The Browne report into the funding of higher education was commissioned by Labour. No wonder the good of society doesn’t seem to figure in it...
Since medieval times in Britain local communities have collectively funded young scholars from their area to attend higher education. They did so because they understood that to educate young people brought a benefit to the whole community. For some time academics have been describing the trend towards “marketisation” of education, but in Lord Browne’s report (commissioned by a Labour government) this is more than a “trend”. The essence of the Browne report is that education is a commodity to be purchased by the individual for individual benefit, divorced from any social good or collective endeavour to educate a society. It is an attack on Britain.
Students and lecturers were out demonstrating in Leeds City Square on 20 October.|
In Browne’s vision the contribution from the public purse to higher education in Britain will be smaller in percentage terms than in the USA and much smaller than in many other European countries. Pam Tatlow, chief executive of university think tank Million+, said the proposals “transferred the responsibility for the funding of higher education to students, graduates and their families” and would “deeply damage social mobility. Fees at this level – even if they are backed by state-funded fee loans – will undoubtedly mean that some students who would have gone to university will decide not to go.”
But to focus solely on “social mobility” is to focus on what happens to individuals rather than to analyse the impact on wider society. This wider impact is captured in National Union of Students President Aaron Porter’s call for the government to reject the proposals “that would recklessly undermine our future by ending the notion of public higher education.”
The University and College Union (UCU) has said that the enormous cut to the teaching budget will turn Lord Browne into the “Dr Beeching of Higher Education.” It predicts that courses, jobs and even whole universities will disappear if Browne’s recommendations are accepted in full.
If his proposals are enacted, England will have the world’s dearest public degrees, with families having to pay between £76,000 and £136,000 to put two children through university. The UCU calculates that a three-year degree with annual tuition fees of £6,000 would cost £38,286, including maintenance loans and interest payments. A three-year degree with annual tuition fees of £12,000 would cost £68,329, including maintenance loans and interest payments.
At a time when the government is proposing to abolish quangos, it is interesting that the Browne report proposes to merge four existing higher education bodies (Higher Education Funding Council for England, Quality Assurance Agency, Office for Fair Access and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator) into one large quango called the Higher Education Council.
One can only speculate on the cost involved in merging the four bodies. However, no need to speculate on the new and additional functions of the quango because they are listed. It will have the power to bail out struggling institutions but – you knew it was too good to be true – it will also have the power to explore options such as mergers and takeovers if institutions are facing financial failure.
Right to work
The attack on higher education cannot be isolated from the wider attack on employment and the right to work. Times Higher Education greeted the Browne Report with a front cover which said “Lord Browne’s judgement: let supply and demand shape the sector.”
But where is the “demand” for educated young people if there is to be no work? Who needs young scientists if the science budget is frozen? University vice chancellors will be desperately hoping that overseas students will bring the demand that home students cannot make.
In the short to medium term this vision will vanish as India and China and others build their own systems. In the short term, can you stomach the irony of this island providing the land space for universities that cannot serve the needs of its own able students?