Review: on the creative destruction of mass higher education

guest post by Patrick Ainley, University of Greenwich 

Andrew McGettigan (2013) The Great University Gamble, Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education, London: Pluto, pp.209, £16.99, 978-0-7453-3293-2

Roger Brown with Helen Carasso (2013) Everything for Sale? The marketization of UK higher education, London: Routledge and the Society for Research into Higher Education, pp.235, £26.99, 978-0-415-80980-1

These two books are essential reading for everyone involved in or concerned about the future of English higher education.

Andrew McGettigan’s is the book he wished he had when he found himself as confused as everyone else in 2010 as Middlesex University sacrificed its philosophy department for a Far Eastern expansion he now takes as a prime case of overseas outsourcing. He became, as he explains in his preface, ‘a freelance “policy wonk”’, writing largely for the blogosphere on ‘the technical side of funding, recruitment markets, bond issues, joint ventures and… the potential buyouts of established universities by private finance.’ ‘This tour through the backrooms of higher education policy… aims to spare you that chore.’ (pp.viii-ix) Such a role is becoming more necessary to inform campaigns like those of the Council for British Universities.

Although ‘pitched for a general readership’, this specialized field has its own jargon that needs to be interpreted. It is also a bizarre world, operating 30 years into the future, when the government expects two thirds of the current crop of student loans to be recovered – abandoning the other third! (£3.3b of an annual outlay projected by Willetts for 2014/15 at £14b of which £10b is loans for fees and maintenance.) This is ‘a huge gamble with England’s universities… not a controlled experiment.’ The results are nevertheless predictable: ‘we should expect a diminution in the number of universities in England, whether through merger or collapse, and prospective students are likely to soon face less choice as to where and what they study.’ (p.6) English higher education is ‘on the cusp of a transformation’ akin to the country’s football 20 years ago ‘when the breakaway Premier League and Sky TV money combined with the regulatory arbitrage of corporate restructuring to reroute the financial circuits of the game’ and ‘a new elite cemented its position… while the majority of institutions will be left to scrap in a new market swamped with cheap degree providers’ (p.ix).

So what is the nature of the gamble in which universities and colleges are the chips? ‘The gamble is that the creative destruction of mass higher education as currently provided will be worth it in the longer run.’ (p.185) New private providers and established charitable institutions changing their corporate forms could ‘extract value’ (i.e. make a profit) from even larger numbers of trainees and ‘students’ if the associated risks could be managed. Tim Leunig, currently seconded from LSE to advise Michael Gove, is cross-referencing UCAS records with data the Student Loans Company (suspended from sale in 2009) receives from HM Revenue and Customs, so that different degrees could be matched for cost against long-run earnings. Unlike a graduate tax, this would create a differentiated market in which students/ graduates would be the unit of account. ‘Each year’s new loans could be sold to a “special purpose vehicle” which could slice or segment the loan book into marketable products for investors.’ (p.182) This ‘gamble involves running the risk of sub-prime degrees’ (p.185) but if, on the other hand, ‘student numbers decline so that fewer loans are issued there would be a substantial saving’ (p.171).

For True Believers in ‘choice and competition’ like Willetts and Gove, whichever or whatever result is the Will of the Market. Markets though have to be rigged (up)! Having explained ‘The Basics of HE Funding’(!), McGettigan traces the stages by which this was achieved from ‘Marketisation’ under New Labour, through ‘Privatisation’ with the imminent entry of (many more) edu-businesses remunerating the investments of their shareholders, alongside banks, hedge funds and bond holders etc., to projected ‘Financialisation’, defined as ‘how a public good is placed within a system of accounts via the novel use of data, accounting techniques and political disciplining’ (p.175). The end result is a rabid extension of what has been called the post-welfare, ‘Contracting State’ in which responsibility for delivery is contracted out to agents (schools, colleges and universities, in this case) run to targets, while power to set and inspect the targets contracts to the centre. Simultaneously, a new mixed economy mingles the semi-privatised state sector indiscriminately with the state-subsidised private sector, reducing the central state to broker between privatized service and citizen become consumer.

What is to be done about this? ‘In the short-term, political activity and organization needs to be reactive, preventing the unfettered advent of any primary legislation’ (since the whole White Paper has been winged through on the hoof). ‘Any worthwhile alternative also involves a longer range struggle: one that makes the case and fights for mass higher education not as “value for money” but as a quality commitment to the population defined as whoever can benefit. It argues for a breadth of provision both in terms of subjects offered but also in terms of the content of those subjects, contesting the demand-led homogenization of education and maintaining critical and advanced content.’ Defence of the existing system will not be enough! ‘We must seek more participative provision, structures and institutions.’ (pp.186-7)

Barely mentioned in the White Paper, academics, squeezed between the demands of student-consumers and pressures from management, have ‘failed to properly defend their profession… Collegiality has been displaced by corporatism.’ Worse, universities and colleges face a loss of public support ‘in so far as commercial imperatives and market positioning are seen to dovetail with the government’s agenda of polarization, stratification and the sorting of individuals.’ The ‘endemic resentments that befoul education’ threaten to erupt under these pressures. (ibid)

Like Brown and Carasso, McGettigan looks to the university governance structures proposed by von Prondzynski in Scotland for some safeguard against the depredations they delineate. Unlike them, he does not cover research, which is already playing a large part as some universities serve ‘the knowledge economy’ through growing medico-industrial complexes. Helen Carasso has a chapter on research funding in her book with Roger Brown, starting from the 1918 Haldane principle that public funds for research should be allocated on the basis of academic and not political criteria to chronicle demands for selectivity since. This includes exhaustive summaries of the five RAEs and current REF, which goes beyond political to economic interference and is a good illustration of the book’s thesis that – like GP commissioning in the NHS – ‘present university governance arrangements will not be strong enough to cope with increased market competition and greater commercial involvement in higher education.’ (p.162)

Carasso notes ‘the inevitable concomitant of [research] selectivity, concentration’ (p.64), given its greater symbolic than financial importance, ‘…has gone far wider than research’ (p.70) to signal quality. This is where Brown comes into his own as former-Chief Executive of the Higher Education Quality Council where he proposed an HE Audit Commission that he rehearses here. Like the Comptroller and Auditor General, this would be rendered legally, financially and operationally independent from government by being directly accountable to Parliament. Despite the negative effects of marketization upon diversity and equity – if not efficiency (but to what purpose?) – detailed in chapter seven, as well as evidence of declines in educational quality with grade inflation, plagiarism and curricular changes, plus ‘dysfunctional expenditure’ (for instance, competitive advertising packaging the university like a shopping mall), itemised in chapter eight, ‘it hardly suits either HEFCE or UUK to question quality openly’ (n.5, p.191). This is what Brown and Carasso do in their final chapter drawing ‘Lessons from marketisation’.

Here they advance a compromise solution that seeks to wrest some gains from market-based policies, whilst minimizing their detriments. ‘The basic message is that some competition for students and research income leads to improvements in efficiency and responsiveness. But if this is carried too far it leads… to waste and inefficiency’ (p.171). Three pre-requisites are required to prevent lurching towards this: adequate overall funding, institutional and sectoral independence, safeguarded paradoxically by strong external regulation of quality (as above).

Brown and Carasso is an essential reference to the series of events listed in the three page chronology appended to their introduction. Starting with withdrawal of remaining fee subsidies for overseas students from 1980, the list culminates in the 2011 White Paper and its subsequent non-legislative implementation. Developments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also summarized. If not ‘the primer… providing a one-stop resource for interpreting management and governor decisions’ that McGettigan aims to provide (p.viii), Brown and Carasso is a no less essential history. They contribute to the ‘proper public debate’ where ‘new ideas and resistance will burgeon’ (p.188) that McGettigan looks to in the last words of his book. Both books ‘might appear bleak’ but they are ‘animated by optimism’.

Intellectual freedom in academic scientific research

guest post by Prof Sir John Meurig Thomas (Materials Science, Cambridge)

CDBU welcomes a diversity of views. Please contact us if you would like to be part of the conversation.

This article is a slightly modified form of one that appears in Angewandt Chemie 2013 the original version of which can be downloaded here.

“Research at the institute is primarily curiosity driven, which is reflected in the five sections comprising this Review”(on the oxidation of carbon monoxide). 

So wrote H.-J. Freund, G. Meijer, M. Scheffler, R. Schlögl and M. Wolf in the special issue of Angewandte Chemie (50, 10064 (2012)) to mark the centenary of the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society and the 75th birthday of Gerhard Ertl.

These words were music to my ears. The philosophy that animates research at the Fritz Haber Institute (FHI) was one that motivated almost all scientific developments in the universities of the United Kingdom in former times. But this is no longer so; indeed, such has been the transformation in attitudes of policy makers and funding bodies that it has prompted many leading academics in this country to establish a Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) so as to re-instate the kind of ethos that is still pervasive at the FHI and doubtless at many other Max Planck Institutes. Four former Presidents of both the Royal Society and the British Academy, along with the present holders of those prestigious posts, two former UK Government Cabinet Ministers, numerous academics representing the sciences and the humanities, and notable celebrities like David Attenborough and Michael Frayn, are among the founders of the CDBU.

The following passages constitute a modified version of the remarks I was invited to make at the British Academy in the inaugural meeting of the CDBU in late 2012.

Ever since the days of Isaac Newton, university teachers have cherished the freedom to investigate any aspect of the natural world irrespective of the need to justify the possible practical importance of their discoveries. In the early 1850s, for example, the young James Clerk Maxwell became fascinated by the experimental discoveries of Michael Faraday, especially the observation that light could be “manipulated” by a magnetic field. So intrigued was Maxwell by Faraday’s work that he decided to write a treatise on “Faraday’s lines of force” as his Research Fellowship submission to Trinity College, Cambridge. The outcome of Maxwell’s work led to the mathematical foundation of the phenomenon of electromagnetism. One of the consequences of the Maxwell-Faraday work is the realisation that every ray of light has a magnetic and electrical component. If this were not so, it would be impossible to explain the transmission and reception of radiowaves or to account for the mode of action of television, the telephone, DVDs, iPhones and iPads. Newton’s Laws do not help us one iota in understanding the mechanisms of these and the other electronic gadgets now in popular use. It was Faraday’s insatiable curiosity concerning the possible relation between magnetism and electricity that led him to discover electro-magnetic induction, which gave us the dynamo, the transformer and the means of generating continuous electricity now used worldwide in power stations.

In the 1920s, young Paul Dirac, stimulated by the work of Heisenberg, Born and Jordan in Germany, undertook his quantum mechanical studies, which were motivated by sheer intellectual curiosity and the desire to incorporate relativistic features into the Schrödinger equation. Dirac’s mathematical formulations led him to propose, in 1927, the existence of the positron, the first-ever suggestion that anti-matter was a reality. It took another four years before the experimental proof of the positron’s existence was established by Carl Anderson in the California Institute of Technology. For many decades thereafter the positron was regarded as a novelty with little prospect of it ever being harnessed for practical purposes. Now, however, almost every major hospital in the developed world uses positrons in the non-invasive medical technique of positron-emission tomography. Its many uses include charting cerebral activity and identifying stages in the growth of tumours.

Many other examples exist where university teachers, through inquisitive, intellectual adventures, have uncovered techniques of enormous and pervasive practical importance. It was pure curiosity that led scientists in the late 1940s to discover magnetic resonance spectroscopy and, a few decades later to another powerful, non-invasive medical technique, namely MRI, magnetic resonance imaging, now quite indispensable in most major hospitals.

In the 1950s, at Columbia University, Charles Townes became intrigued by the possibility that the population of electrons in simple molecules could be inverted, and also with the optical consequences of such inversion. When he proposed this experiment Isidor Rabi, a Nobel prize-winner colleague, told him he was wasting his time. Several other notable physicists doubted whether such an experiment would ever work. But Townes stubbornly persevered and so discovered the maser (the forerunner of the laser). This has changed our world comprehensively. In addition, it duly led to the discovery that our nearby galaxies shine maser light upon us.

The history of academic scientific endeavour is replete with important, transformational discoveries, the practical importance of which could not have been readily foreseen. Prominent examples are the discovery of X-rays, of nuclear fission, of antibiotics, antibodies, immuno-suppressive drugs (that make spare-part surgery feasible), and the structure of DNA, to name but a few. Scientific researchers know that discoveries cannot be planned: they pop-up, like Puck, in unexpected corners.

But why is it so relevant now to recall these facts? It is because scientific research in our universities is under threat: the freedom to pursue in untrammelled fashion research prompted by individual intellectual curiosity is being increasingly restricted by the paladins of the research councils. Public bodies that fund academic research in the UK now tend to  emphasise the perceived practical importance of the scientific research which they decide to support financially. The Chief Executive of the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a body that spends some £900 million per annum on research grants, informed all applicants that from 15 November 2011, they should identify clearly the national importance of their proposed research project over a 10 to 50 year time frame.

This edict prompted outrage among academic researchers in the UK because they felt that it violated a cardinal principle of their proven prior attitudes. Delegations of academic scientists lobbied MPs and the British Prime Minister. It is gratifying to learn that, in response to these protests, the newly appointed chairman of EPSRC recently announced that the need for applicants to identify the national importance of their proposals over a 10 to 50 year span be rescinded. The CDBU welcomed this change of heart because one of its aims is to emphasise that scientific research, as well as being subject to accountability and having economic applications, should be animated by the desire to enhance our knowledge and understanding of the physical world, of human nature and of all forms of human activity.

No one disputes that there are several urgent scientific and technological quests that merit study in the national interest by academically-oriented researchers: the need for new means of converting replenishable feedstocks into useful energy and materials; the quest for better photo-voltaic systems and better industrially-applicable catalysts; improvements to existing light-emitting diodes and biotechnological converters are among the viable targets. But the best approach is to concentrate on identifying the talented individuals capable of proposing new ways of addressing these tasks, and to ensure that the requisite scientific training is provided in our higher educational institutes. This raises the question of how best to secure openings for talented young teacher-researchers. As the eminent U.S. chemist, Allen Bard, said a decade ago, the culture of academic research has shifted from evaluation based on excellence in teaching, creativity and productivity to one based on the amount of money raised. This is a consequence of implementing a “business model” for universities. In 2003 the UK Government explicitly encouraged universities to think of themselves as a business the primary function of which was to serve the world of commerce and an economy that demands instant return for financial investment. It is no accident that in the UK at present the Cabinet Minister for Universities and Science is in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Moreover, UK universities are increasingly expected to generate their own funds (from patents and spin-off companies). If we think the quality of academic science suffers because of this approach then what, one wonders, will happen to the humanities.

It is undoubtedly mutually beneficial for academic scientists to interact with personnel in various manufacturing companies, and thereby help to foster work of national importance. But this must not be the only way forward. A very successful, but short-lived scheme in the UK that gave academics opportunities to indulge in “blue skies” research and to investigate natural phenomena out of curiosity (not financial profit), was the so-called ROPA initiative, introduced by the then Director General of the (UK) Research Councils, Sir John Cadogan. This gave academics the money and the freedom to explore whatever topic took their fancy, provided they had previously gained joint grants with private industry to pursue a mission-oriented project. Nearly half of the 1000 or so ROPA grants were so potentially interesting that industry was prompted to follow up the “blue skies” investigations of the academics.

The feeling amongst academics in the UK these days, and I imagine it prevails elsewhere, is that university personnel require a restoration of the proven qualities of intellectual freedom, which has contributed so much to the culture, and facilitated the economic growth and the communal well-being, of the nation.

In this regard, returning to the ethos of the FHI, it is prudent to recall the principles advocated by the late Max Perutz, founder and former Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, LMB (of the UK Medical Research Council) in Cambridge; “Choose outstanding people and give them intellectual freedom; show genuine interest in everyone’s work and give younger colleagues public credit; enlist skilled support staff who design and build sophisticated and advanced new apparatus and instruments; facilitate the interchange of ideas, in the canteen as much as in seminars.” 

Not only have Perutz’s principles led to fifteen Nobel Prize winners for scientists working at the LMB, there have also been numerous commercial successes that have flowed from the discoveries made and techniques developed there.

Unless the continual erosion of the intellectual freedom of scholarly academics is arrested and reversed the consequences for both the sciences and the humanities could prove catastrophic.