Leader: A big paper but no grand plan

The government's proposals promise radicalism. But, born of compromise and fudge, they betray a disturbing lack of vision

June 30, 2011

The Government's long-awaited White Paper on the future of higher education is strong on rhetoric but weak on vision. As its title proclaims, it is designed to put "students at the heart of the system". Where it puts higher education staff it does not say. The reforms it heralds for England will empower fee-paying students by confirming their status as "consumers". They, in turn, will drive up quality and restore teaching to its rightful place beside research as a university priority. The mechanism for this will be competition: some 85,000 student places - about one in four of the 2012 student cohort - will be up for grabs.

But let's be frank: these reforms stem from a desire for ideological change - market liberalisation - dressed up as financial necessity. The short-term pressure to shrink the national deficit by halting state funding for university teaching, and replacing it with private student contributions, provided the perfect pretext.

But it is exactly this constrained fiscal context, coupled with the compromises of coalition realpolitik, that renders the White Paper a messy disappointment. It offers fudged technocratic fixes to try to correct a series of failed political fudges.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, David Willetts, the universities minister, admitted the dilemma: "We are introducing liberalisation (but) we're introducing it in a background of very tight control over public spending." This desire to grant freedom and flexibility is undermined by the government's ill-conceived tuition fees policy, which faltered when universities did not set the hoped-for range of differential fees.

Liberalisation does not flourish under a controlling Treasury. The White Paper does not usher in the open market envisaged by the Browne Review. It is, as Paul Wellings has lamented, a technical document focused on student number control, driven primarily by an attempt to pressure universities to reduce their fees by opening 20,000 student places to competition on price with new, alternative higher education providers from the private sector, further education or even schools.

Some see in this the start of a race to the bottom, with student places yanked away from solid universities and presented to new providers simply because they are cheaper. That is not good for UK higher education.

At the top end of the market, about 65,000 places for students with AAB grades at A level will be opened to competition, allowing the most selective institutions to expand at the expense of less popular rivals by creaming off the best students. But is that prize enough for them to increase class sizes and compromise reputations built on selectivity?

In the space of what will be a harrowingly short year, the sector faces the potential for market chaos, ballooning bureaucracy, consumer confusion and whole new orders of uncertainty. We are being pushed into a massive experiment. It is a gamble with the future of one of the world's most successful higher education sectors. And for what?

Where is the grand vision? What about the rest of the UK, international students, postgraduate provision, globalisation?

In 1997, Lord Dearing warned in his landmark report on the future of higher education: "We express here our concern that the long-term well-being of higher education should not be damaged by the needs of the short term." In 2011, we can express it no better.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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