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Neoliberal or not? English higher education in recent years – New HEPI Debate Paper by Roger Brown and Nick Hillman

  • 7 December 2023
  • By Roger Brown and Nick Hillman

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published a new Debate Paper, Neoliberal or not? English higher education (HEPI Debate Paper 34), which includes two contrasting chapters by Professor Roger Brown and Nick Hillman as well as a Foreword by Professor Sir Chris Husbands. 

Roger Brown argues that the organisation of English higher education in England has come to resemble a market. He covers the core principles of neoliberalism before identifying the key aspects of a ‘neo-market’ as:

  • consumer information;
  • privatisation;
  • (de)regulation; and
  • ‘user pays’.

Professor Brown concludes the consequences of recent higher education reforms include ‘institutional stratification, the commodification of learning and (for some groups) reduced participation, or at least lower levels of participation than might otherwise have been the case.’

In contrast, Nick Hillman argues recent changes are better understood on their own merits rather than as part of a neoliberal crusade. He says the reforms that culminated in higher tuition fees, the removal of student number caps and a new market regulator flowed from cross-party commitments to focus public spending on other areas, in line with the priorities of voters.

Hillman also argues the changes are sustainable, noting they reached their apotheosis after the so-called ‘neoliberal order’ is thought to have come to an end. His chapter ends with a plea for more supply-side reform: ‘the biggest disappointment in recent higher education policies for those of a free-market disposition is how this agenda has fallen off the table.’

Professor Roger Brown, the lead author of the Report, said:

The various reforms of UK – and especially English – higher education since the late 1980s, and especially since 2010 and 2015, are a classic case of the neoliberal beliefs in market competition, privatisation and ‘user pays’ that can be found in many other public services.

As such, they can be expected to have similar impacts in terms of stratification, commodification and social justice. It is high time that there was a proper assessment of the deeper, longer term impacts before any more major decisions are taken.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

There is a lot of nonsense talked about recent English higher education reforms. They have been aimed less at implementing neoliberal ideology and more at finding ways to fund universities properly while removing limits on student places when voters have more urgent priorities.

Recent higher education reforms have generally worked out rather well, but they are currently becoming clogged up. Freezing fees in an era of high inflation, limiting institutions through over-regulation and failing to see through past promises on supply-side reform put the whole edifice in question.

We should be focusing more on staying ahead of other countries’ fast-improving higher education systems.

In a Foreword to the paper, Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University (and a HEPI Advisory Board member), writes:

Roger Brown argues that the neoliberal political order shaped higher education policies decisively in the United Kingdom from the later 1980s. … The expansion of higher education in the face of rapidly rising demand was also characterised by increased competition, deregulation and more sharpy defined hierarchy. These were key concepts in higher education policy for the Thatcher and Major Conservative Governments, the New Labour Governments of Brown and Blair and Cameron’s Coalition Government. The 2012 fee settlement for higher education, in which virtually the entire cost of higher education participation was passed to the student / graduate was, on Brown’s analysis, the culmination of a long-term policy drift – the embedding of the neoliberal order in higher education policy, bringing universities sharply into a competitive market place.

Nick Hillman addresses the concept and the underlying ideas of neoliberalism from a different perspective. Where Brown is concerned with over-arching concepts and the way they shape political ideas, Hillman looks at the often day-to-day choices made by politicians; these were politicians who had a variable grasp of the intricacies of the system they were overseeing, but a keen understanding of economic pressures and the art of the political possible. His is therefore a more fine-grained analysis from the point of view of a key actor in the decisions made in the early 2010s … Where Brown reads political choices as subordinate to powerful overarching ideas, Hillman explores the range of choices which seemed to be available to politicians and the decisions made as a result of short-term political and financial pressures.

The debate is not simply a technical one; it has powerful implications for the unfolding of higher education policy in the years to come. … It is by no means clear, as “political disorder and uncertainty reign” what comes next. If Roger Brown’s argument is right, higher education policy will need a new paradigm, and one which is as yet undefined. If Hillman’s argument is right, the existing paradigm may be adaptable and malleable as old and new political and economic ideas clash for supremacy.

Notes for Editors

  1. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.
  2. Roger Brown is the former Vice-Chancellor of Solent University, now Professor Emeritus. He once worked for the Department of Trade and Industry, the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council, the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Higher Education Quality Council. From 2007 to 2013, he was Professor of Higher Education Policy at Liverpool Hope University and he was a governor of the University of West London from 2013 to 2019. He has written or edited several books on various aspects of higher education policy as well as political economy more generally.
  3. Nick Hillman has been the Director of HEPI since January 2014 and was previously the Special Adviser to the Minister for Universities and Science (2010 to 2013). Before that, he worked at the Association of British Insurers and as a History teacher. He has written numerous think- tank papers on contemporary higher education challenges as well as articles for academic journals on post-war education policy. 
  4. Professor Sir Chris Husbands joined the HEPI Advisory Board in 2023. He has undertaken senior roles in universities for the last twenty-three years, serving as Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University since January 2016. Sir Chris is also Chair of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) and a member of the Jisc Board and of the Hong Kong Quality Assurance Council of the University Grants Committee. He was appointed to the Board of UUK in August 2019. Sir Chris is an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. He was knighted for services to Higher Education in 2018.  

1 comment

  1. Conor King says:

    Of the four dots of neo-liberalism (consumer information; privatisation; (de)regulation; and ‘user pays’) the latter three were the case before WW2 – ie a very narrow period when they were not the case.

    I have not read the full essay. Hence a risk to comment further. If Professor Brown engages with the reality of much greater access during the ‘neo-liberal’ period (very true in Australia and I think in UK) he is a rarity among those who decry the system(s) of the past few decades.

    I dont think charges are necessary beyond the fiscal realities. As more and more go onto tertiary study the ‘you should pay for the special privilege of higher learning’ argument undermines itself.

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