Two-year degrees: another week in the media trenches*

The latest kerfuffle over two-year degrees tells us a lot about the current condition of debate about higher education in the United Kingdom. As Mike Ratcliffe has demonstrated, the long-foreshadowed consultation announced last week proposes a small-scale fix to a niche in the higher education market. At the most ambitious end of the government’s projections, only about 5% of students will be studying on these degrees by 2028.

But that’s not how it has felt. Proponents have seized another opportunity to represent British universities as dozy and dated, while academics have reacted with panic. I’m not sure this helps.

The provocateurs

Free degrees with every copy

It all starts with money, because that has become the baseline in much higher education discourse. The headline in The Sun seized the point: ‘Universities to offer fast-track degrees which will leave students £25,000 better off’. The Telegraph followed suit, stating that ‘Students will save up to £25,000 under radical plans’.


Jo Johnson tweeted links to both these pieces, but he knows this is a speculative figure. As the Department for Education announcement states: ‘The proposals … include a £5,500 (20 per cent) saving for students in total tuition costs compared to a standard three-year course. When added to the average salary of £19,000 in the first year after graduating, it means a potential £25,000 benefit overall.’ So let’s be clear: this is arguably a potential ‘benefit’, but it simply is not by any means a £25,000 ‘saving’ on the cost of a degree.


These reports have also fudged the question of demand. The consultation document states only that: ‘About three quarters of the providers who responded to our 2016 Call for Evidence reported seeing a demand for accelerated courses from students or employers.’ As market research, that wouldn’t convince me to invest. There’s very little evidence in practice that students are drawn towards cut-price options, while the three-year model retains unquestionable status and recognition.


I’d also be wary about trusting that data on employers’ attitudes. In some areas, granted, there may be immediate skills shortages; but in truth there are not many of these. Moreover, most employers tend to want evidence of work experience, internships, ‘international experience’, and so forth. What’s the point of cramming a degree into two years if the three-year students, who have collected these badges along the way, take the pick of the jobs?


Predictably enough, this wilfully fuzzy approach to facts has opened the door to the HE saboteurs. Jo Johnson himself didn’t help, with his quote about  ‘highly motivated students hungry for a faster pace of learning’, implicitly questioning the work ethic of all the others. Subsequently, on cue, we received a piece in the Telegraph from Anthony Seldon, with multiple reference to the summer ‘holidays’ enjoyed by three-year students. Seriously, anyone who thinks that students treat those summer months as one long holiday haven’t spoken to many of today’s students, who are busy in the summers ticking off those achievements that employers expect to see on CVs. (Many are also preparing for summer assessment resits; I haven’t seen any explanation of how these would work in the two-year model.)

And by the end of the week: enter Simon Jenkins. Yes, universities are a ‘cultural confidence trick’, and of course fees are ‘astronomical’ and vice-chancellors’ salaries are ‘indefensible’. It’s easy to fill a column with this stuff after the achievements of Adonis and his acolytes over the summer. I expect you could get a Russian bot to produce it. I imagine it also pulls in the readers, partly because academics can’t bring themselves to ignore it.

Yes, really

But it’s desperately damaging, and also massively misleading. Ben Rosamond exposed one of Jenkins’s statistics as worthless. Further, Johnson categorically did not say, as Jenkins claims, that the ‘three-year university course … is absurd and should end’. Once in awhile one might hope for a minister capable of calling out such lies and idiocy rather than just retweeting his fan-club and – yes, really – advertisements for private providers.

The backlash

But maybe academics don’t help themselves with their reactions to such provocation. The UCU’s response to two-year degrees (from last February) is a model of over-reaction, stating that accelerated degrees risk sacrificing the UK’s ‘global reputation for excellence’. And one doesn’t have to look far on social media to find assertions that two-year degrees will be inferior, or even impossible to deliver.


This is difficult to sustain. There is no logical reason why an additional 120 credits worth of modules could not be delivered over two summers. Granted, this would manifestly alter the nature of the academic year, and would most likely (although not necessarily) reduce research time for academics. It might therefore accelerate not only degrees, but also the differentiation between research-heavy and research-light universities.


But this ship has sailed. We have had the Higher Education and Research Act, which trashed the traditional idea of the university, while across the country many universities are not only struggling to attract students but are also earning precious little research income. The leaders of such universities are understandably desperate for new ideas. In this context, two-year degrees start to look less like a cause of trouble than a symptom of more profound changes.


I also wonder whether there is just a whiff of snobbery in this backlash. The three-year degree, with its built-in time for reflection and suite of development opportunities, is a gold-standard model for 18-year-olds. But what about the mature students who have been draining from the student-pool? A 30-year-old, with plenty of work experience but in need of a career boost, might have little interest in the trappings of the university experience. Such a person might quite reasonably want a degree from a local university, and want it fast.


Ratcliffe notes the way the two-year announcement was scheduled for release on a Sunday. In recent months this has become HE-bashing day, and academics across the country wait by their twitter feeds, steeled for the latest assault. That’s me as well, of course; however, I wonder whether occasionally our headlong rush into polarisation might only exacerbate the damage.


Competition in higher education: notes on a misconception*

In its more sensible manifestations (such as Sonia Sodha’s careful Guardian piece this week), the debate about vice-chancellors’ pay boils down to a question of responsibility. Universities are taking money from students – who are to some extent a captive market – and also from the state. Members of the public are therefore not unreasonable in demanding a right to know how it is spent. Since public universities are demonstrably not taking profits to give to shareholders, the evidently high salaries of senior managers can look like a signal instance of waste. But these arguments seem to me to be based on a misconception of the nature of competition in higher education.

Universities are generally not competing on price: a point which riles so many commentators, but is a product of the peculiar market which was not of their choosing. Once the government set a maximum fee of £9000, fees rapidly gravitated to that figure. That wasn’t because of a ‘cartel’ – that line is absurd and damaging – it was because degrees proved to operate as positional goods. Price, in other words, was perceived as a proxy for quality, and nobody wants a second-rate degree. The repayment system, meanwhile, also serves to mask  differences of cost. In this context it becomes irrational for a university not to set fees at the maximum level. As a point of historical fact, not many people saw this coming when the maximum fee was announced: not the government; not the VCs themselves.

As a result universities, taking the sector as a whole, unquestionably experienced an increase in their finances after 2011, of around 25 per cent. A mandated percentage of that increase is spent on widening participation activities – a point critics rarely acknowledge – but still there has been a bump. Some people, including the architects of the scheme, might in fact argue that this was a good thing, correcting a trend of under-investment and underpinning the ongoing international success of British universities. The international league tables published this week demonstrate at once our high reputation and the intense nature of global competition.

But a lack of competition on price is all too often mistaken for a lack of competition of any kind. We’re told that the advent of £9000 fees gave universities a licence to print money – which, in due course, they might just as well blow on VCs’ salaries. But this is not a world that any academic in the UK will recognize. For the other reform of the coalition government was a lifting of student number controls, that had previously allocated set numbers of students to individual universities. As a result, some universities have expanded; others (although this gets little attention) have contracted. The bump in finances has thus been unevenly – competitively – distributed. The competition to attract students is fierce, and the consequences of failure can be painful.

This system has underpinned recruitment of academics at many of the more successful universities, including my own. We have reduced staff-student ratios and increased contact-hours. It has also driven the capital investment programs at universities across the land. Some of these can easily be portrayed as excessive – ‘iconic’ buildings, sports centres, and so forth – but they are also improving the conditions in which students live and work. And, critically, in a competitive market they may also be necessary in order to attract the students. Is this situation out of control? Not in my view, although I appreciate why some may argue that many students are effectively paying for things they don’t need. Maybe the system is worthy of review – no system is perfect – but the spending decisions we have seen are surely no more than rational responses to the conditions of competition.

There’s also an international dimension to the competition. It’s easy enough for commentators to say that universities can ‘just take more international students’, but the competition for these students is intense. We’re competing not just against other UK universities, but also against universities in other countries. And other governments, it has to be said, are doing rather more than our own to support their universities in this competition. This also brings us back to the international league tables. These are a relatively recent innovation, and are still treated with a degree of scepticism among the academic community. Among prospective international students, however, they can be hugely influential. In this context, no university can afford to ignore them, nor to undervalue the factors that feed most powerfully into them.

And this, in turn, is one reason why there is such a competitive market for the world’s best-performing researchers. Research performance – grant-income, publications, citations, peer-recognition, and so forth – feeds directly into both international and domestic league tables (with, domestically, the exception of The Guardian tables). Some critics of universities assume that the education-function can easily be separated from the research-function, which they portray as a site of wasteful expenditure. But institutional reputations, so heavily based on research, not only help to attract students, but also help graduates when they leave universities. I think we should be discussing very carefully the relation between research and education – and doing so with our students – but we can’t simply ignore these complex interconnections.

And maybe this brings us back to VCs’ salaries. These are people leading complex organizations in a highly competitive international context. Plenty of factors, of course, contribute to the success or failure of a university. But the nature of competition has changed radically, both within the UK and internationally, and this has affected management practices and structures. Maybe some of this can be wound back with some tweaking of the national funding and governance system, but much of it cannot. In this context I can understand why governing bodies and remuneration committees – although, doubtless, they make some mistakes – want to get the best people in place, and keep them there.

* Published under a different title by Times Higher Education

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.