Britain’s Conservative government recently released its much-awaited (or much-dreaded) ‘green paper’ on higher education (HE), a consultation document that sets out broad ideas for the sector’s future. Masochistically, I have read this document – so you don’t have to. This first post describes and evaluates the centrepiece of the green paper, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), and measures on ‘social mobility’.
There have already been several commentaries on the green paper, many pointing out the obvious: that the British government has reduced higher education to a private investment that students make to acquire ‘skills and job readiness’ (p.8), whose public benefit is limited to ‘increasing productivity’ by addressing a ‘sharp rise in skills shortages’ (pp. 10-11). That much was already obvious in the Browne Review, but in this green paper all references to the non-economic value of education have evaporated entirely. This is philistine utilitarianism taken to its extreme, by a bunch of people educated in History and the Classics.
Another general point to consider is this: just how much regulatory power do state managers really think they can exert over institutions whose income now largely comes from private not public sources? As I’ve written elsewhere, UK HE combines the worst aspects of the market with the worst aspects of Soviet-style bureaucracy. The British state has become highly adept at shifting the financial burden of services from the public to the private while retaining vastly disproportionate regulatory power. A simple example is the conditionality attached to Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) studentships: recipients must be given quantitative research methods training. As a result, universities must be able to provide this training and end up giving it to everyone, despite the pathetically small number of ESRC studentships received (and despite its general disutility to most students).
At a broader level, following the ‘reforms’ in the last parliament, public money is now a increasingly minor proportion of income for UK universities. As the chart below shows, the combined income from tuition fees, external research grants and elsewhere now exceeds the public investment via funding body grants. In 2015/16, the teaching grant for the whole sector was just £1.42bn (HEFCE 2015: 2). Since the sector’s total income in 2013/14 was £29.1bn (UUK 2014: 23), the HEFCE teaching grant comprises under 5% of income. What little public ‘support’ for HE teaching is still provided now comes entirely through the state backing of the student loans system. The state’s contribution here is a notional one; it only pays if students fail to repay their loans (which will certainly happen, but that is an unintended byproduct of a disastrously designed system, not an intentional ‘subsidy’).
Despite this dramatic shifting of the burden of supporting HE from the public purse to private individuals, and the overt aspiration of converting HE into a fully functioning marketplace, the state apparently still feels entitled to subject universities to stupendous, and increasing, amounts of regulation. This is, of course, how neoliberalism works in practice: entrepreneurs’ animal spirits are not simply unleashed; a market has to be made through state regulation. But one question about what follows is whether the state’s reach now exceeds its grasp.
A final preliminary comment is that, as with other recent ‘reforms’, there is no real evidence that the changes proposed in the green paper are actually necessary. In HEFCE’s recent consultation on quality assurance, since there was no suggestion that the system was in any way broken, I had to conclude that its main purpose was to weaken quality assurance to enable private providers to enter the market in greater numbers. Likewise, the putative reasons for change given in the green paper – that teaching is being neglected for research, that students are demanding greater transparency, and that employers are dissatisfied with graduate quality – have been debunked by Dorothy Bishop.The NSS data have been deliberately ‘spun’ by the minister of state to do down universities. As Bishop argues, when the stated goals do not match reality we rightly suspect unstated goals are the real guiding force, which again means the government’s concern to open up HE to ‘new providers’, i.e. private companies wishing to become ‘universities’.