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The best for universities over the next few years is not good

  • 19 December 2019
  • By Anon

A senior member of a staff at a British university writes anonymously about what to expect from the new Government.

Boris Johnson’s thumping majority means that he can do pretty much what he likes to the higher education sector. Assuming we don’t get a Secretary of State with a pathological dislike of the sector, what might we expect? 

Pressure on costs

Universities are expensive and because of fees and no numbers cap, costs cannot be controlled easily. Very few vice-chancellors would tolerate this from any part of their university so they should not expect government to either. 

There is a choice: a numbers cap or a cap on aggregate higher education spend. A Secretary of State for Education convinced of the value of a university education would prefer the latter. In doing this, he or she would also make cost reductions – or the realisation of economies of scale – universities’ business. Neatly, if a cap on total higher education costs did lead to a decline in student numbers, it would be universities’ responsibility.

To help universities’ cut costs there will have to be a focus on ‘low-value’ courses. Low value should not be equated with low graduate salaries, nor need it be. Government can identify courses with low graduate returns and then invite universities to offer evidence about what social or broader value these courses realise. Many will pass this test, others will not and be discontinued.

Universities’ widening participation money is spent inefficiently and there are conflicting interests. Universities’ ‘outreach’ and ‘recruitment’ activities often overlap. In a market, the former will increasingly be a cover for the latter. To avoid this conflict and further reducing higher education costs, a wise Secretary of State would centralise widening participation spending. 

Reformed admissions

All political parties went into the election promising some kind of admissions reform and – as a sector – we must admit that, for outsiders (the general public), the current system is opaque and inefficient. Post-qualifications admission is one option – as is an integrated post-18 admissions system encompassing further education and higher education. This would probably divert some students to further education, both boosting it and reducing costs.

Universities could also be required to publish the grades that have in fact been sufficient to get on to their courses (over the last five years say) as well as the grades they want students to have. It would be useful for applicants to know the difference between a university’s aspirations and its reality – and universities have no right to deny them this information. 

Brexit fall out

While the suggestions so far might seem like gruel, the sector can reasonably expect something positive here. A government that cuts university income will make it easier for them to recruit international students, particularly given the importance of student exchanges to trade deals. Equally, given the importance of staff mobility to research and student exchanges to students’ employability – as well as both to the idea of a Global Britain – universities can expect financial support. 

Research

Universities might hope for similar support with R&D, especially with the promise to increase it to 2.4% of GDP. What is less promising is the signals that universities will be peripheral. Fraunhofer-type research institutes or a DARPA-style institution are more likely recipients. This chimes both with Dominic Cummings’ viewsas well as the long-held views of the, still influential, Lord Willetts. Without reform to universities’ research output, we should not assume we will get much of any extra R&D investment. 

Focused regulation

The Office for Students (OfS) is not popular (but then that is not its job); it is also not particularly focused. Requiring that universities have targets to cut the Black attainment gap must be right, for example. But threatening 250+ HE institutions with fines of up to £4 million because they did not pay their £12,000 Quality Assurance Agency fees on time is ridiculous. 

It is the government’s interest for the OfS to be effective, focused and efficient; it is not in the government’s interest for the OfS to get heady with the exercise of power. Ensuring that the OfS does its’ job and no more will be a priority for the next Secretary of State. 

Technical, not political 

While some of these suggestions will horrify the sector, it should be noted that they are largely technical – none are politically controversial. There is nothing here about free speech or indeed facile rhetoric around ‘too many’ young people going to university. 

This policy list is probably the best feasible outcome for the sector over the next few years. The sector should remember that the country went blue despite the university vote. In the words one conservative commentator the ‘provincial English working class and lower middle class delivered the Conservatives their big majority … the British Government will now have to reflect their priorities.’

If universities want a future that is better than the one sketched here, we need to show how our priorities are those of provincial English working class and lower middle class. I very much doubt we can do this in time. We should hope, then, that what is outlined above – and no worse – is what comes to pass.

3 comments

  1. Emilia Alexe says:

    I am not quiet sure if the new Government will focus on the right direction.
    I am informing the governamental institutions for the last 4 years and the new OFS for the last 6 months about a fraud degree and billions of pounds in public money.According to the evidences ,they are all forming a big hugging family where the main focus is to make money.
    Students interest are not primordial anymore.They are used just as bodies entries in this money factory where the process of acreditation completely transformed into a bogus operation. Pearson had delivered courses with zero value for more than 10 years ,courses which were sold to home and international students as subdegree on tax payers money. The awards are worthless pieces of papers.It is not about poor advertising or poor universities services ; the problem go deeper than that. These poor courses in some places with no value at all are acredited at degree level.
    I have personally enrolled for an HND Law sibject to top up and I ended up with an old customised non regulated provision award . A School of Law bogus it is a cherry on the cake.
    Department of Education is covering up Pearson fraudulent services,same QAA and OFS. Nobody care.
    Eventually,this Ponzi scheme will be brought to light and people and institutions found accountable.

  2. Andy says:

    What is ‘not politically controversial’ about introducing pressures to cut courses that are so-called ‘low value’ based on criteria that *the Tories*, decide? This purely neoliberal way of deciding on the worth of a particular field of study would be exceptionally political.

  3. Steve Fuller says:

    This is semi-correct. I really don’t think BoJo & Co are thinking about university policy in terms of what might benefit the Northerners they’ve got ‘on loan’. If they’re smart, the idea is to end the de facto graduate tax scheme that Brown-Cameron installed, partly hoping that some ‘universities’ through market forces might revert to their prior ‘vocational training’ status. But the BoJoists are certainly right that innovative research doesn’t require universities. However, the value of universities comes from making research available to people who would otherwise have nothing to do with it. It’s where democracy comes in the aid of nation-building, which was Humboldt’s original idea. But this means that academics need to strip away the ‘intellectual property’ (aka ‘expert’) side of academic knowledge, which is epitomized in its technical language. Students should be empowered not intimidated. The classroom is a natural place to do that, and if universities did more of that, it can thrive in the emerging political economy of knowledge production.

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