Why has Clarke thrown us to market forces?

February 14, 2003

The government's obsession with reform of public services will lead to no good, insists Malcolm McVicar

As part of its crusade to reform public services, the government has obviously decided that it is higher education's turn next.

The evidential basis of the need for reform is not clear, but then British public policy-making has never bothered much with evidence.

The government has decided that it will use market forces, rather than direct intervention. It does not know where these changes will leave the sector, but it knows that the changes will be significant. They surely will, although whether English higher education will be better for them is another matter.

Why the love affair with market forces? Surely there is enough evidence to show that market forces are not always appropriate and that they can destroy good public services. Is there anyone in the UK who thinks that market forces have improved the railways? Has the government not retreated from them in healthcare? If they are so superior, why does the government want to force them not to operate with foundation degrees, where it talks of "breaking the pattern of demand"?

Education secretary Charles Clarke clearly sees a period of much greater competition between institutions leading to rationalisation of the sector.

Fine. We have all lived through very competitive times and some of us are quite good at it, but be ready for the unintended consequences. At the moment, England has a pretty good geographical spread of higher education institutions offering high-quality provision, especially to those who are not geographically mobile or who are part time. Market forces, red in tooth and claw, will see some of this provision close. Is the government ready for that? Wearing its interventionist hat, the government has decided that research, teaching and technology transfer are divisible. This is not a matter for Mr Clarke and his colleagues to decide. Universities and higher education do not exist in isolation in one country, and it is not for an English government to decide to change the definition. Obviously, the people who cobbled together this white paper are much enamoured of what they see as a US model of higher education, but England is part of Europe and the government's proposals do not fit well in a European context.

Universities exist in an international context and people outside the UK will apply their criteria for a university to English institutions, in the same way that we do to the thousands of US institutions that use "university" in their title.

I have no problem with a government decision that it wants a small number, reputedly six, of "world-class" research-led universities with a concentration of public research funds but this does not justify the recreation of the old and discredited binary line and the removal of Higher Education Funding Council for England research funding from a large number of universities that have areas of perfectly viable and reputable research activity. There is a strong argument for the concentration of research activity in some scientific disciplines, where the capital equipment costs are high and you need a large number of researchers to be co-located.

However, this is not the case in many other disciplines, where colleagues thousands of miles apart can cooperate just as easily as if they were next door. What is needed for nuclear physics or biomolecular science is not the same for law, business or communication and information technologies.

Unwisely, the government has applied a high science paradigm to all research and this will cause a great deal of damage.

In a university such as mine, research plays a crucial role in helping us to attract and retain good staff, in underpinning the curriculum, attracting European and international students and relating to the outside economy. The amount of money we receive from the research assessment exercise is low, but it has an importance that is totally disproportionate to its volume. I just cannot believe that the research-led elite needs the money that we currently get - not with all the extra money being thrown at research. If this policy is implemented, the beneficiaries will not be other English universities but our international competitors who will eat further into our markets. It really is not worth it, Mr Clarke.

There are some good things in this white paper. The government's genuine commitment to learning and teaching is welcome, but I have just received a communication from Hefce that says: "The grant announcement (for 2003-04) provides a real-term increase for research, while the unit of resource for teaching will be maintained in real terms." Is this the right way round? There is a lot more work to do before this white paper is ready for implementation.

Malcolm McVicar is vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire.

He writes in a personal capacity.

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