Business first, students second: the future of English higher education?

The Coalition's proposed reforms to English higher education treat students as customers, and education as a financial transaction where pursuit of profit is the only determinant of value
Des Freedman and Natalie Fenton
29 June 2011

The White Paper on Higher Education claims, by virtue of its title, to put ‘Students at the Heart of the System’.  But despite the rhetoric that ‘[t]here is of course far more to higher education than financial benefit. It can transform people’s lives for the better as their intellectual horizons are broadened’ (p17), this White Paper treats the student purely as a customer who is simply concerned to buy a route to a better salaried job. While of course there is nothing wrong with seeking a decent wage, the notion that a university’s entire purpose is to feed the economy high salaried individuals through direct links to industry is not only perverse but also socially destructive. The White Paper states that  ‘[o]ur reforms will encourage closer working between institutions, employers and students to create a better student experience leading to better-qualified graduates’(p45) – oh no it won’t, and here’s why.

The premise of this White Paper is to try and manage the mess that the massive hike in student fees and scrapping of the block teaching grant for arts, humanities, and social sciences left us with.  A market system that encouraged the majority to charge the maximum fee (otherwise by market definition they must be worth less) that would result in many students never paying back the full cost of their fees,  meant that student numbers needed to be controlled and high earnings encouraged (a student begins to pay back their loans when they reach the earning threshold of £21,000). In other words this is both ideological and financial but certainly not educational.

Competition is one of the key words in the White Paper: competition between institutions, between courses and between academics. Competition, we are told, will ‘protect the interests of students’ (p12). What this really means is that competition will drive down costs. There will be 85,000 contestable student places between institutions in 2012/13. That means 85,000 places removed from institutions and put into a ring for everyone to fight over. These will be made up of 20,000 places for institutions (including FE colleges and private providers) charging less than £7500 in fees who ‘combine good quality with value for money’ (p5) – in other words, those institutions most likely to attract students from less privileged backgrounds who, attracted by the lower fees, will be able to pile students high and stack them deep. The remaining 65,000 contestable places will be for the top achieving students who gain AAB or above at A Level who have traditionally gone to elite institutions and include a high proportion of students from selective grammar schools and fee-paying schools. These are also the students who are most likely, from their privileged starting point, to go into high earning jobs – and therefore pay back their loans quicker. The 20,000 students going to the cheaper courses (and likely to come from less privileged backgrounds and less likely to be high earners) aren’t given any guarantee of going to the institution of their choice.

Competition goes hand in hand with efficiency: ‘[w]e expect new courses to offer increased value for money’ (p7) and we are told that there is ‘room for further efficiency savings and institutions should be looking at ways they can save money’ (p17). They will be shown the way by new private providers with different business models who will have access to the government loans scheme. This is couched in terms of the private sector coming to the rescue of the public sector. It is not. Rather, the taxpayer is being forced to hand over money to the private sector with students bearing the brunt. So, institutions will apparently improve through competing on price. Translated into the real world, efficiency gains often mean cutting costs through losing staff and increasing student numbers. The rich institutions with massive endowments, huge property portfolios and an elite student body from privileged backgrounds will continue relatively unscathed; the rest, who cater for the less privileged state-educated ‘masses’, will scramble around  trying to survive. Bringing in bargain basement degree providers may take the pressure off the Treasury but it will drive a wedge of inequality between higher education providers and the students they attract.

This new and ‘improved’ education ‘market’ recognizes the various ‘non-traditional’ routes through which students come into higher education. Indeed there is a whole chapter called ‘A Diverse and Responsive Sector’. But what it means is that new private companies, frequently referred to as  ‘alternative’, ‘non traditional’ and ‘other’ providers (p5), will enter the fray while further education colleges, who are able to offer courses at much lower costs, will be encouraged to free themselves from their dependence on universities when providing higher education.

What this all means is that the English university system is now to be opened up to the likes of Pearson and Apollo, organisations with a bottom line which is not about education but about making profits. While Apollo, which already runs the BPP Law School in the UK, is under investigation by US officials, a HEFCE report earlier this year talks of the ‘risks associated with an expansion of the role of private providers in higher education’ in focusing on only a narrow range of subjects and of presenting various issues concerning quality. It concludes that a rise in private providers ‘may amount to a reputational risk for UK higher education’

The deregulatory  (freeing up student numbers and relaxing rules on who is eligible to have degree-awarding powers) is combined with the re-regulatory introducing yet more contradictions at every turn of the page. Cutting red tape is matched by micro-management of whether institutions are deemed to offer ‘good quality’ courses, are meeting access requirements and responding adequately to student complaints.  The government will ‘strip back excessive regulation on providers wherever it is possible including reducing burdens from information collection’ (p6) while also introducing the necessity for the collection of a whole raft of other data that will make up the Key Information Set (KIS). This will be based on the National Student Survey and other indicators which are currently published along with new categories: information on graduate salaries; information on teaching and learning methods and the balance of time between different activities; information on assessment methods; and information on students’ views of their Students’ Union.

In this spirit, student feedback is now to assume a much higher profile and public role. Of course student feedback has been taken seriously by the sector for many years but it is an internal process that encourages reflexivity and constructive practice that is monitored by internal and external teaching quality assessments. Insisting on the publication of feedback will induce a mechanistic model designed for a market system that will skew the process towards gaining a competitive edge rather than promoting good pedagogy. It is a customer-led model that rewards ‘satisfaction’ over learning and assumes that the students, who are presumably taking a course because they don’t know much about that particular subject, are best placed to criticize the content. While the National Student Survey gains in importance as the consumer guide to acquiring a degree it is all too easy to see how purchasing power can override pedagogic sense. The White Paper makes the classic neoliberal mistake of treating everything that is paid for as a product, turning education simply into another commodity. You get to choose which product you are going to buy (if you are wealthy enough to find debt acceptable and lucky enough to have got high grades) and if it doesn’t deliver, then as a consumer you can kick up a fuss. So, the new loans regime will ‘put more power into the hands of students’ (p15); the new risk-based quality assurance regimes will give students ‘power to hold universities to account’ (p37) while more accurate data ‘will empower prospective students by ensuring much better information on different courses’ (p2). This brings a whole new meaning to ‘student power’.

Students are being encouraged to see a tripling of fees in terms of the quality of the product where quality is judged on immediate, measurable outcomes. Increasingly the faults students point to will be directed at the grades they are given and the jobs they get. This is entirely understandable in a situation where the need to get a high paid job to pay off the mountain of debt they are accumulating means anything less than a 2:1 does not represent value for money. Litigation by students will surge and the pressure on lecturers to play it safe and avoid the risks of being innovative or adventurous will be high. This is not about student power and it’s certainly not about putting students at the heart of the system, it is about the privatisation of public institutions. Universities are being encouraged to think and act like private providers and the White Paper is designed to facilitate a wholescale cultural shift in which all universities need to think of themselves now as part of a competitive marketplace. Willetts made this perfectly clear in an interview on the day the white paper was published, insisting that universities must ‘not be in the mindset that they are part of the public sector’ (Today programme, 28 June). The net outcome will be a demise in a quality higher education system that has the private individual rather than the public good as its raison d’etre.

While quality is skewed by market principles, inequality is increased. Despite increased powers being given to OFFA and the requirements on institutions to meet benchmarks on widening participation – these measures remain sticking plasters on a seriously flawed system. The proposals in the White Paper are more likely to exacerbate inequalities between types of institutions and bring about a much closer correlation between the reputational hierarchy of universities and the social class of their student body.

The privatized and utilitarian approach to education gets a further push with ‘employer sponsorship’ of both students and courses (pp41-2) along with the sanctioning of employer and charity sponsorship for extra places outside the quota system. Essentially this means that employers can 'kitemark' degrees they respect. This puts a serious limitation on academic freedom – will the Murdoch Empire really be kitemarking degrees which criticize the free market or offer a positive assessment of trade unions? Will the Association of British Bankers put their stamp of approval on courses that put bankers under the spotlight? Higher education is at its best when it challenges orthodoxy, critiques power and offers students space to think critically. The benefits this brings to society are, quite literally, immeasurable.

Meanwhile, the largely independent regulator, HEFCE, is to become a ‘consumer champion for students and promoter of a competitive system’.  This is probably the final straw that breaks the camel’s back and makes you wonder whether Willetts ever listened in class. Perhaps he should think back to what happened to NHS reforms only last month. After a huge public campaign, the role of the health regulator changed from one of promoting competition to a requirement to "support choice, collaboration and integration”. We should aim for nothing less for Higher Education.

Education has a purpose that does not begin and end with a financial transaction based on fees and a student’s ability to pay or the possibility of shouldering a huge debt that is not common to all. Education should not be premised on economic utility above all else where the pursuit of profit is the only determinant of value. Forgive us for using the language of contestability but we should contest voraciously at every opportunity a government whose only interest is in individuals as consumers. An approach that pivots on a purely economic principle—if I do this degree I will earn more—must be replaced with a new organizing ethos: if I do this degree I will learn more.

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