UK higher education remains largely unmoved by market forces

Faith in private-sector innovation has driven Conservative reforms under both Willetts and Johnson – but is that really what universities need?

November 23, 2017
Face covered with UCU stickers
Source: Rex

For some, David Willetts is the minister who unforgivably unleashed the market on higher education in England, shackling graduates with debt for decades to come.

For others, he will be the minister who, along with the former chancellor George Osborne, stood up for science when austerity ruled the day, and found a way to save universities from the debilitating cuts that left other publicly funded sectors much diminished.

Whichever version you subscribe to, there’s no denying that £9,000 tuition fees not only preserved the unit of resource, but also facilitated the landmark decision to lift the artificial cap on student numbers – in effect a cap on aspiration.

As Member of Parliament for a constituency with more than its share of deprivation, and as author of an acclaimed book on intergenerational inequality, he diagnosed some of the issues that are playing out with such tumultuous effect in the current political and social divisions in the UK.

But this isn’t a eulogy – Lord Willetts, as he is now, remains very much part of UK higher education, and this week, to coincide with the publication of his new book, he writes for Times Higher Education on the lessons he learned as minister and reflects on the road ahead.

In our books pages, meanwhile, Sir Nigel Thrift, former vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, reviews Willetts’ A University Education, picking out three areas that, he argues, the former minister fails to acknowledge or address adequately.

Specifically, he points to the general contribution that universities make to civil society; what he sees as Willetts’ long-standing “suspicion of incumbency”; and the “gradual erosion of academic thinking time”, tied to the increase in demands for accountability and the proliferation of excellence frameworks.

The last of these, Thrift says, has had serious implications for academia’s ability to make the difference to the world that it can and should.

Another thread woven throughout the reforms of the Willetts era, and which continues to be part of the fabric of his successors’ vision for higher education, is the role of private provision in delivering what Willetts once described as a “tide that will lift all boats”.

Writing in THE, Willetts describes his admiration for “an enterprise model, whose rationale says: ‘The world is hungry for higher education and we should use the tools of modern commerce and private capital to spread it to more students than ever before in networks of universities.’

“Global higher education chains already exist,” he adds, “educating hundreds of thousands of students, and I regret that the UK has not yet produced any of them.”

The model he is describing is on a grander scale than anything that has materialised from the sustained push to introduce private-sector competition into UK higher education, but it is a reminder of how core this has been to the university reforms that began in 2010.

It is a belief that has prevailed, with the current universities minister, Jo Johnson, continuing to clear a path for “challenger institutions” to come in and show universities how it’s done.

Except, they rarely do. Those at the quality end of the market are either very small and elite, or else they do what you’d expect any standard teaching-focused university to do, but within a narrow focus on high-demand, classroom-based (ie, cheap) subjects such as business and law. If they have had more of a teaching focus than some others, it’s largely because they do not have a major research effort, and it’s probably also the case that the rest are now catching up.

At the same time, the inevitable scandals and abuses bubble along at the periphery, bursting from time to time, as in the recent BBC Panorama investigation, which raised fresh allegations of fraud involving agents alleged to have helped undercover reporters fiddle the student loans system at private-sector institutions. Cases such as these are blamed on bad apples and bit-part players, but they have cropped up with alarming regularity over the years.

In the meantime, it is hard to see how the Conservative faith in private innovation has really played a transformational role in the university sector.

Perhaps this is Willetts’ complaint: that no one has grasped the opportunity he sees and that missed opportunities have been snapped up by international rivals. But it’s also worth reflecting, as Thrift does, on the spectacular success over many centuries of the model of university that we already have – not public, not private, and not to be taken for granted.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Trouble is that we do not have either a state scheme or a free market. With the former, then academics would just have to play by some rules and would keep their conditions such as a decent pension. In the case of the latter, the government would keep its nose out of matters such as "quality" and "employability". Students would vote with their feet and the problem of a sector that has become large, bureaucratic and unwieldy would be solved by closures and mergers.

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