Sunday, 5 June 2011

Metamorphosis

The crab begins to change into a new sort of creature, one that exists to serve the parasite. It can no longer do the things that would get in the way of Sacculina’s growth. It stops moulting and growing, which would funnel energy away from the parasite. Crabs can typically escape from predators by severing a claw and regrowing it later on. Crabs carrying Sacculina can lose a claw, but can’t grow a new one in its place. And while other crabs mate and produce a new generation, parasitised crabs simply go on eating and eating.

Carl Zimmer, 'Parasite Rex'

Inviting a Big Oil executive to determine the future of this country’s higher education produced the unsurprising recommendation of the elimination of public funding and introduction of market-based solutions. The Browne Report itself was a cocktail of smooth-flowing bromides about choice and quality, notably unburdened by specifics, and taking a relaxed approach to accepted academic practice on selection of evidence and other such piffling issues. The Cable-Willetts axis disappointed Browne by not implementing his plan in its totality - they approved the complete removal of the central teaching grant in non-STEM subjects, but opted to introduce a fees cap of £9,000 rather than leave institutions completely free to set their own levels.

As is so often the case, those who celebrate liberalising market reforms show a curious reluctance to push them to their logical conclusions; Browne may have been displeased by the government’s timidity regarding the fee cap, but his own commitment was less than total. If, after all, the market could be relied upon to preserve high-quality education, there would be no need to ringfence STEM subjects; doing so was a tacit admission that the plans would have a detrimental effect on unprotected subject areas. As it had no real fidelity to principle, and wouldn’t even save money (more on which later), it’s hard under the circumstances to conclude that Browne was anything but a blatant and cynical attempt to reshape the British university, and turn it into a ‘new sort of creature‘.

The promise of providing better funding to universities was dubious even at the report stage. The cost of the 80% HEFCE cut would be balanced if universities charged around £6,000 per year; a small increase in income could only be obtained by charging £7,000 or more. Whereabouts would universities set their fees? Cable concluded that the (itself fearsomely high) level of £7,500 per year would be ‘economically rational‘, and suggested that "students will search for value for money and compare the offers of different universities." What actually took place (as Tom O’Shea observed) was an instructive lesson in economics: when market protections were removed, the outcome was not fair competition driving down prices in the consumers’ interests, but a cartel tacitly agreeing to charge as near to the maximum fee as their reputations would allow. Your town’s Russell Group university would charge £9,000 - the local ex-polytechnic would ‘compete’ by charging £8,500.

If Cable and Willetts were surprised, they were the only ones. The removal of HEFCE grants for non-STEM subjects meant that institutions were faced with an enormous funding gap. Vice-Chancellors up and down the country - already accustomed to chopping ‘unproductive’ departments to pay for management consultants and sundry bed-feathering - immediately realised that even balancing the books would now require them to ramp up their money-extraction programmes. Were these men ever going to diffidently demur at an opportunity to put the screws to their students? With Higher Education holed and taking on water, it was no surprise to see the usual collection of superfluities rushing the lifeboats, and never mind the women and children (squint and you can see Billy Zane pushing through the crowd, clutching a bundle of MBA courses - ‘Let me on board! I’m all she has!’).

The fig leaf of social-liberal cover on all of this, much cited by Liberal Democrats, was the two-tiered nature of the cap. There is a ‘soft cap’ at £6k, which universities have to seek permission and meet certain conditions to exceed, before the absolute cap at £9k. The requirement for universities to apply for permission to set top-level fees, for all the oxygen wasted on the subject by Cable, turned out to be a formality. Universities intending to exceed the soft cap have to get a go-ahead from the Office of Fair Access, who evaluate the application based on the institution’s performance on access targets, and make recommendations for changes if necessary.

The central role that OFFA were to play in the fee-setting process evidently came as a surprise to them. Browne was probably surprised too - elsewhere in his report, he’d recommended that OFFA be abolished and its functions absorbed into a new ’streamlined’ body, the Higher Education Council. OFFA, it should be noted at this point, is a micro-department which (at the time the reforms were announced) had a total staff of five, headed by a former vice-chancellor. The universities were so intimidated by this imposing body that most casually flouted the April 1st deadline for returning their applications. Once the size of their task dawned on them, OFFA tried to put a brave face on things, and hurriedly hired two more staff to chip in with the pile of late applications.

The actual sanctions available to OFFA are nebulous. Universities who fail to meet OFFA’s access guidelines are obliged to spend 30% of their over-£6000 fee intake on improving access arrangements. Institutions who are in line with their targets make a smaller contribution. This is all very nice, but you’d hope that someone along the chain of command would have realised that it simply gives failing institutions another incentive to ramp up their fees to offset these ‘losses’. What’s more, the definition of ‘access improvement activity’ used is very broad - advice and information services to schools count, for example. There are no binding requirements for failing institutions to meet any kind of target for actually admitting disadvantaged students. Sending out leaflets and prospectuses - activities most universities would be carrying out in any case - simply gets moved under a different heading in the accounts.

The IFS (that respected and august body of hard-headed thinkers, who peculiarly morph into a bunch of irrelevant academic cloudcuckoolanders when their conclusions no longer mesh with Coalition policy) calculated that, for all the noise made about ’access’, the poorest 30% of students will be worse off under the new HE system. OFFA's own website bashfully admits that, over their history, they have completely failed to improve university access for the poorest 10% of the population*. If that was OFFA’s success rate pre-Browne, what kind of results can we expect when they’re overworked and overloaded too? The closest thing to an idea to bring in more students from low income families was the idea of letting rich candidates buy places at universities, which would allegedly open up more places for poor students to attempt to earn. The ‘concessions’ wrung out by the Liberal Democrats evaporate in strong sunlight; the contemptible bad faith and pathetic self-regard of those Lib Dems who abstained from the parliamentary vote make an excellent precis of that party’s entire character and philosophy in government.

Rolling Nick Clegg in front of the cameras to point out that the system was ‘free at point of use’ was an insult; the same term could equally accurately describe your kneecap-breaking neighbourhood loan shark. Perhaps the Coalition genuinely believe that today’s youth are a generation of temporal orphans with no grasp of the passage of time, or of the concept that there may be consequences of their actions. The fact that young people may be concerned precisely about their futures and the impact of debt on their later lives apparently didn’t occur to anyone; all the more surprising seeing as this is a Government which never misses an opportunity to remind us that we risk burdening our children with debt if the deficit is left unaddressed.

As long as we mention deficits and red ink, would the Browne reforms at least cut Government spending? In short (taking into account a little balance-sheet juggling) : no. From the point of view of immediate expenditure, reforms are counter-productive. The loans are subsidised by the taxpayer ‘at point of use’, so don‘t save money in the short term - the higher the fees go, the more money is spent right now. Browne naturally envisaged the loans paying for themselves in the long term once the repayments start, but of course his team’s calculations were based on institutions charging low average fees. The IFS predicted that if every institution charged the maximum fee, something like three quarters of graduates would fail to repay them before the thirty-year amnesty. At a fleeting glance, a student loan looks like a good investment for the lender - that initial £27k could bring home over £80k if the graduate pays it back slowly over the maximum period of time. If three in four graduates default on their debt, suddenly it looks about as shrewd an investment vehicle as a US subprime mortgage circa August 2006. What’s more, if defaults become widespread, we may see pressure for the kind of federal loan-underwriting legislation that was passed by the Bush administration in the US - next time, it could be organisations dealing in SLABS (Student Loan Asset Backed Securities) that are ‘too big to fail’.

These thoughts - combined with the indications that young people (rational economic agents that they are) will simply opt out of higher education rather than continue to pay through the nose for uncertain rewards - do eventually seem to have permeated at least one of Willetts’s brains. He has conceded that upfront savings brought about by the Browne plan look set to be smaller than he expected. Naturally, he blamed the vice-chancellors for setting their fees so irrationally high, and threatened that he would be forced to make cuts in ‘other areas’ (presumably to the teaching grants in hitherto protected subjects) unless the vice-chancellors agreed among themselves to charge lower rates and thus attract more students. But you can’t expect that kind of enlightened collective action in a market of competing individuals. Not for the first time, you wonder whether we’re being ruled by sinister conspirators or by utterly inept charlatans who don’t stop to consider any of the logical consequences of their actions.

The media, as in 1997, have largely missed the point. Back then, the introduction of tuition fees sparked far more of a furore than the simultaneous abolition of the student maintenance grant, which would have by far the greater impact on the sector and on the lives of students. Last year, the liberal broadsheets wrung their hands at the vast increase in the individual costs of going to university, while directing relatively little attention to the removal of almost all central funding for Higher Education in Britain. Plenty of columnists wanted to agonise about the ‘hard choices’ that faced their sons and daughters as they considered HE; nobody seemed to want to examine exactly what shape HE will have taken by that time. Our crusading liberal media only seem interested in the individual as consumer; Browne himself would applaud.

We’re already getting an impression of the impact the Browne reforms will have in the long term. Like the poor sacculina-infested crabs, schools are shedding limbs with no prospect of ever being able to grow them back. London Met, an institution which has some of the best rates of low-income engagement in the country, might expect to be rewarded for their commitment to ‘access’ - instead, management are cutting 70% of courses off the books, including virtually the entire humanities department. Keele has joined Middlesex in dropping philosophy entirely; Glasgow has made cuts across the board including seemingly ‘productive’ and vocational courses like Nursing and Social Work. Strathclyde is the clearest example yet of the metamorphosis most universities will experience. If you have reached the conclusion that all of this is somehow good for education in this country, perhaps you ought to go back and re-examine your premises - it certainly buries the notion that Browne will give consumer-students more choice. Future employability, and the endlessly-cited competition with China and India, will become the sole factor that determines the future of courses, and of institutions. As always, the changes are justified with reference to some alleged customer demand: UCL’s occupation, expressing solidarity with their threatened teaching staff, made an elegant statement of principle that undercut this at a stroke: ‘we refuse to be divided from our lecturers and treated as disgruntled consumers.’ Education is not a market. Students and staff know this, even if managers and policymakers don't.

Embracing complete liberalisation might distribute rewards effectively in some abstract economic model, where the field is level at the start; otherwise it merely tends to entrench privilege. Without a central teaching grant, and with the majority of prospective students strangely unwilling to mortgage themselves up the eyeballs, the only institutions that will be able to afford to teach the humanities are those where the born-wealthy cluster. The public-school 7% are already hugely over-represented in law, journalism, publishing, the media, and, especially insultingly, politics. Those Delingpoles who will claim that this is due to their intrinsically superior abilities might do well to consider that in the areas of human endeavour that rely more heavily on pure talent - hard science and sport, for instance - there is no such overrepresentation. Browne’s decision to retain STEM funding can be decoded into ‘best keep a few of the snivelling proles around for the difficult jobs; otherwise, they can go fuck themselves.’

Strangely, enough, the seemingly hopeless lack of prospects faced by our youth may lead to more throwing economic self-interest to the wind and studying the subjects they’re interested in. This determination is to be applauded; it’s unfortunate that it will only serve to prop up a rotten structure. I still believe that imaginative organised protest can reverse at least some of what's happening and give us an NHS-style 'pause for thought': in the long run, though, I’m increasingly settled on the belief that the future of comprehensive higher education lies outside the current institutions. I’ll direct readers to the debate on the 'Proletarian University' over at Infinite Thought last winter, to isolated green shoots like the Really Free School, and to the manifesto of the ROU.

UPDATE: Come one, come all, to the NCH. This is what humanities teaching looks like in our brave new world.

Eventually there'll be a post along these lines dealing with Further Education, where many of the same themes will recur.

*At this point you may want to go and watch the old Armando Iannucci sketch about pole vaulters. 'Hello, we're OFFA, and our only job is to widen access to higher education.'

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