The critique of English policy by Bahram Bekhradnia, the outgoing director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, was delivered in his annual lecture last night, part of a wider argument that UK universities should “stop saying we are punching above our weight”.
The speech will have been of interest to Nick Hillman, a key figure in the creation of England’s new system as special adviser to universities and science minister David Willetts. Mr Hillman takes over at Hepi as Mr Bekhradnia’s successor in January.
Mr Bekhradnia also said there had been little progress in changing the social hierarchy among universities.
“That was illustrated for me by a story told by my daughter Lizzie who was at Manchester University, and attended a rugby match between Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan,” he told his audience at the Royal Geographical Society in London.
“At one point during the match the Manchester University (posh) students turned en masse to face the Manchester Met students (not posh) and chanted in unison ‘your dad works for my dad’!”
Mr Bekhradnia posed the question: “Do we have a world leading HE system?” He argued that perceptions that the UK has the second-best system in the world after the US were based on world university rankings – which he said look mainly at research performance.
He highlighted factors such as postgraduate provision and research “and indeed whole departments” being “kept afloat by international students and staff”, as well as variability in degree standards and the amount of work required to gain a degree at different universities.
“Certainly there is no room for complacency and I really hope that we will stop saying that we are punching above our weight,” he said.
Another key factor, Mr Bekhradnia argued, was the government’s attempt to create a market in English higher education, when the need for government to control supply of students and price meant a true market “cannot exist”.
He warned of consequences from the government’s uncertainty over estimates on the resource accounting and budgeting charge – the portion of loans that will never be repaid by graduates.
Mr Bekhradnia noted that since the £9,000 fee system was originally set out, “the government has revised its estimate of the cost from 30 per cent to 35 per cent, and indeed at a recent conference David Willetts admitted that it could rise to 40 per cent”.
A 10 per cent increase would mean an overspend of £1 billion per year, Mr Bekhradnia said.
“Our flirtation with a market-based approach has led us into a terrible muddle, unmatched anywhere in the world,” Mr Bekhradnia said. “The present arrangements are philosophically, economically and socially untenable, and will not persist. They will change, I confidently predict.”