The white paper is, in essence, a fairly typical piece of neoliberal ideology that combines an attack on public provision with yet more state intervention, argues Des Freedman.

Seven months after hiking up tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000, the government has at last come up with a plan for the university sector in England. Some pragmatists might say that it might have been better to decide on the system first and then to fix the finance. But this is nitpicking because the white paper, designed (without irony) to put ‘Students at the Heart of the System’, contains a greater vision: an education market in which a range of providers fight for business either by creaming off the most ‘desirable’ customers or by lowering prices to drive out their rivals. Tentative in some places, prescriptive in others, it amounts to the most serious attempt in memory to reconceptualise the whole project of university education (and its regulation) from being a process of intellectual and personal development to providing a service to employers in the interests of efficiency and promoting competition.

Of course this is not what every part of the white paper actually says. There is the odd acknowledgement that education can be valuable in and of itself, for example, that there is ‘far more to higher education than financial benefit. It can transform people’s lives for the better as their intellectual horizons are broadened’ (p.17). But the spirit and intention of the document then proceed to work systematically against this by privileging moves towards the privatisation, instrumentalisation and commodification of a university education.

The first point to make is that the proposals are not driven by a determination simply to cut costs and help reduce the deficit. Indeed the white paper admits that the new funding regime will actually be more expensive for government before students start to pay their loans back. ‘We estimate there will be a cash increase in funding for higher education of around ten per cent by 2014-15’ (p.5). The government is, in effect, paying in the short-term to privatise the university sector in the long-term although, conveniently for government, through a sleight of hand, these costs will not appear on the balance sheet. Indeed the deficit features throughout the document. For example, it endorses the principle of universal education but only ‘[s]ubject to expenditure constraints’ (p.7). Furthermore, ‘[w]e expect new courses to offer increased value for money’ (p.7) and, of course, there is always ‘room for further efficiency savings and institutions should be looking at ways they can save money’ (p.17).

Competition is to be embedded into the system through a flexible ‘core and margin’ model in which there is a ‘contestable’ pot of 85,000 places, about one quarter of the total, that institutions will be able to bid for. First, the approximately 65,000 students who achieve AAB at ‘A’ level will be ‘freed’ from existing quotas and universities will be able to recruit as many of this target group as they can. This is a move that is likely to benefit students from independent schools who make up a disproportionately high number of this ‘elite’ group and to increase the volatility of the system as a whole as the cap on numbers for individual institutions will be lowered without any guarantee that numbers can be made up in these institutions.

Second, there will be a further pot of 20,000 students to be offered to any institution‚Äîpublic or private, higher or further education‚Äîwhich can demonstrate good quality and excellent value, as long as tuition costs are kept below £7,500 a year. There are, perhaps not surprisingly, no details about how this will work in practice but it is not impossible to imagine a private law or accountancy college that charges well below £7,500 being praised for its cost effectiveness and sound contribution to professional values and thus winning students whose loans are subsidized by the public. Ultimately, this is about fetishising competition and about driving down costs and, in turn, quality leading to a situation in which some universities may not be able to compete. As the FT put it, ‘for competition to work, successful universities must be able to expand, while the strugglers shrink’ and, presumably, go to the wall…

The call for more private providers to throw their hats in the ring is the white paper at its most pernicious and disingenuous. The section on introducing more participants into the education ‘market’ is introduced on the basis of a recognition of the various ‘non-traditional’ routes through which students come into higher education‚Äîindeed the chapter in question is headlined ‘A Diverse and Responsive Sector’. But what it means is that new private companies, frequently referred to in the white paper as ‘alternative’, ‘non traditional’ and ‘other’ providers (p.5), will enter the fray while FE colleges, who are able to offer courses at much lower costs, will also be encouraged to free themselves from their dependence on universities when providing HE.

For-profit companies will now have access to public funds as long as they ‘comply with the requirements on quality, dispute resolution, financial accountability, number controls, access, information and charges in the same way as existing institutions’ (p.73). This is a familiar government combination of deregulatory rhetoric combined with micro-management which even the FT admits will be ‘a headache for rule-makers’. But what it means is that the English university system is now to be opened up to the likes of Pearson, Kaplan and Apollo, organisations with a bottom line which is not about education but about making profits. While Apollo is currently under investigation by US officials, a HEFCE report earlier this year talks of the ‘risks associated with an expansion of the role of private providers in higher education’ in focusing on only a narrow range of subjects and of presenting various issues concerning quality. It concludes that a rise in private providers ‘may amount to a reputational risk for UK higher education’.

Employability and the benign influence of business feature heavily throughout the white paper which sanctions employer and charity sponsorship for extra places that are now to be outside the quota system. We know that a narrow emphasis on employability has already started to affect what kinds of courses students choose, given the announcement earlier this year that while applications for history and philosophy had dropped by 1.5 per cent, demand for maths and computer science had risen by 6.5 per cent and nursing by 14 per cent. The white paper only adds to this increasingly instrumental notion of a university education by further emphasising the importance of the professional relevance of a specific course, in part through the publication of graduate employment data in the Orwellian-sounding Key Information Set to be provided to all students.

Students will apparently be empowered by all this information and by being placed at the centre of the new funding arrangements. Indeed, there is a lot of talk of empowering students throughout the document. For example, the new loans regime will ‘put more power into the hands of students’ (p.15); the new risk-based quality assurance regimes will give students ‘power to hold universities to account’ (p.37) while more accurate data ‘will empower prospective students by ensuring much better information on different courses’ (p.2). ‘Student power’ has, in the swoop of a pen, be reclassified along the lines of customer satisfaction surveys and far away from the obviously retro image of students occupying campuses in solidarity with Palestinians or against staff redundancies or against programme closures.

The white paper is, in essence, a fairly typical piece of neoliberal ideology that combines an attack on public provision with yet more state intervention. In this case, the deregulatory (freeing up student numbers and relaxing rules on who is eligible to have degree-awarding powers) is combined with the re-regulatory. Cutting red tape is matched by micro-management of what institutions are deemed to offer ‘good quality’ courses, whether they are meeting access requirements, and how they are responding to student complaints.

These are hugely complex and ideological proposals if all Willetts really wants is for universities to be more clear about the information they provide to students. But of course, the white paper wants to go much further and to secure a wholescale cultural shift in which all universities need to think of themselves now as part of a competitive marketplace. Willetts made this perfectly clear in an interview on the day the white paper was published, insisting that universities must ‘not be in the mindset that they are part of the public sector’ (Today programme, 28 June). The white paper is another front in the government’s war on the public sector and public provision.

One detail that may not grab the attention of the public encapsulates this cultural shift. HEFCE, once a solid and slightly dull regulator, is now obliged ‘to promote the interests of students, including as consumers, with a duty to take competition implications into account when making decisions on funding’ (p.68). Well, consider what happened to NHS reforms. After a huge public campaign, the role of the health regulator changed from one of promoting competition to a requirement to ‘support choice, collaboration and integration’. We need to force an ever bigger u-turn in relation when it comes to education and to break the government’s fragile coalition on the subject of university reform. This will mean combining the determination of last year’s protests against tuition fees with proposals for an alternative view of university education in which critical debate, imaginative thinking and intellectual independence are the objectives and not a narrow, neoliberal concern for employability and efficiency. We need a manifesto for resistance and not a plan for privatisation.

Des Freedman teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London and is co-editor of The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance (Pluto 2011).

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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