Three years after Browne: two outstanding questions

Emran Mian on the questions that bothered him while working on the Browne Review, and which bother him still

September 30, 2013

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.

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Reader's comments (4)

Higher education is not a consumption market but an investment market as Browne assumed. There are also big question marks about why institutions should get more funds from the taxpayer via the student loan company based on differential fees. This is a social justice question and not one easily answered in a highly differentiated fees market.
This is so wrong, as was the Browne Report, and in so many ways. The Conservative government simultaneously cut funding and demanded better teaching while encouraging students and parents to do the same. At the same time, ministers supporting the Browne Report insisted this would foster "excellence" in teaching. This is akin to claiming that a cheaper car built with cheaper parts but costing more will somehow go faster and farther on even less fuel. It's ridiculous from the outset. The whole idea of "marketizing" HE was wrongheaded from the start. The portrayal of students and parents as consumers is also demeaning to them, as it gives the false impression of power when, in fact, they have none. Instead, what's happened is that university staff have been forced to spend _less_ time on teaching and research and _more_ time as "salesmen" for their courses, devoting endless hours to mindless "recruitment" events where they have to shill for a system that has to do more with less. Schools and departments are also under intense financial pressure to accept and instruct as many students as possible without increasing staff costs. The result of this is that modules, especially at the introductory level, are taught by an "academic proletariat" of contract staff. Meanwhile, permanent staff, both teaching and administrative, are working absurd hours for less pay. The Cameron government replaced their shovels with teaspoons and now insists that they dig their own graves even deeper. As for creating "excellence in teaching," there is absolutely no way to better foster mediocrity than by advocating excellence one does not concretely support. The measure of "excellence" is through the NSS, which is an intrinsically flawed instrument (as is the ranking system dependent on it). Student are "satisfied" when they get better marks for less work, or more contact hours for the same fees. None of this constitutes "excellence" in teaching, but rather the opposite. It panders to student demand with no commensurate increase in critical or analytical abilities, let alone advancement of knowledge. True "education" involves some level of enlightenment. The current government, which puts a monetary value on everything and judges all by that standard, would rather see students "trained," as one would a dog or a monkey, to do "useful tasks" as opposed to producing students who are educated and capable of criticizing the ridiculous system they are being asked to support and propagate. That the author has the unmitigated gall to blame universities for this situation, rather than the incredibly shortsighted and misguided policies he supported is further evidence of the ethical and intellectual bankruptcy that characterizes the Conservatives.
The Browne cuts stopped my education abruptly when, after three years of paying all my left over income and spending all my spare time after full-time working days on a vocational masters that would be have enabled me pretty certainly, because it is very vocational, leave cleaning, carework and back pain for skilled work in a wide variety of jobs across the private and public sectors, suddenly the Open University post-graduate department i was studying with was closed by Browne's cuts. I could have finished my degree - but only by one module which was neither vocational nor that i had the heart to study when it was all my spare time and money. I live in the middle of nowhere, transferring to a built university would mean about £10,000 of debt and leaving my family and friends and i'd have to work full-time to fund a full-time course. I've given up. I was one of 600,000 students on my module, let alone course (probably only slightly higher as it was compulsory but 4 modules were needed). The majority were either women trying to get pregnant or raise small children, or people in a lower salary job up-skilling at their own expense, to judge from the tutor group discussion. After the cuts, i chose to become economically inactive, because my finances are now exhausted. Like a lot of people i've met, i've chosen housing security over employment - no car, remote location, cheap rent or living with family, so no access to work but no constant risk of homelessness. I have read several articles recently about the bad financial decision making of the poor, where deciding not to be homeless this week is treated as a decision, not something terrifying, and was reminded me of the poor decision-making heuristics used when people are scared of loss. If a large number of people in the economy are making these poor decisions, afraid of serious losses, is not the economy in a large minority behaving irrationally, functioning badly, as capitalism?
'i chose to be economically inactive' - while signing on. sorry,i explained badly - when people give up the likelihood of work and move somewhere safe to live but with no chance of getting work and sign on there, since they need food etc. So a large number of jobseekers, like me, live 20 minutes from the nearest bus stop or whatever, by choice because they daren't risk paying rent in insecure work, and are signing on with no hope/risk [adjust to view] of finding work. A lot of people i have met doing this are recent graduates, and a job i applied for working with long-term unemployed, i couldn't think of any smart questions to ask them, so i blurted out "What has most surprised you on this project?" and she replied, that they were trying to find a lot of jobs for graduates, she'd thought it would be unskilled people. There isn't a university near here, so they must have returned home from university. (meant as evidence)

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