[source article from Conservative Home. My comments represent my own personal views and not those of any other group.]
Universities have expanded, polytechnics have joined them…
By ancient tradition, all Conservative articles about HE start in 1992, with hand-wringing about a 23-year old John Major policy.
But the Higher Education Funding Council is still in place – itself a successor of the University Grants Committee, set up in 1918 to channel funds from government to universities.
Both HEFCE and UGC, of course, set up by Conservative administrations (in coalition with the liberals in the latter instance).
This mix of past and present helps to highlight the ambiguities and contradictions of the tertiary education sector.
… and specifically Conservative policymaking therein.
Some British Universities are among the best in the world, but the international league tables that measure their work search for research excellence, not teaching quality.
Not true. First column in the THE/Elsevier Global University Rankings, for instance. All the rankings I know of have a teaching component. But clearly facts are a distraction, we’ve got a narrative to build.
Students pay more, but there is little sign of the competitive and innovative education market that we were promised, with more higher education institutions charging the maximum tuition fee. Government spends more, subsiding the loans system to the point that, for some students, it turns out not to be such a system at all. And all the while, employers say that graduates are not up to the job.
Well, there is a competitive and innovative education market, but price has not proved to be a key differentiator. Which is a shame, as huge amounts of public money was bet on a neoliberal wet dream that was never, ever, going to lead to price factoring in all other market information like in a year 1 economics lecture. Meanwhile, employers have been carping about HE since long before 1918, but we can always bring in employer voices to sharpen any argument we want to make about universities. (Top marks for a Daily Mail link also, quality journalism will out.)
During the summer, Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, complained that the sector’s market was “frankly anti-competitive”; mocked the requirement for new institutions to have degrees validated by an existing university, which he said is “akin to Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant”, and declared that “we need to bust this system wide open”.
Johnson bolstered his free-market credentials over the summer. And I’m sure enjoys a tasty complimentary burger from Byron Burger every now and then.
He has a plan to do so. A Green Paper on Higher Education is to be published soon. A bill is pencilled in for the next Parliamentary session. And near the heart of his proposals is the replacement of that funding council which, in one form or another, has been in place for the best part of a century.
First confirmation of planned legislation. We’d assumed this, but remember what happened after the Willetts version?
Johnson’s proposals begin with the student experience. Some University teaching is excellent; too much is “execrable”, to borrow a word sometimes used in the department. To help raise the standard, he wants Universities to be rewarded for better teaching.
This is a nice sleight of hand, as who could fail to rail against “execrable” teaching (whether or not evidence exists for it) and in favour of raising the standard. However if you consider teaching as something that happens between academics and students in seminars, lectures, tutorials and labs, there is no proposal to reward excellence in these areas.
The metrics used will include lower drop-out rates, good graduate outcomes for disadvantaged students…
Measuring institutional ability to recruit bright, motivated students from all backgrounds, and taking adequate pastoral care of them to ensure that they don’t leave.
, and an improved national student survey.
Measuring institutional ability to get students to complete surveys in a positive manner.
His friends claim that evidence shows students value better teaching above lower fees: there is an reflection here of Nick Hillman’s finding, over at the Higher Education Policy Institute, that they are “less motivated by student issues, like tuition fees, than has often been supposed”.
If we are doing Daily Mail links as evidence: “friends“. And, frankly the HEPI research did not directly show evidence of student motivation – it showed evidence of how student voted. Maybe some of them thought austerity was a good idea? Who knows.
The Higher Education Funding Council will go.
Although it has oversight duties that its predecessor did not, the clue to its deficiencies are in its title: there is too much stress on giving money to Universities – hence “funding council” – and too little on how it is spent.
Three words. HEFCE financial memorandum. HEFCE had (under the previous funding system) huge powers over how money is spent. Of course the Student Loans Company, as the primary mechanism for distributing public money to institutions, does not. Such are the requirements of the magical price-focused HE market in the sky.
Johnson wants this to change.
The new body will be charged with overseeing the metrics that measure teaching, and ensuring that Universities offer value for money to students, taxpayers and employers. It will also be empowered to allow new entrants to enter the higher education market: here is the means of busting the system open that the Minister wants.
Here, we seem to be mangling HEFCE and QAA (and possibly OFFA) powers, demonstrating a policy confusion similar to Kernohan’s First Law of Merging the QAA With Things.
However, it will probe and inspect these new institutions to a greater degree than it will older and established ones: this is Johnson’s means of balancing quality assurance with a light touch.
Risk-based QA – a bit of wonk nostalgia from the 2013 white paper.
Finally, that emphasis on disadvantaged students will reach wider. David Cameron has pledged to double the university entry rate among students from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020, and wants to see a 20 per cent increase in the number of black and minority ethnic students going to university by 2020. He is championing colour-blind applications. Johnson has pressed UCAS, the body charged with processing University applications, to publish place offers by ethnic group, which it will do.
I’m going to break with the trenchant sarcasm of my earlier comments and come out as saying that this is a damned good idea, and should have happened years ago. I’m also hoping that we can see more open data coming out of UCAS. That’s as linked data or in a .csv please UCAS, not in a bloody PDF.
If the new inspection body is to be the stick, there will also be a carrot. As George Osborne announced in the Budget, Universities that teach better will be allowed to raise fees in line with inflation from next year. Permitting further rises later has not been ruled out.
Inflation currently stands at -0.1%. And the idea that inflationary fee increases are a suitable carrot is, even where inflation exists, laughable. Inflation represents a rise in the cost of living – so refusing to let a TEF-negative institution raise fees effectively takes money (in real terms) away from it.
Maybe a brownish carrot with a tough exterior, that grows on a tree. That adds to the terrifying level of borrowing that BIS already has on the books.
There will be no shortage of objections to all this.
For “objections”, read “straw men”.
Some Universities don’t want to be challenged by new entrants.
There will be questions of detail, such as whether the metrics will work.
*picks up megaphone, stands on soap-box*
THAT IS MORE THAN JUST A DETAIL, THAT IS THE ENTIRE BASIS OF THE POLICY.
There will be those of principle, such as whether it is really government’s business to tell the Universities how to conduct theirs.
A nod to the Conservative Libertarians. Hi CWF! (and hello UKIP).
And there will be concerns about whether a tuition fee hike will deter poorer applicants.
Not as much as replacing maintenance grants with loans will.
But it is noticeable that his plans appear to by-pass the Office for Fair Access – set up under the Coalition after pressure, in particular, from the Liberal Democrats. Where they wanted to set up a special new body, he wants to replace an old one.
(OFFA was set up by Labour in 2004)
Indeed, Johnson’s plans owe less to the party that previously presided over the department he now serves in than to Steve Hilton. The latter’s ideal of accountability and transparency, honed in opposition, has flowered in government – in the form of Michael Gove’soverhauled Ofsted, Theresa May’s crime maps, Hunt’s MyNHS data information service, Eric Pickles’spublication of spending of over £250 online…and so on.
The idea that no-one thought of accountability or transparency before Hilton, is nearly as bizarre as the idea that the listed policies are good expressions of either.
Johnson’s new body has echoes of Ofsted, though it will not be inspecting courses directly. His friends say that he clocked some of the problems in the Higher Education sector while heading Downing Street’s Policy Unit during the last Parliament.
He wrote the manifesto, so this whole mess was most likely his idea. And as the main thing Ofsted does is directly inspect teaching, and the new daemonic chimaera of whatever abomination he has in mind will not, one wonders which echoes are being heard?
There is a view that Jo Johnson is the real Johnson to watch. I am not quite sure about that, but the signs are very good.
I think I’d like to keep all of them where I can see them, to be honest.
[update: the always impressive @Martin_Eve has done a proper grown-up response and analysis that you could print out and show to your Vice-Chancellor]