Universities: A non-market market?

With a Browne Report and a Comprehensive Spending Review out of the way, it’s now clear to see what the future holds.

Wait, no it’s not.  The future is more clouded than ever.  Fiddlesticks.

If you’ve had any interest in Browne and the CSR, you’ll have seen plenty of commentary.  I don’t want to go over the same stuff, although I’ve made lots of notes and can post more at popular request… 😉

Instead, I’ll keep in brief.  And I’ll leave most of the words to others.

Giles H. Brown, Editor-in-Chief of HE policy journal, Perspectives, explains that universities can’t be viewed the same way as businesses:

“Research suggest tertiary education is unlikely ever to operate as a market in a way an economist would recognise (Brown 2008); we are therefore likely to remain market-like, but not a market, in the same way as we are increasingly having to be business-like, but cannot operate truly as a business.  Like it or not, we cannot strictly separate the sector from the market; we are increasingly dependent on the ‘market’, while recognising the importance of retaining some degree of autonomy from it.”

[Perspectives, Vol.14, No.3, 2010]

So how much autonomy will there be?  Times Higher Education (THE) highlights concern.  This week’s editorial stresses that Browne claims to be offering universities freedom, but actually introduces a ‘state-controlled and regulated industry‘.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has published their response to the Browne Report, dismissing much of it as a serious way forward.

Then there are the concerns surrounding fees.  Prospective students be warned; if Browne’s proposals go through, there may be no real market on fees, much like now.  THE reports that most unis may have to charge around £8,000 just to get by.  This has led NUS to say the spending review informs an entire generation, “you’re on your own“.  And these possible fee rises may not even accurately factor in the natural decline in 18-21 year olds from 2012.

This may also have a knock-on effect for widening participation.  Steve Smith, President of Universities UK (UUK), explains:

“We know we are facing a demographic downturn from 2012, with a 15.6% decline in the 18- to 21-year-old age group within the decade – not the only cohort, but a major one, for student recruitment: already this year the participation rate has fallen from 41% to 39.7%.  Unless we can raise the attainment levels of 16-year-olds, the numbers coming into higher education from the lower socioeconomic groups will not increase at the pace we would like them to.”

[Perspectives, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2010]

Compare this with Browne’s wish for a further 10% of students to enter higher education.  Getting a particular percentage into HE is not the point.  Widening participation isn’t about greater numbers, it’s about ensuring that those who can benefit from HE are given that chance.  Some people enter HE who would have benefited from something else and I believe just as much effort should be placed on helping these individuals.  One positive aspect of the Browne Report is its recognition that better careers advice and prospective student guidance should be given to allow greater understanding and to give individuals a better chance in making decisions that suit their individual needs.

But can we achieve these things under a market system that doesn’t necessary work like a market?

These are strange times.  Bonkers, in fact.  All of us will be affected one way or another.  And nobody really knows how yet.

But there is one certainty: No matter what your opinion is — even if you don’t care — none of us can put our head in the sand.