The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education, by Andrew McGettigan

Joanna Williams seeks more context in this political and economic analysis of sector finance

April 18, 2013

Andrew McGettigan does not like the current UK government’s higher education policies. Many people share this view and they will find much evidence to support their opinions in The Great University Gamble. This book offers readers a detailed political and economic analysis of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s response to issues such as the funding of the higher education sector, tuition fees, university governance and regulation. It successfully exposes some serious contradictions in current policy directions, for example the fact that increasing tuition fees necessitates “an additional loan outlay of £4.3 billion” that adds a net increase of £2 billion to government expenditure on higher education in the short term.

Despite the detailed analysis, however, this book is a problematic read. McGettigan describes the book as “a primer on how money is moving in new ways through the system”, which indeed it is. He suggests that his target audience is youngsters thinking of applying to university, and presumably with this readership in mind there is much content that will be all too familiar to those with more than a passing experience of the higher education sector. However, the assumption made throughout The Great University Gamble is that such young people have an interest in the intimate details of how their university experience is funded.

McGettigan covers mergers, bond issues and other “problems with the loan scheme from a fiscal and macroeconomic perspective”. Prospective students may be interested in the headline figure of how much university will cost them, but there is scant evidence to suggest they will be happier to pay tuition fees as a “top-up” given directly to their institution than as a replacement for the block teaching grant. Perhaps they should be concerned with these issues, but this book depends to a large extent on a pre- existing loathing for all things associated with the Conservative Party to justify the view that changes to funding arrangements are an issue for 18- year-olds.

We need to move beyond pantomime heroes and villains in order to explore the full impact of funding changes on the higher education sector. The Great University Gamble is so focused on an analysis of what has occurred in higher education policy under the present government that there is no context provided for recent developments. McGettigan professes to situate his account in the recent history of the past 20 years. Some might argue that going back even two decades does not provide sufficient context for understanding the nature of current changes. However, McGettigan covers this period in just three pages at the beginning of the first chapter, and we are then straight back to the coalition government’s response to the Browne Review.

Likewise, there is little context to the book’s analysis drawn from academic literature or public debate. Much has been written about many of the issues McGettigan takes up. Yet, outside the policy documents, reports from thinktanks, statistical data, letters and speeches from MPs, there is little indication that these debates are taking place among academics and in the real world as opposed to in a Westminster bubble. The only background to the important content covered appears in the form of cheap political swiping. Reforms are located within “the general conservative ideology”; education secretary Michael Gove has “proxies” in the mainstream press; and the marketisation of higher education is backed by “ideologues” in thrall to Milton Friedman.

This lack of context outside the immediate and the political leads McGettigan to draw some curious conclusions. He argues that one purpose of higher education should be the professional and vocational training of individuals, and yet at the same time suggests that universities should be focused on providing social and public goods rather than private goods. McGettigan seems to suggest that although tuition fees in 1998 (under the previous Labour government) were acceptable as they provided additional funding, tuition fees in 2013 are bad.

But beyond the political point scoring, there is some useful analysis. Chapters on corporate form and on governance and public accountability should be required reading for anyone working in a university currently undergoing changes in management structure. They highlight the exclusion of most members of academic staff from institutional decision-making processes. But without context, such commentary has little to offer the more general readership McGettigan hopes to reach.

The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education

By Andrew McGettigan
Pluto Press, 232pp, £60.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780745332949 and 32932
Published 20 April 2013

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Reader's comments (3)

"... the book is written for those who, as I did in 2010, find themselves confused by what is happening in the institutions with which they are associated, whether as students, academics, staff or potential applicants. It attempts to provide a one-stop resource for interpreting management and governor decisions.' There is also a chapter explaining why loan outlay isn't straightfowardly classed as expenditure, which means that the concluding clause of the first paragraph is inaccurate.
As an American analyst of higher education policy, I was fascinated by this book. It is the only work in either the US or UK that offers a full "tour through the backrooms of higher education policy," so that the reader can see how the pieces of the new higher education system were fit together. It concentrates on the core effect of the reforms for students--one familiar to us in the States--paying more to get less. For example, the Browne-Willetts changes now assume the average 3-year graduate will now leave with L35,100 in debt, which is quite a bit higher than the average US debt, by the way: there's the paying more. On the other hand, McGettigan calculates that only seven universities have not lost places: there's the getting less from institutions that will have fewer resources to give. The book gets beyond policy clichés such as whether price is the best indicator of quality or not and show how the new system works and what it concretely does. It's not McGettigan's fault that the book's detailed evidence shows that paving the way for the "private providers" is having such negative for both government finances and for students - that's just blaming the messenger. The message here is unique in the clarity of its detail.
This is a book for the here and now. In this regard it is a bit different from the well established genre of crisis in higher education writing. It is situated firmly in the policy issues at the centre of English Higher Education, there's no apology for that. There is an apology that there isn't space for many other policy issues, including part-time higher education (which has recently emerged as the major casualty of the coalition's reforms), but also not for the issues about higher education as education. Joanna Williams' major concern is the lack of context. McGettigan takes much for granted, but that can be a good thing. The genre of crisis writing has a well established pattern where a chapter is placed prominently at the beginning and purports to establish an objective picture of how we got here today. Often, however, this is the section that relies most on the memory of the polemicist backed up by secondary sources, often other polemicists. Quite often error strewn, these chapters skip through anything up to 800 years of history demonstrating how the university had reached a state of perfection just before whatever they object to started. Whether it’s managerialism, consumerism, modularisation, elitism or lack of elitism, the narrative takes us to the point of where it all went wrong. Along the way, we discover that the Robbins Committee set up the new universities like Warwick, or that HEQC coexisted with CNAA, or that the first year of student loans was 1991. Much better to pitch in without all that. Would McGettigan’s analysis be better if he had a chapter on the implementation of student grants after Anderson? His book is fresh and about now; examples abound from the latter part of 2012. He provides both an account of where we are now and its inherent problems, but also a record of that sorry state.

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