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We need a Public Commission of Enquiry on the future of higher education
Michael Collins, 25 November 2010

It is clear from the scale of yesterday’s largely peaceful demonstrations and occupations across Britain that there is an enormous amount of concern amongst young people – school children and university students – over the future of higher education. They are not alone.

There is a growing sense of unease in academic circles about what the Browne report’s plans to increase undergraduate tuition fees by almost six thousand pounds per year will mean. More specifically, how will a marketised ‘supply and demand’ model for arts and humanities funding really function in practice?  The proposed withdrawal of the teaching grant for arts and humanities and the replacement of this lost revenue with a user fee would have devastating effects leading to the loss of jobs, institutions and expertise that would not be recovered once they had been cut.

Education and research institutions cannot be set up, shut down and restarted according to the vagaries of market demand. British universities do not benefit from the enormous endowments of American institutions, which can help them adapt to change. With so much uncertainty about future employment prospects and economic conditions, student numbers will ebb and flow. How can university vice-chancellors, deans of faculties and heads of departments plan their research and teaching on such shifting ground? Higher education needs much greater stability and continuity, and the long-term consequences of ill-conceived change could be immensely damaging.

As many of us have argued, it is essential to restate the wider social, intellectual, moral and political values of the arts and humanities, as well as point out the falsity of any division between arts and humanities on the one side and supposedly economically valuable sciences on the other. In short, we must recognise that humanities matter, just as we have acknowledged that ‘science is vital’. However, as well as making these wider arguments the immediate political context in which this government is proposing to implement reforms in higher education remains a central problem.

In its response to the Browne report the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) – a respected independent think tank – has pointed out that “in cash terms the proposals will increase public expenditure through this parliament and into the next”. This is a very obvious fact that is too frequently ignored. The fee that students pay is not ‘up front’, but has to be funded by the government. They will effectively be given a loan to purchase a higher education product. The income stream from repayments – which is supposed to form the long term basis for higher education funding – will not come back to the treasury for many years to come.

This completely demolishes the argument that current changes to higher education funding are concurrent with a deficit reduction strategy in the spirit of “we are all in this together”. The changes will mean a real terms increase in government spending, and hence can only be explained by reference to the coalition’s ideological commitment to market-led reforms, regardless of the cost to the public purse. Regrettably, government ministers have repeatedly made rhetorical links between increasing tuition fees and deficit reduction, and the media has too frequently allowed this fallacy to inform its reporting and its lines of questioning.

Under present circumstances the government must think again about seeking to push through reforms which may do very substantial damage to our higher education sector. There is no economic case to be made that these reforms are part of an urgent solution to reducing Britain’s budget deficit. Given the promises made by coalition partners at the 2010 general election, there is also no political mandate for change. There is widespread fear, anger and confusion.

An alternative idea is to draw back from reform based on the Browne report and opt for a Public Commission. This may be politically difficult, but will become more palatable if opposition to the coalition’s plans is increased from all sides. It is unfortunate that public money has already been spent on producing a report into this matter, but Browne is a wholly inadequate basis on which to move forward. It is also clear that all three major political parties need to take more time to re-think their positions on higher education funding.

The government should therefore set up a Public Commission to examine the function and funding of higher education from first principles. Only such a move could produce the kind of consensus required to make reform deliverable and place the future of UK higher education on a sustainable footing.

Michael Collins is lecturer in twentieth century British history at UCL.

Michael Collins writes in a purely personal capacity and his views in no way reflect those of UCL.

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