Three-D Issue 26: Threat from unrestrained competition

janet-jonesJanet Jones
London South Bank University

They say that Justine Greening, the first Education Secretary ever to be educated in a comprehensive school, actually ‘gets it’. She’s part of Cameron’s ‘modernisation agenda’, and as such she understands the problematics of social mobility, and is committed to tackling deep rooted issues like why only 10% of white working class boys go to university.

The question that can’t be answered yet, is what she will do with the new University’s White Paper. Many wish she lobs it into the nearest bin, but that’s unlikely. Yet, there’s hope she might at least tame it, nudge it away from its full-on Thatcherite privatisation and competition agenda.

Its aims of creating a ‘more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow and where all universities must offer a good student experience to remain competitive’, are potentially sound, but if the new league tables are underpinned by deeply flawed metrics, the results risk militating against the upward mobility and widening participation its authors purport.

The White Paper, as it stands, reiterates the importance of social mobility, but is very light on how this might be enshrined in a new-look system of unrestrained competition and the possible meteoric rise of private providers, cherry picking subjects with a low cost base. Another concern is how the HE budget has now become rolled into the same department as schools budget. University finances could lose out in the squeeze to balance the books. This will put more pressure on VCs to push hard for fee increases to protect budget margins, in a very insecure world.

The mock TEF does suggest the end of the domination of the Russell Group standings, whilst privileging out-of-of city, middle size, campus-based institutions who’ve invested heavily in their student experience. Yet, how does our subject base fit into this new drive for quality and value for money? Coinciding with £9000 fees in 2011, we saw a trend away from the so-called ‘softer’ university subjects such as communication studies and creative arts. To add to this pain we see the prospect of the English Baccalaureate threatening to marginalise creative subjects at KS3. So regardless of the new White Paper, our challenge definitely begins at the secondary school level.

The problem with a sector driven so wholly by financial metrics over social ones, is the potential to dampen the CFOs’ support for, quite costly, liberal arts, cultural and creative courses. Mock TEFs at institutional level are helping us to understand where we are on the artificial bell curve of the all-critical three-point scale – meets expectations, excellent, outstanding – but as the TEF becomes focused at subject level, and with a direct link to an institution’s ability to raise fees, will subjects with historically slightly lower NSS results (many of our areas) fall out of favour?

It’s not all bad news, on the plus side, we recently had the unveiling of the government’s report on the creative industries, lauding it as one of the UK’s greatest success stories. It celebrated jobs in the Creative Industries increasing three times faster than the UK average generating almost £10m an hour for the UK economy. This may bode well for the applied subjects with demonstrable vocationally-based employment outcomes, but as a group committed to help our students better understand the broader cultural and social dynamics of our society, we need to be vigilant to this increased market pressure driving these ‘soft’ subjects underground. That surely can’t be good for us or the country within which we live.

Posted by Einar Thorsen