Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Browne Report: A Critical Review

The report on student finance and the organisation of the university sector that was established by the last Labour government here in the UK has reported today. At the general election earlier this year here both the Labour and Conservative parties abdicated formulation of policy in this area stating in their manifestoes they were awaiting the publication of this report. Only the Liberal Democrats appeared to suggest a specific policy apparently favouring free higher education and the abolition of tuition fees. Since this time positions have "developed" with the Liberal Democrats initially moving to a graduate tax and now likely to move significantly in the direction of the report's conclusions. Regardless, for now, of the specific moves of the political parties, I have undertaken here to present a critical appraisal of the report in question, produced by a committee of people who include the ex-head of BP, a former chief advisor to Tony Blair, an economics consultant, the former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), a scientist who specialises in structural materials, an expert on charities and a bank chief executive. The composition of the panel does not inspire confidence that we are faced with people who have the welfare of the higher education system foremost amongst their priorities and, unfortunately, on reading the report, this is confirmed. The report is, as I will seek to show, a fundamentally dishonest piece of work that reeks of intellectual fraud and moral bankruptcy.

The report is entitled Securing A Sustainable Future for Higher Education and its' sub-title makes clear that the mandate of the group who compiled it was drawn up to tie together questions of student finance with the general funding of higher education. Six principles are listed at the opening of the report:  1) making available greater investment for higher education; 2) increasing student choice; 3) safeguarding the right of everyone to a place in higher education; 4) ensuring no one should pay for higher education whilst actually studying but only on entry into paid employment; 5) that payments should be set at a rate that is affordable; 6) that part-time students should be treated the same way as full-time students.

Noticeably the principles listed simply take it as axiomatic that it should be the prime responsibility of those studying to pay for the major cost of higher education. As will be seen later, there are some cases where this is off-set but it is a general claim that is only briefly justified in the report itself. The justification basically consists in the claim that whilst there are benefits not just to those studying but also to the wider society in people participating in higher education as students that, nonetheless, the benefit to the individuals concerned is much greater than to the public as a whole. This claim is, as would always be the case with such a response to the very varied nature of student and graduate experience, one justified on average. It takes no account of the experience of those who do not move into higher paid jobs on exiting higher education and nor does it indicate how it can be quantified what the benefit for the public as a whole is or how it possibly could be quantified. This is the first problem with the report's response to data: it is cavalier and tailored to suit a pre-given case.

The second argument in favour of fees is that access to higher education is not universal or compulsory and in this respect is different to school education the cost of which is broadly taken from general taxation. It is true that school education is universal and compulsory but it is news to claim that this is the reason for its being funded from general taxation since it is generally claimed it is because of the evident public need for a set level of numeracy, literacy et al to be attained that we require to finance this out of general taxation. A similar case can be made that there is a general need for people with the level of education, skills and competence that comes from higher education. The fact that not all can enter it, due to requiring to meet a standard to be able to participate in higher education does not off-set this general public good requirement and nor does the fact that some choose not to avail themselves of higher education when they could. These are the only two arguments given as to why there cannot be free higher education though the implied third is the cost this would involve. The costs of not doing so have to be off-set against this and the two compared which is not done.

So the argument for the cost of higher education depending largely on increased student contributions goes largely by the board and sets the framework for the whole report. The general argument that develops is set within the terms of a "voucher system" where students are related to as financial units that the university attracts as its main source of income. This would lead to the cost of courses being met through the contributions students make. However, there is a big exception to this general market model made. This is in the areas of "priority subjects" identified as medicine, science and engineering and some (unspecified) modern languages. These areas are thought to either involve higher costs or to have some general public importance so that they can depend on greater support than other subjects.

Most reaction to the report has failed to grasp this point concerning the "priority subjects" and the basis of the argument concerning their funding. The report attacks the general principle of university financial support that has existed  until now. This principle was that universities are supported primarily by large block grants from the state. The report argues that these grants should be removed and the "voucher system" of student support should replace them. However, the need for the discussion of "priority subjects" arises due to the fact that these subjects will retain specific state support for their existence and support of the sort the university as a whole used to have through the block grant system. Effectively this means that the selected subjects are related to as having a basis in the "national interest" that other subjects do not have and hence are treated as being worthy of subsidy. Other subjects (including everything in the arts and humanities) will sink or swim according to their ability to attract a sufficient student support base.

The element of social engineering added to the market model by the selection of "priority subjects" is added to by the way in which the number of students allowed per annum is treated. The report consistently attacks the way that currently governments can cap the number of students particular universities can take. It further implies that it would be preferable if there was no such cap. However, this is not in accord with what specifically gets recommended. Firstly, it has an interim view of the situation suggesting that what should happen now is that there should be a 10% increase in student places. In relation to this increase however it further suggests that this should not be an across the board increase in student places but should "follow trends in student demand" though it is unspecified how the current demand is to be understood. So, should the great demand in some institutions for philosophy degrees continue to be met even if, in some instances this is greater than demands for courses in bio-chemistry? Somehow I think not and this indicates a second source of intellectual dishonesty in the report.

This interim situation is problematic enough but to it is added a further problem when we have gone past it. After this has occurred there should be an introduction of a system where the government would annually relate to the student numbers on offer by raising or lowering the general tariff required to enter the university system in accord with the government's view of what could be afforded in relation to finance that year. For those don't believe this please see Sec1: 33 of the report. This would fundamentally distort the supposed introduction of a student market and show it to be rigged by the government.

The report further recommends lifting the bar on fees that students are charged. The result of this is that different universities could charge different amounts.  However, on the one hand, this divergence would have to be publicly justified by the university including some kind of set of targets it would meet, an interference in their running. And, on the other hand, the greater the level of fee set, the smaller the proportion of the total fee would belong directly to the university itself. These two points added together detract visibly from any apparent "benefit" of the higher fees.

A number of different bodies are also recommended to be merged with the Higher Education Funding Councils, the Quality Assurance Agency, the Office for Fair Access et al all merged into a new Higher Education Council. The effect of such mergers would be greater centralisation of government response to some crucial aspects of oversight of the higher education system. This is indicated directly in the report which refers to a "more targeted" approach to regulation, effectively meaning lighter regulation than exists now for the most prestigious universities, greater concentration of research income on such universities and more varied ways of assessing their commitment to increasing access. All in all, a real loser of a proposal and another way of rigging the market system.

The specific proposals for student finance set out in the report are for an increase in fees with such fees related to ability to pay. The general proposals around these will doubtless be the main political battlefield for the future between the UK political parties and there are certainly central issues there, principally for the Liberal Democrats given that they were the only party committed to free education. However, academics generally should realise that the result of these proposals is a fundamental change in the running and financing of universities and that this change is one fronted dishonestly as based on market principles. It is, in fact, a programme for a rigged and distorted market that will produce (as is frankly acknowledged in the report) the consequence of the destruction and closure of many universities for the alleged benefit of a privileged few who will be largely set free from regulation and given all the "benefits" of this rigged market. 

Purporting to present a good deal for all this report in fact is the herald of a new kind of government run and rigged "competition" that will certainly hurt universities in general and humanities subjects (outside a privileged circle of institutions) in particular. 

No comments: