In the early summer of 2010, a decision was taken by an inner cabinet of the incoming Tory-led coalition government that has revolutionized higher education in England and Wales (though not in Scotland). Framed as part of a wider dismantling of public services in the name of ‘austerity’, the decision was to almost totally remove public funding for university teaching and replace it with high student fees backed by income-contingent loans, with the intention of creating a ‘market’ in higher education. Since then, a succession of steps have been taken to consolidate this marketisation. It has been made much easier for private providers, both for-profit and not-for-profit, to obtain degree-granting powers and the right for their students to be eligible for publicly-backed loans. The cap on student numbers has been removed, encouraging universities to maximise their income by admitting greatly increased undergraduate numbers. And a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been installed which awards Olympic-style gradings to universities on the basis of such metrics as the employment record of their graduates.
The result has been a change in the character and above all the ethos of universities. Universities are now forced to regard each other as competitors in the same market, where their flourishing will be dependent on the accuracy with which they pitch their products to appeal to their particular niche of consumers. Staff-student ratios have declined dramatically, and the chances of students being known by the academic staff in a department are often remote. The huge increase in numbers taking any particular course in a given university has fundamentally altered the educational experience. At the same time, students are being encouraged to ask whether they are getting ‘value for money’ from their courses. There has long been evidence from the USA of considerable numbers of individual students demanding (and academics conceding) higher grades, and there is starting to be anecdotal evidence in this country of students saying, in effect, ‘I have paid high fees and I expect a high mark’. In addition, much of the increased income which the fees and higher student numbers bring to universities is now being lavished on amenities and facilities, such as swish student residences, which are marginal to the main intellectual and educational functions of universities. (Excessive pay for vice-chancellors may be seen as a further consequence of the market mentality.)
These changes are evident in the very different attitude that now prevails to the whole process of admission to university. In the UK we have always regarded universities as selective: from among those who applied, universities chose those judged best able to cope with the level of education being offered. People spoke colloquially about having ‘got into’ a particular university; others, even others with reasonable A-levels, were turned away. Now, large numbers of universities are ‘recruiting’ rather than ‘selecting’: craving the fees that students bring, universities are anxious to take as many as possible. And as universities higher up the chain in terms of their standard A-level offer expand their numbers, institutions lower down the chain, desperate to maintain income, have to make up their numbers with applicants who are less well qualified.
What further changes in this direction can we expect in the immediate future, given the market logic that is now installed at the heart of the system? The TEF will in time force a differentiation of fees between institutions, and before long we shall almost certainly also have differential pricing of courses. We shall probably see: the removal of loans for those courses with an unsatisfactory record of post-graduation employment; a greater say for employers in what is taught; two-year degrees; more private providers, with their students being eligible for loans on exactly the same basis as those at ‘public’ universities. At some point we shall see an institution declared on the edge of bankruptcy and forced either to close or to merge with another institution. There will definitely be a sharp rise in student complaints and very probably a big increase in litigation against universities.
The election of a Corbyn-led Labour government might change things, but thus far the Labour party has been shamefully quiet on what the future shape of higher education might look like, let alone whether they would abolish the greater idiocies such as the TEF. Labour surely ought to recognize that, for example, allowing for-profit institutions to cream off public money by charging high fees to students who are provided with publicly-backed loans is fundamentally antithetical to its values. One of the several difficulties the party faces is that if it reverses these developments, it risks being seen as the party that reduces overall student numbers, and it could then be accused of denying ‘access’ to many from least-privileged backgrounds.
Quite apart from various funding and assessment mechanisms, there are two fundamental questions that this country, whichever party is in power, needs to address but has not as yet even begun to think seriously about. The first is whether there should not be some more explicit differentiation of type and function among institutions of higher education. It is clear that the existing c.140 ‘universities’ are now highly differentiated in practice, and it may not make sense to continue to submit them all to the same funding and assessment regimes. But any attempt to think intelligently about this is likely to be shouted down as ‘elitism’.
The second question, which is even more likely to be attacked on those grounds, is whether it is right that there should be no limit to the numbers entering universities. At the moment, the high fees system is defended on the grounds that it has made it possible for more young people to go to university (though actually it has only done so in conjunction with removal of the numbers cap). But is that an unquestionable good? Are all those entrants suited to what should be the demands of university-level courses, or should there be other forms of post-18 education that might work better for some of them? At secondary level, the comprehensive principle is rightly cherished, but it doesn’t work at the tertiary level, and so we urgently need to think about differentiating provision, both for 18 year-olds and for lifelong learning. Fees in their present form should certainly be abolished, but Labour has to do more than speak in hopeful tones about a National Education Service from early years to graduation if it is to address the canker of marketisation that has now been introduced into higher education in England and Wales.