I recently wrote about how Andrew Adonis is increasingly keen on pushing the line that turning the polytechnics into universities was a “mistake”. He returned to this theme in his appearance before the Lords economic affairs committee yesterday, the first hearing in its inquiry into the economics of higher, further and technical education.
There were plenty of Twitter responses to Adonis’ views on this – with many arguing that his campaign on higher education had revealed itself as being rooted in social prejudice and ignorance.
But like it or not, Adonis’ views about "the former polytechnics" may be influential at a time when the prime minister wants a “major review of university funding”.
Adonis’ fees “cartel” theory met with significant challenge at the committee meeting. To recap: graduates’ repayments are determined by their earnings, not by the level of their “debt”; hence the upfront fee is not actually a price. The nature of income-contingent loans means there can be no “price competition”.
Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, also appearing before the committee, directly contradicted Adonis. “It is simply wrong to refer to it as a cartel,” he said.
Johnson added that universities “are rationally responding to a structure set up, which…it was obvious they would respond to by charging the maximum – because why wouldn’t they?"
“If you’re a low-income graduate then you simply don’t pay it back. And if [a university] were to reduce the fee from £9,000 to £6,000, that would be of no benefit to most of your graduates. That means there isn’t a market, and almost by design there isn’t a market, at least in terms of the price.”
That point seemed to be of little interest to Adonis, who went on to describe the situation as a “tacit cartel”.
In his claims about a fees "cartel", Adonis referred to London South Bank University (as he often does) and suggested its sociology graduates as examples of those who were not getting value for their £9,250 fees. According to the government's Longitudinal Education Outcomes figures, LSBU social studies (excluding economics) graduates earned a median salary of £26,700 in 2014-15 (the figures look at graduates who left in 2008-09). That is against a median salary of £20,800 for all 24-29 year-olds in work that year.
Adonis later moved on to the then Conservative government’s decision to allow polytechnics to become universities in 1992 (the decision in the 1960s to allow Colleges of Advanced Technology to do the same didn’t get a mention). This “lost a very great deal of the edge and focus of vocational, particularly technical, higher education”, said Adonis.
“I think there’s a very good case for reversing that reform in respect of the lower-performing former polytechnics. And doing it in the context of a very significant reduction in the fees that they are allowed to charge to students so they can offer a much better deal to students as part of a new reform.”
That all brought a lot of response on Twitter.
Lower-performing how? Student satisfaction? Outcomes? Teaching/research quality? Contribution to local economy/society? Reductive & elitist. https://t.co/nnbeVZtTW6— C. Dodds Pennock (@carolinepennock) October 10, 2017
The fundamentally elitist implications of Adonis's universities crusade comes to the fore. Why not turn low-performing RGs into polys too? https://t.co/BCzJV20e4B— David Morris (@dgmorris295) October 10, 2017
'Lower-performing' based on which criteria, traditional league table metrics? How about impact on the lives of individuals or society? https://t.co/86jqiTDPFd— Tom Pattinson (@Tom_Pattinson) October 10, 2017
Adonis is reprehensible. Has he visited LSBU? Has he talked to sociology staff and students? Or is it just personal with him, as ever? https://t.co/CkV3pTvtV1— Laura O'Brien (@lrbobrien) October 10, 2017
The committee chair, Lord Forsyth, challenged Adonis on his “cartel” claims. It seems likely he had been briefed (by Universities UK?). But there did not appear to have been any such briefing when it came to Adonis’ views on the "former polytechnics".
The prime minister is talking about the need for “differential fees” and is pursuing a “major review” of sector funding. She herself has previously expressed the view that the former polytechnics “lost their way” once they became universities.
At the same time, Adonis, who has a track record of shaping the media and political debate on higher education, is arguing that those institutions should have their funding cut. He got his headline (although it was in the Guardian, whose readers aren’t the most receptive audience for this kind of thing) after his committee appearance.
I get a bit tired of Adonis-generated stories in the press. I'm aware that I've just augmented this growing genre, but his views about the post-1992 universities may end up being significant and there needs to be a focus on the argument raised.
If the sector believes that universities doing the heavy lifting in terms of teaching students from disadvantaged backgrounds deserve to maintain the same levels of funding as universities with more affluent student cohorts, then the time to make the argument is now.
John Morgan is deputy news editor of Times Higher Education.