The Price is Right? The Marketisation of Higher Education in the UK

This post has been contributed by Keith Vernon, Principal Lecturer in History at the University of Central Lancashire where he teaches on modern British history.  He has written on several topics in the history of technical and higher education in Britain, most recently an accessible history of his own institution, focussing on the last 30 years: ‘A History of the University of Central Lancashire’ (UCLan, 2018).

Higher education is expensive.  Specialist equipment, high-level expertise and extensive student services do not come cheap.  In the UK, for most of the twentieth century, the issue was dealt with by restricting the numbers allowed to participate.  As the principal paymaster, the state was remarkably generous in funding per student, but imposed parsimonious limits on who had access to it.  Similarly close control was maintained over institutional funding.  Through the masterly device of the University Grants Committee (UGC), state block grants were devolved to a quasi-independent body and then disbursed between the universities on criteria agreed largely among themselves.  While keeping tight hold of the overall purse strings, the state had no direct role in managing institutions.

From the 1980s, and increasingly through the 1990s, a radically new policy was adopted of substantially increasing student numbers.  Expanding higher education was seen as important for raising skill levels, and widely popular (until, arguably, very recently), but raised the question of how it was to be paid for.  Squaring the circle of sustaining growth, while limiting the associated costs, and also avoiding responsibility for managing university institutions, has exercised ministers of all political persuasions for the past 30 years.

The primary means adopted for achieving this geometrical manipulation has been through attempting to create a competitive marketplace among higher education providers, while transferring initial costs and funding onto students themselves.  According to market principles, as institutions compete for student customers, they will naturally differentiate to attract their market share.  Overall costs for students and, ultimately, the government that sustains them, will thus be driven down.  Multiple attempts to bring about this situation have, so far, been resisted, although the pressures are steadily increasing, with damaging implications.

Militating against the creation of a marketplace was the binary divide, whereby all universities could claim an equivalent status, above that of the polytechnics.  Bringing HE providers together meant that all institutions could be considered together, while doubling the number of competitors in the field.  A fringe benefit of a unified sector was the almost immediate appearance of league tables.  Several versions, based on slightly different criteria of equally dubious validity, are inherently skewed towards the wealthier or otherwise fortunately situated institutions.  Students, however, and perhaps especially overseas students, would inevitably consult published league tables when making choices about where to study.  Jockeying for position in the listings became an obsession, driving plans and policies across the university sector.

One of the first measures to try to drive down costs was through efficiency savings.  Traditionally, tuition funding was apportioned according to the numbers of students recruited, within strict allocations per institution.  A new arrangement allowed providers to recruit beyond their allotted number, but receive a lower rate of funding for those additional students.  The former polytechnics were quick to seize on this policy, soon followed by the older universities.  Student numbers grew rapidly, while the reduced cost per student eased the burden of expansion on state coffers, effectively transferring it onto institutions.  It was quickly acknowledged, however, that the declining unit of resource was unsustainable in the long term, and a major review of higher education was commissioned.

As expected, the Dearing Report reiterated the need for continued growth, but introduced a radical departure in requiring a direct contribution from students. A means-tested fee of £1,000 was to be paid up-front by students before even starting their courses. The policy did not go very far to ease the pressures on universities, but established the principle that students themselves were liable to contribute towards the costs of their higher education. Returning to the issue a few years later, a revised approach allowed institutions to charge up to £3,000 per year, for which students could receive government-backed loans, payable after graduation. Apparently assuming that institutions knew their place in the league table hierarchies, it was expected that £3,000 would be a maximum that only the most prestigious universities would impose, while the others would differentiate themselves accordingly. As it transpired, almost all universities very quickly charged the full amount.

The financial crisis of 2008 put pressure on all forms of public spending. Following the example of Dearing ten years before, the question of student fees was delegated to an independent review, to report after the up-coming election.  Browne’s central recommendation was to put the whole of the costs of higher education onto students themselves, through loans repayable after graduation once their income had reached a certain level.  Providers were now able to charge up to a maximum of £9,000 per year, although they had to provide more information about the courses offered, so that students, as buyers in a marketplace, could make an informed choice as to where to purchase their higher education.

Once again, universities did not fall for the inducement voluntarily to differentiate themselves by fee level, and the vast majority charged the full £9,000 a year, putting an immediate strain on government finance of student loans.  Increasingly desperate, yet another government review removed all caps on student numbers, allowing institutions to recruit as many students as they wished.  It was made easier for new kinds of providers to enter the field, on the expectation that these newcomers would charge lower fees, posing a challenge to existing providers to adjust their costs accordingly.

In maintaining a largely united front on fees, universities have, so far, largely resisted the lure of overt marketization.  In other respects, they have been all too ready to embrace the language and ethos of hierarchical league tables, whatever the crocodile tears shed in public statements.  But is there anything novel in this?  The state has exercised control over universities through financial regulation from the late nineteenth century.  Popular perceptions of university hierarchies, however ill-founded, are nothing new.  It should also be acknowledged that academics have constantly bemoaned an impending crisis in the university.

Yet, the latest manoeuvres are concerning.  If the sector fragments, considerable damage will be done to the common understanding of what a UK university stands for.  Gerrymandered league tables crassly reduce institutions’ contributions to a simplistic number, but dominate policy and planning.  Assuming the connection between students and educational institutions as simply that of customer and service provider profoundly damages the nature of the pedagogic relationship.  At the same time, defining the function of a university as a commercial transaction with a student ignores the social role of universities in their communities.  One of the most worrying effects is the impact on students, which even now is taking its toll.  The pressures, however, are inexorably increasing, and how long universities can, or have the will to, resist marketization remains to be seen.



Histories, Anniversaries and University Pasts (and Present)

This post has been contributed by Keith Vernon, Principal Lecturer in History at the University of Central Lancashire where he teaches on modern British history.  He has written on several topics in the history of technical and higher education in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially on the relationships between universities and the state, between universities and their local communities and the student experience. 

University institutions seem to be becoming more interested in their pasts.  One manifestation of the trend is the appearance of historic dates on websites or logos of which Manchester University was a pioneer.  When the (old Victoria) university finally joined with UMIST, origins could now be traced back to the formation of the Manchester Mechanics Institute out of which UMIST claimed its foundation.  Now ‘1824’ features boldly in the university’s branding, neatly pipping UCL’s presumption to be the oldest English institution of higher education after Oxbridge.  A more recent entrant is Queen’s University Belfast, which has taken to emblazoning ‘1845’ across its publicity as the year when the Queen’s Colleges were established.  Otherwise, institutional webpages sport time lines or historical introductions that establish lineages of suitable antiquity.  Some places have created impressive museums of their role and contributions as at De Montfort.  Although in one sense surprising for institutions more accustomed to trumpeting their cutting edges, it is not to be wondered at that universities also want to claim historic antecedents.  Status in higher education commonly follows the longest established.  As the field becomes ever more crowded, and with the danger of potentially dubious upstarts, demonstrating a weight of tradition adds valuable gravitas.

Previously, one of the few times that universities looked to their pasts was around anniversary years that afforded an opportunity for a commemorative volume.  A flurry of institutional histories marked the centenaries of the older civic universities, and a number of former polytechnics discovered their pasts on becoming universities.  Interestingly, the silver anniversary of the post-92s came and went without much recognition.

There are currently few obvious anniversaries in view, but why wait for the obvious?  My own institution, the University of Central Lancashire / UCLan, has this year decided to celebrate a 190 years since the formation of its ancestor, the Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge, in 1828.  It seems an arbitrary choice, nor is it presented as much else by the current Vice-chancellor, whose initiative it is.  He is interested in history and heritage, wants to create an occasion (and some institutional re-branding) and accepts that he probably won’t be in post in ten years time to mark the 200th anniversary.  If we take the sound historical argument that round figures of years are rarely of greater significance than the years before or after, then why not the 190th?

Avenham Institute

The Avenham Institute, which opened in 1849 in Preston, was the first permanent home for the Institution of the Diffusion of Knowledge (which later developed into UCLan) 

As we know, anniversaries are a doubled-edged sword to historians of universities.  While they offer an occasion, and until recently, a rather rare occasion, when a university will make some consideration of its past, they are mired in the problems associated with this kind of study.  There is usually little desire for searching or critical investigation.  An anniversary account is seen as an opportunity to flourish achievements and steady progress.

The issue has become personal in that I have been asked / tasked with writing an updated history for UCLan 190.  An account covering the development of the institution from 1828 was produced in the early 1990s when the university was first created.  This latest version will just deal with the most recent phase of the university years.  The project raises many historical, methodological, indeed ethical issues, but returns to the key ones of P1000642commemorative history.  The task is not to write a searching critique, and there is no place for muck-raking, but nor would I wish to be overly critical.  In part, that is not the commission but, more than that, UCLan has been my career home for most of my life; I am committed to and have great affection for what it seeks to stand for (even if it often doesn’t succeed), its academic community, and its home city of Preston.  Is the entire undertaking, then, illegitimate in that any history written will, by my own admission, be more or less sanitised?

But should we be so sniffy about engaging with this form of university past?  While never a substitute for thorough historical scholarship, is there no place for accounts that are accessible but critical, offer a simplified version of the past, but still inform and raise deeper issues and questions?  At a time when universities and what they stand for are openly being questioned, it surely behoves us to take what opportunities we can to tell the story of what universities do, their importance and centrality to the modern world; not photo-shopped, but not necessarily warts and all either.



Securing an academic career: Past and present

This post is from Dr Cath Feely, a Lecturer in History at the University of Derby, after short early-career stints at Durham, Sheffield and Manchester. She was Co-Chair of History Lab Plus from 2014 to 2016.

Recently, a senior colleague told me that he thought History was perhaps the most argumentative (or ‘bitchy’) of academic disciplines. I started to protest but then remembered how I had felt in wake of some of the bad-tempered Twitter ‘debate’ prompted by Matthew Lyons’ History Today column on ‘the betrayal of early-career historians’ by established academic historians a year ago in late August 2015. Many historians, understandably including those facing unemployment and underemployment, retweeted Lyons’ piece approvingly. Others, myself included, were offended by the implication that simply by having an academic post they were complicit in harming the people that they cared about: their students; their colleagues; their friends. Emotions ran high. As then the co-chair of History Lab Plus, a national network for early career historians, for me the debate was confirmation that people felt the need for support in the post-PhD period but, at the same time, I was uncertain as to what such support should look like and whether it would ever be enough.

As William Whyte argued, in an excellent blog that he wrote for us at History Lab Plus, Lyons’ piece was ‘fundamentally presentist’ in his demonstration of the problems facing early-career historians. These problems, and the emotional and practical impact they have on historians attempting to enter the profession are not at all new. This was starkly brought home to me when I was researching the history of the History Department of the University of Manchester, when I was myself between temporary contracts, in the summer of 2013. Manchester was a pioneer of postgraduate education in History and was among the very first institutions in the country to award PhDs in the subject. As I read though the correspondence of lecturers with their recently-graduated students in the 1920s and 1930s (all available in the John Rylands Library), it was hard not to relate their trials and tribulations on the job market to my own.

Indeed, sometimes their words seemed dangerously close to the kind of half-hopeful, half-resigned, sometimes desperate emails that I must have sent to my supervisor (luckily for my dignity, having switched institutions several times, I don’t think evidence of these survive for future historians to ponder). For instance, after several disastrous interviews, one couldn’t help sympathising with Dr Sophia Weitzman, who wrote to Manchester’s Professor T.F. Tout in May 1925:

Mr Barker said I should hear about the King’s College appointment by Tuesday next. I’m beginning to despair of ever getting anything on an interview. These jobs go to the tall, capable-looking women and I’m neither: College lecturers are a type and “insignificant me” doesn’t look the part. However, as I can’t alter that there’s no sense in being depressed about it.

However, one problem Weitzman had which was undoubtedly less of a problem for me was that she was a woman. That’s not, of course, to say that gender bias does not still affect academic careers in History. It undoubtedly does, as the 2015 Royal Historical Society Gender report made very clear. But it does seem to be more an issue of progression within the job rather than the explicit discrimination that the early Manchester women PhDs faced in entering the profession. However, it is incredibly important that the more invisible structural barriers and pressures that can exclude both men and women from a variety of backgrounds from pursuing an academic career are kept very firmly at the top of the early career agenda.

What is also clear from these letters is that very few of the students, and indeed their mentors, expected that they would end up in traditional academic careers (although, at that point the ‘academic career’ in History was actually still very new), even as they hoped that they might. They were a remarkably pragmatic bunch, taking up a range of what we would probably call ‘alt-ac’ jobs: as librarians, archivists, editors, university administrators, hall tutors, etc. As such, however, they were not seen as ‘giving up’ on History but rather contributing to it differently, and were very highly respected in the discipline. Indeed, early academic historians such as Alice Cooke, the first woman to graduate with a Masters’ degree at Manchester (before the advent of the PhD), had periods of lecturing punctuated by cataloguing some of the most important library collections in the country throughout her career. It was not out of the ordinary to swap back and forth in this manner and it remained so into well into the mid-twentieth century.

The introduction of the PhD was part of the professionalization of History as an academic subject, but as these letters and our own experiences suggest, that for most of its history there has been an underlying tension between the ‘apprentice’ model of the degree and the fact that a minority of its graduates have got academic jobs. The booms in the expansion of HE in the 1950s/60s and again in the 1990s/2000s masked this. So, is the PhD itself the problem? Has it always been the problem? Should less people be doing PhDs? Is the PhD simply setting people up for jobs that do not exist?

I am very torn on this, as I imagine many academics are, which is why many of us were so hurt by the shouts of betrayal in 2015. The fact is that I loved my PhD, even though it was damn hard and I did it part-time never expecting to get a job. I think the research I produced was valuable and important in and of itself, as I think the PhD research I now supervise is valuable and important in and of itself. And the fact is that I did (like most supervisors) get a job against the odds and, for all of the pressures of that job, it is an immense privilege to walk into a lecture theatre and debate and discuss the subject that I love with intelligent and passionate students. So while I feel very strongly that it is our duty as academics to be very, very clear to potential PhD students both about the realities of an academic career and the immense competition that there is in even getting entry-level positions, I also don’t think we should presume that this is the only value of doing a PhD. At the same time, neither do I want to lead people up the garden path and do think that, despite the million doom and gloom blog posts about the academic job market, a remarkably large number of PhDs seem unaware about the state of academia and who inevitably feel betrayed.

When I tie myself up in knots about this, I am reminded of the exasperated words of Professor George Unwin, also of Manchester, to his student Mabel Pythian (later Mabel Tylecote, who went on to play an important role in civic life and politics in Manchester) c. 1920. He was referring to women students, but I think it applies to all now:

‘I have given my best efforts to women students most of whom have not achieved what they set out to do. I don’t blame them & I go on hoping.’

I think that’s the real problem. We’re not really as bitchy as discipline as it first appears. Actually, often the problem is that we care too much: we care about the discipline and don’t want to discourage those who we think might be the future of it; we care about our students and we believe in them, so hope against hope that it will turn out alright; and we care about scholarship, and rigour and think that the production of a substantial piece of historical research should not be reduced to job training or ‘graduate attributes’.

Occasionally when I was Chair of History Lab Plus, I would see criticism that we were part of the problem. We were training people into how to enter ‘the system’ rather than questioning or overturning it. I understand that and, frankly, I don’t know what to do about it. My instinct is to be kind at in individual level: to pass on practical advice, to share ideas, encourage and, like Unwin, to ‘go on hoping’. But on a larger scale, maybe commitment to individual kindness is allowing harm.

These tensions have been around as long as the PhD. Maybe it can only take genuine reflection and debate about what the PhD is for, including discussion of its history and development, to take us any further.