As a new generation of school leavers now consider their options on the basis of predicted A-levels and Highers, what kind of education can they expect to receive on locked-down campuses with remote teaching governed by social distancing? The sorry truth is that Britain’s universities were in a mess long before coronavirus. Rampant grade inflation, over-dependence on wealthy foreign students (as exposed by the pandemic), vice-chancellors paid more than the Prime Minister and glitzy new corporate-style campuses – all while staff wages and working conditions were screwed down. Universities tossed aside their claims to being centres of independent learning when university leaders and academics piled en masse into anti-Brexit campaigning. And they have repeatedly made themselves laughing stocks with their bans on speakers, fancy dress and proliferating speech codes.
One set of solutions mooted to these problems is to change the way universities are run. These changes are cast in the mould of modest reforms to the structure of incentives that confront university leaders in their commercial decision-making. Such reforms are being trialled in Australia: higher fees for supposedly ‘soft’ humanities subjects, in the hope that this will drive students into harder, higher-earning STEM subjects. That such a move may help choke off the woke ideologies that proliferate in the humanities and social sciences is the not-so-hidden subtext of these proposals.
These hopes are misplaced. As Dr Lee Jones and I argue in a report published by the Cieo think tank, the dire state of British higher education is the result of decades of regulatory changes – changes intended to remould the sector by creating market-style competition and incentive structures. The aims have always been the same: reduce public spending, enhance efficiency, drive up quality and boost the economy. Prior to the pandemic, caps on student recruitment were lifted in order to encourage competition for student-consumers with their hefty fees. League tables and consumer-style regulation (the ‘quality assurance’ framework) have been cultivated in the hope of promoting product standardisation that would enable school-leavers to make an informed choice in deciding where to take their money.
The end result of all this tinkering is the opposite of what was intended. British universities now have the worst of the market and the worst of the state. Every effort to extend the market in the sector has produced greater state regulation, not least in a proliferation of regulatory governance structures. We have all the inequity of the market in the form of ballooning student debt, along with choking bureaucracy and regulation piled on top. Most of this bureaucratic bloat is invisible to those outside the sector because it has grown inside institutions. This bureaucracy takes the form of new management and administrative layers devoted to gaming the very same system intended to create informed consumer choice – university expenditure on administration and central services quadrupled between 1995-2018.
Most absurd of all, this has all ended up being more expensive to government, not less. State spending has increased year on year since 2015/16, driven by outlays on student loans.
In its entirety, Britain’s universities system is best described as market Stalinism: enormous waste, rampant petty authoritarianism and over-bearing managers. All of these things have been empowered by years of wasted efforts to construct a market, right down to absurd production targets such as those for research ‘outputs’, as if universities were Soviet factories and monographs were tractors.
At the same time, the research base of the country has been whittled away as what gets studied and taught has effectively been sacrificed to the decisions of 18-year-olds and where they take their fees. Meanwhile, the authority of woke academics is boosted by the relativism that comes with pandering to student consumers, such as the demands to be taught by people ‘who look like them’. The market is, after all, indifferent to truth, beauty and knowledge: what counts is what sells. Every effort to build the market in British higher education has extended regulation, bureaucracy and fostered the climate of campus authoritarianism. It is time to end it.
Instead of hiding behind the market, the government should be more ambitious, demonstrate leadership and take control of the sector rather than relying on more market tinkering. It is time to rebalance tertiary education by shrinking the university sector by roughly 20 to 30 per cent through a process of institutional conversions and mergers, in favour of expanding further and technical education, as part of the government’s levelling up agenda.
Restoring university as a public good by abolishing fees, extending the maintenance loan and reimposing recruitment caps would, at a stroke, shrivel university bureaucracies dedicated to managing consumer expectations. As part of the process of post-Brexit democratisation, it is also time to cap vice chancellor pay, empower academic ‘parliaments’ in the form of senates and congregations, and compel VCs to stand for regular elections. With the government’s levelling up agenda and commitment to public spending, there is a glorious opportunity to reboot the entire higher education sector, but that requires more ambition than regulatory tinkering.
Philip Cunliffe is the co-author of ‘Saving Britain’s Universities: Academic Freedom, Democracy and Renewal’, which is available to read here.