We need a genuine alternative to the higher education Green Paper

John Holmwood explains why attendees of the Second Convention for Higher Education plan to write their own legislation

March 4, 2016
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The consultation over the government’s Green Paper for higher education came to a close on 15 January. The government is analysing the responses. However, we already know that most vice-chancellors were highly critical of its proposals, especially the idea of a teaching excellence framework to run alongside the research excellence framework. This overwhelmingly critical response will not make much difference to the government, which will press ahead, possibly with primary legislation proposed as early as April or May.

We also know that those same vice-chancellors will not do very much to make their opposition more vocal and collective. This is precisely because higher education is becoming a competitive and zero-sum game in which they are fearful of losing out. Last Saturday, 90 academics from 60 institutions attended the Second Convention for Higher Education, held at University College London, to debate the government proposals and to prepare a response that represents the commitment of academics and others within universities to protect the public values of higher education. We intend to write an alternative White Paper to define these values and to act as a rallying call for their defence across the sector.

We share the government’s ambitions for high-quality teaching and research. However, we believe that increasing measurement through audits distorts those ambitions. It turns them into a competitive game that pits institution against institution in a contest for rank order position, despite the overwhelming evidence of high levels of student satisfaction and research excellence across the sector, and leads to an emphasis on teaching and research for the test at the cost of real quality.

We believe that the values that inform higher education should extend beyond investment in human capital and economic growth and that higher education should not be subjected to the short-termism that is engendered by a narrow pursuit of the profit motive. We do not believe that for-profit providers should have the title of universities when they do not meet the wider functions and values of universities. Universities are multi-functional institutions pursuing research and scholarship that enters into the curriculum and enriches wider cultural life and democratic debate. They also make contributions to their local communities that are not provided by for-profit providers with online courses and a resource hub in a local office block or behind a shop front.

The paradox of government policy of privatisation and marketisation is that it came on the heels of a 2009 European Commission report that provided a comparative evaluation of higher education systems in which the UK was placed top in all three categories of teaching, research and value for money. The reforms of the coalition government in 2011, which are now being extended in the present proposals, were ideologically motivated. They also have the consequence of shifting the funding of higher education from public funding to a debt-finance model.

The government seeks to stratify higher education such that the majority of students will pursue self-financed degrees in “stripped down” (or unbundled) institutions offering “no frills” training, rather than education. A minority of students will attend multifunction universities and gain employment in jobs where a wider education is valued. The consequence will not be enhanced social mobility, but a further raising of obstacles to it as debt-averse students from poor backgrounds, or black and ethnic minority students and adult returners, opt not to take on that debt, or to enrol on cheaper courses.  

This is the zero-sum game in which our vice-chancellors are colluding. They recognise the risks, but those who should be leading the opposition to the changes do not want to jeopardise their chances of being in the “top tier”. They are willing to dismantle an effective higher system operating for the public benefit for the advantage that a minority of institutions might gain from a concentration of funding in a few and the chance of being one of them.

What is at issue is also a matter of generational justice. Current public policies towards education, housing and the labour market are dividing the British population on generational grounds. Older generations have benefited from public policies founded on a commitment to decent housing, full employment and public investment in higher education. By contrast, current entrants to higher education and the labour market face uncertain employment, difficulties in house purchase and renting, as well as high levels of debt for higher education.

As people working in universities, those attending the convention face this divide on a daily basis and are part of it ourselves. We believe that it is vital to join together across generations to create a different model, to outline a new vision for higher education and justice. We have to change the current trajectory of higher education away from a dependency on privatisation and indebtedness, and return to the ideal of a critical, independent and inclusive university sector worthy of the title. We ask others to join us in this task.

John Holmwood is professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham and co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University.

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