Are universities winners or losers in current education policy?

Since the advent of the Coalition government in 2010, we have see a number of changes to the education sector, with many more in the pipeline. In the case of universities, perhaps the biggest and most obvious change has been the increase in undergraduate tuition fees. This blog post explores the nature of change in the higher education sector, and discusses whether it is a positive or negative phenomenon.

As a substantial proportion of higher education funding comes from Government, universities are subject to a significant degree of political control. However they are not without power of their own. For example, they are able to influence schools and pupils through setting their own course entry requirements, and they prepare graduates for local employment markets (and indeed sometimes provide consultancy services for these same employers, which means their experiential knowledge of local business and industry can be kept up to date in the process).

However until comparatively recently, the range of their power does not seem to be on the Conservatives’ radar. In the Conservative policy document document Mending Our Broken Society (2010: 6) universities are only referred to in relation to having power over examinations. In the manifesto document, universities are only mentioned in relation to widening participation initiatives, rather than as key players in a knowledge economy, of which schools are also a part. Therefore they appear to serve a social or employability based function for Conservative education policy rather than an intellectual one, which is something of a damning indictment for a sector that prides itself on its research capability.

In the aftermath of the Browne Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, this appears to have been borne out with the introduction of greatly increased tuition fees planned from 2012, as well as more stringent requirements for universities to publish a number of measures of employability and general student opinions about courses. A consequence of this latter development is the likelihood of enhanced and extended versions of the National Student Survey being introduced in the near future, an initiative funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). This indicates increased rather than reduced marketisation of university courses, and in some respects could be seen as an exaggerated version of the post-1988 marketisation reforms that took place within the schools sector. We also see further marketisation in the form of profit-bearing private sector involvement in professional education and training. An example of this is the involvement of US firms such as Kaplan in legal, business and accountancy training in direct competition with universities (who have greater social inclusion and regulatory pressures, so struggle to be as competitive as the private sector), as well as debates surrounding the establishment of the independent New College for the Humanities, with proposed fees of £18,000+, which may be the first of several such establishments to be established in the aftermath of the Browne review.

So is there any hope on the horizon? The prospect of Technical Universities backed by existing research institutions is one area where universities and colleges may be in a position to strengthen their power base, as this feeds directly into the Government’s employability agenda. Other than that, all we can do is wait.


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