Teaching against the odds: education and the criminal justice system

Brian Creese, NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy)

A few years ago I filmed a group of young people in a young offenders institution. The group was doing car maintenance and I found it an enjoyable if slightly nerve-racking experience. What sticks most in my mind, however, were the comments from the Head of Learning. Teaching in a prison, he said, was like gathering all the most difficult, challenging and awkward students you have ever met across all your years of teaching and putting them into one class.

Many teachers, he told me, don’t last their first week. If they do, however, they will probably teach in prisons for the rest of their lives.

In general we think education is a ‘good thing’ for prisoners. Most governments accept that it can help prevent re-offending. In some countries it is even considered a human right.

However, there has been a change of attitude recently in the UK: the current government views education mainly as a way of improving a prisoner’s chance of gaining employment on release, and Ministers would actually prefer to see prisoners working than learning.

Many ex-offenders attest to the beneficial impact of education in prison, and some academic studies back them up, though most are too nuanced and subtle to support any overt political policy. Ideally, of course, education and work experience together give prisoners the best chance; the publicity around the recent opening of the ‘Clink’ restaurant at Brixton prison suggested that only one of the 80 or so prisoners involved in these schemes has ever re-offended.

All this is why I was interested to read the report “Prison Educators: Professionalism Against the Odds”, from the University and College Union (UCU) and Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice System (CECJS), at the IOE. The research is based on a survey which was returned by over one fifth of all prison teachers, and it tells us a great deal about this group. They are older than the average for further education, and better qualified but less well paid, with fewer holidays. This workforce is positive about the benefits of education in prison, highly motivated and enthusiastic – but many seem to be slowly giving up.

I’m rather glad I’m leaving prison education. I feel so sorry for my colleagues remaining in this downhill spiral. The young inmates are so suffering in lack of education it’s appalling to see inmates and teachers used as pawns by college, prison and government. Trouble is no one can breathe a word of this to the outside community, so it continues while society believes the inmates are where they should be. But surely without some help from good teaching staff this will never be corrected.

Prison teaching is overseen and funded by – another acronym – OLASS, the Offender Learning and Skills Service. The current regime is actually OLASS 4 because the current system is a result of the fourth re-tendering in its nine-year history. Not surprisingly, this constant re-tendering leaves teachers feeling insecure and unsettled. OLASS 4 also saw the introduction of ‘payment by results’, which, say teachers, disadvantages those prisoners who need education the most.

Payment by results is all very well but it actively discourages low ability learners from attending any form of education because they are unlikely to complete the course within the specified time – so the provider doesn’t want to take the risk of them failing and costing them money. 

Prison teachers are experienced, enthusiastic, well qualified and have a passion for their work. But this survey suggests that prison education is no longer seen as a viable career and is losing its potential to play a positive part in the rehabilitative process.

I strongly believe the current policy of payment upon results is totally WRONG – there should be a policy to help offenders once they are released from prison, currently they are thrown out with no support, often with nowhere to live, and no job – prison education is not valued by employers therefore the offenders feel they have no option but to reoffend to get a roof over their heads. Rehabilitation of the offender is not working at the moment.

The picture I gained from reading these distressing accounts from teachers is of a service dying a death by a thousand cuts. The prison population is hovering at just under 85,000. We send a greater proportion of our population to prison than any other country in Europe and they spend longer incarcerated than in other European countries. Rehabilitation must surely be the overriding aim of the service, not simply the narrow focus on job skills.

Education needs to be a central plank of the prison system. Prison teachers must be properly rewarded and supported and, perhaps most of all, valued.

Self-improving school system: will it be survival of the fittest or team effort?

Toby Greany

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog that trailed some of the ideas from my inaugural lecture on 18 March. In it, I identified four criteria for a self-improving school system and I set out four distinct policy approaches that the Government is following simultaneously and some of the tensions and issues that that causes.

The big risk here is that a two-tier system will emerge, in which the confident schools and leaders thrive, but the remainder struggle because they do not have the capacity to self-improve.

Now I want to suggest some possible ways forward. My thinking here starts with an acceptance of David Hargreaves’ core argument that if England’s 21,000 schools are to be autonomous, with minimal external support, then most of them will need to work in deep partnerships that provide challenge and support and that meet the needs of every child.

We know that achieving such deep partnerships is intensely difficult: according to the OECD, partnership is a vulnerable strategy – all it takes is for one school to break ranks and act competitively and its partner schools will feel intense pressure to do the same.

When I work across local areas I do see some genuinely exciting partnership arrangements emerging, whether as part of academy trusts, teaching school alliances or other local responses to change.

But the wider picture I see is much more mixed. Often, a group of visionary head teachers in an area is working hard to develop school-led approaches, but they complain that other schools aren’t really engaging and contributing.  When you talk to those other schools they often feel oppressed by accountability, which prevents them from looking out beyond their school, and/or they feel suspicious about the motives of the visionary heads.

So what might be done? The Government’s current approach is all about reducing central and local support in the hope that a self-improving system will spontaneously emerge.

Instead, I think we need to recognise that the system needs more time and support to develop deep partnerships that meet the needs of every school and every child.  Some areas are more mature than others in terms of how schools are working together, so we need a differentiated ‘local solutions’ mindset. In less mature areas schools need help to build their capacity to take on more. Such help might include the facilitation of workshops for Governing Bodies and heads to shape a shared vision, support for emerging system leaders and rigorous evaluation and feedback loops.

So here are some recommendations:

  • develop a revised, coherent vision for reform that is focussed on supporting the development of a self-improving system for all schools, including by stopping or reshaping policies (such as market-based reforms) that detract from that vision
  • create a budget for building capacity. I would do this by topslicing 0.5% of the existing schools budget, the Schools Block Allocation.  This would provide around £150m per year, of which 100% should be made available to schools
  • adopt Ofsted’s proposal in the Unseen Children report for local area challenges in the lowest performing areas
  • make Teaching Schools more sustainable and more focused on impact
  • offer funding that higher performing areas and partnerships could bid for if they had a credible proposal for how they would pass greater responsibility for school improvement to schools over time
  • develop evidence-informed teaching, including by pausing any further expansion of School Direct until an evaluation has been concluded to understand what works.

I can see two possible scenarios for the journey we are on towards a self-improving system.

The first is drawn from Mortal Engines, the amazing series of books by Philip Reeve.  In a post-apocalyptic world, London is the first city to move itself onto wheels, so that it can then devour and asset strip the other cities and towns in its path, forcing their citizens to work as slaves.  Of course, the other towns and cities follow suit by moving themselves onto wheels, and the world quickly descends into a brutal fight for the survival of the fittest.  As this happens, an entire belief system – known as municipal Darwinism – emerges to describe and justify the culture that has developed: the epitome of a two-tier system.

The second is the Tour de France: cyclists competing in a tough professional sport with clear and consistent rules, supported by expert coaches and the best equipment money can buy. The critical point here though is that even though cycling appears an individual sport, it’s very much a team effort: the national teams work together, for example by taking turns in the lead in order to break wind resistance.  If the lead cyclist gets a puncture then the whole team will wait for him to get back on the road.  If they are successful they share the prize money.

I think we’re seeing both scenarios playing out on the ground.  Collaboration will always remain vulnerable to the stronger competitive pressure, so policy must do more to help make sure it is not crushed.

Be careful what you wish for: parents, professionals and the new SEN system

 Rob Webster

The long-awaited Children and Families Bill has now achieved Royal Assent, paving the way for new reforms that will overhaul how the needs of children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) are assessed and met.

In September, a new accompanying Code of Practice comes into force, initiating a three-year process of replacing SEN Statements for those with the highest level of need with more comprehensive Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).

Families deserve a responsive and efficient SEN system. The changes to statutory assessment (the process leading to an EHCP), which expressly places the child at the centre of consultations with local authorities (LAs), were prompted by, and are designed to address, long-standing concerns relating to parents’ expectations and confidence in the SEN system.

However, parents are still likely to enter the assessment process in the hope of securing one-to-one support from a teaching assistant (TA) – particularly when their child’s needs can be met in a mainstream school. Under the outgoing system, support is quantified in  TA hours. Many agree ‘TA hours’ are the accepted currency of Statements, and as things stand, are likely to feature in the new EHCPs.

With the best of intentions, schools have sustained arrangements heavily reliant on TAs in the name of inclusive practice. The new Code of Practice, however, suggests a move away from the widespread ‘default model’ of one-to-one TA support. It emphasises the significance of ‘high quality teaching’ and gives a coded warning about how ‘special education provision…is compromised by anything less’.

Behind this warning appear to be findings from the recent Making a Statement study (which I co-directed with Peter Blatchford) on the day-to-day teaching and support for pupils with high-level SEN. We tracked 48 Statemented pupils in mainstream primary schools and found they had a qualitatively different educational experience compared with their non-SEN peers, characterised by having fewer interactions with teachers and classmates, and almost constant and lower quality support from a TA.

Put together with results from our previous research, which found that pupils with high-level SEN receiving the most TA support made significantly less academic progress than similar pupils who received little or no TA support (even after controlling for SEN), we see a worrying trend: pupils with Statements are negatively affected by the very intervention intended to help them.

The new Code is encouraging, as it reinforces how every teacher is responsible and accountable for the development and progress of every pupil in their class. TAs have a very useful role to play in making this work in practice, but it also requires a fundamental rethink about how schools manage teaching and provision for vulnerable learners, and how they ‘do’ inclusion.

For me, more needs to be done to manage expectations when families – hoping for the magic bullet of TA hours – start the statutory assessment process. SENCos, educational psychologists and new SEN ‘champions’ (among others) have a crucial role to play here, as these are the people with whom families tend to deal with first when a request for assessment is sought.

Their work and training must reflect the research evidence that provides a clear warning of persisting with the dominant, TA-heavy model of provision, and (depending on the professional) provide alternative guidance in the form of appropriate and effective pedagogical techniques.

None of this is to say that parents should ‘get real’ and accept whatever cash-strapped LAs can afford; nor that most parents have unreasonable expectations of the SEN system. The key issue is that, from the very start, those working in the best interests of the child need to do more to help parents understand that the quality of support their child receives really is more important than the quantity, and propose arrangements that follow this principle.

Statutory assessment is a rigorous and evidence-based process. The new SEN reforms make it incumbent on educationalists to approach SEN provision in the same manner.

For more on the research, visit www.teachingassistantresearch.co.uk.

How to stay top(p): IOE looks to the future

Chris Husbands

Readers of a certain age will remember Nigel Molesworth, the self-styled ”curse of St. Custard’s”. Molesworth’s accounts of life at this minor private school, related in execrable spelling, ran through a series of books by Geoffrey Willans illustrated by Ronald Searle in the 1950s and were reissued as a Penguin Classic in 2000. In the late 1980s, the humorist Simon Brett imagined Molesworth’s life as an adult in How to Stay Topp. The adult Molesworth’s spelling was no better than the schoolboy’s and he brought the same sardonic and anarchic Molesworth humour, aghast at the world around him.

How to stay top(p) is a question which we are considering at the IOE. Just a couple of weeks ago, the annual QS league tables of universities by subject were published and the IOE came top – the world’s best – in education. The number one position was a rise from seventh in 2013, and meant we had leapfrogged our peers internationally, including Harvard, Stanford and Melbourne.

University league tables are a growth industry of the early twenty-first century. They have numerous critics: league tables are a symptom of the neoliberal globalisation of higher education; they are empirically questionable; the international ones discriminate wildly in favour of universities fortunate enough to be Anglophone; they prioritise research (where metrics can be constructed) and are then used by prospective students as indices of teaching quality (where comparative metrics are almost impossible to construct); they play strongly to the performance of those universities which are already well-known. And so on.

Most of us regard university league tables as utterly unreliable – until, that is, we do well in them, at which point doubts recede. They are, undeniably, a powerful marketing tool, and since the IOE topped the QS table, my email inbox has seen a marked increase in correspondence from international agencies of one sort or another. Doing well matters.   The QS result comes hard on the heels of the OFSTED inspection of our teacher training provision, which awarded us top grades on every criterion on every phase (primary, secondary and further education) – and on the IOE topping the National Student Survey in 2013.

The IOE has always been internationally minded and has a global reach. We attract students from over a hundred countries and lead consultancy or research programmes on four continents. Today we are launching a global doctoral collaboration in partnership with Melbourne Graduate School of Education (second in QS) and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto (ninth in QS). We are actively planning the fifth biennial research conference which we run with Beijing Normal University (43rd in QS), this Autumn in London. We have joint programmes with NIE at Nanyang Technological University (14th). Within the last eighteen months I have lectured at OISE (9th), at Harvard (3rd) and at Columbia (11th). My colleagues work on initiatives around the world.  Our commitment to education and applied social science is global and expansive.

At the same time, we are currently consulting on a proposed merger of the IOE with University College London. Like IOE, UCL is a global brand – its strap line is “London’s Global University”. For IOE, from a position of  strength, a merger with UCL offers several advantages: further global reach, stronger inter- and cross-disciplinary working and the opportunity to take our work to the next level in terms of scale and ambition. It’s notable that the IOE is now the only institution in the QS top 50 for Education, let alone the top 10, which is not affiliated with a larger multi-faculty university.

But of course, league tables do not drive strategic decision making – as Molesworth would write – “as any fule kno”. For the IOE three interlinked things matter: our ability to work locally with schools and teachers, not least in London; our ability to work nationally – and increasingly internationally – with policy makers; and our ability to exercise global leadership in our disciplines. The dynamics of higher education are changing. Successful universities think globally and expansively. The IOE has done extra-ordinarily well to entrench its position in a global elite, but we need to think imaginatively and intelligently about how to ensure that we thrive and develop in the future, and the merger with UCL will allow significant investment and expansion.

For the avoidance of doubt, however, we shall not be offering a senior post to Nigel Molesworth (as any fule kno).

University rankings and the aristocracy of merit

Simon Marginson

We can wonder why the world has taken to university rankings. Perhaps there is a deep longing for hierarchy, even aristocracy, in the human soul.

The celebrity culture suggests this. But unlike the older kind of aristocrats, the status of modern celebrities is mostly temporary. ‘Public opinion’, led by the tabloids, loves to push new celebrities up and then pull them down.

After all, ours is a democratic age, in which fame is determined by merit rather than by birth—and comparative merit can always be contested. We live also in a market age, and there is a market in status, in which no one stays on top for a long time unless they have much money (in markets, money always ranks high).

Thus it is with university rankings. A leading position in the university league tables is often insecure, especially in those rankings that have been deliberately designed to be volatile, which at global level are QS and the Times Higher Education.

In an aristocracy of merit, only those universities with the strongest inherited reputations and the deepest pockets, the Oxfords, Harvards and Stanfords, are guaranteed a position near the top. Other universities have to work at it.

Why should we have to work at it? After all, rankings are a distraction from the core business of a university: teaching, scholarship, research and public service. Competition between institutions does not necessarily improve their work and might drain precious resources away from teaching and research. Higher education institutions should be encouraged to cooperate, not compete.

All true. The problem is that global rankings, which originated largely from outside the higher education sector ten years ago, have become entrenched as a competitive process and as the main source of public information (a highly simplified and often misleading one) about higher education.

We can no more vanish rankings into a point simply by wishing for it, than we can snap our fingers and obliterate the £9000 student fee.

And there are costs if we ignore rankings. Institutions with a declining rank suffer over time, losing their attractiveness to students, staff, government and public. As stewards of their institutions, university leaders are obliged to take steps to maximize the ranked position of their institutions over the course of their tenure, even while pursuing other, often contrary, objectives. It is especially important to achieve this in the global university rankings, which are more significant than UK national rankings, especially outside UK.

How then does a university perform well in the global rankings? It depends which ranking.

  • The Shanghai ARWU is based entirely upon research performance, measured by the number of Nobel prizes won by former students and held by current staff, the number of high citation researchers, articles in Nature and Science, and total citations to published research papers;
  • The Leiden and Scimago rankings measured the number of published journal papers and the rate these papers are cited by other scholars;
  • Webometrics measure the number of web pages and hits on those pages;
  • The Times Higher Education ranking measures academic reputation for both teaching and research, research output, number of PhD students, income for research, international collaboration in publishing, quantity of staff (the lower the student-staff ratio the better), and the proportion of students and staff who are international (the higher the better);
  • The QS ranking is based on opinion surveys of both academics and graduate employers, citations per staff member, the student-staff ratio, and international students and staff.

All institutional rankings have one feature in common. They favour institutions such as UCL— comprehensive multi-discipline universities with high performing science-based faculties. This is especially true in research rankings, but also true of rankings that use opinion surveys, which are dominated by large universities.

Specialist single-discipline higher education institutions like the IOE cannot figure in the global rankings at all, except for those rankings that offer discipline-based league tables — the ARWU, Times Higher and QS. All three rank universities in terms of engineering, medicine, science and business. But only QS provides a league table in Education.

The IOE is invisible in the global league tables except on the QS website, where it currently sits at number one in Education. To stay there IOE must continue to excel in academic and employer surveys of reputation, and in research paper citations, and maintain high proportions of foreign-born students and staff. But Harvard, with its stellar reputation coupled to its sheer size (it publishes 64 per cent more journal papers than the world’s second largest science university, Toronto) can just go on being Harvard. Its ranking is not going to change.

Simon Marginson, Professor of International Higher Education at the IOE, is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), and of the Editorial Board of the Times Higher Education.

He will be giving a keynote speech on Markets in Higher Education at a conference at the IOE on 20 and 21 March 2014 – The State and the Market in Education: Partnership or Competition? organised by Llakes (the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies) and the Grundtvig Study Centre, Aarhus University, Denmark.

The self-improving school system: competing policies undermine the coalition’s admirable aims

Toby Greany

On 18 March I will be giving my inaugural lecture on the ‘self-improving’ school system (there are still some places left, book here!) In this blog I want to set out some of the ideas I will explore in the lecture, focussing on the state of current policy. In a later blog I will identify some of things I think could be done to move us forwards.

In his speech at the North of England conference this January Charlie Taylor, CEO of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, talked about his aim of an ‘irrevocable shift’ towards a school-led, self-improving system by September 2016.

So what does the Government mean by a self-improving system? When you read The Importance of Teaching white paper, I think you can boil it down to four criteria:

  • teachers and schools are responsible for their own improvement;
  • teachers and schools learn from each other and from research so that effective practice spreads;
  • the best schools and leaders extend their reach across other schools so that all schools improve; and (by implication)
  • government intervention and support is minimised.

I am not convinced that either the system capacity or the policy conditions are yet right for an ‘irrevocable shift’ to be achieved, even by 2016.  My worry is that if the self-improving system becomes no more than a narrative device to justify the removal of central and local government support as quickly as possible, then a two-tier system could rapidly emerge in which strong schools thrive but large swathes are left behind.

In saying this I am by no means entirely negative, nor am I harking back to a centralised model of top down improvement.  There are a number of policies in train that do appear to be giving schools greater ownership of their own improvement, and many schools and teachers are responding energetically. These policies include the sponsorship of struggling schools by school-led multi-academy trusts, the concept of School Direct (although in practice its development has been problematic) and the work of many teaching schools.

So what am I worrying about? One key challenge for me is that the coalition government does not have a clear or coherent strategy for supporting a self-improving system to emerge. Instead ministers are following at least four different reform approaches at the same time (see table below). These compete with each other in the minds of school leaders, creating confusion at best and unresolvable tensions at worst.

Four narratives for the coalition’s approach for system improvement

The world class (no excuses) approach:

We are raising the bar in every area and benchmarking ourselves against the best in the world – a new curriculum, more rigorous exams, less teacher assessment.  Ofsted’s new inspection framework and area based inspections are shining a spotlight on schools and authorities that require improvement, while its new regional structure means it can follow up to check that schools take action in response. Where a school is found to be failing we will broker a new academy sponsor.

Key quote:  “High-performing jurisdictions set materially higher expectations in terms of what they believe children can and should master at different ages…If our schools, and young people, are to become internationally competitive again we must learn from the best in the world”.

Michael Gove MP, December 2011

Key message for school leaders: Raise your game or accept the consequences.

The freedom to teach approach:

Teachers should be free to get on and teach. We have given schools autonomy and freedom and we have focussed accountability on what matters: the quality of teaching. We have given schools greater powers on classroom discipline.  We have stripped away bureaucratic guidance and removed the requirement for teachers in academies to have Qualified Teacher Status. We have made it easier to sack poor teachers and pay good teachers more. We have raised the bar for new entrants to teaching and given schools a greater role in training new recruits.

Key quote: academies “will be free of any government interference, free to hire whoever they want, pay them whatever they want, teach whatever they want, and as a result we can demand higher standards”.

Michael Gove MP, November 2011

Key message for school leaders: We trust you – it’s all down to you.

The market based approach:

It’s not the job of civil servants to tell teachers how to teach, so we have closed the quangos and are cutting one in four DfE jobs. We are reforming the funding model so it is fair and transparent and we have introduced the Pupil Premium to ensure equity. Our academies policy has freed schools from the grip of local bureaucracies. We are supporting new free schools, University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools so that weak schools are challenged to improve and parents and employers have real choice.

Key quote: “Hopefully, recent reforms will push the English system towards one in which the state provides a generous amount of funding per pupil which parents can spend in any school they wish…while the DfE does little more than some regulatory, accountancy, and due diligence functions.”

Dominic Cummings, Special Advisor to Michael Gove, 2013

Key message for school leaders: Choice and competition rule.

The system leadership approach:

We want the best schools and heads to drive improvement. We have over 400 school-led academy sponsors taking on the most challenging schools. We are designating 500 teaching schools and giving them a key role in professional development and school to school support. We are designating 1000 National Leaders of Education and introducing payment by results so they focus on supporting struggling schools. We want to develop a champions league of outstanding leaders who can travel to the most challenging schools and regions to secure improvement.

Key quote: “At the heart of this Government’s vision is a determination to give school leaders more power and control. Not just to drive improvement in their own schools – but to drive improvement across our whole system.”

Michael Gove MP, June 2010

Key message for school leaders: The strong will inherit the earth (and make it better)

The first three approaches might enable an improving system, but not a self-improving system. Applying the government’s four criteria, they might make schools responsible for their own improvement, but they will not foster the sharing of expertise, capacity and learning or the better use of evidence. Partly in response to these flaws, the role of accountability in these models becomes over-dominant and punitive, setting up unrealistic expectations for what Ofsted can achieve and an unhealthy us-and-them dynamic between school leaders and the centre.

The fourth approach – system leadership – reflects the beginnings of a sea change in attitudes and practice in England over the past ten years.  Many of the best schools do now provide hard edged support to their peers, whether as an academy sponsor, teaching school or National or Local Leader of Education. These approaches do meet the criteria for a self-improving system and there is evidence that they can be effective.

But their potential is being undermined by policies enacted to foster the first three approaches.  Furthermore, in the rush for an ‘irrevocable shift’, the pace of devolution to system leaders is arguably too rapid, with too little attention being paid to building capacity.

One illustration of all this can be seen in the tensions at the heart of the Teaching Schools model:

  • how to marry individual school accountability with system leadership? The fear of losing their Teaching School status if Ofsted downgrades them from ‘Outstanding’ is preventing many school leaders from investing real energy in this model.
  • Are Teaching Schools a publicly funded good, or a solution for a broken school improvement marketplace? Teaching Schools are told to earn their income by meeting the needs of other schools, but are also heavily incentivised to deliver on policy priorities such as School Direct.
  • how to manage supply and demand for system leadership on a geographical and phase basis? As Ofsted noted in its 2013 annual report, there are large parts of thecountry with too few system leaders and no established culture of school to school support.

These tensions are all symptoms of the wider fault lines caused by incoherent policy on school system reform. In my next blog I will outline some of ways in which they could be resolved. Do come to my inaugural lecture if you would like to hear and discuss these issues in more depth!

For profit HE: another way to put taxpayers’ money in private pockets

Paul Temple

Interesting, isn’t it, how often bold, thrusting entrepreneurs end up asking for money from the taxpayer? Banks, obviously, but others too. The private (though non-profit) University of Buckingham was created in the 1970s to try to counterbalance what its founders saw as political interference in higher education, which in their view was an outcome of the public funding of universities. “Liberty”, you can read on the University’s website, “is constantly under threat from governments…who seek to over-tax and over-regulate”. 

A pamphlet by Nick Hillman (2014), now Director of HEPI, the Higher Education Policy Institute, but until recently special adviser to the present Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, makes some pertinent observations about Buckingham, and UK private higher education more generally. For one thing, Buckingham’s UK and EU students can now borrow up to £6,000 a year as taxpayer-subsidised loans to meet their tuition fees – so, to that extent, Buckingham is now benefitting from the tax-and-spend profligacy of the current government in relation to student support. Even more remarkably, Hillman quotes Buckingham’s Vice-Chancellor telling a House of Commons Committee in 2011 that “our lives would be so much easier at Buckingham if…[we had] access to QR money [the funds that, in England, HEFCE allocates to universities to support research infrastructure] without having to subject [ourselves] to all the regulatory framework of HEFCE.” Vice-Chancellor, we feel your pain!

The present Government’s 2011 higher education White Paper (PDF) takes a lot of space discussing how to encourage the development of private higher education. What it doesn’t do, I have argued, is to describe with any clarity the problem to which private higher education is the answer. Hillman’s pamphlet helps here: he reveals that what he calls “alternative providers” successfully carried out “lobbying…focused on ensuring their students have access to student support” – that is, so students at what are mainly for-profit private colleges could take out subsidised loans to pay their fees. The lobbying was, in other words, to achieve the transfer of public money into private pockets. (I’m not saying that this is sharp practice: it is simply what “for-profit” implies.) This has been hugely beneficial to the for-profit sector: as Hillman notes, the number of their students claiming public support has rocketed five-fold in two years; and it is fair to assume that profits have risen on a similar trajectory.

As I’ve remarked before, the comparison with the waste of public money associated with the US for-profit sector (never mind the human costs) is depressingly plain. This isn’t, mainly, whatever Hillman thinks, about healthy competition between the public and private sectors (they serve largely distinct markets); or about introducing more diversity (for-profit colleges, pretty well everywhere, teach a limited range of popular subjects in traditional ways*): it’s about an ideologically-driven programme that will waste public money – lots of it.

_____________________________________________________________

*see Kwiek, M. (2009), ‘Entrepreneurialism and private higher education in Europe’. In M. Shattock (ed.), Entrepreneurialism in universities and the knowledge economy: diversification and organizational change in European higher education. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press.