Rebecca Lowe was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

Over the summer and long into autumn, Andrew Adonis raged on Twitter about vice-chancellors’ pay. Meanwhile, fallout from Labour’s “we really will scrap tuition fees” election pledge hit the Conservatives hard. In context, these developments were not a surprise. Although a substantial HE Act received Royal Assent last April, clarity continues to elude official discussion about the sector. The government responded to the vice-chancellor crisis by giving the new regulatory Office for Students (Ofs) the power to require universities to provide “justifications” for salaries over £150,000. Yet higher education remains a political football, with money matters — not least funding and fees — playing star forward.

Since the 1980s, transfers of cost from taxpayer to student have exacerbated underlying confusions over universities’ societal purpose. It’s an understatement to say there are fundamental questions that require serious consideration before the OfS’s “justified” remuneration policy can (if ever) mean anything at all. But now, Jo Johnson has been moved from his role as universities minister. And, today, we’re finally getting some details about the “major” review that Theresa May promised in her last year’s party conference speech. (Decide for yourself whether that’s a coincidence.)

So, what to expect? More tinkering around the edges? Some big (economically and socially ill-advised) announcements on cutting fees or loans’ interest rates, as predicted over the past few days? Perhaps. It seems that May will also, however, in her speech in Derbyshire this afternoon, discuss the need to “break down false boundaries to look at [the] whole post-18 system”.

Hopefully, this is a signal that the Government is game to lead a proper national conversation about the role that education should play in twenty-first-century Britain. If so, at its heart must be a recognition that universities are complex, increasingly bureaucratic, growing systems, usually supporting thousands of students and employees – and most importantly, that they are incredibly varied. There must also be an acknowledgement that universities are not the only institutions providing higher education, and that post-18 education does not only occur in the higher education sector. That the key issues here are purpose and variety cannot be overstated.

Decades have been spent on the claims that all institutions are “equal” (equating to the handing out of financially-beneficial “university” status, alongside the message that attending any university is as “valuable” as attending any other, and that attending anything that isn’t one is not really valuable at all). But the under-appreciated variety in the higher education sector alone goes a long way to explaining difficulties over deciding who should pay what and when, what the costs and benefits of studying are, how to quantify its intrinsic and instrumental individual and societal value, and even what “justified” levels of remuneration for its workers might be.

Before we jump to possible methods for solving things, however — including, say, simply respecting demand, and moving towards a genuinely free-market model (don’t let’s pretend that’s what we currently have), in which these kinds of questions are answered for themselves — let’s consider how higher education “works” at the moment.

Almost all of Britain’s universities are overseen, and partly funded, by the Government. While these “public” institutions are responsible for their staff (who are not public servants, as often in Europe), and have their own assets, their research and teaching standards are externally regulated, as are their funding and fee-setting arrangements.

Moreover, while it is often reported that the state usually contributes around £5 billion per year to tertiary education, the Treasury’s official spend was as high as £10.3 billon in 2014-15, and considerably more in the preceding few years. This discrepancy in reporting typically arises because some accounts of spending do not include the added expense of future student loan repayments: while financial responsibility has seemingly been transferred on to graduates, in reality the state (i.e. the taxpayer) “pays” these fees.

Indeed, the 2017 PESA release explains that the Treasury has decided to change its approach; it estimates 2017 tertiary education spending at £6.4 billion. Yet the cost of student loans must not be forgotten. Oft-cited research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2014 calculated that, at that time, for each £1 loaned, the “long-run cost” to the government  was 43.3p; almost half of higher education institutions’ around £35 billion income (against c.£33 billion expenditure) comes from fees.

Until this taxpayer expense significantly decreases, we must continue to have very distinctive expectations of the higher education sector — not only owing to its educative nature, but also its privileged position. Much stems from this, not least a vital point about fairness and opportunity.

It has been foreshadowed that May will, today, talk of “identify[ing] ways to help young people make more effective choices when they leave school”. This could be promising. Unsurprisingly, the standards of research and teaching at HE (and other post-18 educative) institutions vary enormously — between and within — yet this is seldom officially acknowledged. None of this is to disparage the successes of less-“academic” institutions, but rather to underscore the futility of generalised comparisons. While the various independent assessments and rankings of institutions are useful, it would be of particular use to less-advantaged school pupils if the Government were to work with the sector in order to determine simple key objective metrics on which relevant sets of institutions could be judged against each other. Clear official rankings based on each of those metrics (rather than a combined index) could then be published. It is simply unfair that many pupils lack access to sufficient information to be able to grasp relevant differences between institutions — not least regarding the opportunity cost the uninformed face in terms of intellectual and social capital.

Above all, however, and rather than using a substantial review of the sector to play around with highly publicised problems such as fees and funding, we must hope that the Government will finally address systemic faults. Before that happens, discussion of commonly-posed proposals such as the introduction of differential fees, or the real integration of higher education and further education, remains largely redundant.

Ideally, the upcoming review will set the scene for a differentiation of tertiary education that would increase internal competition, and allow for a greater degree of specialism, nationally-targeted research investment and collaboration where appropriate, and maybe even a genuine free market at the “top end”. Although the current diversity of the sector is to be celebrated, treating all institutions the same in terms of our expectations and the way in which we judge their performance is ineffective and socially deficient. Unless May’s review begins by focusing on purpose and variety, it will face the same long-term problems as its predecessors.

82 comments for: Rebecca Lowe: If May’s review is to be meaningful, it must shatter the illusion that all universities are equal

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