Monday, 4 July 2011

Universities White Paper: the chaos of unintended consequences

So I'm back from an extended break. Regular readers will have noticed the silence. Apologies, but even historians have to take a break sometimes.

Back to news of the Higher Education White Paper which was issued while I slogged up a mountain somewhere, far from mobile phone and internet access. Which was rather handy, actually - at least for my stress levels.

For rarely can a government document have been so much of a hotch-potch of the not-too-bad, interesting but half-baked, and downright bad policy. Higher Education Minister David Willetts (above) has had a tough year to say the least fending off intellectual attack, and it isn't going to get any better on this evidence. There have been three other policy debacles in my adult lifetime - the Poll Tax, the ERM and the Iraq War - and although universities policy won't do quite so much damage as those famous governmental balls-ups, it will certainly add to the sense that Whitehall and Westminster can't be trusted with sensitive, ordered, rational and incremental policy.

In my day job, I'm a historian of unintended consequences and complexity, and three spring to mind right away. Hopefully these will be a bit different from the general commentary.

1. The squeezed middle won't be so squeezed. The 'upper middle' and the 'lower middle' will be, in a kind of weird policy jam sandwich. Most comment on the White Paper has focused on 'lifting the cap' for courses with an AAB entry requirement from A-Levels, and among those colleges charging less than £7,500. No doubt Whitehall mandarins are patting themselves on the back for this wizard wheeze, which punishes 'middling' institutions for charging more than the Government wanted them to. The Russell Group and FE Colleges can expand within the existing (extremely tight) numbers. Everyone else can suffer. Well, it seems unlikely that most research-heavy universities such as Exeter will want to expand, firstly because they perceive their mission as producing 'new knowledge' (not teaching undergraduates all the time) and partly because they'll want to preserve the exclusivity of their brand. And it seems unlikely that students and parents will want to give up the prestige of 'going to university' and stampede local colleges with demands for places. So Ministers and civil servants may find themselves disappointed on this front. What will in fact happen is massive competition around the margins of the absurd distinctions and ridiculous lines they've drawn in the sand. So universities just 'below' the top twenty will be hurt in the scramble for a marginal amount of the 'best' students, and universities at the apparent 'bottom' of the the supposed traditional sector, charging more than FE and HE colleges, will be made to mud-wrestle for survival. They'll fight like rats in a sack to present themselves (not always reliably) as the best place outside a mix of Harvard, the Sorbonne and Cambridge. Not that it's a bad thing to publish more data and tell students just how many times they'll be seeing their tutor. Far from it. But some universities will fail - in marginal constituencies. Many courses certainly will. In the meantime, academics and administrators will be making bold claims about lifestyle as well as courses. There'll be a lot of emphasis on bars as well as bursaries. Get used to it.

2. There'll be entry hell for 18 year olds. Lifting the cap off AAB numbers will mean that some - but only some - of the prestigious Russell Group universities may well 'go for growth'. There'll be huge pressure to get those AABs - and no places just below in the so-called 'squeezed middle'. So you'll have your offer for (say) Durham - of AAA. And a reserve at (say) the University of East Anglia, of ABB. So far so good. But if you don't get them, you're going to have to reapply the next year, or be willing to take a place far, far down the established 'pecking order' that perhaps charges less than £7,500. Perhaps your local FE college. Think students and parents are going to be happy with this? Er, no. Think this will add to feelings of stress, desperation and helplessness while you're doing your A-Levels? And potential grade inflation? Er, yes.

3. There'll be many more small colleges - and more 'churn'. This isn't really an unintended consequence, of course, because the Government would love new providers to come in and sell more courses, either for profit or as charities. Royal Holloway has already announced that they'll be getting together with Pearson to validate the publisher's business degree. Expect much more of this in the future. Some existing smaller universities may go private themselves, to get away from the sorry mess the Government has made of the sector. But what Ministers perhaps haven't quite taken on board will be the scale on which new entrants will enter the new 'market'. They'll be of all shapes and sizes, perhaps damaging the image of UK Higher Education as a reliable, tried-and-tested 'product'. Grave doubts must exist about quality control even when money follows the student - for can you really move once you've taken a year somewhere you've come to regard as selling an inferior 'product'? The White Paper imagines more light-touch but unannounced interventions. Expect many more mergers and closures, as in cash-strapped Wales at the moment. But where will the students go if tiny new institutions on a par with 'free schools' have to be shut down? Will HEFCE ensure that modules and credits are transferable? Can the quango really be that sensitive and flexible?

So it'll be a more fragmented, less predictable, more moment-by-moment, seat-of-the-pants sector. In which tiny differences with near 'competitors' make a big difference - and destroy and create new courses all the time. Forget about the bigger picture when universities bunch so much into 'groups'.

The result? A feeling of chaos. The Times Higher put it like this, and it's hard to disagree:

In the space of what will be a harrowingly short year, the sector faces the potential for market chaos, ballooning bureaucracy, consumer confusion and whole new orders of uncertainty. We are being pushed into a massive experiment. It is a gamble with the future of one of the world's most successful higher education sectors. And for what? Where is the grand vision? What about the rest of the UK, international students, postgraduate provision, globalisation?
Ministers of course believe that this will involve 'creative destruction' and, while a few eggs might get broken, a nice and tasty policy omelette will eventually emerge. Let's revisit this in two or three years when the strain on numbers is growing intolerable, specific parts of the sector at 'top' and 'bottom' are at war with one another, and voters are in revolt about private colleges, big state sector university failures and high fees at universities stacked with nice halls, swimming pools and glossy brochures.

Then we'll see.

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