Who let the dogs out?

The privatization of higher education

RP 174 () / Commentary

In April last year, I framed my article on ‘New Providers’ in relation to the delay surrounding the publication of the government’s White Paper for Higher Education (HE). That was caused by a combination of factors, but chiefly the need to fix a hole in the proposals for student loan financing; and additional preparation for the marketization of HE in England. The government is now fully committed to removing the legislative restrictions that prevent new, cheaper operators from entering the sector. These ‘operators’ are the eponymous ‘new providers’ that the government is keen to see enter the English HE landscape in order to undercut established provision.1

The White Paper finally appeared at the end of June 2011 under the title Students at the Heart of the System, outlining a series of consultations and a programme of implementation that was supposed to lead to a Higher Education Bill in 2012.2 It introduced a ‘core/margin’ model in an effort to drive down average fees reducing the recruitment allocations institutions received (the ‘core’) and encouraging reduced fees by creating a pool of 20,000 places (the ‘margin’) to which only those charging below £7,500 (after waivers) could bid. In addition, the document and accompanying ‘Technical Consultation’ (published in August 2011) outlined measures to lower the barriers to ‘market entry’ by relaxing eligibility conditions on institutions applying for degree-awarding powers and use of the protected title of ‘university’.3

One year further on, delay is again the theme. Though a Bill was drafted, any reference to HE was absent from the Queen’s Speech at the beginning of May. It is now therefore extremely unlikely that there will be any further attempt in 2012 to enact primary legislation introducing the regulatory framework outlined in the White Paper and the Technical Consultation. David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, has indicated that a draft bill may be published later in the year. This would open further consultation and prepare for legislation in 2013. So what explains these further delays?

In part, it can be attributed to the recent difficulties with the National Health Service (NHS) Bill and changes to welfare benefits. Higher education has the potential to be equally as fraught and one lesson learnt would be to anticipate contentious issues by preparing a draft bill (not done with the NHS Bill which had to be withdrawn and reworked before passing through both houses). Further, there is little appetite for more higher education reform amongst Liberal Democrats at this juncture: Vince Cable as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills has barely broached the subject of universities in the last year, while his party leader Nick Clegg would rather concentrate on constitutional reform in 2012.

However, the main issue lies with the policy itself and the two points I emphasized last year: the financing of higher education through increased loans and the creation of a new market in higher education. Wellorchestrated opposition to these proposals, especially in relation to the entry of for-profit ‘providers’ and the purchase of established universities wholly or in part by private capital, has stymied the government’s legislative plans here. But the stakes are high, and all the indications point to the government withdrawing tactically: reculer pour mieux sauter.

[…]

Notes

1. Andrew McGettigan, ‘“New Providers”: The Creation of a Market in Higher Education’, Radical Philosophy 167, May/June 2011, pp. 2–8; p. 2.
2. Students at the Heart of the System, HE White Paper, 2011, www.bis.gov.uk/hereform.
3. A New Fit-For-Purpose Regulatory Framework for the Higher Education Sector, www.bis.gov.uk/hereform.