King: Browne no whitewash

Panel member stresses review's independence and necessary focus on cost. John Morgan writes

October 28, 2010

The Browne Review had to face the reality of funding cuts, and claims that it failed to maintain its independence are misplaced, according to a member of the panel.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, issued a staunch defence of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance led by Lord Browne of Madingley.

Critics claimed that key recommendations on raising the fee cap and ending teaching grants for the arts and humanities had been shaped by government retrenchment plans.

The cuts were finally unveiled in last week's Comprehensive Spending Review, and they largely matched the assumptions about future funding made by the Browne panel.

While critics argue that this has weakened the report's credibility and independence, Professor King rejected the claims, which she said were "extremely disappointing".

She argued that given the scale of impending cuts, "it would have been a waste of effort if we had delivered a report that saved 5 per cent".

She added: "We have not been focused on the spending plans. We've been focused on the challenges of providing a sustainable system that takes into account affordability, sustainability and value for money."

The point was also made by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, in a speech at the Higher Education Funding Council for England's annual conference in London on 21 October.

"I know that people will have anxieties about the shift in spending, but I have to ask what the alternative is," he said. "Given the fiscal crisis and the pressure that we are under, there is no option of carrying on as we are...Lord Browne's considered approach, which we endorse, shows a pathway towards a positive and viable future."

Professor King said that critics of the review should not overlook the extra cost of key recommendations such as raising the threshold for graduate repayments to £21,000 and higher maintenance support.

"Money has been taken out in one place and put back in another. We have got to take into account the additional costs to the government."

She added that proposals to make funding follow the student could revive the "critical importance of learning and teaching as part of scholarship in universities".

Asked how the Browne Review compared with the 1997 Dearing report, the previous landmark review on the academy, Professor King said that they shared some "core values". Lord Dearing "felt very strongly that all those with the potential to benefit from higher education should benefit. We strongly recommend that."

But huge increases in student numbers since 1997 meant that "we have had to look at sustainability and affordability", she added.

Asked if she had any regrets about the review, she said: "The challenge now is to make sure that this doesn't get misrepresented. I think that students from low-income backgrounds have the opportunity to come to university with more money in their pocket from a combination of the maintenance grant and maintenance loan."

Paradigm shifts: three reports that shook the academy
David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said in his speech to the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s annual conference: “The Browne Review is up there with Lionel Robbins’ report of 1963 and Ron Dearing’s report of 1997 as a serious, paradigm-shifting publication.” So how do they compare%3F
 Length of reportAnnexesLength of deliberationsCommittee membership
Robbins 335 pagesSix additional volumesFebruary 1961 to October 1963Eleven, led by Lionel Robbins, former chair in political economy at the London School of Economics
Dearing2,000 pagesFive appendices of specially commissioned research, with titles such as “The need to invest in arts and humanities” February 1996 to July 1997Seventeen, led by Sir Ron Dearing, former chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England
Browne61 pagesFive pages of annexes, notes and referencesNovember 2009 to October 2010Seven, led by Lord Browne of Madingley, former chief executive of BP

Terms of reference

Robbins - “To review the pattern of full-time higher education in Great Britain and in the light of national needs and resources to advise Her Majesty’s government on what principles its long-term development should be based. In particular, to advise, in the light of these principles, whether there should be any changes in that pattern, whether any new types of institution are desirable and whether any modifications should be made in the present arrangements for planning and coordinating the development of the various types of institution.”

Dearing - “To make recommendations on how the purposes, shape, structure, size and funding of higher education, including support for students, should develop to meet the needs of the UK over the next 20 years, recognising that higher education embraces teaching, learning, scholarship and research.” The committee was told to have regard to principles such as “maximum participation” and “lifetime learning”, and that “higher education should be able to recruit, retain and motivate staff of the appropriate calibre”.

Browne - To “analyse the challenges and opportunities facing higher education and their implications for student financing and support. It will examine the balance of contributions to higher education funding by taxpayers, students, graduates and employers. Its primary task is to make recommendations to government on the future of fees

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