Over the dozen years that we have been surveying the mood and preoccupations of UK university vice-chancellors in the annual PA higher education survey, the relationship between universities and government has undergone a fundamental reinvention.
In our early surveys, universities’ strategies were in essence focused on delivering whatever the government of the day chose to prioritise and pay for, with confidence that their futures were pretty much guaranteed whatever they did. Now they must swim or sink in a resolutely consumer-led market, with little prospect of government help if things go wrong.
During that time, vice-chancellors have repeatedly complained about being misunderstood and frustrated by government policies, as these two typical quotes, the first from this year and the second from 2004, illustrate:
“We have a government that does not understand the economics of higher education or realise that it is one of the few successes of the UK economy.”
“It is a truism that ‘strategy’ and ‘government policies’ cannot exist in the same sentence – only opportunism and damage limitation.”
However, those complaints have been reinforced in this year’s survey by the view that the rules of the game are now different, and that the business of higher education has been irreversibly changed.
As another vice-chancellor has put it: “We have lost a golden age that we did not realise we had.”
Recurrent prophecies of “inevitable” institutional failures in an increasingly hostile world now have more credibility than ever, since the government has dismantled the tools and policies that previously assured continuity of provision. The planned demise of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the government’s declared willingness to countenance weaker universities “exiting the system” fuel the concern.
Whether or not we will see universities being closed – something that remains legally, practically and politically extremely difficult – it is clear that the higher education system in the UK is very different today from that of 10 years ago, and that it will change more over the next decade.
Successive and cumulative changes in the rules of the higher education policy game have had underlying effects on the whole system. These are only now becoming visible and are altering the very nature of higher education in the UK (particularly in England) in ways that were never intended by the policymakers.
Take just three examples. First, the progressive marketisation of higher education as a traded service.
This has undoubtedly improved the attention paid to attracting and satisfying students and has forced providers to become more business-like. But promoting higher education as a consumer product and students as paying customers has commoditised much provision. Presenting higher education in such reductionist terms has fuelled doubts about whether “going to uni” offers the best route to securing the economic benefits touted for it.
Next, encouraging universities to focus on peer group league tables – whether official teaching excellence framework (TEF) and research excellence framework rankings or unofficial newspaper comparisons – fails to recognise their social and economic contributions. This has then weakened their public mission to support their local communities.
Third, fierce competition between universities in zero-sum, possibly shrinking, student and research markets has created a two-tier sector of winners and losers. The latter are too often located in poorer towns where their failure would be devastating to local economies.
Vice-chancellors’ contributions to our latest survey reveal deep concerns that these unwanted, and presumably unintended, consequences of government policies are already undermining the public value and standing of our university system. While the majority (65 per cent) are sceptical that there will be dramatic institutional failures, they observe a trend of rationalisation by stealth, through course closures, staff cuts and asset disposals.
These threaten to tip some institutions into a “zombie spiral” from which they might not escape. The predations of so-called “challenger” providers into popular and lucrative courses in business, accountancy, law and similar areas are exacerbating this trend. More than half of sector leaders predict that up to 25 per cent of the undergraduate market could be taken by new and alternative providers.
By taking profitable business from established universities, the challengers are reducing the ability of established universities to cross-subsidise loss-making research or more expensive teaching.
The problem is that government policies over the past decade or more have been focused on market-driven incentives and sanctions intended to drive competitive behaviours by individual institutions, rather than creating a vision for a higher education system relevant to the needs of communities, employers and individuals. This is in sharp contrast to the approaches seen elsewhere, notably in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands (and increasingly in the devolved administrations in the UK), where the public roles and value of a healthy university system occupy central positions in wider social and economic policies.
However, if the government cannot or will not provide an equivalent vision for public higher education in the UK, higher education leaders can and must do so.
Rather than celebrate success in terms of their rankings against each other, universities must work together to engage with the issues that matter to the wider public: divided communities, under-skilled workforces and health inequality. They must stop defining excellence in terms of elitism and exclusivity, and demonstrate the differences that they can make to everyday lives and opportunities.
League tables, the TEF, the REF and their like clearly matter, and will continue to do so. Universities cannot afford to opt out. But nor will institutions assure their future success and social value by playing the metrics alone.
The challenge for every university is to demonstrate their relevance and value to the things that matter to future students, employers and funders. They need to rediscover their distinctiveness and missions to the wider world, which successive government policies have – unwittingly and unintentionally – led them away from.