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Waiting for Lord Browne …

August 4, 2010

How are we to be distracted this summer waiting for Lord Browne? My suggestion is to look at the lesson from history.

So far the story of the dying days of the last government and the early days of the new government is one of cuts to the higher education budget (now up to £1.25bn, by 2013 and likely to be an additional 20%, or £2.8bn in the October comprehensive spending review). For scale and style, this has the look and feel of the 1979-1983 first Thatcher government when the subsidy for overseas students was progressively withdrawn and there was a reduction in annual expenditure on home students by 8.5% by 1983-4[1]. At the time, it looked like an attack without ‘any thought about the real consequences’[2]. However, policy did emerge with two papers which defined the thinking – Joseph (1985) centred on efficiency savings, less dependence of the taxpayer, and engagement with business and Baker (1987), which focused on increasing demand coupled with Joseph’s efficiency agenda. The drive was pure Thatcher: more for less; an attack on a (allegedly) liberal elite and the supremacy of management and (then) the market.  The governments of the 1990s bought this orthodoxy because it expanded access to higher education, at a reduced unit cost and with more central control. The universities bought it because it secured funding (research and teaching), and for some, a new status, and it ‘allowed’ freedom to respond to globalisation and generate additional income, particularly through internationalisation. The problem of funding further home expansion was then addressed by Dearing (1997); a report which like Browne (2009-10) started under one government and concluded under another.  Dearing led to the introduction of tuition fees and more marketisation, added to choice was the introduction of the concept of the ‘student as a consumer’ and the sector was rewarded with above inflation increases in funding in 2003. And now here we are, awaiting a severe contraction of funding – the party well and truly over.

What does history tell us about how the higher education sector coped with change over this period? One lesson is that it did so through an increase in the number of providers, offering diversification in subject and mode of delivery. However, the new providers were essentially recognisable as universities, with a high degree of strategic isomorphism, all pursuing broadly an allegiance to both teaching and research, albeit with differing levels of success and emphasis compared with the sector as a whole. Now the scene is set for more change. Similarly there will be contraction in funding, efficiency savings, need for more employer engagement and flexibility of offer and it will again bring another group of providers into the market.  This time the providers will also drive down unit costs, but they are likely to be different. In keeping with current government ethos, these new providers will probably be private, and some may even be sponsored to take over ‘failing’ universities or FE colleges. Existing universities that increase private sources of income will be lauded and some will be encouraged to expand into FE provision. Any contraction in research funding will lead to further concentration among research-intensive universities, and the notional binary divide will reappear and become more apparent. Unlike the late 1980s and early 1990s, this time round however, it really will be the survival of the fittest. Some universities will not survive. Many will be unrecognisable.

If you have another view of the history or the future, please comment. Your views are welcome.

[1] Sizer (1988:79) cited in Tight (2009:79)

[2] Kogan 1983:110 cited in Tight (2009:79)

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