The ‘Avalanche’ Metaphor in UK Higher Education

According to a March 2013 report by the Institute for Public Policy Research:

“Right now, nothing looks more solid, more like that snow-covered mountainside, than the traditional university…”

This doesn’t sound good. Mountainsides never stay all nice and snow-covered for long. We all know what’s on its way. And, sure enough, the report soon breaks the news that we all feared:

“…an avalanche is coming.”


The report’s author is Sir Michael Barber, chief education advisor at Pearson. Pearson is keen to get a foothold in the UK higher education market, and already run a few courses. Sir Michael chairs the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, because “affordable schools, operated on a for-profit basis, can make a big difference”. Barber is also responsible for coining the neologism ‘deliverology’, a truly beautiful addition to the educational lexicon.

The report is co-authored by two of Sir Michael’s colleagues, one of whom is Pearson’s ‘Executive Director of Efficacy’. Parts of the text are oddly chummy – “Whenever Katelyn inserted an example from Duke, Saad responded with one from Yale” – and I did sometimes wonder quite how much time the authors spent researching their topic in the lower reaches of the UK’s post-92 sector.

In fairness, ‘An Avalanche is Coming’ – characterised elsewhere as a “rich and nuanced account of the technological and economic pressures facing higher education” – raises some very important questions. Why should universities bother with research if that’s what thinktanks are for? How can any funding system accommodate the needs of mature students? Shouldn’t learning always be delivered through practice and mentorship? Doesn’t some HE teaching still assume that all students are would-be academics? Why does the cost of higher education rise faster than inflation? Can three year degrees remain the norm?

Particularly interesting is the way in which the report speculates about what students really want from a degree. While accepting that “undergraduates are too often seen as a necessary drudge that, with promotion, perhaps one can give up”, the authors don’t draw the simplistic conclusion that competition alone will drive up teaching quality:

“For many students it is the degree itself rather than the teaching and learning that really matters. A degree has currency in the labour market and, while … its value may be falling, it is nevertheless a passport to a range of professional opportunities denied to those without one… The university brand remains potent.”

Few answers are offered (“ponder anew,” we’re advised), but the tenor is pro-MOOC, pro-business and relentlessly pro-unbundling. New metaphors are offered on every page (“in the new world the learner will be in the driver’s seat, with a keen eye trained on value”), but less attention is paid to diagrams being printed the right way round (see Figure Six, page 66).

An Avalanche is Coming” follows on from “The Oceans of Innovation”. However, for most in HE, the avalanche isn’t ‘coming’ – it’s been around for some time. The cause isn’t restless students, demanding a marketplace based on debt tolerance rather than academic potential; it’s the end-product of an ideology that began with the idea that “universities are complacent because they are over-protected from the market.”

Avalanches, like oceans, are natural phenomena. However, many of the issues facing UK universities are man-made. As a society, we’re choosing to see HE as private commodity, not a public good. Ways forward are still available – and Sir Michael helpfully points us in the direction of many – but whether metaphors of impending catastrophe allow the issue to be better understood, I’m not sure.


The Regressive Nature of UK Student Loans

Earlier this year, the LSE blogged a guest post by Ron Johnston, a geographer at Bristol University. Johnston, along with his colleague Tony Hoare, is the author of an important 2010 paper which found that “students with high A-level scores are more likely to get first-class degrees, but students from state schools with such high scores are more likely to achieve the highest degree grade than are students with similar scores who attended independent schools“.

Here, Johnston is talking about the new student loan structure, and his post is framed in terms of falling recruitment to postgraduate courses. Will Hutton had previously written about student fees leaving graduates too skint to consider a taught masters, and Johnston notes the picture is actually much grimmer than Hutton painted.

While I fully agree that the new undergraduate fee structure could hurt postgraduate recruitment further (at least on those courses leading to public sector professions), I was more intrigued by the figures put forward by Johnston about the regressive nature of the fee repayment system.

Naturally, I knew that the more a graduate earned, the quicker s/he would pay off the debt and the less interest s/he would therefore be charged. I was also aware of the coalition horse-trading that foreshadowed the decision to allow wealthier graduates to repay all of their  fees immediately after graduation. But what I hadn’t fully understood was just how much difference the power of compound interest made to total repayment. On this issue, the numbers really are quite staggering. Just look at the how a graduate’s starting salary affects their total repayment (figures based on fees-only borrowers of £27,000):

If your starting salary is £25k, total repayments are £57,526.

If your starting salary is £30k, total repayments are £50,943.

If your starting salary is £40k, total repayments are £44,354.

All projections about future graduate repayments are, of course, subject to assumptions about inflation and annual pay rises. However, according to Johnston, “the conclusion is clear: the less well-paid you are when you enter the labour market, the more your degree costs, both relatively and absolutely.”

Incidentally, for students who take out a full maintenance loan (£7,675 per year) on top of the £27,000 fee loan, it’s a similar story. If your starting salary is £30k, your total repayments are £135,914. But if your starting salary is £40k, total repayments are only £104,105.

It should be noted that the regressive nature of these repayment totals are partly the result of assumed starting salaries being relatively generous. For ‘fees + maintenance’ borrowers on lower starting salaries, the debt-wipe concession kicks in after 30 years.

It is this concession, of course, that allows the BIS website to brag that “under our new more progressive repayment system, around a quarter of graduates, those with the lowest lifetime earnings, will pay less [than under the previous system]”. The 2010 Institute of Fiscal Studies report, Higher Education Reforms: Progressive but Complicated with an Unwelcome Incentive, makes similar claims, and Vince Cable even argues that the new system is a “progressive graduate tax in all but name.”

But how progressive is a repayment system that squeezes much more from middle-earning graduates than it does from high-earning graduates? Martin Lewis’s Independent Student Funding Taskforce  reckons that fee levels are “irrelevant to most people – they’ll just keep paying the same proportion each month and if they don’t earn enough, they won’t come close to paying back what was borrowed (never mind the interest).” But once real graduates find themselves repaying different levels of debt over different lengths of time, I wonder whether they’ll be quite so blasé?

Johnston’s excellent blog (and startling graph, reproduced above) warns that unprecedented levels of debt will put further study beyond the means of most graduates. However, once the unfairness within the repayment structure begins to bite, it may not only be aspiring postgrads who feel aggrieved.

Thousands of graduates may wonder why their bill is so much greater than fatter-salaried friends who took the same degree at the same time.