The definition of a university: how many new providers fit the bill?

Rapid reaction to the House of Lords debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill


G.R. Evans

The headline-grabbing result of the first session of the House of Lords in Committee on 9 January was a vote which defeated the Government. By a majority of 248-221 the Lords approved Amendment 1, which was to provide a first Clause defining ‘university’. The Amendment assumes that higher education teaching must have the support of scholarship and research. This is high stakes: many of those wanting to enter the market would not meet these criteria.

The Amendment by the House of Lords: functions of a University

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 18.00.16Were the Lords wise to seek a definition? In a blogpost in Times Higher Education, Nick Hillman thought not. Agreeing with some of those in the debate, he argued that there never had been a definition of university in English law, and that to have one would tend to prevent improvement and innovation.

However, Lord Krebs was voicing the majority opinion when he called on the Government two days later when debate resumed, to ‘define your terms’. More defining of terms was already in prospect when on Wednesday, the Lords tackled Clause 2.

What is a regulator?

There was a call to define ‘regulator’. Lord Stevenson of Balcamara said ‘it would be useful and comforting if the Minister could write to us explaining exactly what the term regulator implies. That would give reassurance to some of us who have been worrying about this issue’. Baroness Wolf noted a particular difficulty:

we are not quite clear whether [OfS] is a regulator or not, and we also have the Competition and Markets Authority. One question that I have is whether there are incipient conflicts between these two important and powerful bodies.

What is the meaning of higher education?

In framing Amendment 72, Lords called for another definition. This was to be a new Clause headed ‘Meaning of higher education’. It would come at the end of Clause 2, setting out the ‘general duties’ of the OFS, and say:

For the purposes of this Act, the provision of higher education by English higher education providers comprises higher education provision by—

(a) universities,

(b) colleges of further education, and

(c ) other higher education providers, both registered and unregistered.

It was in the list of Amendments (34-59 )‘not moved’ that evening.

The importance of research for universities

Where does this leave the definition of a university as approved by the Lords on 9 January? On 11 January, discussing the importance of ensuring that the new Office for Students (OfS) and the new UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) bodies would work together, speaker after speaker stressed the importance of the research element in higher education teaching, the stimulus it offered to students, the edge it gave to have the content of what was taught visibly touching the boundaries where knowledge was being expanded.

But two days earlier, Lord Younger, responding to the debate so far, took a different view:

while I agree that teaching should be informed and supported by scholarship and research, I have to agree with the changes made under the Labour Government in 2004. As my noble friend Lord Willetts explained, those changes to the criteria for university title removed the requirement for universities to need to award research degrees …. The amendment would be a regressive step. The changes were rightly made … and recognised that teaching is a legitimate primary activity for a university. If we place barriers in the way of new and innovative universities, we risk diminishing the relevance and value of our higher education sector to changing student and employer needs—becoming a relic of the 20th century while the rest of the world moves on.

This is a significant speech, whose implications should not be lost sight of. It contrasts ‘must’ and ‘may’, a distinction which was made much of on 11 January in the attempts of peers to persuade the Government to make OfS’s duties expressly into ‘musts’. While the Lords’ Amendment speaks of UK universities, Lord Younger defended a change which applies only to those in England and Wales. There have been calls for more attention to be paid to ‘national differences’. This was the decision of 2004 to allow providers with only taught-degree-awarding powers to gain university title. This, he argued on 9 January, meant that teaching was recognised as ‘a legitimate primary activity for a university’. In reality it amounted to something more, a recognition that teaching might be the only defining activity of a university.

Neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland has so far seen advantage in moving in the same direction and removing the requirement for a provider to obtain powers to award research degrees before becoming eligible to call itself a university.

Teaching-only ‘universities’

In England university or ‘university college’ title has been bestowed on seven alternative providers, all – except the longstanding University of Buckingham which had gained its title decades earlier and before this change – with only taught degree-awarding powers. Arden University; BPP University Ltd.; University College of Estate Management; the University of Law Ltd; the London Institute of Banking and Finance’; Regent’s University, London.

Several of these fulfil another desideratum expressed by Lord Younger in the same speech, that ‘specialist’ universities should be encouraged. The Bill envisages even single-subject universities. Yet none of them can be said to be strikingly ‘innovative’. Apart from the long established College of Estate Management, which does what its name suggests, they all concentrate mainly on business and management, law, accounting and finance, sometimes with tourism, health and social care. This is exactly the range of subjects mainly offered at Level 4 and 5 in the hundreds of alternative providers which run Pearson-Edexcel courses.

Where do we draw the line?

The Minister’s claim that that the Lords’ Amendment represents merely the vested interest of a ‘cartel’ of publicly-funded research-active universities should not be taken seriously until the Government can provide a coherent and evidence-based account of the present reality and the acceptable range of future inclusion of novelties.

Where does Jo Johnson think the boundaries of higher education diversity should be set? Hamburger University is real enough, and McDonalds offers a Foundation Degree in the UK, ‘certified by Manchester Metropolitan University’, but that presumably counts as one of the ‘cartel’ keeping innovative specialist providers from moving straight to their own probationary degree-awarding powers and then to university title. The Faculty of Astrological Studies published its examination results at the recent Winter Solstice when ‘Saturn its lord and god of the harvest, is elevated in the sky together with the Sun in the ingress chart for London’. If this provider would not be eligible to seek degree-awarding powers and university title should the Government be able to explain why not?

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 17.52.03

Universities as cartels?

Opinion piece

by James Ladyman

It is said that trust in institutions is in short supply these days. Sadly the government doesn’t trust universities. According to the Minister, the Higher Education and Research Bill is necessary to “break open a closed shop that for too long has set the rules of the game in its own interests”. He does not believe that academics who act as external examiners and universities that oversee the provision of teaching make and apply rules in the interests of academic standards and education, nor that their deliberations are informed by the wider political and social good. According to the minister, and one must presume the entire government and many MPs and peers, universities have been acting in their own interests all this time. This makes sense to them because they also insist that universities are businesses and encourage them to behave as such. Businesses’ primary interest is in maximizing their revenues. Since, universities are businesses their primary interest must be in maximising their revenues.

The new providers that are allegedly needed to drive up teaching standards – the minister is disparaging about the latter – do indeed include businesses interested only in making a profit. They contrast with universities that hitherto have hosted academics who collaborate across institutions for the good of their disciplines. Yet the minister thinks of the sector as ‘cartel-like’.

We all know how effective cartels allow prices to be kept artificially high from the way that energy market has functioned. The measures in the Bill are supposed to protect students from a similar cartel-like scam in HE. It will supposedly do this by allowing fees to be raised. Yes, that’s right folks, the market will save students from being ripped off by the existing university system, by allowing universities to raise prices.

Despite the disastrous effects of marketisation on the health service and the penal system, and with no regard to the outstanding international reputation of British higher education, the HE Bill proposes to treat the healthy patient with bad medicine.

On the subject of the closed shop, one might as well ask why we let the medical profession control who becomes a doctor rather than the market. We don’t expect patient choice to set standards in clinical care, and we should no more expect student choice to set standards in higher education.

We have not been given any explanation for why the idea of the self-critical academic community enshrined in established thinking about academic and educational standards has been set aside so completely.

Students are entitled to know that their fees are paying for a decent standard of education, but this government is determined to sacrifice them in the interests of the profits that the new providers will make out of their tax-payer funded loans.


House of Lords debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill

Rapid reaction to the First Amendment



It’s certainly a story when the House of Lords is packed, as it was on 9 January to discuss the first of well over 500 amendments to a Bill.  Several speakers noted that they were adding themselves to the long list who spoke in the Second Reading debate on 6 December because they had not been available to speak then.

When it came to a vote on this first Amendment in Committee, the sheer numbers present became clear. The Amendment was approved by 248-221. A story indeed, as the press was quick to record.

As speakers noted in stressing its importance, the result will now govern much of what follows as the remaining amendments are debated.

Lord Stevenson of Balcamara, introducing the Amendment, put it plainly. ‘The purpose of the amendment is simple. The Bill before us does not define a university, and we think it will be improved if it does so.’

Speakers on both sides had tried to find an existing definition in English law and Baroness Wolf, who had looked hard, noted that ‘the Minister had kindly confirmed, in replies to Written Questions that the term is not defined in legislation’. A couple of corners where they might have looked suggest themselves. They may be worth adding here, for future reference of all concerned.

The distinction between providing ‘higher education’ and ‘being a university’: title and substance

Baroness Wolf in a second speech, seeking to bring their Lordships back to the matter in hand, reminded them that:

Absolutely rightly, the Bill distinguishes between degree-awarding powers and the title of “university”. So it should and so it must, because we are now in a world where many institutions which are not and will never wish to be universities give degrees. Further education colleges are a very obvious and important sector.

We are also, I am delighted to say, moving into a world with degree apprenticeships.

The risk of not having a definition of ‘university’ in law, she reminded them, was that ‘we leave the decisions about what a university is to the bureaucrats of the Office for Students, who will make those decisions but will never actually have to make them public’.

This was not, as other speakers stressed, to seek to devalue other higher educaiton providers, but to clarify a difference in kind. Baroness Blackstone shared the concern to distinguish universities from a vast range of providers of higher education. For ‘many, many decades, higher education has embraced not only universities but many other kinds of institution’ she accepted approvingly.

The first existing legislative marker helps to clarify the important difference between ‘title’and ‘substance’, which worries many when they see that a company applying to Companies House to use the sensitive word ‘university’ has to do little beyond getting it accepted that its new title will not lead to its being confused with any existing university.  The law as it stands confers  university ‘substance’ as well as university ‘title’.

The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 s.77 (4)  states that:

Any educational institution whose name includes the word “university” by virtue of the exercise of any power as extended by subsection (1) above is to be treated as a university for all purposes.

Subsection (1) requires that any such entity be an ‘educational institution’ and ‘within the higher education sector’ and allows both the Privy Council and the Companies House routes to grant permission for use of the word and thus the substantive ‘being’ of ‘university’ to the title-holders.

This provision had to be adjusted in 1998 to prevent ‘university colleges’ claiming that they were substantively universities. So the clause now adds ‘unless in that name that word is immediately followed by the word “college” or “collegiate”’. (Words added by 1998 c. 30, ss.40, 46(4) (with s. 42(8)); S.I. 1998/2215, art. 2).

When Lord Younger responding to the debate on behalf of the Government, could be seen to turn to a prepared script and begin to read, but he added some reference to speeches made that afternoon. His argument was that it would be dangerous to include a definition of a university in legislation. He may now have to think again.

Teaching-only or teaching-and-research: What should a university do?

The other concern which ran through the speeches was about what a university should ‘do’.  Important here is the change of 2004 which allowed holders of only taught degree-awarding powers to gain university title, in England and Wales but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland.  Lord Younger, linking the ‘teaching-only’ policy with the objective of encouraging specialist and single-subject providers,  said:

I have  to agree with the changes made under the Labour Government in 2004. As my noble friend Lord Willetts explained, those changes to the criteria for university title removed the requirement for universities to need to award research degrees and also removed the requirement for a university to have students in five different subject areas. The amendment would be a regressive step. The changes were rightly made to allow for a greater diversity of specialist universities in higher education, and recognised that teaching is a legitimate primary activity for a university.

Here too there is another bit of lingering legislation which seems not to have been spotted. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1877 s.15 , setting up Royal Commissioners to revise the statutes of the two universities, stipulated that ‘the Commissioners, in making a statute for the University…shall have regard to the interests of education, religion, learning and research’. Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1923 applied in its Schedule various provisions of the  1877 Act including this one.  When I was admitted to a University Teaching Office in Cambridge in the 1980s  this was still the defining requirement of the job.

Statute and statutes?

It would be a pity to end without mentioning the speech of Lord Broers, who as Cambridge Vice-Chancellor rode the bucking bronco of an unsuccessful attempt to change Cambridge’s statutes. ‘I support the proposed new clause’, he said, but regretted that it ‘does not mention governance, and whether universities not only are autonomous but have the right to determine how they govern themselves’. ‘We debated it intensely in Cambridge at one time’:

Universities should be allowed to determine their own form of governance, and some words need to be included in a clause like this to say that.

The Bill is startlingly silent on the role of the Privy Council in approving changes to university statutes, and indeed on whether it is expected that a university will in future be expected to have its own statutes at all. ‘Autonomy’ means having authority to make their own laws. WithIn those can be embedded its deepest sense of self, the identity which would ensure that it fulfilled the statutory definiton of a university which can now be hoped for.


Consequences for institutional autonomy and academic freedom

No 4 in a series of Guest posts by G. R. Evans

The problem-areas flagged up here are technical but they are also of fundamental importance to academics because they affect academic freedom and the institutional autonomy of providers of higher education. These are topics which have repeatedly engaged Members of Parliament and peers in heated debate in the framing of previous higher education legislation and are likely to do so again.

It has taken determined resistance over many decades to protect these two things which academics discover to be immensely important when they find them threatened. One is independence from state control for universities. The other is the freedom of individual academics to determine what to teach and how to teach it, and on what to do research.

The history of these protections

When universities first accepted public funding it was with the protection that they should have freedom from Government interference when they chose how to spend it. A ‘Haldane buffer’ was set up, to advise Government, receive the state’s funding in response, and deliver it in the form of a ‘block grant’ to each institution. This protection was maintained for nearly a century, with the University Grants Committee acting as ‘buffer’ from 1919-1989, the Universities Funding Council 1989-1992 and then the four funding councils set up under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 [FHEA]. Each institution has remained free to spend its grant as it chooses, subject to the requirements of FHEA s.65 (2).

It was taken for granted in 1992 that the block grant would cover both teaching and research and the provision of the infrastructure of laboratories and libraries needed for both purposes. The same principle ensured that the ‘teaching and research’ needs of research students would be provided within the infrastructure the grant was to fund.

The tripling of tuition fees for undergraduate students in English universities England from 2012 made a de facto a policy-change designed to transfer the burden of paying for their teaching to the undergraduate students receiving it. The block grant continues to cover both teaching and research in the devolved administrations, but in England only the ‘research’ element of direct public funding and a decreasingly small sum for teaching survives .

Consequence 1: The introduction of new-style ‘regulation’ and the risk to institutional autonomy

The FHEA s.65(4) provided the four UK funding councils with a sanction if an institution was found to be mis-spending its block grant. The funding council could ‘require the repayment, in whole or in part, of sums paid by the council if any of the terms and conditions subject to which the sums were paid is not complied with’, and charge interest if the repayment was not made promptly. This ‘conditions of grant’ sanction was used when it was found in 2008 that London Metropolitan University had been in receipt of funding for more students than it actually had, and it was eventually required to repay £30m.

The change from direct public ‘block grant’ funding to tuition-fee funding for teaching made the ‘conditions of grant’ sanction no longer applicable.

Then came talk of the need to make HEFCE into a ‘regulator’. This first appeared as a proposal in the White Paper of June 2011, Students at the heart of the system. Chapter 6 of this document described ‘a new fit-for-purpose regulatory framework’ for England only, including the statement that:

As the balance of public investment shifts from grants to loans, the Government must maintain control of its financial exposure [emphasis added].

This is in itself a perfectly proper objective for a Government. But in this instance it was taken to be achieved best by ceasing direct public funding of higher education teaching and moving the responsibility for payment to students through their tuition fees. This had the disadvantage of requiring Government to fund those fees through student loans, which might not be repaid for many years, or at all.

Since that time, HEFCE has begun to describe itself on its website as ‘the lead regulator for higher education in England’, and to define its ‘powers’ more fully, extending them to the furthest limits of its statutory duty as in FHEA ss.62-70.

Meeting the need for regulation for ‘alternative’ providers

Bringing the alternative providers into the regulatory system is one of the principal changes proposed in the Higher Education and Research Bill. Meeting this need seems to have had a disproportionate effect on its framing. No direct ‘regulatory’ powers or responsibilities can lie with HEFCE under the FHEA in the case of ‘alternative’ providers, because they are defined as providers not in receipt of direct public funding. The ‘conditions of grant’ sanction therefore cannot apply.

HEFCE has a role in the process by which alternative providers may apply for course ‘designation’. Students on a Designated Course are able to access Student Loan Company funding, though the providers of these courses are not deemed to be in receipt of the direct public funding to which conditions of grant apply. Regulation of alternative providers lies with Government and HEFCE can only, as it puts it, ‘assist’.

The Higher Education and Research Bill proposes to replace HEFCE (though not the other UK funding councils) by an Office for Students (OfS). This is to have extensive regulatory powers, including the de-registration of established higher education providers.

Consequence 2: Awareness of perceived ‘regulatory’ threats to institutional autonomy and academic freedom

In the Second Reading debate the Secretary of State offered a broad reassurance:

Academic autonomy is the bedrock of success for our higher education sector. The Bill introduces measures to safeguard the interests of students and taxpayers, while protecting academic freedom and institutional autonomy. It enables the OfS to be independent of Government and the sector, as a regulator should be. It will be an arm’s length non-departmental public body, just as the Higher Education Funding Council for England is now.

This seems to confuse the new ‘regulator’s’ independence of Government with protection of institutional independence or autonomy.

The limited definitions of ‘academic freedom’ available in current legislation are re-used in the Higher Education and Research Bill without reference to the intention of the legislation in which they were first included.

The Bill includes at s.2 a duty to protect academic freedom of ‘providers’ and at s.35 a duty to protect academic freedom. Both need careful review in Committee.

Institutional autonomy: course design

At s.2 (2) of the new legislation, OfS will be required to have regard to guidance given it by the Secretary of State. He or she is in turn required to have regard to the need to ‘protect academic freedom’. The specifics which follow all relate to institutional ‘academic freedom’, which would be more conveniently and less confusingly described as ‘institutional autonomy’.

The Secretary of State is not to interfere with a provider’s freedom ‘to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed’; the appointment of academic staff or the admission of students. The Robbins Report of 1963 identified as fundamental the right of a university to determine on academic grounds who may teach, who may be taught, what may be taught and how it should be taught’ (Report of the Committee on Higher Education (1963), 702.). These four essentials have been respected ever since.

At the time of the passing of the FHEA there was significant Parliamentary challenge to the inclusion of powers for a Secretary of State to set conditions of grant framed by reference to particular courses of study. The result was FHEA s.68(3) which states that such terms and conditions:

may not be framed by reference to particular courses of study or programmes of research (including the contents of such courses or programmes and the manner in which they are taught, supervised or assessed) or to the criteria for the selection and appointment of academic staff and for the admission of students.

However, the Higher Education and Research Bill s.2 (4) enlarges the powers of a Secretary of State to offer ‘guidance’ ‘framed by reference to particular courses of study’. If the Bill is to modify this protection there must be a clear statement of the justification for doing so and the intention of the change.

Assessing degree ‘standards’ and the protection of institutional autonomy                                                      

In the Second Reading debate, Andrew Smith drew attention to Clause 23 of the Bill, which provides for the assessment of ‘standards’ as well as ‘quality’. This, he pointed out, ‘is an extension of regulatory power that infringes institutional autonomy. The Government need to tell us what its purpose is and how it will be used.’ That purpose, it emerges, is connected with the new OfS powers to register or deregister providers.

The Bill’s s.23 states that ‘“Standards” has the same meaning as in section 13(1)(a)’. That section occurs among the provisions about provider registration. Initial or ongoing registration conditions ‘may, in particular include:

a condition relating to the quality of, or the standards applied to, the higher education provided by the provider (including requiring the quality to be of a particular level or particular standards to be applied).

  1. 23 continues on the ‘registration’ theme by requiring the OfS to:

assess, or make arrangements for the assessment of, the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education provided by—

(a) institutions who have applied to be registered in the register for the purposes of determining whether they satisfy any initial registration condition applicable to them relating to the quality of, or standards applied to, higher education provided by them (see section 13(1)(a)),


(b) registered higher education providers for the purposes of determining whether they satisfy any ongoing registration condition of theirs relating to the quality of, or standards applied to, higher education provided by them (see section 13(1)(a)).

Academic freedom: the need for better wording

The Bill includes a separate clause 35 importing a ‘duty to protect academic freedom’. This repeats in different wording points made in s.2 and seems to refer to institutional autonomy. ‘Academic freedom’ insofar as it applies to individual academics appears only in s.14 (7) of the Bill among the ‘public interest governance conditions’ with which a provider’s governing documents must be ‘consistent’ , ‘so far as applicable to the provider’. S. 14 (7) contains the provision that the list must include the principle that:

academic staff at an English higher education provider have freedom within the law:

(a) to question and test received wisdom, and

(b) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at the provider.

This wording is taken from Education Reform Act 1988 s.202 and has hitherto applied only to academic staff at universities then existing.

Its original purpose was to provide a protection against dismissal of academic staff for ‘managerial’ reasons when academic tenure was removed by the same Act. This, like the provision that the Secretary of State must not seek directly to control particular courses, was hard fought for in Parliamentary debate.

It seems clear that much more careful review of definitions and legislative provisions and their purposes is now needed in the case of both ‘institutional autonomy’ and ‘academic freeom’.  This is a part of the Bill which bears the marks of drafting in haste. These matters are too important to be left unrevised.

The Public Bills Committee has requested submissions on the Bill, which can be emailed to:

Points to raise:

  • Drafting review seems to be a main need, to ensure that it is as clear as possible what is protected under the headings of ‘institutional autonomy’ and ‘academic freedom’.
  • The proposed admission to the higher education sector of a variety of alternative providers, the vast majority without even taught degree-awarding powers, demands review and definition of the characteristics of a provider entitled to the protection of its institutional autonomy.

The man who sighed too much

Opinion piece by Howard Hotson, October 29th 2014

docherty photo JS49180226 Professor Thomas Docherty

‘Professor suspended from top university for giving off “negative vibes”.’ Thus read the headline in The Telegraph on Friday 24 October.  ‘Professor at top university was suspended for nine months after he was accused of sighing and being sarcastic during job interviews’: this was the Daily Mail’s take on the same story. Other charges against the culprit, Warwick’s Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Thomas Docherty, The Mirror revealed, included ‘making ironic comments’ and ‘projecting negative body language’. By Monday, London commuters could read about the ‘Professor suspended for nine months for “inappropriate sighing”’ in Metro, the free newspaper ubiquitous on the Underground. Readers of the Birmingham Mail had been informed of the story on Thursday the 23rd, two days after it broke in the Times Higher Education magazine. Together these stories have provoked hundreds of comments, thousands of ‘shares’, and innumerable tweets.

Over the weekend, news of the grounds for Docherty’s nine-month suspension began to go global. Inside Higher Education picked up the story under the headline, ‘Suspended for Irony and Sighing’. So did Higher Education Faculty News, an organ of the American Association of University Professors, together with academic blogs like Education Watch International, The Research Whisperer, and College Misery. University blogs in Oregon and Michigan are beginning to relay the tale, as are news outlets as far afield as Kansas, Zimbabwe and Singapore.

Even the risk of suspension cannot disguise the irony of the situation. In late September, Warwick was trumpeting its selection as ‘University of the Year’, in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide for 2015. One month later, this national publicity bonanza has been overtaken by an international publicity disaster of its own making.

Warwick officials took on one of the most outspoken critics of the new authoritarianism of UK university management; yet they did so on a trumped-up charge of ‘insubordination’. In doing so they have made themselves a textbook case of precisely the kind of autocratic managerialism Docherty has been describing.

While refusing to discuss the grounds of the suspension, the University insisted that Docherty was not suspended in order to silence his outspoken criticism; yet it turns out that the issue of free expression – verbal and non-verbal – was part of the case against him.  In a genuinely liberal intellectual environment, the attitude any individual takes with regard to a speaker – whether a student in tutorial, a seminar speaker, or a candidate – is a matter for individual judgment, and so (within broad limits) is the question of how they choose to express that attitude. If others find a colleague’s behaviour discourteous, they are free to tell him so. Instead, Warwick’s senior management hired corporate lawyers to argue that behaviour of this kind was grounds for dismissal.

Moreover, Warwick’s management showed their hand even more clearly when they forbade Docherty from attending a conference devoted to the republication of E.P. Thompson’s Warwick University Ltd., or to address the conference by Skype, or initially even to have a letter from him read out to the gathering – although on this point the University eventually relented. Given that Thompson’s book was a prescient discussion of the legal battles waged by Warwick in 1970 to prevent the publication of evidence that it was spying on its own staff and students and curbing academic freedom on behalf of business interests, these proceedings were bound to be interpreted by many as thinly disguised censorship, plain and simple.

Justice for Thomas Docherty is good news for higher education in general. Reputation managers in other universities might have been tempted to emulate these tactics if Warwick had been successful. Now they will  think twice. But serious damage has also been done – how much remains to be seen.

We now know, for starters, that the ban on Docherty inflicted considerable damage on his students. As well as being banned from campus, from the library, and from email contact with his colleagues, Docherty was prohibited from supervising his graduate students and from writing references. Indiscriminate, disproportionate, and unjust measures against the professor were also deeply unfair to his students.

At one further remove, how much will the mishandling of this situation damage the reputation of an entire institution, its staff, its students, its alumni? And how much collateral damage will be inflicted on UK universities generally in the court of international opinion? If the UK’s ‘University of the Year’ in 2015 becomes an international by-word for authoritarianism and censorship, then foreign readers are entitled to ask what goes on in less celebrated institutions. One reader of Inside Higher Education has already articulated the question as follows: ‘Is it just me, or do British universities just not treat their faculty so well these days? Low pay in an expensive country, no more tenure, and now junk like this.’

Reputational damage cashes out directly in international rankings. Yet when UK universities, individually or collectively, slide in the rankings, will policymakers conclude that they are being badly managed? Or will they respond by prescribing another wave of still more radical ‘reform’?

This brings us to a final irony: although academics are liable to read the Docherty case as a parable of academic mismanagement, at least some of the readers of the newspaper articles listed above clearly read it as a parable about academia itself. For one thing, the censorship even of non-verbal communication strikes some readers as a paradigmatic example of politically-correct thought police running amok. ‘Only academics could be so pea-brained as this,’ one Telegraph reader colourfully opines. ‘They deserve the rough edge of nanny’s tongue and early to bed without supper for behaving in such an infantile way.’ ‘Remind me again’, another comments: ‘Why are we, the British public, still being made to fund these dictatorial Marxist cabals, and why has the government not taken a hint from the private sector and outsourced all higher education abroad?’ So when university governance is wrested from academic control and remodelled along corporate lines, the resulting authoritarianism is to be explained by reference to the perennial Marxism of academics generally? And once the funding burden has been removed from the shoulders of current taxpayers and loaded squarely onto future graduates and taxpayers, current taxpayers should nevertheless insist that privatization be followed by outsourcing?

It would be easier to dismiss this kind of thing as puerile polemic, were it not for the fact that similar logic is evident in the recent opinion piece by Jamie Martin, advisor to former educational secretary Michael Gove, on how UK universities ‘Must Do Better’.  ‘[U]niversities and government,’ he argues, for instance, ‘are engaging in sub-prime lending, encouraging students to borrow about £40,000 for a degree that will not return that investment …. Taxpayers, the majority of whom have not been to university, pick up the tab when this cruel lie is exposed.’

So when it turns out that student-customers are not the perfectly well-informed and purely rational agents whose collective decisions can ‘drive up standards’ and ‘drive down prices’ across the university sector, when it turns out instead that they are vulnerable to being duped by the new breed of corporate university which regards them essentially as units of income and output, who is to take the blame? Evidently, anyone but the policymakers who imposed the marketized conception on the university in the first place.

It appears that we are entering a new phase in the debate over British higher education, in which the failures of the botched ‘reforms’ of 2010-12 are recycled as justification for a further round of even more radical measures.  For further analysis along these lines, the reader can turn with profit to Dorothy Bishop’s recent comments on Martin’s piece.


Howard Hotson will deliver the CDBU lecture at Royal Holloway on Tuesday 25 November 2014 on ‘Big Business at the Heart of the System:  Understanding the Global University Crisis’.  It will be at 6 p.m. on 25 November, in room MX001 in the Management Building Annexe at Royal Holloway.  For further details contact:

Tuition fees must be high on the agenda before the election

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop, 22nd October 2014

Suppose that the government were to announce that post-16 years education were no longer free. If you wanted to stay on to do A-levels, your parents would have to pay a fee, which could vary with the popularity of the school. One can just imagine the arguments from an outraged public: the policy would be unfair to poorer families, would deter children from continuing their education, would damage the nation’s businesses – who would have to look abroad for qualified workers – and would ultimately increase the gulf between rich and poor, because the less well-educated children from poorer families would have reduced earning potential. Suppose, further, that expensive schools started recruiting sixth-formers from abroad to make up the numbers of fee-paying students in their classrooms. The idea seems so absurd that it’s hard to imagine any government proposing it, yet it has much in common with the move to charge university students increasing levels of tuition fees.

The introduction of fees started gently enough in 1998, when the undergraduate rate was set at £1,000 per annum. By 2004, this had trebled, but after the Browne review, universities were able to charge up to £9,000 per annum. Last year, the vice-chancellor of University of Oxford was quoted as saying that the top universities should be able to charge up to £16,000 per annum.  Despite initial protests, many people seem to have lost the will to resist, and come to believe that the world economic situation demands that education should be paid for by those who benefit from it, rather than by the state.

The counter-evidence, however, comes from international comparisons. Last February, Howard Hotson analyzed the situation in Germany, where local governments had done a U-turn, and instead of increasing tuition fees had decided to end them. Lower Saxony, which had been the last German state to retain tuition fees, abolished them in early October, leading commentators to ask, if Germany can do it, why can’t we?

You may wonder if Germany is an exception, and will come to regret its decision, but, as shown in this map of fees in the EU, it’s actually England who is the outlier, with substantially higher fees than other countries. euromap


The country we are emulating, of course, is the USA, where one report in 2012 estimated the average cost of studying at a four-year private (non-profit) university was  $28,500 per year.

A notable point about the fees debate is that both sides defend their argument in terms of fairness. Those who want to deregulate fees and create a free market claim that it is fair to make the cost of higher education the responsibility of those who benefit from it, rather than expecting taxpayers to shoulder the burden. Nobody, though, has suggested that this concept should extend to older generations such as mine, who benefited from free university education. Why is the burden of debt placed squarely on the shoulders of the younger generation and not shared with those who could better afford to contribute? Furthermore, many graduates fail to get the anticipated good jobs, creating problems for the loan companies, who don’t get repaid, and enduring debt for themselves. This is especially notable in the US, where graduate poverty is a growing problem.

An alternative position on fairness – advanced in Germany –  is that that fees are unfair because they deter poorer students from engaging in higher education, and so increase the gulf between rich and poor. My own university, Oxford, already recruits a disproportionate number of students from private schools: putting the fees up to £16,000 p.a. is hardly likely to improve the situation. Yes, it’s possible to have bursaries for the poorest, but there will be many whose parental incomes are above the cut-off for such assistance, but still not adequate to cover the costs. And in those from wealthy families, it’s the parents who pay the fees, not the students. Thus the poor who do not go to university remain as poor as ever. The rich who go to university have their fees paid by parents and so start adult life with an educational advantage and no debt. Those between these extremes may benefit from education, but will be saddled with debt.

The problem is exacerbated at the postgraduate level. The prospect of further study will be daunting to those who end a first degree with thousands of pounds worth of debt. It is already difficult even for an exceptionally bright UK graduate to get a funded PhD place: there are few grants and stiff competition for them. Increasingly, those studying for doctorates are self-funded, with a high proportion of overseas students.  I’d be the first to argue that an international mix in a student body is a thoroughly good thing: everyone benefits from interacting with people from other cultures and our overseas postgraduates contribute greatly to academic life. But where do we draw the line? Is it satisfactory if our great universities, largely paid for by the state, are accessible for postgraduate study only to those whose parents can afford to support them, and are off-limits to bright English students of more modest means? This issue forces questions about what the point of a state-funded university is. Is it to educate our citizens, or to sell education to those who will pay the most, so as to make as much money as possible?

If we really want fairness, it would be better to create a system of higher education that gave everyone a bursary for further education, which could cover less academic options such as apprenticeships. This could be used to pay for a university education, or deferred until later in life for those who preferred to leave formal education immediately after school. To help pay for this we could increase taxation on those members of the older generation who have already benefited from a free university education.

There is no democratic mandate for increased tuition fees: quite the contrary. Just as in Germany, we had large-scale public protests at the prospect of fees, but governments pressed on with the changes regardless, aided and abetted by vice-chancellors who seemed totally sold on the idea. As one of the commentators on this Guardian piece noted: “…those who should be the guardians of Universities as institutions of public good, and higher education as a tool of enlightenment, i.e. the vice-chancellors, have been captured either through choice or circumstances into playing the market game…..It makes me very angry, but I feel utterly impotent to do anything about it as the most major electoral party promising change is the Greens. I did vote LD last time solely on their fees policy. That turned out well.”

There is a danger that a new government will simply continue with the marketization of universities, regardless of political persuasion. It is vital that we put this issue on the agenda and emphasize to political candidates that if they want our votes they need realistic and costed plans to reverse the marketization of our universities.

P.S. 25th October 2014. For further thoughts on marketization of our universities, see this blogpost by Dorothy Bishop

News on current funding debate — March 2014

Parliamentary Questions regarding University fees and student loans

PQ No. : 2013/3264:  THURSDAY 20 MARCH 2014

Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, what recent estimate he has made of the RAB charge on student loans. (192816)

Rt Hon David Willetts: This Department has been reviewing our modelling of the RAB charge on student loans. We currently estimate the RAB charge on student loans to be around 45%, which reflects our current estimate of the costs to Government of the higher education subsidy to students.  By its nature an estimate is subject to change as it is highly dependent on macroeconomic circumstances, and the growth of graduate earnings over the next 30 years.

We will continue to review our estimates in line with the latest data and advice from experts and stakeholders.


 And here’s Liam Byrne’s response:

This is fresh evidence that our university finance system is turning into a money pit. The system is now haemorrhaging cash that will never be repaid and reinvested in the next generation. It’s high time David Willetts came out and told us exactly how much this strung together system is costing the taxpayer, rather than dress it up with clever accounting tricks. First, he tells us that the RAB charge is 35%, then 40% and now it hits 45%. It’s time to call a halt to this descent into chaos. Their funding model fails the sector, it fails our students and it fails those whose hard earned wages continue to prop it up.

Commenting on the HEFCE grant letter published today, Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills Liam Byrne MP said:

 “Today’s announcement lays bare the black hole ministers have created in student funding. Ministers’ dogma in giving students at private colleges complete access to the student loan system has resulted in an unsustainable system and now they are hitting poorer students to make up the shortfall. The fact that cuts are being targeted at support for the poorest students at university and the skills budget tells you everything you need to know about this government’s values and their ambitions for Britain’s future.

 “I’m glad that months of campaigning and pressure by Labour and others have prevented the government axing the student opportunity fund – but cuts to the lifeline that keeps the poorest students at work and a huge 20% cut to the skills budget risk throwing social mobility in our country into reverse at the very time we need to earn our way out of the cost of living crisis.”


 Editor’s notes

1. Total cuts to the HE budget look like over £100M. The Access to Learning Fund will now be merged with Student Opportunities and cut by £37m. Funding per student is set to fall as the government has refused to set out how many of the forecast extra 30,000 students will start next year.

 2. Minister for Higher Education and Science David Willetts admitted to Liam Byrne that giving students at private colleges unfettered access to the Student Loan System is set to cost over £600 million next year (2014/15).

 Ed Miliband talks of ‘radical offer’ on fees

Times Higher Education online, 25/03/2014, David Matthews

Ed Miliband has said that Labour wants to give voters a “radical offer” on tuition fees at the next election, a possible hint that the party could replace tuition fees with a graduate tax.

“Young people feel they have no control because they are going to get into mountains of debt if they go to university,” he said during an appearance on ITV1’s The Agenda programme. “We do want a radical offer on tuition fees because the future of our young people – something totally absent from [last week’s] Budget – is a massive issue that our country faces,” he added. In December last year, Liam Byrne, the shadow universities, science and skills minister, said that Labour’s election manifesto for 2015 could include a “long-term shift to a graduate tax”.  Currently, Labour policy is to cut tuition fees from a maximum of £9,000 a year to £6,000, although Mr Byrne said at the time that this “is what we would do if we were in government today”.

 Ed Miliband speaks out (by George Eaton New Statesman,   Published 25 March, 2014)

Faced with the most significant period of Labour discontent since last summer, Ed Miliband retained his preternatural calm on ITV’s The Agenda last night. “I took this job on three and half years ago and always knew this was going to be a close election,” he said in response to the narrowing opinion polls.

To a degree under-appreciated in Westminster, Miliband’s strategy has been shaped by the constitutional novelty of a fixed-term parliament. As one shadow cabinet member put it to me, “We know the date of the next election. There’s no danger of the government cutting and running . . . So we can work backwards. We know when we need our pledge cards by, our manifesto by and our party candidates selected by.” With major policy work on the economy (The Adonis Review), low wages (The Buckle Review), social policy (IPPR’s Condition of Britain) and devolution (Local Government Innovation Taskforce) due to be completed before the National Policy Forum in July, Labour strategists are confident that the detailed agenda craved by activists will begin to emerge.

In this regard, the most notable remarks made by Miliband last night were on tuition fees. After businesswoman Laura Tenison raised the plight of the young, he replied:

Young people feel they have no control because they are going to get into mountains of debt if they go to university. We do want a radical offer on tuition fees because the future of our young people – something totally absent from this Budget – is a massive issue that our country faces.

The promise of a “radical offer” on tuition fees was flagged up by Labour sources as “significant” and “worth listening to”.

Miliband has previously promised to reduce the cap on tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000, but it has long been clear that his ultimate ambition is to replace fees with a graduate tax, the policy he argued for in the 2010 leadership contest. In an interview with Labour List last year, he said: “We’re definitely looking at [a graduate tax]. I think there’s been some work going on at IPPR looking at the options too. We’ve said £6,000 [as a cap] before, and we’re looking at all of these issues for the manifesto, and what can be done.”

The report on higher education published by IPPR (one of the most influential sources of Labour policy) last year, modelled an option under which tuition fees and student loans would be abolished and replaced with a higher rate of tax for graduates. This would consist of levying an additional 2 per cent of tax on all income over £10,000 for a period of 40 years (Labour may wish to adopt a graduated version).

The policy enjoys the support of the NUS and other higher education organisations and, as the report noted, “is one of the most progressive forms of repayment system, since high-earning graduates will continue to pay the tax for 40 years, meaning they will contribute a greater share of the total cost than under the current system (when their contribution stops once they have repaid their loan)”.

One of the most common complaints made by Labour figures about the current system is that it allows the rich to contribute less than others by paying off their loan at a faster rate (thus avoiding interest on the debt). As well as ending this unfairness, the introduction of a graduate tax would also eliminate the fear of debt that deters some from applying to university.

And it would enable Miliband to make the politically potent pledge to “abolish fees”, the policy proposed but not delivered by the Lib Dems. With Labour reliant on the support of Lib Dem defectors and the young (it leads the Tories by 42-28 per cent among 18-24-year-olds) to maintain its slight poll lead, a radical offer in this area is rightly viewed as crucial to election victory. Miliband’s comments last night suggest it may be coming soon.

Universities need to look beyond higher tuition fees  Vice-Chancellors should join the discussion about alternatives to the current model.  by John Denham MP  

New Statesman, The Staggers blog, 25/03/2014,  Labour MP and former universities secretary John Denham says universities need to start discussing alternative ways of funding higher education.

Ed Miliband’s promise of “radical” policies for higher education funding is welcome. It reflects the reality of an unsustainable system that will have to be changed whatever happens. As Labour develops its new approach, are England’s universities are up to the challenge they face?Last week the rate of debt cancellation reached 45 per cent. Of every £1,000 lent to students for fees and maintenance, £450 will never be repaid. The bill for this write off falls on the taxpayer. In round terms, each year the government will borrow £14.8bn, knowing it will never see £6.6bn again.Many in the university sector don’t seem to see a problem with this level of waste. High fees have done them well for three years, letting higher education escape the worst of the pressures felt by the NHS or local government. That boost is slowly petering out as research funding falls and the fee is eroded by inflation. But many vice chancellors seem quietly confident that, sooner or later, government will crack and let fees go up again. David Willetts has certainly not ruled it out.

As loan write-offs hit 45 per cent, that confidence is surely misplaced. Even if politicians had the stomach for higher fees in what is already the world’s most expensive public HE system, the maths is against them. If fees rise further, even fewer graduates will pay back in full and the cancellation rate will rise steadily until it is over 50 per cent. What responsible government is really going to fund universities through a route that wastes one pound in two? More trouble is looming from George Osborne’s decision to fund further expansion from the sale of the student loan book. As the Public Accounts Committee has warned, selling the loan book may only be possible at a huge loss to the taxpayer. Selling an underperforming capital asset to pay your running costs is never a good idea, and no one knows what happens when the money runs out.

After three good years, the financial underpinning of universities is looking increasingly shaky. Vice chancellors who told themselves that high fees would bring independence are now more exposed to government decisions on public funding than for a long time. Something has got to give. Maybe, if the coalition won again, a few universities would be allowed to break ranks (giving us Ivy League fees but none of the Ivy League’s social responsibility) while the rest would have funding remorsely screwed down or undercut by private institutions. The alternative is to recognise that higher education will always have to be a public and private partnership, and this partnership should be as clear and transparent as possible. Scrap the ideology of high fees and put every penny of public funding you can into teaching. Fees will fall, public debt will fall, the cost of debt cancellation will fall, and more graduates will actually repay what they borrow.

We could take the opportunity to bring about much-needed change, giving employers financial support to co-sponsor degrees and promoting more routes for older and part-time students. Do this and, according to Commons Library modelling, we could see fees at around £3,500 a year for a three year degree and give universities an additional £1bn of usable finance every year.  The vice chancellors’ confidence in further fee hikes looks misplaced. It will be interesting to see when they join the discussion about alternatives.

John Denham is Labour MP for Southampton Itchen and former universities secretary 

Clegg insists there is no need to raise tuition fees level again

The Guardian, p.7, 26/04/2014, Rowena Mason

Nick Clegg has insisted there is “absolutely no need” to raise tuition fees, although he sidestepped a question on whether he would rule out such a move out altogether. The deputy prime minister made his comments in the Commons as Labour taunted him over reports that the government’s tripling of tuition fees to £9,000 was “on course to end up costing the taxpayer more than the system it replaced”.

Scottish independence: Universities Scotland call for clarity over post-Yes tuition fees

BBC News online, 25/03/2014

The body that represents Scottish universities has called for more details on charging tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK after independence. Prof Pete Downes, from Universities Scotland, was giving evidence to Holyrood’s education committee. He said he would like to see how the Scottish government would ensure it complied with European law. Students from other EU countries are entitled to free tuition in Scotland. The Scottish government has said it could continue to charge students from the rest of the UK if there was a “Yes” vote in September’s referendum.

Universities warned over ‘sleepwalking’ into Ofsted-style regime

Times Higher Education online, 25/03/2014, Jack Grove

Writing on a new blog launched by the Higher Education Policy Institute, Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, has warned tht universities may be ‘sleepwalking’ away from their current system of self-regulation via independent peer review towards a new external quality control system based on Ofsted-style inspections.

Germany’s great tuition fees U-turn

Steering Group member, Howard Hotson, had a piece in the Times Higher on 13 February on what we can learn from Germany on tuition fees. 


During the past eight years, university tuition fees were introduced into most west German federal states. Yet in a few months, every single state will have abolished them. These facts raise a series of topical questions that cast current English higher education policy in a fresh and revealing light.

Why did Germany introduce tuition fees in the first place? The answer, in short, is that politicians favoured the idea. Self-styled “modernisers” had been advocating tuition fees since German reunification in 1990. Cultural differences between east and west initially hindered this plan, but the main obstacle was a federal law banning tuition fees, which echoed provisions guaranteeing free education in the constitutions of individual states. In 2005, however, the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled that moderate fees, coupled with affordable loans, would safeguard these constitutional provisions. Within two years, a cascade of laws had swept through most of the federal Länder. The attraction of shifting some of the funding burden to individual beneficiaries was irresistible. So was the compulsion to imitate the changes made elsewhere, lest universities in one’s own state should remain less well funded, and the public purse more stretched, than in neighbouring states.

Seven out of 10 states in west Germany introduced fees in 2006 or 2007; an eighth, Bremen, was prevented from doing so by a lawsuit. Only two – Rheinland-Pfalz and Schleswig-Holstein – resisted the tide completely.

If such unanimity had been maintained, policymakers would now be declaring these changes inevitable. Yet within a single electoral cycle, their long-sought policy was comprehensively overturned. The only state still charging tuition fees in 2014, Lower Saxony, will cease to do so at the end of this academic year.

This raises a second and more interesting question: what immovable object blocked this seemingly irresistible force? The answer, in a word, is democracy. In Hesse, for instance, students protested en masse, a citizens’ initiative collected 70,000 signatures, and the ruling Christian Democratic Union party, fighting for re-election in 2008, reversed course in order to retain power. Tuition fees then unravelled at almost the same speed as they had been stitched up. Those state governments that followed Hesse’s lead in abolishing fees stayed in power; those that refused were removed from office at the next election. The U-turns involved were often spectacular. The conservative prime minister of Bavaria, threatened with a fee referendum, arm-twisted his liberal coalition partner into abolishing fees. He survived the election of September 2013 but his liberal partner, the Free Democratic Party, having announced it would return with a better idea on fees, lost power. In a few months, Germany’s brief experiment with university tuition fees will be over.

A political narrative of this kind raises more fundamental questions. Why did the German electorate react so forcefully to the imposition of annual fees of €1,000 (£824)? And why was their reaction so powerful politically? After all, in the winter of 2010, English student protests on a scale not seen for a generation were in effect ignored by Westminster. Why was popular pressure more effective in Germany? Sketching answers to these questions requires a far broader historical canvas, for they are ultimately rooted in nearly seven centuries of university history layered on top of German political geography.

For most of its history, Germany has been a federal entity. From the late 14th century, many of the leading princes of the Holy Roman Empire wanted universities of their own, not merely for prestige but to train loyal officials and churchmen without draining resources from their territories. The Reformation reinforced this tendency with theological logic: clergy henceforth needed to be trained in the precise local flavour of theology and church polity. By 1630, Germany boasted two dozen universities and another two dozen sub-university institutions of great variety. Within this crowded landscape, oldest was by no means best. Instead, the process of university reform was typically driven forward by new universities: Wittenberg, Halle, Göttingen, Bonn and the Humboldt University in Berlin, to name a few. In short, by the time the third English university (University College London) was established in 1826, Germany had been peppered for centuries with dozens of venerable institutions to which local populations felt a sense of pride, connection and eventually even entitlement (see map, above). When access to these local sources of cultural identity and socio-economic advancement were threatened by the thin edge of marketisation, local people rose up in opposition.

Political fragmentation also ensured that their voices were heard. After the disaster of the Third Reich, Germany reverted to its federal pattern. Education became, once again, one of the main responsibilities of individual Länder. Higher education is therefore a prominent issue in local politics, on which politicians cannot afford to ignore the views of local people. So while long-established local universities ensured that people had strong views on the public provision of higher education, Germany’s federal system of government ensured that those views were heard. In the event, traditions of local identity and local democracy were powerful enough to triumph over the neoliberal group-think of Germany’s politicians.

To the English reader, this combination of local universities, local politics and the reversal of seemingly inevitable tuition fees may seem like another world. But the same forces had produced the same result a decade earlier much closer to home: in Scotland. Between 1412 and 1582, this small and thinly populated country founded five separate universities in the localities – more per head of population than any other country in Europe. Even after the merger of the Aberdonian university colleges in 1860, Scotland remained dotted with ancient universities as a source of local pride and identity: if Germany is the land of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), then Scotland is home to “the democratic intellect” and the “lad o’pairts” (lowly but clever youth). When control over higher education devolved from Westminster in May 1999, one of the first major acts of the new parliament in Holyrood was to revisit the £1,000 tuition fees introduced throughout the UK in 1998: tuition fees were replaced by a graduate endowment fee, which was abolished altogether only two years after it came into effect.

The English case could scarcely be more different from the German one. Here, too, geography is key. Thanks partly to its island location, England unified early and then created by far the most unified system of higher education of any major European country. Two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) had a 600-year headstart on the others, piling up historical associations, prestige, buildings, resources, a collegiate structure and a unique pedagogical system, which make them different in nature from all the others. England therefore lacks a cluster of ancient local universities, providing a locus of cultural identity and aspiration. The English can scarcely even speak of their other universities without using vaguely disparaging categories such as “provincial”, “redbrick”, “plate glass” or “former poly”.

The German people have chosen to maintain the tried and tested system on which, they believe, their current broadbased prosperity depends

The results of this historical legacy for England’s educational system are profound, unmistakable and mostly regrettable. England has (after the US) the most highly stratified major university system in the world, the most extravagant and rapidly growing provision of elite private schooling, among the most unequal distribution of opportunity, wealth and income, and some of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. And these problems are now being compounded by the highest university fees by far of any public university system anywhere. At the regional level, control over higher education is non-existent. With no domestic basis for comparing different university systems, policy is made on abstract, speculative and, ultimately, ideological grounds. At the national level, universities fall far nearer the bottom than the top of government priorities. The result is a huge democratic deficit, in which politicians impose self-consciously radical policies lacking clear electoral mandate in the face of popular opposition without fear of effective resistance and the whole sector is manipulated by private lobbying and special interests.

During the 2010 general election, Labour and the Conservatives famously conspired to keep higher education out of their manifestos. And after the election, the Liberal Democrats infamously betrayed their most prominent manifesto commitment: to eliminate university tuition fees altogether. No party had a democratic mandate for radical change, yet no party seems prepared to challenge the changes that have been imposed: the Conservatives because they favour marketisation in principle; Labour because they are responsible for the economic debacle that provided the pretext for change; and the Liberal Democrats because of their notorious track record on this issue. If the changes imposed in this electoral cycle are allowed to bed down for another one, they may prove irreversible.

English politicians insist that they are only being realistic, that the public funding of higher education is financially unsustainable, and that the rest of the world will eventually be forced to imitate their bold reforms. Yet Scandinavian countries maintain high-quality, efficient mass university systems, like Germany, without charging students, and so do the Dutch and the Swiss with tuition fees at a fraction of the English level (see ‘University tuition fees in Europe, by country’ table at end of article). How is this supposedly unsustainable arrangement being sustained in Europe’s most economically sound and successful countries?

Here, contrasting the recent economic history of Britain and Germany is particularly instructive. Thirty years ago, the UK gambled its economic future on the neoliberal promise of a new knowledge economy, in which money could be made without making anything else. There was no point in trying to maintain manufacturing jobs in the UK, our politicians insisted: far better to adapt to the new reality and build a post-industrial economy on a new model. For decades, Germany was treated with disdain by the Anglo-American axis, which boasted that it had found a new high road to growth. The bursting of the US housing bubble in 2007, the meltdown of the international financial system and the revelation of deep-seated corruption in the financial sector has silenced those boasts, and set the UK scrambling to “rebalance the economy”, that is, to reindustrialise more along the lines of the German model. Germans, having resisted that neoliberal fantasy, can still afford public higher education, and are entitled to a bit of Schadenfreude. But having lost its gamble on the economy as a whole, the UK government is now wagering the future of England’s university system on another highly speculative neoliberal experiment. Trying to maintain direct public support for higher education, our policymakers assert, is futile: far better to adapt to the new reality (again) and build a marketised university system on a new model. The Germans contemplated this argument as well, and then rejected it decisively.

Hence the really crucial question: which country will prove more prudent this time around? Once again, it will be 20 or 30 years before the answer is evident, but a comparison of the ways in which these policies have been arrived at, and of their intended consequences, is nevertheless suggestive.

The German policy has a clear democratic mandate. The English policy, equally clearly, does not. Do the English need to learn lessons in democracy as well as economy from their German cousins?

The German policy is based on decades of experience. The German people have chosen to maintain the tried and tested system on which, they believe, their current broadbased prosperity depends. The English solution is self-consciously radical and highly speculative: England’s politicians are conducting an unprecedented experiment on one of the world’s most highly regarded university systems without first studying the plentiful empirical evidence that their key ideological assumptions may be unsound. Do the English also need to relearn the virtues of genuine conservatism, prudent empiricism and their traditional aversion to ideologically driven radicalism?

The Germans aim to maintain a fairly level playing field by funding all institutions roughly equally through progressive general taxation. Equality of educational opportunity is designed to benefit their country economically by nurturing talent and rewarding hard work wherever they are found, irrespective of family background. The explicit objective of the English experiment is to increase educational inequality by further concentrating resources within an upper tier of elite research universities. This will incentivise still greater investment by wealthy parents in the kind of private schooling that provides advantageous access to elite institutions. So the end result will be to distribute lucrative educational credentials roughly in proportion to wealth, as market principles require. With educational opportunity contracting to the wealthy, and the hope of shared prosperity dashed, the ideal of shared funding of higher education will soon appear odious and absurd. To many in England, wealthy or otherwise, it already does. German policy is therefore an act of faith in a future in which opportunity and prosperity are widely shared. English policy is an act of despair, in which the wealthy cloak the consolidation of their advantage in the language of a “competition” that they are favoured to win and a “choice” that only winners can exercise.

Viewed retrospectively, 2014 may well mark a major fork in the road, in which higher education policies were consolidated with profound consequences for cultural health, social cohesion and economic prosperity in England and Germany. For those who yearn for a Germanic change of course, the idea that this case of English exceptionalism is rooted in 800 years of political and intellectual geography is not encouraging. But the German example does indicate the strategy that must be adopted if this course is to be altered: the campaign against fees must be fought out in the localities. If national parties think there are no votes in higher education, individual MPs should be instructed otherwise. That requires a campaign, coordinated at the national level by the National Union of Students in cooperation with the University and College Union, targeted at marginal university constituencies.

Such a strategy puts students back where they belong: at the heart of the debate about the future of the English university system, rather than as passive subjects of a fee settlement imposed precisely because it affects future students, that is, those who are not yet old enough to vote. Like it or not, it is today’s and tomorrow’s students who will be left to pick up the pieces when the results of this radical experiment become clear in 20 or 30 years’ time. The final question, therefore, is whether young people have the maturity and wisdom to foresee and help avoid the outcome that their elders prefer to disregard. That’s a big ask, but one to which their German peers have already responded. We’ll know the answer by the time the British next go to the polls in little more than a year’s time.


See the full text here.

Competition and Choice in Undergraduate Education

By Roger Brown

Roger Brown is a leading expert on higher education policy in the UK, and an active member of CDBU.  His work commands attention because he habitually writes as a scholar rather than a polemicist, and eschews ideology in favour of a determination to let evidence guide his conclusions. The paper below, which we publish as an opinion piece (rather than a statement of CDBU policy), is Professor Brown’s submission to the Office of Fair Trading, written in response to the OFT’s recent ‘Call for Information on the Higher Education sector (undergraduate) in England’.  His analysis of competition and choice in higher education is both scrupulous and spirited, and we commend it to our members as an important contribution to the debate in which we are now engaged.

The design of public services is highly complex. Increased choice and competition can often be effective, but it needs to be designed carefully and used alongside a range of other tools and policies. (OFT, 2010, p.64).

Participants noted that competition may not necessarily deliver good outcomes in all public markets. The prospects for competition will depend greatly on the service area. Bigger delivery risks are likely to arise when market failures are present, there are strong public policy objectives which don’t align with providers’ objectives, or if the service is not easily understood by consumers who (in turn) struggle to make effective choices. (OFT, 2013, p.4).

Our research found very little of the calculative, individualistic consumer rationalism that predominates in official texts. (Reay et al., 2005, p.58).

The perfectly informed consumer of economic theory is nowhere to be seen. (Winston, 1997, quoted in Newman et al., 2004, p. 91).

Unfortunately, the question of whether the market in undergraduate education is working for students (and if it isn’t, what should be done about it) is far from straightforward. A key issue is whether and how far it is possible for students as consumers to assess the service they receive and thus exercise informed choices between different programmes, subjects and institutions. But even if that were possible, there would still be limits to the application of market theory to undergraduate education because of the risks to the wider benefits. The central issue therefore is how greater competition and choice can be combined with non-market coordination.


The undergraduate ‘market’ is one of considerable complexity. Whilst it falls well short of a classical economic market, it does exhibit a number of market features and a good deal of market behaviour. This is the result of a number of market-based reforms by successive governments since the early 80s. Careful assessment of these changes points to clear gains in efficiency and responsiveness, but also growing stratification and a reduction in diversity; the impact on quality has been mixed. This suggests that we should be very cautious before introducing any further competition, for instance by removing the remaining controls on funded student numbers. However the greatest weakness in present arrangements is the absence of any means of determining and controlling the balance between private and public interests in higher education.


It is clear that the provision of undergraduate education in the UK falls well short of a classical market where suppliers compete vigorously for the custom of well-informed consumers, and where unsuccessful suppliers leave the market to be replaced by new ones or expand into new markets. Both prices (fees) and, at least until 2015, places for Home/EU students are limited, as is entry to the market for new providers seeking public funding for themselves or their students.

A second preliminary point is that in so far as the focus of the discussion is providing institutions – universities and colleges – these are nearly all multi-product undertakings. Indeed the range of services and activities in which HE institutions engage must be amongst the widest in the public (or private) sector. In addition to undergraduate programmes, most universities and colleges offer postgraduate programmes (both taught and research, and at different levels), conduct research and scholarship, offer ‘third stream’ services (applied research and consultancy, technology transfer, training, etc) to business and the public and voluntary sectors, contribute to economic and community development, provide cultural and recreational facilities, etc (the University of Southampton even runs a well used City bus service).

Whilst these various activities may be organised separately, the associated resources are not necessarily distinguished, or distinguishable. Indeed, the value added from combining the various activities (for example, the potential benefits to the curriculum from having teaching staff engaged in research and/or professional practice) is one of the greatest strengths of the system. It should also be noted that in most of these ‘markets’ there is fierce competition between institutions, as there is also in the procurement of the necessary resource inputs: academic and professional staff, non-formula based capital and revenue grants from government or public authorities, donations from benefactors and foundations, etc. Moreover, this competition is increasingly international, competition that is growing by the day as developed systems become more market-focused and developing systems become more self-sufficient.

A third preliminary point is that even in undergraduate education there is no single, monolithic market. Not only are there the various levels (Certificate, Diploma, Degree, Extended Degree) of provision, modes (full-time, part-time, etc), and course lengths, but there is a huge range of subjects and disciplines, which themselves divide into many sub-disciplines and areas of study (even a conventional academic subject like history has many different types of course, as well as over a hundred course providers). In effect, undergraduate education in the UK consists of a whole series of micromarkets or quasi-markets (Le Grand and Bartlett, 1993). Moreover, these micromarkets are continually changing in response to changes and expansion in the academic knowledge base, developments in the wider economy, changing student preferences, periodic attention in the media (including social networks), etc, not to mention changing government policies to support or promote particular subjects (science, engineering, modern languages) or themes e.g., ‘employability’.

Finally, there is also enormous diversity on the demand side, as would be expected with participation rates nudging 50 per cent: young and mature, male and female, White and ethnic minority, differing socioeconomic status, etc. Entrants now come through a multiplicity of routes with a huge variety of entry qualifications, educational experiences and learning dispositions. Another element is geography. Whilst more undergraduates study away from home than in most other systems, many do not or are not able to (an important consideration when student choice is being considered). In short, it is hard to overstate the complexity of the market in undergraduate education or the dangers of a broad, ‘one size fits all’ policy approach.

With these points in mind, we now consider how far the provision of undergraduate education in the UK already approximates to a classical economic market.


Even though it does not (yet) meet the basic requirements of an economist’s market, UK, and especially English, undergraduate education, still has more market features than most other comparable systems: there is some price competition; the fee is intended to cover the cost of teaching most subjects (so that students are effectively receiving vouchers, long advocated by free market theorists such as Milton Friedman); controls have been lifted on a quarter of funded places, and will be lifted on the remainder from 2015-16; and there has been some liberalisation in the market entry rules. There have also been attempts to strengthen the position of students as consumers, something we shall come back to. In any case, as the economist William Baumol pointed out many years ago (1982), it is not necessary to have full market conditions to have market-like behaviour on the part of suppliers. In parallel with these reforms, the proportion of higher education expenditure that is met from private sources has increased to such an extent that the UK now has the highest percentage of such expenditure of any OECD country other than Chile (OECD, 2013, Chart B3.2 and B3.3). Higher education, and especially student education, is increasingly seen as a tradeable private good rather than a necessary public service.

The recently introduced policy changes that have in part stimulated this Call for Information come on top of a series of market-based reforms going back to the early 1980s and described in my recent book with Helen Carasso (Brown with Carasso, 2013). These changes may be classified under four main headings:

  1. Increased competition for research funding, the significance of which will shortly be apparent.
  2. Increased sharing of the costs of undergraduate education, both teaching and maintenance, between the state and the student/graduate.
  3. An enormous expansion of the supply side, with large numbers of new universities in 1992, 2004-7 and most recently (including private ‘for profit’ providers, for the first time), due to the liberalisation of the rules for degree awarding powers and university title.
  4. A growing emphasis on the student as consumer and greater efforts to create a real measure of consumer sovereignty.

Chapters 7 and 8 of the book under reference offer a detailed and considered assessment of the impact of these changes that also takes account of international, and especially US, experience (see also, Brown, 2011). In summary, UK higher education has become much more efficient, much more entrepreneurial, and much more responsive to users. On efficiency, the clearest evidence comes from changes in student-staff ratios and in the overall unit of expenditure per student; on enterprise, from increases in third stream income and services to business; on responsiveness, from student satisfaction rates which remain at levels of which any other public (or private service) would be proud. But there has also been a downside.

There has been an increase in stratification (both of the institutions and of the constituencies they serve, with unhelpful implications for equity and social mobility) and a reduction in diversity. The continuation and intensification of research selectivity, together with the partial deregulation of places through the AAB/ABB device, have strengthened the market position of the more research intensive institutions at the expense of the rest, a process reflected and reinforced by the various institutional rankings or league tables, and to the disadvantage of the great majority of students. The large, prestigious, multi-campus, research-focussed university has become the default model to which other institutions aspire. This in turn has damaged diversity, as has the progressive absorption of smaller, specialist providers (the colleges of education, the London medical schools, the art and design colleges) into larger, multicampus universities (this has been the main form of market exit). In effect, reputational hierarchy has replaced functional diversity. Finally, the increased emphasis on competition may have damaged collaboration when it is strongly arguable that the best means of satisfying student demand and protecting diversity, as well as making the best use of resources, is through some sort of managed ‘division of labour’ between institutions (this point is developed further below).

There is very little clear evidence about the impact of these changes on the quality of student education (something that in itself is worthy of note). There have certainly been improvements in the level of service students receive from institutions. But it is also possible to identify a number of developments that threaten the quality of the student experience and  academic achievement. These include reduced study time; increased term-time employment; pressure on pass rates and grade inflation; students less prepared for university-level study; increasing levels of plagiarism and other forms of cheating; declining levels of trust between students and lecturers; students adopting a more ‘instrumental’ approach to their studies; and a growing tendency for higher education to be valued for its ‘exchange’ value, especially in the labour market, at the expense of its ‘use’ value to the student (‘commodification’). The book also reports on a number of cases where institutional managements have overruled academic decisions in the interests of revenue and/or reputation: we do not know if these are isolated cases or the tip of an iceberg (almost certainly, somewhere in between).

Finally the book notes a tendency, already evident in US higher education but growing here, towards ‘dysfunctional’ expenditure. This is investment in things that have little or no educational merit but which are believed to attract students: residences, cafeteria, shopping malls, etc., what one American commentator called ‘gilding the palaces of exclusivity’. Merit-based scholarships, common in the US and growing here, are another form of expenditure that is wasteful, both economically and socially. Whilst some of these phenomena are also a reflection of long term pressures on resources, most are or can be connected to increased market competition at either higher or secondary education level, or both.

The limits of competition and choice in higher education

All this suggests that we need to be quite cautious in making the assumption that competition and choice can make the same contribution to achieving effectiveness and efficiency in higher education as they do in private markets in goods and services, and even in some public markets. The discussion turns on the nature of higher education, and especially student education, as a service.

It is usual to refer to externalities and information asymmetry as being the main constraints on the adoption of a market approach to the provision of public services (OFT, 2010). Externalities are certainly present and important in higher education (McMahon, 2009). In themselves indeed they significantly limit the role of consumer choice because students are by no means the only beneficiaries of higher education (Walford, 2006). The scope for competition and choice is further constrained by the difficulty of producing information about something of which the consumer is also the joint producer, and where timely, observable and robust indicators of quality are likely to be elusive, complex, of limited value and/or difficult to access. Of course, this is not a problem confined to higher education, but higher education may be a limiting case. Again, the detailed argument is set out elsewhere (Brown, 2007, 2012) and is just summarised here.

If the theory of consumer information were to be applied to the provision of student education, each of the following conditions would need to be fulfilled:

  1. There would have to be valid and reliable information about the quality of the programme of study on which the student may be embarking.
  2. This information would have to be accessible and comprehensible, i.e., usable.
  3. It would actually have to be used by the student.
  4. Institutions would have to react to the decisions made on the basis of the information.

By definition, if it is to be useful, consumer information has to be available before purchase. But student education is an ‘experience’, and indeed a ‘post-experience’, good (Weimer and Vining, 1992), the quality of which can only be appreciated by the user after, often long after, the educational programme concerned. Moreover, the consumer is also a joint producer – in many respects, the main producer – of that experience. There are many other variables that need to be taken into account: the curriculum, the learning environment and facilities, the organisation of the course, the skill and dedication of the staff, the contribution of the other students, etc. Moreover, these are rarely apparent or relevant at institutional level, universities being, famously, ‘loosely coupled’ organisations (Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005). Still a further difficulty is the fact that the opportunity to learn from repeat purchases is limited, as is the ability to switch programme, subject and/or institution. In short, the problem with information is not information asymmetry but the fact that no one has the necessary information about quality, or ever could have. This has not of course stopped people from trying to devise quality indicators, but such measures as have been devised – retention rates, degree classes, First Destinations, etc. – are at best crude proxies, made even cruder by making no allowance for input factors such as prior qualifications, social background, etc (a point made very clearly in the first evaluation of the National Student Survey but since ignored). There are further corollaries that we will consider in a moment.

The other requirements of the theory of consumer information can be dealt with more briefly.

Even if valid and reliable information about quality could be obtained, it is difficult to see how the necessary information about what everyone agrees to be a highly complex process could be made accessible and comprehensible to users and potential users. By definition, it would need to be heavily customised, which would be both complicated and expensive. In any case, we know from much research both in higher education and in consumer markets more generally that even where reasonable product information is available, from suppliers or intermediaries, a significant proportion of customers will not use it.1 Even if this difficulty  could be got round, there remains a serious question as to whether, given the complexity of the learning process and the number of variables involved, institutions can react by adjusting their provision.2 Finally, collecting, analysing and publishing information is not a cost-free exercise, yet no proper study of the costs and benefits of the National Student Survey or the Key Information Set has ever been done.

The information problem, together with wider changes in the economy and society as a result of globalisation, technological change and growing inequality, which place an even greater premium on high value qualifications, explains why in higher education the introduction of competition between institutions increases stratification and reduces diversity, as well as posing problems for quality and equity. The argument is set out most fully in Chapter 3 of my 2011 book and is just summarised here.

Like consumers in any other market, students and other users naturally seek information to enable them to compare and choose between different programmes, subjects and universities. When observable measures are scarce, they turn to substitutes. In higher education, it is institutional standing and prestige that serve. Instead of the competition for customers and revenue that characterises conventional consumer markets, what we see in student education, at least for conventional mainstream programmes, is competition for status. Student education is a positional market, not an economic one, where value is judged by price (Hirsch, 1976; Marginson, 2004). Moreover, this status competition is not only between universities and colleges and their staff: we also see it on the part of students, graduate employers and even Government Ministers (given the current administration’s penchant for the Russell Group). For students, institutional status is the key to getting a high value job; for employers, it is the key to getting more acceptable graduate recruits; for universities, it is the key to attracting students, income and donors. All wish to be associated with high status institutions which – inevitably, given the problem with performance indicators for student learning – generally corresponds with performance in academic research. These institutions in turn concentrate their resources on activities that are conducive to further raising their status.3

American higher education illustrates this process very well (Brown, 2011; see also, Dill, 2003, 2007). There are no price controls on the fees charged by the leading private universities. These institutions charge what the market will bear, levying fees that even after allowing for discounts and student aid are still well in excess of what is needed to provide an acceptable standard of education (Vandevelde, 2013). This in turn creates a ‘price umbrella’ which means that the US spends a relatively large share of GDP on higher education, yet offers very poor value for money, with about half of all students failing to graduate in less than six years (there are obvious parallels with American health care).

So while some measure of supply side competition and consumer choice in the undergraduate market may help with effectiveness and efficiency, it needs to be carefully balanced with non-market (Wolf, 1993) coordination if the associated detriments are not to outweigh the benefits. The remainder of this submission outlines what form this coordination might take.

Competition and wider benefits

To begin with, the argument presented above should not be read as an argument against giving students and other users information about what is available from institutions. It is more a plea that we do not make information, competition and choice bear more weight than they can or should, given the characteristics of the ‘service’ and also the fact that many of the necessary decisions are having to be made by people who are still very young. Even more than helping them to make reasonable decisions, therefore, we should be trying to protect all students from the consequences of making the wrong choice by doing our best to ensure that there is a wide range of provision of adequate quality. This in turn suggests several lines of action.

First, we need a greater degree of transparency in the uses that universities and colleges are making of the income they receive from student fees (and HEFCE teaching grants, as long as they exist). This is certainly not an argument against cross-subsidy. But it is saying that if student fees are to be used to support academic research, as is the case in most institutions, then the institution should be able to explain and justify this by reference to the demonstrable benefits to student learning (and vice versa). Institutions should also publish figures showing what proportion of expenditure is devoted to teaching and learning, with a breakdown between under- and postgraduate programmes (both taught and research). We also need to keep a watch on the increasing amounts of resources that universities and colleges are committing to marketing and branding, where there are already signs that we are following the American pattern where such expenditure expands exponentially as competition increases (Matthews, 2012).4

Second, we must make it easier for students to switch between programmes, subjects and institutions. This means taking a much more serious look at credit-based learning than we have so far managed. Whilst it is easy to see the problems with a genuinely credit-based system – reductions in institutional autonomy, more ‘bureaucracy’, greater fragmentation of the curriculum – it is also possible that a system-wide move to credit recognition and transfer could increase both student satisfaction and the efficiency with which resources are deployed (see also, Watson, 2013). Local or sub-regional collaboration between universities and other providers (see below) is probably essential for this.

Third, we need to pay serious attention to the risk that even the present amount of competition may be damaging the self- and peer regulation that is even more the key to improved performance in higher education than it is in other sectors (Smith and Reeves, 2006). This will, paradoxically, require stronger external regulation of a kind that a market cannot provide, and which, again paradoxically, is actually needed to enable competition to function effectively (Brown and Bekhradnia, 2013). The aim should be to promote and support academic integrity and cooperation, rather than to allow it to be undermined by increased market competition or institutions’ responses to it.5

Fourth, we need to revisit institutional diversity. In principle, a wide range of institutions is needed to meet the wider set of student learning needs in what is effectively a mass system. However, as already indicated, there are good grounds for supposing that as participation and competition have increased, real diversity of provision has reduced, recent market entrants notwithstanding. It may be that the best way of re-creating such diversity would be through locally or sub-regionally organised ‘divisions of labour’ along the lines of some of the US state systems, with clear demarcation of institutional missions, more efficient provision of support services, and much closer articulation with other forms of post-secondary education and training including employers. This would of course require a greater degree of collaboration and sharing of interests than we have seen hitherto, or that seems likely as market competition increases (there is of course no necessary contradiction between collaboration on some aspects of provision and competition on others, and we are beginning to see more formal collaboration in research although this is still quite limited in England).

This in turn suggests a final and overriding requirement. It seems clear from any proper  analysis that what economists are pleased to call ‘market failure’ is heavily prevalent in student, and especially undergraduate, education. If we are not to experience the disadvantages of marketisation without the advantages, and especially if we wish to preserve the wider benefits of higher education, then we need the information, the understanding, the powers, and the resources to be able to monitor the impact of increased competition and choice, and to be able to intervene when those wider benefits are placed at risk, as some of them already are. Regrettably, however, at the same time as we have increased market or quasi-market competition, we have scaled back our capability for identifying and remedying the detriments. If the Office’s Call for Information does nothing else, it is very much to be hoped that it will shine a clear spotlight on this absolutely fundamental issue for the future health of English higher education.6


1 There is also the question of equity of treatment towards other consumers who may not even be aware of it. This is a particular problem in higher education where, in spite of some recent progress, there remains a wide differential in participation depending on socioeconomic status, and it is students from more favoured backgrounds that are most likely to use what information there is about quality of provision.

2 There is also the question of whether institutions should adjust their provision, given the earlier point about students not being the only consumers of higher education. Not the least problematic aspect of the voucher-based funding system that the Government has introduced is that it quite deliberately gives student demand the dominant role in determining what is offered when the previous mixed grant and fee system provided for a plurality of choosers and ‘voices’: not only student demand but also employers, professional bodies, subject associations, etc, as well as the institutions themselves. This is incidentally a good example of the way in which a poorly conceived policy can threaten the wider benefits that are fostered in the public sector.

3 Propper et al., 2008, refer to a similar tendency of health care providers to focus on measurable and observable indicators at the expense of unmeasurable and unobservable ones.Hansmann (1999) argued that much in higher education can be explained by the notion of student education as an ‘associative good’, one where a major consideration for purchasers is/are the personal characteristics of the other customers.  What a university or college is selling is therefore, in large part, the ‘quality’ of its students. This is still another consequence of the difficulty of obtaining direct information about product quality.  Competition is dampened, partly because of larger gaps between the market segments and partly because of the high degree of inertia in the student body, over centuries in many cases.

4 According to Samuels (2009), only 3.5 per cent of the University of California, Los Angeles, budget in 2007-08 was spent on undergraduate instruction.

5 A case in point is the enormous resources that institutions are devoting to the National Student Survey. This is a device of questionable quality but institutions put a lot of effort into it. At least some of these resources could be better deployed in more directly improving quality through staff development, educational research and benchmarking.

6 The immediate trigger for current discussions about the future regulatory framework is the reduced funding role of HEFCE following the recent reforms. But it needs to be borne in mind that, like its immediate predecessor (the Universities Funding Council), HEFCE has a much narrower remit than the old University Grants Committee (or the National Advisory Body, which covered the polytechnics), which acted as a planning and coordinating body that went well beyond funding. It is not clear whether in future any organisation will have a responsibility for considering quality and sufficiency of provision across the sector, or for dealing with market failure where it occurs (once again, parallels with the health service suggest themselves).


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Dill, D. D. (2003) Allowing the market to rule: the case of the United States. Higher Education Quarterly, 57(2): 136-157.

 Dill, D. D. (2007) Will market competition assure academic quality? An analysis of the UK and US experience. In D.F. Westerheijden, Stensaker, B. and Rosa, M. J. (eds.) Quality Assurance in Higher Education: Trends in Regulation, Translation and Transformation. Dordrecht: Springer.

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Robbins Report on higher education – Fifty years on

By Peter Scott, trustee of CDBU and Professor of Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education

Fifty years ago this autumn the Robbins report on higher education in the United Kingdom was published. It was, and still is, the greatest report on higher education – by some way.

It stands in a kind of grand Apostolic succession from the 19th century ‘blue books’, those pioneering enquiries into social conditions undertaken in Victorian Britain which have a just claim to being regarded as the founding texts of empirical social science – and, incidentally, provided much of the raw material out of which Karl Marx fashioned Capital during long hours in the British Museum Reading Room.

The report led by Lord Lionel Robbins also stands comparison with other fundamental interventions in the development of higher education in other countries in the 1960s. The California ‘Master Plan’ and Edgar Faure’s reconstruction of universities in France come to mind.

When Robbins was published the UK had an elite system dominated by universities, in particular by Oxford and Cambridge and the civic universities founded in the 19th century, although the so-called ‘red bricks’ established between the two world wars and the first wave of ‘new universities’ were emerging fast. There were only a quarter of a million students.

Half a century later the UK system is unambiguously a mass system enrolling more than 2.5 million students. It is one of Europe’s big four that have broken the two-million barrier, the others being France, Germany and (surprisingly perhaps) Poland.

The system is still dominated by multi-faculty universities, as Robbins had foreseen. What the committee could never have foreseen is the sheer variety of these universities, which are quite unlike those of 50 years ago. There are many more of them, including the former polytechnics ‘promoted’ a generation ago. Yet Robbins provided the catalyst for this transformation.

Once a committee of the ‘great and good’ presided over by Keynes’ great liberal (we would probably say neo-liberal) rival as an economist had endorsed the need for university expansion, the cries of ‘more means worse’ died away.

Shortly before he died I interviewed Robbins and asked why he, a member of the recently discovered ‘establishment’ and a right-wing economist into the bargain, had nevertheless endorsed such a progressive, even rather leftist, project.

He replied by saying he had been most influenced by a remark of another London School of Economics titan, RH Tawney, that “you could never overestimate how much America had benefited from the fact that so many of her people had had at least the smell of a higher education”.

Read the rest of the post here.

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