Stefan Collini on British Higher Education

Very interesting piece “From Robbins to McKinsey: The Dismantling of the Universities” in the London Review of Books. Lots of good bits, and if you want to know what a mess we’re in, it’s well worth a read. I particularly liked these three paragraphs:

(We shall have to wait until historians can inspect official records from the summer of 2010 to document exactly how it was that Lord Browne’s ‘independent’ review happened to come up with a proposal that fitted so exactly with the coalition’s not yet announced spending plans.) The Browne Report was a shoddy, ill-argued and under-researched document which attracted a firestorm of criticism, but the coalition immediately announced that it would ‘accept’ its main recommendations. (In practice, it has had progressively to abandon several aspects of Browne’s proposals, partly because of political pressure, especially from the Liberal Democrats, partly because the financial implications were frightening, especially to the Conservatives, and partly because they came to seem, when looked at more closely, unworkable.)

One reason the Commons’ vote on 9 December 2010 to remove public funding from teaching and to triple undergraduate fees was a scandal is that such a measure hadn’t been in the election manifesto of any party – indeed, the Liberal Democrats had made a commitment to abolish fees – and hadn’t been subject to proper democratic scrutiny. Another reason was the flagrant disregard of what used to be normal government practice, whereby a measure is first spelled out in some detail in a White Paper, then subject to criticism and consultation, and only then turned into draft legislation to be debated and voted on in Parliament. But on this occasion we were told that the White Paper would follow rather than precede the key legislative decision. It would be published ‘shortly’. ‘Shortly’ came and went. We were told it would appear ‘in March’, then ‘in April’, until finally it was published on 28 June, more than six months after the legislation it was supposed to prepare the way for, and long after universities had been forced by that legislation to draw up financial plans without knowing how the new scheme would operate.

It became clear during this period that the government had made a serious miscalculation even on its own premises. We now know that when the decision was taken to replace the block grant with a loan system, the Treasury (presumably the real driving force behind the change) calculated that the initial expenditure on loans would more or less match current expenditure on the teaching grant if the average fee were no higher than £7500. But the Treasury had assumed that the Office for Fair Access (Offa), which oversees universities’ admissions policies, had the legal power to dictate how much a given university could charge, ensuring that fees would be kept down to the desired average level. But Offa has no such legal power, as its director was obliged to ‘remind’ the government. A great many universities were setting fees of £9000 (as anyone could have told the government they would). It slowly dawned on the government that not only was the scheme not going to reduce expenditure; it was actually going to be a lot more expensive than the present system. Whether one is broadly in favour of the new fee regime or not, there can be no denying that the policy-making process in the last eight months has been a shambles.

I think that’s the key. Even if you agree with the policy it’s been badly handled; and there are many good reasons to disagree with the policy. And the conclusion:

Lionel Robbins, it should be remembered, was a neoclassical economic theorist and no admirer of socialism or left-wing ideas more generally. The case against the White Paper, and against the shift in public discourse that it both reflects and tries to push further, does not involve the repudiation of economic reasoning any more than it involves some supposedly utopian disregard for the financial cost of public services, education included. Similarly, pointing to the damage likely to be done to universities by the application of business-school models of ‘competing producers’ and ‘demanding consumers’ is not to indulge a nostalgic desire to return to the far smaller and more selective higher education system of 30 or 40 years ago. The expansion of the proportion of the age-cohort entering higher education from 6 per cent to 44 per cent is a great democratic gain that this society should not wish to retreat from. To the contrary, we should be seeking to ensure that those now entering universities in still increasing numbers are not cheated of their entitlement to an education, not palmed off, in the name of ‘meeting the needs of employers’, with a narrow training that is thought by right-wing policy-formers to be ‘good enough for the likes of them’, while the children of the privileged classes continue to attend properly resourced universities that can continue to boast of their standing in global league tables. There is nothing fanciful or irresponsible in believing that this great public good of expanded education can and should be largely publicly funded. This White Paper and the legislation already enacted are not about finding ‘fairer’ ways to pay for higher education or, in any meaningful sense, about putting ‘students at the heart of the system’. Rather, they represent the latest instalment in the campaign to replace the assumptions of Robbins’s world with those of McKinsey’s.


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