Saturday 7 November 2015

English higher education: another turn of the screw

We're returning this week to the long-vexed subject of English Higher Education, for which we make no apologies, because we've just witnessed the publication of the Government's long-awaited (or feared) Green Paper on the subject. It's got to be tackled as soon as we're able, because it is full of huge changes and even-bigger implications. It's entitled Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, and you can download the whole thing here if you are really so minded.

The plans therein promise yet another upheaval for England's universities - as if they haven't seen enough of that already. Here we'll save you the bother of ploughing through all that dense exposition, announce the headlines, and then try to unpackage just how bad some of the new ideas really are. They're here: universities will be allowed to charge more if they meet certain centrally-determined indicators of teaching 'quality'. There'll be many different levels of fee increases, running perhaps from 2018, and the Government will decide every year what they'll be and how they'll be set. 

Which is about the worst, more depressing sentence we've had to write since, well, 'these student fees won't even pay for themselves', all the way back in 2011, or perhaps 'British politics is now stuck in a permanent winter', back in May, or indeed 'tax credit cuts are a deeply un-Conservative series of punishments meted out to the working poor', which we wrote in July. Maybe someone will listen to us this time, eh? Well, no, probably not, but we might as well go on writing for the sake of it anyway.

This is indeed a depressing turn of events, for we had thought that a little bit of sense and stability had broken out inside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Higher Education Minister, Jo Johnson (above), seemed like a relatively sensible and centrist Conservative; he appeared competent; he didn't seem to have the temperament for yet another revolution, on top of all the others. Universities do need more money. They've had no funding increase for teaching at all for nearly an entire Parliament. Plans emerged over the summer as to how that'd be managed. There'd be some teaching audit - definitely necessary when you're spending public money, even when most of it is lent in the first instance to students - and then, if universities met some fairly clear standards, they'd be allowed to raise fees along with inflation. So far, so straightforward.

But Mr Johnson couldn't resist it. He couldn't keep his hands off the tiller. The desire to tinker, to play around, to impose more targets and limits and numbers and data and signposts and gateposts and hurdles. He just couldn't help himself. He couldn't restrain his officials. He couldn't stop the Treasury pursuing its constant war for control and quantification and datafication. And - in the end - he couldn't un-imagine the total fiction of a utopian world of knowledge... a realm, of course, in which everything is counted, but nothing can actually be valued. So we've ended up in a place - even worse from our public policy viewpoint - where nothing makes sense even in its own terms

Anyway. Deep breaths. What has Mr Johnson actually announced? Instead of one set of fee rises after one type or round of assessment, we're going to get an unspecified number of levels of possible fee rises, permissible via Ministerial fiat when and if (eventually) four different levels of teaching 'quality' are met in a Teaching Excellence Framework. We despair. Some of the metrics used have nothing to do with teaching - the career destination of leavers, say - and many are labeling or badge-wearing exercises to do with how many qualifications staff have, how much is 'spent' per student (try working that one out on a consistent basis), how grades are provided, and so on. And on top? A load of meaningless guff about ‘compelling evidence of excellence’ to get the highest accreditation level. All assessed by expert panels and an independent Office for Students, to be sure, but with the main winners and losers then probably laid out by the Government's own bean-counters in Whitehall, who will then decide how to pay out on the basis of the TEF. Oh, and universities will have to pay for the privilege of buying into this system themselves, rather than having it paid for directly by the Government. It's pathetic. If an undergraduate handed this in, it'd get a low mark indeed.

The main problem here is not so much the marketisation - that pass was sold long ago, and the language of consumerisation and 'choice', encouraging universities to compete for as many students as they want, has been with us for some time. That's not new - and, if you are a free-market Conservative, that might be a way of increases the resources poured into, and the attention focused on, teaching rather than research, administration, engagement and outreach. We're deeply sceptical about these discourses, because if you treat academics who felt - once - as if they had a vocation to enter their profession and push forward their disciplines, and then subject them to the same cut-throat pressures and tiny little time-horizons that they could have worked within without a PhD (and for quite a bit more money), they're not exactly to do their best work. The UK has pretty much the best record for research in the world, on a per capita basis. Students still flock to come here. If you ask us, there isn't all that much that's broken in this picture. Unless, of course, you want to talk about 'freedom' while curtailing just about all of it that you can see.

No, the problem is the complexity - and the deeply un-Conservative idea that how universities behave should be further nationalised until everything looks like an M.C. Escher diagram that no-one can even understand. We're not joking, by the way - take a look at this drawing that attempts to sum up the new structure. Any the wiser? No? Well, to be honest, no-one else really is either - a scary thought if you really stop and think about it for a moment.

We've called this 'perestroika Britain' when we've written about this before: the process by which Ministers want to have their cake and eat it, setting up 'markets' that can only do what they want, taking more and more new powers to ensure that the pseudo-competition and shadow price incentives that they deploy function exactly as expected. They want the 'rigour' that they perceive in the private sector (not that Britain's is particularly rigorous, but still), but dare not suffer the apparent chaos, instability and unpopularity that unleashing actual freedom might involve - including any truly positive freedom, to perform, act, speak and innovate beyond the bounds of any civil servants' hastily-sketched imagination right now. As the bounds of what British Ministers actually control shrink to (basically) England's hospitals, schools and - what's left of - the civic infrastructure, those much-maligned little battalions of the state come in for more and more micro-management. As they do when Ministers bully universities about visa decisions, to take another example. There are many more we could pick. It's almost as if politicians have nothing better to do.

What will three or four layers of assessment and fees actually mean in practice? Well, they'll mean that universities spend an inordinate amount of time gaming out exactly where to put their investment to navigate the hoops they'll be asked to leap through. Tens of thousands of academic hours will be spent pushing a little bit of money here and there. And for what? Well, if inflation is one per cent (far above where it stands today), a Level Four award that might allow a university to charge one per cent more, rather than (say) the 0.75 per cent allowable under a Level Three award. 0.25% of many thousands of £9,000-plus fee bundles could be quite a bit of money - though possibly not worth nearly as much as all the effort and spending put in to get that money in the first place. And if inflation is zero, as it is now? Well, there'd be no point bothering, except to get the prestige that schools want when they can put a banner saying 'OFSTED Excellent' on their playing field railings. Not that that's likely to change the generations of prejudice and social networking that go into defining which are the 'best' universities anyway. While, perhaps, encouraging the process by which everyone starts to forget or ignore what makes a university great in the first place: the fact that it is full of people dedicated, with love, feeling and emotion, to the idea of learning in and of itself. And if inflation suddenly surged upwards? Does anyone seriously think that Ministers would allow five, ten, fifteen, twenty per cent fee rises in one year, as they might have had to do in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s? No, of course not.

So what we'll see can be summarised this: huge of time, energy, emotion and bureaucratic paper-shuffling in the pursuit of really quite small amounts of cash. And then, if large amounts of cash do suddenly appear on the horizon, a hastily-assembled series of retreats and limits designed to stem the flow of any money that there might be.

Shorter headline? More complexity, more work, more demands, more bureaucracy. Or we could just put it this way: more laughable absurdity.