Degrees from Tesco: the high-quality – low-cost world of the White Paper

A central fantasy at the heart of last month’s White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility & Student Choice, is that new entrants to the UK higher education market will help to drive both quality and efficiency upwards. By my calculation, the document contains twenty-six reference to ‘high quality’ new/alternative/small providers. These are the universities of the near future.

There are other planks to the White Paper, not least the latest steps towards a Teaching Excellence Framework. But I want here to spend some time on new providers. How might this fundamental reform to the nature of the university in the UK actually work? And what might it mean for the humanities?

 

It’s a funny old market I: the quality-cost paradox

One of the key lessons from the last round of reforms, subsequent to 2010’s Browne Review, was that the higher education market doesn’t operate according to normal economic rules. The expected result of that process was a graduated market, with the ‘top’ universities charging £9000 fees, and others slotting into place below that level.

But what we learned is that cost, in higher education (and probably much else as well – but let’s stick with HE), is a proxy for quality. Hence very few universities indeed were prepared to go into the market saying: ‘Actually our degrees are cheap because they aren’t quite as good as you’ll get elsewhere.’ So we all pretty much fell into line at £9000, and that doesn’t look much like a market at all.

Now the White Paper returns for another try. It states: ‘Competition between providers in any market incentivises them to raise their game, offering consumers a greater choice of more innovative and better quality products and services at lower cost. Higher education is no exception.’ The nexus between high ‘quality’ – a word used a staggering 180 times in the White Paper’s 83 pages – and low ‘cost’ is critical. The questionable underlying assumption is unchanged since 2010: higher education is a market, and greater competition will help the consumer. Surely it will.

 

It’s a funny old market II: the high-cost providers

Here’s another paradox: existing private providers in the humanities are not less, but considerably more expensive than traditional universities. Some commentators have suggested that the government has been influenced, in its campaign to ease the creation of new universities, by the emergence of the New College of Humanities. But the NCH charges roughly twice as much as the rest of us.

I’m on record as arguing, when the NCH was established, that it was a good thing because it sent a message to the country that excellent education in the humanities could not be provided on the cheap. That seems to me important, not only for potential students and their parents but equally for the cause of the humanities in internal debates, at existing universities, about distribution of resources. But does it really help the arguments of the White Paper?

One possible reading of this cost-quality paradox is that the White Paper is a big old Trojan horse that will lead us towards a complete deregulation of fees. A few years down the track we may all accept that the only way the traditional universities can compete with the new providers is by charging higher fees. But I don’t think its authors are as clever as that. I think they genuinely believe in the high-quality / low-cost nexus, and as a result we should spend some time thinking about how this might work.

 

BA English at Tesco’s: private provision in the humanities

How about, then, an English degree from Tesco University? The White Paper’s vision is stark: small providers with low costs will become universities. Forget about the idea that a university might need to be rather bigger than a couple of managers, a bunch of casual teachers, a few dozen students and a meeting room at the back of the local coffee-shop. Forget also about the relation between research and the concept of a university. That kind of thinking is all very twentieth century.

So there’s no reason why any consumer-facing brand might not consider putting together an English degree and selling it in competition with existing universities. Staffing wouldn’t be a problem, given the surfeit of excellent doctoral graduates on the job market. Resources could also be managed, with a few canny deals for online access to decent books and journals, and a reliance otherwise on open-access materials. And to make it look a bit more edgy and vocational, I’d make it ‘English and something or other’ – maybe ‘professional writing’, ‘journalism’, or ‘publishing’.

But, if you’ve followed me to here I expect you’re screaming: ‘private providers are doing professional degrees; they’re not interested in the humanities’. Actually, I wouldn’t be so sure; this has been the pattern to date, but I can’t see why it should remain that way. Demand for humanities degrees remains strong, while sizable chunks of the £9000 fees paid at traditional universities tend to find their way to places that wouldn’t matter to Tesco University. Research? No need for that. Cross-subsidy of STEM? They wouldn’t touch STEM with a barge-pole. Quality? Near enough is good enough. Call it £7000 and they’d be making 10%-15% profit.

In fact I’ve already spoken to one reputable private provider that was looking several years ago to develop an English degree in partnership with an established university. They won’t need now to suck up to the likes of me in order to deliver their degrees.

 

So there are reasons to take the new providers – ‘high quality’ or not – very seriously. They may not impinge greatly on programmes that are currently attracting more applicants than they can handle, but they could stretch the marketplace, taking students away from existing universities that can hardly afford to lose them. The whole point of the new competitive world, as the White Paper makes clear, is that there should be losers as well as winners.

PS. By the way: many thanks to all those readers who publicized my last blog-post, on impact case-studies. The tweeters and retweeters of the world make a huge difference to independent blogs like this one.

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