A big bang is off the cards

With Browne's vision fading, Alan Ryan bemoans a lack of creative thinking

November 25, 2010

I'm impressed by the commentators on Lord Browne's review of higher education funding who are certain they know what is going to happen next. I'm utterly unsure what the fate of the review will be. Wasn't it supposed to be swallowed whole or not at all? And isn't it being picked to pieces in just the way its authors said it couldn't be?

And if its fate is uncertain, the fate of the entire higher education sector looks even more uncertain. If I were the chief financial officer of a university, I'd be looking into the terms of early retirement or talking to my doctor about enhanced terms for retirement on grounds of ill health.

The review is deeply obnoxious, in ways that could have been predicted from Lord Browne's previous career, and which have been spelled out in various forums by the University of Cambridge's Stefan Collini, the Financial Times' Martin Wolf, Iain Pears, and Cambridge's Gillian Evans, none of them a vice-chancellor. Vice-chancellors and students have concentrated all their attention on the proposals for fees and funding, and the noise has drowned out arguments about the review's proposal to destroy what limited autonomy UK universities have left.

But consider what the proposed super-quango is meant to do: set entry standards, tell universities whether they have admitted enough students of the right sort, set the size of the overall student population, assess the quality of teaching provision, and so on down the line. This is treating the whole higher education sector as a single business, with whoever runs the super-quango as the CEO. Different units would no doubt offer different products in a segmented market, but everything that distinguishes a university from a branch of Tesco would have gone.

Still, it isn't going to happen. Between the residual liberalism of the government and the "over-our-dead-bodies" reaction of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, what's going to happen is that some version of the funding changes will be implemented, and the overall framework of higher education will be left much as it is.

But what will that mean? There are four interesting aspects of what's proposed. The first is that although the changes are occurring alongside drastic cuts in public expenditure and look to many people like a money-saving proposal, they will cost money in the short term, in the medium term and very probably in the indefinitely long term. Existing cuts aside, the government will spend at least as much on loans to cover tuition fees and the residual Hefce grant as today; and with most institutions likely to charge well above £6,000 a year in tuition fees, probably more.

If repayments begin at £21,000 rather than £15,000, the government will get its money back more slowly and therefore be borrowing it for longer; with more money at stake, the government stands to be out of pocket when the 30-year clock has run out. It makes one wonder what the point of the exercise is.

A second thing may explain it. The removal of all government support for teaching in the humanities and social sciences is either a declaration of wholesale philistinism - science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects are a "priority" and everything else can be left to the vagaries of student choice - or a principled decision that it is not for government to encourage a more civilised society. Heaven knows how anyone squares that with all the talk of a Big Society.

The third oddity is the urge to change in one fell swoop. It's as though the government or Lord Browne has taken seriously the usual right-wing nonsense about institutions becoming addicted to public funding, and has decided that the only hope for an addict is to go cold turkey.

It is easy to believe, as I do, that a civilised university system can be built on different proportions of private philanthropy, fee income and public funding. What's impossible to believe is that changes in attitude and behaviour can be turned on and off overnight. Even if everyone charges £9,000 tuition, it will still be cheaper to go to a UK university than to the University of California, Berkeley as an in-state student. And the income-contingent loan repayment system will be more generous than any faced by a US student. Replacing a British mindset with a US mindset overnight is another matter entirely.

A final oddity is that sweeping changes in one area don't seem to make people more creative about the system as a whole. The obvious way to avoid saddling students with vast amounts of debt - or a contingent tax liability if you want to get the Liberal Democrats off the hook - is to revisit portability. Transferable academic credit enables Californian students to cope with high fees. Up to 80 per cent of students start in community colleges then migrate to one of the senior universities or a state university for their last two years.

It's not a panacea. It works in California because there is a uniform set of rules about how many credits you need for a degree and what sort of grades you need for upward migration. It works very poorly on a national scale, where no such consensus exists: transferring into an Ivy League university is almost impossible unless you begin from Oxford or another Ivy League school.

Upward migration on a substantial scale would be well worth promoting in the UK, indeed a no-brainer, but I seem to remember Cedric Price saying as much in 1967, so I'm not exactly hopeful.

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