Is it full speed ahead to a US-style higher education system?


Quick thoughts on the Green Paper on higher education

At this stage, the consultation at is at the ‘What do you think of our ideas?’ stage of the policy-making process. But the direction of travel seems pretty clear: More markets and more private sector involvement. It’s also worth cross-referencing it to the Conservative Party Manifesto for 2015 by doing a word-search for universities/university. A summary of what’s in it is at by Chris Havergal & team (Ex-Cambridge News, now at the Times HE Supplement).

It’s also worth noting the Dearing Review of 1997 which is one of the worst policy documents ever written in my opinion, and was one of the worst decisions taken by a Labour government to implement it.

Early responses include the below from Shelly Asquith of the NUS

Her counterpart Sorana Vieru at the NUS posted Quality doesn’t grow on fees at

The fundamental flaw in the big picture with higher education & big fees

With the manufacturing of products & environmental sustainability, measuring sustainability involves looking at a product’s whole life cycle – and the environmental impact of extracting raw materials, the manufacturing process and costs of disposal. Plonking a wind turbine on your house may look great for the headlines (until you realise you don’t have planning permission for it) but if the environmental cost of making the turbine exceeds the total amount of energy that would be saved in the course of its life cycle….exactly. When you look at higher education in the context of a life cycle, issues that you’d otherwise say are outside your policy model’s scope come into play. The big one? Cost of housing.

Debt, debt, debt – I still haven’t finished paying off my student loan and I graduated nearly 15 years ago. The cost of housing – mortgages and rents, and their utterly unsustainable ratio to average earnings, means that there are a whole host of extra costs to add to university living, along with what happens in adult life later on. At the same time, we are now in a world where not only do we not have jobs for life, but the jobs that we have are becoming extremely unstable – self-employment, zero hours contracts and the like. Combine that with continued pushes for ‘high skilled jobs’ which by their very nature require a significant investment in time & resources to become skilled in, means that people will continue to have to retrain again and again. And all that’s on offer are more loans…on top of the mortgages and student era debts so many people are stacking up. I’ve not even come onto the unsecured private debts many of us have – credit cards, small loans and pay-day lenders.

Boris’ brother as Universities Minister

Actually, Jo Johnson MP as a public persona comes across as the opposite of his more well-known brother Boris. More quietly spoken and more reserved in public, he’s the minister for universities and science. Some of you may also have spotted that he’s a former Bullingdon boy – in the widely-circulated photo that George Osborne is in. One of the criticisms that is regularly thrown at Cameron’s government is the lack of diversity within his inner circle. Mr Johnson-J so some might say, is another example of appointing someone inside that Eton-Oxford elite circle. But then the same criticisms have been thrown at Mr Corbyn with recent appointments that have left some in Labour aghast. For me, in the dog-eat-dog world of Westminster, both party leaders have simply appointed people they feel they can trust, irrespective of what others say about them.

“What about the policies? Does Jo Johnson assume that these new universities are going to be like a combination of Eton and Oxford? Or will the reality be classes in a grotty run down inner city office block taught by unqualified lecturers with a poor grasp of English and communications?”

I was TV-surfing and stumbled across Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford presenting a programme on How the other half lives. They featured Stowe School which is based in this place.  At the same time, Sky seem to have continued their features on expensive private schools with a series on Prince Charles’ old school. Imagine what Grange Hill would be like if it were a fly-on-the-wall documentary, then go to the opposite end of the social spectrum. That feels like where they get the concept from. Note at the same time Channel 4 has gone with Educating Cardiff – at a state school. Comparing the programmes is like comparing two very different worlds. It’s strange to think that this is the same country we’re talking about, let alone planet.

The reason why the above matters as far as public policy is concerned is to do with risk: If implemented, how could Mr Johnson’s proposals go wrong? What does success look like? A suite of new successful private universities setting themselves up in former country house estates and becoming as prestigious as Oxford? Note the New College of Humanities is one of the first to launch following the liberalisation in the Coalition years.

Similarities between Lords’ reform with education reform – both stuck in long-term halfway houses.

The situation we’re currently in is a half-way house that is the worst of all worlds – a bit like with the House of Lords just after they kicked out most of the hereditary peers. (It’s 2015 and in our upper house in Parliament we still have 99 people – nearly all wealthy White Men – able to vote on our legislation by virtue of the family they were born into). At least prior to that, said peers were nominally outside the control of the government because they did not owe their seats to the patronage of any Prime Minister. Thus a check on the executive – albeit a very flawed one. Today, we have people from poorer backgrounds more likely to go to less affluent universities with fewer resources paying the same tuition fees as those going to more affluent universities with more resources, and perhaps more importantly, stronger alumni connections to benefit current students. I see this reflected in the talks I see advertised hosted by Cambridge University’s colleges.

Why Shelly Asquith’s criticism matters

“Raising fees according to ‘quality of teaching’ says you only deserve a ‘quality’ education if you can afford one”

This for me reveals what the real big policy challenge is: How can we get the students that have the most potential in their chosen subjects to be taught by the best teachers in those subjects? Does raising fees increase or decrease the likelihood of this succeeding? Or does it simply result in the better teachers going to higher paying institutions (driven by costs of living and their own debts) teaching students from wealthier backgrounds who, when compared with state school students achieving the same grades don’t perform as well or have less potential? With this point I’m looking at ***big cohorts*** rather than saying one lot make for the perfect students while the other lot don’t & you’re tarred by the group you’re in. Humanity is far more complex than that.

I take it as a given that the question itself is ***loaded*** with subjectivity. Students have a wide range of dispositions and learning styles. What’s good for one won’t be good for another.

“Wouldn’t it be better for politicians to say they backed a US-style higher education system and simply privatise the wealthier universities – both of them?” 

Or they could do what Germany did and abolish fees completely. Funnily enough, if we were in a world where we had stable jobs/careers for life (or the long term at least), a system of fees and loans would make more sense as the individual’s investment in their education would be for the long term. In the system we have now, given the instability of employment along with high costs of housing, it makes more sense to cover the fees and make it easier for people to retrain.

The elephants in the room – the parental/family subsidy and part time working

I don’t remember any public policy discussion about how much parents should contribute to their offspring at university. I didn’t have a clue about the £1050 tuition fee I had to pay up front for my first year at university. It was the anger of my parents at Blair’s policy which led to them offering to pay my tuition fees – even though during my year out I had saved up enough money to cover them myself. Despite having saved up several thousand pounds during that year out, it all went on basic food costs – little left of my student loan once accommodation was paid for. I was fortunate to be supported further by my parents, but I knew of many others that worked long hours on top of their studies during term time. With so many graduates coming out with such huge debts (that need servicing at least), is it any wonder that so many end up boomeranging back to their parents homes? All 2million of us?

The reasons why these matter get to the heart of our social mobility problems – and is also why its useful to compare Oxford and Cambridge’s arrangements with those of less-affluent universities. At Oxford & Cambridge, you are not allowed to work part-time in the way you can at other universities. Given the workload at both places, I can’t see how you would have the time. Yes, there are hardship funds you can apply for – but this involves having to do something extra that your fellow students would not have to do. Being in a place of hardship – esp when it’s not really your own fault, is not a nice place to be in. Compare being in receipt of a hardship fund versus being in a receipt of a student grant that is yours by right because you are at an institution on merit. The system Blair brought in – continued by all his successors, fundamentally changed the relationship between students and universities. I’m not convinced that many of today’s politicians have reconciled themselves to this, or the impact that its had.

“So…what’s the end game?”

The endgame with this is a market system for education, with the state giving token support to take the sting out of the worst criticism that could be thrown at it. The situation many are in feels more like as in this cartoon. It’s not a good place to be in.

…and as an afterthought:

What would universities be like if:

  • Universities had a public duty to ensure all of their students were housed in decent housing?
  • The Universities Minister had a public duty to ensure universities were complying with this duty?

One thought on “Is it full speed ahead to a US-style higher education system?

  1. Puffles,

    As a new civil servant, I’d be interested to hear why you feel the Dearing report was “one of the worst policy documents ever written”. I’ve read it before and it didn’t strike me as particularly bad.

    What makes it so bad? I’d love to learn more if you could elaborate.


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