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The White Paper on Higher Education: Is there a strategy?

July 11, 2011

Originally posted on 11th July 2011 on the Research Republic blog.

The clamour inside parliament, on the streets and online that surrounded last autumn’s vote on fees was starkly absent from the government’s release of their long-awaited white paper on higher education last Tuesday. David Willetts stated and restated that student choice is the core of a paper which shows comprehensiveness if not cohesion, outlines plans if not strategy, and has attracted more cautious acceptance than flat condemnation.

Two colliding narratives explain this muted response. The first is political: the parliamentary strategy adopted by the coalition government to press change upon the HE system incrementally. The decisive and most volatile factor behind the coalition’s reforms, tuition fees, were decided first in a ‘snap’ vote.  Actual draft legislation, in which the full institutional, financial and social implications of the reforms might be debated fully, is scheduled for next year, Willetts promised in parliament. In the meantime, BIS has invited a select counsel (including Aberdeen University’s Ian Diamond, former chief of Research Councils UK and controversial ex-president of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter) to provide advice on discreet parts of the system. A string of white papers, hopefully published more promptly, are also scheduled. In short, by pencilling in the details of a regulatory structure, we are assured, government will reveal a lean, inclusive HE market.

The second is financial. Universities are still scrambling to find a place within the new tuition fee caps of £6000 and £9000 per year – and which cap applies depends upon each institution’s efforts to widening participation to higher education. Most have opted, unsurprisingly, for the top bracket. In these uncertain times the struggle for institutional prestige is a matter of institutional survival, not a simple call to compete. This is because drastically reduced teaching budgets remain tied to narrowly-defined measures of teaching quality, while the top tier of research universities continue to capture 90% of HEFCE funding for research[1]. For this reason, universities who charge lower fees effectively admit to providing inferior education.

While the white paper proposes to allow unconstrained recruitment for students gaining two A grades and a B in examinations, this does not signal a straightforward market remedy for quotas on student places, which will otherwise remain in place. Salford University Vice-Chancellor Martin Hall responded to the white paper by questioning its effects for the ‘squeezed middle’: modest academic achievers from socio-economic groups who are first in their families or communities to access university places[2]. These students stand to lose current opportunities for participation if the ‘squeezed middle’ of universities – who spend the majority of their budgets on teaching, and not research – can’t compete with the elite. So far, current plans appear to ignore the distorting effects of a reputation-driven system without removing the regulation that has perpetuated it.

Also affected are specialist providers like the regional universities, university colleges and performing arts schools of GuildHE, whose CEO emphasised the “risks of destabilising institutions and the broader system”[3]. In this regard, an early alarm was sounded by the National Audit Office in March. It stated that both the new funding environment and the transition to it is “raising the number of institutions at high risk of failing, and stretching the existing resources” of the Higher Education Funding Council for England[4]. The resulting panic about university bankruptcies obscured two of the NAO’s key messages. Firstly, that as the HE system emerges into a market whose exact parameters are still unclear, there is not yet a clear regulatory framework to smooth the way, much less guide universities into an uncertain future. Secondly, while according to the white paper HEFCE is to take up a significantly expanded mandate for quality assurance, it was singled out for concern in the NAO report over how it will balance its regulatory role with respect to its other responsibilities[5].

Clearly, now is the time for strategy – not only for the universities that are still trying to second-guess the institutional, financial and regulatory pressures to which they will be exposed. Government agencies also need to know whether they are intended to manage a transition to less regulation, as promised by Willetts, or will have to plan for the expanded regulatory challenges of a genuinely open market in higher education.

[1] Jonathan Adams and Karen Gurney (2010), ‘Funding selectivity, concentration and excellence – how good is the UK’s research?’, Higher Education Policy Institute

[2] Martin Hall (2010), ‘A paler shade of white’, University of Salford Vice-Chancellor’s Blog, 4th July, available from

[3] GuildHE (2011), ‘White Paper published’, GuildHE News, 28th June, available from

[4] National Audit Office (2011), ‘Regulating financial sustainability in higher education’, London: The Stationery Office

[5] Ibid.

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