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Slouching toward the Market: the new Green Paper for Higher Education, Part II

Slouching toward the Market: the new Green Paper for Higher Education, Part II

The Government’s Green Paper, ‘Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’, represents the further implementation of proposals for the marketization of higher education set out in the 2011 White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System. Higher education is directed toward economic value (for students, employers, and taxpayers) and toward economic impact for increased productivity and economic growth. These goals are to be facilitated by market competition. In these respects, it represents the familiar neo-liberal package of de-regulation via markets together with strong central direction from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).


De-regulating the Public Interest

Much is made in the Green Paper of the need to reduce ‘regulatory burdens’ and of the need for ‘light-touch monitoring’, but, from the point of view of academics working currently within universities, the most likely outcome will be a heavy burden of regulation through the new TEF. It seems unlikely that this will be introduced without the consequence of increased surveillance and managerial intervention associated with the REF and the NSS.

Even the indication that there will be changes to the REF to make it less burdensome, is likely to be associated with an increase the use of metrics. It may reduce the burden for university managements and the successor body to HEFCE, but it will also provide tools for a more intensive management of research than that currently experienced by most academic staff.

The Green Paper proposes a streamlining of the different agencies responsible for monitoring higher education performance, and proposes to replace them with an Office for Students (OfS). The latter will be constituted as an arms-length body, but the consolidation of all powers within it only makes it easier for Government to twist its arm.

One of the regulatory purposes of the OfS will be managing the accreditation of ‘alternative providers’ (primarily ‘for-profit’ providers) to give them degree awarding powers and university title. This is to allow them an increased share of student numbers by ‘levelling the playing field’ and incorporating them in the single regulatory framework of the TEF. Nothing is said about their ‘advantage’ in the competition for students from not having a research function and being able to employ full-time teaching only staff (with a higher proportion of lower-paid teaching staff, than in universities that are also engaged with the REF). The consequence is clear in the explicit expectation that competition will bring course closures and the ‘exit’ of existing providers (Part B chapter 2 of the Green Paper is dedicated to managing ‘exit’).

Alongside the relaxation of the restrictions on the entry of alternative providers and the proposal that they should be subject to the same processes as existing higher education institutions, so there is a proposal to deregulate the latter. This is contained a series of proposals in Part C Chapter 3 modifying the ‘public interest’ constraints on existing universities, whether Higher Education Corporations (mostly post-92 institutions governed by the 1988 Education Reform Act) or other universities under Privy Council approval. These changes are designed to increase the autonomy of senior managers, including to dissolve and dispose of assets and change governance arrangements.

Notwithstanding several statements of the need to preserve academic freedom, then, the only lens through which it is viewed is that of the autonomy of senior managers.


Undermining research

Issues of research enter the Green Paper in several ways. First, as a canard to suggest that universities are more focused on research, to the neglect of teaching (there is little evidence of a problem except those produced by the very introduction of the new fees regime which, unlike the NSS, has elicited high dissatisfaction in response to questions about ‘value for money’). Second, as an unstated implication of its provisions for the exit of existing providers with research functions. Less dramatically, of course, course closures will also have an impact on research in particular subjects.

Significantly, the Green Paper seems to show a poor understanding of the relation between teaching and research, especially in social sciences and humanities (perhaps deriving from its failure to consult in these areas). But it also shows a poor understanding of markets.  The implication of its sharp division between teaching and research is that student fees should be spent only on provision of teaching. At least, the Green Paper indicates that students want to know how their fees are spent. In fact, this information will not be provided by the TEF; instead, students will have information on the ‘teaching environment’ for purposes of comparison across universities.

Of course, returns to shareholders and high executive salaries arise as a potential issue of for-profit providers, but, given the absence of a research function, these can all be assigned as either ‘management costs’ of teaching or returns to those providing the ‘capital investment’ in teaching. In 2009, according to the Harkin Report, 22.4 percent of all revenues of for-profit providers in the USA was spent on marketing, advertising, recruiting and admissions staffing, 19.4 percent on profit distributions and just 17.7 percent on instruction.

The Green Paper implies that ‘surpluses’ accruing to not-for-profit providers from revenues derived from teaching should not be applied to research purposes, but should be ploughed back into additional resources for teaching. But increasing student numbers in a course also increases revenues against fixed costs, so additional students can be taught more efficiently. Why should this not contribute to research and scholarship? Certainly, there can be no market-based argument against it, nor are the higher fees charged to overseas students criticised for generating surpluses used for purposes other than teaching and investment in the ‘student exxperience’.

In part, Universities are being penalised for their earlier misuse of TRAC. The purpose of TRAC was to assign fixed costs (estates, libraries, IT, etc) to research and teaching activities, where the former could be recovered through provisions for charging the Full Economic Cost (FEC) of research to Research Councils. This created an incentive to overstate the amount of staff time assigned to research.  This, in turn, made it possible for the Government to suggest that teaching revenues were, inappropriately, subsidising research. However, this depends on treating TRAC data as real rather than an artefact of the FEC regime.

Because the Green Paper proposes the end of HEFCE, there are significant implications for research evaluation. As with the rhetorical gesture towards ‘academic freedom’, there is a gesture towards the importance of the dual-funding model and the Haldane principle. The latter, apparently, is secured by peer review. However, research funding through Research Councils is increasing directed toward BIS priorities and the Green Paper suggests that this will be further reinforced. However, the dual-funding model is also compromised by the proposal that QR may be administered via RCUK (a worse alternative, of course, would be BIS itself) and the further suggestion that this should be subject to greater strategic direction. In any case, BIS is likely to favour RCUK as the body for administering QR funds since it is already enacting policies ensuring greater selectivity and concentration in research funding. This is something that has previously been lobbied for by Russell Group universities, that constraints on the research budget mean that a greater share of it should be reserved for research intensive universities. In a similar way, the Green Paper argues that the same constraint means that the research budget should be directed toward economic impact.

The Government remains committed to a next REF by 2021, but is unsure of its form, other than that it will be strongly directed toward economic impact. Once again, its emphasis is on lighter touch regulation (in terms of the processes of evaluation). It is unlikely that this could be achieved except by an increased role for metrics, notwithstanding recent criticisms in the independent review commissioned by HEFCE, the Metric Tide. Academia itself is increasingly a ‘Big Data’ project for both teaching and research.

The precise nature of the REF will depend on the Nurse Review of Research Councils, which was due to report in Summer, and now, apparently awaits the outcomes of the Spending Review due on November 25th. The prognosis is bleak, both in terms of the Nurse Review being able to offer only limited reforms and in terms of likely cuts to research funding.

Here is the paradox of higher education and the Green Paper. It stresses the importance of market competition and investment in productivity and economic growth. Yet successive governments following neo-liberal policies have presided over a dramatic reduction in private investment in research and development such that the UK now has one of the lowest proportions of income invested in research and development among OECD countries. As research funding is cut the Green Paper seeks to leverage investment in higher education to increase private investment. All values are reduced to economic values, but in place of a promise to re-balance the economy, the economy is increasingly directed toward short-term profits and financialisation. Economic inequalities widen, the proportion of ‘graduate jobs’ declines, and the claim that this can help increase social mobility is increasingly hollow.


Read Part 1 here



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