Tuesday 4 April 2017

What lies ahead for England's universities?

Away from the storm and tempest of British national politics at the moment, the Government's Higher Education Bill has been struggling through both Houses of Parliament. That's been made all the more difficult because of Brexit, firstly because the Government don't have much time to think about anything else but its search for understanding and trade deals from Brussels to Washington; but also because the official Opposition are still trying to get themselves together after the traumas of the last eighteen months.

It's had a rough passage, at least in the Lords, where the Government does not have a majority, and there's a bit more of a spirit of fight on the Opposition benches. Their Lordships have in particular been very unkeen on the idea of linking the new Teaching Excellence Framework (the TEF) with raising university fees in line with inflation. Not only has the integrity of that process been giving a good elegant kicking in speech after speech, but the whole concept of linking indices of 'quality' with what Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) can charge has come under sustained fire. What do these metrics mean, goes the argument? Should they really be linked to the very hard-to-capture idea of 'quality'? The different amounts that varied concepts of the 'good' course really cost? Different priorities for students at different stages, in different parts of the country, asking for different types of tuition given the emphasis on 'choice' that the Government is in the end trying to promote?

Their Lordships have a point. Many of the TEF metrics are well-designed and rigorous. But many of them - particularly the idea that post-education employment and salaries will be included - simply are not. Not only that, but the whole idea of poking a big stick around the sector rests on an offensive and deeply inaccurate picture encouraged by Ministers. This is the idea that much of the teaching in HE is poorly designed and sloppily delivered: cut and paste jobs from year to year, without innovation or deep rethinking. Not only is this entirely unproven: its emphasis on academic 'inertia', and the fight against it (carrying with it echoes of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's faux-populist campaigns on behalf of patients) is out of the ark. No-one who's actually been in a university these past two decades really thinks that they're something out of Brideshead Revisited, full of yellowing lecture notes and eccentric dons. No doubt there are a few holdouts, but we haven't seen any. It's Ministers themselves, with their bloviating over-emphasis on the Research Excellence Framework and its link to research funding, that have encouraged academics to peer away from the seminar room, and not lecturers themselves.

The real difficulty with the TEF is the emphasis on control, rather than the true liberty of new thinking and innovation: in this respect its innate complexity and hard-to-grasp innards may well make teaching worse, and not better. The problem is actually that we don't know where the bad soft spots are. But someone's job will be to find out and play that game: meaning that labelling teaching, rather than actual teaching, will zoom up the agenda. This is also, by the way, the reason why universities won't be allowed to charge vastly higher fees, however large the likely Conservative landslide at the next General Election: and why Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and the like won't be allowed to go private: it would remove Ministers' powers to tinker, meddle and fiddle to their hearts' content.

Still, larger changes lie under the bonnet. The lifting of the cap in detail on student numbers four years ago means that universities are now engaged in a pile-them-all-in fight for student numbers on an unprecedented scale, especially as the falling birth rate around the turn of the century is right now pushing student numbers to new lows. That is creating universities' very own 'squeezed middle': strong but not overwhelmingly prestigious provincial universities that are losing out in recruitment as some Russell Group players massage down the real grades they will accept for entry, and who now look likely to be challenged by private providers after the Higher Education Bill reduces barriers to entering the sector. These institutions will have to specialise more, work more regionally and locally, build up their profiles on where they are good, and if we are honest perhaps cut back sectors where they are finding it harder. It'll be tough in the middle. Eventually, the rising birth rate from about the early 2000s onwards will mean that there are more than enough students to go around, and indeed as in the 1960s planners will again have to scramble to keep up - one good reason to keep whole fields and departments open now rather than pay all the startup costs when they have to be re-opened in ten years' time. But perhaps that would too rational for Westminster and Whitehall at the moment.

So the truth about what lies ahead is probably a little bit bland: rather more of the same, but speeded up. There's little doubt that the TEF will now indeed start to play a key role in university life, becoming ever more bureaucratised and unpopular in the HE sector itself even while it never gets particularly highly-regarded among applicants and parents; but the link with fees won't be that important, especially if inflation does remain relatively and historically low over the medium term. There seems little chance of any government in sight dramatically lifting the fees ceiling, which means that the direct cash incentives for doing 'better' on that imperfect metric will always be fairly low. So fees will gently rise, while some prestigious universities will be made to look foolish, because their view of themselves won't be matched by their lowly position in the TEF league tables.

Elsewhere, the 'squeezed middle' won't struggle so much as specialise, withdrawing from an all-in competition with the big battalions and settling for a more bespoke middleweight role, challenged in that ambition by some (but only some) new providers who will come in from the private sector and beef up numbers in specific areas such as law and publishing. And all the while, a great big wave of new students are waiting in the wings, building up from the trough of the next year or two and cresting impressively about 2030. It's not actually a very dramatic picture. But years of strain, slog and restraint lie ahead before all those new students ride to the rescue in the mid- to late-2020s. English universities will just have to tighten their belts and wait for the cavalry.