Unhappy students and difficult questions to answer

Earlier this month it emerged that a graduate from Oxford has decided to sue his university for £1 million, claiming that “appallingly bad” tuition cost him his first-class degree and therefore prevented him from having a successful career. Cue the usual cries of spoilt millennials. But I’m starting to think that in cases like this, students might have a point when it comes to seeking redress on teaching quality and quantity.

Around the UK something interesting is going on in local Students’ Unions- a whole clutch of them are running campaigns around value for money in University fees and finances. That they are having to is shameful- a reflection on the abject failure of HEFCE’s long since abandoned feather light nudge in this direction a couple of years ago- and one of the reasons why it’s so important that the shift from funder to regular embodied in the morph from HEFCE to OfS needs to mean more than a logo change.

UUK at least made a national attempt last month- noting that the recent HEPI/HEA Student Engagement Survey found that 75% of students “did not feel they have enough information on what universities spend their money on”, they released a university spending “interactive explainer” showing “how universities in England spend their money, and how all of this ultimately benefits the paying student”. Putting aside that the medium of choice for this dose of transparency is late 00s nausea inducing presentation fad ‘Prezi’, it manages to snatch opaque defeat from the jaws of transparency victory through a series of unpleasant distortions. “We spend £1.3bn on student accommodation” it trumpets, burying the circa £2bn that students pay for it in an already inflated housing market.

The thing that most of us that work closely with students know about the clamour for financial transparency is that it is a symptom of a wider problem that is the focus of the Siddiqui case– students’ lack of contact hours. The HEPI/HEA survey found that perceptions of ‘good value for money’ are falling everywhere, with strong evidence that students equate contact hours with good value. They’re particularly miffed that their money is used to cross subsidise- both research and other courses- yet the sector responds with ever more ridiculous attempts to confuse services with benefits, as if doing so will help.

The obvious mistake is to assume that when students say they want to know where their money goes, they want institutional level figures. Those sorts of numbers are about as helpful as institutional access stats- in the name of ‘academic freedom’, OFFA’s inability to get at subject level stats just means that pockets of unjustifiable poshness get masked by nursing courses propping up the WP figures. Same with tuition- pockets of unjustifiable, threadbare contact time are covered by expensive labs and dollops of dentistry. What students want to know isn’t where their money goes collectively- they want to know individually.

Whilst students are happy to argue that ‘tuition’ fees are probably paying for ‘tuition’, the ongoing debate about what it is that students are paying for reached new heights of preposterousness last month when the survey reasonably concluded that students develop skills better through independent study rather than lectures or seminars- prompting a series of commentators to chirp in and suggest that students’ ‘obsession’ with contact hours was somehow misplaced.

  • I go to the cinema to relax. I could probably derive more relaxation from reading a book in my house. That doesn’t mean that my local Odeon gets to take my ticket money, berate me for my obsession with films and send me off with a book and a mug of Horlicks instead.
  • I go to the gym to get fit. I would probably be fitter if I ate and drank less and did more walking. That doesn’t mean that my local Virgin Active gets to take my money, berate me for my “obsession” with gym equipment, and send me off with a map and flask of slimfast instead.
  • And even more importantly, whilst some students do want skills from their degree experience, they reserve the right to want other things. Some want knowledge. Some want specialist skills and some generic. Some derive emotional or social benefits from HE.

The point is that whilst of course students want benefits from HE, not only are those benefits different for different people, but what they are paying for is a service. For the star teachers sold to them on open days. For the glittering libraries not to be full in the run up to exams. For computers to work, for assessment to be carried out with care and returned on time, and for labs and equipment that are fit for purpose.

That doesn’t mean that most of them are arrogant or stupid enough to assume that merely paying £9k entitles them to a degree. But it does mean that as they clamber into a lifetime of debt repayments, the least we can do is deliver what is promised, explain where their money has gone honestly and transparently, and support not berate them when they “obsess” over not getting what was sold to them in a brochure.

Of course, teaching quality is just as important as quantity- HEFCE research demonstrates that “information about teaching qualifications has been identified as important to students”, and “is seen as an indicator of individual and institutional commitment to teaching and learning”. Indeed, it may well end up being only the only reliable indicator of teaching quality in the TEF given NUS’ plans to scupper the use of NSS satisfaction data. But it’s not a trade off. Students feel that they’ve been sold and are paying for for actual contact with actual people.

Former Tory HE Minister David Willetts knew this- “a course that is providing it students with less than 10 hours has unhappy students and difficult questions to answer… I hope and expect to see a decline in the number of students with such low contact hours”, he said back in 2013, but Jo Johnson’s disappointingly partisan response to Wes Streeting’s ‘Student Bill of rights’ amendment to the HE Bill in favour of metrics that look at everything but excellent teaching won’t help at all. Let’s just hope that the OfS can yet still be exhorted to use its new powers to tackle the “value for money” problem with gusto when it gets to work.

External examining should no longer exempt universities from proper scrutiny

Originally published on wonkhe

It’s been good this past week to see issues around external examining debated on Wonkhe – but missing from the debate has been external examining’s role in protecting (or failing to protect) students’ interests.

One of my favourite ways to wind up HEFCE when it was dabbling in the “student interest” (around 2012-13) was to suggest that its ‘secret list of universities facing collapse’ would have to be made public if the body was truly operating in the student interest. Of course, they never released it because, as the great and the good know best, the only way to protect the student interest is if everything is kept secret.

The ‘we know best’ attitude is frequently invoked by elders trying to evade scrutiny in ancient sectors – Parliament, the BBC, the law – until the position looks so unjustifiable in the twenty-first century that a scandal can easily engulf them.

We operate in a mysterious world, where basic rights, redress or natural justice are still missing where elsewhere they have become established. This systematic letting down of students is justified by the need to protect sacred cows such as ‘academic freedom’ and ‘academic judgment’. Such concepts are woven into the mythical romance of higher education, yet they increasingly look like straw men. Or even justifications for bullying the indebted and powerless out of getting what they’ve paid for.

It is bad enough that it has taken the Competition and Markets Authority’s intervention to expose just how weak sector-owned regulation was in ensuring students were not mis-sold on their open day. But sadly in their search for a comparable product, the CMA’s guidance lazily picked the easy consumer products – buildings and course content – rather than the more subtle failures in service. The CMA missed a core aspect of that service: the development of and maintenance of academic standards, against which student work is assessed, degree classifications issued, and life chances enhanced or restricted.

Given that the marking and grading process has such a huge impact on whether a student will ever pay back their fees, the passenger on the Clapham Omnibus might reasonably assume that if marking is not being done effectively or with due care or attention, a student might be able to exert a challenge. Yet we know they can’t. Because of ‘academic judgment’. Because ‘reasons’. Literally because ‘we know best’.

Back in 2010, David Palfreyman described immunity from judicial scrutiny on the basis of academic judgment as UK higher education’s “get out of jail free card”. Palfreyman argued that similar magical defences of expertise in other sectors have rightly disappeared, particularly where service users can demonstrate that the supplier of the service has failed in their contractual duty to perform a promised service with reasonable skill and care.

Given that educational outcomes are co-produced, it is, of course, reasonable for universities to argue that judgments have to be able to be made, lest every failing student vexatiously blame poor teaching or unfair marking. But surely the defence disappears if the assessment was carried out without reasonable skill and care, and the system designed to assure and maintain those academic standards in that assessment was poor or failing? If that was the case, surely students would be able to sue?

There is sufficient evidence to be concerned that this is indeed the case. UCU has shown that teaching staff are having to do more marking and assessment outside of reasonable working hours. If assessment and feedback have not been palmed off onto postgraduate research students, then it’s probably being done hurriedly against a deadline set by a pro vice chancellor that needs to eek out an extra point or two on the NSS.

And when it comes to external examining, HEFCE’s recent review found that “empirical research provides clear evidence of the inconsistency and unreliability of higher education assessors… academics … have little knowledge of the difficulties and complexities of reliable marking”, and “they … lack experience of providers across the sector”, “receive limited support for the task from their own institutions”, and 10% had experienced pressure ‘not to rock the boat’.

Dismissing complaints on the basis of higher education staff’s seemingly magical capacity for academic judgment maintains the sector’s outward stance of ‘we know best’, while simultaneously admitting in reports, initiatives, and training pilots that actually, we don’t know best at all. That lawyers, surgeons, plumbers and social workers long ago lost this flimsy defence, but academics retain it in the plain sight of systemic failure, is quite astonishing.

Katie Akerman is correct when she points out that there are “three fundamental flaws” with the external examining system. What she misses is that it’s probably only this wispy justification that keeps the bulk of student complaints out of court altogether.

So that’s the real test for the new Office for Students. Of course, it matters whether its board has a student on it – I wouldn’t do the job I do if I didn’t fundamentally believe that students are capable of discharging governance duties in HE with more than reasonable skill and care. But regardless of its title and governance, when it concludes like others before it that the secret list must remain secret and that academic judgment is sacrosanct, it will confirm again that it is not an office for students, but for the interests of universities.

Tackling sexual violence and harassment in HE: work still to do

Originally published on wonkhe

For anyone working with students in higher education, the mid-decade culture wars of the 2010s have been exhausting and pretty miserable. We’ve endured an entire set of values being challenged and trashed, as Fleet Street and shady libertarians have taken advantage of a perfect storm to reinvent and gentrify Loony Left tropes into tales of political campus correctness.

Universities UK has tended to be unhelpfully silent on most of these issues, its usual modus operandi focussed on working behind the scenes. After all, the last time it peeped its head above the parapet – gender segregation in religious observance – chief executive Nicola Dandridge got her head blown off by a furious right wing press and a disastrous Today programme interview. But just over a year ago, UUK was exhorted into forming a taskforce of able, willing, and short straw drawing volunteers to look properly at the issue of sexual assault and harassment in universities. This was partly thanks to years of relentless work by NUS Womens Campaign activists, and partly thanks to the fact that ex-Secretary of State Sajid Javid was suffering from a dose of ‘Daughter at Uni’ syndrome.

The good news is that the report passes the first two crucial tests for this sort of work. The taskforce is fairly honest about UK universities having a problem, and it does propose some fairly crunchy solutions. To take a couple of examples: it might seem like common sense that universities should centrally record harassment disclosures, or publish information on how to report an issue, but you’d be surprised at how hard it is sometimes for senior university managers to make it happen.

Notwithstanding the media’s obsession with consent classes, there’s lots of sensible stuff in the report about prevention, lad culture, and supporting victims effectively. And there’s useful nods to the responsibilities of governing bodies to take sexual harassment, sexual violence and hate crime seriously, and monitor the effectiveness of their institutions’ policies.

For campaigners upset that universities have relied on a decades-old set of guidelines to justify not investigating sexual assaults, there’s more to welcome. UUK has simultaneously published Pincent Mason’s review of the 1994 ‘Zellick guidelines’, and whilst it doesn’t go as far as some American equivalent guidelines, the clarifications on disciplinary frameworks and student codes of conduct should finally kill off the preposterous situation where without the high watermark of CPS backing, a perpetrator is more likely to be excluded from a university for graffiti than for sexual assault.

It’s not all good news though. The report is sadly relatively unhelpful on the issue of staff-to-student sexual harassment and assault. The Guardian’s recent story on this may have been an unhelpful bit of Saville/Catholicism clickbait, but the case studies investigated were chilling.

The Guardian’s reporting highlighted the power imbalances between institutions and students, men and women, and perpetrators and victims at play here. And it’s perhaps when it comes to power where the taskforce’s report may fall short. Without real steps are taken to rebalance the scales in favour of victims, both at the casework and strategy level, then work like UUK’s report will be ineffective.

Take the USA. Similar work there has faltered for years, with voluntary best practice exhortations frequently trumped by institutions’ imperative to avoid legal liability. until Joe Biden launched new guidance on ‘Title IX’ – the law governing equality of access to education. Following a long list of controversial cases in American universities, the Vice President and the Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to university heads that reinterpreted existing legislation and demanded swifter action by institutions when investigating sexual harassment and violence. Crucially, the guidance stated that “a law enforcement investigation does not relieve the school of its independent Title IX obligation to investigate” an allegation of sexual harassment or violence.

Campaigners in the UK have argued for some time that our own legal equalities framework could offer a similar interpretation if tested, but the documents fall strangely silent on that point. This could be because British legal campaigners are wrong, but it is perhaps more likely that UUK officials know that the campaigners are right, and for all the tough talk, are not keen to poke any bears that might put institutions on the formal legal hook.

The mismatch between institutional and student responsibility is where things get very interesting. One of the most vivid recommendations in the document suggests that conduct policies should shift from an “expectations” to an “obligations” framework. An obligations framework should clearly set out the standards of behaviour that students should display and enabling action to be taken if their behaviour falls short. It’s a solid, sound and in some senses groundbreaking recommendation and a big step forward from the more ‘hands off’ approach of Zellick.

But when it comes to an equivalent shift on the institutional side – that is, requiring, and not just exhorting, that action is taken, that stats are recorded, that policies are followed and that the interests of students are protected with the same vigour as institutional interests – the UUK taskforce is sadly silent. It will probably take thousands more victims, and a UK version of the “Dear Colleague” letter, before universities accept that moving from “expectations” to “obligations” will need to apply to them too.

Look them in the eye and say that

Exciting news folks! The Government’s implementation response to the technical consultation on year two of the Teaching Excellent Framework is out. Don’t all look at once- YOU’LL CRASH THE SERVERS.

Sensibly sensing that this news wasn’t the sexiest to be spun into Education correspondent inboxes that day, the spinners obviously got hold of the headlines at the last minute and converted TEF categories into Olympic metal- leaving most of the capital’s ex-polytechnics with a paltry bronze around their neck as thanks for work on propping up the Government’s figures on widening access and educating the majority of the UK’s BME students.

The news on fees also caught the eye of most of the press, as it always does- but it’s the role of the “student voice” that we’ve ended up with that’s so disappointing. QAA institutional review has given students the opportunity to submit a Student Submission for some years now, and as well as being right in principle that the user/consumer has a guaranteed chance feed in, to the resultant tales of long standing problems being fixed and investment suddenly going in to things students know help are myriad. The QAA, NUS, Students’ Unions and Vice Chancellors all agree that the process has been a force for good. So surely the equivalent will be weaved into the TEF. Surely?

Not quite. “We recognise the important role that the student voice can play in providing additional information about a provider’s teaching”, begins paragraph 91, but “we do not consider a mandatory student submission is appropriate”. And why has the DfE come to this view? The first excuse is the emergent diversity of the sector. “This could disadvantage alternative providers and others without a student union”, ignoring that the QAA has spent the best part of a decade getting around this problem and presumably blithely accepting that there are “higher education” providers where there isn’t any organised student voice at all- as if that’s somehow acceptable.

But from there on it gets a bit more sinister. “This could disadvantage… providers … where a student union chose to boycott the TEF, or where the student union was engaged in a political dispute with its provider on a matter unconnected to teaching”. These are again now new issues- there have always been a tiny minority of student submissions either missing or clouded by other relationship issues. But the QAA has always recognised that on balance this shouldn’t mean that students aren’t afforded the right to submit their views independently, and found ways around it- precisely because of the positive power that the process of having an independent student advocate voice in the process can have.

But where the QAA rebuffed childish arguments from private providers and traditional sector academic registrars who regard challenge as impertinent, the DfE have caved in at the first hurdle. ‘We care about students’, says the Government, ‘but not enough for students to be on the board of the Office for Students’ and ‘not enough for students to have the right to help evaluate their institution’. In doing so they not only trash decades of expertise and robust practice built up in the profession of student representation, they threaten real ideas woven into the fabric of UK HE- of co-production of education, of challenge to authority and received wisdom, and of decisions made in the glare of public scrutiny. Things that most senior academics used to believe in.

NUS’ mixed signals haven’t helped- publicly declaring non-cooperation with the TEF whilst encouraging students’ unions to respond to the technical consultation hardly helps- but it’s the submissions that must have led to all this that are the most worrying. To those senior managers in Universities that responded to the consultation with the avowed intention of taking away the right of students to submit evidence to the TEF, my challenge is simple. Imagine sitting in front of your Governing Body or your Students’ Union or even a mirror, eye ball to eye ball, and justifying this position.

And when you realise that this is one of those situations that the last paragraph of animal farm is getting at, write to your SU and voluntarily guarantee them the right to submit into your TEF uncensored. You’ll sleep better at night.

Critics of the graduate tax are shouting at straw men

Originally published on wonkhe

What an unpleasant sight. The usual unholy alliance of vice chancellors’ bag carriers and Corbynista cultists have been out in force for a couple of weeks now, responding to Owen Smith’s Nottingham University speech by all gleefully arguing that a graduate tax is really no better or no different from the current undergraduate fees system.

They’re right, in a way. I should start by saying something really clearly: from a graduate repayment perspective, the current system is very similar to a graduate tax. You can in fact design a whole graduate tax system that for graduates is almost totally identical to the current system. But beyond that, critics of a graduate tax end up creating the enemy they want to attack. By simplifying or ignoring a graduate tax’s features they are providing a smokescreen to protect the inexorable march towards the financialisation of higher education.

We can all agree on some things. No one wants students to pay at the point of delivery. The student finance regime probably ought to cover living costs. And we ought to have a scheme that encourages lifelong learning, part time study and progression into postgraduate study. Meeting those challenges involves finding ways for rich graduates to contribute more than poorer ones, and not paying back until you can afford it. On these points, the free education mob, the grad tax mob and the current system mob all agree.

But it’s not just the graduate repayment regime that matters. Just as important is where the money goes; how efficient that process is; what it gets spent on and how useful (in the very broadest sense) that investment in higher education is to the individual or society. And it’s on those matters that the critics of a graduate tax tend to go silent.

“Well”, they say “with tuition fees you know how much you’ll pay (back) in debt”. Recent anger from new graduates not realising they were building up interest on their first year fees in their second and third year rather destroys that argument. But crucially the government’s outrageous exempting of student loans from consumer credit regulation means they can (and, it appears, will) change the terms at will without proper parliamentary scrutiny. The important thing about student loans isn’t that they are ‘in reality’ a graduate tax, it’s that their advocates sell the loans as predictable lending and then shut their eyes and put fingers in ears as the government fiddles with the terms anyway.

“OK”, they continue, “but at least the money follows the students”. This is an age old argument of supporters of school voucher schemes: they’re preferable because instead of revenues going through government (who will spend them on ministerial frippery), they end up on the ‘front line’. The fact that this guarantees that the richest institutions will get richer (because the poorest HEIs have higher support costs per student) is ignored. The fact that this ‘front line’ in a given higher education institution involves a cross subsidy for other courses, access measures, executive pay and unforgivably inefficient governance and management structures isn’t the point. Ask any university to show a student where their fees go and they crumple into a ball of complexity and excuses. Furthermore, the the long term impact of the voucher argument – to convince citizens that politicians and government aren’t to be trusted with decisions about where public money should be spent – is deeply corrosive.

Voucher funding has other downsides. The people in universities that make calls about what is taught tend to look back at what sells well, not forward at what society needs. It encourages HEIs to balance the books by flooding the market with cheap-to-teach humanities degrees that the labour market doesn’t need, cheer-led on by the old left on the romantic idea of ‘education-for-education’s-sake’. And vouchers put power in the hands of open day attendees much more than it does for current students or graduates, with shiny buildings, posh prospectuses and unhelpful levels of confidentiality and competition.

Vouchers’ defenders invent other problems. “But who would decide where the money is spent”, they wonder, as if there are literally no other ways of deciding how to spend money than through individual transactions. “But graduates who already have loans would pay it”, even though no proponent has ever suggested as such. “But they wouldn’t start paying this tax for years”, they crow, pointing out the upfront investment required whilst ignoring the unsustainable student debt mountain that’s piling up and will cause terms and conditions changes to student loans in a few years anyway.

The point missed by many of its critics is that there are ways of implementing a graduate tax. There are types that protect the contributions raised from graduates into a co-operative trust that can’t be meddled with by ministers. There are types that can invest in diversity of provision, or widening access, or geographical cold spots. There are ways to drive efficiency and increase quality and reduce cross subsidy. And perhaps most importantly, a graduate tax has a totally different psychology to that of debt. In my later life I’m making a contribution back towards current higher education – feeding forward, rather than struggling to get the noose of debt off my neck. A graduate tax could spur interest and involvement from successful graduates in the continuing success of higher education, rather than the current resentment prompted by the psychology of debt.

Of course, Owen Smith will (probably) never be Labour’s leader. The pragmatism of triangulation is out of fashion and as a pitch for the “youth” vote, Smith’s package completely misreads how cool it is currently to be idealistic, not accurate. It’s a shame, because with only “Free Education” as the alternative, higher education will continue its march slowly and relentlessly to a financialised system; where the Russell Group gets fund managers to do bespoke student loans for bankable boys, whilst the government has endless rows about the usefulness of the subsidies they still have to put into media studies in ex-polytechnics.

How to turn the hot air of parliamentary debate into real change

Originally published on wonkhe

So the second reading of the HE Bill is complete – and thank God for the so-called ‘Labour right’, without whom scrutiny on the Bill would have consisted of Shadow Minister Angela Rayner tumbling her way through a list of old lefty tropes better suited to the student demo going on outside the House than the debate in the chamber.

With the opposition in mild disarray, it was left to a collection of MPs linked back to the sector in one way or another to provide analysis and comment, and many of the contributions touched on ideas and issues raised by students that a once-in-a-generation HE Bill presents the opportunity to solve.

As such I’ve tried to build on the points raised with ideas for amendments and improvements to the legislation that MPs and their colleagues in the Lords could press for before the Higher Education and Research Bill hits the statute books.

Given that the proposals are in part designed to address regulatory gaps in the wake of fee increases, curiously missing from the government’s plans are any individual protections for students: a situation highlighted by Stella Creasy who used her speech to call for a student ‘Bill of Rights’. At a national level that might be too generalist to be useful, but the Bill could easily be amended to cause OfS to both require universities to adopt student charters of rights and responsibilities, and to set out the areas such a charter ought to cover (like contact hours and coursework turnaround times).

Ex-NUS President Wes Streeting made a remark that sums up many students’ feelings on the proposed Office for Students: “the name is on the door, but there is no seat at the table”. He went on to argue for student representation on the OfS board, other sector bodies and on the governing body of all institutions. The first few of those are easy fixes that Johnson could just announce, and the governing body measure could be easily built into the Bill’s section on the ‘public interest governance condition’ that will apply to HEIs. Doing so would provide reassurance in the traditional sector and important safeguards in the emerging sector where student representation is not so familiar.

Streeting also raised the prospect of the Education Act 1994 being caused to apply to new providers. In other words, it would mean that student representation or students’ unions would be required in the emerging sector. It would be remarkable to hear a real argument against such a move from a minister given it was Tory legislation in the first place. Perhaps more usefully, the OfS could be charged with ensuring that students have access to independent advocacy in the event of a complaint or appeal. It’s a given in the traditional sector, but an often-forgotten aspect of students’ unions that is arguably more important to learners in new providers than clubs, societies or student sabbatical officers.

Streeting also raised concerns with the transparency duty in the Bill, arguing that “the transparency revolution should extend to outcomes and graduate success”. This is an easy fix – the government could simply extend the list of transparency conditions listed on the face of the Bill to include retention, success and graduate destinations, and it should probably require that that data be published at subject-cluster level to stop strong averages hiding poor pockets. That would ensure a proper link between the Bill’s requirement to publish data on the full student lifecycle and the duty to publish a plan to do something about it.

Ex-Labour universities spokesperson Liam Byrne hit a particularly raw nerve with graduates who’ve been realising just how much freedom the government has to change the terms and conditions of their loans after signing on the line. I remember a naïve fees salesman Martin “Money Saving Expert” Lewis telling me students didn’t need that protection in law because “the government would never have the nerve to change the terms after the fact”. He was wrong, and the government should work to protect current and future borrowers now in the Bill.

Perhaps the most disappointing facet of the day was the sheer lack of MPs in the chamber. We might have expected someone to spot that the TEF will intensify the process by which HEIs focus on subjects that are cheap and easy to teach – an effect seen in health and in FE where the metrics start to influence the scope of provision instead of improving it.

There’s another easy fix for this: give the OfS the duty to kill the cold spots, taking steps to ensure access to an appropriate range of subjects in a given geographical area. That would be easy, doesn’t threaten autonomy, would balance against the competition duty and would ensure that students who can’t or won’t “go far away” to uni can still do the subject that’s best for them.

So many of these things probably wouldn’t be proposed by Jo Johnson. But after a bit of pressure, might also not be things he’d fight to resist. But that would require the opposition to be doing its job: negotiating, proposing, scrutinising and working often bilaterally as real parliamentarians do.

Above all else, this afternoon’s sparsely-attended and poorly-led display from Labour highlighted vividly what the legislative process is missing when the official opposition is in disarray. Let’s hope the handful of enthusiasts that turned up to support Gordon Marsden today can pull something out of the bag in coming weeks.

Plan for the worst and hope for the best

Originally published on wonkhe

For a couple of months now I’ve gathering and trudging my way through many higher education institutions’ strategic plans to think through how students’ unions might best influence such strategies in the interests of students.

Even before Brexit this was a miserable task. The level of similarity is such that it would cause a Turnitin server to billow with smoke, and the daft jargon gives the overall impression that they were written by the sort of bots that are now taking the graduate level jobs previously promised to the students that fill these places.

I have learned that there is both good news and bad news. The good news is that things seem to have moved on at least a little bit since the last time I did this exercise. Back in 2011, almost every higher education strategy promised their governing body a climb up the league tables, a feat that I thought was impossible until I remembered that climbing the tables is as simple as inventing a new one.

These days there is at least a dose of financial realism coursing through the pages of apple-less macs, lab coated boffins and stationary mortarboards. The bad news is that having collectively identified the right problem – that UK higher education is slowly going bankrupt – everyone has identified the same answer. And they can’t all be right.

“Growth”, proclaims a chapter title in one strategic document. “Meeting demand”, yells another. Some have graphics of the university expanding its geographical coverage, like a map of biological attack in ’24’. Others talk of growing popular markets, exploring new subject areas, building gleaming new facilities, meeting higher level skills shortages, and of strengthening balance sheets. They’re all growing their way out of the problem. No institutions are specialising. None are getting smaller.

There are psychological reasons for this. Contracting is what you do in a crisis. Mergers are what you do when your back’s against the wall. Bold leaders – especially white, masculine bold leaders – do bigger, do better, and do more. They wear hard hats and they invite politicians to open things. They reassess ever wider risk envelopes as a powerful signal of their institutional virility. You can’t trouser a pay increase and then downsize – it sounds wrong. And in UK higher education, the amazing thing is that this strategy of growth has almost never gone wrong.

UK higher education has never really stopped growing. If the answer was “grow our way out”, government policy was almost always encouraging it. Entire careers, books, best practice models and leadership, governance, and management cultures have been built upon the temple of ‘more higher education’. But savvy executives, governors and observers ought to be a bit more sceptical this time around.

The obstacles to further growth

Research income now looks increasingly shaky. Sure, we trade on reputation, and grants will last a while. But without EU funding, academics will drift elsewhere and our research outputs will decline in a classic spiral. Those that think our labs and boffins will get their fair share of EU savings from the national government need to understand that this isn’t the NHS, or even farming. Less research will get done in the UK because of far more immediate political demands.

International students also looks like a problem area. “A weak currency will help”, say the hopelessly optimistic. It will for holidays. But if you’re a prospective applicant committing for 3-5 years what you really want is currency stability. If no UK higher education institution has dared fix its international fees in the currency of student origin so far, few international students will be so bold to commit to post-Brexit Britain.

This assumes that they’d even want to. Gossip amongst international recruiters is that without being the pre-eminent broker to Europe, recruitment to business schools from China looks like even more of a busted flush than it did in May. The rest of the world will also recognise that they need high level vocational STEM far more than they need mis-sold humanities courses, and they will drift off, taking their money with them.

What about traditional domestic 18 year olds? Look at the birth rates: they are hurtling down now for the next six years. European students? The vast majority will look elsewhere in the EU. Government funding? Not when new hard outcomes data reveals much of ‘Harry Potter HE’ to be overpriced smoke and mirrors. Lending and bonds? That looked like a plan that would work for the top third of the sector until six-weeks ago. Now it just looks farcical.

So no higher education institution should be thinking it can expand its way out, save a couple of lucky exceptions. A crisis is coming, one from which higher education has so far been protected and yet ignored the frequent warning signs.

Perhaps the worst news is the coming realignment of political life. For several decades, British politics has been about two tribes: a left dominated by social liberals, and a right dominated by social liberals. Both sides, whether Labour or Conservative, have tended to view things like university expansion, students’ unions, research spending and the liberal arts as a good thing.

But global and domestic events are causing new groupings, now unleashed by the Brexit campaign. The new political choice is on the other axis on the political compass: hereto dominant social liberalism versus a newly resurgent authoritarian conservatism. It is very hard to see higher education as we know it being prioritised by the latter.

All this is why I submit that the new bold option for universities is to do what they have not done for years: to stop competing, and to stop expanding. Contraction is now smart. Merging is now sensible. In uncertain and dangerous times, perhaps it is best to shore up what we’ve got, batten down the hatches, and hope for the best by planning for the worst.