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Des Freedman argues that the government’s new green paper signals an even more deregulated, profit-driven HE sector

Exactly five years ago, around 50,000 students marched through central London protesting against the planned trebling of tuition fees. While the media focused on the occupation of the Tory headquarters at Millbank, others spoke of the violence of a policy that would signal the end of affordable or free education and saddle future students with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. A month later, parliament dutifully but shamefully voted in the increased fees amid angry scenes and police violence against student protesters.

The  following year, the government published its plans for the systematic marketisation of higher education (HE) in a white paper improperly called ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ when the more accurate title would have been ‘Profits at the Heart of the System’. This was a plan to radically restructure HE by encouraging new private providers to enter the market, introducing a two-tier fees regime and attempting to introduce market criteria into every aspect of university life.

Now, determined to finish the job, the Tories have come back with a new green paper that advocates further market reforms to teaching, research, governance and regulation of universities in England and Wales. It is likely to lead to higher tuition fees for many, increased state intervention into the organisation and delivery of HE, more bureaucracy for staff and less autonomy for student unions.

It is a long and rather tortuous document but contains within it some of the most perfect expressions of a neoliberal marketplace in education. By advocating a series of consumer-focused policies that are more appropriate for banks and supermarkets than public education, the government is effectively sanctioning a situation in which some universities will thrive while some are allowed to go to the wall. ‘In a changing and more competitive sector, providers that innovate and present a more compelling value proposition to students will increase their share of students – in some cases this may be at the expense of other institutions’ (p. 54).

The government plans to achieve this, in particular through setting up a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF) that will reward those institutions which most successfully play ball with the ability to increase tuition fees. The green paper promises that the TEF ‘should change providers’ behaviour’ (p. 19). That much is true, as universities are likely to seek, in their delivery of teaching, ever more standardised and formulaic ways to reduce risk, suppress critical approaches (in case a student feels uncomfortable about teaching being too ‘political’) and enhance uniformity in order to get a good grade in the TEF.

The TEF will be assessed mostly through quantitative indicators or ‘metrics’ – indeed I lost track of the number of references to ‘metrics’ and ‘data’ and ‘information’ in the document. Although the green paper claims that ‘metrics alone will not give a full picture of excellence’ (p. 31), and insists that universities will be free to decide on the ‘additional information’ that is necessary to evaluate teaching quality, I have rarely seen a document so in love with the efficacy of numbers. There will be numbers in relation to employability, retention, student satisfaction, staff contract breakdown, contact time, degree awards – virtually all of which, of course, we already have in things like the annual National Student Survey (NSS) except that somehow these metrics will now magically provide a more reliable, quantitative picture of the student ‘experience’. (It fails to mention the need for data on how much time staff will have to spend on filling out the forms required to prove how good teaching is).

If the TEF is dangerous in its implications for routinised and risk-averse forms of teaching, it is short-sighted even in its own terms, because it is far from clear how big a financial incentive the TEF is to institutions who would dearly love to increase their revenue. Good TEF scores will trigger an inflation-linked increase but, given how low CPI is running at the moment, this is hardly likely to generate ecstasy in university finance departments. Indeed, the leading critic of government HE policy, Andrew McGettigan, reckons that such a poor incentive could backfire on the prospects of delivering high quality education. ‘If the rewards from TEF are insufficient then universities are more likely to increase income through over-recruitment than improving the student experience.’

The document is more interesting for what it leaves out. For example:

There is one single reference in over 100 pages to debt – and of course no mention of the average debt (currently expected to be around £44,000) for graduates. There are, however, lots of references to loans (don’t forget that David Willetts, architect of the 2011 white paper, once described student debt simply as ‘a lifetime of payments’).

There is not a single reference to citizenship though there are quite a few to ‘consumer protection’. The green paper makes a lot of the fact that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has produced guidance concerning the accuracy of the information provided to students and probably thinks that the CMA would be a better regulator of university education than HEFCE.

There is literally nothing about part-time students – maybe because by the time the ‘reforms’ are enacted, there won’t be any part-time students left. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, numbers of part-timers have dropped, from 258,000 in 2010/11 to 116,00 last year – a drop of more than 50% in four years – making a mockery of government claims to be committed to making a university education available to all those who want one.

Instead, the green paper is full of sweeping generalisations. Jo Johnson, the universities minister, insists that the government’s plans will lead to a reduction in ‘the overall burden of regulation’ (p. 9). Somehow, it believes that a single giant regulator, the Office for Students, will be less bureaucratic than the two regulators it is set to replace. Somehow, it believes that initiatives like the bureaucratically-minded TEF, its micro-managing of funding incentives and its measures to entice new entrants will reduce regulation when common sense would suggest the opposite.

Actually, it is true that some areas of university life will be less tightly regulated. There will certainly be deregulation at the corporate level with fewer restrictions on governance. This hardly sounds like headline news but the changes to governance could be dramatic, especially for those in ‘pre-1992 universities’ who have ‘statutes’ that protect academic freedom and in some cases put in place a basic level of decision-making democracy. The green paper supports efforts to ‘speed up the process for amending the governing documents of HEFCE-funded providers so that they can more quickly reflect the needs of the organisation and the environment within which they are operating and competing’ (p. 67). That’s another way of saying that senior management and governors will be able to tear up agreements that stand in the way of plans to restructure operations or expand their businesses. The green paper also talks about the need to reform student unions and invites comments on how to ‘increase transparency around how funds are spent’ (p. 61), a signal that it is considering challenging the autonomy of student organisation.

But above all, the green paper puts money at the heart of the system. It argues, for example, that a third of undergraduates think that their courses are ‘poor value for money’ (p. 12) and that just over a third think that paying £9,000 is either ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value for money (p. 19). But did it ever occur to government that the problem may not be about the quality of the course or the ‘excellence’ of the institution but about the very idea of charging for education? There is bound to be quite a lot of reluctance to praise a ‘service’ that for so many years was delivered free at the point of entry and that now generates an annual surplus of £1.2 billion.

The good guys in the new HE market are what the green paper calls ‘alternative providers’ whose numbers have increased tenfold in the last five years (p. 54). Yet, these are the same private operators who, according to Andrew McGettigan, pocket around £700 million of public money without any data (the same data the government holds so dear) on how many students from these private colleges have actually earned an award. McGettigan rightly describes this as the emergence of a ‘subprime undergraduate sector’.

None of this is to suggest that existing higher education institutions are blameless. Indeed, so many have responded to the new HE marketplace by internalising the idea that universities are, above all, businesses to be run at a profit that we see the phenomenon of London Metropolitan University desperately trying to ‘consolidate’ its ‘property portfolio’ i.e. to sell off buildings, or SOAS management denying it had plans to close 184 courses despite documents showing that this was under consideration.

We also see fantastic resistance to these proposals such as the resistance at SOAS against the proposed restructuring or a slew of occupations earlier this year, like the one at the LSE that set out to oppose what students described as the rise of ‘profit driven education.’ Universities, after all, should be places where staff and students are able to take risks, to develop critical and creative skills, to innovate and inspire and, above all, to teach, research and learn without fear that their every move is to be measured and quantified. Universities should not be seen as profit centres and vehicles for capital accumulation and speculation – precisely what the proposals outlined in the Green Paper essentially privilege.

We need to mount campaigns on campus and beyond that can resist what is nothing more than a market fundamentalist takeover of our universities.

A Convention on Higher Education has been called for February 2016 to discuss how best to respond to the green paper and to defend higher education as a public resource. You can get more information from http://heconvention2.wordpress.com

Des Freedman

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 author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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