Knock all you like, but this government's door is shut

September 20, 2002

Why does higher education need a radical review, and why is it taking place in secret? asks Diana Green

Myriad reviews of institutional funding and student finance were conducted in the run-up to the 2002 spending review. Now there is a single "radical" review, prompted by concern that, despite the internationally recognised excellence of UK higher education, ministers are asking, "do we have it all right?"

At last week's Universities UK annual conference, vice-chancellors heard the two ministers responsible for higher education in England and in Wales make absolutely clear the right of their governments to determine the priorities for higher education.

In Wales, the threat to institutional autonomy is very visible as the government sets about rationalising the higher education structure. In England, the situation is fluid. In a robust speech, Margaret Hodge said she was unable to discuss the outcome of the spending review. All would be revealed in November when the government publishes its views about the strategic direction of English higher education over the next decade.

This is puzzling. Why is a radical review necessary? And why is it being conducted behind closed doors? We can only speculate. The problem may be partly about money, although Ms Hodge confirmed that the spending review outcome was excellent for education overall. But she said nothing about the size of the slice allocated to higher education. Is there an internal power struggle? Is it proving difficult to get consensus within the government about policy priorities and funding methods?

A series of careful leaks over the summer suggests some departmental positioning and the need to test the water about ideas such as deregulated fees and market rates of interest. Consultation by leaking suggests a heavy reliance on the bright ideas of policy wonks rather than the open, evidence-based approach adopted by Sir Ron Dearing in the last big review in 1997. It is also possible that the government is struggling with too many ideas - rumour has it that the review of student finance considered 70 models.

Ms Hodge emphasised the government's determination to develop an ambitious and coherent vision for the next decade with a set of policy levers that supports that objective. She hoped we would welcome this.

Have ministers forgotten that, unlike hospitals, universities are not (yet?) part of a nationalised public sector? Legally, universities are autonomous institutions that contract with various arms of the government and other public and private organisations to provide a range of services.

The government has economic and social objectives and relies on others to help deliver these. Many universities will share those aims, and we all have obligations stemming from the contractual relationships we enter and the publicly funded assets we use. But how can the government defend a strategy developed without consulting those who will have to deliver it?

Ministerial pronouncements reinforce the schizophrenia in respect of institutional autonomy and state control. Ms Hodge may have been bullish about the necessity of allowing "market forces" to determine the pattern and number of courses and institutions, even at the risk of creating more turmoil. She may have been scathing about institutions expecting taxpayers to fund courses and institutions that students do not want. But in the next breath, she defended intervention on the grounds of market failure and public interest and listed many areas in which intervention in supply was justified.

There is evidence of muddle and a lack of joined-up thinking. For example, who is to deliver the expansion sought by the end of the decade where it is needed if capacity has been cut because demand has fallen as a result of changing fashion? And are we likely to be able to maximise international recruitment if a substantial chunk of the sector is reduced to a teaching-only role?

The government is critical of our managerial competence. How many policy advisers have run anything as complex as a university? Do they understand the skill with which universities have juggled their numerous funding streams to meet the needs of ever-more stakeholders? For the productivity gains we have achieved with no loss of quality, we should be applauded, not slagged off for overtrading.

As all good managers know, persuasion is more likely to secure ownership and commitment to a new direction than is cosmetic consultation once the decision has been taken.

UUK has angrily decided to present its own statement of priorities to try to influence the government's review. I am not optimistic that our voice will be heard. It is more likely that we shall be left metaphorically bruising our knuckles on a door firmly locked and soundproofed.

Diana Green is vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.

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