Tuesday, 12 October 2010

How the Government must respond to Browne Review

Crumbs, so the floodgates have opened.

"The final nail in the coffin for affordable higher education." (UCU)

"Fees at this level - even if they are backed by state-funded fee loans - will undoubtedly mean that some students who would have gone to university will decide not to go." (Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+)

Students would be left with "crippling levels of debt and many universities face utter devastation as a result of horrific cuts" (NUS)

The reaction to Lord Browne's review of higher education funding, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education, has been, well, vociferous, to put it mildly.

This was to be expected.  After the fuss and bother when Tony Blair introduced top-up tuition fees over six years ago, to a level of only £3,000, the prospect of unlimited fees is undoubtedly a bit of a story.  The Government needs to give a clear and frank response at the first available opportunity.

Today a Minister, I presume to be David Willetts and not Vince Cable, is appearing before the House of Commons at 3.30pm to answer Urgent Questions.  Order Papers state very clearly that this will include the Lord Browne of Madingley Review of Higher Education and Student Finance.

I have neither heard nor read any indication from within and without Westminster that would suggest the Government rejecting any of Lord Browne's major recommendations.  Where they might opt to tweak, however, is on the level to which the tuition fee "cap" is increased (i.e. the rate at which Government support is removed, proposed by Lord Browne to be £6,225).

There is the distinct possibility that, as the Government labours desperately to win over enough backbench Liberal Democrat MPs,  Lord Browne's recommendation could be shifted downwards to something less painful, such as £5,000.

This step would not remove the potential for universities to charge £10,000 or more for high value courses but it would limit the impact on less privileged students at less prestigious universities, who are unlikely to charge in excess of the support cap anyway.

Why?  My own dealings with many university executives from across the mission groups, but particularly 1994 and Million+, has informed me that middling and lower institutions are well aware of what their individual markets can bear in terms of fee rises.  Some institutions are already conducting detailed scientific pricing research, or are seriously considering doing so now in light of the report.  So fees at these institutions will not rise to eye-watering levels.  Universities, believe it or not, are staffed with some pretty smart people.  They know what their student base is and the depth of their pockets.

Will the more prestigious universities charge significantly more?  Yes, of course they will.  Russell Group institutions have been clamouring for this for years.  Yet they have greater capability to support the poorest students.

Above all, this must be approached holistically.  Top universities want to accept students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and the state sector generally but, as they keep on repeating, they can't accept students if they don't apply.  The educational establishment needs to focus efforts on the schools before it blames the universities, and ask why schoolchildren are not applying.  One of the most important aspects of the Browne Review is the stipulation that universities use funds to conduct roadshows and presentations in underprivileged areas to encourage applications.

What the Government needs to say is this: we accept Lord Browne's recommendations.  Whilst we do so with regret for the extra burden graduates will have to bear, we also do so out of the responsibility to provide a world-class standard of university education for everyone in this country.

However, we cannot only look at universities, nor expect them to resolve the greatest problems of educational underachievement.

Accompanying our Higher Education Bill, to be introduced in 2011, will be a series of detailed measures to encourage greater participation by students from less privileged backgrounds.  These measures will complement and reinforce our already radical education reforms, such as increased roll-out of Academies, free schools and the pupil premium.

This is all written very quickly, so forgive me for lack of detail.  But the point stands.  Accept Browne's recommendations in order to secure a sustainable future for universities but emphasise that the real reforms need to be made earlier.


  1. The more interesting question to me is what NUS is supposed to do now. Streeting and Porter betted NUS capital on opposing fees and now they're out of the room, without any influence on the decision making. That is a huge problem for them strategically over the next five years.

  2. well said Nik. universities can't solve schooling problems and i'm not sure the Browne report took account of the huge resources they already put into attracting students from less advantaged backgrounds although of course 'more can be done'. one of the problems with widening participation work is that the funders look for evidence of a simple cause and effect relationship between outreach activities and a measurable change in participation from lower SEC groups (as per the HEFCE benchmarks universities are expected to meet) but in reality it takes much longer to change culture and attitudes.