Monday, 6 July 2015

English university policy gets a bit clearer

Last time we looked at England's university system, we predicted a rather doleful future of massive spending reductions to what remains of state support, increased bureaucracy and an ever-tightening standoff about academic 'returns' and productivity.

Since then, things have got a bit clearer - partly due to an interesting and suggestive speech from the new Higher Education Minister, Jo Johnson (above). Mr Johnson, a relatively liberal and thoughtful sort of Conservative as these things go, began to resolve our focus on the future landscape just a little, putting all his emphasis on better teaching that avoids the twin and opposite dangers of 'coasting' and irrelevance in existing institutions. What he had to say was a little comforting, as well as a lot worrying.

So, where do we stand now?

Well, for starters, the Teaching Excellence Framework to 'put teaching at the heart of the system' is coming, whatever heavy-hearted academics think of it. It's probably going to rely on the supervision of existing providers, data-driven metrics of some sort and what Ministers imagine will be akin to 'light touch' regulation (if there ever was such a thing). It won't end with that, of course, and the inevitable behemoth that the TEF will spawn will grow and grow over the years as politicians and officials find ever more inventive new ways to deploy its mechanics for patrol and control.

But for now, the main thing that'll hamper such reforms will be the Government's lack of money. Committed to an utterly bizarre and irrational spending path, of huge, huge cuts over the next two years and then a cash binge towards the end of the Parliament, the universities' sponsor department, Business, Innovation and Skills, is going to have to lose a third of its budget in the near term. So how will the Government deploy a carrot, as well as a stick, to embed the TEF as deeply into the average academic's psyche as its counterpart, the Research Excellence Framework, once was? No-one in Westminster or Whitehall is naive enough to believe that just publishing the data, and letting that fictitious thing 'the market' rip as students follow the best TEF grades, will do the trick. Social and intellectual prestige, rather than transient data, are still key parts of any university's brand and appeal. And Conservatives' commitment to the Higher Education market has always been more in the breach than the observance - lest they lose control of what, after is, is still taxpayers' money when it first goes out to campuses.

Well, there are some suggestive points in Mr Johnson's speech - and in what he didn't say. Perhaps the Government will make charging more than £6,000 (which the Office of Fair Access can still stop) dependent on TEF performance. Perhaps some of what remains of the Student Access Funds will be attached to it - strangely, as there's no necessary tie between 'good' teaching and widening participation initiatives. Perhaps he will make rises in fees to meet inflation dependent on a TEF floor or average score? It's all on the table - and in ways that will (once implemented) slip straight out of the hands of Mr Johnson and his successors, inevitably reshaping the way that academics and their managers engage with and organise teaching for the next decade and beyond.

Some of the impact might just be beneficial, for there seems little doubt that the last three decades have seen research lionised at teaching's expense across many parts of the sector. But the unpredictability of tying information created for one purpose together with a set of policy objectives - not only a using one source to highlight the meaning of another, but a totally separate informational vector to alter 'facts' from entirely different statistical food types - is a classic type of policy-busting category error.

Here's a thought: what if the Chancellor cuts research funding sharply, causing Russell Group institutions to make up the shortfall by stampeding into (the uncapped cash they can raise from) teaching? Then universities further 'down' the traditional league tables will end up with all the research, and 'research-intensives' with all the teaching. Is that really what BIS wants? Has it gamed out that very outcome? Mr Johnson's speech was silent on what - if any - adjustments could meet even these entirely foreseeable unintended consequences - these 'known unknowns', if you will.

Away from undergraduate teaching itself, we're likely to see the raw amount of government direction and control tightened. For the Chancellor and his allies (including Mr Johnson) are very adept at micro-managing small pots of cash, especially important as they shrink further, levering and levering them until they pay off for maximum political capital. Put this together with Ministers' desperate need to do something, anything, to raise British labour productivity, and we're likely to see many more University Technical Colleges, University Enterprise Zones and research and knowledge transfer funding 'pots'. There'll be much less about pure or blue skies research, and a lot of rhetoric about the here and now of business, investment and jobs. It'll only involve a few hundred million pounds here and there - nothing like the billions that are about to disappear from student grants and bursaries, quality resource research funding and Widening Participation. But such eye-catching policy mice will distract from the snarling dogs unleashed elsewhere.

The headlines? The Teaching Excellence Framework could mean just about anything, though in the long term it will probably further pervert and distort priorities in a sector used to instrumentality and game-playing. And an emphasis on strict workfulness - and more close Treasury control - will be the hallmark of what's left of government intervention outside teaching. The sector will become unpredictable, sometimes explosive, hard to understand, desperate for cash - and more and more attuned to the day-to-day needs of what government thinks of as 'the economy'. Whether you think that's a good thing rather depends on your point of view, now doesn't it?