Changing interests

The narrow make-up of the Browne panel provides evidence of a profound shift in higher education policymaking, says Gareth Dale

November 18, 2010

The debate around the Browne Review has, quite properly, focused on its policy proposals and the reaction of the government. Others have drawn attention to its redefinition of higher education from provision of a public good to a market in which consumer demand is sovereign.

Little light, however, has been cast upon the authors of the review itself. Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrats' former higher education spokesman, did raise the issue earlier this year. It was "disgraceful", he said, that Parliament could not scrutinise the make-up of the review panel. Students and their representatives were notably absent from its ranks, as were representatives of the University and College Union and academic staff - apart from vice-chancellors, a group that has long agitated for higher tuition fees.

A closer look at the panel suggests that Williams' indignation is justified. It also provides evidence of a profound shift in the mechanisms of public policymaking.

Lord Browne himself has no significant experience of higher education since graduating from the University of Cambridge in the 1960s (although he did gain a master's in business from Stanford University in the US). He does have considerable experience of running an oil company, BP, and is now partner and managing director of Riverstone Holdings, a private equity firm specialising in the energy sector.

Alongside Lord Browne sat Rajay Naik (senior policy adviser at The Open University and board member of the Big Lottery Fund) and two vice-chancellors. One of these, Julia King, took the helm at Aston University following stints as an adviser to the Ministry of Defence and managing director of Rolls-Royce Fan Systems. The other, David Eastwood, leads the University of Birmingham. Earlier he was vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, where he supported the introduction of a private provider of English-language courses for foreign students to the university, and chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. There he championed the research assessment exercise and its successor, the research excellence framework.

The panel's fifth and sixth members were Diane Coyle, a former civil servant at the Treasury who now runs a management consultancy, and Sir Michael Barber, the senior civil servant who advised the Blair government on the introduction of the tuition-fee regime. From 2001 to 2005, Sir Michael ran Tony Blair's Delivery Unit, promoting academies and national curriculum assessments. He now leads US consultancy firm McKinsey's Global Education Practice.

The final panellist, Peter Sands, was also a director at McKinsey. (He was at the firm for 18 years, the last six of which were as director.) Since 2006 he has been chief executive of Standard Chartered - a US-based bank that is now the fourth-largest in Britain. In 2008, the bailout of the UK's major banks was largely based on a blueprint he co-authored. It could be argued that thanks to the high fees the Browne Review proposes, future students will, in effect, part-finance the bailout that Sands helped draw up.

Two aspects of the Browne panel stand out. One is that six of them studied at Oxbridge, with five graduating in the humanities and social sciences. Together with David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and David Willetts, most of those responsible for the plan to eliminate government funding for the humanities and social sciences themselves benefited from state-supported education in those areas - and at just two elite universities.

More striking still is the composition of industries represented on the panel. Banking requires no comment. BP likewise: during Lord Browne's tenure, the energy giant was rocked by a series of high-profile disasters, including the Texas City Refinery explosion in 2005 that caused the death of 15 workers and injured 170 others.

A third sector with representatives on the panel, management consultancy, has received a critical roasting recently, with its practitioners accused of delivering little of use in exchange for fat fees. McKinsey's intensive involvement with Enron is a matter of record and it is often criticised for the aura of secrecy it maintains around its work, and its cultural conformity.

In the 2000s, the Bush, Obama and Blair governments turned to such private-sector consultants to drive through market-led reforms in health and education. In the US, McKinsey championed charter schools, an aggressive stance towards firing "underperforming" teachers and cutting costs such as employee healthcare, and had a fixation on standardised testing.

No one is suggesting that Sir Michael or Sands put the interests of their employer, or former employer, first. But the Browne Review does symbolise and sanction an insidious aspect of the wider privatisation process, which brings into education-policy formation management consultancies whose policy fixes, although discussed as "improvements" to schools and universities, effectively entrench their influence. The more the state sector is modelled on or interacts with the private sector, the greater the perceived imperative for policymakers to turn to such organisations for advice.

The Browne proposals will accelerate the trend towards a public-private divide in higher education similar to the one in secondary schooling. In the process, they will widen the crack through which management consultancies may enter, enabling them to strengthen their foothold in education provision, and expanding the zone of unaccountability at the heart of the state.

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