Do we want universities?

Source: IfS (https://ifs.org.uk/publications/15953)

Amidst rather a lot of other things, the British government put out its plans for higher education reforms last week. Understandably, these haven’t had as much attention as would otherwise be the case. Fortunately, I’m both not an IR scholar and not tied up in work meetings, since there’s a strike going on, so I’ve got a bit of time to tell you about it all.

The plans are a much-belated response to a 2019 review of funding arrangements, which were in turn a result of a dodged shift towards a graduate tax about a decade ago. That system has cost more than planned, just as the current government (which was also the same government that dodged it all up in the first place) has come down firmly on the side of ‘driving up standards’ as its mantra for universities.

A priori, there’s nothing wrong with wanting better universities: the issue is that the way the government is going about it doesn’t really seem to stack up.

The model (as far as I can tell) is essentially one of stopping universities taking in students who won’t benefit, then using piles of metrics to identify courses/institutions that don’t do a good job with the students they have, then trying to pull back more of the funding cost from graduates.

All three steps suffer some basic problems.

The proposed restrictions on entry would remove access to funding for fees for any school-leaver without a decent passing grade in English or Maths. Due to other changes in schools, that means one bad day in an exam for one of these two could mean the end of getting into a university course: assessment fans will recognise that this is probably not the best way to go about such big decisions. Moreover, given the very uneven distribution of such students (on SES lines, unsurprisingly), this will probably also reinforce regional inequalities in the UK (reminder: this government’s big project is ‘levelling up’).

Yes, we’d all like our students to be highly literature and numerate, but I’m also guessing most of us work in social science fields where it is a capacity for critical thinking that matters more. I’d also guess we’ve all taught someone without formal qualifications that was an excellent student.

Which runs into the second phase: metrics. I’ve already written about these, so click through for more of my unhappiness. Short version is that the effect is more likely to be lower standards, plus extensive gaming. And as for seeing only post-qualification salary as a marker of ‘value’ is totally anathematic to the principles of any model of good pedagogy I’m aware of.

And so to the last stage: pumping graduates for money. Again, the effects will be felt most by lower-earning students (see graph at the top of this post), which looks paradoxical at a time when the general burden of state taxation is rising. As is noted in that link, the overall fiscal effect is relatively small, but looks much bigger due to some particular ways it’s counted in government accounts, which doesn’t really help with the look.

Almost as a side note to all this, the government is also freezing student fees for the next two years. This is great for students, but less so for universities, which (lest we forget) are currently locked in industrial action with staff about pay and pensions. And as the union rightly says, if you want to improve student outcomes, then treating staff well is an obvious and effective way to do it.

Sadly, things being obvious doesn’t make them happen and the dispute looks set to drag on for a long time yet.

The bigger picture is that government policy remains resolutely against bolstering the university sector, which makes the rest of this parliament problematic (to say the least). With UK participation in the EU’s research programmes still on hold, the sector is going to have a tough time of it for some years yet. What damage that does remains to be seen, but it’s hard not to imagine some of the same kinds of cuts that Chad has written about Stateside for many years.

UPDATE 2 MARCH 2022: The IfS has issued a corrected analysis, which is even worse for lower-earning graduates than initially thought. Twice as bad for those on the fourth decile, in fact…