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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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In today’s Research Professional (paywalled) Martin McQuillan asks:

What exactly is the problem that the green paper is determined to fix? Is it really poor teaching in universities? It provides no evidence of lamentable teaching beyond anecdote and impression. Is it the skills shortage? Doing an engineering degree depends upon choices made some time before entering university. Is it plugging the non-repayment rates of the student loan book? Increasing the fees cap will not help this. Is it even the creation of a politically convenient means of raising fees through the apparatus of the teaching excellence framework? If it is, then it is a willfully attritional and expensive way to do it, because as the green paper itself reveals index-linking fees does not require a vote in Parliament but is a delegated power of the Treasury.

This gets to the crux of what I’ve been trying to say in a couple of other pieces, namely that TEF is not in any way about teaching. Arguing that it “won’t work” is a bad argument, because it will work if you see the role of TEF as creating the ideal financial and ideological conditions for private provider entrance to the HE “market”. It won’t work to measure teaching, for sure. But that’s not what it is for.

So, the thing I want to add to Martin’s great piece is just a slight refinement of the question: “Is it even the creation of a politically convenient means of raising fees through the apparatus of the teaching excellence framework?” The answer to this is probably multi-faceted, but for me it raises the following points:

  1. I’d say this question is the wrong way around. It’s not about raising fees, but rather about giving massively below-real-term cuts to HE institutions that the government doesn’t favour. “Eventually, we anticipate some lower quality providers withdrawing from the sector, leaving space for new entrants, and raising quality overall.”
  2. “Market exit” is Jo Johnson’s euphemism for allowing a public university to go bankrupt. This will be achieved by a combination of these below-real-term cuts combined with a.) the bad marketing press that a TEF band 2 or 3 score entails; b.) the removal of the student recruitment cap, allowing TEF band 1 institutions to recruit more heavily. This will result in the financial failure of one or more public universities.
  3. The funds that are freed in this system will be redirected to underwrite the public loan book to which private providers will have access. This is why the fees rhetoric is significant, especially since it doesn’t require additional primary legislation.
  4. But by billing this cutting mechanism as a raise in tuition fees, Johnson might postpone the reputational damage that the privatization of Oxford would cause, especially given that the government has already cut the long-standing and unique Oxbridge tutorial funding.

And this all brings me back to thinking about a viable strategy to push against this. Traditional liberal humanist defences of the public university will likely fall on deaf ears with this government. They want a private higher education “market” (while also wanting ironically to protect the golden triangle institutions because, you know, they’re good. They must be. The government went to them.) What is needed is a way to fracture the coherence and agreement about how this should be done. And it isn’t hard. There is much in these proposals that should alarm Conservatives both in ideology and in practice. I think that Martin also points to this in another of his excellent pieces:

There is a remarkable contradiction in all of this. The government is proposing a substantial apparatus of scrutiny, surveillance, intervention and interpolation, which will occupy untold hours of academic staff time. It involves delegating new powers to the minister and to BIS and creating a new regulatory landscape that will take years to bed in. In total it represents a very substantial incursion of the state into universities, even if the paper insists that the TEF will be administered at arms length from government. In the name of creating a dynamic market the green paper proposes to build a glorious state bureaucracy.

This contradiction will not sit well with many Conservatives. And it should not. The “market” that is being proposed is completely opposed to the very notions of a market that it is claimed is needed. These proposals want essentially, via a centralised, statist, bureaucratic, and expensive system, to engineer the collapse of entities that, at present, customers (or students as I prefer to call them) are choosing to attend. Furthermore, often it has been the government’s interference that has led to real problems for institutions. The part-time degrees at Birkbeck and the Open University were hugely popular. But the government altered the funding structure and students found it hard to get funding for these courses. How is this open, transparent provision of demand? This is a government telling universities what they can provide, even when there is evidence that students wanted to study in this way.

TEF and Johnson’s other proposals will also be hugely expensive to the government. Johnson points to the costs of REF as a reason for renaming destroying HEFCE (even though the REF is much cheaper than RCUK at allocating funding) but then proposes another central exercise in bureaucracy that will run on a continuous basis. How can this be a policy of a Conservative government, who time and time again promise us less oversight, more deregulation and a more economically efficient system? Is it not remarkable that Johnson’s version of the HE market is so heavily reliant on a massive government subsidy and investment? How can we afford this?

Furthermore, much of the Conservative press has viewed the post-92 universities with suspicion. Pejorative phrases like “Mickey Mouse degrees” have been sounded, however unfair and inaccurate they may be. But the new system proposes to do away with most regulatory oversight with respect to degree-awarding entities. How will this result in more of the rigorous institutions that the Conservatives want? Won’t this just mean a flooding of the space with rogue degree providers, devaluing the name and continuing a trend that has already come under attack from Conservative quarters? If we want to think about national competitiveness, then this is a surefire way to make the UK’s Higher Education provision go down the pan.