Sometimes, the best thing government can do is back off. (Or ‘Putting an end to the dependency culture in our universities’)

by Stephen Tall on February 15, 2012

By nature I’m an optimist. But sometimes, usually when reading The Guardian, I become depressed by the sight of intelligent people indulging in some form of middle-class dependency culture.

Here’s an example I came across today. It’s an article by Paul Layzell, principal of Royal Holloway, University of London. Its title is pretty self-explanatory:

‘Higher education needs clearer directions from the government’

Yes, you read that aright. And the title is a fair reflection of what follows:

As we approach the second anniversary of the current government, the time has come for real leadership to be shown by ministers. They must engage with us and our stakeholders to develop a clear, long-term vision for higher education. … we do best as a sector, with shared goals, rather than as individual institutions looking out for ourselves. With a sense of direction, and leadership from government, we could do so much more.

I’m sure Vince Cable and David Willetts would see some irony in this cri de coeur. I don’t know Professor Layzell’s politics (though he’s extraordinary kind to Labour’s myopic top-down targets approach), but I cannot help suspecting that if the government were to show leadership he — and his colleagues — would not take kindly. I can imagine the comments… “Interfering in academic freedom… babarians at the gate… you can’t put a price on learning” etc.

In fact, I think Professor Layzell is missing the point of the Coalition’s reforms of higher education.

He appears to have bought into the Government’s public justification that raising tuition fees to £9k is the result of financial austerity. Yet that is a red herring. The requirement for the government to under-write the new funding arrangements means that the increase in fees is likely to cost the government more money — yes, that’s right, cost more money — than is being saved in this parliament by cutting back on core funding of teaching.

The Coalition’s real agenda is much more profound than tinkering with funding, as I noted last summer:

Put quite simply, Vince Cable and David Willetts both know that injecting market forces into higher education will be the only way that reform of universities will happen.

Labour under Tony Blair attempted to reform through targets, such as the arbitrary figure of 50% of school-leavers entering university. The Coalition is moving away from the ‘men in the ministry’ approach that says government knows best, and instead allowing the market to determine which teaching courses will survive, with professional degrees such as MBAs (where there is a high premium) costing more than, for example, humanities degrees. Rather than the government advocating the abolition of so-called ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’ (the ‘golf course management’ type degrees the Daily Mail loves to hate), it will be left to universities to prove they are of worth to those who’ll foot most of the bill: the students.

The fate of universities themselves will no longer be a matter for the government: it will be for universities to demonstrate through their own ability to attract students that they are successful. The government will not have to take on the universities – demand that they streamline or offer more flexible degree courses – because their governing bodies will now have to be responsive to the needs and wants of their current and future students in order to survive.
Market forces have been unleashed within higher education. Those that can respond effectively will thrive; those that are unable to do so will fail.

This is the real revolution in universities, of which the debate over tuition fee rises is simply the most publicly combustible element.

The Coalition’s vision is straightforward — there should be minimal central government direction of higher education, and maximum accountability of higher education institutions to their students. And about time, too.

And yes, a strategic vision for higher education would no doubt be a Good Thing. But quite why this requires the government to hold universities’ hands is beyond me.

There’s the Russell Group of elite research-intensive universities, the 1994 Group of smaller elite research-intensive universities, and the Million+ Group of post-1992 universities. Perhaps once they’ve all agreed a unified strategy for higher education in the UK they can start a conversation with ministers?

I was talking yesterday to the vice-chancellor of a new university (with a proud history), which has a large, diverse intake, including a high proportion from low-income families. In the first year of the fees increase, applications have soared 10%.

He’s a firm advocate of fees. Why? Because he’s talked to the kids who’ll be applying and knows most of them have sussed that the fee repayment system is an okay deal. But more importantly because, as he put it, “this’ll shake the system up”, forcing universities to start responding flexibly to what their students want and need in a way that no government strategy could ever achieve.

He got it. He has a vision. And that’s why his university will succeed.