Requiem for the Public University

Requiem for the Public University

John Holmwood

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 received Royal Assent on 27th April as one of the last items of parliamentary business before dissolution in preparation for the general election on June 8th. This completes a process of the privatization of higher education in England that began with the Browne Report in 2010 and subsequent Government White Papers and legislative changes to remove direct public funding of undergraduate programmes in humanities and social sciences and to replace it with student fees supported by loans. In addition, the sector was to be opened to competition from for-profit providers. The regulatory architecture of a market-based system of higher education is now firmly in place.

This period of dramatic change ended as it began with university leaders supporting the Government’s legislative programme, notwithstanding that it entailed the dismantling of public higher education. Sir Steve Smith, then President of Universities UK, declared that the changes were necessary to maintain the financial health of the university system and were aimed at, “strengthening the overall standing of HE with regards to its global competitors.” Current President of Universities UK, Dame Julia Goodfellow (along with the head of GuildHE, Professor Joy Carter), urged the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act, stating, “our universities continue to be world-leading in teaching and research, despite a number of factors affecting the sector, including the impact of Brexit and the erosion of tuition fee income by inflation over the past five years.” They continue, “UUK and GuildHE have consistently called for new legislation to be brought forward given that the current regulatory framework has not kept up with the implications of fundamental changes to tuition fees, with increased competition and with the growth in the numbers of alternative providers.”

In effect, the only functions that are now recognised for universities – whether by policy makers or senior university leaders – are the development of human capital and the enhancement of economic growth. With regard to the first, it was proposed that since students were the beneficiary of higher education, they should pay for their degrees through fees (supported by income-contingent loans). At the same time, for-profit providers would be allowed access to students with loans and would be allowed the title of university. In this way, single function, teaching-only, for-profit providers are allowed to compete with multi-function universities, potentially undermining the viability of those other functions in the name of competitive efficiency. It is likely that research will become even more concentrated in fewer institutions, undermining the research and teaching contracts of many academic staff.

The incentive for existing institutions is that success in the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will allow them to raise their fees in line with inflation. However, once the architecture is in place, fees may be allowed to increase beyond the flagged £9k+ inflation. Indeed, lobbyists from the Russell Group are at pains to point out that allowing institutions to set their own fees is more consistent with a competitive market and was what the Browne Report initially proposed. Data from HMRC on graduate earnings facilitates the linking of fees to future earnings, which only makes sense, from a neo-liberal perspective, if fees are allowed to rise beyond the cap for some courses (for example, in line with fees charged for some Masters courses). This is what Andrew McGettigan calls the Treasury View of Higher Education. At the same time, the income threshold for student repayment of loans was frozen, notwithstanding that the impact of Brexit has been to increase inflationary pressures.

The Act creates a new Office for Students (to be headed by Sir Michael Barber, former member of the Browne Review and Chief Education Adviser at Pearson). It is set up as an arms-length body, but the consolidation of all powers within it only makes it easier for Government to twist its arm. One of its powers will be managing the accreditation of ‘alternative providers’ (primarily ‘for-profit’ providers) to give them degree awarding powers and university title. This is to allow them an increased share of student numbers by ‘levelling the playing field’ and incorporating them in the single regulatory framework of a new Teaching Excellence Framework. Nothing is said about their ‘advantage’ in the competition for students from not having a research function and being able to employ full-time teaching only staff (with a higher proportion of lower-paid teaching staff, than in universities that are also engaged with the REF). The consequence is clear in the explicit expectation that competition will bring course closures and the ‘exit’ of existing providers.

Alongside the relaxation of the restrictions on the entry of alternative providers and the proposal that they should be subject to the same processes as existing higher education institutions, so there is a ‘de-regulation’ of the latter with a modification of the ‘public interest’ constraints on existing universities, whether Higher Education Corporations (mostly post-92 institutions governed by the 1988 Education Reform Act) or other universities under Privy Council approval. These changes are designed to increase the autonomy of senior managers, including to dissolve and dispose of assets and change governance arrangements.

The privatisation of teaching is mirrored in research. The Government introduced the ‘impact agenda’ in 2009, where all publicly-funded research should show a direct benefit for identifiable users. Whereas the logic of the teaching reforms was that the beneficiary should pay, the logic of the impact agenda is the opposite. There should be no publicly-funded research without a beneficiary, but the beneficiary should not pay. In effect, the impact agenda requires academics to align their research with private interests, rather than a general public interest.

For the most part, academics have acceded to the wider environment that has eroded academic freedom and non-utilitarian claims about the public value of research. For example, the UK Academy of Social Sciences sponsored a report, The Business of People: The Significance of Social Science over the Next Decade, as part of a lobby of policymakers at the time of the 2015 general election. However, the value of social science it promoted was its benefit to policymakers and commercial organisations seeking to understand different aspects of the public’s resistance to their endeavours.  Among its statements are, “Advancing and applying science depends on profits, policies, markets, organisations and attitudes” (from the executive summary); “The study of public values and attitudes is vital, too, especially when innovation prompts uncertainties and concerns, as with genetically modified crops or shale gas extraction” (page 6); and “without a better grasp of people, technological advances may be frustrated, or blocked, and fail to realise their potential” (page 5).

It will be recalled that the 2015 was an election in which the Conservative Party manifesto committed a Conservative Government to holding a referendum on leaving the European Union, yet there was no mention of social science research facilitating public debate. We are now entering a new general election to create a mandate for a Brexit that was not supposed to happen. Senior university leaders continue their mantras of the ‘global excellence’ of the UK university ‘brand’. It is likely that the rights of EU academic staff will be aligned with those of ‘tier 2’ visa applicants. In turn, this will make it difficult for universities to access European research funds since that is conditional on free movement. At the same time, the Government remains committed to use TEF banding to qualify institutions to access overseas students and, at the same time, severely to reduce their numbers in line with their commitment to reducing immigration.

There is an urgent need for the improvement of debate, discussion and persuasion but that need is in conflict with the privatisation of the public university. We require a university at the service of the public, but all reforms over the last decade have placed it at the service of private interests; that is, at service to whoever pays.


John Holmwood is professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University.