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The underlying aim of the government’s new white paper on higher education is clear – to make student education in England as much of a market as the control of public expenditure will allow. But its strange combination of policy mechanisms means the chief effects are likely to be less efficient and less equitable than that sounds, leading to a system with unwelcome echoes of Japan.

Higher Education: Putting Students at the Heart of the System speaks of the need to meet three challenges: putting higher education on a sustainable footing, improving the student experience, and increasing social mobility.

Sustainability is to be provided by switching the funding of teaching from the present mixture of student fees and institutional grants to a system where nearly all teaching will be funded through tuition fees.

A better student experience will be achieved through greater competition between institutions, lowering the entry barriers for providers, increasing information for students and potential students, and shifting the role of the Higher Education Funding Council for England away from institutional funding and into being a “consumer champion for students and promoter of a competitive system”.

Social mobility work will involve enhanced resources, and possibly powers, for the Office for Fair Access, and better financial support for low income students.

Most attention is likely to focus on the moves to increase competition, heavily trailed in ministerial speeches and departmental leaks since the Browne Committee reported at the beginning of November.

The present institutional number controls will be lifted for the approximately 65,000 applicants who score the equivalent of AAB or above at A-level. A further 20,000 places will be made available in the same way for bids from institutions charging £7,500 or below after waivers. In future years, the core is intended to diminish and the margin increase.

What is unclear in both cases – and critical to the finances of all institutions – is exactly where the places will be taken from.

At the same time, the barriers to market entry will be reduced. The current requirement that new providers wanting to offer their own degrees should have at least four years’ track record of providing degrees will be modified. New legislation will allow organisations that do not teach to award degrees. Organisations already with degree awarding powers but fewer than 4,000 FTE students will be able to receive a university title. If they meet the same conditions as HEFCE-regulated ones, private organisations and their students may attract public funding on the same terms.

Next, there will be much greater information for students. As well as the Key Information Set already unveiled (with 17 pieces of data for each course), institutions will be encouraged to publish anonymised information about the teaching qualifications, fellowships and expertise of their staff at all levels (this is the only reference to staff in the entire document). The official website, Unistats, will be improved so that prospective students can make “useful comparisons” between subjects (i.e., courses) at different institutions.

The government will ask the main organisations holding student data to make detailed data available publicly so that it can be analysed and presented in various formats. UCAS and institutions will make available new data showing the actual qualifications of successful applicants for each course. Universities will be expected to publish summary reports of their student evaluation surveys (on top of their National Student Survey results, which will be extended to postgraduate courses). Finally, all institutions will be expected to have student charters.

How far will these proposals meet the Government’s three challenges?

It is too soon to say whether the White Paper will deliver sustainability. The problem that has dogged successive governments at least since the early 1980s is how to fund a mass system of HE within perceived public expenditure constraints without loss of quality. The white paper speaks of institutions having ten per cent more cash at the end of the current funding period, 2014-5 (in itself a considerable real terms reduction) – but there are no figures for projected spending per student.

No one knows what the market response to increased fees will be. Which way will potential students jump? So the jury has to remain out on sustainability, although the continuing heavy cost of the student support regime with its difficult-to-predict loan repayments, suggests that we may be back at this again before very long.

It is possible to be less equivocal about the other two challenges, improving the student experience and social mobility.

British universities and colleges are already in fierce competition for students and income not only with one another but with more and more institutions overseas. They face considerable claims on their budgets from pensions and other staff costs, utility prices and carbon reduction commitments. They are also efficient, with high student/staff ratios but also high retention and graduation rates. The unit of funding per student is still lower in real terms than it was twenty years ago.

The new information requirements will add to the costs faced by universities without any commensurate benefits. So far from improving the experience of most students, the core plus margin methodology will create, as it is intended to, a much more sharply differentiated sector with far greater disparities in institutional resourcing and esteem than anything we have hitherto seen, and without any educational justification or rationale.

The first effect will be to create a small group of elite research institutions with privileged funding, a Russell Group Plus. This echoes the approach of the Japanese government prior to the Second World War, when it set up nine Imperial Universities. Their privileged position, and the lack of resources made available to other public universities, led to the development of a strong private sector of universities that persists in Japan today.

Below this will sit the increasingly pressed remains of the higher education sector, trying to provide an adequate education for the mass of the population but without having the necessary resources to do so. Within this, we will see increased divisions so that the overall picture will be of an increasingly stratified sector.

Since institutional status correlates broadly with the social class of its students, the new hierarchy will also reduce social mobility. There is already evidence that some working class students are put off going to university because they see their local universities as too low in status. The new arrangements will reinforce this.

Given the number of other policies which will also harm participation (the ending of Aim Higher, the abolition of Educational Maintenance Allowances, the reduction of entitlement funding for colleges, and many more), the government’s commitment to social mobility has to be seen as the hypocrisy it is.

The white paper is an unconvincing mixture of ideology and pragmatism. If implemented as the government intends it will leave us with a sector that is much more heavily stratified without any compensating gains in quality or equity. This may be good news for some of the Russell Group institutions with their dreams of “world-class” status, and their students. It is bad news for virtually everyone else, universities and students alike.


Roger Brown is Professor of Higher Education Policy at Liverpool Hope University. He was previously Vice Chancellor of Southampton Solent University, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Quality Council, Chief Executive of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics, and Secretary of the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council. Before that he was a senior civil servant and a local government officer. He has served on many national committees and boards. He is the author of two books, Quality Assurance in Higher Education: The UK Experience since 1992 (2004) and Higher Education and the Market (2010).

This article is by Roger Brown