Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Restore the Equilibrium: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Restore the Equilibrium: Opinion

Article excerpt

The public-private balance of funding sources needs to be adjusted to protect the public interest, says Roger Brown.

I have a confession to make. In spite of some 25 years' engagement with higher education policymaking - at every level from senior civil servant down (or up) to professor of higher education policy - I was still surprised by the radicalism of the coalition government's reforms, especially the introduction of full-cost fees for most courses.

They represent the continuation - and the intensification - of the series of market-based policies that began with the Thatcher government's decision in November 1979 to end the subsidy for overseas students' fees, and continued with the introduction of research selectivity in 1986, maintenance loans in 1990, the expansion in the number of universities in 1992 and 2004, and top-up and variable fees in 1998 and 2006, respectively. Although these changes may not yet have delivered a true market, they have certainly delivered plenty of market-like behaviour, not only by institutions and their leaders but also, increasingly, by students and employers.

What lessons should we take from our experience of these policies? What might we have done differently over the past 30 years or so if we had known then what we know now?

Research selectivity at departmental or research group level can produce impressive gains in efficiency and, probably, quality. But these not only become more and more marginal with each selectivity exercise, they also produce a whole set of negative consequences - especially for student education - that largely cancel out the original benefits. Even more importantly, research selectivity, and the way in which judgements are translated into allocations, reinforces the reputational hierarchy that is the curse of the system, and which marketisation exacerbates.

Similarly, some cost-sharing between the taxpayer and the student/graduate, combined with income-contingent state support for fees and living costs, is both efficient and equitable, bearing in mind the returns graduates have historically enjoyed. But problems arise if the private contribution goes much over 50 per cent. Allowing new providers into the system is healthy provided they meet basic criteria of quality and accountability - criteria that are not being met by a number of recent entrants. …

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