5 Insights from Number 10’s Leaked HE Briefing

by Callum Cant

28 April 2016

The happy collision of digital photography and politics has resulted in much joy. We live in giddy times, when anyone on the internet with the wits to Google ‘Cameron pig’ can instantly participate in the humiliation of the prime minister. One particular innovation has been the genre of news stories reliant on ‘idiot parades highly sensitive document in front of a line of photographers’. Last week the Conservatives provided us with another one of these gems: this time, the leaked info was all about the government’s approach to higher education.

The photographed paper seems to have been a briefing from Number 10 on the planned higher education (HE) reform proposals being put forwards by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), and it reveals that HE policy is in crisis.

1. BIS hasn’t got a clue.

The top quote from the briefing has to be: “BIS are trying to solve real problems of quality and regulation. But it is not clear they have figured out how.”

Given the government will be trying to pass the policy recommendations produced by BIS through parliament in the near future, it’s a bit worrying that the prime minister’s office seems to be unsure if they’re any good. You would think the minimum standard for new policy is that, on balance, the government thinks it is a smart idea. Apparently not.

2. The ‘pipeline’ model isn’t working.

Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has argued that these reforms are about turning universities into a ‘pipeline’, directing employable graduates into the economy. Understandably, many students have been upset that their universities minister views them less as human beings and more like crude oil. But this isn’t Johnson’s biggest problem. It turns out, some degrees are just not very employable – and furthermore, to the horror of neoclassical economists everywhere, people still want to study them anyway.

The reality is, some degrees and some institutions are just very bad investments – if you use graduate earnings as your only metric. Of course, the left has long argued that there is a value to education beyond increasing the value of your labour-power, but for the right this is the kind of dirty truth they really don’t want to admit. And so they labour on, trying to make the university into a factory, albeit quite an inefficient one.

3. Even worse, the market model isn’t working.

If there is one thing Tories care more about than a pipeline, it’s a market. After all, the destination of this pipeline is supposed to be a labour market, on which newly-formed lumps of human capital are forced to sell themselves to their overlords in order to survive.

£9k fees were always supposed to be an intermediary step to full marketisation. They intended to introduce limited price competition – but have failed to do even that. They have shifted the burden of funding from public to private, without creating a sustainable market. This leak confirms a long-standing suspicion that a key goal of this next round of HE reforms is to generate price competition, and turn the dysfunctional £9k system into a neoliberal wet dream: a fully private market in education commodities.

4. Private providers to the rescue!

For Number 10, the only way to meet the prime minister’s targets of marginalised-student intake and increase price competition in the sector is to extend the market to lots of new wholly-private education providers. A massive change in the proportion of semi-public and private institutions in HE is the only way forward.

5. Private providers involved in fraudulent activity?

Given that it looks like the government is going to have to rely on new private providers to reach its targets, it’s a pity these private providers appear to be implicated in fraudulent claims at an ‘institutional level’. The briefing notes a 2014 report from the National Audit Office which reported concerns over private providers’ access to public funds – an embarrassment for the government’s plans, to say the least.

The date of the White Paper was also given away in the leak. It is timetabled for 18 May, with an  HE bill to follow. Students will be mobilising around this date, and attempting to generate new momentum in the fight against HE reforms. The National Student Survey boycott motion just passed by the National Union of Students will hopefully be a big step forward in the fight.

Photo: British High Commission, New Delhi/Flickr

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