Thursday, 29 March 2012

David Willetts and the hollowness of 'choice' in Higher Education


Again and again the Higher Education Minister, David Willetts (above), has said that Higher Education 'reforms' in England are designed to improve 'choice' and expand the range of institutions and places available to increasingly-consumerist young people and mature students.

Today's figures on student place numbers from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show just how hollow those promises have turned out to be.

The removal of places from most universities, to allow prestigious institutions to push up their numbers of AAB students, and to hand out among colleges charging less than £7,500 in tuition fees (mainly to control costs) has had a deadening effect across most of the sector. Those places are being sucked away from the great majority of universities - from the University of East London (an eye-watering loss of nearly thirteen per cent of all student places), Oxford Brookes, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Salford and Sheffield Hallam (all down 11 per cent), from Reading (down nine per cent), and I could go on... and on. Have a look for yourself at the full figures in this table (PDF).

Now universities have been doing well over the last few years, generating good operating surpluses and generally behaving like responsible financial citizens - unlike banks, and not that they'll get any rewards for their good behaviour, but still. They'll all probably survive, though one or two may get into trouble. Even though these figures show just how fast government funding is falling, Treasury-backed debt will more than make up the shortfall overall... Eventually. We hope.

The real measure of the tangle we've got ourselves into is the incoherence of this total muddle, in which research-intensive universities and cheap colleges can hoover up loads of places. Then the middle-ranked universities which most students actually attend get squeezed. So it might get harder to get into Middlesex University and easier to get into Cambridge, one middle-of-the-road but the other full of students with 'top' grades; harder to get into Plymouth but easier to get into Gloucestershire, because one has had the temerity to charge what it wants and the other has cut costs and prices. Is that a coherent basis for student allocation, at a time when applications have fallen overall and we could have had a good, hard look at where the sector's going? Hmm... The one-word answer you're forming there is: 'no'.

What a mess. Only the depth of the rut we're in obscures the storm howling overhead.

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