Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Weeping ...

... wailing and gnashing of teeth. Yes, this is about the Browne Report into higher education again. Here is the lament of Priyamvada Gopal who talks of "the greatest assault on the arts and humanities in the history of modern Britain."
All but the most affluent will be induced to turn away from courses in literature, history, modern languages and most social sciences ...
Calm down, calm down. Let's actually read the report. At the moment funding is based on student recruitment and completion. If a university gets £6,000 for a student, currently around £3,000 comes from fees and £3,000 from teaching grant. Under Browne, the full £6,000 will come from fees, paid up front by the government and repayable only when the student is earning more than £21,000 per year. The university gets the same and the student swaps a future tax liability for an increased income-contingent debt liability. Not all that great for students, but this isn't a radical change. It isn't anything like as radical as the initial introduction of fees and loans under New Labour. You will not have to be affluent to go to university, you will have to be if you are to repay the costs. And as the report states, "The financial risk on the loans is ... borne by Government, not by the student".

People have picked up on the fact that teaching grant will remain for some subjects, notably in sciences, medicine and modern languages, and see this as reflecting an attack on other areas. Actually, this is to correct for the possibility of market failure. These subjects carry higher costs, are less popular, yet are strategically important. The grant helps them survive in a world where they may be out-competed by the demand for the humanities. And Browne is banking on the fact that graduate employment rates are just as good, if not better, for the humanities as they are for vocational subjects.

A major difference will come from the lifting of the cap on fees, which may benefit high status institutions whose market position is such that they are capable of charging more due to the status they confer on their graduates, regardless of the subject studied. Though even here the report recommends a levy on higher fees such that,
As the fee amount rises, the marginal benefit to the institutions declines. This reflects the fact that the higher the amount of the loan, the higher the number of students who will rely on the Government to write off outstanding amounts.
Even so, this will reinforce a polarisation of income between wealthy elite universities and more equitable institutions.

This was written before the announcements of the funding review and I think that is something to be far more concerned about. Although my instinctive preference is for a system funded from direct taxation and for stable, predictable funding and I do not share many of the report's premises, it is relatively sane and certainly not an attack on the humanities. Browne consciously reinforces and expands already existing market competition in Higher Education, yet the report is not proposing an unregulated market, which may disappoint some of its libertarian supporters.

I have severe doubts that there will be any relaxing of the bureaucratic grip. In particular the need for information gathering and statistical evidence required to supposedly lead to informed market choice may well increase the box ticking whilst the proposed HE Council simply amalgamates all the existing bureaucracies under one roof and I am willing to bet that they will not release their hold on the beleaguered academic drowning in paper.

There are other problems too. Though I welcome the equality of funding entitlement given to part-time students, all is not rosy. Low income students on part-time courses currently get their fees paid in full by their local authority. It appears that this may no longer be the case and that, rather than getting free tuition, they will have to incur a debt. This is a big loss. In addition, the report recommends that "entitlement to Student Finance is in the future determined by a minimum entry standard, based on aptitude". This has nothing to do with "aptitude", it is all about prior achievement. And though 10% of places will be allocated to institutions to offer to those who do not meet the formal entry criteria, this is a centralising proposal and raises concerns for the future of open access recruitment.

When the Liberal Democrats pledged their souls to the ending of tuition fees before selling them in exchange for a place in the sulphurous Cabinet room, they were trying to appeal to the interests of the fabled middle England, seeking to preserve their privileges. Browne doesn't seem to want to disturb them too much either. The parents will be fine, its the kids that will have to pay.

Yet, this report is an attack on something else, the civic tradition, community engagement and adult education - mainstream funded but doing something radically different, something I spent fourteen years of my life building. This type of work relies almost entirely on the teaching grant. There is a big demand, a large potential for growth, but even within the existing funding arrangements its fees need to be subsidised to make it accessible. Without any teaching grant and with minimal fee income within a climate of cuts, it is hard to see how any institution could afford to support it. Certainly, the students would never be able to pay pro-rata fees to wholly fund short courses.

What really is depressing is that the supposed role of a university education permeating the report is more than utilitarian, it views it solely as a vehicle for personal advancement. As a result, English at Cambridge will flourish; it is historic university adult education that has been sent to its grave.

Now is the time for your tears.


B.L.A.I.R.-1 said...


Why not make your blog about the stuff you teach rather than complaining about government funding? That way we can get the knowledge without having to pay for diplomas and stuff at all.

The Plump said...

If you were one of my students I would suggest that you read more carefully. The post is a moan about elite educators totally misreading government funding policy and ranting about the wrong things.

Otherwise my main complaint is that policies are flowing from a narrow model of education and, as a result, are contributing the strange, and tragic, death of liberal adult education.

And education is about more than knowledge - and I would love it to be about more than diplomas "and stuff". Mind you, without them I would not get paid so you will still have to stump up.