26 Months Later…

The start of a new year is a chance to re-read some old favourites. I found myself particularly drawn to my old copy of the Browne Review: “Securing a Sustainable Future For Higher Education”. Blowing the dust off the calfskin covers, I was met initially with a series of six principles. “These may not be universally accepted but we believe that they are widely shared by those with an interest in higher education.”, runs the caveat (p28).

I guess that now, twenty-six months later, we should be able to see how subsequent changes to English HE funding policy have supported or undermined these principles – which should, in turn, give us some clue as to whether these we had the right principles to start with.

Principle 1: There should be more investment in higher education – but institutions will have to convince students of the benefits of investing more

Changes to the Browne model of uncapped fees, and later forays into the murky world of MarginCore, have been based on the opposite principle, namely that public financial exposure to HE should be limited in the short term and that spending should not be grossly higher than it was under the previous system.

And institutions convincing students to spend more has not been a key trend – enrollment is, reportedly, down slightly on previous years – suggesting the best that can be said is that this brave new market has made little difference to student choices. HEFCE tacitly admitted this when they made their remarkably pessimistic prediction regarding the effects on the removal of the student number cap for students scoring AAB at A level.

Principle 2: Student choice should increase

All the above suggests that the marketisation of HE has had very little effect on student choices. Certainly, it is too early to say at a macro level whether the emergence of new providers has balanced the steady drip of “unviable” courses lost at existing universities.

Also, the highly professional programme manager in me begs to point out that this is a supply-side change and therefore it is not possible to extrapolate the amount of “choice” available to a student with meeting the needs of said student. And the immature blogger in me adds “ner-ner ner ner-ner ner” and several rude gestures.

Principle 3: Everyone who has the potential should have the opportunity to benefit from higher education

Winningly, this principle was not in any way addressed by the the proposals in the Browne review at all. But subsequent disquiet at the appointment of someone who actually wanted to widen participation in HE properly perhaps offered a hint to the real sympathies of the government.

You could also point to the re-emergence of a binary divide between “premium” and “affordable” courses and institutions as a suggestion that although everyone should have access to some form of higher education, it would be of a very different kind to that experienced by the traditional elite.

Principle 4: No student should have to pay towards the costs of learning until they are working

Principle 5: When payments are made they should be affordable

I always like to refer to the Nick Clegg (apparently still the leader of the liberal democrats) line that graduates would see a lower monthly repayment, but for a longer period. Prospective students and current graduates have not been fooled by this, as one would perhaps hope given the expense of their continued education. Of course, no student has to pay fees until they were earning under the previous system – what Browne did was to recommend an inflationary raise, which so far (given the continued absence of a HE Bill) has not been delivered other than the initial uprating.

“Affordable” is another one of those words that can be slippery to define. Certainly, a loan with a variable rate of interest which is not index-linked can hardly be said to be “affordable”. What if parliament decides to up the repayment rates in order to defray the costs of the new system. There is nothing in legislation to stop it.

And sinister mutterings from ministers about institutional (and course) RAB rates can’t be helping matters.

Principle 6 : There should be better support for part time students.

Ah, yes, so there should be. However, better support has ended up equating to “the same deal as full time students”. And not the old deal. The new deal, with the big fees and the loans. However, the big fee aspect has pushed the price of part-time study  far beyond the reach of many students, and even the institutions that were quietly lobbying for a better deal.

So better support in this instance means they can get loans. Quite expensive loans that will most likely never go away until they die.

Lasting for a little under one year, and designed to provide a lasting solution to the problems of student funding, the recommendations of the report have now been completely discredited. Not even David Willetts bothers to refer to it any more.

The next step for any serious HE policy making is the commissioning of a new, fully independent review of funding. I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest that the review is conducted by people with some knowledge of how English university funding works currently, and has worked in the past.

We need someone to go head to head with the flawed recommendations of the Browne review.


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