Requiem for the Public University


On April 27, Queen Elizabeth II formally assented to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, approved by Britain’s Conservative Parliament earlier in the year.  The act accelerated the privatization of Britain’s higher education system, a process begun decades earlier and which in key respects mirrors American developments.  The following comments on the Act are excerpted from a post, “Requiem for the Public University,” by John Holmwood, professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham and co-founder of the British Campaign for the Public University.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 . . . completes a process of the privatization of higher education in England that began with the Browne Report in 2010 and subsequent Government White Papers and legislative changes to remove direct public funding of undergraduate programmes in humanities and social sciences and to replace it with student fees supported by loans. In addition, the sector was to be opened to competition from for-profit providers. The regulatory architecture of a market-based system of higher education is now firmly in place.

This period of dramatic change ended as it began with university leaders supporting the Government’s legislative programme, notwithstanding that it entailed the dismantling of public higher education. . . .

In effect, the only functions that are now recognised for universities – whether by policy makers or senior university leaders – are the development of human capital and the enhancement of economic growth. With regard to the first, it was proposed that since students were the beneficiary of higher education, they should pay for their degrees through fees (supported by income-contingent loans). At the same time, for-profit providers would be allowed access to students with loans and would be allowed the title of university. In this way, single function, teaching-only, for-profit providers are allowed to compete with multi-function universities, potentially undermining the viability of those other functions in the name of competitive efficiency. It is likely that research will become even more concentrated in fewer institutions, undermining the research and teaching contracts of many academic staff. . . .

The Act creates a new Office for Students (to be headed by Sir Michael Barber, former member of the Browne Review and Chief Education Adviser at Pearson). It is set up as an arms-length body, but the consolidation of all powers within it only makes it easier for Government to twist its arm. One of its powers will be managing the accreditation of ‘alternative providers’ (primarily ‘for-profit’ providers) to give them degree awarding powers and university title. This is to allow them an increased share of student numbers by ‘levelling the playing field’ and incorporating them in the single regulatory framework of a new Teaching Excellence Framework. Nothing is said about their ‘advantage’ in the competition for students from not having a research function and being able to employ full-time teaching only staff (with a higher proportion of lower-paid teaching staff, than in universities that are also engaged with the REF). The consequence is clear in the explicit expectation that competition will bring course closures and the ‘exit’ of existing providers.

Alongside the relaxation of the restrictions on the entry of alternative providers and the proposal that they should be subject to the same processes as existing higher education institutions, so there is a ‘de-regulation’ of the latter with a modification of the ‘public interest’ constraints on existing universities . . . . These changes are designed to increase the autonomy of senior managers, including to dissolve and dispose of assets and change governance arrangements.

The privatisation of teaching is mirrored in research. The Government introduced the ‘impact agenda’ in 2009, where all publicly-funded research should show a direct benefit for identifiable users. Whereas the logic of the teaching reforms was that the beneficiary should pay, the logic of the impact agenda is the opposite. There should be no publicly-funded research without a beneficiary, but the beneficiary should not pay. In effect, the impact agenda requires academics to align their research with private interests, rather than a general public interest. . . .

There is an urgent need for the improvement of debate, discussion and persuasion but that need is in conflict with the privatisation of the public university. We require a university at the service of the public, but all reforms over the last decade has placed it at the service of private interests; that is, at service to whoever pays.

I should point out before concluding that faculty members in the California State University (and perhaps elsewhere in the U.S.) are likely to recognize Sir Michael Barber as the notorious author of one of the worst ideas yet to be foisted on academia — “deliverology.”  Some years ago former CSU Chancellor Charles Reed famously consulted Barber in the development of a truly awful “graduation initiative,” and for some time the CSU administration sought to implement “deliverology” throughout the system until outraged faculty members — who, among other things, pointed out that the word was, well, totally meaningless — forced an end to that moronic effort (to the probably relief, I might add, of many baffled lower-level administrators).  You can read more about it here and here.  In 2010, Barber and the Education Trust received over $3 million from the Gates Foundation to found a U.S. Education Delivery Institute, which thankfully now seems either defunct or moribund.

I can’t say whether public higher education is more endangered in England than it is in the U.S, or vice versa, but clearly the message here is that the corporate privatizers are not confined to any one country.  Alas, education for the public good is under assault everywhere, and we need to fight that assault everywhere as well.

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