Why aren’t we debating all the issues in higher education?

As the row over fees reignites and mutates into a debate over the very purpose of universities, silence reigns on the issue of hyper-selectivity

July 20, 2017
Woman looking into ear trumpet
Source: Rex

The political oddity of the past two years continues apace. As the Labour Party celebrated its third defeat in a row at the UK general election, the most costly of its manifesto pledges – to abolish tuition fees in England – was hailed for its supposed role in luring younger voters to the ballot box. And two decades of momentum for ever-higher contributions was potentially reversed overnight.

Sure enough, exclusive polling by YouGov for Times Higher Education reveals that more people in England oppose the current fees policy than support it (43 per cent versus 39 per cent), with opposition strongest (51 per cent) among 18- to 24-year-olds.

Nearly half of vice-chancellors who responded to a recent THE poll also regard the current fees system as unsustainable; in our opinion pages this week, Iain Martin, vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University, suggests a graduate tax whose rate varies according to the social value of the degree.

Particularly eye-catching in the debate so far has been the stance of Lord Adonis, director of the No 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair when top-up fees of up to £3,000 were introduced in the mid-2000s. Adonis declared that fees were now so politically “diseased” that they should be axed, as the policy had given vice-chancellors “a licence to print money” and to “pay themselves £400,000 salaries”.

Adonis continued his attack last week in the House of Lords, and called on the government to intervene to cut v-cs’ salaries. In Twitter exchanges, he also condemned academics for having undemanding jobs with three-month holidays and for failing to do enough teaching. As a former scholar, he insisted that he knew of what he spoke, but his remarks can be seen in the context of a general sense in political circles that universities remain isles of undeserving plenty while other public-sector landmasses are stripped bare by austerity.

No doubt Adonis will be unimpressed by the article in our pages by Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and the higher education minister with whom he worked on top-up fees. Rammell dismisses the idea that v-cs’ salaries have any bearing on fees and warns against “knee-jerk, uncosted and damaging” changes to university funding. It is also noteworthy that, according to the YouGov poll, more people also oppose Labour’s abolition policy than support it (41 per cent versus 37 per cent).

As Andy Westwood notes in his World Policy piece this week, the fees debate has quickly widened into one about the size and purpose of higher education, and if the promised review of tertiary education survives the bonfire of the Conservatives’ pre-election vanities, any number of apparently settled issues could be thrown back into the air.

One rarely questioned aspect of hierarchical higher education systems is the hyper-selectivity of students at the top end. Is it not odd that Labour’s election manifesto opposed Tory plans (that have since gone up in smoke) to expand selective grammar schools, yet said nothing about selective universities?

This issue is the subject of our cover feature. One response is that while academic ability is still fluid at 11, it is set in stone by 18. But Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, points to evidence from schools that everyone does better in mixed-ability classes, and believes that a less selective system would help to promote social mobility. He repeats these points in a paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute, out on 20 July, which we report on in our news pages.

Regardless of whether the research backs up Blackman’s views, the wisdom of his proposal also depends on what you think universities are for. It is arguable that while the optimum school system is the one that allows the most people to attain a threshold educational level for employability, the university system should stretch the most able so that they can spearhead the nation’s efforts to compete effectively on the world stage. If that is so, educating them together makes sense.

It is also true, of course, that knocking out selectivity from the DNA of English higher education would be very hard, and raise more questions about institutional autonomy than regulating v-cs’ pay would. But in the unpredictable political climate, who knows what direction the debate might take?

paul.jump@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Selective hearing

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