Can Higher Education be depoliticised in 2018?

This piece was first published on *HE Research (09.01.18)

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At a conference in December of last year, Professor Clare Callender called for debates around student funding to be depoliticised. Such is the extent to which tuition fees have become an ideological and partisan issues, many of us in attendance found it difficult to conceive of discourses that were not politicised. Subsequent appointments did not help this situation. So, at the start of a new year, this blog considers some of the steps that might be taken – and the basic principles that might be followed – if funding issues are to be discussed in less divisive ways.

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  1. Loan repayment terms should be set in stone, not subject to change at a political whim. When higher fees were introduced in 2012, borrowers were told that their repayment threshold would rise with inflation. In 2015, as part of an austerity agenda, this promise was broken. And in 2017, as part of a wheeze to win back young voters, it was announced that the threshold would increase to above its initial level. This adjustment will bring welcome relief to many recent graduates, but that’s not the point – whether the changes are generous or ungenerous makes no difference. Once a loan is agreed, students have a right to expect that their repayment terms won’t be meddled with to meet political agenda.

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  1. Funding models should be analysed independently, according pre-determined long-range indicators. An unedifying aspect of the funding system introduced in 2012 was how quickly and unproblematically it was hailed a success. Jo Johnson characterised the model as a “great success story,” citing the OECD’s description of England as “one of the few countries to have figured out a sustainable approach to higher education finance.” Of course, the often-repeated claim that ‘more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds attend university than ever before’ is entirely true. The problem is that the relentless focus on the ‘young’ conceals a sharp fall in mature students and a 56% collapse in part-time numbers. And then there’s question of which type of institution these additional young students are attending. Evidence suggests it’s twice as likely to be a university outside the top ten as one inside the top ten. While a high ranking institution is no guarantee of high quality teaching, we know that the top jobs tend to get hoovered up by alumni of elite universities. And with the most recent UCAS figures noting that the participation gap – the difference in likelihood of attending university between those in the most and least disadvantaged quintiles – has widened for a third consecutive year, it’s worth asking whether ‘young’ participation is the only indicator in town? A more forward-thinking system would surely set a range of goals – across demographic groups, university types and modes of engagement – and assess outcomes strictly on a long-term basis.

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  1. Students should have enough to live on. Given the levels of debt that students are now expected to enter into, one would reasonably assume that enough money would be provided to cover day-to-day expenses. But the current maintenance system for students offers no such guarantee. According to one study, 10% of students say they may have to drop out of university because they can’t afford to continue. Since maintenance grants were most recently abolished, the NUS claim that 46% of students worry about being unable to afford basics such as bread and milk. It’s not only an implicit deterrent to wider access, it’s a practical impediment to healthy living and good mental health.

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  1. Universities should be more upfront about what they spend their money on. The sector has for too long obscured the way in which it manages its own budgets. Despite calls for greater transparency when fees rose, institutions have largely shrouded themselves in secrecy. But this position is not only unsustainable, it’s counter-productive. The recent furore over VC pay will not be the last of its kind; politicians, students and wider society will continue to probe the sector’s finances, asking why universities are complaining about real-term cuts in student income while sitting on often substantial Humanities students, in particular, will ask why they’re paying the same fees as students elsewhere when their degree usually costs less. By no means are such questions unanswerable. Indeed, I’m quite happy to explain to my Education undergrads why some of their fees may be used to subsidise the Medical School across the road. But the sector’s reticence is itself political.

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  1. The sector should reclaim language that’s consistent with the role of university as an educational institution. It’s remarkably how quickly the language of politics and business have replaced the language of learning in Higher Education. This is partly justifiable on the grounds that the sector now, thankfully, serves a wider function in society. No longer are universities the finishing schools of the elites and ivory towers for uninterrupted contemplation. The emergent language – ‘employability’, ‘impact’, etc. – is mostly a reflection of necessary evolution. But the new vocabulary isn’t politically neutral. If you frame students as under-protected consumers, and degrees as potentially mis-sold, then you are reducing education to a private good. If you talk relentlessly about students’ ‘value-for-money‘ then you are changing the nature of students’ engagement with their learning. A depoliticised funding model would remind society that the university experience is potentially life-changing, with new intellectual itches to be scratched and new kinds of knowledge in which to become absorbed.

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  1. Higher Education should be reintegrated with earlier forms of education. No-one has ever been sure quite where universities should sit within government. Are we there to educate, in parallel with FE colleges and adult learning centres, as part of a pedagogical pipeline that stretches from primary, through secondary, to its final destination? Or are we more about business, a supplier of highly productive graduates to feed the needs of high-skills labour markets? Whatever your preference, there’s a mismatch. Schools’ curricula have reverted to rote learning and long exams, while universities cling to ideas around independent learning, critical thinking and the co-production of scholarly knowledge. But the students we receive, though often brilliant at remembering and recalling facts, don’t always associate education with the development of informed opinions. A more joined-up, inclusive and progressive education system would recognise disadvantage and seek to compensate at all levels. A provision based on pedagogy rather than politics would better serve the needs of all young people.

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Perhaps by talking about Higher Education – and the options for funding it – in less nakedly politicised terms, its status as a public good might begin to be reclaimed. As we move into a new year, the need for educational policy to be underpinned by some basic principles is arguably greater than ever before.

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Willetts’ Legacy? Too soon to say…

This piece was originally published on LSE’s Impact of Social Science blog as “Higher Education community responds to cabinet reshuffle, but it is too soon to foretell David Willetts’ legacy” (July 15th 2014)

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Last night, @timeshighered initiated a Twitter hashtag to gather users’ thoughts about how posterity might record the outgoing Universities minister’s contribution to the sector. It was fascinating to watch #WillettsLegacy develop, with initial ire that “Higher Education has never been so deep in the shit” (@dolbontboy) slowly giving way to “real admiration” (@mikegalsworthy) for a “thoughtful and respected” (@keith_herrmann) minister with “passion” and “enthusiasm” (@Suzanne_Wilson) for his brief.

For some, the legacy was “crippling debt” (@tmyoungman), “accelerated marketization” (@DrLeeJones) and a “black hole in funding” (@cmsdengl).  For others, Willetts was “a visionary” (@LE_Aerospace), “brilliant” and “outstanding” (@ProfRWinston). Often mentioned was “the value of having a universities minister who understands science” (@AlanHeavens).

At the time of writing, about 30% of the #WillettsLegacy tweets were positive, 45% were negative and 25% were mixed.

The success or otherwise of Willetts’ reforms won’t be known for some time yet, of course. The 2012 funding model places graduates in hitherto unknown levels of debt. Indeed, the Institute of Fiscal Studies recently noted that where under the previous student loans system 50% of graduates would complete their repayment by the age of forty, only 5% will do so under the new system. The 2012 model may be more progressive during the period immediately after graduation, but future generations of middle-earners are likely to pay more for longer.

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If the reforms were an attempt to introduce competition to the sector, they were largely unsuccessful. Predictably, raising fees to £9k per year didn’t result in universities ruthlessly undercutting one another in the market place. What it did create was a plethora of “Cashpoint Colleges” teaching nothing much at all, at eye-watering expense to the taxpayer.

Indeed, early predictions of how costly the government’s underwriting of the new system would be proved wildly optimistic. RAB estimates have now risen from 30% to 45%, making the system more expensive than that which it replaced. Some call for the fee cap to be lifted; others suggest some kind of Graduate Tax may be a fairer option.

Though the widening participation agenda seems not to have taken a hit from the introduction of higher fees, UCAS report that applications from mature students and part-time students are down substantially since 2012. Even when young people from state schools get the grades for a top university, evidence shows that they’re less likely to apply and less likely to be offered a place than their equal-attainment peers from the independent sector.

Findings also indicate that some applicants are much more favoured by the applications process than others. Willetts supported the use of contextual data in admissions (“if they’ve come from a school that doesn’t get many good A-level grades,  getting a grade at that school is even more of an achievement”), but missed key opportunities to level the playing field further.

On the other hand, Willetts did much to raise the profile of teaching in Higher Education. For all of its faults, the National Student Survey shows student satisfaction rising every year. Open access for journal articles (triggered by Willetts’ own frustrations at being charged to read scholarly publications when researching his most recent book, The Pinch: How Baby-Boomers Took Their Children’s Future, and Why They Should Give it Back) is a step in the right direction.

Indeed, in Willetts, we had a minister who was willing to engage directly and openly with academic research. At a Sutton Trust event last year, I recall Willetts taking issue with an academic report authored by John Jerrim of the Institute of Education. The debate was heated, and Willetts repudiation of the evidence wasn’t entirely convincing, but it was heartening to see a policy-maker engage directly with educational research (rather than, say, dismiss its authors as blobbish ‘enemies of promise’).

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With four years’ service as the Minister of State for Universities and Science, Willetts is entitled to the odd blunder. Among his most cringe-worthy was citing feminism as the “single biggest factor” for the UK’s social mobility problem, although selling off old student loan books smacked of fiscal desperation and the proposed cuts to the Disability Student Allowance are particularly offensive.

With no student having yet graduated under the 2012 system, Willetts’ legacy can be no more than a matter of speculation. Hasty measures to open up the Higher Education sector to alternative providers may yet take their toll both on universities and on the taxpayer. Those of us who received our degrees for free may wince at the levels of debt new generations of graduates face.

However, the consensus from social media, and beyond, is that Willetts shielded the Higher Educations from the worst excesses of austerity and neoliberalism. He’s generally remembered as a minister committed to his brief and ready to engage with dissenting voices; as “one of government’s genuinely nice blokes” (@tnewtondunn).

University as a ‘public good’? Only for those who never went…

This post, co-authored by Anna Mountford-Zimdars, was first published on Oct 4th 2013 by “British Politics and Policy at LSE“.

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Using data from the last 30 years, Steven Jones and Anna Mountford-Zimdars examined public attitudes towards participation in higher education. Despite questions being framed in ways that increasingly constructed university as a public expense, they identified a persistent belief in the core values of Higher Education. Among some of the surprising results, they found that graduates were more than twice as likely to favour a reduction in participation as non-graduates.  

In an era of rising tuition fees, deepening student debt and the global commodification of learning, any remaining notion of Higher Education as a ‘public good’ may seem improbable. However, evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey shows that the broader, society-wide benefits of Higher Education are still prized, albeit not always by those you might expect.

Together with colleagues from Oxford and London University, we examined surveys from the last thirty years to chart how public attitudes towards participation have reflected changes in policy. Despite questions being framed in ways that increasingly constructed university as a public expense, we identified a persistent belief in the core values of Higher Education. For example, 43% of those surveyed in 2010 thought that over half of young people should go on to university, a finding at odds with popular perceptions of a labour market saturated by graduates of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree programmes.

More surprising, Higher Education was cherished most highly by those from lower social classes. Only 10% of working class respondents thought opportunities should be reduced, compared to 26% among the professional and managerial classes. We also found gender and school type to be key predictors of attitude. Men were more likely than women to say that university isn’t worth the time and money, as were those educated privately. But the strongest predictor was whether respondents had themselves participated, with graduates more than twice as likely to favour a reduction as non-graduates. Those who profit most from Higher Education, it would seem, are those most inclined to pull up the ladder behind them.

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Of course, such are the private benefits of Higher Education for many graduates that public funding for universities could be regarded as little more than a middle class subsidy. However, this frames debates within the narrow, individualistic terms of human capital, problematic not only because different degree programmes yield different income ‘premiums’, but because, for some students, the value of a degree isn’t solely economic – it’s also about personal growth and the chance to become part of a better-educated, fairer society.

Self-interest is increasingly assumed to be the main driver for Higher Education participation, with students constructed as savvy consumers and debt justified in terms of enhanced lifetime earnings (or repayment concessions for those less fortunate). But against this tide of marketisation, support for Higher Education as a public good lingers.

Full paper:  Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Steven Jones, Alice Sullivan & Anthony Heath (2013) “Framing higher education: questions and responses in the British Social Attitudes survey, 1983–2010”.  British Journal of Sociology of Education (34, 5-06), pp. 792-811.