The Coalition government’s policy changes to fees and funding systems in Higher Education are already having a marked effect on access and institutional behaviour. Amidst growing calls for reform, Martin Hall argues that most pressing is policy responsive to the combination of public goods and private benefits of education, as the current emphasis on private investment alone is unsustainable. 

The Council for the Defence of British Universities‘ first public event, held recently in London, asked us to offer a wish list for reforms after the 2015 General Election, on the assumption that the Coalition will lose and Labour will offer a different approach, or that those who implemented the most recent reforms will have a change of heart.  These outcomes seem improbable, although there is a growing consensus that the 2010 settlement is deeply flawed and financially unsustainable.  There is certainly merit, and an obligation, to widen debate about the road to an equitable and sustainable Higher Education system and to enable this debate with evidence and considerations that counterbalance short-term political expediency.  And, as we are now experiencing, these general considerations, and the policy decisions taken as a result of them, narrow very quickly into specific sets of consequences that affect individual universities in particular ways.

At the CDBU forum, Howard HotsonBahram BekhradniaPeter Scott and others made the point that shrapnel from the 2010 changes is now damaging university provision in all sorts of ways. My perspective on the question posed by the CDBU hinges on the appropriate balance between the public good and private benefits of education. There is evidently a private benefit given that, with some exceptions, there is a direct relationship between the highest qualification that a person attains and how much they earn in their lifetime. This is partly because of the transformative qualities of learning, but also because universities serve as gatekeepers for high status professions – a university degree is a private benefit because it is also a “positional good”, something a person aspiring to particular sorts of opportunities cannot afford to be without.  This is what drives the international obsession with unilinear university league tables.  But at the same time, having a significant proportion of people gaining access to a university place is a public good – it benefits everyone, whether or not they are the person with the university place.  This public good is economic – a graduate workforce attracts investment and economic growth, which in turn brings jobs to non-graduates and increases tax revenues to support public services.  And the public good is also intangible, since access to an appropriate university ethos will increase respect for human rights, enhance cultural and creative assets and result in a far broader transfer of knowledge.

The problem with the 2010 settlement is that it has shifted the concept of payment for a university place almost entirely to the private benefit end of the scale.  Whatever the terms of student loans, and despite the fact that this is a graduate tax by stealth, the £9000 fee tag and all that has gone with it signals to potential students and their families that they are customers considering a product that they should evaluate in terms of the direct returns to them as private individuals and beneficiaries.  In turn, this has inevitable consequences for institutional behaviour.  One particularly egregious example is the money that high status universities are spending on promotional gifts to high-achieving A-level students, who would almost certainly enrol for higher education if no such gifts were offered.  In effect, this sort of thing is a regressive tax on less desirable applicants, who will pay for the freebies from their fees.

A striking example of the consequences of this shift to a narrow concept of private benefits was Claire Callender’s analysis of the predicament of part-time students.  The 2011 White Paper heralded a new deal for part-time learners, correcting past injustices.  But, as HEFCE’s recent report has shown, enrolments by part-time students have plunged by 40%. Claire’s careful policy analysis at the CDBU forum show why.  Firstly, the old “equivalent level qualification” rule (never well thought through) disqualifies 54% of part-time students:  if you gained a BA in History fifteen years ago, and now want to retrain as an Engineer, you don’t qualify for a student loan.  Secondly, a further 15% of potential students, usually in employment, can’t meet the minimum time commitment in part time study for a loan.  Therefore, 69% of potential part-time students don’t qualify for any loan or financial support, and would have to pay their fees upfront.  Not surprisingly, this aspect of provision, so important for both individuals and the general public good, has collapsed because of inadequate policy development.

Given this, here’s my manifesto for “After the Election”, which I offered up at the CDBU debate last week:

  • After the election, we need a funding system that is responsive to the combination of public goods and private benefits, and which is affordable in the long term;
  • After the election, we need a clear statement of the right of access to higher education, based on fair and transparent appraisal of potential, irrespective of personal circumstances;
  • After the election, we need policy that is directed towards a full and enhanced concept of education, rather than by the narrow and inappropriate metaphors of the market;
  • After the election, we need policy stability to allow universities properly to address objectives of participation, opportunity and capability.

This was originally published on Professor Martin Hall’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the author

Professor Martin Hall is a historical archaeologist and strategic leader. He took up his present role of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Salford in August 2009. Professor Hall joined Salford from the University of Cape Town where he was Deputy Vice-Chancellor for six years. He has a career that has spanned both political change and transformation in South Africa and new directions in archaeology over the past four decades. He has written extensively on South African history, culture and higher education policy. Professor Hall’s current areas of focus include open access and innovation, inequality and its consequences and post-conflict mitigation and mediation. He writes weekly on these and other issues on his blog

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