Who's afraid of student choice?

David Eastwood complains of much misunderstanding in responses to the Browne Review. His advice is to read it before voicing criticism

November 11, 2010

A prolific reviewer was once asked how he went about reviewing books. "Oh", he said, "I write the review, and if I like it I read the book."

Some responses to the Browne Review seem to have parodied this. Critics read reports of other critics, elaborated their responses, found comfort in their critiques and decided happily that they didn't actually need to read the report. As a result, its coherence, radicalism and progressive ambition have been ignored or misunderstood.

At the heart of Browne there is a guiding principle: making a reality of student choice. Browne envisages a radical evolution of the higher education landscape in which informed student choice, rather than a radically contingent institutional morphology, will determine the shape of English higher education. To appreciate this is to appreciate the prize that we might be about to let slip.

Critics have inveighed against the intrusion of a market; worse, they have castigated Browne for wanting to "create a market". Behind this lies a simple dialectic: market solutions bad, supply-side solutions good. To understand this is to understand why much of the debate surrounding Browne has been explicitly ideological.

Browne does envisage that a market will emerge, but crucially it will be a market made by students. Rather than fitting students to the system, the system will increasingly reflect the needs of students.

Browne achieved what few thought possible. It put part-time learners on an equal footing with full-time students, heralding an end to the current situation where students who want to learn part time register nominally as full-time students in order to avail themselves of more generous student support. Under Browne, students can learn through a mode that suits them best, and can switch between modes without incurring financial penalties.

Browne put compressed degrees on an equal footing with traditional three- and four-year degrees, enabling those who so wish to build on the experiment in compressed degrees, this time without financial penalty to institutions.

It sought a mechanism to enable numbers to respond to high-quality student demand, rather than continue to shoe-horn students into predetermined institutional quotas.

Crucially, the funding model envisaged in Browne would enable the system to grow by a further 10 per cent. No one, of course, knows whether this is the "right" size of system, but it is a far cry from those (and there are many) who wish to see a dramatic shrinking of the system and a radical reduction in opportunity and social mobility.

Browne, like those advocating Student Charters and Key Information Sets, envisages applicants furnished with the information they need to make informed choices about programmes and institutions. It also envisages the relationship between institutions and students as the principal guarantor of quality, with a compact between the student and the institution at the heart of a high-quality learning environment.

These, then, are the components of the new market, a market in which higher education is free to all students, and only when they are benefiting do they make proportionate and affordable contributions towards the costs of their higher education.

The market would be characterised by enough supply to ensure that students' choice is not inappropriately attenuated by excessive competition for rationed places. It will also provide variety in modes of study, and inherent flexibility, to accommodate different styles of learning and students with different career ambitions and different circumstances.

The greatest prize of all is a redefined relationship between students and institutions of higher education. Students will enter as discriminating and informed applicants and will study as expectant and committed learners in high-quality and highly motivating environments. Teachers will be reanimated because fee-dependent institutions will never again undervalue the great calling and art of university teaching, and quality assurance will become embedded within, rather than retrospectively imposed on, courses of study.

So, yes, the market is coming, but in a way that sustains rather than subverts the essence of higher education; in a form that can restore the proper relations between teacher and student; and that will make real the rhetoric of a diverse and high-quality higher education system.

The response to Browne has elicited timidity, an inappropriate preoccupation with price rather than value, and a desire to perpetuate what is rather than to embrace what might be. Behind this is a liking for the rhetoric - but not the reality - of student choice.

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