Monday, 9 February 2015

Why all the scrutiny of public universities?

In this post, Liz Morrish argues that public universities need to make their voices heard in the forthcoming General Election. Universities are coming under undue criticism from the media, politicians,  and from new private entrants to the higher education sector.

In his Times Higher editorial this week, John Gill writes that higher education has been ‘weaponized’ as an issue for the forthcoming General Election. This eventuality might now be contemplated ruefully by the nation’s Vice Chancellors who, in future, might be careful what they wish for.

After years of relative invisibility in the public sphere, mentions of universities in politics and the media are now as frequent as mentions of cricket. The optimists among us can congratulate ourselves that this signals a welcome democratization of higher education. Those with a glass half empty may point out that much of the publicity is damaging to the reputation of the sector. Politicians from all quarters have charged universities with failing to address social inequality, failing to turn out employable graduates, failing to teach relevant courses, failing to prevent student radicalisation, failing to prevent illegal immigration, failing to give value for money, failing to tackle sexual assault on campus, failing to protect free speech. Day after day, we learn that universities are failing, failing, failing. Indeed, only 38% of MPs think that universities spend money efficiently, according to a recent report. This does not bode well for the inevitable review of spending after the 2015 election.

And yet, the UK has possibly the most successful higher education system in the world, so it is worrying when we see the frequency, and the glee, with which these accusations are levelled. It seems that with increased student numbers and £9000 tuition fees has arrived more searching scrutiny, and often misplaced criticism. 

Student satisfaction, according to HEFCE, is at a 10 year high with a headline-grabbing figure of 86% of students who are satisfied with their course. It is worth bearing in mind that this is 4 percentage points higher than the 2013 figures of satisfaction ratings for i-phones, and we all know how much students cherish those. So students who may appear to be victims of an inflated fee regime, and debts that may never be discharged, may, paradoxically, be the beneficiaries of a new priority of satisfying the ‘customer’. 

There is no doubt that marketization, especially since the 2010 Browne Review, has propelled universities into a student satisfaction arms race. Superb ensuite student residences have colonized any brown field site available. Sports facilities will never rival those in the US, but are improving. Libraries, wifi-enabled, reconfigurable teaching spaces and climbing walls have thrust upwards and outwards in a kind of Great University Build Off.  

And yet, as one Twitter commentator has observed, the vultures are circling. Private providers want a share of the action, or, more importantly, the money. Thursday saw a salvo from a leading champion of private higher education that public universities cannot afford to ignore. It contains an echo of President Obama’s recent question: “Why does college cost so much”. BPP, a private university which specializes in Law, Health, Business and Finance courses, thinks that publicly-funded universities waste money. Carl Lygo, the Vice Chancellor, is delighted to tell us that BPP charges between £12,000-£18,000 for the whole undergraduate degree to home and EU students. 

In a sense, Vice Chancellors set themselves up for this when, on 2nd February, their representative organisation, Universities UK, attempted via the letters page of The Times, to stifle Labour rumblings of a tuition fee cut to £6000. Their case against what is still only a rumour about a policy, is that it would compromise the student experience. Furthermore, it would require £10bn of additional public funding to close the gap, and would consequently leave universities vulnerable to future cuts to public spending.

So why are public universities so dependent on tuition fees in the region of £9000? Firstly, post Browne Review, courses other than science and medicine receive no public investment; the money only comes in to universities as fee-bearing students are recruited. Secondly, universities have a mission to teach, but also to conduct research. Private universities do not, to any significant extent, undertake research, and none was entered in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. Their  focus is on credentialing, rather than developing the next generation of scholars. How else do they cut costs? We can speculate, but a trawl around BPP’s website does not readily lead the enquirer to any member of staff. At their Nottingham Study Centre, we are told that qualified tutors are ‘dedicated to your exam success’, and that ‘you'll also have access to their mobile numbers’. Indeed, if these are contingent  staff, that might be your only option in securing academic advice. Facilities ? They boast a snack vending machine. 

In advance of the election, with Labour policy on higher education as yet unpublished, and Lib-Dem policy in a holding pattern, it is time for universities to make the case for public education. One thing that unites Vice Chancellors, academic staff and students is fear of massive cuts to higher education after the election. The question of how universities should be funded, sadly, is more likely to divide them.


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