Higher education ‘not a normal market’, says ex BIS director-general

Stephen Marston, now Gloucestershire v-c, criticises ‘narrow remit’ of proposed Office for Students

January 27, 2016

The Green Paper assumes that higher education “works like other markets”, failing to appreciate the risks of taking a consumer-focused approach and letting a university fail, a vice-chancellor and former senior civil servant has warned.

Stephen Marston, who leads the University of Gloucestershire and was formerly director-general for higher education funding and reform in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, criticised the department’s plans for regulatory changes at a Universities UK conference on the Green Paper.

The Green Paper plans to merge the Higher Education Funding Council for England – where Mr Marston also formerly worked – with the Office for Fair Access to create the Office for Students.

“The proposed remit for the Office for Students is really quite narrow,” Mr Marston told the event held in London on 26 January. “But students don’t experience their higher education just within a teaching bubble. They experience the whole institution. It matters to students that the whole institution is thriving, well managed, well led.”

He warned of “a risk in thinking that the higher education market works like some other markets where market exit is quick, clean, easy” and that students would suffer from the “very long process” of a university’s decline.

Hefce has an oversight role covering institutional financial health. It was “in the interests of students that someone has the role of trying to spot where an institution is just beginning to send out the wrong signals”, Mr Marston said.

He added that the Green Paper’s desire to create a regime for “market exit” was “another illustration of where viewing universities as though they were simply service suppliers into a normal market breaks down…Market exit doesn’t only have consequences for students and graduates, it potentially also has serious consequences for that community [in the university’s region].”

Polly Payne, who holds a joint role as director of higher education in BIS, addressed the question of whether there will be a higher education bill to implement the Green Paper.

She said that “probably the most straightforward way to achieve a lot of this is through dedicated HE legislation” and that a bill was “a desire from our department”.

But she added: “The question is, as ever, whether there will be enough legislative time to table [it], against all the other things the government wishes to achieve. We are very much hoping so, but we will not know until the next Queen’s Speech what the legislative proposals are.”


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