HE White Paper: market principles simplistically applied simply won’t work

Paul Temple

Ronald Barnett, Peter Scott and I have just finished editing a volume of essays in honour of our colleague Professor Emeritus Gareth Williams, one of the foremost contemporary economists of higher education. Much of Gareth’s work has involved the study of markets and market-type mechanisms in higher education.

While he has no objections in principle to market-based methods in higher education as ways of improving efficiency and equity, in a recent essay he sets out their limitations:

  • Markets will not provide long-term funding for programmes with uncertain returns;
  • the inevitable knowledge asymmetry between higher education providers and users reduces their effectiveness (in other words, the providers know far more about the system than the students do);
  • higher education has benefits that go beyond those gained by the people who take part in it;
  • stratification (the creation of elites), rather than the differentiation that might be expected in a normal market, is a typical feature; along with other difficulties.

The recent White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice sets out the government’s vision of a more market-based higher education system for England – but without any apparent recognitionn of markets’ limitations that a number of essays in our forthcoming volume analyse.

The White Paper’s approach is both naive and confused. The rhetoric of choice pervades large parts of the document, with the assumption that students decide “which course and institution to attend” (Executive summary, para 19), as if they were browsing similar products on a supermarket shelf. For at least some courses and institutions, it is the other way round: the students are being chosen. This is the point that Gareth Williams was making about the roles of universities in forming elites and thus in increasing social stratification – and it seems implausible that the “new and innovative providers” the White Paper hopes for (Executive summary, para 11) will affect this. And although much seems to be expected from this dynamic new group of institutions for whom “unnecessary barriers to entry” will be removed, little is said about the exact nature of the innovations they will be introducing.

Around the world, for-profit higher education works to minimise risks by operating in a limited number of academic fields – notably, business studies, finance, law, and a few others – where initial costs are low and demand is apparent. There is nothing wrong with this, subject to the existence of effective quality controls, but it will not lead to increased “social mobility…economic growth and [be] a cornerstone of our cultural landscape” (Executive summary, para 5). Ground-breaking academic work will not come from institutions of this sort.

The White Paper’s confusion is also evident in its claim that “poor decisions” by students result from “lack of information…[about] teaching quality” (Executive summary, para 20). There is actually a vast amount of information available formally, although students often choose instead to rely on informal (and perhaps not totally reliable) sources (HEFCE 2010). But then, having agonised about students not being able to get information on universities that have been around for maybe half a century or more, it proposes that “high quality” new institutions will be able to gain degree-awarding powers “without first having to demonstrate a lengthy track record or meet specific…criteria” (ch 1,para 18). So what information will be available to potential students about student satisfaction, employment prospects and all the rest that follows from “great teaching” (ch 2, para 8)?

The White Paper’s description of the TEF – the Teaching Excellence Framework – has attracted a lot of attention, with commentators such as Rafael Behr in The Guardian repeating the White Paper’s claim (Executive summary, para 26) that the TEF is analogous to the REF, the Research Excellence Framework. It isn’t. There are globally accepted principles for assessing research quality (which is not to say that there are no disagreements in practice); it is quite difficult to game your way to an improved research profile (goodness knows, plenty of people have tried); and there is an intellectually coherent case (but again, one that can be disputed) for reinforcing success when allocating research funds.

None of these apply to teaching. Those who suffered under the old Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) process will quickly see how the TEF will be gamed – on contact hours, for example. A lecture given to 500 students is an hour’s work for one member of staff, but an extra 500 student contact hours. But crucially, the argument that good teaching should receive more funding, and poor teaching less, makes no sense. If I teach a class which the students, and perhaps my colleagues and I, think has gone well, it won’t have cost any more than if it had gone badly. If it had gone badly, though, there might – might – be a case for some extra resources to allow for training, new materials and so on. Poor teaching won’t be improved by taking money away: it would be like removing police resources from high crime areas and giving them to the police in low crime areas. This is the simplistic application of market principles to situations where they are simply inappropriate.

Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/


Barnett, R., Scott, P. and Temple, P. (eds) (forthcoming), Valuing Higher Education: An Appreciation of the Work of Gareth Williams. London: IOE Press.

HEFCE, (2010). Understanding the information needs of users of public information about higher education. (Report by Oakleigh Consulting and Staffordshire University). Bristol: Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Williams, G. (2013), ‘A bridge too far: An economic critique of marketization of higher education’. In C. Callender and P. Scott (eds), Browne and Beyond: Modernizing English higher education. London: Institute of Education Press.



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Posted in Education policy, Further higher and lifelong education

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