srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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.