Market bizarre

Wilf_4x3.jpgWilf Stevenson on the government’s misjudged proposals for the UK’s higher education sector

In a recent article for The Financial Times, columnist Martin Wolf asked why the Conservative Party had abandoned a basic tenet of its political creed: to “understand the value of independent and enduring institutions, particularly in higher education”. Going on to say: “Make no mistake, this is a fully-fledged government takeover of the UK’s university sector.”

The Higher Education Bill, which has its Lords Second Reading today, is the first for a decade and long overdue. Since 2012, our higher education system has been transformed – but not for the good. Reforms under the Coalition government introduced, among other things, a voucher system for funding universities, tripled the cost of both full- and part-time courses, and abolished maintenance grants.

As a result, we have students leaving university with personal debts of around £50,000, a huge uncovered gap in public finances (as most loans will not be repaid), the most expensive courses in the world, a complete collapse in part-time provision, and a tiny proportion of new universities (few of which attract more than a handful of students). If there is a market in higher education today it is a very atypical one, with many unfortunate side effects, and almost certainly restricted to central London. Hardly a resounding success!

So while welcoming the chance to debate higher education in the UK, we do not welcome this Bill. Not only because it fails to focus on promoting scholarship, encouraging research or a concern for truth. But we are also concerned that the proposals will turn the sector into one that is even more market-driven. 

Universities do not simply offer factual knowledge in a passive mode. They shape society as well as preparing students to be active, constructive members of their communities. By introducing the practices of reasoned debate, dialogue and discussion, and responsible problem solving, undergraduate education instils democratic habits of thought and action. Such habits are central to what Amartya Sen calls “public reason”; and what John Dewey referred to as “social inquiry”. It is not a market transaction, to be constructed solely around the provisions of the 2015 Consumer Rights Act. 

For a long time, a core mission of our universities has been to provide their students with skills that will allow them to get jobs and prosper in business and industry. But it is equally important that universities educate their students to think critically and engage with the knowledge which comes from scholarship. And they must also help them to develop the ability to engage in life-long learning, which will be so necessary in the labour markets of the future.

Along with its weaknesses, the Bill also has many glaring omissions. Where is boost for part time provision? What about degree level apprenticeships? We were hoping for something on credit accumulation and transfer, but it’s not there. What of the flexible provision of degree courses? There is virtually nothing about taught higher degrees or postgraduate training and research. We will bring forward amendments on these areas during Committee stage of the Bill.

The UK is currently the second most successful higher education system in the world, with four universities ranked in the top ten. The sector faces substantial challenges if we go ahead with the sort of Brexit currently being demanded by some from the ‘Leave’ side of the referendum campaign. At the same time, we are struggling to retain our market share of overseas students, because of the Home Office’s unfounded paranoia about illegal immigration in the sector.

This does seem a rather bizarre time to consider, let alone drive through, further market-led reforms in our important university sector.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow Higher Education Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @Missenden50 

Published 6th December 2016

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