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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Customer Services

by Phil Pilkington

“…problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para 38 (original emphasis)

The paradigm shift of students to customers at the heart of higher education has changed strategies, psychological self-images, business models and much else. But are the claims for and against students as customers (SAC) and the related research as useful, insightful and angst ridden as we may at first think?  There are alarms about changing student behaviours and approaches to learning and the relationship towards academic staff but does the naming ‘customers’ reveal what were already underlying, long standing problems? Does the concentrated focus on SAC obscure rather than reveal?

One aspect of SAC is the observation that academic performance declines, and learning becomes more surface and instrumental (Bunce, 2017). Another is that SAC inclines students to be narcissist and aggressive, with HEI management pandering to the demands of both students and their feedback on the NSS, with other strategies to create iconic campus buildings, to maintain or improve league table position (Nixon, 2018).

This raises some methodological questions on (a) the research on academic performance and the degree of narcissism/aggression prior to SAC (ie around 1997 with the Dearing Report); (b) the scope and range of the research given the scale of student numbers, participation rates, the variety of student motivations, the nature of disciplines and their own learning strategies, and the hierarchy of institutions; and (c) the combination of (a) and (b) in the further question whether SAC changed the outlook of students to their education – or is it that we are paying more attention and making different interpretations?

Some argue that the mass system created in some way marketisation of HE and the SAC with all its attendant problems of changing the pedagogic relationship and cognitive approaches. Given Martin Trow’s definitions of elite, mass and universal systems of HE*, the UK achieved a mass system by the late 1980s to early 1990s with the rapid expansion of the polytechnics; universities were slower to expand student numbers. This expansion was before the introduction of the £1,000 top up fees of the Major government and the £3,000 introduced by David Blunkett (Secretary of State for Education in the new Blair government) immediately after the Dearing Report. It was after the 1997 election that the aspiration was for a universal HE system with a 50% participation rate.

If a mass system of HE came about (in a ‘fit of forgetfulness’ ) by 1991 when did marketisation begin? Marketisation may be a name we give to a practice or context which had existed previously but was tacit and culturally and historically deeper, hidden from view. The unnamed hierarchy of institutions of Oxbridge, Russell, polytechnics, HE colleges, FE colleges had powerful cultural and socio-political foundations and was a market of sorts (high to low value goods, access limited by social/cultural capital and price, etc). That hierarchy was not, however, necessarily top-down: the impact of social benefit of the ‘lower orders’ in that hierarchy would be significant in widening participation. The ‘higher order’ existed (and exists) in an ossified form. And as entry was restricted, the competition within the sector did not exist or did not present existential threats. Such is the longue durée when trying to analyse marketisation and the SAC.

The focus on marketisation should help us realise that over the long term the unit of resource was drastically reduced; state funding was slowly and then rapidly withdrawn to the point where the level of student enrolment was critical to long term strategy. That meant not maintaining but increasing student numbers when the potential pool of students would fluctuate – with  the present demographic trough ending in 2021 or 2022. Marketisation can thus be separated to some extent from the cognitive dissonance or other anxieties of the SAC. HEIs (with exceptions in the long-established hierarchy) were driven by the external forces of the funding regime to develop marketing strategies, branding and gaming feedback systems in response to the competition for students and the creation of interest groups – Alliance, Modern, et al. The enrolled students were not the customers in the marketisation but the product or outcome of successful management. The students change to customers as the focus is then on results, employment and further study rates. Such is the split personality of institutional management here.

Research on SAC in STEM courses has a noted inclination to surface learning and the instrumentalism of ‘getting a good grade in order to get a good job’, but this prompts further questions. I am not sure that this is an increased inclination to surface learning, nor whether surface and deep are uncritical norms we can readily employ. The HEAC definition of deep learning has an element of ‘employability’ in the application of knowledge across differing contexts and disciplines (Howie and Bagnall, 2012). A student in 2019 may face the imperative to get a ‘degree level’ job in order to pay back student loans. This is rational related to the student loans regime and widening participation, meaning this imperative is not universally applied given the differing socio-economic backgrounds of all students.

(Note that the current loan system is highly regressive as a form of ‘graduate tax’.)

And were STEM students more inclined toward deep or surface learning before they became SAC?  Teaching and assessment in STEM may have been poorand may have encouraged surface level learning (eg through weekly phase tests which were tardily assessed).

What is deep learning in civil engineering when faced with stress testing concrete girders or in solving quarternion equations in mathematics: is much of STEM actually knowing and processing algorithms? How is such learnable content in STEM equivalent in some cognitive way to the deep learning in modern languages, history, psychology et al? This is not to suggest a hierarchy of disciplines but differences, deep differences, between rules-based disciplines and the humanities.

Learning is complex and individualised, and responsive to, without entirely determining, the curriculum and the forms of its delivery. In the research on SAC the assumptions are that teaching and assessment delivery is both relatively unproblematic and designed to encourage deep, non-instrumental learning. Expectations of the curriculum delivery and assessment will vary amongst students depending on personal background of schooling and parents, the discipline and personal motivations and the expectations will often be unrealistic. Consider why they are unrealistic – more than the narcissism of being a customer. (There is a very wide range of varieties of customer: as a customer of Network Rail I am more a supplicant than a narcissist.)

The alarm over the changes (?) to the students’ view of their learning as SAC in STEM should be put in the context of the previously high drop-out rate of STEM students (relatively higher than non-STEM) which could reach 30% of a cohort. The causes of drop out were thoroughly examined by Mantz Yorke(Yorke and Longden, 2004), but as regards the SAC issue here, STEM drop outs were explained by tutors as lack of the right mathematical preparation. There is comparatively little research on the motivations for students entering STEM courses before they became SAC; such research is not over the long term or longitudinal. However, research on the typology of students with differing motivations for learning (the academic, the social, the questioning student etc) ranged across all courses, does exist (a 20 year survey by Liz Beatty, 2005). Is it possible that after widening participation to the point of a universal system, motivations towards the instrumental or utilitarian will become more prominent? And is there an implication that an elite HE system pre-SAC was less instrumentalist, less surface learning? The creation of PPE (first Oxford in 1921 then spreading across the sector) was an attempt to produce a mandarin class, where career ambition was designed into the academic disciplines. That is, ‘to get a good job’ applies here too but it will be expressed in different, indirect and elevated ways of public service.**

There are some anachronisms in the research on SAC. The acceptance of SAC by management, by producing student charters and providing students places on boards, committees and senior management meetings is not a direct result of students or management considering students as customers. Indeed, it predates SAC by many years and has its origins in the 1960s and 70s.

I am unlikely to get onto the board of Morrisons, but I could for the Co-op – a discussion point on partnerships, co-producers, membership of a community of learners. The struggle by students to get representation in management has taken fifty years from the Wilson government Blue Paper Student Protest (1970) to today. It may have been a concession, but student representation changed the nature of HEIs in the process, prior to SAC. Student Charters appear to be mostly a coherent, user-friendly reduction of lengthy academic and other regulations that no party can comprehend without extensive lawyerly study. A number of HEIs produced charters before the SAC era (late 1990s). And iconic university buildings have been significantly attractive in the architectural profession a long time before SAC – Birmingham’s aspiration to be an independent city state with its Venetian architecture recalling St Mark’s Square under the supervision of Joseph Chamberlain (1890s) or Jim Stirling’s post-modern Engineering faculty building at Leicester (1963) etc (Cannandine 2002).

Students have complex legal identities and are a complex and often fissiparous body. They are customers of catering, they are members of a guild or union, learners, activists and campaigners, clients, tenants, volunteers, sometimes disciplined as the accused, or the appellant, they adopt and create new identities psychologically, culturally and sexually. The language of students as customers creates a language game that excludes other concerns: the withdrawal of state funding, the creation of an academic precariat, the purpose of HE for learning and skills supply, an alienation from a community by the persuasive self-image as atomised customer, how deep learning is a creature of disciplines and the changing job market, that student-academic relations were problematic and now become formalised ‘complaints’. Students are not the ‘other’ and they are much more than customers.

Phil Pilkington is Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, a former CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union, an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE.

*Martin Trow defined an elite, mass and universal systems of HE by participation rates of 10-20%, 20-30% and 40-50% respectively.

** Trevor Pateman, The Poverty of PPE, Oxford, 1968; a pamphlet criticising the course by a graduate; it is acknowledged that the curriculum, ‘designed to run the Raj in 1936’, has changed little since that critique. This document is a fragment of another history of higher education worthy of recovery: of complaint and dissatisfaction with teaching and there were others who developed the ‘alternative prospectus’ movement in the 1970s and 80s.

References

Beatty L, Gibbs G, and Morgan A (2005) ‘Learning orientations and study contracts’, in Marton, F, Hounsell, D and Entwistle, N, (eds) (2005) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education, 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

Bunce, Louise (2017) ‘The student-as-consumer approach in HE and its effects on academic performance’, Studies in Higher Education, 42(11): 1958-1978

Howie P and Bagnall R (2012) ‘A critique of the deep and surface learning model’, Teaching in Higher Education 18(4); they state the distinction of learning is “imprecise conceptualisation, ambiguous language, circularity and a lack of definition…”

Nixon, E, Scullion, R and Hearn, R (2018) ‘Her majesty the student: marketised higher education and the narcissistic (dis)satisfaction of the student consumer’, Studies in Higher Education  43(6): 927-943

Cannandine, David (2004), The ‘Chamberlain Tradition’, in In Churchill’s Shadow, Oxford: Oxford University Press; his biographical sketch of Joe Chamberlain shows his vision of Birmingham as an alternative power base to London.

Yorke M and Longden B (2004) Retention and student success in higher education, Maidenhead: SRHE/Open University Press


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University Governance

by Phil Pilkington

There has been widespread discussion and outrage about the pay and reward of Vice Chancellors and their accountability to their governing bodies. In addition, there is discussion about the need to provide greater support for the lay members who govern universities, and the related need for the reform of institutional management to be less dependent upon an individual’s abilities as manager-leaders in a complex environment (‘less analogue and more digital’, Mark Leach, WonkHE).

A recent concern was whether ex-VCs should be encouraged to join the governing boards to provide some empathetic support for the management, and perhaps an independent but expert view of management in HE for the benefit of lay governors.

Another complaint has been the lack of gender balance and BAME representation on Boards of Governance, with women comprising 32% of board members (Sherer and Zakaria, 2018). There are other critical matters: civic engagement and the relationship with the local community; disproportionate pay increases for VCs and the consequent demoralisation of staff; the worsening conditions of all employees in pay and ‘contracting out’ to global corporations; calls for the democratisation of universities; and strategic engagement with political change. Issues such as freedom of speech, Prevent, institutional autonomy, public understanding of science to international partnerships and more are all directly or indirectly connected to the nature of governance. The governance of US universities is said to involve the triple duty of fiduciary, academic and moral responsibilities; there may be no limit to the responsibilities of governors.

A recent colloquium on governance focussed on the need for creativity in the global market of higher education and the needs for science innovation and pedagogic development (University Governance and Creativity, European Review, Cambridge, 2018). Whatever the limited pool of talent available for the lay governance of universities the UK stands strong in the league table for sectoral autonomy, scoring top at 100% in the European University Association (EUA) review in 2017. This is nonsense. Or rather, the concept of autonomy is nonsense for universities. It is an enlightenment concept out of Kant as a condition for moral agency and the categorical imperative. ‘Independence’ may be a better term to be used for organisations, but independence from what or whom? No organisation (or person) is context free or without history.

Explanations of university autonomy often appeal to von Humboldt and/or Newman; both had contextual arguments for independence from. In the first case, independence from crazed minor princes in the Holy Roman Empire or a Prussian king seeking fame as an enlightened autocrat making whimsical appointments; in the second, independence from the strictures of a bone-headed clergy in Dublin. (Interestingly, public state universities in the USA have senior appointments made by the state governor, boneheaded creationist or not.) Given the constraints and historical conditions for universities the question arises: is the governance what is needed? A related question then is what are universities dependent upon?

The EUA review of degrees of autonomy is flawed in assessing governance as either unitary or binary. In a unitary model the board of governors receives a strong or determining input from a senate or academic board. In the binary model the academic receives instruction from the governance/ management. The UK is assumed by the EUA to be a unitary model, but any academic input is strongly mediated by the management/executive, which to a large degree determines the agenda for the boards of governance and also sets the conditions for academic performance and structures. How can autonomy be graded? In the same way we might ask: how can uniqueness be conditional?

The end of the public sector higher education (PSHE) sector ended not just the polytechnics (and the soon to be promoted colleges of HE), it ended an accountability regime linked to local democracy. The Education Reform Act 1988 not only abolished that mechanism for local accountability (and, for good measure, the architecture of accountability with the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority and regional advisory councils), it put in place a system for the self-replication of governing bodies once Secretary of State Kenneth Baker had approved the initial tranche of governors. 30 years later we have a uniform system of accountability dominated by a specific professional outlook and culture. 

A sample of the experiences of governors, if we ignore the small minorities of academic and student governors, is salutary*.

There are minor differences in board membership between Russell Group and post-92 institutions, but the similarities seem more important. The striking feature of governing bodies is the preponderance of accountants, or rather senior executives of the major accounting firm. In my sample one Russell board has four members with current or recent professional experience with the big four accountancy firms. This is not unusual; another Russell has three members similarly engaged. ‘High powered’ accountancy skills are of course useful in overseeing a £multi-million business such as a university.

However, the political and social values that go with the high-level accountancy skills are now intricately connected to external political discourse and practice: the governor who advised on the privatisation of the railways, or the advisor on the HBOS-Lloyds merger; the advisor to the government on deregulation in HR, the directors (regional or national) of the CBI. There are others: financiers, bankers, corporate lawyers, big pharma directors, entrepreneurs in a range of consultancies, a smattering of retired senior civil servants and even a lead figure in the Student Loans Company. Any concern about the impact of the REF and TEF on academic staff would be overridden by a priority to ensure that targets are delivered.

The values and ethos of the individuals who comprise the governance of universities are not left outside the boardrooms. Why would they enter governance if they did not bring with them the normative values of their competences? And such competencies, if they can be described as such, carry with them a world view of how others should be and do.

Post-92 governors are less elevated; not as many MBEs, OBEs or knighthoods as the Russell Group. And there are more public sector roles such as youth justice, charities, health service executives, housing associations, media executives and senior local government or police service officers. There are some interesting outliers in the post-92 sector with senior women executives in industry, but – albeit to a lesser extent – the bankers and senior accounting partners are still there.

The concern for diversity – there is some ethnic and gender diversity in the post-92 group, less so in the Russell Group – is diminished by the uniformity of seniority and positions of power that all board members have in the private or public sectors as CEOs, partners, and chairs of boards, with what is likely  to be a uniform ideological outlook on the world. It has been suggested that remuneration (£20K pa has been mooted by the Committee of University Chairs (CUC)) would encourage more to volunteer their time and expertise on boards of governors, but the current incumbents are similar to those great and good who always seem to have volunteered in the past; they can afford to volunteer, others will be providing the work/value while they sit on the boards.

Remuneration would be appropriate if the board members needed the money to enable them to attend board meetings. The suggested amount from the CUC is more than annual wages for many.

Halting the self-replicating nomenklatura of these boards would be difficult, requiring an external intervention to put forward board members of a different character and set of values; perhaps those who are antithetical to the interests of the Student Loans Company, to privatisation of public services and the burdens taxpayers suffered with the banking crisis of 2008. But there have been interventions on board membership before – in the 1988 Act which ended  ‘donnish dominion’, thanks to the groundwork in the Jarratt Report. Some may protest that this would be an attack on institutional autonomy, but autonomy is not an unqualified condition of the success of universities in the UK, notwithstanding the glowing report from the EUA.

The CUC code of conduct requires governors to have the interests of the HEI at heart, but governors’ perceptions, values and interests will determine assessments of current and future positions. Given the monoculture and common discipline background, there may not be enough disagreement. Such uniformity calls for more creativity in governance. The focus will be on the operational imperatives of performing well within the current context, a context of ‘academic capitalism’, with a well-known critique which may not be accessible in governance or top down management. The lineaments of such a regime are: funding via student enrolments; quality assurance regulatory systems; marketisation; the OfS regulatory framework; financial viability standards; league tables; branding and consumerisation of education.

The freedom of the market is an ideological position: the market is externally created and freedom for action and conscience is limited by the external impositions. These conditions are not only handed down by the OfS but from ‘advisory’ instructions from government on an annual basis to consider participation rates, schools links, the green agenda, grade inflation, freedom of speech (yet again), consumer rights for students, et al. The fiduciary responsibilities of governance leave little room for manoeuvre and no prospect of supererogatory action. The advisory, regulatory and the bigger socio-economic conditions, from mobility and debt aversion to the international market for students, predetermine the scope of governance.

In contrast to the UK’s HE market superstructure there is a telling edict in the EU Lisbon Treaty, which has lofty expressions of modernisation and the knowledge economy but also asks universities to contribute to the advancement of democracy. We will not have to worry about that anymore. Given the experience of many lay board members in being directly engaged in engineering the market conditions which prevail for universities it would be surprising if boards did not find a normalcy, a correctness in the prevailing conditions. The other responsibilities of governance for academic and moral matters as expected in the USA seem simply preposterous.

Beyond the need to broaden the experiential background of governors, we can also question the constitution of boards. Current expertise can be useful for audit, financial oversight and stress testing business planning (although the big four accountancy firms have had some remarkable involvement in corporate failures in the recent past), but to duplicate this at full board means a loss of opportunities for the more discursive. The current uniformity also explains why, notwithstanding the managerial links of performance to executive leadership, high levels of pay for VCs are not considered exceptional by remuneration committees – they share the same atmosphere.

Reform of governance  structures means that some of the axioms in mission statements should be considered as governance issues. If universities are ‘communities of scholars’ then why is the governance of that community in the hands of corporate accountants, financiers and directors of privatised public assets? If universities are to play a role in partnership with the local community in the civic mission then what of the governance implications with that community?

Finally, how can the academic/senate discourse connect with corporate governance? This is not simply about which will take priority: first we must ask, can they talk to each other? The simple hierarchical format of governance ‘works’ in terms of financial viability (more or less) and international status and delivery (more or less) but that should not be confused with overall efficacy. Other historical conditions contribute to the success of the HE sector – or rather, parts of the sector, as some struggle to survive in the market, or exit.

There is talk of the need to devolve managerial leadership, not always a happy experience if distant and indirect corporate performance targets give way to local bullying. Weakening governance by having the not so great and the good might not alter the dynamic of executive leadership; management might become even more powerful and autocratic. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, too often, challenging and questioning the executive is rare.

The deeper problem is to disperse governance from the hierarchical to a more clustered and broader stakeholder approach. Beware the unanalysed ideological values that we all bring to bear on decision making. Let’s ditch the concept of autonomy which is a historical accident in semantic terms and begin some creative discussions on what creative governance should look like.

Reference

Sherer, M and Zakaria, I (2018) ‘Mind that gap! An investigation of gender imbalance on the governing bodies of UK universities’ Studies in Higher Education 43(4): 719-736

*I looked at 12 universities, six  Russell Group and six post-92 universities. Some governing bodies are known as Council, some have changed their title to Board of Trustees, but all have the same legal responsibilities for the institution. The Committee of Universities Chairs (CUC) has produced 3 advisory reports on remuneration of senior staff, one advisory report on Prevent, and on student’s (sic) unions.

Phil Pilkington is Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, a former CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union, an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE.


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Five stages of marketisation in English higher education policymaking

by Colin McCaig

The use of the term ‘neoliberal’ to describe the marketisation of HE systems implies a ‘grand design’ that takes a public service like HE and creates a market; however it seemed to me that this differed from a ‘free capitalist market’, nor did my understanding of the historical development of HE in England seem to reflect such a simple linearity of design. Therefore I decided a couple of years ago to really nail down what neoliberal marketisation means in the context of the English HE system. The result was The marketisation of English higher education: a policy analysis of a risk-based system, my 2018 book summarised in a paper to the SRHE Research Conference in December 2018. Employing a political discourse analysis (PDA) approach to a close reading of 16 HE policy documents over the last thirty years I identified five distinct stages of marketisation policy, reflected in arguments used to justify reform:

Stage 1: efficiency, accountability and human capital (1986-1992)

This stage was exemplified by reforms highlighted in: the Jarratt (1985) Report on university management and the Croham Report (1986) on the future of the University Grants Committee; the 1987 White Paper; the 1988 Education Reform Act; and the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. Arguments deployed included the need for ‘New Public Management’ thinking: ideas that promoted entrepreneurialism among university and polytechnic leaders. University and polytechnic boards, and the new Universities Funding Council, would henceforth include business representatives; individual academics were also encouraged to be more entrepreneurial, selling their expertise as consultants. At the same time the binary system would be unified and expanded in the hope that institutional competition would ensue, the better to meet the changing basis of demand for human capital in the knowledge economy of the future.

Stage 2: diversity as a good (1992-2000)

Policy documents during the 1990s largely celebrated and encouraged diversity and the prospects for widening participation. The new landscape of different types of institutions and modes of HE were seen as essential for expansion and lifelong learning needs. While the discourse shifted radically in some ways from stage 1, human capital needs were still to the fore – as important as social justice arguments when it came to arguing for a widening of participation. The Dearing Report (1997) encapsulated most of the debates around the future size and shape of the sector and how to fund expansion, recommending the introduction of partial fees. Commissioned by the Conservatives, it reported to an incoming Labour government wedded to social justice objectives and lifelong learning.

Stage 3: diversity becomes differentiation (2003-2010)

The major policy statements covered in this stage – the 2003 White Paper, 2004 HE Act, and the 2009 White Paper – introduced radically new arguments for a new purpose. No longer would system diversity be celebrated for its own sake, HEIs were now exhorted to differentiate their offer in the marketplace to attract applicant-consumers. Responding to institutional pressures for more funding, government introduced a variable tuition fee, on the assumption that only the most highly-demanded universities would justify the higher fee of £3,000 per annum. The policy arguments used in this stage were unusually reactive; the Russell Group and 1994 Group of universities had long lobbied for ‘top-up fees’, partly on the basis of actual costs but also because they believed they needed to be differentiated in the market from ‘other’ universities and types of HEIs. Greater centralisation paved the way for the regulatory framing for the market we see in 2019.

Stage 4: competitive differentiation (2010-15)

This stage can be seen mainly as the continuation of the implications of the previous stage – the arguments deployed in the Browne Review of HE funding and student finance (2010) and the 2011 White Paper Students at the heart of the systemdominated policy discourse. The need to have an efficient, responsive differential system reflecting a competitive fee distribution, to (roughly) match the UCAS points distribution between highly-demanded and less demanded institutions, became more critical in the era of £9,000 a year tuition fees. This decision can be seen as the key driver of virtually all policy since 2010.

Stage 5: risk and exit: the completion of the market?

The 2015 Green Paper and 2016 White Paper introduced proposals and legislative measures finally to actuate the variable tuition-fee market as envisaged as long ago as 2003. The Higher Education and Research Act introduced a single regulator for all and any HE providers – the omnipotent Office for Students (OfS) which manages, via quality oversight and funding incentives, the system of risk-based monitoring that is designed to encourage ‘exit’ for failing providers, to be replaced, if necessary, by new alternative providers encouraged in turn by lower Degree Awarding Powers and University Title barriers to market entry.

Marketisation 1986-2019: a tortured path or linear progression?

At the time of writing no providers have been allowed to fail/exit and many in the sector are in denial that government would ever allow it to happen: but that is the iron logic of the market thus constructed. Successive OfS and government statements (from OfS Chair Michael Barber, and successive Universities Ministers Sam Gyimah and Chris Skidmore) have been at pains to reassure us that they will not prop up a failing institution, defined as one that that fails to attract enough applicant-consumers willing to pay a given tuition fee. New providers, coming to market with a cheaper offer, will finally create downward pressure on (stubbornly un-differentiated) fees: ‘failing’ providers either lower their fees or risk losing students to the competition. Needless to say, none of this harms the established research-intensive ‘elite’ providers that had been lobbying for differential fees since the late 1990s.

Was all this part of a grand neoliberal design, a blueprint for marketisation? Or a collection of reactive decisions designed to ameliorate the effects of the unintended consequences of previous reforms, or indeed externalities such as the 2008 crash? Diversity and (largely unplanned) expansion certainly begat defensive differentiation among the existing (pre-1992) universities, which immediately called for the right to charge ‘top-up’ fees in the name of differentiation. Government, meanwhile, trying to widen participation for human capital as well as social justice purposes, also needing to satisfy the pre-1992s, hit upon choice for the applicant consumer in the run up to the 2003 White Paper as the mechanism that would allow applicants to see where the most highly valued HE was to be found. The Times Higher Education duly obliged with the first wave of its ‘price-list’ domestic league tables from 2005. While commercial league tables never featured in any policy statement, officially endorsed indicators of ‘quality’ such as the National Student Survey, the Destination of Leavers from HE survey and a UNISTATs website containing consumer information were all conceived at this dawning of the competitive market, all in the name of differentiating the system so that applicants could differentiate the pre-1992 ‘wheat’ from the post-1992 ‘chaff’.

The ‘end-stage’ of the market (HERA 2017) attempts to open up the system to cheap incomers that maybe, just maybe, will provide the much needed downward pressure on average tuition costs. Poorer students are exhorted to think hard about increasing their own (and public) future debt by choosing the wrong kind of HE providers: the 2016 White Paper celebrates the good access record of many ‘new providers’ and the virtues of alternatives such as apprenticeships. After twenty years of promoting the ‘graduate premium’ (first noted in the Dearing Report 1997), the White Paper points out how differentiated that benefit can be, and promises us more sophisticated evidence from tax returns (LEO data) to dissuade those with the least chance of enhancing their life though HE.

Colin McCaig is Professor of Higher Education Policy at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University He has published extensively on widening participation and system differentiation and is a political scientist by background. His book The marketisation of English Higher Education: a policy analysis of a risk-based system, was published by Emerald Publishing (ISBN: 9781787438576) in 2018


Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Sam Gyimah MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science

Dear Minister

“Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”

If asked to sum up in a single word the direction of higher education policy from 2010 onwards, I think that many of us who try to follow Government thinking on these matters might say that the word would be “markets”. In successive White Papers and speeches, ministers have insisted that fee-paying students should see themselves as customers buying services from a university provider, which in turn should be competing with other providers in the higher education marketplace to offer the best value for money to student customers. In this way, your predecessors have argued, quality would go up and costs would come down, as happens in most markets for consumer goods. The Government has encouraged this trend by demanding that universities provide more information on which student-customers might base their purchasing decisions – most recently the TEF and the LEO data – and by encouraging new entrants into the marketplace with the aim of sharpening competition further.

Many of us in universities rather doubted that trying to create a straightforward market-type relationship between universities and their students was the best way to organise teaching and learning.  For a start, there is little evidence that students themselves want a relationship on these terms: the great majority of students surveyed in the HEPI 2018 Student Academic Experience Survey, for example, arguably preferred a pre-2004 Act, certainly a pre-2011 White Paper, funding model. I think that one reason for this – paying lower fees is no doubt another – is because they understand that in order to learn effectively they must engage with the academic life of the university in a way that is qualitatively different to, say, my engagement with Sainsbury’s when I go shopping there. Sainsbury’s does not expect its customers to help create the products which appear on its shelves; and if I’m unimpressed with them today, and I can see what Tesco are up to tomorrow. I have made no particular commitment to the Sainsbury’s way of shopping. Forgive me if this seems terribly obvious, but it has not always been clear that ministers fully appreciated this distinction.

Although many of us didn’t much like its implications, we did at least think we knew that Government saw our relationship with our students in these transactional, market-based terms. But then, Minister, along you come saying that, on the contrary, we should be in loco parentis to our students, acting (for instance) as go-betweens with their parents or guardians if we have concerns about their mental health (as reported in The Guardian, 28 June). This is not just overthrowing normal market relationships – Sainsbury’s in truth couldn’t care less about my personal well-being – it is redefining universities’ relationships with their students, and in an unhelpful way. (Having a duty of care towards both students and staff members is a different matter.) If I may say so, this has the distinct feel of political grandstanding, wanting to be seen to be acting decisively in response to – what, exactly? Of course, mental illness is desperately serious for the families and friends of those suffering from its various forms, needing the involvement of skilled professionals. A particular concern may be that suicide could result from overlooking a person’s symptoms. (Though suicide in the UK is actually a good-news story – so to speak – as ONS data show that the number of suicide deaths has been falling steadily over recent decades. Middle-aged, disadvantaged men are most likely to commit suicide – and they don’t constitute a large part of the student demographic.)

But what should be the role of a university in relation to its adult students with mental health problems? Nicola Barden writing for WonkHE on 28 June (do you read it, Minister? – you should) identifies a few of the problems which the proposed opt-in system, allowing universities to contact a student’s parents or other nominated individuals in the event of a mental health crisis, will create. Any social worker will tell you that relationships within families can be difficult in ways that outsiders can’t immediately detect: any member of university staff intruding here must be certain that they will not cause further harm – and how can they know that for sure? Imagine a situation where a parent of a student with mental health difficulties believes that the university will contact them in the event of a crisis – only for the student to have withdrawn that consent subsequently, not wanting their family to be involved. The university will then be in an impossible situation, having made commitments to both parties (as they will see it).

We’re operating, Minister, in a Government-mandated market. Universities should support their students in their academic work, but should not set themselves up to fail as substitute families. That historically never was their role; your Government’s market-focused policies have now put it completely beyond reach.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.