Who are the spongers now?
- Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, November 2015, ISBN 978 1 4741 2492 8
In After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre raised the disquieting possibility that what we take to be ‘the’ language of morality now amounts to little more than a collection of verbal remains – husks from which the kernels of coherent moral beliefs have long since been removed. ‘What we possess … are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.’ The most we can do is to transpose the traditional issues of morality into the vocabulary of a barren utilitarianism.
I would be inclined to resist the more apocalyptic strain in this account, not least because it encourages conservative or nostalgic fantasies of ‘returning’ to a lost state of coherence or harmony in our beliefs. But I do wonder whether it isn’t increasingly the case that the way we use such terms as ‘universities’ and ‘higher education’ may, similarly, be best understood as the deployment of an inherited vocabulary without the underlying assumptions that for a long time made sense of it. I am not suggesting that any particular phase of the historical development of such institutions should be treated as normative. There is no one ‘right’ understanding of the term ‘university’ that would have commanded assent in 11th-century Bologna, 21st-century Beijing and all points in between. But there is a family resemblance among the assumptions that sustained thinking about universities between, roughly, the development of the first modern versions of that institution in early 19th-century Europe and the great enlargement of what was still essentially the same form in the thirty years or so after 1945. Much of our contemporary discourse about universities still draws on, or unwittingly presumes, that pattern of assumptions: the idea that the university is a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals; the belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance are self-evident public goods; and so on.
While that conception of a university and its purposes is still very much alive and may, I suspect, still be the one held by a great many ‘ordinary’ citizens, we may be nearing the point, at least in Britain, where it is starting to give way to the equivalent of MacIntyre’s barren utilitarianism. If ‘prosperity’ is the overriding value in market democracies, then universities must be repurposed as ‘engines of growth’. The value of research has then to be understood in terms of its contribution to economic innovation, and the value of teaching in terms of preparing people for particular forms of employment. There are tensions and inconsistencies within this newer conception, just as there are in the larger framework of neoliberalism: neoliberal thinking promotes ‘free competition’ in international markets, while the rhetoric of national advantage in the ‘global struggle’ often echoes mercantilist assumptions. But, gradually, what we still call universities are coming to be reshaped as centres of applied expertise and vocational training that are subordinate to a society’s ‘economic strategy’.
To those who find the newer conception persuasive, even self-evident, existing universities can seem to have been disappointingly slow to recognise their proper role, retaining their archaic structures of self-government, their gentry-professional ethos and their blinkered devotion to useless knowledge. Since the 1980s much has been done to ‘reform’ – that is to say, destroy – such features and to render these inward-looking and obstructive producer-cartels ‘fit for purpose’. But more remains to be done, and the key to the transformation, it turns out, is to be found in that unlikely embodiment of right-wing market thinking at its purest, the student.
The general logic of such thinking depends on treating people exclusively as economic agents. The central social relation is the one between buyer and seller. Hitherto, the primacy of these roles has been disguised by various inherited mechanisms that shielded individuals from direct participation in markets. These mechanisms – at the collective level, ranging from direct state ownership to arm’s length public bodies, and at the individual level, from defined-benefit pension arrangements to student grants – are progressively being eliminated. Consumer ‘choice’ is now sovereign, and each agent is responsible for his or her own economic salvation. The role of government in this conception of modern society is largely confined to making sure that markets work. The institutional expression of public interest is largely reduced to the office of a ‘regulator’: hence the rise of all those agencies which in Britain are called Ofsomething-or-other (Ofcom, Ofwat and so on). According to the prevailing dogma, markets work ‘properly’ when the interests of the consumer are maximised: real competition will ‘drive up quality’ and ‘drive down prices’. Since in actual markets this is not what tends to happen – competition more often leads to near monopoly power for the largest producers, who can then fix the markets to their own benefit – the government, in the form of the regulator, is continually having to step in to make competition work properly, and it does so as the champion of the consumer.
It is the application of this model to universities that produces the curious spectacle of a right-wing government championing students. Traditionally, of course, students have been understood by such governments, at least from the 1960s onwards, as part of the problem. They ‘sponged off’ society when they weren’t ‘disrupting’ it. But now, students have come to be regarded as a disruptive force in a different sense, the shock-troops of market forces, storming those bastions of pre-commercial values, the universities. If students will set aside vague, old-fashioned notions of getting an education, and focus instead on finding the least expensive course that will get them the highest-paying job, then the government wants them to know that it will go to bat for them.
But who will it be batting against? The logic of consumerism dictates that it is the producers, or ‘providers’, who will, if unchecked, threaten the consumer interest. So, on the side of the angels are students, taxpayers and the government. Arrayed against them are the universities and, more particularly, academics, who, unless kept to the mark by constant assessments and targets, will revert to type as feather-bedded, professional-class spongers. A curious inversion has taken place whereby academics now occupy the demonised role formerly assigned to students, who must now be defended in their efforts to obtain ‘value for money’.
Of course, in itself, ‘value for money’ is an empty notion: it says nothing about what you should get or how much you should pay for it. It is empty too because no one, presumably, is in favour of not getting value for money. Nonetheless, the phrase occurs four times in the one-page foreword to the new Green Paper written by Jo Johnson,the minister for universities and science, and it is repeated over and over again in the body of the document (the NUS counted 27 appearances, topped only by 35 for ‘what employers want’). Its incantation signals official endorsement of consumerist logic: if you pay for something you acquire rights, and the government will help enforce those rights against those who threaten to obstruct or deny them. In this way the interests of students are aligned with those of taxpayers and the government – a neat trick. The Browne review of 2010 made this logic chillingly clear and the new fee system that came into effect in 2012 was an attempt to operationalise it. Still, as Johnson rather ominously announces, ‘the job is not yet complete.’ The proposals set out in the Green Paper are explicitly intended to complete the job.
The central proposal is to set up a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) as a parallel to the existing Research Excellence Framework (REF), which periodically assesses and scores the quality of the research done in all university departments. On the basis of these scores, league tables are constructed, ranking institutions’ output both overall and in individual disciplines, and central funding for research is distributed accordingly. The TEF will do something similar for teaching. Ways will be found to measure the quality of teaching, and league tables will be based on the results. But since teaching is now financed almost entirely by means of student fees, the financial consequences will have to be implemented somewhat differently from the REF. The proposal, roughly, is that higher scores in the TEF will qualify an institution to set higher fees.
This part of the proposal is complicated and not entirely clear. Four levels of attainment in teaching quality will be specified, with fee levels corresponding to each one; the government will set the maximum that can be charged at each level. Getting a higher ranking would enable an institution to ‘raise fees in line with inflation’. The government ‘would not pre-set a formula for this fee uplift, but would set the uplift each year, maintaining the current model of basic and higher amounts, and not exceeding real terms increases’. It isn’t altogether clear whether this means that even the maximum increases that could be achieved for a top-level rating wouldn’t exceed the rate of inflation, or that the government would set a series of fee bands that would thereafter increase in line with inflation. If it is the former, the whole laborious process would yield only minuscule increases at current rates of inflation, especially at the lower levels. The Green Paper states that if a university gets the first-level TEF rating (as it acknowledges pretty much all existing universities are bound to do), they can ‘increase their fees in line with inflation from the 2017-18 academic year’. With inflation currently below 1 per cent, that would, in the first year, be the difference between a fee of £6,000 and, at most, £6,060, or £9,000 and £9,090. But in that case institutions achieving the three higher levels would have to be allowed to impose more substantial increases, well above inflation. ‘After the first year, and over time, we would expect fees to increasingly differentiate according to the TEF level awarded.’ This seems to suggest the government will set a series of new fee caps for the three higher levels, with a maximum well above £9,000, and then increase those in line with inflation – or until it decides to increase them for other reasons of its own. No figures are mentioned, but it is hard to shake off the suspicion that part of the function of the new proposals, together with all their accompanying rhetoric about improving teaching quality, is to cover or legitimate substantial hikes in fees.
(It is worth pointing out, especially to those still clinging to the idea that the Lib Dems helped get a fairer settlement on fees, that George Osborne gave students a sly stab in the back in the November Spending Review when he slipped in, unannounced, that the terms of loans taken out since 2012 are to be varied retrospectively. The earnings level at which repayments start will not in fact be increased in line with average earnings, as was solemnly promised at the time, thus at a stroke adding several thousand pounds to many students’ eventual repayments. As one of the government’s own advisers on student finance pointed out, a company that retrospectively changed the terms for existing borrowers in this way might attract sanctions, perhaps even prosecution. But this government, we mustn’t forget, is there to ‘champion’ the interests of students.)
So, how will teaching quality be assessed, and assessed with a precision that will allow for the ordinal ranking of institutions, with fee levels calibrated to match? The Green Paper acknowledges that there will have to be further discussion with universities about this, but in the first instance it proposes three metrics: 1) data on ‘retention’ (i.e. drop-out rates); 2) National Student Survey (NSS) scores; 3) data on graduate employment. These all come in neatly quantitative form and so are – aren’t they? – objective and reliable. Beyond these indicators, there will be ‘institutional evidence’, that is, universities will describe in great detail the means and procedures by which they ‘assure’ teaching quality, under designated headings such as ‘The Learning Environment’, ‘Student Outcomes and Learning Gain’ and so on.
Even if these metrics are eventually supplemented or superseded, the Green Paper’s flirtation with them is revealing of the confusions at its heart. Consider, for example, the implicit premise that higher rates of employment among a university’s graduates are evidence of better quality teaching. Is there any evidence that this is the case? If one leaves aside the effects of home background and social connections, which are very substantial, the main determinants of a graduate’s employment prospects are 1) the perceived standing of the university they attended, 2) their field of study, and 3) (a distant third) the class of their degree result. The relative standing of universities changes with glacial slowness and continues to involve elements of pure social snobbery. For employers, the most salient difference between universities is how difficult they are thought to be to get into. If reports on ‘the student experience’ consistently point in one direction, that may eventually have some effect, and how ‘satisfied’ students are with their teaching accounts for one part of that experience. Even then it is hard to know whether such reports give a direct indication of the quality of teaching, as opposed to issues such as workload, ease of getting high marks and so on.
Universities should provide good teaching. There has long been anecdotal evidence that they do not always do this. It would be desirable if means could be found to check, so far as it’s possible, when they are and are not providing good teaching, and when they aren’t, to nudge or encourage them towards improvement. The problem is that the Green Paper doesn’t know what it means by ‘teaching quality’. It treats it as the equivalent or sum of a number of things that can be measured. So, if a course provides a clear description of its aims and procedures; if the number of contact hours and requirements for written work are as advertised and the work is marked and returned promptly; if few students drop out; if students on the course have had a good record of subsequent employment; and if many students say they were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the course – then all that is taken as proof that high-quality teaching has taken place. Or, more exactly, that is what, within the proposed framework, quality of teaching will now mean. But all these criteria could be satisfied without there being any reliable indication of the quality of teaching at all, though the information obtained may be evidence of certain kinds of efficient functioning in a university or department. For the most part, it will merely demonstrate that certain procedures have been properly followed, or rather that an institution is good at presenting a paper trail suggesting that those procedures have been properly followed.
In fact, the problem is a deeper one still, since it isn’t easy for anyone to say, in other than the most blandly formulaic terms, what good teaching consists in, and very difficult for anyone, even those involved, to say in any given case whether good teaching is happening (it may be easier to identify and describe certain kinds of bad teaching). I am not suggesting that there is some unfathomable mystery here, or that a Green Paper should be expected to resolve some of the most profound issues in the philosophy of education. But it shouldn’t try to kid anyone that the measures prescribed in this document will necessarily improve the quality of teaching in universities. They may improve some procedures and encourage better record-keeping, but at the cost of creating yet another bureaucratic burden that will make good teaching less likely.
If you really wanted evidence about teaching quality, one of the least imperfect mechanisms would be inspection of the sort that used to be carried out by the now abolished Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools: that is to say, a visit by an experienced and impartial observer who actually sits in on a teaching session. A system of inspection presupposes that any genuine evidence of teaching quality can only ever be a matter of judgment not measurement. The TEF will not involve visits or any direct observation of teaching but will rely on metrics and on institutions’ self-descriptions.
The Green Paper does concede that ‘these metrics are largely proxies rather than direct measures of quality and learning gain and there are issues around how robust they are.’ Indeed. Some of the metrics may be based on information that is useful in itself, including the number of contact hours and data about the ‘training and employment of staff’. Measures might include, for example, the ‘proportion of staff on permanent contracts’, which suggests a recognition that the drift towards casualisation does not result in good teaching, however much it may be in line with market dogma about ‘labour flexibility’. (In the US, sometimes taken as a guide to our future in these matters, about 70 per cent of teachers in colleges and universities are now not tenured or in tenure-track appointments, and it is widely recognised that this is damaging the system.) It is clear nonetheless that the bulk of the material submitted to the panels will consist of ‘institutional evidence’, that is, systematic boasting by universities as in the REF.
It takes no great insight to foresee that a form of TEF-guff will develop in parallel to the existing REF-guff. It’s a handy rule-of-thumb that the usefulness of any document is in direct proportion to the ease with which a parody may be distinguished from the real thing. Warning bells should ring when it proves difficult to tell whether a given piece of prose is genuine or a spoof. In describing a department’s ‘strategy for impact’ in the existing REF, for example, one can bolt together all the currently approved clichés to produce an impeccable statement which may differ from actual submissions only in the unsullied purity of its managerial diction and its completely, as opposed to partially, fictitious character. A statement of the ‘institutional evidence’ of teaching quality will be similarly likely to fail the test. Indeed, cribbing phrases from a couple of pages of the Green Paper produces a plausible opening: ‘Rigorous procedures are in place for enhancing the learning environment and ensuring knowledge gain and positive student outcomes. A focus on the acquisition of transferable skills ensures all courses deliver added value and employment-ready graduates, while providing a level playing field for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.’ There will be frequent appearances by our old friends ‘robust’ and ‘transparent’, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of HiEdBiz prose, attendant lords that will do to swell a progress. And the already top-heavy administrative echelons of universities will expand to include, if they don’t already possess, directors of learning quality strategy, teaching excellence co-ordinators and so on (‘You will be passionately committed to using robust metrics to ensure transparent evaluation of student-centred knowledge-gain …’).
‘A panel of independent experts’ will then assess all this information. ‘The proposed panels will be made up of a balance of academic experts in learning and teaching, student representatives, and employer/professional representatives.’ Presumably these ‘experts’ will be drawn from the world of ‘quality assurance’ and perhaps from university education departments (at least the latter would possess one kind of expertise). Presumably ‘student representatives’ means current students; their expertise is less obvious. And presumably the representatives of employers are, at best, ‘experts’ in ‘what employers want’, rather than in anything to do with teaching quality. The most striking absence from the panel is surely the kind of people who actually do the teaching: subject-specific, frontline academics. This may change as the consultation progresses, but as things stand the suspicion is that the panels will not really be judging teaching quality: being seen to meet certain external expectations looks a likelier goal.
Along the way, some interesting light is shed on the potential uses of data on the employment history of a university’s graduates. ‘Section 78 of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 now enables higher education data to be linked with HMRC income and employment data, and DWP benefits data to inform understanding of the labour market outcomes of graduates.’ The suggestion here is that the government will use the tax and benefits systems to compile data on the employment patterns of graduates – by university and, one imagines, by course – so that in time the data can ‘inform’ the assessment of teaching quality. Not enough graduates in jobs, or in the right kinds of job, may result in penalties: courses that perform poorly, leading to a low rate of repayment of loans, could be denied eligibility for future loans and so on. There is also the possibility, noted by Andrew McGettigan in The Great University Gamble (2013), that tranches of the student loan book could be sold off at differential rates depending on the ‘credit-worthiness’ of an institution’s cohort of graduates, something that could also affect a university’s ability to raise money in the capital markets.
At a more concrete level, the Green Paper has a few perfectly sensible suggestions. It is obviously desirable that universities publish clear information about their courses for potential applicants, including details about contact hours, expected written work and so on. Most places seem to do this already, but perhaps provision could be improved. The document also touches on two other related matters. First, there is the question of whether the current degree classification of firsts, upper seconds and so on is sufficiently discriminating to be informative; and, second, there is the issue of so-called ‘grade inflation’. I suspect many academics would testify from their own experience that there is something amiss with the current system in these respects. In 2013-14 I chaired my department’s exam board. I was impressed by the thoroughness and care exercised through a long process of paper-setting, double-blind marking, use of external examiners, extra scrutiny of borderline cases, rereading of scripts, lengthy meetings and so on. But then there was the bathos of the outcome: 93 per cent of the candidates got a first or an upper second. Those results were certainly deserved, but, faced with such a figure, it’s hard not to feel that at least some standardised form of supplementary information about a student’s performance should be developed to give students themselves, parents, employers, grant-giving bodies and others a better indication of the real level of achievement. It looks as though the TEF will be used to encourage moves in this direction, probably by adopting some form of grade point average similar to that used in the US and elsewhere, though that system has some well-known drawbacks of its own.
Elsewhere, the Green Paper touches on problems that are real enough but which it can do little to remedy. National surveys of student opinion repeatedly confirm that the two improvements students would most like to see are more contact hours and smaller-sized teaching groups. The TEF may be used to encourage improvement in these directions, but the two root causes of the present unsatisfactory state of affairs are beyond its reach. The first is the drastic underfunding of universities from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, which has only partially been remedied in recent years. In the 1960s, the average staff:student ratio was around 1:8; now (insofar as meaningful averages can be obtained in a much more diverse sector: the figures are much disputed) it is said to be around 1:19. The second cause is the culture created by the REF and the research assessment exercises that came before it. Institutions and individuals have been pressured and incentivised to give research priority over teaching. The Green Paper is right to identify the resulting patterns of behaviour as a problem, but, in suggesting that the TEF will help to ‘rebalance’ things, it is acting like a doctor who first prescribes one kind of unnecessary medication (the REF) which produces undesirable side-effects, then triumphantly adds a second medication (the TEF) in an attempt to reduce them. It is possible, though implausible, that a university tyrannised by the REF and the TEF will be better than one tyrannised by the REF alone, but a simpler and more economical remedy suggests itself.
So what will the TEF actually produce? At a minimum, the following: more administrators to administer the TEF; a greater role for business in shaping the curriculum and forms of teaching; a mountain of prose in which institutions describe, in the prescribed terms, how wonderful their provision and procedures are. It also seems pretty certain to produce more efforts by universities to make sure their NSS scores look good; more pressure on academics to do whatever it takes to improve their institution’s overall TEF rating; and more league tables, more gaming of the system, and more disingenuous boasting by universities about being in the ‘top ten’ for this or that.
What is it unlikely to produce? Better quality teaching.
The proposals for a TEF have attracted most of the attention, but the Green Paper has substantial things to say about at least three further topics. The first is what it calls the ‘architecture’ of the higher education sector. Here again, what it proposes may appear to be perfectly sensible, but the likely outcome has a sinister aspect. In recent years, the quangos involved in running higher education have proliferated, and the main one, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), has in effect lost its central function since it no longer distributes a block grant for teaching. The proposal is to abolish it, along with the Office for Fair Access and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, and replace them all with one new super-quango – the Office for Students, which the Green Paper queasily avoids calling ‘Ofstud’, preferring instead the unpronounceable OfS: ‘This would be the first time that a higher education regulator has been explicitly designed to promote the student interest, and approach higher education regulation through a student lens.’ The Green Paper does not speculate whether the NUS, and even possibly individual student unions, might now want to dissolve themselves, secure in the knowledge that the student interest is in such good hands, but the government wants everyone to know whose side it’s on. In fact, OfS’s remit will include the protection of other weak and vulnerable groups: it will ‘empower, protect and represent the interests of students, employers and taxpayers’.
Although most public funding of teaching was withdrawn in 2012, there remains a residual teaching grant for the support of high-cost Stem subjects and other ‘priorities’, so if Hefce is abolished a new way to do this will have to be found. One method that seems to appeal to the government (now, why might that be?) is ‘for BIS ministers to set the strategic priorities for teaching grant … This will enable ministers to strengthen incentives for higher education provision that supports the needs of the economy.’ More significant, a new mechanism would have to be found to distribute the research funding that results from the REF, also currently done by Hefce. At present, the basic funding for research goes directly to universities, in line with their REF performance, while funding for particular projects is distributed, on a competitive basis, through the research councils, which are separate organisations. The Green Paper ostensibly reaffirms a commitment to these two separate strands of funding, but it raises the possibility that both might be administered by a single ‘overarching body’. A review of the role of the research councils, conducted by Paul Nurse, former president of the Royal Society, has been taking place alongside the discussions that have issued in the Green Paper. One of the review’s main recommendations appears to be that the research councils should be under the aegis of a new ‘ministerial committee chaired by a senior minister, so we have the political will for science and can use it for the good of the UK’. (The Times Higher has reported that ‘the most likely candidate to chair this committee would be George Osborne.’) It isn’t hard to see how the creation of a single, overarching body will make it easier to direct money to what ministers identify as ‘strategic needs’.
The second topic concerns what the document calls ‘new providers’. The government wants to make it much easier for outside bodies to set up a university and acquire degree-awarding powers, and it wants to ensure there is a ‘level playing field’ for both existing and new universities in terms of regulation, access to student loans and so on. It has already gone some way towards supporting such ‘alternative providers’: in 2010-11 about six and a half thousand students were getting their higher education from such institutions, whereas sixty thousand now do so. The reasons given for expanding this sector further and faster are the usual market-speak: increased competition will ‘drive up quality’ and ‘drive down prices’.
Until recently, it wasn’t easy for an existing educational institution to become a university, and it was even more difficult for a commercial enterprise to set one up from scratch. There were strict controls on the use of the title; degree-awarding powers were granted only with the approval of the Privy Council; fledgling institutions often had to endure a longish period during which their courses were validated by an established university, and so on. One might have thought that these safeguards had contributed to the generally high reputation of British universities for the greater part of the 20th century, but now we are told ‘innovation and diversity in higher education provision are crucial to our ability to maintain our international reputation.’ Moreover, it is axiomatic that increased competition means increased innovation (and provides better value for money). So the Green Paper proposes to do away with many of the existing checks. There will be no need for Privy Council approval; no requirement concerning minimum student numbers (no need any longer for the designation ‘university college’); any institution that passes rather minimal requirements will be free to call itself a university. They won’t even have to be teaching institutions: ‘Degree awarding powers could also potentially be made available to non-teaching bodies meeting appropriate standards.’ And they won’t have to pass the present tests on their track record and financial sustainability. The Green Paper notes in passing that henceforth the accounts that meet the financial sustainability test may be ‘the accounts of a parent company, if the provider is a wholly-owned subsidiary’ – so we know what sort of animal these ‘alternative providers’ are likely to be.
So, Cramme, Chargem and Skimpe will now be able to set up EasyUni without too much difficulty; its students will be eligible for publicly backed loans, the profits from which will pass to the parent company, CCS Holdings Ltd. EasyUni will innovate like crazy, up-ending hidebound ideas about education, and its offer of Quick ’n’ Cheap degrees will help drive the long-established University of Loamshire out of business. For it is central to government thinking that there should be losers as well as winners. ‘In a changing and more competitive sector, providers that innovate and present a more compelling value proposition to students will be able to increase their share of total students – in some cases this may be at the expense of other institutions.’ The Green Paper outlines arrangements for what it coyly terms ‘provider exit’, whether as a result of ‘financial failure’, or because an institution is closed down by OfS, or ‘as a result of voluntary exit by the provider’. So, the plan is to have lots more organisations calling themselves universities, more cut-throat competition and more closures. We shan’t be able to say we weren’t warned.
The third topic is ‘social mobility and widening participation’. Here there is the usual mix of well-meaning confusion and blank evasion. The Green Paper sorrowfully reports that a smaller proportion of the age cohort from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds goes to university than from more ‘advantaged’ groups, and of those who do, a still smaller proportion goes to ‘highly selective universities’. Who knew? But the document’s gloss on ‘disadvantage’ is inadvertently revealing. As far as simple university entrance goes, gender is not the problem, except in so far as the fact that female students now comprise the majority may be taken to indicate underachievement by certain groups of male applicants. Nor, in a straightforward way, is ethnicity, though those of ‘black Caribbean heritage’ are significantly under-represented. No, it’s ‘white males from disadvantaged backgrounds’ who are losing out most dramatically: only around 10 per cent go into higher education, whereas the figures for males of ‘Indian heritage’ and ‘Chinese heritage’ are 50 per cent and 60 per cent respectively.
Of course, the great unmentionable word here, as in government pronouncements more generally, is class. These boys are, by and large, the children of the unskilled white working class, and their cumulative social and economic disadvantages are indeed deeply unjust. Yet although the government appears to recognise that structural inequality is the defining feature of the problem, it of course doesn’t tackle that but instead wants to force universities to give more places to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, by, for example, setting targets and financially penalising universities that do not meet them. The fundamental circumstances of advantage and disadvantage are, apparently, fixed: what we must ensure is that coming from a disadvantaged background is no … disadvantage.
The Green Paper concludes with a remarkable couple of pages on the REF, which have little organic connection to the proposals in the main body of the document but should not be missed by anyone who savours life’s little ironies. What is most striking is the note of surprise, even shock, that the REF should turn out to be a) extremely expensive to run, and b) so burdensome that it ‘attracts such negative views from some in the sector’. What is so disingenuous here is that the costs and the bureaucracy are indeed shocking, but they were widely predicted, and were the inevitable result of the measures successive governments imposed on universities. One small indication of the monster that has been created is that in 2008 the Research Assessment Exercise, which was already widely criticised for its expense and bureaucracy, cost approximately £66 million, while the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, in which the most notable innovation (apart from some laudable equality and diversity safeguards) was the requirement to demonstrate certain kinds of social and economic ‘impact’, cost £246 million.
It is at this point that the disingenuousness reaches almost comic proportions. ‘We must … address the “industries” that some institutions create around the REF and the people who promote and encourage these behaviours,’ the Green Paper declares. ‘There are cases of universities running multiple “mock REFs”, bringing in external consultants and taking academics away from teaching and research.’ It hardly needs saying that these ‘behaviours’ have not been ‘promoted and encouraged’ by mischievous elements in universities: they are the direct result of the system imposed by the government. Yet the Green Paper shows no sign whatever of recognising this fact. Indeed, it casually speculates that more use could be made of metrics to ‘refresh’ results in the years between the regular REFs – in other words, yet more data-gathering and assessment. And whatever changes may be made to the REF, tackling its most obvious and expensive failing seems already to have been ruled out: the Green Paper stubbornly maintains that any future exercise must continue to ‘provide a clear sense of strategic priorities (for example around the introduction of impact)’.
But don’t worry: the Green Paper is only a ‘consultation’ document. That must mean that if cogent objections are put forward to the premises, reasoning and conclusions it contains, none of these proposals will come to pass. Well, mustn’t it?