Confusion over Office for Students' role endangers sector

Muddled thinking behind the creation of the new Office for Students risks damaging the UK's world-class universities, says Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

January 22, 2018
Westminster, Houses of Parliament
Source: iStock

Huge inconsistencies at the heart of the government’s policy on higher education will come to the fore in the House of Lords today (22 January) when it debates the regulation which established the Office for Students as the university regulator.

The tripling of fees, the introduction of loans, and the ending of maintenance grants were promoted by the government as market-driven and aimed at putting students at the heart of the system.

Unfortunately, in reality it relied on the all-too-familiar neoliberal ideology, which places faith in the unregulated free market as the most efficient allocator of resources and which has privatisation, deregulation and individualism as the engines of economic growth.

This despite clear evidence in the public sector that it creates perverse incentives, offers little value to students and is highly demoralising.

What has been the outcome in practice? No competition in fees, students leaving university with personal debts of around £50,000, even if a large majority of them will not repay their loans in full. We have the most expensive undergraduate courses in the world. There has also been a complete collapse in part-time provision and a reduction in home-based postgraduate students.

Some vice-chancellors, however, took the government at their word and paid themselves enormous salaries and perks in the belief that they were FTSE250 members.

This exposed a huge flaw in the government’s thinking. How ironic to see Jo Johnson, the former higher education minister, extolling the virtues of the free market at one moment, then the next threatening the same institutions with draconian punishments if they didn’t do what the minister wanted. Intervention in the pay of vice-chancellors may well be justified in the public sector, but it sits rather uneasily in the competitive market that he was so keen on.

It bears an uncanny resemblance to the problems of the NHS. The 2012 Health and Care Act is full of the language of the market. Indeed, the Competition and Markets Authority oversees the activities of NHS providers with draconian powers of intervention to promote competition and prevent collusion. But ministers have continued to micro-manage the NHS. Every day brings new instructions, with a whole host of national bodies policing the everyday actions of NHS bodies.

This is the risk that universities face as they sit uneasily within a legislative framework designed to promote a market but with the OfS itching to intervene.

With a change of ministers at the Department for Education, searching questions remain. Instead of promoting scholarship, encouraging research or a concern for truth; do they have as their goal, turning the UK’s higher education system into an even more competitive market-driven one, at the expense of both quality and the public interest?​

A core mission of our universities has always been to provide students with skills which will allow them to get jobs and to prosper in business and industry. But it is equally important that universities educate their students to think critically and to engage with the knowledge that comes from scholarship.

In our debate in the Lords today, we will be looking for some re-assurance that the government is stepping back from its market-driven obsession and intends for the OfS to intervene only where necessary whilst respecting the institutional autonomy of universities.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath is a member of Labour’s shadow education team in the House of Lords.

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