This time three years ago I was writing the final sections of the Browne Review on higher education funding.
I was the head of the civil service team supporting the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance.
I knew, of course, that I was working on something more than a discussion paper: the report would inevitably set the stage for major reforms of higher education.
Now - several protest rallies, a tense parliamentary vote and three years later - I find that the two biggest questions that were on my mind in those final days are still unanswered: how do we radically increase the number of graduates in our economy, and how do we introduce financial incentives to drive up the quality of teaching?
Our approach to the first question took place in the context of deficit reduction, meaning that all public funding was under pressure. Our challenge was to find a way to fund enough higher education provision to meet our future aspirations, as individuals and as a country.
The easy thing would have been to cut the numbers of higher education places, or to reduce the unit of funding. But we were determined to expand numbers and unleash the economic and social benefits of more higher education.
We know more definitively than ever before from recent BIS research, The Relationship Between Graduates and Economic Growth Across Countries, that more higher education is our best prospect for higher productivity: at least a third of the increase in labour productivity between 1994 and 2005 was due to higher numbers of graduates.
What’s more, public funding for more places in higher education - backed in the new system by a high private contribution from graduates - is likely to demonstrate a higher return than almost any other form of long-term investment.
And the case for more higher education is not only an economic one. Many more people from rich households go to university than those from poorer households. I bet that every pound spent on outreach programmes for potential students from poorer households will always be more than matched by an extra pound spent by richer families on private tuition and interview preparation that enhances their children’s prospects for entry. The fair access agenda may shift the balance by a few percentage points over a decade but a more significant change can only come by creating more room in higher education.
So, convinced by the arguments in favour of expansion, our report made the case for expanding numbers and sustaining funding, while sharing the costs more evenly between the public purse and the private purses of university graduates who benefit directly from getting a degree.
Has this worked? Full-time undergraduate numbers are climbing again, but we are a long way short of having enough higher education. The share of the workforce holding a university degree is below that of many of our peer economies and tens of thousands of people who want to be in higher education have to be turned away every year. Ministers should now be under pressure to allow further expansion.
The second big question hanging over my final days on the Browne Review was whether our recommendations could create the same climate for excellence in teaching as already existed in research. That’s not to say that there is a definitive problem with teaching quality. But there is sufficient demand for higher education that differentiating on quality makes no difference to income. And there is no established way of measuring and then comparing the value added by good teaching.
Those are provocative statements and our report’s recommendations for promoting excellence were more provocative still. Fundamentally, the Browne Review suggested that there should be much broader differentiation on price across the range of higher education courses and, if the funding system allowed this to occur, then those different prices would carry information about the quality of teaching. Where the information turned out to be wrong - in other words, the price was too high for the quality of teaching that was in fact provided - then there should be the information available by which potential students could judge this and take their fees elsewhere.
Perhaps to the relief of many in higher education, the “pricing mechanism” has not been allowed to do this work. In large part due to a cap on fees, prices are largely the same across the board. So there is still no financial case for a higher education institution to invest in teaching excellence, or indeed to point out the flaws in the teaching provided by its rivals.
I realise that many readers will be furious with me by this point. I probably ought to cover my back by writing a few sentences about the public value of higher education that transcends this “market trash” talk but others have already done this eloquently and I believe my question remains a valid one: while there are no doubt other reasons for universities to provide excellent teaching, why wouldn’t we add strong financial incentives to the mix?
On this issue and on the issue of higher education expansion, there is still the opportunity for ministers to act boldly and continue the positive trend of reform.