Focus on cuts undermines value of Browne's report, critics contend

Observers say inquiry 'wielded knife for Chancellor' and lacked broad input. John Morgan writes

October 21, 2010

Questions have been raised about the Browne Review's quality, membership and connection to government funding cuts as universities battle to come to terms with a new fiscal reality.

The inquiry, led by Lord Browne of Madingley, was titled the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, but critics argue that some of its key proposals show awareness of government spending plans prior to their announcement.

One vice-chancellor, speaking anonymously, said the review had in effect "wielded the knife for Chancellor George Osborne", while other critics have argued that the Labour-commissioned review fails to match the scale and quality of the 1997 Dearing report, the last landmark report on higher education.

The Browne Review's secretariat was housed within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and a team of seven officials from BIS was seconded to it.

Lord Browne, who is also the government's "lead non-executive director", told Times Higher Education last week that the review panel was fully independent. "This is what we believe is the right way to go; the government has to make its own determinations," he said.

Those close to the review say the panel did not know the government's spending plans, but could not have ignored the broader public funding context.

Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, welcomed recommendations on widening participation and the opening-up of the loans system to part-time students.

But he claimed that the review was "clearly not independent" because of the way in which it "anticipated" the Comprehensive Spending Review. He added that it was "not the panel's business" to recommend subject areas where funding should be cut.

The Browne Review says that tuition fees of about £7,000 a year will be needed "to maintain investment at current levels based on our assumptions about the reduction in Hefce (Higher Education Funding Council for England) funding".

It also proposes that "public spending reductions are made by removing the blanket subsidy that the public currently provides for all courses through the Hefce grant", with an end to teaching funding for arts, humanities and social sciences.

A report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, authored by John Thompson and Bahram Bek-hradnia, says it "would be a tragedy if perceived short-term fiscal advantages were the reason for adopting proposals that will affect higher education for decades".

The Hepi report adds: "The government appears largely to be withdrawing from investment in higher education teaching, and the (Browne Review) committee appears to endorse this as a matter of principle...If that is the committee's view, it is a pity that this fundamental point was not argued in more detail rather than offered as a given.

"If that is not the committee's view then it is equally a pity that it did not argue more vigorously for greater government investment."

Intractable problem

However, alongside the detractors, some in the higher education sector have hailed the review as a fine attempt to solve the intractable problem of university finance.

Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, said that "as an economist I like it enormously as a plan".

Paul Marshall, chief executive of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities and a supporter of the review's findings, said he did not believe Lord Browne had been "leant on".

"He believes strongly in markets," Mr Marshall said. "The evidence he had from (arts and humanities) applications from the previous year was that there was a very strong demand for those subjects, which was larger than the actual supply."

Lord Browne does not deny the worth of those degrees, he added, but rather "believes the market will deliver high-quality arts and humanities courses at a price students will be willing to pay".

Mr Marshall added: "I think there is quite a lot of Browne's personal ideology in there ... the outcome would have been pretty similar in lots of ways without the economic climate."

But Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, judged the report to be "of very poor quality", adding that it lacked calculations on the risk that fee income will not be sufficient to replace public funding.

Lord Browne, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and former chief executive of BP, has also come under fire for his choice of panel, which had no representation from students, rank-and-file university staff or post-1992 universities.

The panel included vice-chancellors of two pre-1992 universities, David Eastwood and Julia King, along with Sir Michael Barber, an expert partner at McKinsey management consultants; Diane Coyle, head of consultancy Enlightenment Economics; Rajay Naik, who took up a role as senior policy adviser at The Open University during the review; and Peter Sands, chief executive of Standard Chartered Bank.

Professor Brown drew a contrast with Lord Dearing's report, which included "a large committee where those who did not know about higher education were more than counterbalanced by those who did".

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