Nine Propositions in Defence of Public Higher Education

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  1. Executive Summary

  1. Background

  1. Nine Propositions in Defence of Public Higher Education

Appendix Government Mis-Selling of its White Paper

The signatories to this defence of public higher education endorse the principles of the university contained in the Magna Charta Universitatum:
The university is an autonomous institution at the heart of societies differently organized because of geography and historical heritage; it produces, examines, appraises and hands down culture by research and teaching.
To meet the needs of the world around it, its research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power.
Teaching and research in universities must be inseparable if their tuition is not to lag behind changing needs, the demands of society, and advances in scientific knowledge.
Public higher education is not state-controlled higher education, but publicly-funded higher education that respects these principles and secures other public benefits appropriate to a democratic society. These principles and benefits are put at risk by a market in higher education and the entry of for-profit providers.

Executive Summary
1.1 The Coalition government has a vision of the market and how it operates to benefit consumers, but it has no separate vision of higher education and its benefits both to students and wider society. It is now applying its vision of the market to higher education. Its White Paper (2011) and the Browne Report (2010), which preceded it, are the only major policy documents on higher education in the last fifty years to make no mention of the public value of higher education. The only benefits mentioned are the private benefits to individuals in the form of higher earnings deriving from investment in their human capital, and to the ‘knowledge economy’ in terms of product development and contribution to economic growth.
1.2 These are important benefits, but higher education also serves multiple public benefits, which were articulated in the Robbins Report (1963) and the later Dearing Report (1997). Here, we re-state the values that are at the heart of the current system of public higher education to expose the serious threat to social, political and cultural life that the government’s policies for higher education now represent.
1.3 We do so in the context of a lack of leadership by the various mission groups representing universities in the sector – for example, the Russell Group and 1994 Group – and other bodies responsible for the sector. Their defensive approach to financial cuts has meant that by failing to contribute to a proper debate on the values of public higher education they have not met one of the vital functions of a university.1 This failure to defend the values of public higher education is in marked contrast to the representations made on behalf of for-profit providers, seeking a ‘level-playing field’ in undergraduate degree provision, despite having no obligation to provide the wider public benefits of public higher education (Policy Exchange 2010).
1.4 The issues at stake are made urgent in the aftermath of the recent riots in English cities. At the very moment that the Prime Minister argues for the need to reverse a ‘slow-motion moral decline’, his government is responsible for pushing forward rapid changes to higher education that will put the market at the heart of the system. These changes will encourage students to think of themselves as consumers, investing only in their own personal human capital with a view to reaping high financial rewards, and discourage graduates to think of their university education as anything other than something purchased at a high price for private benefit.
1.5 The government’s White Paper makes no mention of wider public values and it advocates introducing competition and for-profit providers discharged from all responsibilities for such values. The changes are designed to introduce the market into higher education, but will do so only by evacuating the very values that the Prime Minister otherwise believes are necessary to reverse a ‘moral decline’.
1.6 We do not argue against the market, as such, but for the recognition that market relations cannot encompass all social relations and that there are important social conditions that are necessary for markets to flourish.2 Subjecting education to the market risks undermining what enables both society and markets to flourish. It is illogical that a financial crisis brought about by market failure should be used by government as the occasion for the marketisation of our system of public higher education (Szreter 2011).
1.7 A separate Appendix shows that there is no lasting financial saving to the country, suggesting that the sole motive for the scheme is the misguided ideological belief that the extension of market principles into the provision of university education is itself sufficient justification. Most other OECD countries are making greater public investment in higher education, as a consequence of the global recession. The UK currently has the 3rd highest average level of student fees in OECD countries, after USA and Korea, but with the proposed changes in England it will have the highest (OECD 2011: 258).
1.8 We present our alternative in terms of nine propositions about the value of public higher education, which are elaborated in the rest of our document. We believe that there is wide public support for them, even in the absence of strong public statements of their significance (see, Ipsos Mori 2010).
Higher education serves public benefits as well as private ones. These require financial support if these benefits are to continue to be provided. (Paras 3.1-3.5)
Public universities are necessary to build and maintain confidence in public debate. (Paras 3.6-3.12)
Public universities have a social mission, contributing to the amelioration of social inequality, which is the corollary of the promotion of social mobility. (Paras 3.13-3.26)
Public higher education is part of a generational contract in which an older generation invests in the wellbeing of future generations that will support them in turn. (Paras 3.27-3.29)
Public institutions providing similar programmes of study should be funded at a similar level. (Paras 3.30-3.32)
Education cannot be treated as a simple consumer good; consumer sovereignty is an inappropriate means of placing students at the heart of the system. (Paras 3.33-3.37)
Training in skills is not the same as a university education. While the first is valuable in its own terms, a university education provides more than technical training. This should be clearly recognised in the title of a university. (Paras 3.38-3.40)
The university is a community made up of diverse disciplines as well as different activities of teaching, research and external collaboration. These activities are maintained by academics, managers, administrators and a range of support staff, all of whom contribute to what is distinctive about the university as a community. (Paras 3.41-3.43)
Universities are not only global institutions. They also serve their local and regional communities and their different traditions and contexts are important. (Paras 3.44-3.50)
2.0 Background
2.1 Government plans for higher education in England propose the biggest overhaul of the sector since the Robbins Report in 1963. The intention then was to create a coherent system and to articulate the principles that should underpin its expansion. This included the principle that a university education should be available to all qualified by ability and attainment who wish to pursue it (1963: Para 31). The outcome of the Robbins reforms, and subsequent developments, is a system of public higher education that is widely regarded as among the best in the world and also one that offers value for money (see, HEPI 2011).3 Moreover the aspiration for higher education has now been universalised, yet for many these aspirations are likely to be dashed by the prospects of dramatically higher fees.4
2.2 The government is planning fundamental changes to the system that it has itself recognised is not broken. Indeed, the current high international standing of UK higher education is widely acknowledged, including by the government (Hotson 2011). It has been unable to articulate any reasons to justify these changes, except the need to cut a financial deficit caused by the bail-out of the banking sector. Yet, this policy runs counter to that advised by the OECD: “public investments in education, particularly at the tertiary level, are rational even in the face of running a deficit in public finances. Issuing government bonds to finance these investments will yield significant returns and improve public finances in the longer term” (OECD 2010). In an appendix, we set out our analysis of the government’s ‘mis-selling’ of its plans.
2.3 The government argues that it is merely replacing one way of providing public funding with another that is better because it places the ‘student at the heart of the system’. But it proposes that public funding should be directed towards the realisation of the private benefits of higher education and it fails to support the wider public benefits higher education also affords. In truth, the proposals place the market at the heart of the system and represent the student as a consumer of higher education, with loans functioning as a voucher to present at a university of choice (providing that the student has the grades required).
2.4 The government provides no evidence that this will improve the quality of teaching and increase the ‘educational gain’ of students (White Paper, 2011: Para 2.1), insofar as it is keen to press fees down at most institutions it is clear that many courses of study will receive less funding at the same time as students will pay more. This involves finding ‘efficiencies’, but, given that the proposals also make ‘hours of teaching’ – a quantitative measure that varies across subjects - a key indicator of quality, those efficiencies will only be found in increased use of contract staff, increased student-staff ratios, distance learning, and the like.
2.5 In fact, the evidence from Gibbs (2010) cited by the White Paper points to dimensions of quality, most of which are threatened by the proposals since they are all resource dependent – class size, cohort size, extent of close contact with academics, level of student effort and engagement, volume, promptness and usefulness of feedback, proportion of teaching undertaken by full-time academics and proportion of those with postgraduate teaching qualifications (White Paper 2011: Para 2.5). Indeed, the government wishes to encourage new for-profit providers that offer teaching which does not meet these quality criteria,5 as well as encouraging for-profit providers of curricula which are to be taught by franchised teaching providers.
2.6 In this way, the government is putting its faith in the idea of market competition to improve a system that is already effective, without any statement of how that improvement might be brought about by the measures being introduced (Collini 2011), and without any attempt to ‘trial’ the measures by trying them out on a restricted scale.6
2.7 It is clear that it intends a system in which there will no longer be similar funding for similar activities. It will be a system of stratified institutions (including for-profit providers with access to students holding publicly-funded loans) charging differential fees for the ‘same activity’. Over time, the activity will cease to be the same and there will be a stratification of quality and price; in other words, an ‘educational loss’, not a ‘gain’ for the society as a whole. The intention is that institutions should also recruit differentially, with the ‘best’ students going to the institutions charging higher fees. It is clear that this will further undermine social mobility (see, HEPI 2011).
2.8 But, it will also be a ‘rigged’ market. Student number controls will remain with quotas for ‘core’ places. However, the government proposes that places for students with grades at AAB+ will be open for competition among universities at the same time as 20,000 other student places will be open for competition among universities charging £7500 or less. The reason is solely financial: to encourage most universities to charge less, thereby reducing the potential cost of the loan system, which risks spiralling out of control.7
2.9 The outcome will be major disruption to universities and their constituent subject areas, with consequences not only for their teaching, but also for their research capacity. This is because they will no longer be able to predict the pattern of student demand and recruitment reliably. At the very heart of a university is the integration of research, scholarship and teaching, yet nowhere does the government acknowledge that these activities are mutually sustaining, or how universities are expected to be able to mitigate the risks to these relationships necessary to a flourishing system of higher education.
2.10 The practical risks of the new arrangements and their contradictory character are clear.8 These should be sufficient to call the proposals into question. However, in our view, there are more fundamental reasons to be opposed to the dismantling of public higher education.

Proposition 1: Higher education serves public benefits as well as private ones. These are deserving of financial support.
3.1 Universities serve a variety of functions. Perhaps understandably, especially in the context of an economic downturn, governments are concerned with the role of universities in contributing to the economy through technological innovation and the provision of a skilled workforce across a range of occupations and sectors. These include science, technology and innovation, but also business and finance as well as creative industries, social services and the voluntary sector. There is scarcely an area of economic life in which higher education does not make a major contribution through research and teaching. The latter provides a workforce that is both qualified and capable of critical, independent thought.
3.2 Students and their families aspire to higher education as a route to a good and satisfying job. It is right that they do so and there is plenty of evidence of the benefits of higher education to individuals, not just in terms of financial rewards (which are, in any case, uncertain), but also in terms of higher levels of satisfaction, health and well-being.9
3.3 If these private benefits were the only advantages of higher education, there might be some justification for the argument that they should be privately funded. Until now, the wider benefits of public higher education have been recognised by all political parties at least since the Robbins Report (1963). That Report not only argued for an expanded system, it took an expansive view of university education, setting out the multiple goods that education provided. These included the public benefit of a skilled and educated work force (Paragraph 25),10 and went further to endorse the importance of higher education in producing ‘cultivated’ men and women (paragraph 26), securing the advancement of learning through the combination of teaching and research (Paragraph 27), and providing a common culture and standards of citizenship (Paragraph 28).
3.4 The Dearing Report (1997) introduced the idea that students might be asked to pay part of the costs of their degrees. However, at the same time, it affirmed the wider purposes of higher education shared with Robbins. It should, “sustain a culture which demands disciplined thinking, encourages curiosity, challenges existing ideas and generates new ones; [and] be part of the conscience of a democratic society, founded on respect for the rights of the individual and the responsibilities of the individual to society as a whole” (Dearing Report 1997: paragraph 5).
3.5 In contrast, following the lead of the Browne Review, the government now affirms education only in its contribution to the economy and as a private investment in human capital. It welcomes for-profit providers, despite the fact that they have no obligation toward the wider values of a university education. Indeed, it goes further to envisage the market failure of some public universities and their takeover by private providers (Stanfield 2009). 11
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