years and it is standard practice for universities to check when they are validating new courses that they meet the needs of relevant employers. However, the government is concerned by the recent decline in ‘sandwich years’ for students with business and in internships, and wants to see these encouraged. It also wants to see the links between research and private business developed and commercial opportunities exploited to the full. Interestingly, postgraduate courses already receive little by way of HEFCE funding and have had higher fees to make up the difference as it has long been assumed that much postgraduate study is sponsored by employers (something the government would like to see extended to undergraduate study too, wherever possible).

· Target state support rather than universalise it. Student grants to help with living costs will be targeted at the poorest families only and the old education maintenance allowance for 16-19 year olds studying before they get to university is to be abolished on the grounds of cost. Similarly, HEFCE funding is only likely to remain for those high-cost courses that students couldn’t otherwise pay for themselves out of their loans, and which employers would be reluctant to sponsor as this wouldn’t be appropriate or they would be too expensive, such as medicine, veterinary science, etc.

· Set up a complex regulatory framework to oversee it all. The Browne Report had recommended uniting HEFCE, the Quality Assurance Agency for HE (the university academic quality watchdog) and two other related bodies into the one organisation dealing with the oversight of HE. This will not happen now, and the complexity of the proposals, the loans, the targeting and the new entrants to university status means that the regulators will clearly have their work cut out.

The devil is in the detail
The details of much of this could change and probably will, but the general trajectory is clear: a business-led HE sector; an expansion of vocational courses; students in debt for most of their lives, wedded to wage-slavery just to pay off their loans (and that before any consideration of mortgages and likely personal debt). As there are over 120 universities currently in the UK it is likely that some will go bust (and the government has explicitly stated that it will not ‘underwrite’ the finances of the existing HE providers), especially given the likely falling away of full-time student numbers consequent on higher fees. And the drive for ‘efficiency’ in the HE sector will be pushed ever harder, with the government setting up the Diamond Review into how universities can be run more efficiently (if this doesn’t entail recommending that universities ‘outsource’ much of their central services like Finance and Human Resources it will be a surprise).

The most obvious and predictable effect of these changes is likely to be a move away from full-time HE by 18-21 year olds, reversing the decades-old trend for more school-leavers to go to university. The precise extent of this is likely to depend on the buoyancy or otherwise of the job market, with those who can often choosing employment and relevant training over university and a lifetime of debt. It is also not difficult to predict a rise in the coming years of students studying part-time and flexibly alongside their employment, in many cases linking one to the other through programmes of negotiated work-based learning, for instance (another one of the growth areas in HE in recent times) where people receive academic reward for their personal learning in and through the workplace.

A sane society
It is clear that many potential students have already been put off university for life. But of course, as the old saying goes, it doesn’t have to be like this. Education should be available for those needing it and people shouldn’t expect to have to commit themselves to a lifetime of drudgery to pay for it either. Indeed, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with studying a subject like history or art simply because you are interested in it, but this has become more difficult in recent years and will now be more difficult still as pressures from business and through the job market dictate that students have to study what will make them employable.

Nevertheless, one of the more interesting developments in the last ten years or so has been the whittling away of some of the old snobbishness and elitism that has existed in universities across the country. An unintended consequence of the rise in vocationally-oriented courses has been that some have discovered that what is often called the ‘knowledge capital’ of society exists mainly outside the Ivory Towers. To many professors this is a frightening concept that challenges their very legitimacy as ‘the experts’. But experiential learning – that is learning by doing, typically in the workplace – has started to come into its own, along with reflection on how people work and learn together this way. The deliberate division between learning passively in a seminar room or lecture theatre and learning through doing has sometimes been necessary but when reinforced systematically as has been the case in HE until recently it became a strangely lopsided way for an education system to operate – the ‘University of Life’ is indeed a valuable and important place and universities were in denial about it for quite some time. Stripped of the functionalism required by employers and the market, this could be a useful educational development.

We can certainly add to this that a co-operative society of the future would seek to ensure that a university education would be genuinely meaningful – not just for the participants but for society as a whole, being finally freed from the narrow constraints of the market and money, loans and liabilities. Situated within a society of common ownership and with common purposes for the dissemination of wealth and happiness it could indeed, finally, be part of a rounded University of Life.

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