Are you ready to deliver what it says on the tin?

July 23, 2004

Diana Green looks at the sticky issue of marketisation in the first of a series on how the HE Act will transform the sector

Royal Assent for the Higher Education Act brought the political arguments about variable fees to an end. Most vice-chancellors accept that the reforms will bring in essential extra cash for universities and students.

Within universities the focus is now on implementation, but uncertainties remain and several battles still have to be fought.

Regulations establishing the Office for Fair Access will be debated in September; and discussions continue with the Department for Education and Skills on the format, content and timing of "access plans" by which universities will be licensed to charge higher fees. Model schemes to support the introduction of bursaries and arrangements for administering (and managing the cash-flow impact) of variable fees are also being debated. It is still unclear how the promised "additionality" of the fee regime will make reductions in public funding transparently obvious.

In principle, further "marketisation" of higher education will change things - but how much and in what ways? Much of the uncertainty relates to the behaviour of key stakeholders. How will future students react to a threefold hike in the price of a degree course? What more will they expect for the higher fee?

Will universities be responsive and flexible? The traditional producer-dominated university culture sits uneasily with the Government's wider commitment to reforming public services. We might deplore the language, but the customer-driven approach is reaffirmed in the DFES's five-year strategy. Greater personalisation and choice is the first of five principles that underpin the plan - a significant challenge for university management. The brave new world of variable fees will rely on ensuring that the quality of the experience offered to students and the market value of qualifications are aligned with "what it says on the tin".

Marketisation sits uneasily with the values of many academics, who came into higher education with a nobler motivation - to transform individual student's life chances. Many still worry about debt tipping the balance against higher education for those targeted in institutional access strategies, despite Offa. Bringing these staff on board will require inspirational leadership.

On pricing, how many institutions are confident of the value of their "brand"? The new arrangements potentially challenge university organisational power structures and systems, from marketing and price setting to planning and budgetary management.

University boards' and councils' reactions to the challenge will depend, in part, on the perceived risks. Sir Howard Newby's gloomy warnings that many institutions will get their pricing and branding strategies wrong has not helped. At least one head of a "top" university has been heard to reflect that undergraduates risk becoming an endangered species. Many universities are quietly reducing their exposure by expanding more lucrative parts of their core teaching business and research. Whether the aggressive "dumbing down" tactics allegedly deployed by institutions determined to increase their share of the lucrative international student market will be replicated in the undergraduate market is a moot point.

The Government's message - that it would not fund empty places - has stimulated a hard-nosed approach, visible in the closure of non-viable courses and costly research units. Chemistry, the latest cause cel bre, has prompted yet another instance of governmental schizophrenia and cold feet.

Deep in the Government's ten-year science strategy is a requirement that universities give a year's notice before closing departments. This U-turn is justified by the need to protect the science base. Is there some irreducible minimum of chemistry departments beyond which the national interest would be at risk? Despite a commitment to extending autonomy, the Government has developed a worrying enthusiasm for central planning.

Short-term transformation of the world we know seems unlikely. Ministerial enthusiasm for competition will be tempered by concern about the consequences of market-driven rationalisation and the political consequences of large-scale bankruptcies.

So, opponents of the extension of market forces in higher education should set off for their summer holidays with a (relatively) light heart. Those who looked forward to new freedoms should dream on. "The more things change..."

Diana Green is vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.

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