The rear end of the system.

Yesterday, David Willetts published his White Paper for Higher Education. ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ outlines plans to allow increased market forces to operate in English higher education and subtly includes proposals to allow financially able students to repay their loans early.

Addressing the latter first, this does little to dissuade those who believe this government is out-of-touch. However, no doubt aware of unleashing too many controversial proposals at one time, the government have held back on the full details. So watch this space.

This brings us back to immediate plans to allow increased market forces into English higher education. A move that, under government proposals, will see around 25% of universities places allocated via direct competition between not only universities but also private providers. The apparent basis for this being that students should be regarded as consumers within higher education and subsequently universities should prove to students why their institution is the best choice.

As a notion within itself this is not necessarily the most flawed, students will soon pay up to £9,000 per year for a degree and there is no doubt that with the current job market and the declining significance of a ‘meagre’ BA students deserve satisfaction. However, being a recent graduate, the lack of customer satisfaction within higher education arguably emerges from the lack of contact time, the lack of student input into their courses and the unshakable feeling that sometimes you are paying for a reading list.

You can only wonder how the proposals laid out in the White Paper will address any of these issues. But, cynicism aside for a moment, it seems only fair to explore claims made by Universities Minister, David Willets, who has said these reforms will ‘put power where it belongs – in the hands of students’.

So, delving into this statement, the White Paper details plans to allow universities to offer unlimited places for students achieving AAB or above at A-level, regardless of total student quotas. This move is geared towards encouraging the best universities and private providers to participate in a competition for the 65,000 students each year who are awarded these grades.

A moment of speculation on this notion leads you to inevitable thoughts of universities heading to colleges around the country pitching themselves to students, marketing campaigns, advertisements and whatnot. Undeniably, a head-scratching prospect for someone who is not convinced that universities should be based around the fleeting desires of inexperienced sixteen and seventeen year olds. In fact, how early will these recruitment programs start? Will we see universities (a term set to be reviewed under the White Papers proposals) purchasing academies at secondary or even primary level and grooming students throughout their education? It is but human to speculate.

Regardless of this, it seems likely that an influx of private providers will enter the English educational system. And obviously in this case, you cannot ignore the elephant in the room. There are currently five private providers operating within England with the ability to award degrees, these being Buckingham University, the College of Law, the IFS School of Finance, Ashridge Business School and finally BPP University College.

BPP University College is perhaps the most notable private provider within this group. Owned by a US-based company, the Apollo Group, in 2010 BPP became the first profit-making provider to be awarded university status in the UK. Since then, BPP have stated their intentions to expand within the UK and remain in talks with at least three public universities for the right to run these institutions business operations.

Arguably, the marriage of a company seeking profit and education is one that is fundamentally tenuous and can only lead to declining standards. Indeed, there are very real risks associated with allowing more private providers into the English higher educational system. As the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) stated earlier this year, private providers ‘may only focus on those subjects, and those students, that are most profitable.’

This analysis raises new concerns. As Nico Leon stated in his post ‘Even More Hurdles?’, a disproportionate number of private school students achieve AAB or above in their A-levels. Does this therefore mean that less fortunate students from state schools will be forgotten in this reformed model? Left to fight for scraps in clearing or even worse seeing institutions they could attend closing down due to not being able to attract significant student numbers. In our education system, already fraught with academic elitism, this runs the risk of further devaluing those with alternate but equally useful skills. Any educational reform should see a move away from archaic classifications of intelligence, not a re-affirmation.

Despite this, what is clear is that, these plans pave the way for the growing Americanisation of higher education in England, which is identifiably not beneficial for social mobility, as the University and College Union (UCU) found in their report, ‘Privatising Our Universities’; the U.S. has seen college tuition grow at four times the rate of inflation in the past 25 years, a trend that could be destined to reach these shores.

Obvious problems aside, believing this could work in England is not only an idea steeped in questionable logic, but one severely risking the quality of our institutions. Love or hate America, their higher education model is one that is far more conducive to recognising other talents. A clear example being the far-reaching sports based programme, which provides less academic but innately talented individuals with the chance to not only hone their talents, but also gain a university education.

With all these things considered, how can one overlook the idea that the government are simply reacting to the gross oversight they made regarding how many institutions would attempt to charge the £9,000 top rate fee? Echoing sentiments from Gareth Thomas, shadow Universities Minister, these plans reek of a ‘desperate drive to cut fees, no matter what the cost to quality.’

So are the government risking English higher education to cover for their incompetence? Allowing private providers to not only enter the system but to create a competitive market from which to recruit students. This seems the case and once again those who are less fortunate are most likely to fall under the weight of an unfair system.

Kenneth Way.

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