Jeremy Till

The sucked bottom

This is a late but apparently necessary comment on the Government’s White Paper on Higher Education. Necessary, because talking with people it looks like the implications of a few of the nastier details of the government’s policy have not really struck home. I will concentrate here on two, both of which were apparently added to the White Paper at the last minute, in yet another indication that policy is not only being made up on the hoof without proper scenario planning, but also that it is being driven first by an ideological stance stronger than we have seen in government for a long time.

The first apparently innocuous feature is the granting of extra student places to Universities taking students with AAB grades in A Level. Up to now places have been capped and carefully monitored, so any University going under or over quota is fined. With the cap lifted for these “clever” students, the elite Universities will be able to expand courses that attract such students. Typically these will be in the arts and social sciences, which are cheaper to teach and are attractive to the AAB cohorts. Thus, say, a History department in a posh University will be able to double numbers by putting on a larger lecture hall and more seminars run by PhD students at fairly minimal cost. But the effects will be profound, because it will suck the AAB students up from the lower levels of University strata, leaving a smaller pool of students for them to fight over. Result - History departments (and many others) will inevitably be under threat in the non-elite Universities. And as these bits of the body fall off, the viability of the remaining parts becomes at threat. 

The second feature of the White Paper is the granting of extra student places to Universities that charge an average of less than £7,500. This has been explained as a panic reaction to the proposed average fee in the sector being much higher than this (and than originally expected) which means that the Government will have to fund yet more debt in the form of student loans. It may also be thought that where the AAB scam will favour the elite, the £7,500 will help the less well off Universities. But in fact, what the £7,500 will do is allow the market to be opened wide to the privateers, who will inevitably come in at low fees, and now will be allowed to take many more students than originally envisaged. Then there was also the quietly announced (and widely overlooked) legislation that student loans were now available to students going to private sector Universities (where previously they had not), a really insidious trick that effectively means the taxpayers will be supporting the profits of the privateers by providing them lots of students. So this sector will inevitably grow, particularly in the business/law/management areas, again sucking students away from the non-elite Universities (the elite holding out mainly through their brand position rather than true excellence in teaching). 

So the non-elite Universities will be sucked dry from two directions. There has been talk of a squeezed middle, but the reality is a sucked bottom, in which my prediction is that some Universities will be closing or merging within five years. Although the government talk about competition and efficiency, this is just another free market which is really not free at all, but pushed and pulled to suit instant ideologies that will allow privateers to enter the sector and the elite Universities to flourish, leaving the rest (and in particular those that have a record of astounding excellence in diversity and access) to fight out the scraps from the table. In a way, though it pains me to admit to such a thing, it would have been better for the White Paper to have really allowed the free market to reign - to lift all caps on fees so that Cambridge et al could have gone up to £15,000 or above, and leave the rest of us at £8,000 or £9,000 (which is what it will cost to deliver most courses) - then at least we could have seen real student choice. As it is we have a rhetoric of open competition but the reality of a market skewed to ideological ends.