Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The hidden consequences of the Browne Review

Thus far reactions to the Browne Review of the funding of higher education have tended to focus on the headline figure of student fees potentially rising to £9000 per year.  The more nuanced analysis has widened its focus to consider the obvious benefits of the review; a higher earnings repayment threshold (from 16k to 21k per annum) and more generous student loan arrangements for students with less privileged backgrounds, both of which should be welcomed.  Some elements of the review have slipped under the radar, both ostensibly concerned with raising standards.

The Browne Review suggests that along with an increase in the number of places in higher education a minimum qualification cap should be imposed on institutions by the proposed Higher Education Council (this will replace a number of existing bodies such as HEFCE).  Put simply a national minimum entry grade would be imposed that all institutions would have to adhere to.  At first glance the benefits of this seem obvious; those applicants with lower grades will not be allowed into university thus ensuring a higher calibre of student and as a result a higher standard of education.  What this approach does not allow for is the Widening Participation element of regional universities, such as those in the Million+ group.  Much of the intake of these institutions is local, part-time and or mature students who have been in work (and out of education) for a number of years.  As such many of these individuals may not have the traditionally required grades to enter higher education but instead possess years of relevant work experience.  Until further details are published on this minimum tariff it is impossible to estimate the full extent this policy could have on regional universities and retraining for those outside of the traditional 18 to 21 age range.

It should also be noted that the minimum tariff could also have a detrimental impact on Widening Participation as a whole as those unfortunate enough to attend less successful and failing schools may find their A level achievements - fantastic though they may be placed into the context in which they were achieved - not up to the new minimum standard.  The Browne Report suggests an increased emphasis on Widening Participation, though this could leave some universities working at cross purposes – raising entry grades which will slash the number of applicants from non-traditional backgrounds.

The second potential development concerns the funding of arts courses and the willingness of universities to 'expel' students.  Under the current system once a student leaves or is kicked off of their course the university loses funding for that student for every year of study.  Therefore if a student, three years in, chooses to leave their course the university loses the funding for that student for all three years.  Therefore the onus is on universities to keep hold of students, with this imperative increasing with the length of their study.  The changes suggested in the Browne Review would remove government funding for most arts courses (classics, history, sociology, etc) with the costs being met fully by the student.  This removes the risk to the university with regards to potential loss of funding; there will be no government funding to be taken away.

It’s unlikely that universities will suddenly become trigger happy and start removing students from their courses with increased profligacy.  However these changes represent another subtle change in the relation between university and student, with a more business orientated model firmly taking hold.  The proposals also risk a ‘one size fits all’ approach to universities with an out-of-touch, typically ‘traditional’ view that only the brightest, best and more privileged deserve a university education.

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