Since the beginning of the year, the UK’s pool of higher education experts, long derided as being too small to cover so many universities and students, has arguably taken a turn to the right.
Nick Hillman, special adviser to the universities and science minister David Willetts, was named the new head of the Higher Education Policy Institute at the beginning of August. He helped to devise the coalition’s £9,000 fee regime for undergraduates, but has insisted that he will “speak truth unto power” and “go wherever the evidence leads”.
Roger Brown, a staunch critic of the government’s reforms and co-director of the Centre of Higher Education Research Development at Liverpool Hope University, is to retire in the autumn.
And in January, King’s College London appointed Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management, as director of a new International Centre for University Policy Research. She has said that the centre will be “totally apolitical”, but is seen by at least one of her fellow experts, fairly or not, as leaning towards the pro-market side of the debate.
Enter Jürgen Enders, the new professor of higher education at the University of Southampton, who comes to the UK with a deep scepticism about the perceived attempt to turn higher education into a market and the student into a consumer.
Professor Enders has been researching the sector since the mid 1990s, first at the Centre for Research on Higher Education and Work in Germany and then at the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies in the Netherlands.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, he described English higher education as a “wonderful real-life laboratory” in which to study “radical policies” and the impact they will have on universities, teaching and research.
Compared with his experience in mainland Europe, he said it was “amazing” to see just how dramatic a “political experiment” had been taking place, changing not only how universities are funded but also the “underlying beliefs” about the purpose of higher education.
Professor Enders said he did not believe it was truly possible to create a market in higher education with a range of fees, as the coalition government set out to do in 2010, because “you cannot really know about the value” of a degree.
The difficulty of judging education – whether by the skills it imparts, by the extra income and employability it brings or by some other measure – made it hard accurately to gauge the value of a course, he argued.
Similarly, there was a “problem” with higher education being treated as a “commodity” to be bought and sold by a consumer, Professor Enders said, because university needs some effort on the part of the student.
One could not buy education, he said, in the same way one could not buy health by purchasing gym membership but then proceeding to “sit the whole evening at the bar and drink beer…and after a year you complain that you have gained weight”.
Professor Enders raised a further concern about the new system: the more universities become dependent on fees for their income, “the more you have to worry about quality assurance. There might be the seduction to deliver less [quality] for the same [money]”. This could cause a drift towards institutions becoming “degree mills”, he warned.
He stressed that this did not mean students should not contribute to the cost of university, but this was not the same as introducing an “ideological concept” of the student as a consumer.
Despite higher undergraduate fees and uncertainty over whether a degree will pay off in the form of a better job, Professor Enders said he would be “surprised” if British students started turning their backs on university – although their continued confidence in higher education will not necessarily stem from “rational” reasons.
Instead, youngsters would probably continue to opt for higher education because of the ingrained cultural belief that investment in education pays – an assumption formed by the experiences of the post-war generation rather than the present economic situation, he explained.
Professor Enders also warned that there was simply little or no data on what universities were doing abroad.
He called for more “serious” research on international ventures, be they branch campuses abroad, degree validation arrangements or other partnerships.
“You get a lot of rumour, gossip…headlines, political talk, but we do not know that much about what is happening on the ground,” he said, adding that it was “hard to say” how long much of this global activity would last.
In addition, Professor Enders argued that “we do not really have good and widely spread measures of the effect of teaching and learning” – in other words, nobody quite knows if students are any brighter after graduation.