Sam’s day out: how a modern Minister for Universities learns his brief*

Sam Gyimah was never going to throw new light on the Office for Students when he spoke last week at its inauguration. It was never his project, and after its early stutters he probably just wanted to get through the day as uneventfully as possible. But his speech, ‘A Revolution in Accountability’, was enlightening nonetheless, for the evidence it provided of a minister coming to terms with his brief. Proclaiming Gyimah’s desire to be ‘a minister for students’ as well as minister for universities, it was in part personal, in part naive, and in part troubling.

The speech’s greatest howler, the assertion ‘that universities need to act in loco parentis’, has been debunked elsewhere. To be generous, this suggests an admirably deep commitment to students’ welfare; to be critical, it positions the minister alongside so many other critics of universities, identifying a few problems and coming up with an answer that kind of feels right. Intentionally or not, indeed, this speech says rather  a lot about the current state of higher education policy.


Where did he get that idea?

Like so much recent public discourse about higher education, Gyimah leans heavily on anecdote and popular politics. In his first two months in office, he has prioritized meetings with students, listening to ‘their hopes and concerns’. This leads him to a range of personal revelations, from the scale of mental health problems on campus, through the attainment gap for ethnic minority students, and on to some statements of the dazzlingly obvious. ‘One student,’ he says, ‘told me that above all … they valued excellent teaching.’

Yes, we could have told him all that, yet there is no harm in learning through engagement and dialogue. What is more worrying for me is that he appears to have little interest in other forms of learning. Many politicians will sprinkle speeches with quotes from social theorists, or references to key books and reports. Gyimah surely must have noticed, for instance, that one of his predecessors, David Willetts, has published rather a weighty volume on universities. But there’s not much indication in the speech that he has read anything beyond the ‘credible commentators’ he mentions, who have turned critical eyes upon universities in newspaper columns and social media over the past year. Quite how they become ‘credible’, in Gyimah’s eyes, is not clear: maybe by saying the same things over and over.

His willingness to settle for the word of popular critics leads Gyimah to the only hard statistic in the speech. ‘The most recent HEPI survey,’ he tells us, ‘showed that 34% of students feel they are getting poor value from their courses.’ I wonder sometimes whether those at the Higher Education Policy Institute are embarrassed by the caricature their ‘Student Academic Experience Survey’ has become. (‘Ah yes,’ they’re told, ‘that’s the “value for money” survey.’) It also strikes me as odd that the minister should not bother to look beyond this figure. The profile of the National Student Survey – completed by roughly twenty times as many students as the HEPI survey – is maybe as low outside universities as it is high inside them. Might that be because it tells more nuanced stories?


Trust us: we’re doing stuff

Maybe it would be unfair to expect a new universities’ minister to present his party’s policy as coherent. After all, nobody else has managed to do so. Nonetheless, this speech provides some eye-watering moments: such as the segue from a paragraph boasting how the Tories have ‘put universities on a sustainable financial footing’, to another that begins: ‘This year, we are doing more. We have frozen student fees.’ If that’s Gyimah’s idea of action, we might all settle down for a doze.

In line with his ‘credible commentators’, Gyimah presents universities as resistant to the ‘winds of change’, but struggles to put his finger on precisely how. Is it ‘free speech’, perhaps. He doesn’t choose to elaborate. Is is ‘decolonizing the curriculum’? Well, he just tosses that one out there, as you do. Is it ‘top pay’, perhaps? In all, there’s a sense of someone ticking off a list of topical issues, with little sense of how he, as a minister, might approach them more meaningfully than someone who has just dashed out 1000 words for the Telegraph. For these winds of change have been fanned largely by the pages of newspapers.

This is also a worryingly limited vision of higher education. When Gyimah speaks of ‘students’, he almost always means undergraduate students. Moreover, his statement that ‘the brightest and the best [students] from around the world are queuing up to study here’ will surprise many people. On the one hand, it echoes a line we’ve heard before from the Tories, that only the ‘brightest and best’ people from overseas really matter to us. On the other hand, it reeks of complacency at a time when his own government places unnecessary barriers in the way of international students.

The speech also leaves one wondering whether, if Gyimah styles himself minister for students, who might be the minister for research. The speech does not ignore research; indeed it includes the assertion that we have seen ‘the largest increases to research spending for 40 years’. (I guess there’s evidence for that, but it will surprise many readers.) Moreover, Gyimah offers no comment on how research spending might benefit students, just as he avoids any reflection on the distinctive combination of research and education that shapes universities.

Gyimah’s UK university system is also gloriously insular. We are, he boasts ‘a global superpower in HE’: as though we have our top universities trained on our enemies like Trident missiles. He dodges questions of international collaboration, which is perhaps the greatest single determinant of research quality. A ‘successful post-Brexit future’, for Gyimah, ‘depends on harnessing all the creativity, ingenuity and excellence in our universities’. Many academics might suggest that access to European research funding would help a little as well.


Maybe this speech came too early for Gyimah. For those of us who might meet him on his national tour, however, it indicates some areas where he still has much to learn. It can only be hoped that he is willing now to listen to people within the sector, as well as those ‘credible commentators’ who have done so much to warp perceptions of higher education.

* This piece was first published at


The logical illogic of cutting undergraduate fees

The proposal to cut undergraduate fees in United Kingdom universities to £7500 is at present no more than an article in The Sunday Times, and even here the details are hazy. But it feels like the obvious – not to say ‘logical’ – conclusion to this summer’s frenetic discourse on higher education. It is the product of a government with neither money nor authority, distracted by bigger things, scrabbling about for scraps of political capital.

To say that this government has lost its sense of direction on higher education would be a desperate understatement. The Office for Students is not yet in operation, but already it is beset by enquiries that go to the heart of its purpose. The Teaching Excellence Framework assumes a new form every time Jo Johnson opens his mouth. We surely have cause to fear that research policy will be the next thing sucked into this vortex of Tory chaos.

They don’t even know what questions they’re trying to answer. Do they want to address stubborn problems of social representation in higher education? Do they want to manipulate the graduate skills base? Do they want to redress the balance of financial commitment, between the state and the student? Or do they want to chase younger voters?

The madness is accentuated by the way that the Conservatives just last week ignored Labour’s effort to cap fees at £9000, blocking the £250 rise that universities and students have been expecting for many months. So they ignore that initiative – thumbing their noses at parliament – yet now (apparently) propose something much more damaging. There’s all sorts of sense in that.

It appears the cut in fees will be justified by the assertion that universities have large cash reserves. To be fair, there are a handful, for various historical reasons, that do. But universities have been running surpluses – in most cases – because they are required to to do, and there are many more debt-valleys than cash-mountains across the sector. Plenty of universities have borrowed considerably in order to make themselves more competitive: or, in other words, more attractive to students.

These loans (at historically low interest rates) have made sense, but only to the extent that fee-income can be assumed. How many of those lenders ever considered the possibility that a government might be sufficiently unhinged to undermine the income sustaining British universities? How many people – anywhere – ever considered that a British government would actively undermine one of the country’s greatest assets, its world-class higher education sector?

This damage will flow from a debate that has focused too much on those who pay, and too little on those who receive and spend that income. There’s a level of magical thinking in the idea that students will benefit from weakened universities – forced to cut staff and facilities, bound to slide in terms of international reputation – simply because they leave with a slightly lower level of debt. That’s consistent, perhaps, with the level of debate on Brexit: the obsession with not paying any more to the EU, without taking any interest in what the money actually achieves. We are not blessed at present with effective or rational public discourse – on anything much at all.

But I think the sector also has itself to blame. The existing system of fees has had precious few supporters, while very many people have been prepared to trash it without having the slightest idea of a sustainable, realistic alternative. Too many people – including our academic union – have got sucked into the criticism of vice-chancellors’ salaries, failing to appreciate that the most likely outcome, every step of the way, was a cut to the whole sector. We will see vice-chancellors taking pay cuts, to be sure; and many high-performing academics will simply clear off to countries that treat universities with respect. But in the meantime, how many thousands of lecturers will lose their jobs if this proposal becomes reality?

As we should have recognized, what’s left when a government loses touch with rational policy-making is the muscle-twitch of ideological reflex. So they want to hit the post-92 universities, because they’ve never liked them much. I mean, who’s going to miss a few of them? So they want to hurt the arts humanities, because we’re all soft lefties and it irritates them that so many students want to study our subjects. And they’re happy enough to inflict austerity and confusion on the one sector that had largely evaded both these prevailing national conditions.

The fact that British universities generate income and knowledge seems barely relevant. This is a government that has has abandoned its grip on any form of economic reality. They’re so clueless they thought CEOs of FTSE500 companies would support their delusional Brexit strategy. The fact that our universities are respected across the world is equally irrelevant, since Britain’s position in the world is sliding so fast that  the people running the country have presumably ceased to care. In a context of illogic, cutting fees becomes entirely logical.

Andrew Adonis’s dead cat*

Andrew Adonis’s fixation on the salaries of vice-chancellors looks like one of Lynton Crosby’s dead cats. In practical terms, cutting the pay of VCs by 20 per cent would make a negligible impact on the sector. But it’s a nice, outrage-inducing, stinking carcass that distracts attention from more profound debates about higher education in the UK.    Amidst all the alarmist rhetoric about excessive spending and student debt, it’s worth remembering where we are. The increase in the maximum fee for home undergraduates in 2012 to £9000 was accompanied by a slashing of the level of state teaching grant: for most courses, to zero. Despite the expectations of the time, almost all universities set fees at the maximum level because degrees operate as positional goods. Price is perceived in this market as a proxy of quality, so it becomes irrational to go low.

These changes led to an increase in the average funding per student of about 25

IFS, ‘Higher Education in England’ (2017)

per cent. Since there was no inbuilt mechanism to adjust fees in line with inflation, however, the system begged questions of long-term sustainability from the outset. Hence the 2.8 % rise – the first since 2012 – this year. Overall levels of student debt have been affected further by government tinkering with interest rates, repayment rules and the abolition of maintenance grants.

Many people can’t now see a problem. There is no credible evidence that the system is deterring students from lower socioeconomic groups. And while the headline levels of individual debt look bad, this is a ‘fee’ that operates more like a tax, balancing eventual cost with a individual’s financial benefit. Though some commentators may now resent it, the 2011 reforms lifted a world-class higher education sector out of the reach of austerity.

Moreover, vice-chancellors would point to the high levels of competition, for student numbers and research funds. They would also stress evidence of enviably high quality, in terms of research and education. British universities rank well in all international tables – although they are under intense pressures from other countries now investing aggressively.

The simplest solution – if we accept there is a problem – is to cut fees to zero but maintain current levels of funding. This appears to be what Labour had in mind at the last election. But you could write that on a bus and it would still look like wishful thinking. No government could afford it, least of all at the present time. Nor, if we listen carefully, is this what many of today’s most vocal critics want.

Adonis suggests cutting the maximum fee, so that the state pays no more and the sector is returned roughly to 2011 levels of funding. This sounds simple, but the impact on quality would be devastating. With few other flexible lines of spending, and often high levels of debt, universities would be forced to cut staff numbers, increase class sizes, decrease contact-hours, and downgrade their research mission.

Fine, says Adonis: universities are spending too much time on pointless research anyhow, and can balance their books by taking more international students. But this strategy is so laden with risk that it borders on delusion. International students make rational decisions in a fiercely competitive market. Any policy that undermines overall funding levels, or risks our position in international league-tables – heavily dependent, as they are, on research performance – puts our position in this market at risk.

Arguably the only alternative would be sweeping structural changes, with much more state intervention. That might mean strict tiers of institutions, priced accordingly. It might also mean a concentration of research resources in a handful of universities. There are models for such an approach internationally. It’s an elitist structure, but there’s an awful lot of elitism under Adonis’s faux populism.

Structural change like this may look deceptively easy from a distance. Funding can be cut, student numbers slashed, preference given to STEM subjects (since, we’re assured, that’s what the country needs). But damage would be done. The strength of the UK system is founded on its diversity: a fact documented in both the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework. Universities that are low in league tables provide important specialist degrees and contribute enormously to regional economies. Which ones do we want to close?

Populist campaigns like this one can take unpredictable turns, especially when a government is weak and distracted. It might just disappear after the stench of dead cat has lifted. If not, it can only be hoped that everyone involved recognises the world-class quality and diversity of UK higher education. If we’ve learned anything from Brexit, it’s that before we smash something that works, it’s a good idea to have thought about alternatives.

*slightly longer version published earlier on wonkhe. Written and published entirely on my phone, so apologies for clumsy formatting.

Tuition fees in an age of unreason

It’s been a bad time for evidence-based argument. Now even the world of higher education policy, which one might have hoped would operate to tougher standards, is being dragged into the soup of unreason.

Even the intelligent Andrew Adonis has been affected. Adonis helped to create the tuition-fee regime, he says, and now he rejects it. That’s all fine; people have every right to change their minds, and it’s helpful for someone in his position to explain his thinking. But it’s a desperate pity that he so woefully misrepresents higher education in the process.

Let’s consider some of his points.


‘graduates on modest salaries … can’t remotely afford to pay back these sums while starting families’

Tuition fees and the middle-class birth-rate: well, it’s a new angle. Honestly, though, t’s hard to tell whether criticism along these lines is based on a desire to mislead by exaggeration, or blind ignorance of the nature of the student-loan system. These loans are income-contingent. To quote David Morris: ‘In most debts, the repayment obligations are relative to the amount loaned and the rate of interest (or other loan charge). But with student loans, repayment obligations are largely determined by income, not the total debt that I owe (principal + loan fee).’

Hence graduates earning, say, £35,000 per year will pay back exactly the same amount per month, whether they owe £10,000 or £100,000. And after 30 years any remaining debt is cancelled. What Adonis presents as awful – that most graduates will never fully repay their loans – is in fact a basic principle of ongoing means-tested state support for higher education.

There remain some powerful arguments to be made about the way the system has been manipulated. Increases to the rate of interest and a freeze of the threshold at which repayments are charged have worsened financial conditions for graduates. This does warrant scrutiny, but Adonis muddles arguments against the system’s operation and underlying principle.


vice-chancellors formed a cartel’

This is untrue in fact and based on a misunderstanding of the higher education market.

Exeter was the first university in the country to declare that it would charge £9000. This decision was made independently, indeed with sensitivity to competition law. There was never anything resembling a cartel.

But everyone – including vice-chancellors – failed at the time to grasp the peculiar logic of this market. I remember a meeting at which my own VC speculated that maybe 20-30 universities would be bold enough to charge £9000. I asked him why that number wouldn’t be significantly higher, and was politely dismissed as an associate dean’s naivety.

Why did we get near-uniformity? Partly because the difference between £6000 and £9000, when it’s a payment long deferred, was not significant enough to affect students’ decisions. And partly because in this marketplace price became accepted as a proxy for quality. Degrees operate as positional goods: that’s something we all learned from the exercise.

(There’s a nice, clear explanation of the economics of this situation, published soon after the present piece, here.)


‘The quality of university teaching remained patchy, and often got worse as lecturers focused on their research ratings’

How many measurements of teaching quality do some people need? We’ve just come through the Teaching Excellence Framework, which demonstrated there is rather a lot of excellence around. Over the past decade or more the sector has adjusted to the scrutiny of the National Student Survey, the ‘key information sets’ of unistats, the entry of Which into higher education, and the unending pressures of league tables.

In a series of tweets, subsequent to his Guardian piece, Adonis turned his attention to academic workloads, saying: a) we don’t teach enough; and b) we all have three months off in the summer. Any academic knows the latter assertion is wrong, but it’s also at odds with his claim that we’re obsessed with research. When does he think we do this?

There’s always room for improvement, but this debate would be a bit more credible if we used the available evidence. That evidence simply does not support Adonis’s insulting and damaging assertions.


‘[vice-chancellors] persuaded David Cameron and George Osborne that they were still cash-starved and needed even higher fees’

And so, Adonis suggests, it was all the Tories’ fault. This ignores the fact that the Browne Review was commissioned in 2009 by a Labour government. Its recommendations were much more radical than the system that the Coalition government introduced. Browne proposed no cap on fees at all.

So the Coalition government, rightly or wrongly, bottled it and set a maximum fee. That maximum fee, when charged, meant increased levels of income for universities, but Adonis joins other commentators in brushing one key point under the carpet. The higher cost to students was directly linked to a withdrawal of direct state funding. Some subjects continued to receive a much-reduced level of state funding; most now receive no direct state teaching funding at all.

He might also have mentioned that there was never any provision for fees to rise in line with inflation. So the initial increase in income for universities has been followed by a series of real-terms decreases in income.

And did vice-chancellors ever argue that they ‘needed even higher fees’? We might reasonably expect them to argue for higher levels of investment in higher education, since by international standards these were, and remain, worryingly low. But I’m not aware that any ever argued for higher fees, as opposed to direct state support. Indeed I know that many were unsettled – on practical and ethical grounds – by the proposals of Browne and the subsequent White Paper.


‘In my view, fees have now become so politically diseased that they should be abolished entirely’

Hence to Adonis’s proposals. As I understand his position, British universities should be allowed to recruit as many international students as they wish, and this will underwrite a ‘minimum’ level of home students.

I may have misunderstood, but this seems so bonkers it’s hard to know where to begin. Firstly, he fails to acknowledge any extra cost to the state. That means he either imagines a brutal wave of austerity, or has no idea what it costs to run a university at any level of quality. Secondly, he assumes a virtually unlimited supply of international students (a business model, it’s worth noting, that Theresa May has derided as unsustainable). This ignores the international competition for such students, who are attracted to British universities – now – because of our strength and reputation. Thirdly, he suggests universities will take fewer home students than now, a shift that would almost certainly hit those from lower socio-economic groups.


‘why did we give university vice-chancellors a licence to print money … in a decade when austerity has dominated every other public service, including schools and hospitals?

There’s the rub. Britain has a world-class university system, that punches above its weight on research and education metrics, attracts international students, and makes massive contributions to the economy and society. And yet this success invites some commentators to ask why higher education isn’t being sucked into the morass of austerity like other sectors.

Well, Andrew, I’m sorry for our success. I’m sure there are ways you can find now to reshape universities in the image of austerity-Britain.


None of this is intended as an argument in favour of fees (although I fully expect that it will be read as such). There’s no reason why we can’t have a high-quality, high-participation higher education system without fees. We just have to think seriously about what it costs and where that money will come from. Adonis doesn’t help.

What next for the TEF?*

The fact that the first Teaching Excellence Framework results will be published the week after the election wasn’t planned that way, but feels appropriate. Somehow it seems as though that the entire process of TEF-construction has been conducted in the shadow of a dysfunctional political system with other things on its mind.

Indeed, looking back on the hurried, slightly chaotic passing of Higher Education and Research Bill in the days after the election was announced, I wonder whether we will this as the moment when the TEF started to assume rather more docile a shape than we had been led to expect. The review of the TEF, scheduled to happen ‘by the end of 2019’ – in other words, about as soon as possible – looks ominous.

So here, having followed the TEF through its development (like, here and here, and a bit more here), and having got a couple of predictions right already, I’m going to make a few more. I have no evidence for my claims; I just reckon I might be right.


Gold, silver, bronze: bin

This is the easy bit. The ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’ rankings, announced in the euphoric wake of Australia’s (or maybe that was Great Britain’s – but surely not) medal haul in 2016, is universally accepted as bonkers. It belittles the whole process of assessing teaching excellence, and it unreasonably stigmatizes universities that are in actual fact doing a perfectly good job.

So this will go, as soon as it can be shuffled off stage in a seemly manner. I’d even bet that people in the Department of Education – maybe even the halfwits who dreamt it up in the first place – have discussed whether it might be ditched for this round, given the way that it undermines the image of the entire TEF enterprise. But that possibility looks just a little implausible, even in these turbulent times.

That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that it would revert to becoming a pass/fail exercise, like a parallel version of a QAA review. I expect there will be gradings of some kind, and that these will be fed into existing league tables; however, they will be more nuanced – and, frankly, also more useful – rather on the model of REF results. In this way assessments will provide objective and constructive information, both for universities and applicants, without being unnecessarily damaging.


TEF results linked to ‘fee-rises’: believe it when you see it

So TEF results were all set to be linked to ‘fee rises’ (albeit that these were never rises at all, merely – at best – increases in line with inflation). But here’s me back in November last year:

One question I’ve been asking since the TEF was first proposed goes roughly along the lines: what happens when people at the highest levels of government realize that some of the universities most likely to lose from the exercise are some of the country’s biggest higher-education brands?

I must admit that I never equated the House of Lords with ‘the highest levels of government’. I rather overestimated the capacity for people elsewhere to behave sensibly, and underestimated the influence of this curious remnant of British elitism.

But it happened. In my imagination it was just a matter of a couple of VCs of high-profile universities that were looking down the barrel of a ‘bronze’ sitting down to dinner with a few inluential alumni in the House of Lords and explaining the outrage about to unfold. Their grand alma mater will be forced to charge lower fees than the scruffy post-92 down the road. Really. Perish the thought.

And so, one way or another, I’d bet this will happen again. The sensible compromise option – submit yourself to TEF, get a satisfactory rating (i.e. anything from bronze upward, in this round’s terms), and you can raise your fees in line with inflation – seems to me like a long-term solution. Such an outcome would also help to revive the battered reputation of the National Student Survey, on the back of the National Union of Students’ boycott. (That worked a treat, didn’t it guys?) Maybe those running the TEF might even see their way to promoting the NSS, rather than questioning its value.


Subject-level TEF: yeh, right

Sorry, but I just see the prospect of subject-level TEF as madness. I was involved in preparing Exeter’s institutional response, which was hard work but served a purpose, usefully prompting us to reflect on what we’re doing. Moreover, when the institutional statements are all published, universities across the land will have at their fingertips a huge bank of ideas for educational innovation. That’s great for everyone, most of all the students.

But what’s to be gained from a subject-level exercise? In sheer bureaucratic terms, I can’t see how the labour – on the part of the academic departments or the reviewers – will justify the outcomes. In financial terms, I can’t realistically see how results could be factored into course fees, creating a weird patchwork of slightly different fees across any university. And – most importantly – as an exercise in driving forward innovation I’m not sure this will add in any credible way to the achievement of the institutional exercise.


Get a future; get a logo

Finally, the TEF is suffering a serious branding deficit. It needs a logo. It needs some pictures on its website, for God’s sake. Everything about it screams: ‘bleak and bureaucratic’. It sits up and says, ‘Hate me’. I’m predicting this might change; although, to be honest, I’m less confident about that than any of the above. In the meantime, for the sake of an image for this blog-post, I offer you a kitten (nicked shamelessly from the web).


So that’s all settled, then. What could possibly go wrong from here?

* This piece has been republished by But they didn’t publish the kitten. I mean, seriously, it’s only me giving you the cuteness factor.

Boycott the National Student Survey? Please don’t be so stupid*

A March update

The recent vote in the House of Lords to decouple TEF results from fees might have looked like a victory for the inflation-denial arguments of the NUS. But a couple of reflections are worth making: a) the House of Lords doesn’t make the laws, so this will bounce back to the Commons; b) the members who made the winning arguments were explicitly not opposed to inflationary fee increases, which they suggested should happen at all universities regardless.

So smashing the TEF may be a pain-pain result for students: i.e. they lose the power of the TEF, with its agenda-shifting link to fees; and they get fees rise in line with inflation regardless. My prediction, by the way, is a fudge: inflationary rises for all universities, on the condition that they enter a pass-fail TEF. Just a prediction, though.

Finally, while people from all angles are denigrating the NSS, look what happens when journalists conduct their own student satisfaction surveys. Is this what we want?

And an April update

The government is determined to maintain a link between the TEF and fees, but is buying itself some wiggle-room as it tries to push through the HE Bill. To make sense of the amendments, I recommend the excellent Andrew McGettigan.

And from here, from January (as relevant as ever, kind of) …

The National Union of Students is calling for a boycott of the 2017 National Student Survey. The argument goes that onceboycott-the-nss-_640x400 the NSS is used as a metric to inform the Teaching Excellence Framework – as is now happening – it becomes implicated in the commercialisation of education. Hence – or so it’s claimed – by boycotting the NSS students can undermine the TEF and derail fee rises.

As a long-time lover of the NSS, I share the frustration that it should be monetized in such a crass manner. But I believe that the boycott is based on wonky logic, and will only hurt those the NUS represents. Students, please, don’t boycott the NSS.


When ‘fee rises’ aren’t fee rises

The TEF, according to the NUS, is a vehicle designed to increase fees. But I’d argue precisely the opposite: it’s designed to suppress fees.

My logic depends on a thing called ‘inflation’. The £9000 that a student was paying four years ago is not the same as £9000 today. Hence the government’s decision in 2010 that £9000 was a fair price for 2012 entrants leads logically – or should have done – to a principle of rises in line with inflation. Did anyone seriously believe that £9000 would remain the maximum price indefinitely?

The only reason we are where we are, in fact, is that the government neglected to future-proof the system. That was stupid, but it was also politics. And the political fix now is not a rise; indeed it’s not even a commitment to maintaining funding levels in real terms. It’s a commitment to reducing funding for universities.

This is because only some universities will be allowed to increase their fees in line with inflation. Others – those that receive ‘silver’ or ‘bronze’ ratings in the TEF – will experience real-terms cuts since their students will pay less, in real terms, than those of previous years. Students and staff alike really should be bloody angry about this assault on universities’ finances.

And I’m aware, by the way, that some people will argue that £9000 was not a fair price in the first place. I’m also aware that some see the TEF as a kind of stalking-horse, that will open the door to more fundamental deregulation of fees. And I’m aware, above all, that very many of us regret the state’s withdrawal of public funds for higher education. But the fact remains that, given where we are and the system in which we’re working, what look like fee rises are really nothing of the sort.


Students can’t break the TEF; they can only make it worse

I don’t much like the TEF. I think it’s unnecessary because standards are already high; I think it’s an instance of government fussing about stuff it doesn’t much understand; and I think the infantile ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’ tags will make us all look ridiculous. I also rather suspect it might collapse, or at least metamorphose into something quite different, under the weight of its idiocy.

But I don’t think that a boycott of the NSS will do anything more than make the TEF worse. Participation rates will drop in response to the NUS position, but not enough to trouble anyone at a senior level. I mean, just about all the TEF data are already wobbly one way or another; this is a low-expectation environment.

The data will be less valuable, because some of the most politically engaged students will withhold their opinions. But probably the only people who will notice the difference will be those of us at department level who really, deeply care about the NSS because we profoundly value our students’ opinions. A boycott will hurt us, but the TEF will roll on regardless.


What’s so smart about saying nothing?

nss-logoI’ve read plenty of people arguing that the TEF is not really assessing teaching quality at all. That’s fair enough at a theoretical level: we can all see that satisfaction and graduate outcomes are not precise measures of teaching quality. But it’s nonetheless ridiculous to argue, with the NUS, that the NSS does not ‘have anything to do with teaching quality’.

In actual fact the NSS is a pretty good proxy for measuring quality. Moreover it has been the greatest agent of educational reform that I have known. I’ve seen how poor NSS results can provide a catalyst for major reforms within departments. I’ve also seen how, even within a department getting quite good results overall, the NSS helps academics to rethink aspects of how we work.

I could give countless examples, but here are a few. The NSS has put contact hours firmly on the agenda across the sector. Ditto schedules for the return of feedback on assignments, and equally the form of feedback. Now, thanks to the new questions on student engagement, we’re all thinking about the culture and communities within which our students are learning.

Of course universities also use good NSS results for promotional purposes. But why does this become, for the NUS, such a terrible thing? Good NSS results are the result of hard, successful work. There are still departments out there getting crap results, and boycotting the NSS will only give them an excuse to hide for another year.


So please, please let’s not boycott the NSS. There’s plenty to be angry about, but I can’t believe we’ve reached a point at which saying nothing makes political sense. In fact this campaign feels to me like an insult to students who have waited for three years to have their say. I think those students are smarter than the NUS campaign.

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‘Fee rises’: a comment on the power of words

David Morris’s recent blog-post for Wonkhe, ‘TEF and Tuition Fees: myths and reality’, dares to state the blindingly obvious: that the White Paper’s ‘rises’ in higher education tuition fees are barely rises at all. Indeed, if we take the White Paper at its word, it is actually proposing a mechanism to prevent some – maybe even most – universities from increasing fees in line with inflation. So that’s leaving many universities with long-term, real-terms cuts in fees.

For all their boldness in implementing change, it seems to me the Tories have been hopeless at controlling the message. Let’s start with ‘fees’. These are an odd kind of fee, levied via taxation and capped for those who never become higher earners. Indeed it seems remarkable that Labour has managed to market its ‘graduate tax’ as radically different, when its effect would be roughly similar for most graduates. The Australian scheme, which dates back to the 1980s, was originally titled the ‘Higher Education Contribution Scheme’; although admittedly this has since been dropped, perhaps in acknowledgement of its slippery PR-speak. Maybe, that is, ‘fees’ seems closer to the mark than ‘contribution’; however, it’s subtly misleading, and therefore unhelpful.

And then ‘rises’. Here’s a question: if the Coalition government in 2010 had bitten the bullet on indexation of fees to inflation, would we even have a White Paper in 2016? And would we be getting a Teaching Excellence Framework, leading as it will to convoluted and fine-grained distinctions in levels of fees, from 2017? I think not. It seems to me that an edifice of quality demarcation has been created – and, worse still, a myth of poor-quality education has been propagated – in order to justify what should have been built into the system from the outset.

So this, I’d suggest, is what happens when a government loses control of the terms of debate. ‘Fee rises’ require, as justification, elaborate structures of regulation. The costs of erecting these structures, and of universities bending this way and that to satisfy them, will likely outweigh the extra income. But the power of language drives us not only into this expense, but ultimately into the nonsense – for those universities that don’t attain the highest TEF grades – of ‘rises’ that frankly won’t be rises at all.

None of this is to argue that fees do not feel like fees to those paying them. Nor is it to argue that the current system is either fair or ideal. It is manifestly neither of those things. My point is merely that the choice of words, and the toxic politics accreting over years to those words, is placing us in nonsensical positions.

I’m going to write more about the TEF itself once I get some time to read the ‘technical consultation’ document. As a mechanism for distinguishing between universities that are good, and not so good, at educating their students, I think it can work well enough (although The Guardian league tables do a fair enough job already at no cost to the sector). But as a vehicle for distributing resources it is surely flawed. It’s overly complicated, likely at once to confuse applicants and downgrade hard-won reputations. Moreover, it fundamentally departs from the otherwise rigorous student-centred logic of the White Paper, putting the university’s interest in raising revenue ahead of the student’s interest in minimizing debt.

So I’ll end with a prediction: I don’t think the proposed equation of TEF gradings and ‘fee increases’ will last, if indeed this proposal is ever implemented in the first place. The TEF will survive and ‘fee rises’ will happen, but they will be decoupled. Someone in BIS, one day, will wake up and acknowledge that what’s currently proposed is mad. Surely they will.

Labour, fees and student debt: a failure of branding?

We’re a long way from Labour actually implementing its brave new policy – university fees capped at £6000 per year – but there are certainly an awful lot of left-leaning people asking one thing. Why? When there’s so much evidence that the current system is working (in terms of access and student choice, and also in terms of the quality of provision), and when the evidence of mucking about in this area of policy is staring them in the face (the electoral time-bomb that is the Liberal Democrats), why would they choose this as a flagship-policy for the election?

One reason, I think, is the discourse of ‘debt’. None of the parties ever got the branding of ‘fees’ right, and this has haunted them all. It has created, in due course, the political environment in which Labour might see fee reduction – ‘debt reduction’ – as an election-winner.

It seems to me they got it wrong from the start. Moroever, they got it wrong for the simple reason that they were loathe to admit they were pinching a good idea from the Australians. The Aussies had the ‘Higher Education Contribution Scheme’, which continues to work in a similar manner to the UK’s fees and loans: i.e. repayments taken through the tax system, contingent upon income-levels, and the debt written-off if not repaid after a period of years.

Note that it wasn’t a ‘loan’, in the original Australian version of the scheme, it was a ‘contribution’. Was that sleight of hand? The thing about these schemes is that they introduce a funny kind of debt, that operates almost as much as a tax. The fact that the Aussies charge more for courses that are likely to increase a student’s earnings (not necessarily courses that cost more to teach) underscores this sense of tax-ness. But in the UK this point was lost from the start, as policy-makers on both sides screwed up the branding. Our students got ‘fees’and ‘loans’ and ‘debt’. All the fuss since the fees were introduced about the RAB charge (i.e. the long-term cost of the scheme to the state) has perhaps also been counter-productive, since it’s fostered a perception that the aim of is to ensure universal repayment. That was surely never the case.

Hence what seems to me a peculiarly British discourse of debt. Students, we’re told repeatedly, are ‘saddled with debt’. I lived through the early HECS years in Australia, and I don’t remember hearing that phrase there at all. Moreover, iit’s a weirdly unbalanced metaphor, especially in a country which has achieved great things, over many centuries, thanks to an economy of debt. I’ve read some wonderful economic history demonstrating the importance of debt – indeed the prevalence of debt, throughout all levels of society – in Britain over many centuries. The cost of higher education might more positively have been positioned in this tradition. It’s a debt that generally leads to gains, in terms of income and life choices. But then – magically – if it fails in these promises, it disappears. That beats the risk of negative equity on the mortgage.

One counter-argument to all of this is that the discourse of ‘contribution’, which worked in Australia, is more problematic in the UK. With fees of £9000, that is, many students don’t appear to be supported by the state at all. This isn’t true, since the state is bearing the cost of unpaid future debt; however, this is how it looks, and appearances matter. Furthermore, some students don’t just contribute to the cost of their own degrees, since we know that they can be taught for less than £9000; they therefore contribute to the cost of other people’s degrees as well. I’ve always been surprised how little students complain about this, and it’s barely being raised right now, but it makes ‘contribution’ a tricky word. Even in Australia, interestingly, this word has disappeared: their rebranded HECS is the Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP).

Thinking practically, there’s no obvious reason why £6000 fees could not be made to work. They would make university leaders more dependent upon government: which Labour perhaps perceives as a good thing, though it will cause many a left-leaning vice-chancellor to hover uneasily over his/her ballot-paper in May. (Government, they like to say, is an unreliable partner; the fantasy of independence from the state was perhaps always too good to be true.) But it still feels like a desperate political muddle, at a time when there are so many big left-wing issues staring the Labour Party in the face. Indeed it seems to me that different branding – different discourse – might have put us in a different place.