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Are English universities ‘under fire’? Thoughts prompted by Prof Steven Jones’s new book – including on whether it might be time for Labour to change their stance on student funding

  • 25 August 2022
  • By Nick Hillman, HEPI Director

Steven Jones, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Manchester, is one of the nicest people I have met in our sector. As I saw first-hand when he was a staff governor of his institution, where I am a lay governor, Professor Jones knows how to deliver effective change without making enemies. If I were an academic, I would want him to be my boss.

As his decade-old but still topical work on UCAS personal statements shows, he is also an effective communicator who seeks to use his research to deliver a better society. He has now written a wide-ranging new book, Universities Under Fire: Hostile discourses and integrity deficits in higher education, outlining his thoughts on recent higher education policy in England. His generosity ensured I received a free copy, for which I am very grateful.

There is lots that this book, which I urge you to read, is good on – especially regarding apparent paradoxes in recent policymaking, which we have perhaps waited too long to see written up well.

In short, as Jones says in the conclusion, the book’s argument is that ‘the way in which the modern university operates seems to actively defy its own scholarly evidence.’ This is, according to Jones, largely the fault of outside forces but also down to the quiescence of ‘obsequious’ university leaders. The breadth of sources referred to along the way is impressive, and – I am pleased to see – includes much HEPI output.

But Steven would not expect me to agree with his overarching argument that the English university sector is being ruined by an unholy alliance of politicians and institutional leaders engaging in a long-term strategy of marketisation … and indeed I do not. In particular, the book’s extreme pessimism about the direction of policy and the impact that this has had does not square with the sector’s successes.


The focus is primarily on the ills that the marketisation of English higher education is thought to have created in terms of needless accountability, regulation and bureaucracy. It includes a gentle pop at me for talking about ‘so-called’ marketisation rather than recognising a more full-bloodied sort. But it’s a phrase I often use because the English higher education sector is far from a pure market. More importantly, I cannot recall ever meeting anyone who thinks it should be a pure market.

For one thing, English universities receive billions of pounds of public subsidy every year for their two main activities, teaching and research, and they deliver an excellent return on this in the form of hundreds of thousands of new graduates each year and swathes of world-leading research. It is true institutions are held accountable for some of this funding through evaluation exercises and metrics but they (as Jones admits towards the end of the book) remain more free than other publicly financed institutions. Moreover, the policymakers who get such a pounding in this book are the same people who took a big political hit for raising the finances available for university teaching via higher fees and who are now committed to huge increases in research spending.

Because no one has been aiming for a pure market, attacks which focus on how we have ended up with an imperfect market seem to me to be off target. We tend to recognise the NHS has to balance the needs of patients, staff, taxpayers and the pharmaceutical sector rather than those of just one of these four; universities similarly have to balance the needs of students, staff, taxpayers and graduate employers. England has developed a system that, while far from perfect, one could easily argue is carefully balanced in its approach, with well-funded universities and lots of student places, all paid for in a progressive fashion.

Jones’s preferred alternative to the current system is one in which academics and activist students have more freedom to run their institutions collaboratively rather than competitively, with those pesky managers having much less influence and policymakers butting out almost entirely. It sometimes sounds like he wants to return to a distant past, when elected politicians were less likely to try and pry behind the curtains of the ivory towers. Yet this case cannot be made too explicitly because, in days gone by, higher education institutions may have been more clearly self-governing communities of scholars but the sector was much smaller, more closed and less representative than it is today, severely holding back its contribution to society.

The expansion of English higher education – which has been funded through high fees and loans, encouraged by access tsars and enabled by the removal of student number caps – has also guaranteed the system is perceived differently by the media and the public. As Rosie Bennett showed in her 2021 HEPI paper, universities have become ‘the ultimate consumer story.’ Unless the sector is to contract significantly, that seems unlikely to change.


Jones marries his critique of marketisation with a critique of the underlying ideology said to promote it: neoliberalism. We are told that ‘A fog of neoliberal determinism has descended on England’s campuses’. The HEPI Style Guide seeks to dissuade authors from using the term ‘neoliberal’ on the grounds it tends ‘to reveal flabby thinking and conceal a clear line of argument.’ But focusing attacks on the English higher education sector through a neoliberal lens runs has two other problems here.

First, while terms like ’neoliberalism’ echo with those who already agree with you, they do little to persuade new people of your case. Labelling something neoliberal is, at best, to wave a virtue-signalling flag about your own position on the political spectrum and, at worst (though not in Jones’s case), an excuse to repel entirely reasonable demands for better student rights. Secondly, it seems generally unhelpful to bandy around terms for ideologies that the supposed adherents do not use themselves. Recent Conservative politicians do not talk about wanting a ‘neoliberal’ higher education sector; nor do those on the centre-left who introduced tuition fees in 1998 and then tripled them in 2006. If the goal is to debate what such people do want, and perhaps even to alter their views as this book sets out to do, wouldn’t it be better to try and understand their approach by getting under its skin rather than caricaturing it?

Nonetheless, Jones is absolutely clear that the blame for any current problems lies with right-wing neoliberals and the reader is told that ‘higher education is increasingly seen as an obstruction to the enactment of right-wing policy.’ (The original cause of this is, inevitability, said to be Margaret Thatcher, even though it is almost half a century since she first led her party.)

Jones is so determined to condemn ‘right-leaning politicians’, ‘right-wing think-tanks’, ‘right-wing commentators’ and ‘right-wing journalists’, all of which receive a hammering, that his argument becomes a little confused in places. For example, after a page spent puncturing universities’ online marketing strategies, Jones spends much of the next page criticising the Daily Mail for puncturing universities’ online marketing strategies. Then, in a section on the National Student Survey (NSS), he rejects the idea that student satisfaction reflects the quality of a course before noting Ministers turned against the NSS in 2020 for exactly that reason. At this point, he pivots to reveal that research shows ‘a positive correlation emerges between courses that are considered to be intellectually stimulating and students’ rates of overall satisfaction.’ It leaves the impression that almost any criticism of English higher education is valid if it comes from a left-wing standpoint but the same criticisms are invalidated if they happen to come from right-wing bogeymen.

It is not only right-of-centre politicians that get it in neck, however. Senior managers inside universities are attacked too, and even though they generally started their careers on an academic pathway. This apparent challenge to Jones’s view that academics would naturally opt to govern their institutions differently if only they had the chance is squared by claiming that it is wrong people who currently rise to the top: ‘universities are home to left-leaning and right-leaning staff. The difference is that the former group tends to sit towards the lower tiers of the power structure while the latter group is more likely to sit towards the top.’ So anyone who is right-wing is not worth listening to and anyone who is not worth listening to must be right-wing.

Jones’s ideal world seems to be one in which our current diverse university sector coalesces around a specific left-of-centre and ‘anti-establishment’ worldview. No doubt that would make fast progress in some areas. But it also sounds a little dreary, as well as inimical to the idea of academic debate, and even risks a situation in which students of the correct ideological disposition are more welcome on campus than others. In the end, I was left thinking it would be too one-dimensional for the sort of education sector that a large modern democracy, economy and society needs.


Steven takes a second gentle pop at me for talking about ‘the woe is us culture of higher education’ (his emphasis) and goes on to explain why so many university staff feel under constant attack. Yet while it is undeniably true that staff morale has been falling, much of the argument as to why this is so seems poorly evidenced. In one place, Jones go so far as to claim ‘The unstated policy goal has been to make English higher education more like the nation’s independent (fee-paying) schooling system’ (my emphasis).

I have never heard such a goal stated openly either (despite working in HE policy for over 15 years and simultaneously undertaking peer-reviewed research on policies towards independent schools). There is no hidden conspiracy to turn Aston University into Eton University. Indeed, it seems more accurate to say the independent school and university sectors have been moving in opposite directions: the former has become more out-of-reach to middle-class professionals, while the university sector has been able to shift successfully from being an elite to a mass system on the back of hefty support from taxpayers. Some compromises have had to be made by universities on this journey, just as independent schools would need to make compromises with the state if they were to accept large sums of public money, but not all outside scrutiny is bad.

It is this shift to a mass higher education system that has raised the importance of the employability agenda, which Jones is particularly scathing about, claiming that ‘The purpose of the employability discourse is to make university staff culpable’ (his emphasis). Yet while the focus policymakers and universities have placed on the wider labour market has sometimes been cack-handed, it has not happened because they want to make life harder for academics; it has occurred because a huge range of roles, some of which need specific training – such as Nursing – are these days (rightly) filled by graduates. 

We could row back on embedding employability in higher education, but it is not clear who would benefit. You would not get better pharmacists, say, if you discarded the employment-focused aspects or professional standards embedded in a standard university Pharmacy course. And, given one of the top reasons why people apply to university is to get a rewarding job, it would seem odd to downplay this aspiration in the design of courses if we want to deliver for students. 


There are some occasional flashes of searing honesty in the book. One paradox noted by Jones is that, despite all the evidence he and others bring to bear, ‘disquiet with the English student loan system seems not to be mounting.’ Perhaps, a decade on from the higher fees coming into existence, it is time to absorb this reality rather than to wish it away?

In particular, there comes a moment when any serious political party that has been in opposition for a long period has to move away from the pendulum theory of government (assuming things will swing back your way soon) to the ratchet theory (accepting some changes are embedded). For Labour before 1997, the reality of the ratchet meant accepting the economic debate had altered by changing Clause IV. For the Conservatives after 1997, it meant embracing the National Minimum Wage.

It is plausible that Keir Starmer recognising English higher education benefits from a mixed funding model could represent a similar moment, reflecting a new political and economic reality and signalling a marked shift back towards the centre, where UK elections are generally won. The parable of Nick Clegg suggests it is better to break silly commitments before you are elected rather than after. (There is, separately, a very strong argument for the troubled National of Union of Students to find their own Clause IV moment, perhaps by adopting one-member, one-vote for their elected officers.)

Acceptance of the current funding model by the Labour leadership would reveal something Professor Jones misses, which is that the more centrist parts of England’s main right-wing party and the more centrist parts of England’s main left-wing party have more in common with each other when it comes to setting English higher education policy than they do with other parts of their own parties. That’s why the Robbins report, the Dearing report and the Browne review enjoyed cross-party support. Jones’s argument rests in part on lumping together recent right-of-centre policymakers with those much further to the right, who damagingly tend to think there are too many students and too many universities – but this makes no more sense than it would to muddle up Keir Starmer with Jeremy Corbyn.

Palgrave’s Critical University Studies Series, in which Professor Jones’s new book sits, is designed to provide

a much-needed forum for the intensive and extensive discussion of the consequences of ill-conceived and inappropriate university reforms … with particular emphasis on those perspectives and groups whose views have hitherto been ignored, disparaged or silenced.

The idea that those unsettled by recent higher education policy have not had a voice is strange, given the student riots of 2010 and the strikes of 2022 as well as the millions of words of critical commentary and the numerous parliamentary debates bookended by those events. What such things has – so far – failed to do, however, is to persuade enough people of the merits of a radically different approach to higher education policy. I am pleased the new book series exists and that I took this particular volume to the beach to read, but a series of expert books that preach to the converted may not do that either.

This review represents the author’s personal views and should not be regarded as representing HEPI’s position in anything it says. HEPI plans to publish a second review of Steven’s book next month, which is likely to take a different stance.


  1. Paul Vincent Smith says:

    “England has developed a system that, while far from perfect, one could easily argue is carefully balanced in its approach, with well-funded universities and lots of student places, all paid for in a progressive fashion.”

    Interesting to read this just as VCs are calling for a tuition fee hike.

  2. A major accountability and therefore strategic issue appears to be increasingly poor governance across the sector. Which this report highlights.

    Much of this was focused upon by the “Upholding Standards in Public Life” Final report Published in November 2021

    Governance should be at the heart of good decision making and leadership.

    The core values of Nolan seem to have been ignored by Institutional leaders and many non trained ill prepared individuals appointed which has led to often poor decision-making and governance.

    The core values need to regularly brought to the front of decision making.


  3. albert wright says:

    Interesting thoughts, as ever from Nick Hillman but I cannot agree with the statement linked to the comments on mass University expansion and employability “….because a huge range of roles, some of which need specific training – such as Nursing – are these days (rightly) filled by graduates. ”

    For me, Universities have no right to “land grab” the training of nurses, pharmacists, social workers, teachers, policemen and others by self declaration that such training should take place in Universities and that such students need to be awarded a degree to be seen as competent to get a particular job within the public sector.

    This looks to me, as monopolies by stealth and I hate monopolies. In general, a monopoly results in higher costs and “profits” than an imperfect competition market.

    I agree there is a need for “specific training” in these professions but the same is true for plumbers and electricians and as yet, this does not require a University to do it.

    A degree is usually a level 6 qualification, I believe most public sector job roles can be done more than adequately, with a level 4 or 5 and do not need to have a level 6 label

    There is an increasing overlap today in many professional qualification sectors involving Universities and other providers, such as those who deliver apprenticeships or qualifications in law and accountancy.

    I am against University subject creep as University degrees generally cost more.

  4. It is hard to avoid reading Prof Green’s diatribe as an appeal to return to Better Yesterday , in which funding was sorted through annual High Table dinners with Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer and public accountability was confined to light touch Quinquennial Reviews. It is the persistence of such atavistic views that enables critics – especially in the current administration – to accuse universities of detachment from the needs of 21st century society. We need a new vision for public universities in the world as it is, not as it used to be.

  5. Many thanks for the book review, Nick.

    Could I politely take issue with you over a couple of points please?

    You give me a telling-off for using ‘neoliberal(ism)’ too extensively and too flabbily in my book, and for critiquing the higher education sector through a ‘neoliberal lens’. In fact, I hardly use the term at all. The opening chapter has one paragraph explaining what ‘neoliberalism’ means in higher education. Then, over the following 230 pages, I use the term on a total of three occasions (excluding direct quotes and book titles).

    Your review actually refers to ‘neoliberal(ism)’ as many times as I do in my whole book!

    Your sensitivity towards the terminology is probably indicative of a more fundamental disagreement over policy. For you, the market in higher education may be imperfect, but it remains a success, offering a maintainable funding model for a world-leading sector. You don’t see why the debate needs to continue.

    For me, the model is broken. Many of my students feel overwhelmed by debt and rely on part-time jobs to stay afloat. They don’t understand why headline tuition fees at English universities are so much greater than those elsewhere, especially when their parents’ generation had their higher education covered through general taxation.

    What’s more, university managers and accountants now seem to share this view, as Paul notes above. Many institutions have become reliant on an income stream that isn’t sustainable (or maybe even ethical): international student fees. On the day that you published your review, President Biden announced plans to address graduate and student hardship in the US through loan forgiveness. I don’t think the funding debate in the UK is over and done with, and I’m not sure that centrist voters are as comfortable with the current model as your review implies.

    We agree on accountability. Public subsidy for our sector remains significant, and universities must get much better at articulating their value to society. But I’d suggest that true accountability emerges not from excellence framework, league tables and compliance processes, but from universities reclaiming their integrity and stepping up as the ‘critic and conscience’ of their society (as New Zealand’s Education Act explicitly urges them to do).

    Your conclusion notes that “Jones’s argument rests in part on lumping together recent right-of-centre policymakers with those much further to the right”. Actually, my argument is almost the complete opposite: it’s that right-of-centre policymakers would do well to recognise the starkly anti-university agenda of those further to the right. I’m always happy to cross swords with pro-market types like you, Nick. We both want a sector that’s open to as many students as possible and financially stable enough to thrive; we just have different ideas about how that’s best achieved. But for some populist governments, the vision is increasingly for fewer universities and much more intrusive forms of cultural and academic oversight.

    I’ll try to restrict my usage of ‘neoliberalism’ further next time, I promise. However, it’s hard to ignore the notion completely when the dominant ideology in the English sector continues to assume that the only solutions worth considering are market-based solutions.

  6. Nick Hillman says:

    Thanks for commenting here Steven – though it seems a little unfair to claim I ‘don’t see why the debate needs to continue.’ HEPI exists to encourage debate and we will be publishing a second review of your book which takes a very different stance to my own review soon precisely because we are so keen to see the debate continue on the back of important books like yours.

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