Alison Wolf: ministers ‘increasingly aware’ of HE growth failings

Universities unable to deliver governments’ ‘unrealistic expectations’ of prosperity and social mobility, says English funding review member

March 26, 2019
Losing appeal

Higher education expansion across the West has failed to deliver on “unrealistic expectations” of productivity growth and enhanced social mobility that governments had for it, with finance ministers “increasingly aware” of this failure, according to a key figure in England’s funding review.

Baroness Wolf, a member of the independent panel on the Westminster government’s post-18 education review, made the comments in a lecture at King’s College London, where she is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management.

Some see Baroness Wolf as the figure on the panel who carries the most influence in government. Her views could offer insights into the thinking driving the panel’s report, which is expected to recommend a cut in university tuition fees – and possibly in funding for lower-cost arts, humanities and social sciences courses – and a shift in funding towards further and vocational education.

Baroness Wolf, a long-standing critic of higher education expansion and the denuding of vocational education whose books include Does Education Matter? Myths about Education and Economic Growth, said in the lecture that the economy has become “the central focus” of discussion of universities.

Governments across the West are “betting very heavily indeed on universities as the source of both prosperity and social justice”, she said in the lecture, titled “Falling productivity and slowing growth: do our post-2008 problems have anything to do with universities?”

On the graduate earnings premium – often cited by policymakers – Baroness Wolf noted that it is “perfectly possible for graduates to go on earning more than non-graduates while everybody gets poorer”.

She warned that “too many people in government have taken a finding which is about the relative prosperity of graduates and have turned this into a magic bullet for delivering overall increases in absolute prosperity”.

Baroness Wolf cited data on the slowing of productivity growth and on the stalling of social mobility in recent decades across the West, noting that these trends emerged during a period of rapid higher education expansion.

In England, graduate earnings data analysed in recent months by the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that earnings are “strongly influenced by subject and by institution” – with graduates of some courses and institutions seeing earnings returns below those of non-graduates with the same pre-university qualifications – she said.

In an era of expanded higher education, Baroness Wolf said, we are moving towards the use of universities as social sorting mechanisms and “the use of the institution people go to send a signal to the labour market of whether they are more or less intelligent”.

She concluded: “Our institutions have not been able to live up to the unrealistic but nonetheless global expectations that governments have developed for them.

“Governments have poured money in[to] believing that this is a silver bullet – and it isn’t.”

She added: “Finance ministers are increasingly aware that they are not actually getting as much bang for their buck as they had hoped for.”

Baroness Wolf warned that if the status quo continued, higher education systems would become “more hierarchical [and] more underfunded in most cases and therefore less just, less fair and less efficient than they are today”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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