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Groups behaving differently

mike boxall | HE | 19 may 2016

The government’s higher education white paper identifies solutions to the wrong problems

The 85 pages of this week’s higher education white paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, have already generated much comment. But three basic questions remain: what problems with the higher education system is the government seeking to solve? Will its prescriptions bring about the solutions it seeks? And, most importantly, are these really the most important higher education-related problems faced by the nation?

The essence of the government’s critique is that the higher education system is no longer fit for purpose, that it is giving fee-paying students a poor deal, and that complacent universities are providing antiquated teaching and neglectful services that leave students unhappy and employers frustrated. Setting aside the counterfactual evidence―that the great majority of students are well satisfied with their experiences, that the graduate employment market is booming and that international students are clamouring to study in the UK―there is nonetheless a general acceptance that most universities and other higher education providers could do better.

The government’s strategy for galvanising the system is based on three premises: that more empowered and better informed student consumers will seek out the best value from their higher education investment; that more accountable and responsive institutions will rise to the challenges of market competition; and that agile and innovative challenger providers will emerge to take business from those that don’t make the new grade. Will it work? Well, it very much depends on each of these groups behaving differently, in the ways that the government expects, and the signs are not promising.

With regard to students, it seems optimistic to suggest that half a million 18-year-olds every year would behave as rational economic consumers, assimilating and weighing up a wealth of comparative institutional data to make optimal lifetime investment choices. All of the data reports proposed for the Teaching Excellence Framework (at least until lifetime earnings data become openly reported) are already in the public domain and are widely disseminated in league tables and university guides, which form only part of the influences on student choice. Peer group feedback, parental perceptions and personal circumstances are at least as important, and are likely to remain so.

Will the combination of teaching quality ratings and increased competition make universities try harder to improve the quality of their teaching offers and experiences? There is no doubt that all universities take student attraction and satisfaction much more seriously than they used to. Marketing and promotion budgets have mushroomed, student services and facilities have had make-overs and pro-vice-chancellors for student experience have been appointed, all with a view to improving student satisfaction. But much of this change has taken place around the peripheries of core teaching and learning activities which, as the national student survey results continue to show, often fail to meet students’ expectations. A PA Consulting survey of vice-chancellors in 2015 revealed that few institutions were adopting the innovations in learning and teaching being introduced by their international competitors, and that the pace of change in universities remains glacially slow.

So will there be an influx of dynamic new providers to inject innovative energy into the higher education system, giving students better choices and, to quote former higher education minister David (now Lord) Willetts, generating a tide of change that will lift performance across the system? Certainly, some of the new players coming into the market in recent years, such as BPP University and Pearson College, offer more flexible study modes and more career-focussed teaching programmes than most established universities. But even these have concentrated on a narrow range of high-margin professionally-oriented offers, for relatively small student cohorts, and show little inclination to compete for mass numbers or high-cost programmes. The government’s reforms have blurred the distinctions between public and private higher education provision, but they have done little to make that provision a more financially attractive proposition for either category. In particular, it is difficult to see the incentives for private providers to take over from any public institutions unable to make ends meet in the new environment.

All of these observations lead one to suspect that the system-wide impacts of the white paper reforms may prove more incremental than transformational. But an even bigger concern stems from the title chosen for the white paper. If the ambition is indeed for a higher education system that enhances Britain’s “success as a knowledge economy”, where is the vision for making that happen? The government’s own 2015 report on productivity and innovation, Fixing the Foundations: creating a more prosperous nation, lamented the UK’s shortcomings in professional and technical skills, which were rated 28th of 33 countries by the OECD, and berated our lamentable productivity performance, almost the worst among G7 nations. It is not at all clear how the proposed regulatory reforms will address that situation. What a successful knowledge economy needs is an outward-looking, relevant and engaged higher education system, not one preoccupied with arbitrary metrics and bureaucratic regulations. 

Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting Group

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