The Government announced its higher education reform plans this week, publishing a white paper ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy’. But will it really deliver a better deal for students and is it making an already complex system even more so, asks Andy Westwood?
Let’s begin with the title. Every part of it is contested in some way. The Knowledge Economy might have been a consensus in 1990’s politics and management theory beloved of Blair, Brown and Clinton but it’s less obvious today, after a damaging global crisis and sluggish economic growth. Teaching Excellence remains a worthy ambition but the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) still measures everything but teaching itself. Social mobility and student choice still both sit in a rather narrow view of traditional full time higher education. Even success feels too limited, set out as it is in purely economic terms.
To market, to market
Equally contested is the central assumption underling the White Paper that enhanced market principles and competition will drive improvements in Higher Education. See commentator Andrew McGettigan on Wonkhe . But that argument may not be the biggest problem that Universities Minister Jo Johnson and Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, will face, as they begin to implement it.
It was difficult not to envisage a White Paper that continued and accelerated the direction of reform set out by David Willetts in 2011’s ‘Students at the Heart of the System’. As Jo Johnson’s introduction in last year’s Green Paper said, ‘the job is not yet complete’. Shortly after, in a speech to the All Party Parliamentary Group he described the sector as ‘a market that hasn’t had sufficient demand side pressures in an optimal way…’ In other words it was clear that we should have expected more reforms that increase competition, market mechanisms and regulation and more information and metrics to underpin them. And that is more or less what we have got.
Not so simple
There are a number of objectives that aim to strip away barriers or help support this overarching aim. Simplification is one. ‘The regulatory and funding landscape is ‘complex and inefficient’ and thus recommendations include moving from ten bodies to just two (creating the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation), implementing risk- based, lighter touch regulation and a Teaching Excellence Framework that tries hard to not to be ‘big, bossy or bureaucratic’. New providers driving value for money, innovation and price competition are also a key part of the White Paper narrative – in the words of David Willetts in 2011, doing ‘things differently in ways none can predict’ and driving ‘reform across the sector’.
But the headlines, press releases and ministerial ‘lines to take’ are easier to write than the detailed policy that delivers them. Coverage of the issues inevitably simplifies the reform narrative – new providers, more competition, better value, better teaching? But to achieve each of these things requires a level of intervention and complexity that can be mind boggling. Take ‘challenger institutions’ as an example. It is easier to describe a world where the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Google and Hereford’s ‘New Model in Technology and Engineering’ enter the market than to regulate and manage a system that has to cope with the rather different organisations that are already in it.
Scrutinity, upheaval and transition
Ministers usually underestimate the turmoil that major structural change creates, as well as the time it takes to do it. There will be less capacity and experience at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to do it and the ‘buffer’ of the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) between the sector and government will be distracted by its transition into a new more clinical regulator. The next few years will see this transition dominating HE. Scrutiny of any legislation – including from an increasingly combative Lords (where HE has always been well represented) – will affect some of the White paper’s plans. More clauses, caveats and responsibilities will be added in yet.
There will also be considerable upheaval for Research Councils and Innovate UK as they come together under UKRI. Even here there is compromise. The seven Research Councils and Innovate UK will continue with a new ninth organisation – Research England – added to take over research funding and the Research Excellence Framework (REF) from HEFCE. Furthermore, the complex regulatory landscape will see the new Office for Students helping to designate bodies for quality and data. Described as ‘a market regulator that has an explicit duty to promote choice’, creating it will ‘increase quality, efficiency and value for money through better informed choices and competition’. It will also ‘further enhance the globally renowned quality of our teaching.’ We’ll have to take their word for it.
But look also at the list of responsibilities that the Office for Students has (pp 65) and the jobs it has to do when it opens its doors in 2018 which include: running the TEF in its most complicated and loaded year, maintaining the register and gateway, applying variable number controls, deciding which sector bodies get designated, running a consultation on credit transfer, providing grant and loan funding, managing access, retention and widening participation. All this and Prevent too. This might be described as a straightforward regulator in a simple market, but it isn’t.
Look closely and you can also see the caveats inserted during the ‘write around’ negotiations with other departments. On page 25, the Home Office require a paragraph that allows them to do what they consider appropriate to their own regulatory needs, stating that, ‘…The proposals in this White Paper do not constrain the ability of the Home Office to determine the functions it requires in relation to its education oversight function for Tier 4 licences.’
Reassuring? No I didn’t think so. On page 26 DFE insist that the system must accommodate new models of teacher training – ‘BIS and the Department for Education will work together as the new HE regulatory framework is developed to ensure that the regulatory burden on initial teacher training providers, in particular small School Centred ITT providers (SCITTs), is proportionate and appropriate to those providers.’
Ministers have almost certainly underestimated and underplayed the amount and extent of intervention and policy complexity required to make their simpler market based vision a reality. It’s unlikely to play well in John Glen MP’s ‘Free Enterprise Group. Nor with the smaller state, less interventionist ambitions of many voting ‘Leave’. If the leaked briefing is to be believed, even those currently in No 10 have their doubts.
Same problem, different day
It would be churlish to pretend that higher education has existed in a simple system up to now. Number controls, a Research Excellence Framework and a bewildering array of sector bodies and initiatives (many of which have been devoted to improving teaching…) I could go on. But this new vision doesn’t look any less complicated and may be just as contrived. It may paint a vision of an efficient market in which consumers have all the information they need and institutions, new and old, compete for tuition fees and research funding, but is it really any simpler? And is it a simple path to get there? I doubt it.
So the planned reforms may ultimately fail on their own terms. Too much complexity and intervention undermines its own vision of a simpler, more competitive HE market. It may then lead to a moment in a not too distant future when an incoming minister brings a new, quite possibly similar, vision of reform. And presented with a file explaining exactly how the system works, is most likely to say ‘explain to me how was this meant to help deliver a world class system, with better teaching?’