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Campaign for the Public University
Actualizado: fai 2 horas 31 min
The Convention for Higher Education was formed to promote the public values of higher education and includes colleagues from the Council for the Defence of British Universities, the Campaign for the Public University and the University and College Union). It has produced an Alternative White Paper, In Defence of Public Higher Education: Knowledge for a Successful Society in response to the Government’s White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy. The Alternative White Paper will be launched at the Houses of Parliament on Monday 13th June, 4.30-6.00. Further details on the Convention website.
The government’s current legislative programme for higher education represents a major challenge to the idea of a university and its essential role in the public sphere in the creation and dissemination of knowledge and debate about common objectives. It narrowly views higher education as an investment in human capital and as a contributor to economic growth. It acknowledges that UK universities are world-leading in teaching and research, while destroying the framework of regulation and support that produced that success.
The government’s plans propose to open the sector to private for-profit teaching providers, notwithstanding the history of for-profit higher education littered with poor student outcomes, and with spending concentrated on marketing and profit-sharing. It calls this the creation of a level playing field, while private providers will be relieved (by impending legislation on degree-awarding powers and the title of university) of the wider functions of a university. These moves will undermine the role that universities play in their local communities by opening them to competition for revenue from providers that have no such role.
The government’s proposed “Office for Students” is not about supporting students. It is structured to ensure market competition, to give private providers access to high tuition fees. Its board members will have “the experience of fostering choice and competition, and of robust financial control”. Supposedly “at the heart of the system”, students will instead be short-changed. The Teaching Excellence Framework includes no direct measures of teaching quality. It is designed to facilitate fee increases, with the possibility of abolishing the fee cap in the future.
In contrast, the Alternative White Paper makes the case for higher education as a public good and explains in detail why the present proposals are so damaging and dangerous.
It seems that the White paper setting out the Government’s legislative programme for higher education following the recent Green Paper will be published on May 18th. Two recent newspaper articles have given some indications of what to expect. The Sunday Times suggests that there will be a major push toward for-profit education, with Pearson set to become the first FTSE company applying to be a university. According to the Daily Telegraph, Government ministers believe that some universities – including Russell Group universities – do not offer value for the £9000 fees that they charge and offer poor and insufficient teaching, notwithstanding that the NSS suggest otherwise.
What is clear is that the Government is dismantling public higher education and yet the response within higher education is weak when compared with that of junior doctors in defence of the NHS. In the article below, John Holmwood suggests the reason is that some in HE have thought that there would be winners. However, he suggests that higher education will be damaged at all levels by the legislative programme that is being proposed, and that the only beneficiaries will be shareholders and executives of for-profit providers.
Defending HE as a public good
The Browne Report (2010) and subsequent White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System (2011), set in motion a fundamental change to the nature of higher education in England (with implications for the rest of the UK). The recent Green Paper, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, goes further toward completing the process. To be sure, there had been earlier developments toward managerialism and performance audits – beginning with the Jarratt Report in 1985, through the Research Assessment Exercise (replaced by the Research Excellence Framework), the Transparent Approach to Costing, the National Student Satisfaction Survey, and the introduction of student fees after the Dearing Report of 1997 – but higher education as a public good remained paramount value (and, indeed, public accountability was frequently the justification of those changes).
Increasing marketization and competition
Since the Browne Report the only purposes for higher education that have been recognized by Government are those of improved economic growth and investment in human capital. Each of these purposes is to be pursued through the marketization of higher education and market outcomes are held to be – by definition – an expression of what is in the public interest, notwithstanding increasing concerns – for example, by OECD – that economic growth is no longer inclusive.
The Green Paper is all about increasing competition in the sector in order to begin a process of differentiation of fees across courses and institutions. The lifting of the fee cap of £9000 has not yet been proposed, but we are moving closer to a situation when that last plank of the Browne Review will become politically possible (Conservative-majority Government has removed the limited brake imposed by the Liberal Democrat coalition partners between 2010 and 2015).
The aim at this stage is to provide for the entry of ‘for profit’ providers and enable them to have the title of ‘university’. This is described as establishing a ‘level playing field’, by incorporating them in regulatory arrangements that do not advantage existing institutions. This description is something of a misnomer. It will be a level-playing field created only by re-defining the university so that it no longer has to cater for a range of subjects or combine teaching with research and other activities (for example, third sector activities). Nor will for-profit providers have to provide library facilities in order to access the research produced by other universities, since Government policies on Open Access are designed to make that research freely available. For-profit providers are stripped out institutions – what Michael Barber, member of the Browne Review and Chief Education Adviser at Pearson, describes as ‘unbundled’ – concentrating on a single teaching function delivered on a cost-effective basis. The level-playing field is open to free-riders.
These new providers are likely to compete for cost-sensitive, debt averse students, and – because their model will be online course material with ‘local’ tutorial support – students for whom expensive living costs to attend a residential university mean that they need to study close to home. But the model is also likely to affect staffing. The curriculum will be centrally provided – Pearson, for example is a curriculum provider at A-level – and taught by hourly-paid or teaching only contract staff.
Engineering the binary-divide
The lifting of the student numbers cap has already led to an increased concentration of students at ‘selective’ institutions and, consequently, pressure on other universities, primarily post-92 institutions. These now face more intense competition from for-profit providers, especially in subjects like business, health sciences, law, and accountancy. This is likely to mean reducing fees closer to those offered by for-profits, as well as adopting their staffing models and restructuring course provision. This will reduce the depth and breadth of such universities and reduce their capacity to contribute to local communities, both economically and culturally, a contribution that is a vital public benefit, as described by New Economics Foundation in their 2011 report, Degrees of Value: How Universities Benefit Society.
The section in the Green Paper on how to manage ‘exit’, then, is not directed simply at for-profits with their short-term orientation to share-holder value, but also to existing universities which may become financially compromised by the new competition. Equally, the section on governance and the possibility of changing corporate form is designed to facilitate mergers, including with for-profit providers. Open University, for example, is already in competition with itself through its for-profit offshoot Future Learn which is a vehicle designed for venture capital investment.
In effect, the Government is promoting the market to engineer a new ‘binary divide’. However, it is unlikely that it will be struck between post-92 institutions and older ones as in the past. It is likely to be drawn at a much higher level, perhaps including some post-Robbins institutions and excluding some Russell Group institutions. What is certain is that these institutions will experience competitive pressures, deriving from the new fees regime, but also a tightening of research funding, leading to restructuring of subject offering and changes in staff structures to take on more casualization.
Silent on research
The Green Paper was relatively silent about research, although indicating a commitment to continuing with QR funding through the REF and maintaining funding of Research Councils in money terms, if not real terms. However, there will be increasing calls for this funding to be concentrated in fewer institutions. So, RCUK funding has become concentrated in fewer institutions (in part, a consequence of ‘demand management’ to reduce administrative pressures on peer review) and there are similar trends with QR-funding, despite it being more dispersed than that of research councils. Indeed, the Russell Group has long lobbied that when research funds are tight they should be more concentrated on fewer institutions, specifically the members of the Russell Group (see their 2012report, Jewels in the Crown: the importance and characteristics of the UK’s world class universities, and note that it does not refer to the UK’s world class university system).
Differential effects for staff
This stratification of higher education institutions will have differential effects for staff. The character of work and staffing structures are likely to change at all institutions, but be more pronounced at those pushed cast below the divide. However, we can expect other effects to be more pronounced at those institutions that are pleased to call themselves ‘elite’ or ‘selective’. They will experience a tightening of audit culture, metricisation and individualized performance management. In this, the Teaching Excellence Framework will be added to the Research Excellence Framework in a situation where preaching the mantra of being a ‘Global Top X (insert a number just above actual rank order position) University’ encourages their prospective students to be particularly sensitive to rank order position.
Small differences magnified to large claims
As the experience of the NSS shows, small differences are magnified to large claims. So, the Russell Group declares itself to ‘outperform’ other universities – an average of 85% satisfaction compared with a sector wide 82% – and rank order positions are used to differentiate universities. However, this is a form of Maoist performance management, since being above and below average operates in relation to a shifting denominator. A programme of study can perform well in one year, its staff can decide to continue with their effective practices into the following year and discover themselves to have dropped by virtue of changing performance elsewhere. Performance can have improved, but relative position can fall and all managers are concerned about is rank order position. Equally, any differences can derive from characteristics of the students and small changes. For example, if ethnic minority students score differently from other students, or if female students score differently from male students, then differences will be produced by the composition of the students, not differences in course quality. This is the reason why HEFCE previously declared cross-subject and cross-university comparisons using NSS scores to be invalid and excluded statements about rank-order position from being included in KIS data. For discussion see here.
Although many academics believe that post-92 universities have had more managerial and less collegial structures than older institutions, it is the latter that are leading in individualized performance management – whether through grant capture targets, REF quality indicators, H-index measures, or student evaluation scores. Research-intensive universities are increasingly audit-intensive universities.
Less public funding, more government control
There is a deep contradiction in the current situation. Universities are less dependent on public funds, yet are subject to tighter government direction. Universities are more market-oriented. But subject to more central-planning. We have moved from a system of publicly-funded universities to a system of debt-financed universities maintained by our students, but where their interests are less well-served. In 2009, a European Commission Report comparing different systems of tertiary education found the UK to perform best on research and on teaching and also to offer best value for money. That is the system that has been dismantled since 2010 promoted by politicians and advisory committee members who are promoting the interests of for-profit companies, and by Vice Chancellors pursuing salary packages commensurate with their presumed status as CEOs of large corporations.
It is time that policies for higher education reflected the interests of students and wider publics. And it is time for all those who believe in public higher education to act to defend it, just as our colleagues are defending the NHS from its dismantling.
This post by John Holmwood first appeared on the Making Science Public blog.
A new threat to the contribution of university research to public debate has been identified. This derives from Cabinet Office rules that would prevent bodies in receipt of grants from Government from lobbying. It has been suggested that this could muzzle academic research.
Ironically, the rules derive from lobbying by the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA)– a right-wing think tank that does not declare the source of its funding – and were explicitly directed at charities and NGOs like Save the Children, Action on Smoking and Health and Alcohol Concern. In effect, the IEA argued, it was tantamount to Government funding lobbying by ‘sock puppets’ for special interests against its own decisions. The rules have been watered down from what IEA initially proposed. They are now explicitly directed only at the funds derived from Government; bodies may use other funds for lobbying.
It is unlikely that the Government intended that the rules would affect research undertaken by universities. Not least because this would go against another plank of Government policy, that of the Impact agenda. Both QR funding from the REF and grant funding via the Research Councils require the demonstration of the benefit of research for users and measures to ensure that it is taken up by them. Indeed, the ESRC impact toolkit recommends the early involvement of users in the design of research and the co-production of research with them. The new rules seem to contradict this requirement, at least if the user of the research is seeking to modify government policy indirectly through other agencies. Moreover, researchers are not generally in receipt of other funds, and their ‘impact costs’ are typically included within grant proposals.
Of course, since the rules are to be applied via a clause inserted into grants, it is likely that research grants will not have the relevant clause inserted (although, of course, the possibility remains that a clause could be inserted into specific grants). However, this should not be the end of the matter. There is a deeper problem with the impact agenda itself and wider government policies toward charities and NGOs that is itself shaping academic research in ways damaging for democracy. Under the impact agenda, academics allow their research to be shaped by government, but emphatically deny they are being muzzled.
The Impact Agenda
Let’s begin from the beginning. The purpose of the impact agenda is to shorten the time from idea to practical use. Where an earlier tenet of research policy, which even the IEA upheld, was that there should be no public funding of research for private beneficiaries, that has been inverted such that there should be no public funding unless there is a direct, identifiable user. The latter can include a commercial user and this is also encouraged by the way that all property rights in research funded by RCUK accrue to researchers and their institutions. Open access policies are also directed at making research easily available to small and medium enterprises, as the Finch Report proposed.
Of course, the impact agenda is careful to set out that the beneficiaries of research can be various, notwithstanding that commercial beneficiaries find particular favour. Government policies have for some time promoted market-based solutions. The competitive market aggregating private decisions is held to embody a generalized public interest and, in consequence, it is to be preferred to collective decisions made through politics. At the same time, Government is seen as the arbiter in politics of the public interest. Commercial lobbying for market deregulation and the like is unproblematic, but charities and NGOs are potentially set against both market and Government. As Philip Snowdon writes in the IEA pamphlet, “State-funded charities and NGOs usually campaign for causes which do not enjoy widespread support amongst the general public (e.g. foreign aid, temperance, identity politics). They typically lobby for bigger government, higher taxes, greater regulation and the creation of new agencies to oversee and enforce new laws.”
However, the Government has not simply sought to restrict the speech of charities and NGOs, it modifies their behaviour by other means. The idea of co-production of research is mirrored in the co-production of services. For some time, charities and NGOs have been encouraged to deliver services together with Government and local authorities. It is, of course, their dependence on government funding to do so that renders them vulnerable to the IEA critique. However, there has been a parallel process of the privatization of services which means that charities are also encouraged to engage with for-profit providers. In some cases – for example as in charitable academy schools and their for-profit provider of educational services that has replaced the local authority – the purpose of the charity is to facilitate profit-making in an area that was previously not-for-profit.
From the perspective of the IEA, the problem is that there are publicly funded charities and NGOs that remain committed to a social justice agenda, but from the perspective of the sector, there is a problem of the erosion of the very charity principle and advocacy itself. This is explicitly stated in a report for the National Coalition of Independent Action: “The force of entering the welfare market, increasingly as bid candy, has had disastrous consequences for voluntary services and their ability to respond to community needs. The capitulation by many in the voluntary sector, including its national and local leadership bodies, to these government agendas has done much damage to the ability of voluntary organisations to work with and represent the interests of individuals and communities under pressure. Privatisation and co-option into the market is driving down the conditions of staff working in voluntary services, diminishing their role in advocacy and jeopardising the safety of people using such services.”
The Market Agenda
Put simply, the problem for a broad definition of the impact agenda and a wide range of potential users and beneficiaries is that the latter are being reduced and increasingly constrained toward a market orientation. The lobbying activities of charities and NGOs are being reduced, but the number of charities and NGOs addressing social justice issues is also being reduced. Of course, academics are able to seek to influence Governments directly, to provide policy-based evidence, and this is increasingly what is done. Bob Ward cites Sir Paul Nurse to the effect that, “it is crucial to get the mechanisms right that result in a good relationship between politicians across government and expert researchers, to ensure that the best decisions are made.” There is nothing in what is proposed that makes that type of insider arrangement problematic, since it is what enables the Government to control the agenda.
However, the impact agenda has eroded academic freedom in other ways, too. Commentators were grateful at the Chancellor’s apparent commitment to the Haldane principle and the principle of dual funding. Both forms of funding face the same constraints of a tightening impact agenda. More serious is that government is increasingly involved in dictating the direction of research itself. This is most evident at the ESRC in its funding of ‘What Works? Centres’, but also in allocating tranches of funding to other projects, including the proposed new ‘Grand Challenges’. The mantra of independence is chanted: only research judged to be excellent through peer review is funded, but two new issues are elided. The first is that the direction of research is increasingly centrally defined, with a decline in responsive mode research. The second is that the impact agenda places ‘users’ as peer reviewers. This includes representatives of BIS, the Treasury, or other Government departments, can now be involved in the evaluation of which research applications should be accepted.
Finally, although the academic community rises up against specific threats, it has generally acceded to the wider environment that has eroded academic freedom and non-utilitarian claims about the public value of research. For example, the Campaign for the Social Sciences lobbied MPs at the time of the last general election, but the value of social science it promoted was its benefit to policymakers and commercial organisations seeking to understand different aspects of the public’s resistance to their endeavours. There was no mention at all of widening inequality as an issue, despite major OECD reports setting this out as a pressing global challenge, and no mention of social science research facilitating public debate.
Notwithstanding that it was an election, there was no mention of social science’s contribution to democracy. But there is a similar reticence on the part of Research Councils. For example, the ESRC declared that, “as a non-departmental public body the ESRC is bound by purdah during a pre-election period … During this time we are unable to engage in any activities that might in any way influence the outcome of the election and must avoid competition with parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public.” This may be understandable on the part of the ESRC as a public body, but it was extended to its ‘investments’ (ie its grant-holders). The latter were advised, “Essentially, what we want you to do is to ask the question ‘why now, can this wait?’ If something is not time-critical then it is best left until after the election and the outcome is known.”
The risk to research undertaken in the public interest comes not from pieces of legislation against which the academic community lobbies specifically, but from the general direction of public policy which has incorporated universities and their research into a narrowly-defined knowledge economy that serves private interests.