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Will the new higher education topography prove sustainable?

  • 25 July 2016

This blog is an extract from a speech the HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, delivered at the University of Buckingham on 25th July 2016.

New entrants

In the UK, it has been phenomenally difficult to get good quality independent higher education institutions off the ground but simultaneously too easy to run ones of questionable quality.

  • I think, on the one hand, of your early years here at the University of Buckingham, in which you had to award licences rather than degrees because you did not have degree-awarding powers. More recently, other institutions have had similar issues.
  • On the other hand, I think of those higher education institutions who have been teaching sub-degree level courses to people whose primary motivation for coming to the UK has sometimes been to find work rather than to better themselves.

When I worked for the Coalition between 2010 and 2013, we hoped to tackle both challenges through new legislation. But the proposals in the 2011 higher education white paper, Students at the Heart of the System, were scuppered by internal Coalition politics. That is why, when I arrived at HEPI two-and-a-half years ago, my first publication was called Unfinished Business?: Higher education legislation. It argued that the sector had been left dealing with an unkempt meadow rather than the neat level playing field that the 2011 white paper had promised.

Since then, the Cameron / May governments have picked up the baton. The Higher Education and Research Bill aims to provide a new gateway to the sector. This is explicitly designed to make life easier for those wishing to establish their own universities in the mould of Buckingham. In the Second Reading debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill less than a week ago, a new backbench MP called Michael Gove said:

It is a pity that in recent years, even though the University of Buckingham has taken its place among universities as a first-class institution, we have not had the same innovation and new institutions being created, but this Bill makes that possible.

Fees

One of those who established the University of Buckingham, Max Beloff, said, ‘Nothing in the original ideas of the founders was further from the truth’ than the idea people would want to pay large sums in return for studying somewhere that boasted true independence. He wrote, ‘the founders should have known how hard it is to sell something which one can get elsewhere for free or, at any rate, for much less.’

But the reintroduction of tuition fees and the current £9,000 fees regime reduced the difference in cost between a year here and a year at another university. Over the lifetime of a whole degree, your courses are actually now cheaper in total than many other places – for example, around £25,000 versus £27,000. That is why, when we tripled fees, your previous Vice-Chancellor, Terence Kealey, once claimed, ‘we went, overnight, from being the most expensive university in the country to the cheapest’.

Moreover, although your home undergraduates may only borrow £6,000 a year and so must find some money upfront, they have to find no more money in real terms this way than they had to before 2012. So, overall, your competitive disadvantage has been reduced. Only the closest observers of higher education have noted this shift but it gives you an unprecedented opportunity.

A new higher education landscape

The gap between Buckingham and other institutions in financial terms could be reduced further, depending on how you choose to respond to the Government’s current reforms. Ministers say there will three sorts of HE provider in future:

  1. basic providers who want formal recognition but do not want government funding nor access to student support and don’t even want to recruit international students;
  2. approved providers where students can access £6,000 tuition fee loans per year but where fees can be set at any level; and
  3. fee cap providers, where the fee cap of £9,000 applies, assuming an Access and Participation Agreement is in place, and where students can access loans for all their fees and the institutions can get government grant funding, including for research.

Your current position is essentially the second category: your students face a loan cap but not a fee cap, you have the right to educate international students, you have not had to bother agreeing an Access Agreement with the Office for Fair Access and you receive no public research funding.

You may wish to remain there although the price would be continuing to accept that you are not entitled to that research funding. However, I don’t know how stable this new topography will prove to be. The Government may say it intends to keep an inextricable link between the imposition of a fee cap and entitlement to research funding. But that position won’t necessarily hold for two reasons.

  1. All sorts of new wedges are currently being driven between teaching and research at the moment – such as the shifting of HEFCE’s research team to sit with the research councils in Swindon. In such an environment, it is more difficult to draw an explicit link between the £9,000 fee cap and research funding.
  2. If a top-notch research-intensive university or two were really keen to join you in that second category – where loans are capped at £6,000 but fees are not – it could prove hard for Ministers who are committed to funding excellence in research to hold their line. That is why, last year, I wrote a blog entitled ‘The Buckingham Question becomes the Oxford Question’.

The Bill that is currently before Parliament is a very good moment to test the strengths and the weaknesses of the proposed new landscape and to propose any amendments to it. After all, major HE Bills typically only come around once a decade at most, so any institution that does not get what it wants from the current Bill could have a long wait…

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