The irony of Conservative MPs campaigning to “save” the Open University will not have escaped those who spent years pointing out the limitations of the government’s market approach to higher education.
That is because the Higher Education and Research Act – which was passed in April 2017 – presumes that universities should be allowed to fail, despite numerous warnings about the devastating societal impact of allowing a university to fold.
This rather crucial point has obviously been lost on government MPs who trooped through the lobbies to ensure that HERA made it on to the statute books in the dying days of the last Parliament.
These include Robert Halfon, now chair of the Education Committee, who is among those MPs urging ministers to come to the OU’s aid even though he was a Conservative member of the Bill Committee that examined HERA clause by clause and took evidence from witnesses.
That the Office for Students, a HERA creation, has, by ministerial and legislative design, a much weaker statutory remit than its predecessor, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, to intervene in support of institutions has apparently escaped the notice of these parliamentarians.
Add to this the fact that tuition fees have largely replaced teaching grant and the capacity of the OfS to provide institutions with space to restructure has been further limited.
In fact, the OU has often pleaded a special case. In 2005, it lobbied ministers for a special deal for part-time students. Having understood that many modern universities also had long traditions of offering part-time courses, ministers wisely introduced a grant that recognised the increased costs of part-time courses, distributed on a formulaic basis by Hefce to all institutions that matched the criteria.
In advance of the coalition government’s decision to increase full-time fees to £9,000, there was also a strong lobby to include part-time students, who had previously been excluded from the fee loans.
At the time it was thought that the majority of part-time students who successfully completed a qualification studied at about 33 per cent pro rata of a full-time course. The OU argued that access to fee loans should be available to those who studied at 25 per cent – a point acceded to by ministers.
The fact that part-time student participation has gone into free fall in England since 2012 is, of course, linked with the higher fee regime, but fees are not the only cause. Pressures on household income, the reluctance of employers to engage with the higher costs associated with the new fees regime and the lack of wage growth have all taken their toll.
Against the odds, some universities have sought to keep part-time provision alive through blended learning, flexible opportunities to study, work-based courses and engagement with employers and colleges.
However, it is mystifying that given HERA and the funding regimes for which they have previously voted, government MPs have only just woken up to the problems of applying free market principles to higher education.
Equally curious is the proclivity of the sector, ministers and MPs to “divvy up” students into full- or part-time. This silo approach has bedevilled the system for far too long and utterly fails to reflect the realities of students’ lives and the opportunities for life-learning that individuals, the economy and increasing longevity require.
Instead, a holistic approach to student participation, support and institutional funding is required, underwritten by a presumption that access to educational opportunities should be available regardless of age and prior qualifications.
Of course, the OU is not a market failure per se and, however unpopular, it can be claimed that its senior management has a plan to make savings and successfully restructure.
However, one can only assume that in the new world of HERA and the market as king, ministers did not anticipate that the OU would be the first institution to be the subject of a lobby from their own backbench MPs.
With the Daily Mail, The Sun and Toby Young in The Spectator in tow, it will be interesting to see whether the government’s market philosophy is moderated or to what extent HERA can provide the pragmatic approach that ministers frequently favour to get themselves out of a fix.
Pam Tatlow was chief executive of MillionPlus from 2004 to 2017 and is director of consultancy firm PrimeHE.