Who would want to be in the driving seat on the road to nowhere?

With its brittle certainty, uncertainty and risky punts, the White Paper will win few hearts, especially among students, says Sir David Watson

July 7, 2011

Source: James Fryer

It’s a good, and certainly not a hypocritical, device for Vince Cable, David Willetts and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to have put students at the heart of their White Paper on the future of higher education in England. The test to which they will be held by history is whether they succeed in genuinely improving the prospects - of learning as well as earning - of students across the system, as opposed to getting the coalition government out of a hole.

Higher education is a policy area in which the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties fought the 2010 election on diametrically opposed positions. This difference was not just about undergraduate fees. The Conservatives promised continued expansion, on the grounds of both social mobility and economic priority. The Liberal Democrats (not just because they struggled to see how to pay for it) thought that enough was enough. Perversely, given many of their other policies, they have come to be the “pulling up the ladder” party.

This White Paper represents the 11th new “framework” for UK higher education since the Robbins Report of 1961. To put it crudely, for every third entry of a student cohort since then, the system has been thrown up into the air by a government claiming that it is fixing the sins of the previous administration (including sometimes its own party).

This latest framework exhibits the characteristic mixture throughout this half-century of reform of brittle certainty, uncertainty and evidence-free gambling on the outcomes.

Some elements confirm earlier announcements, including the broken-backed response to the Browne proposal on fees. In early and mid-December, and against a background of the strongest student protest seen since the late 1960s, the coalition won votes in both Houses of Parliament supporting a significant modification of what the Browne Review said. For example, Browne had suggested that the upper limit on fees should be removed, and that fees above a certain level should be subject to a government-retained levy to help to support the whole system. In the event, a cap has remained and the levy has disappeared.

The proposals here attempt to make a curious kind of market, where at one end students with high qualifications (AAB at A level) can almost demand entry to a range of so-called elite institutions (whether or not these have the capacity to respond) and at the other end institutions will be encouraged to undercut each other on price. At the same time, the Office for Fair Access will have its teeth sharpened.

A second category of proposals (mostly those where the coalition initially disagreed) are out for “consultation”. These include: post-qualifications applications (PQA, where there must now be enough solid evidence in favour); upfront payment of fees (but with little modelling of likely effects); reduction or removal of VAT for shared services (a no-brainer, except to the Treasury); and another attempt at devising a regulatory system that is both lighter-touch and more interventionist. Sir Tim Wilson’s review of “how we make the UK the best place for university-business collaboration” falls into the same zone of “more research needed”.

In contrast, there are the evidence-light leaps of faith. These include: the robustness of data about the student experience (someone should paint “And when did you last see your tutor?”); the lighter-touch “regulation” of standards and awards (surely counter-intuitive after the post-expansion moral panics about what constitutes a degree); and the cavalry over the hill of the “for-profit sector” (with no acknowledgement of the US evidence about how such companies can fleece and distort a generous system of public support for deserving students). Another dilemma concerns the concept of the “high-performing” institution. Here, the analysis seems heavily predicated on what students start out with rather than their situations upon graduation.

It is now surely worth speculating what a U-turn in response to this literally half-baked collection of policies for England might be, not least since England is now even further out of line with Scotland (which wants no truck with fees, except for students from England) and is inching away from Wales (which will apparently subsidise its students being charged fees above the 2004 level). Northern Ireland has still to declare its hand. Most serious of all is the effect on public finances. Upfront, this will simply increase costs (while, perversely, dampening demand). Over time, and not least because of European Union obligations, the returns look wildly optimistic. Perhaps the most significant piece of whistling in the dark is the blithe confidence that 70 per cent of the funds advanced on students’ behalf will come back through the loans system.

Cynics may be tempted to say that the stated intention of putting “students in the driving seat” is a further attempt to deploy the “consumers” to beat up the “providers”. In my view, based on research on students’ hopes, dreams and concrete experiences, this is a crude oversimplification. Many more of these than the White Paper acknowledges already understand their part of the deal - and will remain to be convinced that a highly strained coalition knows what is in their best interests.

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