Three-D Issue 26: From Green to Gold: reclaiming our universities

27Natalie Fenton
Goldsmiths, University of London

With the recent government cabinet reshuffle came the dismantling of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the return of the higher education remit to the Department of Education. While on one level this would seem appealing – surely education should be addressed from primary to tertiary level by educational specialists – on another it pitches universities in competition for funding with schools, and traditionally that has never played well for the HE sector. And for those hoping that the Higher Education Bill would be pushed into the long grass as a result of the move, a press release from No.10 said that the move would mean that the DfE could continue “reforming the higher education sector to boost competition and continue to improve the quality of education that students receive …. delivering more apprenticeships through a fundamental change in the UK’s approach to skills in the workplace”. The White Paper set out this agenda and has now become the Higher Education and Research Bill that has its second reading on the 19 July.

What does this mean for us and for MeCCSA related subject areas in particular? The subjects represented by MeCCSA are especially vulnerable to this skills-based agenda (what is media studies for if it is not to produce graduates for the cultural industries?) that is aggressively linked to the utilitarianism of a thoroughly privatized higher education sector. The 2010 Browne Review began the process of turning higher education into a consumer driven activity that students buy in exchange for skills for the job market. The White Paper finishes this process by effectively removing entirely any reference to higher education in terms of non-economic value.

The Browne Report on Higher Education that brought in the end of the block teaching grant for arts, humanities and the social sciences and the increase in students fees up to £9,000, changed radically the terms on which universities functioned. It determined that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds (supplemented then by a relatively small fee element). Instead, it proposed that we should think of it as a regulated market in which consumer demand is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e. universities). The almost complete removal of the annual block grant that government made to universities to underwrite their teaching, brought about a redefinition of higher education and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for it. Instead universities have become educational superstores attracting customers, selling their wares in a competitive marketplace. The student is now a customer and the consumer is sovereign.

Following the changes to HE, public money is now an increasingly minor proportion of income for English universities. In 2015/16, the teaching grant for the whole sector was just £1.42bn (HEFCE, 2015: 2). Since the sector’s total income in 2013/14 was £29.1bn (UUK 2014: 23), the HEFCE teaching grant comprises under 5% of income. As Jones (2015) points out what little support for HE teaching is still provided now comes mostly through the state backing of the student loans system.

The onus on universities to be responsible for their own income has introduced a constant tyranny of numbers. The focus in many universities has shifted to concerns of quantity – get the students in. In order to attract students we are encouraged to give them what (we think) they want – more vocationalism, new buildings, better facilities. For media and communication studies departments that may already have a production dimension this is pushed ever more fiercely. It is all too easy for the broad remit of a critical and engaged education to slip into training for industry. Educational value becomes then a purely economistic calculation of value and a wholly individualistic conception of ‘consumer satisfaction’.

With the bulk of research funding being attracted to the universities that (are thought to) have the best reputations, the most likely effect of proposed HE policy is to exacerbate the financial disparity between types of university and, above all, to bring about a much closer correlation between the reputational hierarchy of institutions and the social class of their student body. Increasing fee differentials through TEF will likely replicate and even intensify the existing disparities between institutions.

In the TEF, every department would be subject to review on a five-yearly basis by a disciplinary panel comprising educational experts, students and employers. At a huge cost these panels will review metrics (employment/destination; retention/continuation and student satisfaction) and qualitative evidence submitted by institutions. TEF levels will be rewarded to institutions not departments – creating huge pressures within universities and resentment between departments. There will be four TEF levels. Those that achieve the higher TEF levels will be able to raise their maximum fee cap in line with inflation (currently at less than 1%, so £9,000 fees could increase to £9,090). It is expected that student numbers will also rise in these institutions due to ‘reputational gain’. As fees are capped at inflation the best that can be achieved is for income per student to stagnate.

While I object to the TEF on the grounds of increasing marketisation of HE, I also believe that it is deeply flawed in its attempts to measure quality. Even the White Paper suggests the metrics they propose only offer ‘imperfect proxies’ of teaching quality. Just as it cannot measure teaching quality so it will drive a bureaucratic nightmare similar to the £230m institutions have spent on REF dry runs, paying consultants and modelling outcomes that will massively outweigh any benefits (that in themselves are questionable). A management response to this threatens to take any of the joy out of teaching and replace it with an obsession with delivering the right metrics and resourcing only those areas that can show improvements in metricised scores.

It is absolutely right that we are concerned about our ability to teach well but this should always be addressed alongside learning and we should recognize that understanding teaching quality is not going to come about from the NSS (that is also extensively ‘gamed’ and poorly designed) and neither is it related to employment or retention (both of which are influenced by the labour market more generally and whole host of socio-economic factors). Limited metrics can be counter-productive in generating routinised and risk-averse forms of teaching deployed purely to tick boxes on poorly conceived forms running counter to the very best of creative teaching.

The White Paper claims to be concerned with social mobility that it links (problematically) to access to HE by disadvantaged social groups. The government wants to raise the participation rate of students from disadvantaged backgrounds from 13.6% (2009) to 27.2 % by 2020 and increase the number of BAME young people going to university to 20%. Yet the White Paper offers no solutions for this problem. The latest UCAS figures show that just 16% of applications to creative arts and design courses came from state school students (Arts Emergency, 2015) as arts and humanities subjects look set to increasingly become the preserve of the wealthy (who are not worried about the debt they are left with at the end of their degree). Latest UCAS data for England also shows that although participation is increasing so is the opportunity gap between the haves and the have-nots (i.e. participation is increasing more amongst the advantaged). Of the four subject areas showing a decrease in applications, by far the greatest drop was for combined Science and Arts/Social Science courses. The second biggest drop was for combined Arts subjects. This will be a cause for concern for many media and communications departments.

It is right that teaching is given equal standing to research. But this should not be at the detriment of research. There is an inter-dependency between teaching and research that should be preserved. The TEF will not rebalance teaching and research priorities; rather it will increase pressure on staff time. How much time do any of us have left to ‘think’ (or even read) unimpeded by the need to fulfill institutional ‘strategic objectives‘ driven by financial necessities? British investment in Research and Development used to be one of the highest amongst OECD countries in the 70s. It is now among the lowest (Jones, 2013) and soon we will lose EU funding streams. Universities are being pressed to fill the gap and are increasingly turning to private beneficiaries. But this comes with a risk of university research being at the behest of short-term commercially driven projects that force a turn away from fundamental/blue skies research or research of a more theoretical/critical bent. Get the money where you can. The more links with industry the better.

Fetishizing the impact agenda also threatens to drive research to users’ requirements rather than to those areas with little immediate applied purpose but of great intellectual or broad social value. It is not that impact driven research in and of itself is undesirable but it should not be valued more highly than other forms of research or be to its detriment.

Ultimately, where this hits hardest is our own academic freedom. The principle of academic freedom enshrined in the Education Reform Act (1988), is that ‘academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs.’ Ensuring this commitment to academic freedom stands up to the test of time and the pressures of privatization is the struggle that lies ahead. We should be taking these issues to our institutions now and urging them to address them.

At Goldsmiths we have come together as staff and students to propose an alternative to the White paper that we have called ‘The Gold Paper’. This article is based on this initiative. A Gold approach acknowledges the current context but refuses to be driven by it. It is based on the principles of universities as:

  • Public entities
  • For equality and against inequality
  • For collegiality and collaborative working towards the pursuit of understanding and knowledge
  • Inclusive and diverse
  • Dependent on the participation of all the HE community
  • Involving the participation of the local community
  • Independent and critical thought
  • Academic freedom and autonomy
  • Evidence based practice

The Gold Paper seeks to reclaim a vision of the public university that is rapidly disappearing from view while also offering pragmatic steps towards its achievement through governance, finance, teaching and learning, research, infrastructure and support services. You can find it at https://goldsmithsucu.wordpress.com/the-gold-paper/ – it is as relevant for MeCCSA subject areas as it is for any others – but the consequences of an aggressive utilitarianism may hit us harder.

References

Jones, R. (2013) The UK’s Innovation deficit and How to Fix it. Available at: http://speri.dept.shef.ac.uk/2013/10/30/speri-paper-no-6-the-uks-innovation-deficit-repair-it/

Posted by Einar Thorsen