The Government’s White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System,and the Browne Review that preceded it, reveal a worrying lack of vision for the future of UK universities. The White Paper makes frequent reference to the excellence and high international reputation of our system of public higher education, but it proposes a set of sweeping, ill-considered reforms that will destabilise and threaten that excellence. The Government claims that it is putting students at the centre of provision, but has passed the burden of funding courses on to fees to be paid back by individual graduates. It reverses the direction for the future of higher education set out by the Dearing Report in 1997 and does so with no mandate.

  • Less will cost more. Government policy has cut central support for degree programmes by 80%. It has shifted fees onto students who will now carry a massive debt, but the public funds necessary to support the new system of student loans will cost more than the previous system of block grant plus student contribution.
  • Many students will pay more but will get less. The Government intends that student fees will be reduced below £7500 by competition. At this fee level, students will pay twice as much as at present but there will be fewer resources for teaching, once account is taken of increased recruitment and compliance costs.
  • Education reduced to investment in employability. Universities are central to the cultural and public life of the country, but the Government fails to support these aims. Professional and vocational courses have a core role in higher education, but the Government views all courses as ‘training for employment’ and all universities as training providers. This focus distorts the wide range of courses currently available and neglects the important social and cultural mission of the public university.
  • Reducing student choice through course closure. Commercial pressures have already led several universities to close courses such as philosophy, sociology, performing arts, history and classics. The Government’s proposals will exacerbate such developments and lead to fewer study options for the next generation of students.
  • Displacing the arts, humanities and social sciences. The arts, humanities and social sciences are fundamental for cultural innovation and fostering the public debate essential for a healthy democracy. Government policies will seriously diminish provision in these areas, except for a few ‘elite’ universities.
  • Dismantling excellence. Echoing earlier Government plans for the NHS, undergraduate degree courses and student loans will be opened to any provider. For-profit enterprises will be allowed to cherry-pick courses thus undermining existing public universities who commit to supporting a broad range of studies. Yet the public supports public funding of higher education, just as it supports the NHS.3 David Willetts’s ‘radical experiment’ will jeopardise a public higher education system that is internationally acclaimed for its excellence.
  • Education for sale and for profit. The government believes that for-profit providers can bring the level of fees down to £6000. For this fee, the new for-profit providers will expect to pay profits to investors and owners whilst also maintaining a high advertising and marketing budget as they enter the market. They can only trim costs by having fewer and less qualified staff: off-the-shelf curriculum materials will be delivered by service teachers.
  • Subsidies for the private sector, rather than for universities. Taxpayers’ money will be used to provide loans to students taking private sector degrees, rather than directly to public universities through the block grant.
  • Destabilisation of universities and possible closures, damaging communities. The Government says it is providing for the long-term stability of the system, yet it contemplates short term chaos and is sanguine about the closure of some universities. This will damage the teaching of current students and those about to apply, undermine research, and threaten the contribution universities make to employment and local economies.
  • A narrow and limited concept of competition. The White Paper’s thinking is distorted and restricted because of the limited meaning it gives to its key concept, competition. It equates competition with the commercial price competition that exists between businesses selling the same simple and uniform product. In Higher Education competition exists but its primary function is to produce excellence, not lowest prices: it is the critical rivalry between institutions and individuals striving for highest quality.
  • A narrow and limited concept of choice. Choice and competition in higher education are critically important. But they are to be judged primarily by the proliferation of non-commensurable intellectual diversity that is vital for dynamism and change, not by efforts to produce the same course or commodity at different grades of price and quality. It is adequate public funding which provides for the true values of competition and of choice in Higher Education.

It is time to defend public higher education with the same vigour that was evident in the defence of the NHS from similarly ill-thought-out proposals.

The Government has called for a consultation on its White Paper with contributions to be made by 20th September 2011. The evidence submitted to its previous consultations has been largely critical of its policies. But there is no evidence that the government has given any consideration to the evident risks to higher education that many commentators have pointed out. It is urgent now that academics conduct a different kind of consultation, one in which we present a systematic case for public higher education and its value, both intrinsic and extrinsic.

We now call for contributions to an Alternative White Paper to be published at the end of the Government’s consultation period in September. This will be presented to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, together with the weight of opinion that supports it.

Send contributions to: altwhitepaper@live.co.uk

Closing date: 2nd September 2011

The rest of the response paper can be found here It was authored by:

Campaign for the Public University
Oxford University Campaign for Higher Education
Sussex University Defends Higher Education
Warwick University Campaign for Higher Education
Humanities Matter
No Confidence Campaign
Cambridge Academic Campaign for Higher Education

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