Private reservations about a very public consultation

Behind closed doors, elite institutions were highly critical of White Paper reforms, finds John Morgan

December 20, 2012

Source: Alamy

Where do we go from here? The University of Manchester warned the government that it ‘should not underestimate the impact of this 300 per cent rise in fees’

Government policy will lead to “the further fragmentation of the UK higher education sector” with England seen as a “quick route” to a degree. The government is “muddled” on fair access. The government sees “higher education as essentially a private benefit”, a path with “uncertain and high-risk consequences”.

Those were official verdicts on government policy from the universities of Oxford, Manchester and Newcastle, respectively, in their responses to last year’s consultations on the higher education White Paper.

These Russell Group universities’ unpublished responses to the consultations, obtained by Times Higher Education from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills under the Freedom of Information Act, show some stringent and surprising criticism of the government.

The recently formed Council for the Defence of British Universities, which aims to argue the case for higher education as a public good, has lamented that it was unable to persuade any vice-chancellors to join its list of high-profile founding members, who include Alan Bennett and Richard Dawkins.

Sir Keith Thomas, a former president of the British Academy and another founding member of the CDBU, said of vice-chancellors: “They either declined to respond entirely or were extremely hesitant about the possible effect that it might have on their position.”

Critical comment

But some of the White Paper consultation responses from England’s leading universities show no signs of hesitancy. The criticisms range from the philosophical - echoing the CDBU concern about marketisation - to the practical, including concerns about the potential damage to the UK sector from the admission of new private providers.

In addition, some Russell Group universities told the government that they opposed its AAB policy on the grounds that allowing unlimited recruitment of students with high A-level grades would make it harder to give fair access to those who are disadvantaged.

On fees and funding, Manchester, where Dame Nancy Rothwell is vice-chancellor, told the government that it had raised its fees to £9,000 “reluctantly and with concern about the long-term impact of the policy on future students and the higher education sector”.

The university added: “The government should not underestimate the impact of this 300 per cent rise in fees, even on institutions such as the University of Manchester, and should proceed with caution in ensuring that the short-term policy imperatives of reducing government spending do not lead to long-term damage to the sector and the wider economy.”

Meanwhile, Newcastle, led by vice-chancellor Chris Brink, gave an extended critique of the “creation of a market”.

It warned the government that the new fees system “will result in England becoming the only country in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] where the state attempts to recover virtually all the costs of higher education from the former student”.

It also said that the White Paper “confirms a fundamental policy change premised on a view of higher education as essentially a private benefit, underplaying its role as a public good”.

The university added: “The consequences will be uncertain and of high risk. They will impact not only on the home market but also the UK’s international reputation.”

The University of Oxford, where Andrew Hamilton is vice-chancellor, offered in its response to the White Paper technical consultation a damning verdict on government policy to encourage private providers.

“Undergraduate teaching, postgraduate teaching and research are indivisibly linked, yet the government appears to be comfortable with opening higher education to alternative providers offering a limited range of courses with no underpinning research remit,” it said.

The government’s proposals, Oxford continued, “will also lead to further fragmentation of the UK higher education sector”. Noting that Scotland has no plans to encourage private providers, the university added: “We fear a future whereby English degrees…could develop a reputation across Europe and the world for being a quick route to a paper qualification.”

AAB objections

Another target of criticism was the government’s AAB policy, which allows universities unlimited recruitment of students with those grades or above at A level.

Some Russell Group universities opposed the idea from the start. Manchester gave a vehement defence of the use of contextual data to admit disadvantaged students with potential but without the highest grades - and warned that AAB would counteract this.

Removing AAB students from the cap on numbers meant slashing the student number control limit for universities such as Manchester, reducing their flexibility to give places to students with lower grades.

The AAB proposals had “already led the university to increase its published [entry] offer levels…and we expect the proposals to lead to a general upward drift of offer levels”, Manchester said.

The university expressed its pride in the Manchester Access Programme, which offers lower entry requirements for students from non-traditional backgrounds or with atypical qualifications.

It said it was “concerned about the unintended impact the new student number controls will have on our ability to recruit such students in the future, and particularly that higher offer levels will deter excellent students from low participation neighbourhoods and lower socio-economic groups…from applying to institutions such as Manchester”.

Newcastle also predicted that the “free market for AAB+, which will be expanded in future years, could damage efforts to widen participation”. It also noted that students from lower socio-economic groups are less likely to achieve AAB and that institutions with a high percentage of AABs will have only a small student number core left for those without the highest grades.

“It is difficult to see how such universities will be able to pursue the widening participation agenda with any great success,” Newcastle said, adding: “If widening participation does occur it is likely that this will be principally in institutions which are generally regarded as less prestigious.”

The final version of the policy did provide the most selective institutions with a 20 per cent slice of their places to use for non-AAB students. However, at the time of the consultations, Newcastle believed that the White Paper “unintentionally creates a gulf between widening participation students and others”.

Points of view

A number of individuals, including academic staff and parents, responded to the public consultation on higher education policy, giving the government personal views that ranged from the constructive to the perplexing.

“I do not agree with this bill I do not think you should charge the £9,000 and I DO NOT FEEL that interest should be put on top of the fees shame on you all,” wrote one individual. The names of all those who responded to the consultation were redacted by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in its Freedom of Information response.

A “concerned parent” wrote that they were “puzzled by the rationale not to place a cap on recruitment of the high achieving students”. This would mean that “the gap between the ‘so called’ good HEIs and others will most likely continue to widen, which may lead to inequality in the HE provision/access across the sector. Is this the intention of the government?”

Coming from the other end of the political spectrum, one respondent wrote: “Why have an expensively administered student loan system at all? If degrees went back to being for the academic elite, then these students would automatically become the higher tax paying earners of tomorrow anyway.”

Another parent asked: “So are we saying that all those children whose parents choose not to work are going to be considered for a fee waiver?…I on the other hand have grafted for years to get to a salary of £32K and will get very little help. So is my daughter worth less than these rioters, just because their parents are losers?”

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