MarginCore and the dumb hand of the market.

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of current or former employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

So, the hints coming out of the HEFCE annual conference regarding university funding were, firstly, the immanent appearance of the much delayed White Paper (now a running joke within the HEFCE exec), and, secondly, further tweaks to the Willetts-Browne funding model to avoid the now universal embarrassment that this model costs substantially more (we’re now up to £1bn in the mainstream press, it’s more than that as we know) than the current one.

What we seem to be groping blindly towards is something called a core/margin model, and that I’m going to call MarginCore. This should come as no surprise to readers of this blog, as we called it back in December (see about 6 paras from the bottom). We also said it wouldn’t be a very good idea.

For those of you who don’t read links in blog posts, here’s a recap:

Each course, within each institution, has a set number of students it can recruit to it (the core allocation). Depending on how lucky they feel, institutions can then bid for Additional Student Numbers (ASNs) which are extra students they are allowed to recruit that year. If they do recruit them (and keep doing so, and meet various other requirements) their core is eventually reassessed.

You may be impressed that I’ve got a whole actual acronym in there already, but this is for a very good reason. HEFCE ALREADY DOES THIS. Seriously. No word of a lie, this is how we currently do student number controls.

As a Plan B goes, doing something we are already doing is fine with me, usually. But it doesn’t work in Browne-Willets land.

Their tweak is that we allocate extra numbers to cheaper courses. As criteria go, it’s a bit rubbish. Currently, we allocate ASNs according to strategic subject priorities, and assess ASN bids based on ways in which the institution supports widening participation, meets student retention targets and generally has an ability to manage extra students. So you can see why “x is cheaper than y, therefore x should have more student numbers” is a bit rubbish. We can allocate student numbers for more sensible reasons than that, with a greater chance of successful outcomes.

A MarginCore model based on price just accentuates the dumb effects of the markets – we are completely competing on price rather than any other metric. Welcome to Tesco Value U.

The other option on the table is the Big Scary Teaching Funding Clawback, viz. the nasty Treasury takes away some of the money allocated to central (HEFCE) teaching spend under the new model. That won’t work either, mainly because all the central funding under the new model goes to band A and B subjects… courses in lab-based sciences and medicine. So – as the headline writers will clearly spin it – these cuts hits our future healthcare professionals disproportionally.

Or I suppose you could claw back money already awarded to student numbers in the current model. That’s going to be popular with a student body that already seems to be the most active and the most politically engaged in a generation.

Basically, this model of funding isn’t going to work. If the coalition wants to come out of this whole sorry episode with any shred of credibility they need to pull out now, before academics lose jobs and courses close in some idiotic “market”-led rationalisation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *