by Paul Temple
In a blog post last December, I attempted to chart the broad changes in UK public-sector planning and management over the decades since 1945. I suggested that while central planning methods based on the idea of “predict and provide” applied across nationalised utilities, transport, health, local government services including schools, universities, and more, for the first few post-war decades, this was gradually supplanted from the 1980s onwards by market-based methods, generally described as neoliberal. My conclusion in relation to higher education was: “Central planning has gone, but its replacement depends on central funding and central intervention. I don’t think that we’ve seen the last of formal central planning in our sector.”
Obviously, I’d like to claim that I foresaw that the catastrophe of the Covid-19 pandemic would sweep away ideas of supposedly finely-balanced markets in fields such as health and education. What in fact I was thinking was that quasi-markets and the rest of the new managerial apparatus would eventually be seen to have fallen short on the neoliberal promise of efficiency without political interference, and the search would then be on for an alternative model. What goes around, comes around.
It’s too early to see exactly what the post-Covid higher education landscape will look like, but I think we can assume that government policy – in this new age of the expert – will ensure the survival of strong research universities, in the “golden triangle” and beyond; and it is equally hard to believe that universities such as Bolton and Sunderland, recently reported to be in financial difficulties, will be allowed to fail by a government politically committed to helping “left behind” regions. Whatever is presently being said by ministers about “no bailouts for universities”, politics is going to trump economics. In the context of the worst economic depression since the 1930s, the 1830s, the 1430s – you choose – this all points to a strong national planning function, involving control of student numbers (as we already know), research planning, and capital planning. The OfS, and even HEFCE, mantras of simply being there to keep the student marketplace looking neat and tidy, and not being concerned with institutional planning or even survival, now seem positively quaint.
Helpfully, we don’t need a crystal ball to foresee the future for higher education planning and funding, because the health sector has provided us with a worked example. On 2 April, the Department of Health and Social Care announced that £13.4 billion of hospital trust debt would be written off – just like that, as Tommy Cooper would have said. This is equivalent to about a third of total annual higher education spending. In less dramatic circumstances, this would have been a major event, but with so much else going on, it seems to have been filed by the media under “boring bureaucratic stuff”. The reason given for the write-off, according to the press notice, was to help hospitals “in maintaining vital services”; as Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State, put it, “nobody in our health service should be distracted by their hospital’s past finances”.
The present NHS structure of semi-autonomous hospital trusts with their own budgets dates from 1990. What was presented then as an essential method of improving NHS efficiency now turns out to have been a “distraction”, getting in the way of providing “vital services”. Who knew? All those person-centuries of work by hospital managers and highly-paid consultants in devising budgets, cutting costs, and then cutting them again to stay within an arbitrary budget, were essentially pointless. Careers were built, and wrecked, on managing a “distraction”. Hospitals, it seems, should simply have been given the money they needed to do the job required of them, as in olden times. The neoliberal model, as applied to UK health care, ended up (at best) delivering nothing.
As I noted in the book that I edited with Ron Barnett and Peter Scott in honour of Gareth Williams’ contributions to higher education studies, Valuing Higher Education (2017), the higher education landscape contains, on the one hand, institutions that require incomes; and on the other hand, students who wish to benefit from this institutional provision. (The universities/students, hospitals/patients, parallel is obvious.) Accordingly, the financing of UK higher education traditionally considered the needs of both institutions and individual students. But in recent years, policy in England has swung in a way that might fairly be described as revolutionary: it has moved, so far as teaching costs are concerned, from considering the needs of institutions to an almost exclusive focus on the needs of students. From a neoliberal perspective, putting the interests of the student-consumer above maintaining a planned pattern of institutional provision was self-evidently correct: this was the basis of David Willetts’ 2011 White Paper, with its unsubstantiated claims about the benefits that would arise from largely unconstrained student choice, the removal of most restrictions on the use of the university title, the entry of more “alternative providers”, and the rest. Will any of this agenda outlive the coronavirus? To preserve some semblance of a working higher education system into next year, I suspect that a lot of the Willetts 2011 policies will be found to be “distractions”, just like their NHS equivalents.
SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546