Despite UK universities’ considerable successes – in high-level scientific research and in recruiting foreign students in particular – the sector is in much need of improvement. Many students get poor value for money, with little weekly contact with staff and an academic year which is absurdly short in most cases: expensive but grossly underused buildings raise costs unnecessarily. Academic standards have slipped badly, with many students being admitted who gain little from their programmes. First and upper second class degrees are scattered like confetti as universities try to improve league table positions. But graduates find it increasingly difficult with their devalued degrees to obtain jobs which justify individual and government investment of time and money on such an unprecedented scale (with approaching half of young people now in higher education). Outside the STEM area, academics spend far too much time on research which hardly anybody reads, jostling for position in the ‘Research Excellence Framework’, an expensive and increasingly pointless exercise.
In an attempt to offset this bias, the government has recently cooked up an equally flawed ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’, the first results of which have been to stigmatise some world-leading universities and over-praise some small outfits which very few people have heard of, on the basis of proxy indicators which are known to be influenced by factors which have nothing to do with teaching, such as campus location, subject choice and family background.
And of course there is the funding crisis, with students accumulating very high paper debts – amongst the highest in the world – although relatively few will ever be forced to repay despite the angst which inevitably accompanies them. This system currently allows universities to take on large numbers of weak students without any penalty, at the taxpayer’s expense, without equipping them properly for the jobs market.
Although the 2020 report is an interesting read, and endorsed by luminaries such as Anthony Seldon and Andrew Adonis, its proposals are really not up to much. The IEA has always argued that government is largely the problem, with most of the university sector’s failings being the result of the state’s involvement. But rather than recommending scrapping the REF, the TEF, the new Office for Students and changing the student funding system to something which reduces both state involvement and the moral hazard implicit in universities’ current recruitment (see here, for example), the report promotes yet more intervention – albeit sometimes in a novel direction.
The uk2020 report’s particular hobby-horse is the promotion of two-year degrees, which would (the authors argue) reduce the cost of higher education dramatically and free up student accommodation which could be redeployed to alleviate the urban housing crisis. A range of incentives is suggested to promote them.
I teach on a two-year degree programme, and I’m a big fan. I am pleased to see set out the virtues of an accelerated programme which has considerable advantages for some students. But to imply that this is a panacea for the sector’s problems is a bit naïve. The scale of change to a widespread reliance on two-year degrees – and, despite the report’s search for precedents, such short degrees are largely unknown in the rest of the world – would be extraordinary. The entire contractual basis of the UK university system would have to be scrapped for a start. Good luck with that: one factor which the report doesn’t discuss is the notorious intransigence of university trade unions, which continue to prevent many much more modest changes such as a proper review of teaching ability. To imagine that university staff, increasingly recruited in a world market, would easily acquiesce in a massive change in their working conditions and lifestyle is a fantasy.
I doubt very much that the government will embrace this proposal in any meaningful way. At the moment the emphasis seems to be on classic displacement activity – trying to gloss over the problems of the student funding set-up with a pathetic attack on the pay of vice-chancellors and other senior staff. With the proposed cap of £150,000 a year, VCs in charge of major international businesses would be paid a quarter of their interlocutors on the Today programme, or about a tenth of some US university heads.
Government should retreat from its role in higher education, and if it won’t do so, our leading universities should decisively break with the state and rely on money raised entirely from private sources.