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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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“A market exit…with a material negative impact”

by Paul Temple

Our late and much-missed friend David Watson used to say that every government department should have an office marked “Cassandra”. Whenever a new policy was proposed, someone had to poke their head round the door and say, “Cassandra, what went wrong when we last tried this?”. David went on to point out that, just as the mythological Cassandra was cursed to make accurate predictions that were never believed, so policy-making would plough ahead regardless of what the Cassandra down the corridor told them about last time’s mistakes. Still, he thought, it would be nice to know in advance in just what respect a policy was going to fail.

A number of Cassandras predicted, in general terms, the disaster – or “material negative impact” [1] , in OfS-speak – that has now overtaken the 3,571 students of for-profit GSM in London. This was one of the “alternative providers”, so enthusiastically promoted by David Willetts following the 2011 White Paper. In my chapter on private sector higher education in Claire Callender’s and Peter Scott’s Browne and Beyond: Modernizing English Higher Education (2013), I invented the conditional-optimistic tense to describe the White Paper’s language about “alternative providers”: “new entrants to the sector…may have different strengths…they may offer particular well-honed teaching models…” (2011 White Paper, para 4.5). They would shake up the stuffy old university sector with a bracing private-sector ethos – although the exact problem to which they would provide the answer was never precisely set out. This was evidence-free policy-making, but with a blithe assurance that everything would turn out for the best (remind you of anything?). I suspect that the unlucky GSM 3,571 would now prefer to have been at a university with some of the boring old strengths.

The OfS email to other universities about the GSM collapse could serve as a text for a doctoral class on bureaucratic buck-passing: its message might be summarised as, “We’re only the regulator; can the rest of you do something? No, we won’t do anything to help.” The GSM 3,571 are, it is clear, on their own; OfS isn’t going to do anything constructive to clear up the mess. On the contrary, when asked “whether transferred students can be subject to special arrangements relating to the reporting of their progression, completion or in respect of other outcome data/metrics…The answer is no.” Nice.

As I noted in my 2013 chapter, you didn’t need particular insights, let alone Cassandra’s skills of prophecy, to foresee problems ahead in the “alternative” sector – because we had the worked example of the United States before us. A devastating critique of for-profit higher education there was made in 2012 in a report by Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “In this report”, Senator Harkin was reported as saying, “you will find overwhelming documentation of exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation”. The for-profit sectors in the US and the UK depend on easily-available public funding to cover student fees and light-touch regulation of institutions with minimal records of achievement and limited accountability. It is a tragedy that British politicians, driven by free-market ideology, and regulators, following politicians’ biddings, failed GSM’s students so comprehensively.

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

[1] Office for Students email, 21 August 2019


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