You can download the White Paper here, and I’ve added references according to the Paper’s own numbering system.
Make students more like commodities
The first main point is the creation of 85,000 new student places which behave differently from all others (0.8). Representing around 1 in 20 students in the 2012 intake, these students would be competed for by Universities. For the universities, this means desperately trying to get more students so that they can get the extra funding from the government which follows each student. For the government, this means giving an incentive for Universities to run marketable, attractive courses, and also to lower their fees, as 20,000 of these places are only applicable to institutions charging less than £7,500 per year. (0.8; 6.18).
Exactly how this competition for students will work is not explained. In 1.6 it’s implied that students are to wooed by quality and cost, which makes me imagine that triple A students will receive lots of letters from their chosen institutions once they get their grades offering fee-cuts; or perhaps the government envisages prospective students ringing round different institutions on results day, shopping for a better deal. Who knows.
Anyone can be a university
The second big deregulation would be the ability for big businesses to sponsor degrees, students, control courses and even set up universities. The main organ of this is external programmes, i.e. distance learning. This is what the New College of the Humanities wants to do – register its students in the University of London external programme. But it would also mean that these new universities wouldn’t need to have anything outdated like a campus (although that said, the most successful distance learning University, the Open University, does have a campus in Milton Keymns).
There’s also an argument made that any organisation applying to be a university shouldn’t need to prove 4 years’ teaching experience in the UK. They can show that they taught elsewhere for a short period, or even just that they’re a really, really big company. This even includes the idea of turning publicly funded universities into more privately controlled institutions (4.36), essentially asset-stripping, the kind we’re probably about to see happen at London Met. (also see 6.9b and 6.29).
And for a taster of what Willets and Cable really mean, in attractive blue text boxes, there are companies highlighted for good practice: Hewlett-Packard (3.30), Unliver, GlaxoSmithKline, Lloyds banking (3.35) and KPMG (5.35).
This all involves a great deal of ‘stripping back regulation’. As if deregulation wasn’t a word which strikes fear into anyone with a modicum of recent history under their belt, the White Paper boldly claims that the deregulation of the universities will liberate them. It all gets particularly bad at 6.19, where there’s a whole swathe of deregulation fever, attacking health and safety and equal opportunities legislation.
Information will solve all your economic woes
A recurring attitude is that the best way to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds enter Higher Education, and equally to ensure that a high standard of teaching, is to provide more information. In moments of monumental shirking of responsibility, the report does not lay any blame for poor tuition and a self-perpetuating social stagnation at the feet of the state, but instead sees the solution in more feedback forms, more websites, more full colour brochures, and more careers advice (5.10). There’s also an emphasis on tracking students – from school to university (or otherwise) (5.15) and after university.
All this extra administration is, of course, the nightmare of anyone in the education sector currently, But don’t fear, 6.13 makes it clear that for ‘high performing institutions’ (i.e. Oxbridge), there will be a more ‘light touch’ approach to all this monitoring.
In the foreword it says “we want the sector to become more accountable to students, as well as to the taxpayer”, followed by “We will tackle the micro-management that has been imposed on the higher education sector in recent years”. This cognitive dissonance is evident throughout. On the one hand, there’s a trendy rhetoric of listening, caring and accountability. On the other, getting rid of red-tape, stepping back, leaving institutions with their autonomy. The result is often very confused. This is particularly evident at 6.21, where there’s a whole paragraph about decreasing the amount of data collection, in direct contradiction to most of section 5.
Nothing about paying teachers
This is all particularly insidious in light of the unwillingness to look after teachers. At one point, there is a promise to improve teacher quality in schools (5.13) – a tall ask when 3,000 schools are about to close due to a completely demoralised workforce who are currently undergoing a wage freeze and having their pensions stolen from them. Early on it is stated that university employees are not public sector workers (1.1), which seems to be true in only the most technical of senses. I can only imagine that that sentence is there to underline the unwillingness to pay lecturers properly, or to come under fire for being about to essentially sell-off public institutions.
In fact, the report almost never makes any mention of employment of people within the university, except at 6.20 to abolish an unintentional rent subsidy for students employed by their university. In 79 pages, there is no mention of how teachers in HE are to be paid, or what the effect of this entire process might be on them, despite the often trumpeted recognition that universities are about teaching as much as research.
Internships for all
And in an amazing sweep of rhetoric showing how deeply out-of-touch the government is, there is a section entirely devoted to the merits of (unpaid) internships, and includes suggestions of how to better widen and advertise these schemes (3.42-3). No mention is made, of course, of the economic inability for most graduates to take part in such schemes.
Debt, debt & more debt
And this is what it really boils down to. As well as initing in vast quantities of private sector cash, the whole flavour of the document coagulates around debt reflation. Student loans are given in various shapes and sizes, most notably the £9,000 fees, which are central to the whole plan (1.5). The report sets our that by 2014-5, in what I can only imagine is an assumption of economic recovery, the government expects to be increasing HEFCE funding, alongside £4 billion in grants – and £10.5 billion in loans, for that year alone. That’s another £160 debt per capita. This debt will now be available to external students (1.12), and the interest rates will be set at RPI plus 3% (1.16). That would have put this year’s repayments on 8% interest, not a meagre sum – that’s an extra £1,600 on top of the £21,000 fees.
One good thing
There will be an increase in grants for families on £25,000 or less. That’s quite good money in your pocket actually, though they don’t say how much of an increase. Still, credit where it’s due – you can’t say that the Tories don’t have a heart…