An independent higher education review panel in England published its recommendations in October 2010. The adoption of the panel's findings engendered (among other things) large-scale protests by English university students. The dramatic response centered primarily on the cost implications of the proposed reforms. The review itself, known familiarly as the Browne Report, is about 60 pages long – but its most noted suggestions included the following:
- No cap on university fees (tuition).
- Limited government underwriting.
- Limits to the portion of student fees that universities can keep.
- Government funding only for "strategically important" subjects and courses (e.g., in sciences and technology).
- A not-so-simple system of partial- and maximum-maintenance-grants.
- Proportional tuition grant repayment by alumni, depending on their income level once they leave university.
- A single Higher Education Council to replace four existing high-level offices, to set quality levels, enforce academic quality standards, scrutinize student access, and with authority to bail out struggling institutions.
- An 80% cut in the government's "block grant" to universities (to be offset by student tuition fees).
That last item is certainly among the most radical on the Report's long list. The current grant is almost US$6 billion.
The summary above is admittedly an over-simplified snapshot of just a handful of the Report's proposals. With that in mind, here are a few brief observations about points in the Browne Report that I think deserve further appraisal.
The Report shifts higher education from being a publicly funded good to being a free market commodity, subject to competition. It's hard to argue for or against specific levels of funding or targets for cuts when what is changing is the very philosophy behind an entire nation's higher education system.
But in fact, there isn't really a university "system" in England, any more than we have one in the United States. The wide range of institutions represents a decentralized, unsystematized diversity of educational options that defies the application of a single "model" to govern the entire collection.
Lord Browne has said that "student choice" must influence "academic quality." But "quality" is hard to measure, so the proposed proxy is "student satisfaction." A nod toward measuring university effectiveness would be welcome here, but that's hard to measure too – especially as educational goals vary widely from student to student. Taking into account the sliding re-payment system for student bursaries, Browne's system may channel many students' goals toward making the most money, so they can pay off their loans. This, in turn would limit the range of professional fields which they might enter. With more students going after degrees in business, finance and technology (or wherever the higher paying jobs will be), fewer would pursue the arts, "non-strategic" languages, and the humanities.
And the proposed free market would dictate that those unpopular courses, therefore, no longer be offered. The institutions that want to offer them would close, or shut down those departments entirely.
Stefan Collini has described this as a "disguised voucher scheme":
Students will be able to borrow the cost of the fees...and they are then expected to go and spend them on the 'service provider' of their choice. The [Browne] report proposes that what universities teach will henceforth be determined by their anticipation of consumer demand.
When all the nit-picking about specific issues is done, the question remains: should a national government abdicate responsibility for judging the long-term value of the academic subjects it supports? Letting "the market" choose which departments survive is a high-level cop-out. I'm not sure that a group of "experts" on high would make good decisions, but I do think the education community would benefit from an honest appraisal of which disciplines the population needs, in what way, and for what ultimate purpose.
Facility with languages, in-depth exposure to the visual or performing arts and literature, awareness of cultural and historical trends – all these things deserve careful assessment before being turned over to free-market decision-making, especially when that decision will be influenced by constraints such as the student's ability to pay back a loan.
Universities should offer the academic subjects that contribute to the financial well-being of the country and the individual; but the less lucrative academic subjects can and should be measured against a standard other than their economic by-products.
A final thought: the slow-moving gears of shared governance in education aren't adjusted for the relatively brusque decision-making in this case. England's education sector has been hit not only by the content of the Browne Report, but by its urgency, which makes its impact all the more dramatic. The relative speed with which the Report was issued and its proposals adopted adds to the impression within higher education that the government's decision-makers are out of touch with "how we do things" inside the academy.