Three-D Issue 17: KIS my Ass(essment): the White Paper on Higher Education

Natalie Fenton
Goldsmiths College,
University of London

This time last year I wrote an article for the MeCCSA newsletter on the proposals to remove the block teaching grant to undergraduate courses in arts, humanities and social sciences (so-called Band C & D subjects) and reduce central funding to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) by equivalent amounts thereby dismantling the core teaching funding stream for England’s public universities. Only a year ago the massive hike in student fees was simply a government bid for the new con-dem coalition to show its true mettle and make their first major sacrificial killing on the altar of neoliberalism. A year is clearly a long time in politics. Now we are faced with the reality of fees up to £9,000 in 2012 and a situation where tuition fees will neither reduce the public funding deficit (HEPI, 2011) nor cover the cost of university provision of higher education if we wish to retain high-quality teaching and research. The speed with which these profound changes to university financing are being implemented is creating huge instability across the sector with many institutions required to replace entirely their annual grant income of £35 million (or more) with private fee income within three years in an unknown and insecure marketplace.

The whole ill thought out system is frankly a proper mess that the White Paper had the impossible task of translating into workable policy. It fails, on every count. We are left with a market system that has encouraged the majority to charge the maximum fee (otherwise by market definition they must be worthless), that will result in many students never paying back the full cost of their fees, meaning that student numbers need to be controlled and high earnings encouraged (as a student begins to pay back their loans when they reach the earning threshold of £21,000) for the system to be even vaguely feasible.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (2011: para 54) states, “The government’s entire economic strategy is based around reducing public borrowing. Borrowing to give grants to universities counts as public borrowing. Borrowing in order to make loans to students does not count as public borrowing, to the extent that the government can show a stream of income to offset the loans. It is smoke and mirrors, and it provides an extraordinary reason for changing the whole basis for the financing and organisation of the university system.”

Furthermore, the basis of fee repayment is far from progressive. The suggestion that those who are in a position to (i.e. are more wealthy) can pay back the cost of tuition fees upfront thereby avoiding the Resource Account Budgeting (RAB) charge means that the less well off end up paying substantially more over time (HEPI, 2011). HEPI (2011: 6) also estimate the actual costs to the public purse as £2.1 billion on the assumption that fees less waivers will, on average, be set at £7500. “If they are higher than this, the total debts will be higher as will the RAB charge, as more former students will fail to repay their loans in full” (HEPI, 2011, Para 16).

Contestable Student Places
Competition is one of the key words in the White Paper: competition between institutions, between courses and between academics. Competition, we are told, will ‘protect the interests of students’ (WP p12). What this really means is that competition will drive down costs. There will be 85,000 contestable student places between institutions in 2012/13. That means 85,000 places removed from institutions and put into a ring for everyone to fight over. These will be made up of 20,000 places for institutions (including FE colleges and private providers) charging less than £7,500 in fees who ‘combine good quality with value for money’ (WP p5) – in other words, those institutions most likely to attract students from less privileged backgrounds who, attracted by the lower fees, will be able to pile students high and stack them deep. The remaining 65,000 contestable places will be for the top achieving students who gain AAB or above at A Level, who have traditionally gone to elite institutions and include a high proportion of students from selective grammar schools and fee-paying schools. These are also the students who are most likely, from their privileged starting point, to go into high earning jobs – and therefore pay back their loans quicker (and more cheaply). The 20,000 students going to the cheaper courses (and likely to come from less privileged backgrounds and less likely to be high earners) aren’t given any guarantee of going to the institution of their choice.

Similarly, the most selective institutions will be able to expand with relative ease, if space permits.  They may be competing with other institutions for the estimated 65,000 AAB+ students, but in reality their high prestige will limit the range of this competition with a very limited pool of institutions forming the institutions of choice of those with the highest grades.

Institutions outside of the Russell group are likely to try and attract AAB students with scholarships exclusively available to AAB students alone – they may, as a result retain these students but at high cost to the institution and at real detriment to those students from less privileged backgrounds who traditionally get less high A levels results but would benefit more from the limited number of scholarships and fee waivers available.

KIS and tell
Key Information Sets (KIS) will be the one area of this bland new world that our senior managers will get most exercised about. This is data that we will be obliged to collect and publish to enable student consumers to make the right ‘choice’. KIS will be based on the oh-so-reliable National Student Survey and other indicators which are currently published along with new categories: information on graduate salaries; information on teaching and learning methods and the balance of time between different activities; information on assessment methods; and information on students’ views of their Students’ Union.

Student feedback will assume a much higher profile and public role. Student feedback has been taken seriously by the sector for many years but it is an internal process that encourages reflexivity and constructive practice that is monitored by internal and external teaching quality assessments. Insisting on the publication of feedback will induce a mechanistic model designed for a system that will skew the process towards gaining a competitive edge rather than promoting good pedagogy. It is a model that rewards ‘satisfaction’ over learning and assumes that the students, who are presumably taking a course because they don’t know that particular subject, are best placed to criticize the content.

While the National Student Survey gains in importance as the consumer guide to acquiring a degree (see article by Milly Williamson on page 5 in this newsletter) it is all too easy to see how purchasing power can override pedagogic sense. The White Paper makes the mistake of treating everything that is paid for as a product, turning education simply into another commodity. You get to choose which product you are going to buy (if you are wealthy enough to find debt acceptable and lucky enough to have got high grades) and if it doesn’t deliver, then as a consumer you can kick up a fuss. So, the new loans regime will ‘put more power into the hands of students’ (p15); the new risk-based quality assurance regimes will give students ‘power to hold universities to account’ (p37) while more accurate data ‘will empower prospective students by ensuring much better information on different courses’ (p2).

Under the heading of ‘student engagement’ (WP 3.7) it is proposed that summaries of student evaluation of teaching surveys (SETs) on individual lecturers and modules should be published on universities’ websites to ‘inform student choice and stimulate competition between peers’ (WP 3.7). It is asserted that this will help ‘to drive an improvement in the quality of teaching’. Neither the White paper, nor the BIS supporting analysis provide any evidence for this assertion, which makes a facile and tacit equivalence between satisfaction and popularity on the one hand with educational significance and effectiveness on the other.

KIS me quick
Institutions will be required to provide ‘Key Information Sets’, but in the crucial aspects of prospective income and student satisfaction, this information is hardly fit for purpose since the data is highly unreliable and does not allow for comparison. Consequently it is more likely to give rise to mis-selling than to facilitate student choices.

Students are being encouraged to see a tripling of fees in terms of the quality of the product where quality is judged on immediate, measurable outcomes. Increasingly the faults students point to will be directed at the grades they are given and the jobs they get. This is entirely understandable in a situation where the need to get a high paid job to pay off the mountain of debt they are accumulating means anything less than a 2:1 does not represent value for money. Litigation by students will surge and the pressure on lecturers to play it safe and avoid the risks of being innovative or adventurous will be high. This is not about student power and it is certainly not about putting students at the heart of the system, it is about the privatisation of public institutions, and the emasculation of education.

KIS and run
The White Paper also threatens to undermine the small but important gains that have been made in widening participation by creating a new alignment between universities charging the highest fees (£9,000) and independent and public schools that charge fees and have a higher percentage of students attaining AAB+. This will exacerbate the recruitment differential between them and students who have previously attended state secondary schools. This will deliver a double discrimination – a well resourced but small group of elite institutions that will charge £9,000 fees and swallow up all the elite AAB+ students to the detriment of all the rest thereby reinforcing established advantage and reducing competition. And although there are increased grants and maintenance loans for students from low income backgrounds, the proposal to offer ‘merit’ scholarships made without reference to need but on the level of entry qualifications gained to attract AAB+ students will further exacerbate this inequality in the system.

Those able to attract the ‘high achieving’ students will be free to charge the £9,000 fee, whereas those dependent on the non-AAB+ quota would have to drop their net fees to £7,500 to be able to bid for places, or reduce their headline fee to £6,000 to be able to maintain their student numbers without going through an annual bidding process. A further 20,000 places are to be removed from existing recruitment caps across the sector and put out to tender to low cost institutions with consequent knock-on costs and risks of failure. The intention is that there will be a further shift of student places from core to margin in future years. Cheaper courses will run with less resources and are likely to attract students with lower entry qualifications from less advantaged backgrounds. Yet again, the disadvantaged will suffer a further disadvantage in the HEIs they can gain access to. It is those very universities that are faced with a reduction in fees that have been responsible for the recent advances in widening participation. In recruiting less well-prepared students, their teaching costs are higher, and under present arrangements they receive additional funding, which will continue. However, this funding, which equates to about £400 per student, is less than the differences in recurrent income from £9,000 maximum fee and the fees that the ‘wide participation’ universities will be allowed to charge.

Put simply, the proposals in the White Paper are more likely to exacerbate inequalities between types of institutions and bring about a much closer correlation between the reputational hierarchy of universities and the social class of their student body.

Conclusion: KIS my Ass
When faced with a White Paper on Higher Education that eschews understanding at every turn of the page it would be easy to take the view that all the protest, campaigning and resistance last Autumn was for nothing. It would be easy but it would be wrong. Just as we refute the logic of measuring learning by earning power so we should refute the logic of measuring campaigning by instant gratification in policy change. As always the picture is far more complex. The pursuit of knowledge is always fiercely political and this struggle is only just beginning. So instead of starting the term with bitter resignation, try a different tempo and let’s throw all the challenges and critiques and arguments right back at them again and again and again. Not only will it keep us sane but it’s also what we do best.

Note: See the full consultation document submitted on behalf of MeCCSA at:
http://www.meccsa.org.uk/news/meccsa-submission-to-consultation-on-higher-education-white-paper/

Posted by Einar Thorsen