A wet fish in the UK's think-tank?

September 13, 2002

Will the new Higher Education Policy Institute be just an arm of the funding councils? asks Stephen Court, who takes a look at the education work of Britain's think-tanks

In the world of higher education policy, there is, or soon will be, a new kid on the block. Or perhaps a rather elderly kid, since the eminent educationist Lord Dearing, aged 72, is a prime mover in the new outfit - the Higher Education Policy Institute. Not that age should matter, since Lord Dearing buzzes around the corridors of power with twice the energy of those half his age.

The institute begins work in November. It will initially be funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and headed by the council's policy chief, Bahram Bekhradnia. Lord Dearing will be chair of the trustees of the institute, which will be based in Oxford.

Lord Dearing says the focus of the institute - which sees itself as independent of the funding council - will not be immediate hot potatoes in the sector: "We want to identify areas that we think are important in the long term, see what research has been undertaken, look at experience elsewhere, and to synthesise that into some kind of report, organise conferences, and make an input into government policy and policy development generally. We want to look at the implications of a world with a government policy of 50 per cent participation and the growing emergence of corporate universities."

But does higher education need another generator of ideas? The sector is hardly short of people willing to offer opinions on what universities should do, how they should be funded, whether, how and how much the beneficiaries of higher education should contribute to the cost of tuition and maintenance, and so on (there were, for example, nearly 1,000 written responses to the Dearing inquiry into higher education five years ago).

Prominent among think-tanks at the moment is the Institute for Public Policy Research. The IPPR, established in 1988, well connected to new Labour and generally regarded as the most influential think-tank in Downing Street, has recently received a feather in its cap with the response to its proposals for student support in further and higher education.

The IPPR, whose trustees include LSE director and leading third-way thinker Anthony Giddens, mixes tough with tender in a very Blairite way. It is keen on social inclusion and helping those at the bottom of the heap. It supports the expansion of higher education, but it is also a firm believer in differential fees, graduates contributing to the cost of their qualifications, and the ending of subsidised loans. It sees a graduate tax as "a highly desirable option".

In a report last winter calling for a shift in financial help towards students in further education, the institute recommended publicly funded tuition up to level-2 qualifications; a reduction of subsidy for fees at level 3 and above, with higher education fees doubling to £2,150; and the national introduction of education maintenance allowances up to level 3. It also wants a higher education maintenance allowance, particularly geared towards students from a disadvantaged background.

The recommendations in a report in July by the Commons education select committee reflected a number of IPPR positions, such as a critical attitude to subsidised loans for the affluent, and a "seamless system of financial support" to encourage students from poor backgrounds to continue studying through further education and on to higher education.

And in the same month the chancellor, in his public spending review, announced a national rollout of post-16 education maintenance allowances of up to £1,500 from September 2004 for school leavers. But we shall have to wait for the government's higher education white paper in the autumn to see whether other IPPR policies get the green light.

Of course, the IPPR is not the only thinktank interested in higher education - although, surprisingly, Demos, which enjoyed a high profile in the 1990s, has been relatively quiet in this area. The independent Social Market Foundation - whose policy board includes Giddens (again), as well as former LSE director Lord Dahrendorf, and Peter Lampl, whose Sutton Trust has been influential in policy on widening access to higher education - is currently running a series of high-level seminars on the future role of UK universities. The SMF has also recently proposed a gap-year scheme involving voluntary work and help with tuition fees for students from poor backgrounds.

On the right, the Bow Group has championed public endowments for universities to make them "financially free of the state" - an idea that was in the Conservative Party manifesto at the last election. But the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies, which in the 1980s proposed student loans, does not appear to have a great deal to say about higher education now. The centre-right forum Politeia has majored on freedom for universities from centralisation; Graham Hills, former vice-chancellor of Strathclyde University, in a Politeia publication three years ago, called for universities to be set free from "the Queen's Shilling" through financial support from students.

But many think-tanks, including recently established outfits on the left, such as Catalyst (leading light Roy Hattersley) and Policy Network (Peter Mandelson), or Policy Exchange (Michael Portillo) and Civitas on the right, have had little or nothing to say about higher education.

But how free will the speech of the Higher Education Policy Institute be? The institute, so close to the funding establishment, may find it difficult for its ideas to be seen as independent of the funding council and, ultimately, of the government. And the funding council's current brainstorming on the future of higher education suggests that the council is capable of doing its own thinking.

At the end of the day, the higher education world is not short of ideas, particularly about how it should be paid for in future. There has been a glut of reports on this, discussing a wide range of options. The problem lies in making the political decisions about where that money should come from.

Stephen Court is senior research officer at the Association of University Teachers.

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