The following extracts have been taken from Stefan Collini‘s literary review. It eloquently plays out and illuminates the politics between the Economy and Value of higher Education – subjects have been touched upon in the recent BlackGrout discussion: ‘What’s Missing?’
Full article can be found here.
‘But why, it may be asked, go on so much about private providers when they are still such a minor presence in higher education in the UK (though not as minor as many seem to think)? Surely the changes in funding since 2010 haven’t really altered the character of mainstream universities? Surely our children and grandchildren will still have the same chance of a good education at a good public university?
Anyone who thinks the change in 2010 was merely a rise in fees, and that things have settled down and will now carry on much as usual, simply hasn’t been paying attention. This government’s whole strategy for higher education is, in the cliché it so loves to use, to create a level playing field that will enable private providers to compete on equal terms with public universities. The crucial step was taken in the autumn of 2010 with the unprecedented (and till then unannounced) decision to abolish the block grant made to universities to support the costs of teaching – abolish it entirely for Band C and Band D subjects (roughly, arts, humanities and social sciences) and in substantial part for Band A and B subjects (roughly, medicine and the natural sciences). From the point of view of private providers, that change removed a subsidy to established universities which had hitherto rendered private undergraduate fees uncompetitive in the home market. Now that every type of institution offering these subjects is largely dependent on student fees, the way is open to rig the market to drive down the price. In McGettigan’s view, deliberate steps have been taken to ‘destabilise’ the majority of institutions ‘prior to the entrance and expansion of the alternative providers, who in contrast will be nurtured into the new terrain’. On this matter at least, David Willetts, the minister responsible for higher education, has been clear: ‘The biggest lesson I have learned is that the most powerful driver of reform is to let new providers into the system.’
Note that word ‘reform’: the implication is that there is something wrong with the present arrangements that these changes will put right. And the logic of such reform is to reclassify people as consumers, thereby reducing them to economic agents in a market. The cunning of government propaganda, in higher education as elsewhere, is to pose as the champion of the consumer in order to force through the financialisation and marketisation of more and more areas of life. Who do the student-consumers need assistance against? Who is preventing them from getting what they want and therefore should have? Universities, it seems. The assumption behind the 2010 Browne Report and all subsequent government rhetoric is that giving financial clout to consumer demand through the fee system will force universities to change. No one has shown that they were failing previously or that these changes will enable them better to fulfil their purposes: the rhetorical pressure has been uniformly directed at insinuating that universities obstruct student wishes, obstruct the legitimate demands of employers, obstruct efficient management of the sector and generally just, well, obstruct. But being forced to swallow a good dose of private equity, it is claimed, will soon unblock the system. The metaphor all too accurately indicates what will thereby be produced.
Just as the replacement of public funding by fees is the vehicle for remaking universities in the image of consumer-oriented retailers, so it is also the Trojan horse which allows private capital to make a profit out of higher education. The pressure on universities to pursue commercial opportunities is not, in itself, new. For some time now, the major money-spinner has been the fees paid by students from outside the EU. In the last decade alone, the number of full-time overseas students at UK universities has increased from 175,000 to nearly 300,000. As a result, one in six of the students at UK universities now comes from outside the EU, the largest number (67,000) from China. Higher education is currently classified as the UK’s seventh largest export industry. After 2009 the UK Border Agency started to take a different view of matters, seeing universities and colleges as an easy target in its efforts to cut immigration. In August 2012 UKBA revoked London Metropolitan University’s status as a ‘highly trusted sponsor’ of student visas, potentially threatening the right of several thousand students to stay in the UK and a loss to the university of some £30 million a year. In April this year an agreement was reached, and LMU is again being allowed to recruit overseas students, but conflicting messages are coming from two government departments on this issue, with BIS urging more recruitment as part of its export drive and the Home Office tightening the rules as part of its clampdown on immigration.
But if the immigration authorities are an obstacle to bringing in yet more overseas students, why not simply take the university to where the overseas students are? Campuses of British universities in other countries have mushroomed in recent years, some in partnership with local institutions, some free-standing. They are not always in the largest or most obvious countries. The University of Central Lancashire, for instance, has a campus in Cyprus and plans for others in Sri Lanka and Thailand. UCLan Cyprus markets itself to UK as well as overseas students (‘Get a UK degree at a UK university – in Cyprus’): it charges fees of £9000, though home students who choose to go there do not (at present) have access to the UK student loan scheme. Cyprus seems to be a favoured location for these ventures. In June 2012 the University of East London in Cyprus promised to offer ‘high quality British degree programmes in one of Europe’s most popular study destinations’ at a ‘stunning new campus’, but in April 2013 it was announced that after recruiting just 17 students UEL Cyprus would be closed. A spokesman for the university, the Times Higher Education reported, ‘would not disclose how much money the university will lose’.
Many of the financial problems faced by UK higher education date back to the shocking underfunding of university expansion in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Dearing Report found that ‘public funding per student for higher education had declined from a value of 100 in 1976 and 79 in 1989 to 60 in 1994.’ That is, it nearly halved in just 18 years. The damage has never been fully repaired: between 1979 and 2011 student numbers increased by 320 per cent while public expenditure on higher education rose by only 165 per cent. Roger Brown, scarcely given to rabble-rousing, concludes: ‘In effect, market-based policies have partly compensated for – and even been a (deliberate?) distraction from – a failure to consistently invest an appropriate proportion of national wealth in higher education.’
* Value *
Despite these short-term fudges, the central logic of the coalition’s policy is clear enough, and it is emphasised in the data universities are now required to provide for applicants, the Key Information Set. The value of a university education is the income it enables you to earn minus the cost of acquiring that education. Applicants should therefore compare the salaries of graduates from different institutions, deduct the fees charged by those institutions, then make their choice on the basis of value for money. A great deal of attention, within universities but especially in politics and the media, is focused on the precise level of fee that should be charged. Universities are told to ‘compete on price’, and are therefore supposed to make decisions about what the ‘market will bear’: the merits of £8,250 as opposed to £8,750 are keenly debated.
This, as many have pointed out, is impracticable because the ‘good’ on offer is not one about which consumers can make such fine discriminations of quality. The Browne review announced, with the same breathtaking confidence with which it announced so many things, that price is the single best indicator of quality.4 In fact, price in this case is a feeble proxy for judgments of quality. For one thing, a university education is what some analysts call a ‘post-experience good’: a full understanding of its benefits cannot be had in advance. In so far as it can be assimilated to economists’ standard categories, it has to be regarded more as a ‘positional good’ than a ‘consumer good’. A place at a particular university is not (at least at present) available to anyone with the desire and the finances to purchase it, and the ‘value’ of any given place will depend partly on the status of the university in the perceived hierarchy, something that changes with glacial slowness. This, incidentally, is another reason why it is in the interests of the most selective universities not to expand their numbers significantly. Willetts berates them for this – the open season on AAB+ applicants was intended to encourage expansion ‘at the top’ – but sensible institutions resist this pressure, and it is rational for them to do so even in market terms (it is clearly right for them to do so to protect the quality of education they can offer). The Ivy League universities, much lauded not least by coalition spokespersons, understand this very well: undergraduate numbers at Harvard, Yale and Princeton are kept down to five or six thousand, fewer than half the twelve or thirteen thousand at universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol.
Thus, under the new fees regime, applicants are supposed to take decisions based on information that can only ever be proxies for quality, such as individual universities’ spending per head or league table places. In reality, applicants are making decisions on other grounds, as they have long done: general reputation, the ‘fit’ with the kind of course they think they would like to take, the social amenities offered, location and so on. But what part should price now play in the decision-making of the ‘rational consumer’ (i.e. the 17-year-old sixth-former)? The surprising truth is that, even within the terms of intelligent consumerism, it would be foolish for typical applicants to let price be any significant determinant of their choice. (I’m leaving aside the deeper reasons why this is an undesirable way to run a higher education system.) Let’s assume that an applicant is hesitating between making University A or University B her first choice (the majority of UK applicants are female). The courses and amenities at the two universities are very similar, as are their performances according to the various criteria in the Key Information set, but University A, which is somewhat older, has traditionally had a slightly higher reputation than University B. However, while University A has set the fee for its course at £9,000, University B, attempting to situate itself in the market in the approved way, has set its fee at £8,000. So, given that they seem to be pretty much identical in every other way, this whopping difference in sticker price must be decisive, mustn’t it? And indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that some applicants under the new fee regime are responsive to precisely this consideration’