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Campaign for the Public University
Actualizado: fai 16 horas 39 min
A new campaign has been launched in Ireland to defend the public university. A 10 point charter of action is available here. Please sign the petition in support. An article by Ronaldo Munck in the Sunday Business post sets out why the Irish University needs defending. Read it here.
According to a recent report by Andrew McGettigan, the gamble that the government has taken with higher education has just taken a turn for the worse with BIS failing at the most basic of tasks – that of managing its budget. The key issue, according to McGettigan, is that losses on student loans (caused by a higher than expected loan outlay and the poor performance of the economy, meaning that students are earning less and therefore making lower repayments than expected) now have to be covered by departmental expenditure as the Treasury refuses to continue issuing additional reserves. Where is this money going to come from? Well, according to The Guardian, it is likely to come from ‘cutting £350m of grants to the UK’s poorest students and slashing £215m from ringfenced science funding‘.
Just as we have predicted, the ill-thought out combination of competition and the introduction of income contingent loans is seriously damaging the prospects for students in England. It’s increasingly apparent that the scheme is going to be more expensive than that which it replaces, threatening to further curtail opportunities by requiring the government to restrict student numbers. It increases the burden of debt on students and encourages some to invest in sub-prime education at the same time that ONS data shows that graduate incomes have been falling since the recession.
Universities have a special responsibility for students and their future, but they have been more willing to secure their own financial benefits. It’s time for senior figures in higher education to speak out publically in defence of English higher education.
In a recent pamphlet published by the Social Market Foundation, Revisiting Robbins: Bigger and Better Higher Education, David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, addresses the Robbins Report of 1963 and its significance today in the light of the changes to higher education he has himself inaugurated. However, the pamphlet is not so much an attempt to recuperate Robbins as an attempt to recuperate his own reputation as presiding over an ill thought out and divisive policy.
After all, as Lord Moser (a member of the original team that produced the Robbins Report) states in the introduction to the pamphlet, one of the strengths of the Robbins Report was that it was so firmly evidence-based. This was in stark contrast to the Browne Review of 2010 and the subsequent White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, of 2011, from which the recent changes inaugurated by the Minister derive.
They also lacked a broad engagement with the wider values of higher education that animated the Robbins Report, and were restricted to a narrow conception of it as a private investment in human capital and as contributing to economic growth. Neither they, nor the presiding Minister, endorsed the Robbins axiom that, ‘courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’ In the present pamphlet, this is an axiom that the Minister now represents as putting the individual student at the centre. This may have some truth, but it was not the student as a ‘consumer’ as the Minister seems to imply.
Nor did the Browne Report, or the subsequent White Paper, endorse the three other benefits set out by Robbins (alongside the utilitarian principle that was uppermost in the minds of the Browne Report). These included the public value of higher education in producing ‘cultivated’ men and women, the value of securing the advancement of learning through the combination of teaching and research, and the value of providing a common culture and standards of citizenship.
Finally, unlike the Robbins Report that sought to mitigate the inherited stratification and hierarchy among institutions, the recent changes are designed to create hierarchy and reinforce divisions. This involves market competition and the support of for-profit higher education, which were not part of the Robbins agenda.
Indeed, the concern to mitigate hierarchy on the part of Robbins should be placed in the context of wider reforms to secondary education that were also taking place. These sought to reduce the social stratification expressed in the division between public and private fee-paying education and in the different types of publicly-funded schools. The present government is reinforcing these hierarchies at all levels and now reinforcing the connection between private secondary education and ‘selective’ universities.
In the present pamphlet, the Minister might appear to make a volte face. He writes that, Robbins ‘is in no doubt that study at this level is inherently worthwhile – a belief which remains true today whether the subject is history or particle physics. He sees higher education as part of a wider education for citizenship. This is also as true today as it was then.’ (pages 17-18) The Minister also endorses a further expansion of higher education and argues that, in the past, this has not reduced the returns to individual graduates or the public benefit in terms of wider economic performance: ‘Remarkably, the demand for graduates has kept broadly in line with the supply of graduates, and individuals and the economy have both benefited financially as a result’ (page 19).
And yet, and yet …
The minister quickly goes on to suggest that it is possible to get more fine-grained data on returns at the level of University attended and course undertaken. To what end? The intention is to use it to put pressure on fee-levels and also to differentiate among students in the terms of their loans. These are measures that will operate alongside the removal of a direct subsidy to non-STEM subjects to mean that history is, indeed, treated differently than particle physics. It will also ensure the separation from research and teaching in non-STEM subjects at the majority of institutions, a separation that Robbins argued was damaging both for academics and students alike. In fact, the Minister makes the argument that the expansion of higher education after Robbins and the disproportionate number of students studying non-Stem subjects suggests that there is too much research in those areas.
The Minister also seems to have forgotten his discussion of getting fine-grained course-specific information on graduate incomes when he argues towards the end of the pamphlet for the virtues of income-contingent loans. It is likely that Robbins might have supported them had they been proposed at the time of the report. However, it is unlikely that he would have argued that direct public funding of undergraduate courses should be removed for non-STEM subjects. The justification of the ‘graduate pays’ is based on the private benefit of higher education, but Robbins recognised other public benefits. It was only the Browne Report and the subsequent White Paper that failed to acknowledge those benefits precisely because they suggest that they should be supported by public funds and not left as the indirect consequence of private interest.
It is also the case that the Minister regards the current version of loans as too expensive and, therefore limiting the expansion of student numbers. The intention is to alter the loan system in order that they reflect the prospective future earnings of graduates (future predictions of which Robbins believed to be unreliable). In this way, it would be possible to identify those students and courses likely to meet the income threshold for repayment and those that do not, in order both to alter the nature of the loans offered to different types of students and to put pressure on courses where graduate incomes are insufficiently high. Whereas Robbins witnessed a secular decline in the range of income inequality (through to the 1980s), the Minister (and his Government) endorses widening income inequalities and is re-fashioning higher education as an engine of inequality not its amelioration.
The Minister bemoans a previous absence of incentives for teaching, despite the interest in teaching being close to Robbins’ heart. In this context, though, the Minister has sought to introduce a competitive system of higher education in a manner at odds with Robbins own understanding of economic incentives and the nature of public goods. Thus, the Minister writes, ‘the paradox is that unleashing the forces of consumerism with more information for prospective students and funding following their choices is the best way of bringing back traditional academic focus on high-quality teaching’ (page 35).
The funding that should follow student choice is intended to operate in the context of wider fee differentials. For those institutions pressed to the Minister’s preferred £6000 student fee (and he is still devising measures to ensure that competition from for-profit providers will secure lower fees), students will pay more for their education than under the previous funding regime, while the institution will receive less funding per student. This is hardly a measure to improve teaching quality.
On the other hand, for those institutions that have expanded their student numbers (at the ABB margin) and have charged the higher fee, they receive more funding and are able to divert a higher proportion away from teaching. Most Vice Chancellors view the fees they can charge overseas students as close to the level of fee that they might charge all students. After all, a global higher education system would not recognise a difference between home and overseas students.
Does the Minister not understand the economic principle of the ‘margin’, where each additional student provides the same income for an institution while requiring little in terms of the commitment of additional teaching resource for each extra student recruited? When the fee cap is finally removed, students will not be paying more for a better education, but will be paying more for the benefits of education as a positional good in an increasingly polarised labour market (itself foreign to Robbins’ expectations).
Indeed, the argument that the time students spend studying for their degrees has fallen since Robbins is also somewhat disingenuous, if not dishonest. It does not take into account the fact that an increasing proportion of students must undertake part-time work in order to support their studies, following the cuts to grants and the restrictions on the amount available as loans to support living costs.
This misrepresentation is reinforced by the Minister’s use of TRAC data. The latter was designed to identify overhead costs associated with teaching and research in the context that this would enable their recovery from research funders. This was always likely to lead to an overstatement of research time and, therefore, the appearance that it was being partly subsidised by teaching income. Certainly, this is the assumption of the Wakeham Report of 2010 and its measures to scale back such overcharging.
Similar problems are evident in the way in which NSS scores are discussed by the Minister. Here, the fact that the overall score in 2012 for feedback at 72% satisfied is below that of the overall satisfaction at 85% is taken as an indication of an area for improvement rather than an artefact of composition. Nor does the Minister reflect upon the correlation between satisfaction scores for feedback and degree results; the fact that most universities operate modular systems where assessment is in the term in which the course is taken means that, by the time of the completion of the NSS, students have a fair idea of their likely final degree score. ‘Feedback’ is the only place where students can respond with reference to how their performance has been assessed. Ironically, just as Universities are, in effect, enjoined to ‘teach to the test’ by the emphasis placed on NSS scores, so the Minister goes on in the pamphlet to welcome their input to reduce this aspect in A-levels!
In the final substantive chapter of his pamphlet, the Minister extolls the Robbins Report’s commitment to institutional autonomy. Once again this is disingenuous. Of course, many academics dislike political interference enacted through audit measures and strictures upon funding agencies (such as the Impact Agenda), in both teaching and research. However, if successive governments have dismantled the protections that Robbins felt were necessary to protect the vitality of intellectual life, the replacement of political regulation by the market doesn’t represent a re-invigoration of autonomy.
The replacement of collegial autonomy, that Robbins favoured, with managerial hierarchy, began with the Jarratt Report of 1985, but it has become ever more accentuated. Indeed, in a moment beyond satire, Vice-Chancellors, have announced that they need to call themselves CEOs, because of the difficulty in communicating the substance of a University and what distinguishes it from any other business corporation.
It is hard to convey the degree of self-deception that characterises the Minister’s Pamphlet, but perhaps the following statement that concludes the chapter on universities and the machinery of government will suffice: ‘Now science, protected from interference by the Haldane Principle, is linked to universities, with the same minister responsible. And in the Business Department they are part of a culture which understands science is to be supported not directed. We are as close to Robbins’ vision for the machinery of Government as we have ever been’ (page 66).
The fact that the Chief Executives of our Research Councils and the Chief Executive Officers of our Universities remain silent in the face of such statements – and do nothing to defend the values truly espoused by Robbins – is the real indication of the extent to which state-directed marketization of our universities is a form of political interference that brooks no opposition. Properly revisiting Robbins is to discover the nakedness of our Emperor-Minister and the complicity of the courtiers.
Today sees the official launch of FutureLearn Ltd, a private company operated by the Open University to deliver ‘free online courses’ – MOOCS – offered by its partner institutions. The latter includes 21 British universities, plus Monash and Trinity College, Dublin. The launch has been facilitated by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which also issued a report on MOOCS today.
As reported previously, the term ‘free’ appended to ‘online courses’ is something of a misnomer. FutureLearn is a private company precisely so that it can attract private venture capital and make money for shareholders from MOOCS. The content is apparently free, but the intention is to find a business model by which it can also be paid for in terms of licensing fees for its use within other degree programmes, or through accreditation.
Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor of the Open University refers to the creative ‘disruption’ of industries by new technologies and that higher education is no different. Similar language was used by Sir Michael Barber of Pearson Education in his account of the ‘coming avalanche’ that higher education was confronting. ‘Disruption’ is the language of neo-liberal ideology.
The word ‘free’ has previously applied to higher education – not to describe making it available for profit seeking, but to describe how it was provided at no cost to its students. The university has also been understood to have a cultural role and function for wider society. For the 1988 signatories of the Magna Charta Universitatum, that meant that “its research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power.”
Eight of the FutureLearn partner universities in the UK are signatories to this statement. Along with their other partner institutions, they are also participants in a higher education system that is subject to government-directed marketization.
The UK government is clear in its mission for universities, both in its strategy for internationalisation and in its promotion of MOOCS. The problem, for them, is the independence of universities from economic power. As Andrew McGettigan has argued, the government sees the problem precisely as being that of a corporate form that protects their independence from economic power.
As the Government report on internationalisation of higher education stated, “It is for institutions themselves to decide their own structures. Some have found ingenious ways to combine profit-making and non profit-making arms… A positive strategic commitment to remain at a certain size is one thing. A reluctant ossification and decline, caused by an inability to see how to change a structure that is thought to have outlived its usefulness, would be quite another.”
This is repeated in the support offered to FutureLearn by Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts: “FutureLearn has the potential to put the UK at the heart of the technology for learning agenda by revolutionising conventional models of formal education. New online delivery tools will also create incredible opportunities for UK entrepreneurs to reach world markets by harnessing technology and innovation in the field of education.”
But what of the FutureLearn partners? Which of the universities participating in FutureLearn will disrupt themselves? They plan not to by restricting membership only to those universities that are in the top 30 in at least 3 out of 4 UK ranking systems. However, it is clear that they see the future in terms of the division of higher education between elite education at a traditional, ‘bundled’ university and the much cheaper provision of higher education by for-profit providers and other universities forced to reduce their fees by competition. The course content of the MOOC provider will be one of the instruments by which this new division will be created.
It is also clear that this new, for-profit model is directed at lifelong learning, in a context where falling applications from mature students and part-time students shows where the new fee regime has begun to bite. Increasingly, ‘second chances’ are to be provided by for-profit providers. This is a situation recently criticised by a damning US senate report, the Harkin Report, which identified the ‘sub-prime’ education offered for sale, primarily to students from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds. 22.4 percent of all revenue was spent on marketing, advertising, recruiting and admissions staffing, 19.4 percent on profit distributions and just 17.7 percent on instruction.
The disruption of higher education is occurring not by new technology, but by the pursuit of profit. Do the Vice Chancellors of the universities that are participating in FutureLearn truly think they can continue to define themselves by the simultaneous pursuit of higher learning and commercial entrepreneurship? Before taking up his post as LSE Director, Craig Calhoun, wrote about the key lessons to be learned from the LSE-Libya scandal. These were that Universities had allowed themselves to forget that they were not commercial corporations and that they needed to remember and stay true to their academic mission.
Perhaps significantly, LSE has not partnered with FutureLearn. In “offering online courses from some of the world’s best universities for free”, have they looked at who else has not joined them? Of the British Universities ranked in the world top 20, none are partners in FutureLearn. Perhaps this is another divide in English higher education?