Review's quality drive branded 'dangerous'

Lord Browne of Madingley's argument that greater competition between universities and more information for students will drive up quality has been described as "nonsense, dishonest and dangerous".

November 4, 2010

In a lecture this week at Thames Valley University, Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, said that the Browne Review presents a "false and wilfully uninformed" idea of how markets in higher education work and fails to make clear the likely impact of the plans on universities and on quality.

The proposals in Lord Browne's report are "potentially disastrous" because they could "destroy our hard-earned reputation for quality" and lead ultimately to the "destruction" of UK or English higher education, he warned.

Professor Brown said the greatest threat to the quality of UK higher education was underfunding and lack of investment. But he said that the Browne Review's proposals would lead to even wider disparities in resourcing and a more variable student experience across the sector.

He said only a few universities would be able to recoup through fees most or all of the public funding lost through cuts, and they would be those that were already relatively well funded thanks to their research.

"For the system as a whole, and for the great majority of institutions, there is bound to be some reduction in quality - some would say a further reduction in quality - as a result of the resourcing reductions," Professor Brown said.

The idea that more information would drive up quality did not add up because there are no reliable measures of educational quality that could be used to compare different courses and universities, he explained.

Instead, market competition would "take us further away from improving quality" by increasing reliance on "inappropriate indicators that ultimately reflect institutional resourcing and status, rather than educational quality".

The Browne proposals risk creating a two-tier system under which most institutions, serving the great majority of students, "will be offering a worse - and also more expensive - experience", he said.

Higher education would be reduced to "an economic calculus", Professor Brown said. "Only the wealthy will be able to afford what used to be called a liberal higher education, whilst most students are siphoned off into various courses justified only by their articulation with the real or supposed needs of the labour market."

He also predicted that Browne's proposals could have significant implications for the quality assurance process, with the "elite" universities receiving "light-touch" treatment while others receive closer attention.

"If this isn't a recipe for second-class status for the great majority of institutions, I don't know what is," Professor Brown said.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

• Read the lecture at: http://bit.ly/a43L2j.

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