Urgently required: a White Paper to carry out the Browne vision

We must move beyond partisanship and seize the chance to make our higher education system truly sustainable, David Eastwood contends

February 24, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman

The outcome of the general election and the advent of the coalition moved the politics of higher education to centre stage. The consequences have been profound. In recognising the need for radical change, the government has been courageous. In committing to a higher education White Paper, it has recognised that there is much that remains to be done.

The Browne Review set out a coherent vision and creative proposals. It offered more generous support for the least well off, a much more efficient and less leaky system of student support, a real market that would empower students, a radically better deal for part-time learners, and a high-quality system that could expand further on a sustainable basis.

Faced with hard political choices, the government modified the Browne recommendations by offering targeted concessions to maximise political support and to defuse opposition. There was a parallel process, especially when protesters took to the streets, where many who had pressed for major policy changes before Browne was commissioned conveniently forgot what they had previously insisted were axiomatic.

Thus Browne got little credit for offering a new deal to part-time learners. Similarly, those who had campaigned for an expansion of the system were silent on Browne's vision for an expanded system, and deplored its embracing the only funding method likely to achieve that.

The coalition, faced with a cruel internal political dilemma and a higher education sector that thought it could cherry-pick without doing real violence to the proposals, ensured that what went through - politically brave though it was - left a series of urgent and unanswered questions.

The most profound revisions to Browne were the imposition of caps and the failure to deregulate numbers. The result is a tendency to gravitate towards the cap, the abandonment of the principle of risk-sharing, and institutions being able to set prices with the confidence that numbers control will ensure demand remains. It is pricing without much moral hazard.

Moreover, Browne's insistence that student choice be made real, and that it could drive quality, was premised on institutional controls on numbers being freed up. If the White Paper fails to commit to this, the danger is that students will pay while the system chooses. Market disciplines and student choice will have to be made real.

Structural realignment remains a priority, and the White Paper should foreshadow the radical evolution of the Higher Education Funding Council for England rather than the creation of a new body or bodies.

We still need a new approach to widening participation and access, which recognises that the real systemic failing is at 16 - or even before - and shifts the political debate away from pillorying higher education and towards making progression into higher education a priority for all schools.

Above all, I hope we can return to the clarity of the Browne funding decision. The system should be clear. Students pay nothing for tuition, and there is a progressive and affordable system of graduate contributions. Graduates who benefit from their higher education and can afford to contribute do so; those who are not in a position to contribute, for whatever reason, do not.

Maintenance is a separate issue, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds should be and will be generously supported, as Browne envisaged. But what they need is maintenance support, not fee waivers or fee bursaries. For as long as maintenance support and deferred tuition costs are elided, the system will be misunderstood and an avoidable disincentive to participation will persist.

There is much that a White Paper must urgently address. Browne offered an integrated vision for higher education funding, the shape of the system, and patterns of participation. From these genuinely innovative approaches to quality and regulation a more truly diverse system might have emerged, in which student choice was real rather than rhetorical. The political compromises have taken us some distance from that vision. Some, I appreciate, welcome this, but neither what we have, nor their underdeveloped alternatives, represent a coherent vision, still less a workable system.

The political space in which the White Paper is being developed is still sadly constrained by the bruising aftermath of the fees debate. We have been left with a polarised, partisan political framework in which to debate this most important of issues. We now need to move beyond this, because at stake is the future of our students and the sustainability of a high-quality higher education system. If we do not, I fear that too much will be a matter of what we can get through, and too little what we ought to do.

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