Research Fortnight: Caught in the torchlight – Beware of what lurks in the dark corners of the higher education and research bill

Chief Executive Maddalaine Ansell writes for Research Fortnight on opening up the market to new providers.

It is unclear what will happen to the bill, with Brexit, Chilcot and Trident keeping MPs busy before the summer parliamentary recess in less than a fortnight’s time. But it would be a shame if it were dropped altogether, both because many of the principles behind it are good ones, and because some of the changes it proposes will reveal long-standing issues that should not be brushed under the carpet.
I have spent a lot of time going through each clause of the bill to identify what it allows and what it compels and whether there is anything that looks harmless now but could be a problem years hence under a different government. (Of course there is.)

Everyone will no doubt raise concerns with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and the Treasury; this critical dialogue is important for ensuring that any new law is good law. But some of it may be fractious and bad tempered. So I want to say now that there is much that I support in the government’s vision for higher education―and many actions that have already been taken were, in my opinion, the right thing to do, and brave. In particular, I like the commitment to a broad, diverse and more open higher education system and that the government has backed this up by removing student number controls.

This was not a given. Only last month, I was at an OECD conference where some participants expressed concern at the “massification” of higher education―a word so ugly it must be derogatory. Others argue that too many people go to university when what is required is high-quality vocational study. Since many universities offer world-leading professional and technical education, including degree apprenticeships, I can only think they don’t understand what business-facing universities do.

Degrees are still the best gateway to fulfilling careers and, broadly speaking, life is more fun if you are in well-paid and enjoyable work. It is a hugely positive change that more people have the chance to compete for these kinds of jobs. Of course not everyone succeeds. Much has been made of reports that show that not all graduates are in graduate jobs. Some of this can be justified by the nature of many modern careers (a graphic designer may need to work in Sainsbury’s while building a portfolio) or by labour market conditions (some graduates may want a job that enables them to live and work where they grew up even if it doesn’t pay a “graduate” salary). Even if some graduates who want graduate employment don’t initially succeed, it is better that they had the chance to compete than were pulled out of the race at the starting line.

The old system, in which university places were rationed on the basis of A-level grades achieved, hit those from poorer backgrounds hardest. This is because there is a strong link between socio-economic background and grades achieved at GCSE and A-level.

There are also, of course, many benefits from going to university other than getting a good job. Graduates can expect longer, happier and healthier lives. They are more likely to vote, volunteer and trust and tolerate others. Many also get huge pleasure from the experience of being a student and from knowing the things they learned.

Secondly I welcome the teaching excellence agenda and the opportunity this presents to recognise those universities that do this well. It is also, of course, right that students should get value for money.
Nevertheless, among the various changes designed to put students at the heart of the system, we must not forget that universities have traditionally had three missions―teaching, research and engagement with their communities. Each of these missions has evolved over time: teaching must include reaching out and supporting people who would previously not have gone to university; research must have impact; and, as our regional leadership reports argue, universities, as anchor institutions, are essential for building healthy communities and creating innovative regions.

So we must recognise the limits of the narrative that puts students at the heart of the higher education system, even if this means they can’t always be the solution to keeping down the costs to the taxpayer. When the spotlight is finally shone into the dark corners of university funding, I expect to see at least three spiders run out―and it may be the government that needs to fetch the glass and a piece of paper.

The first is the myth that private providers will offer cheaper and more flexible courses. Like most myths, it contains a grain of truth. The best of the new providers will no doubt deliver classroom-based subjects like business and law cheaply and well. They may offer welcome flexibilities to mature and part-time students. But it’s much harder to see how they will do the same for medicine and engineering. This can’t be done for £9,000 per student even with the additional grant for high cost subjects at current levels. This is likely to raise questions about the relative cost of courses and who should pay the additional expense for those high cost courses that deliver essential skills to the economy―after all we wouldn’t want to put people off taking science by raising the price for students. In the long run, the government should provide a more generous grant for high cost subjects.

The second spider is research. I am yet to meet a finance director who sees this as a profit-making activity. The official recovery rate of research council grants is capped at 80 per cent of full economic costs. For many EU funding streams, the effective rates are around 70 per cent and charities offer even less. The Treasury is well aware of this and has indicated that it will work with universities to better understand the financial sustainability of the country’s research base.

The third is widening participation. In the long run, everyone benefits from a fairer society. But outreach is expensive and some students need additional support to succeed at university. Currently this work is partly funded by students who pay more than £6,000 per year in tuition fees and partly by the government’s Student Opportunity Fund―a funding stream that was cut heavily in the most recent spending review. Students will no doubt be interested to see how much of the cost is now falling to them and may think it should be shared by the general taxpayer.

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, says that students now have a “sharper eye for value, and higher expectations of quality”. Whatever happens to the higher education and research bill, the government, as well as universities, has a duty to ensure they get both of these.

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