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The Browne Review: more questions than answers


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There is much to applaud in the Browne approach. There will be no up-front payment. More fees will bring in desperately-needed resources, and quickly. These recommendations are marginally more progressive in terms of graduates' payments, for it raises the earnings floor at which graduates start to pay, and provides for more grants and loans for poorer students. Part-time students will also now become eligible for support. Within the brief Browne was given - to contribute to deficit reduction and to withdraw much state funding from HE, as well as to reform student finance - Browne has done a creditworthy job.

But it is exactly here that the Browne Report's recommendations look threadbare. Browne argues it is 'not sustainable' that fees have so far only plugged the gaps of lagging public investment. But his ideas will reinforce that situation, for the Report more-or-less explicitly takes the withdrawal of most state teaching support as its starting point. Buildings are going to deteriorate, and undergraduates are going to see their tutors less - even at universities charging £12,000 a year. Students are unlikely to take this in good humour.

Britain has recently witnessed one of the greatest shifts in wealth from one generation to another in modern history - a fact recently chronicled in a book written by the Higher Education Minister himself. Rapidly rising house prices, Mortgage Income Tax Relief, subsidised pensions, universal benefits and unsecured personal borrowing in a sustained inflation all served to move UK wealth away from the young, and towards those now in their 50s and 60s. Much higher fees will continue that malignant process.

Families and individuals have had little to no time for adjustment - unlike the situation that pertains in the United States, where households have eighteen years or more to prepare for HE. They have not been able to save to absorb some of the fees' impact - for if they had capital to fall back on, they would be able to subsidise their loans by paying them back rapidly and avoiding a proportion of their interest payments.

Even 'elite' universities contain weaker departments - subject fields that, due to complacency or poor management, provide inadequate teaching. Here students may pay £12,000 a year to see a PhD student for two hours a week, twenty weeks a year: at £300 an hour, not much of a bargain. Undergraduates are not buying tuition alone: they are purchasing a mark of quality, an imprint provided by the 'quality' exam filter they have passed through to enter a famous institution. Even poor teaching with a veneer of quality will attract enormous funds in a low effort bargain between students and faculty: the weeds will be watered.

Universities have become used to a steady income - one of the reasons they have been willing to accept trifling sums that have at least been reliable. University life will now speed up, for a drop in course numbers may lead very quickly to the closure of whole departments, faculties and schools. It will become unusual for a university to teach 'across the board', as institutions increasingly focus on their 'known' strengths. This process will have to be very carefully managed if universities are not to become over-specialised and subject to higher risks of failure.

One of British HE's weaknesses will be exposed: its lack of a skilled and experienced corps of managers. Academics promoted into these roles are often temperamentally and intellectually unsuited to the task. Their low-paid and poorly-motivated support staff are likely to find it very difficult to react to the speed of change - especially if resource constraints mean there are fewer of them.

Government research audits have increased the pressure to publish, and reduced the esteem granted to teaching. An entire generation of lecturers has come to academic maturity obsessed, not with the classroom, but with publishing in prestigious journals. Students will demand change for very many years before a new generation of HE professionals emerges to really place undergraduates' needs centre stage. Enormous frustration will be experienced in the meantime.

Industries such as animation, cinema, computer games, theatre, travel and tourism - all areas of relative British strength and success - demand arts graduates, the training of which is vital to Britain's economy. Lord Browne did not even bother to refer to this while recommending a focus on STEM subjects. This was, quite simply, a crude and tawdry act of economic vandalism.

The 2007 Research Assessment Exercise made clear that there are many so-called 'islands of quality' among the new universities. Specialist Masters degrees, innovative cross-disciplinary groups and research teams working with industry have thrived at institutions of varied provenance. Though continued government spending and fee caps would not have guaranteed their continued existence, such controls did spread risk and allow HE leaders to take intellectually profitable chances. It is to be hoped that this is not critically endangered.

Many of the institutions at risk of closure (for instance London Metropolitan University) are those with very successful widening participation initiatives. These universities often involve local, part-time and non-traditional students using innovative teaching methods and resources - achievements now also at risk.

This is a very high-risk strategy - something that should come as no surprise given the Coalition Government's decision to simultaneously revolutionise the NHS, the constitution, local government and macroeconomic policy. If it goes wrong, there may be little political capital left to reconstruct universities that have gone bankrupt. Academics' discussion should focus on the redistribution of risk: from the old to the young; from the collective to the individual; from government to the university managers and teachers who will have to manage student unrest. It is this new and bitter game that will dominate the years ahead.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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