The marketisation of higher education combined with the government’s efforts to regulate it has led to the worst of both worlds, argues Professor Norman Gowar, former principal of Royal Holloway, University of London

 

Since I am long retired I cannot take part in the government’s survey on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) but here’s my pennyworth as an observer who has attempted to keep in touch with the general effects of the marketisation of universities.  Ironically, the government has responded to the inevitable market failures with more regulation, giving us the worst of both worlds.  The government does not seem to understand either markets or universities.

The faults in the NSS have been widely discussed but it is the philosophy behind it that is the crux of the problem. There is much to be said for universities to run surveys of their own students to help improve their experience but it is not a matter for external agencies. In real markets companies run their own customer satisfaction surveys without the imposition of government controls.  For the government to impose the NSS with its emphasis upon the student experience rather than the reliability of standards is as though airlines were regulated on the standard of their in-flight meals rather than the safety of their planes.

 

A deep misunderstanding of a university’s purpose

The TEF suffers from much the same problem, not least because it relies to some extent on the National Student Survey (NSS). But it raises a whole new set of issues. TEF – and also widening participation agreements with the Office for Students (OfS) – focuses upon process rather than outcomes. Universities are judged by lengthy submissions rather than by educational and diversity success.

Where TEF and NSS do use concrete measures, they are misguided. The breathtaking proposal that brownie points will be awarded to universities whose graduates earn more reveals a deep misunderstanding of the purposes of a university to the individual and to society. Graduates with a top first in physics are considered of greater importance if they go into a career in the stock market rather than become teachers. Studying a humanities or science subject out of intellectual interest has no value at all.  And this disease infects school leavers by the fact that it is intended to guide their choice. Further, the expectation that awards will be in proportions 20% gold, 50-60% silver, 20-30% bronze suggests yet another ranking exercise focussed on relative rather than absolute performance standards. Surely if the purpose is to improve the student experience and – more importantly – education, the target should be 100% gold.

The focus on procedure and long bureaucratic submissions has had a deleterious effect on the internal running of universities. Procedure is the world of the central administration. Direct interactions with students and their well-being, education and even future employment is the realm of academic departments. There has been a marked shift in influence from the academic community to central administration, both in the day-to day running and in the development of strategy.

 

Educational value is no longer a priority

Academics’ primary interests are in their subject. They will have as much contact with academics at other universities as they will within their own. They will have loyalty to their university if they are in a department that is well supported and has fellow staff and students who provide a stimulating environment and has a reputation in their discipline that reflects well on them as individuals. Traditionally, the vitality of a university derived from a focus on academic departments. Their needs and views would be represented upwards by deans who had to balance the competing demands within their own faculty and recognise those from other faculties. A university-wide balance was then achieved at pro-vice-chancellor and vice-chancellor level. The purpose of the central administration was to ensure the smooth running of the enterprise and to provide professional advice to ensure financial probity. Significant interference in a department’s strategy and execution was an exceptional event where the department had lost its way. That intervention needed to be time limited to avoid permanent damage to the department’s national and international standing.

In essence the process was ‘bottom up’ from the coal face of teaching and research where real understanding lay to those leading the enterprise. Now, the process seems to be top down with the administration running the show and making decisions about how departments should go about their business to improve NSS and TEF scores. Educational value and the well-being of students has slipped down the priorities.

 

The dead weight of inescapable debt

Before the bonanza of £9,000 fees and uncapped numbers, competition was focused on attracting the best academics and students. Universities that wanted to succeed and grow their national and international reputation ensured efficient mechanisms for utilising the talents and goodwill of their academics. Subsequently the high profit margin on students has changed the nature of universities.  The priority has been to attract more students with money spent on marketing, including vast building programmes involving the dead weight of inescapable debt and maintenance costs, assuming the good times will continue to roll. With student numbers uncapped there has been no real competition if universities simply lower their entry requirements and engage in grade inflation to maintain progression and completion rates.

Where will the axe fall when the government calls time?  Answers please on one sheet of A4.

 

If you’re interested in reading more, the recently-published English Universities in Crisis: markets without competition, by Norman Gowar, Jeff Frank and Michael Naef, analyses recent government policies and proposes solutions to the crisis.