The government’s attempt to marketise universities has gone woefully wrong, argues Professor Norman Gowar, former principal of Royal Holloway, University of London. It’s time for a radical rethink of student funding

 

The long-awaited Augar Review was commissioned in the light of the government’s realisation that its policies had gone woefully wrong. It was precipitated by the obvious crisis in the fees policy but embraces other effects of the attempt at marketisation. The misguided regulatory policies have been exposed by Professor Dorothy Bishop’s excellent response on behalf of the CDBU, so I will concentrate my comments on the fees policy.

The arguments for zero fees are strong but perhaps the pass has been sold and in any case other parts of the education system and early years may have higher priority. Can we design a system that is fair and affordable to students and the public purse? The 2010 Browne Report at least recognised that if a market approach were to be adopted certain constraints would be necessary for it to be effective and affordable. Starting with a baseline fee of around £6000 with extra funding for high-cost subjects (recognising the current cost base) it suggested fees could increase up to £9000 on condition that a levy be imposed in recognition of forecast unpaid debt and that a third of any increase above the base figure be spent on attracting students from disadvantaged groups. It further recommended a cap on student numbers to encourage competition on quality rather than solely on numbers.

The government decided against the levy and established Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to approve plans for spending on outreach, rather than rewards or sanctions based on performance. With fees, unsurprisingly, being set almost universally at the maximum, competition focused on taking the profit from more students rather than quality (for example by improving student-staff ratios). The situation became unsustainable when the government ignored the final piece of advice from Browne by uncapping student numbers.

The Russell Group is hoovering up students

The uncapping of numbers was presumably a device to improve participation – based on a naïve ‘trickle-down’ theory that by increasing student numbers disadvantaged students would magically find themselves on the right courses that matched their aspirations and talent. No targets, rewards or sanctions were introduced and the OFFA process was largely one of essay-writing by senior administrators, marked at enormous cost by central examiners in OFFA. What has happened is a distortion of the system with the Russell group hoovering up as many as it can but with no serious improvement in the prospects for the disadvantaged.

Concern about grade inflation prompts a response that perhaps fines would be imposed without addressing fundamentals such as a serious undermining of the status of external examiners – a system that has in the past ensured the reputation of the UK degree. And who is to decide what the proper percentage of firsts should be if fines were to be introduced?

 

Fees should be means tested

In a recently published book my colleagues and I analyse these failures in policy, show why they were inevitable, and come up with the following recommendations.

  • Set maximum fees at somewhere between £7000 – £7500 (roughly £6000 plus 20%) to be topped up with grants for high cost subjects, subjects in current difficulties but of national importance (at present mainly in the humanities) and maybe some extra baseline funding to ease transition and if cogently argued to top up the maximum fee level to meet real cost. Fees should not vary by subject.
  • Fees should be means tested – examples are given in our book – many schemes are possible. They should be repayable at zero real interest on a straight mortgage type repayment over, say, 40 years.
  • Means-tested maintenance grants should be reintroduced. (We argue that means testing is a more effective method for addressing participation issues than one based on the earnings of graduates – and in addition weakens the focus on high earnings being the prime purpose of education.)
  • Restore the cap on student numbers at university levels with recruitment above the cap allowed in response to achieving participation targets, maybe with a multiplier allowed.
  • Scrap the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) and the National Student Survey (NSS) and restore the integrity of the external examiner system.
  • Scrap the residual OFFA function within the Office for Students (OfS). Remove the requirement that universities spend one third of the increase above the baseline fees (currently £1000) on participation.

We suggest that a policy along these lines would address the problem of the build up of unsustainable unpaid debt, be fairer to students and be a more effective tool to improve participation.

The constant changes in fees policy has led to differential treatment for successive cohorts – including siblings. This is unfair and a problem entirely of the government’s making and one that should be addressed by a future government more concerned with the health of the system and a fair deal for students than a belief that the market is the solution to all aspects of public life.

These issues are analysed and recommendations argued in English Universities in Crisis: markets without competition by Jefferson Frank, Norman Gowar, Michael Naef, Bristol University Press.