The White Paper has been received with the usual round of ‘welcomes’ from the higher education ‘establishment’ – rather limp ‘up to a point, Lord Copper’ responses that deceive no one and are probably motivated more by fear of the consequences of open opposition than any sense of conviction. Or perhaps the neo-liberal discourse of ‘universities are knowledge businesses’ and ‘students are customers’ is now so clamorous that it has become almost impossible to think that any other policies are possible.
Certainly it has become difficult to assert some simple truths – that universities are not simply knowledge machines, however great the ‘impact’ of their research; that they are about more than boosting global competitiveness (or lifetime earnings) but are key institutions in the kind of ‘open society’ we urge on lesser breeds in Eastern Europe or the Middle East (but not Saudi Arabia – and certainly not China); and that students are not customers but learners. To say such stuff is to risk being labelled a dinosaur, a leftie or a spokesperson for the ‘producers’ cartel’ / encrusted establishment – or probably all three.
So the only available – short-term – strategy is to attack the detail, and expose the White Paper as an example of lousy public administration – by asking a number of questions:
First, does no one object to even higher student fees when fees in England are already the highest in the world? Even if there is no alternative (for the moment) to loading more of the cost of higher education on students, or rather future graduates, surely we need to consider how those who will actually have to pay feel about higher fees? Students, whether customers or not, are already beginning to ask awkward questions about value-for-money. The example of the United States should be a warning to us; across the Atlantic higher education is widely regarded as ‘over-priced’ – and its customers, whether taxpayers or fee-payers, are in revolt. Also have we really considered the long-term consequences of beggaring future generations to make it is easy for today’s taxpayers? It is difficult to imagine a grosser example of inter-generational inequality. We, the fortunate postwar babies, have already stolen their secure jobs and their houses. Now we are stealing their higher education.
Second, does no one care about conflicts of interest? Imagine if Ofcom was also funding programmes or Ofgem running power companies. Yet that is what the new Office for Students will be doing when it takes over the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) learning and teaching responsibilities. It’s a funny kind of student champion, and an even funnier kind of regulator. The similarity of names is a con trick. The Government’s main motive, apart from dishonestly playing around with consumerist language, appears to be to get rid of HEFCE because it blames the Council for the failure of its marketisation strategy, presumably by not been being sufficiently welcoming to hordes of dubious ‘alternative providers’ which ‘challenge’ the established universities – and also perhaps because HEFCE is the last vestige of the ‘arm’s length’ principle that once kept politicians from meddling in universities (and the BBC, the Arts Council, local government… a bit of a pattern here).
Finally, I know the political and chattering classes live in a Westminster-Whitehall bubble and think devolution in the UK is a joke – but doesn’t anyone wonder how the new Research Councils conglomerate (with the inevitable ‘Innovation’ label attached) can be responsible for distributing core research funding to English institutions while, presumably, Scottish and Welsh institutions continue to get their QR money from their respective funding councils. Come the 2020 REF they are going to have to build some very high Chinese Walls in UK Research and Innovation’s Swindon base, if there is going to be any pretence of preserving a genuine dual-support system of research which an essential precondition of both academic freedom and scientific creativity.
As for this Government’s claim to be promoting widening participation and social inclusion, when it has both presided over and promoted galloping inequality, that is perhaps better left to the satirists…