The appointment of Professor Les Ebdon to lead OFFA, the Office of Fair Access, has been met with concern both from politicians – the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee rejected his candidature – and the higher education sector. Much attention has focused on Professor Ebdon’s comment that if top universities don’t increase the proportion of their students coming from disadvantaged groups ‘there will be an office which will not be afraid to employ sanctions if they don't achieve these outcomes.’ Such sanctions include what he calls the ‘nuclear option’ of refusing to allow universities to charge fees over £6,000 – a recipe for their bankruptcy.
Professor Ebdon is sincere in his commitment to increasing social mobility. Historically a good university education has been an important means by which hardworking individuals from modest homes could progress to a higher standard of living and better quality of life than their parents. However, promoting social mobility is not the only function of universities – scholarship, research, the transmission of culture and the little matter of employability are also important. And in any case enhanced mobility is not something which can ever be planned in detail by institutions working to quantitative targets set from outside.
Intergenerational social mobility depends on many factors, including the size of generational cohorts, geographical mobility (including immigration), the state of the business cycle and the pattern of labour demand. Universities have very limited powers. For one thing disadvantage is not easy to define – postcodes, quality of school attended, parental income, parental education – and target. Any measure adopted will be ‘gamed’ by institutions, not to mention candidates and their families. Then again, student choice is influenced by a huge range of factors – subject offering, university reputation, location, residential accommodation, sports facilities, peer pressures...an endless list. Which to focus on? The tools available to universities to influence these factors are strictly limited, and it is possible to spend huge amounts (diverted from classroom teaching and funded ultimately in large part by student fees, of course) to very little effect.
If left to their own devices, universities might discover in time how best to recruit particular groups of students, but OFFA is likely to be increasingly prescriptive. When it was set up, faith was placed in bursaries for poor students and universities duly spent lots of money on them – but OFFA’S own report two years ago showed that these were ineffective in boosting participation from disadvantaged groups. It now places more faith in ‘outreach’ and requires detailed annual plans from each higher education institution. These plans are being pored over in detail by a staff which is doubling in size under Professor Ebdon: whatever happened to the bonfire of quangos, incidentally?
So why do our top universities put up with this intrusion, and with the inevitable political hostility which results when they fail to make water flow uphill?
The temptation in all this is to take short cuts to pacify OFFA, by letting in students who are ill-prepared for higher education and may not take proper advantage of it. This in turn leads to the fear of ‘dumbing down’ and increasing disillusion within the academic profession.
We should head in another direction. Our elite universities, beginning with Oxbridge but including great universities such as UCL, Imperial, Warwick, the LSE and so forth, should go independent of state funding for teaching. They could charge higher average fees than the £9000 currently on offer and develop their own means of attracting the best students. These would include all those prepared for serious high-level study and willing to work hard – including, but not specifically, those from disadvantaged backgrounds. A needs-based system of grants and bursaries, as in the leading American institutions, would surely develop.
The great mass of students at these universities – with much better employment prospects than the average for the sector as a whole - should take out student loans which the leading universities could negotiate with financial institutions rather than the government. The present state-designed student loan system involves heavy government spending upfront, which is one reason why it can make so many demands on universities. But in the longer term it also involves students at top universities with good job prospects in effect subsidising weaker students who will never repay their loans in full or even, in some cases, in part. The involvement of universities in developing schemes in partnership with banks (which already happens to a limited extent with MBAs) would remove the moral hazard involved in current student funding arrangements, where universities producing large numbers of difficult-to-employ graduates suffer no significant penalties.
Freeing universities from the fees ‘cap’ would also encourage more realistic pricing. At the moment there is excessive cross-subsidisation of courses and subjects as a result of most degrees being priced at £9,000 a year. It is unfair and unreasonable to charge business students crammed into lectures of 400 or 500 the same as history students taught in small group tutorials. Removal of this constraint would encourage greater competition within and between institutions - and greater concern for student value for money.
It is said that the leading universities are afraid of opting out of state teaching funding because they fear that this will lead to their being unable to access government research money.
There is an issue of whether there is too much government funding for research anyway, particularly outside science – but that’s a different story. However, it is surely implausible that the UK’s world-leading institutions would be banned from bidding for government research money. Although there may well be some symbiosis between the practice of teaching and research at the level of the individual or department, there is no logical connection between the funding of teaching and the funding of research.
It is difficult. No individual institution wants to take the risk of being the first mover and finding itself isolated. But the time is coming when our leading institutions will increasingly see the benefits of independence from the attention of Professor Ebdon and his Levellers and will move towards it.