Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The public university: what is there to defend?

Guildford-TeachingI haven't previously commented on the alternative White Paper A defence of public higher education. At least as I understand it, the alternative White Paper and the associated campaign aren't really intended to have a near-term impact on the workaday business of funding and regulating Higher Education. For instance if you search for the phrase 'student numbers' you'll only find it twice, both times in the context of descriptions of the Government's plans and intentions. I understand this as a campaign with a longer-term view aimed at developing a political narrative that challenges the market-oriented perspective that has informed recent HE policy making by pretty much all parties. (Of course market-oriented narratives don't always lead to free market policies. As the alternative WP notes, the current Government's policy is certainly not a free market policy).

It feels slightly absurd to criticise a political movement for organising itself around the defence of something that doesn't really exist: to the extent that politics are not nakedly about competing interest groups, they are about ideals; and even interest groups need ideals around which their political interests can cohere. Nonetheless the gap between the public university being defended and the actual existing universities was really brought home to me by this HEFCE report and this Guardian comment piece.

Look at the HEFCE report first. It assesses the extent to which English institutions were able to meet their obligation under current legislation to report on the public benefits which they deliver in their capacity as charities (and for which they gain significant tax and other financial benefits). You might reasonably be sceptical that an assessment of compliance with bureaucratic requirements would really tell you anything about how well universities are delivering actual public benefits, and indeed if you look at the set of criteria used in the report, it is clear that there are some largely formal elements in the mix:
a. Did the trustees confirm that they had "had regard‟ to the Charity Commission's guidance on public benefit?
b. Did the report clearly identify the HEI‟s constitutional charitable objects, as distinct from, but not precluding, coverage of its vision, mission, values and/or strategic priorities?
c. How clearly did the report identify the beneficiaries of the HEI‟s charitable objects?
d. How clearly did the report describe the main activities that the HEI had carried out for the public benefit?
e. How clearly did the report explain how those activities delivered public benefit?
f. To what extent did the report discuss activities relative to the HEI‟s targets?
g. To what extent did the report describe future activities that would enhance or increase the public benefit of the HEI‟s activities?
h. Did the report discuss possible harm or detriment that might arise (or others might consider to arise) through the HEI‟s work?
i. To what extent did the report discuss barriers, particularly price, that might restrict access to the HEI's services, and what measures did it have in place to reduce those barriers?
j. Did the report discuss the potential conflict between private and public benefit arising from the HEI‟s activities?
k. Taking all factors into account, what overall rating seemed justifiable?
However if you look at the detail of the report, it is clear enough that it was these formal elements with which institutions mostly complied. 79 per cent of institutions clearly stated that they 'had regard' to the Charity Commissioner's guidance, 39 per cent clearly identified the beneficiaries of their charitable activities, 22 per cent could explain how their activities benefited their beneficiaries, and just 10 per cent could relate those activities to targets. Only 8 per cent of institutions even mentioned the conflict between public and private interests. So the further you get from mere formal reporting to something which represents a real understanding of the challenges of delivering real public benefit, the weaker institutions' performance was.
The Guardian piece I linked to provides a more direct insight into the hopelessly confused view of just one institutional leader about what 'public benefit' might mean. I think the HEFCE study gives good grounds for thinking that Mary Stuart's views are not untypical when she views public benefit  arising primarily from deals with big business, with maybe a little volunteering on the side. Certainly this isn't the public university which the alternative White Paper sets out to defend.
The cynic might remark that universities do many things which their senior managers do not fully understand, and I am never knowingly undersold when it comes to cynicism. But I simply don't think that is the case here. Rather I want to draw attention to the passage about social inequality in the alternative White Paper.

3.22       An additional assumption that underpinned the expansion of higher education was that a ‘knowledge economy’ would be associated with a general amelioration of inequality, in terms of a general decline in the range of inequalities. This was broadly true until the 1980s, when the situation began to reverse. Britain is now a highly unequal country, with the top ten per cent having wealth around 100 times greater than the bottom tenth, and where someone just in the top ten per cent of wage-earners has earnings around four times higher than someone in the lowest ten per cent (NEP 2010). This level of earnings inequality, as well as the incidence of low pay, is high by international standards (OECD 2011). At the start of the 21st century, inequality of incomes in Britain is greater than at any time in the last 40 years.

3.23        Trends at the very top have been striking. Atkinson and Salverda

3.24        This pattern of inequality is a product of government policy (initially by Conservative and Labour governments since the 1980s and continued by the present coalition government). Now universities are being asked to reinforce it.
This presentation - as if universities have somehow played no role in the increasing stratification and decreasing mobility of our society over recent decades - is astonishing on its face. But my point in quoting it isn't to speculate about the motives or understanding of the writers, rather my point is that institutions' contribution to this increasing inequality has been driven by managers as well as workers - pressing for admissions policies (and indeed academic portfolio decisions) to achieve higher UCAS tariff in order to drive up league table performance is one obvious and direct route through which increased social stratification has been delivered at many institutions. The OFFA agenda provides another example of a means by which university leaders and regulators have worked together to prevent progressive social change. 

So I think don't agree that universities aren't delivering outstanding public benefits despite the cluelessness of their senior managers. I don't think they are delivering much public benefit at all, and their managers - at least many of them - are actively working to limit the public benefit delivered.

To come back to where I began, of course, I recognise that the alternative White Paper is trying to defend an ideal of what the university might be rather than the grimy reality of what it is. Defending that ideal is part of a political project which you may find politically attractive: this blog doesn't exist to defend my politics. All I am saying is that this emperor isn't wearing any clothes.

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