Why 2012 will forever be seen as a milestone year in higher education policy

Paul Temple

The Institute of Education’s MBA in higher education management  marked its tenth anniversary with a conference on the theme “Managing higher education in the post-2012 era”, with papers given by graduates of the programme.

The title reflected the view that the new student tuition fee regime that begins this year marks the biggest single shift in the financial basis of higher education that the UK – and indeed, we think, any other country – has ever known. In future 2012 will be seen as a milestone year in higher education policy, perhaps on a par with 1963, the year of the Robbins Report, which set the seal on the expansion plans of the 1960s and beyond.

What’s the connection between the MBA and the new tuition fees plan? It is that the idea underlying the MBA, as conceived by its founding directors, Michael Shattock and Gareth Williams, is that the policy environment in which universities operate would become increasingly uncertain, and that both policy analysis skills and the ability to manage change effectively would become key management priorities in higher education.

The years since 2002 have amply justified this view, challenging university managements to an even greater extent than envisaged by the programme’s designers. The government helpfully provided the first MBA intake with its 2003 White Paper – proposing for the first time the introduction of variable tuition fees – as a case study in managing change And the pace has hardly slackened since, right up to the latest 2011 White Paper.

As well as tuition fees, and a continuous debate around their principles and practicalities, research funding has also become more unpredictable as a result of the Research Assessment Exercises of 2001 and 2008 – unpredictable not so much in the RAE findings of where academic excellence was to be found, but in the way that these findings were translated by the Funding Council into funding streams for universities: was the aim to support good work wherever it was found, or to build up a limited number of centres of excellence? Policy veered between the two, with destabilising results.

Regional policy has also affected universities, with first the growth of the Regional Development Authorities and their often substantial support for higher education in their regions, to their subsequent abolition. The growing divergence of higher education policies in Scotland and Wales offers another change in what until recently was a common UK higher education landscape.

We hope that the MBA will continue to offer its participants both a historical perspective on why we are where we are, but more importantly, how we should try to manage our universities to try to get to somewhere else – and perhaps, better.

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education

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