If you only read one book about higher education…

A University Education by David Willetts is, as I expected, a brilliant book, and one anyone interested in higher education should read even if they blame its author for being one of the architects of the current English funding system. The book covers this, but also ranges widely over the issues facing the university system: the distorting effect of the Research Excellence Framework; the monoculture that’s partly the result of this (all HE institutions wanting to climb the research-based league tables); the early selectiveness and narrowness of education in this country; the standing of our universities in the world; the failure of research excellence to translate into commercial and economic benefits for the UK; and more.

Funding first. Tony Blair’s government first introduced fees in 2006, £3000 covered by an income-contingent loan. In 2009 Peter Mandelson set up the Browne Review (I was a member) to report after the 2010 election on the future financing structure. It was pretty clear to us that post-crisis cuts in public spending were going to hit HE and the fees would need to be increased to preserve adequate levels of funding per student. We were very preoccupied with designing an equitable structure, looking at the balance of public and private funding of HE (so many taxpayers not benefiting from a degree and the wage premium that goes with it), and at how to structure a system that would not discourage low income and non-traditional students. The IFS was helpful in looking at the distributional consequences of the proposals.

The way the system has been implemented is, needless to say, different from our design. One key – and fateful – difference was the coalition government’s decision to set a fee cap of £9,000. The book says that the widespread assumption across Whitehall was that most universities would not charge the maximum. Well, we on the Review had told them as clearly as we could that every university would go straight to the maximum. It’s pretty simple economics – in this context price signals quality, and would any university signal it was less than top quality? We had recommended no cap, and a taper above £6,000 that taxed universities on the additional amount in order to fund bursaries. The controls on student numbers should have been lifted faster than they were – the Treasury was too cautious. Another subsequent change for the worse has been the interest rate on the loans.

With hindsight, we should have been more concerned about the effect on part-time courses. Peter Horrocks of the Open University has a letter on this in the FT today and he is right to say this needs fixing. We should also have chosen different language and called it a time-limited graduate tax. Anyway, other things about the system need fixing now too – and I would still change the name because of the psychology of young people feeling their loan as a personal burden when it isn’t, and there is so much designed cross-subsidy. But although I wouldn’t be quite as gung ho as Willetts about defending it, I still think it’s better than realistic alternatives, and any cut in fees would hammer university finances and quality. They are, after all, one of our important export sectors.

One of the interesting arguments the book makes is that there is too much of a monoculture in higher education. He argues that this is the consequence of too much autonomy – “There is a trade-off between autonomy and diversity.” His view seems to be that competition occurs only over one dimension, research ranking, and this discourages the excellent teaching-focused, vocational type of institution and also the old-fashioned civic universities geared toward serving the needs of local employers. I think there’s a lot to this, and find it hard to think of any positive consequences of the REF. (Nor does there seem to me to be a lot of prospect of either the Impact element or the TEF (or KEF) improving matters.) So paradoxically, more central planning – the government deeming certain institutions to be of a different type, be it teaching-centred institutions or specialist (but non-university) research institutes like the Frauenhofers  – would create more genuine diversity than the over-regulated, target-entangled universities we have. Willetts writes that science funding through Whitehall departments was meant to ensure there were non-university, applied research labs, but these budgets were the first to fall victim to budget squeezes.

There is much else besides in the book. Some very powerful points about the damaging early narrowing of study in the English school system, about the influence of selection by A level results and its consequences for the social bias in universities, about the rigidity of a system almost wholly based on entry at 18 and depending on a handful of exam scores, about the balance of pure and practical knowledge and the relationship between our universities and our disappointing innovation performance. This book is enough to make you wish David Willetts were still the universities minister because – and surely even people who disagree with him recognise this – he loves and cherishes them, and wants more of our young people from all backgrounds to be able to get the higher education they want and that will serve them well. These are dangerous times for universities politically. For many voters, universities signify elite, remote experts, rather than dynamos of the local (and national) economy creating jobs and a rich cultural life.  There’s some truth in the charges – it’s why I, for one, believe so passionately in civic engagement, ‘impact’ and public debate about academic research. As the book adds, there are other challenges too – globalization, new technology. We could all think of things that need reforming about the system, but I fear there is some danger of doing real damage.

Price: £18.99
Was: £25.00