A few thoughts on #HEwhitepaper

A few thoughts on the Higher Education White Paper

Firstly, steps to encourage new entrants into the market should be welcomed. A ‘this is the way we’ve always done things’ attitude breeds complacency in all walks of life, and a more active role for the voice of business who provide graduate employment, or for successful international institutions, widens the choice for students. Likewise — the removal of minimum student numbers. Some students will feel eminently more comfortable at smaller institutions, and providing quality education is delivered, students will be able to assess what demographics of a university will be best suited to them.

However, I am deeply uncomfortable about the removal of the 9k tuition fee cap, because the rise in tuition fees does constrain student choice, the opposite of what the proposals are trying to achieve. The choice becomes no longer about what institution best suits their teaching needs, and it becomes about what they can afford.

Following discussions on Twitter (bastion of nuanced argument), it was pointed out to me that should a business, a philanthropist, or simply an education enthusiast, use the new Degree Awarding Powers, we could have new institutions specifically targeted at those most at risk of missing out on HE (those from more socially deprived economic backgrounds). At which point, the market becomes interesting.

The specific example given was if Toby Young was to set up a low-cost intensive two year degree course programme, targeted at poor bright students. How would the market respond? It would mimic the successful elements of such a plan, giving brighter poor students options about where they could reasonably attend. But the market works both ways, and the past five years have indicated that when given a choice between keeping fees at a lower level (6k) in order to drive competition, or charging the maximum (9k), the sector opted to up its fees.

So the innovation that competition is meant to introduce could soon simply become the preserve of the rich. One of the organisations expected to register to provide degree level qualifications is Google. Imagine what Google could deliver — a pipeline of STEM students, trained in the skills of tomorrow, the option for training to be delivered in conjunction with teaching. All of these would address some of the issues in the graduate market, but the idea that this type of degree would not come with a premium is naïve. And if it comes with a premium, at some point, it will move out of the reach of students from more ordinary socioeconomic backgrounds.

Ever since the introduction of tuition fees, HE has come to be seen as an investment in one’s future, where the graduate premium would make it worthwhile. The title of the white paper says it all — “Success as a Knowledge Economy.” University is for teaching, the success of which is then cashed in upon graduation. But for the majority of 17- and 18-year olds making the decision where to go to university, the investment isn’t theirs, it’s that of their parents. And promises of a graduate premium on earnings won’t be enough to justify a lifetime of debt — particularly as the majority of jobs now being created aren’t at graduate level, and there are disturbing signs of the graduate premium beginning to fade.

I compare my university experience to that of my sister’s, who is two years older than me. I went to a (then) top 10 UK university, she went to a top five world leading university. My living costs were subsidised by a grant, whereas quirks of the system meant that her costs were not. I had two part time jobs to subsidise my university experience, she was not allowed to have a job during term time. My grant meant that I could afford to buy the reading materials required for my course as our library had an inadequate number of copies, whereas her reading texts were more expensive (and therefore unaffordable to buy), but her university provided them. She took a four-year course, which cost more money, but got disproportionately more teaching hours than I did. Her university experience was better value for money.

These sorts of questions and comparisons are typical of what ordinary students face when deciding on university education. I use the word ‘ordinary’ deliberately rather than ‘economically deprived’ — we did not grow up with riches, but nor did we grow up on the poverty line either. If our parents were working class, we would both accept that we have quite clearly transitioned into middle class now.

But our university experiences were miles apart and reflected what universities should be focusing on if they really are to address the barriers for students from more ordinary backgrounds — resources, teaching time, affordability. History suggests that the sector believes the first two cannot be addressed without examining the third. As soon as the sector was given the option of raising their tuition fees, they opted to do so, to reflect what they saw as the value of their teaching. My institution upped its fees to secure its own survival, without an increase in the amount of contact hours. The argument goes that charging less than 9k would have sent the wrong message to potential students, which I can accept. But there was nothing in place to stop anyone charging 9k without ascertaining the level of quality the institution was providing. The market was allowed to spiral, without any checks and balances. Those checks and balances are introduced to an extent with the introduction of a Teaching Excellence Framework, but once a university satisfies the new authority that it is providing enough, teaching time again becomes a preserve of those who can afford it.

I am a firm believer in ‘what matters is what works’, and I do not doubt that new providers in the market will bring innovative approaches, that may be replicated across the sector. But what this white paper needed to do was focus first on correcting the mistakes of the past; introducing more marketisation into the sector without sufficient oversight and regulation of what was being delivered hasn’t resulted in better outcomes for students. A market approach to education isn’t wrong in and of itself, but if student choice is to be at the heart of higher education, then the government should do more to ensure that everyone can get to the starting line. If England’s millions of students are starting from the same position, universities will have to compete for their custom — that’s where the magic will happen.