The higher education White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy represents a major assault on the idea of a university and its essential role in the public sphere of facilitating the creation and dissemination of knowledge and debate about common objectives.
Instead, the government promotes higher education only in terms of a private investment in human capital, and of returns on that investment for individuals and the wider economy. The White Paper describes higher education in the UK as world-class, with “globally renowned teaching and cutting-edge research and innovation”. Yet it proposes fundamental changes to the very frameworks that have hitherto guaranteed this success. It purports to place students at the heart of the system, but, in truth, it places the market at the heart of the system.
Students are identified as consumers equipped with the purchasing power of their tuition fee income but lacking in information. And yet, those same students have been made into the most indebted generation of graduates in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The economic growth that the government seeks to foster through its advocacy of a knowledge economy has made the UK the most unequal country in the European Union. We urgently need to reverse this direction and create a successful knowledge economy directed towards inclusive economic growth.
Following on from the widening inequality that has come with a global knowledge economy, the White Paper expresses concern for social mobility and seeks to increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds at the top universities. At the same time, it could radically increase provision by for-profit providers, institutions that, wherever they are found, are associated with poor student outcomes and with spending more on marketing and profit-sharing than on teaching.
The government regulation of the sector, through a unitary Office for Students, will operate to maintain competition rather than quality. It is to be staffed by board members with “the experience of fostering choice and competition, and of robust financial control”. A “level playing field” for competition will be created by allowing for-profit providers access to degree-awarding powers and the title of university without requiring them to meet the wider functions of a university (research, third mission and community engagement, for example), thereby putting those functions in existing universities under threat.
Existing governance arrangements of universities operating through the Privy Council and higher education corporations are to be changed to make them more like for-profit entities. The proposed teaching excellence framework itself will be based on flawed data that are unfit for the purpose of differentiating among courses. For example, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that graduate salaries are determined in significant part by the prior social background of students, and differ significantly by gender.
Furthermore, the purpose of the TEF seems directed towards the management of fee increases, and creates an architecture through which the fee cap can be lifted, as in the Browne Review’s initial conception of the market, and as recently advocated again by A. C. Grayling, the philosopher and founder of the New College of the Humanities. This experiment with the future of English universities was heavily criticised by all sector bodies (except lobbyists for the free market) when the earlier Green Paper was published.
Nevertheless, the government has pressed on with proposals that the wider public has also rejected, with successive surveys of British Social Attitudes showing that significant majorities of the population are deeply concerned about levels of student debt, and believe that higher education has to have a wider value than simply securing employment for its graduates.
It is time to challenge these proposals and to put the values of a university, of academic freedom and of genuine quality education for all who can benefit, where these values belong: at the heart of the system.
John Holmwood is professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Nottingham. He is joint author of The Alternative White Paper: Knowledge for a Successful Economy and Society, which will be launched next week.
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