Home, not away: UK reforms lean towards US model of localised study

Promoting education at local institutions could help to cut costs, Andy Westwood tells John Gill

June 23, 2011

Comparisons between the US higher education system and the future of the UK's system are most apt when they focus not on the private elite of the Ivy League but on the public universities that provide affordable, often part-time, provision for local students.

That is the view of Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE and former special adviser to the shadow business secretary, John Denham, who said that the shift to such a system could be the answer to the government's budgeting woes.

"The biggest easing of pressure on (the Treasury) will be a move to more part-time loans and a more localised system, not fee waivers or discounts," Mr Westwood said.

"Other OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries are not trying to preserve the deluxe system of three full-time years studying away from home that we have in this country.

"In the longer term, what the current reforms might create is a system that looks much more like that of the US, but also France, Germany and any Scandinavian country you care to pick.

"That will mean a lot more home-based students and part-time students - in the US, individual states effectively pay people to go to a local university as it's seen as a really important part of the local social and economic infrastructure."

Mr Westwood told Times Higher Education that he had been struck by the reaction to plans for the New College of the Humanities, a private college in London, which will be led by the philosopher A.C. Grayling and charge tuition fees of £18,000 a year.

"Grayling comes along and there's a lot of talk about an emerging system that's going to look like the elite universities in the US, but overall it might look a lot more like the public US university system, with a much smaller elite and a much more accepted (majority of institutions) below," he said. "The US comparison that is to be made is as much about the local option as it is about the Ivy League and the Graylings of this world."

He said he was not clear whether this vision of a sector rooted in local provision was something that the coalition government was explicitly striving for.

"David Willetts (the universities and science minister) accepts the need for a mass university system, which is an unalloyed good thing - there are lots in the Conservative Party who don't," he said.

"But does he think it should exist in a different hierarchy than at present, and are these reforms an attempt to sort it into that hierarchy? That would be evidence of very long-term thinking."

He said there was some evidence of "hierarchical thinking" from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, citing a recent speech by Vince Cable, the business secretary, in which he suggested that too many universities were setting fees at £9,000.

"Cable's speech, and his reaction to fees that were being set in the run-up to that speech, clearly showed some hierarchical thinking.

"He was effectively looking at universities and saying, 'You're not a nine, you're a seven. You're about teaching; you're about widening participation; your mission is X, and your price should be Y'," he said.

But Mr Westwood said it was also legitimate to ask whether the funding reforms were the "seismic moment you might believe, given that 40 per cent of young people now attend university close to home and a third do so part time - it may be that we were getting there anyway".

Staying close

Using his own family as an example, he said: "I grew up in Wolverhampton and my sister was first in our family to go to university. Now, my niece has decided to go to Northampton University part-time - that's not a fees-related decision because she's starting this year, but because she wanted to live at home, save money and so on. So we've already made that shift in one generation."

Having set out his vision for how the higher education landscape may change, he was at pains to make it clear that there was "a lot of supposition" in his analysis.

He pointed out that universities would not finalise the shift to the new funding regime for several years, given that the higher fees do not come into effect until 2012.

"It will take three or four years for the changes in teaching funding to work through, until institutions are working completely in this new world," he said. "That will take us to 2014-15, and then there's a general election, when every scenario is possible and the existing scenario - the coalition - is probably the least likely outcome.

"So the moment the new funding regime is fully in place could be the moment it's thrown up in the air again. And in 2015 there won't be a Browne review to use as an excuse to kick higher education policy into the long grass - it's something that every party will have to take a firm position on.

"Who knows what will come out of that - but I suspect the Lib Dems will say that fees are OK this time. They'll make sure they aren't signing any pledges before the next election."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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