The history of higher education reform, and the Coalition's betrayal

The government's higher education proposals would see a fundamental reversal of the direction of reform embarked upon in the post-war period

The Government White Paper on Higher Education makes frequent reference to the excellence of UK Higher Education, but proposes measures that will dismantle it. These measures would bring about a fundamental reversal of the direction of higher education in the post-war period and do so with scant discussion and no mandate. They turn their back on the very significant social, political and cultural benefits that universities provide both nationally and to their localities in order to promote a narrow ideology of the market.

The issues that divide what is now being proposed and what went before go beyond the matter of student fees. They strike at the very heart of the meaning of higher education for individuals and for society. The value of public higher education was first articulated in the Robbins Report of 1963, which began a period of expansion that sought to extend the idea of free secondary education contained in the 1944 Education Act to Universities. Robbins recognised that individuals would be beneficiaries in terms of better prospects of employment, but rejected the idea that they should pay, because the public benefits – economic, social, cultural and political – outweighed the private benefit and, in any case, future private incomes were an uncertain basis on which to construct the financing of the system.

The next major report on higher education, the Dearing Report of 1997, introduced the idea that students might be asked to pay part of the costs of their degrees. This was not itself necessarily a reversal of earlier principles, because it was money invested into universities and treated all of them as equally deserving of support, including continued public funding for teaching in all subjects, including arts, humanities and social sciences from which funding has now been withdrawn.

At the same time, the Dearing Report also affirmed the wider purposes of education shared with Robbins. It should, “sustain a culture which demands disciplined thinking, encourages curiosity, challenges existing ideas and generates new ones; [and] be part of the conscience of a democratic society, founded on respect for the rights of the individual and the responsibilities of the individual to society as a whole.” In contrast, following the lead of the Browne Review, the White Paper affirms education only in its contribution to the economy and as a private investment in human capital, as set out in Freedman and Fenton’s analysis. It welcomes ‘for-profit’ providers, despite their negation of the wider values of a university education. Indeed, the removal of public funding for undergraduate degrees in arts, humanities and social sciences is done precisely to facilitate their entry into the system to draw students way from university courses in those areas toward more vocational subjects.

The Dearing Report also argued for a diverse system of institutions, each properly funded and encouraged to develop in relation to its own local context. This recognised the enormous benefit to local communities and economies that were provided by universities. It urged government “to ensure that support for regional and local communities is at least comparable to that provided by higher education in competitor nations.” Not only will public funding of higher education now be reduced when compared with other nations, whose expenditure is set to increase, but ministers are willing to contemplate that universities can close. If they do, it will not be because they are marginal, but because they have been driven to the wall by deliberate government policies of ‘market shock’. This will have serious consequences for the communities in which they are based.

But the Government’s intention is also to create a new status hierarchy of institutions, again in contrast to Dearing and the earlier Robbins Report. ‘Selective’ universities are encouraged to charge premium fees – their Vice-Chancellors have their eye on their ultimate prize of a lifting of the fee cap and are willing to turn their backs on the university system as a whole – and will be able to recruit unlimited numbers of ‘high achieving’ students (those getting AAB grades at A-level). This reveals the Government’s intention to reinforce the status of education as a ‘positional good’. It also has the purpose of reinforcing the alignment of such universities with private secondary education. This is despite the fact that research by the Sutton Group has shown that “comprehensive school pupils … performed better than their similarly qualified independent and grammar school counterparts in degrees from the most academically selective universities and across all degree classes, awarded to graduates in 2009.”

Nor would a status hierarchy of institutions reflect a hierarchy of quality in teaching – the National Student Survey shows high levels of satisfaction of students across institutions. The general principle of public funding was that it should support teaching for individuals of all ability, not facilitate the appropriation of privilege by the few. The White Paper wishes to reverse this fundamental principle.

Writing in 1931 in his book on Equality, R.H. Tawney observed that the English make a ‘religion of inequality’ and, further, that they seem to ‘like to be governed by Etonians’. Our new political governing caste has certainly made the market its article of faith, with the cynical consequence that only those able to attend ‘elite institutions’ will have the advantage of enjoying the wider purposes of education that have previously sustained our system of public universities.

If many academics have been slow to recognise what is in the process of being lost, it is because the expansion of higher education from the 1960s was begun with a different promise. Education was a means of securing social participation – participation in the wider culture and political debate – and the amelioration of class inequalities. For the great architects of reform, whether Clark Kerr in the USA or Lionel Robbins in the UK, mass higher education would benefit the wider public by its direct impact upon inequalities as well as being a mechanism of social mobility.

That promise is now being withdrawn. Universities are being asked to participate in the reproduction and reinforcement of inequality. It has been several decades since the secular decline in inequality anticipated by Kerr and Robbins came to an end in the late 1970s, and academics must now recognise of the complicity of universities in the reinstatement of a system of inequality deleterious to the health and wellbeing of our fellow citizens (as set out in Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level).

The Government claims to put students at the heart of the system. In truth, it puts the market at its heart. There will be beneficiaries among universities and their academic staff, but the social cost will be great. The Coalition is preparing to betray the egalitarian principles of the public university, first set forth in the post-war period.

John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology at Nottingham University and an active supporter of the Campaign for the Public University

About the author

John Holmwood is co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University and editor of A Manifesto for the Public University (Bloomsbury, 2011, available to read free online). He is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham and President of the British Sociological Association.