Moral panic: universities destroyed by competition!

There’s a view out there that reforms to higher education in England are leading us to Armageddon by the shortest route.

Doom-laden pieces haunt the media.

Apparently students will be short-changed by ‘market reforms’ and ‘increased competition’ (they’ll get overcrowded lectures because inefficient courses will be axed); demand is falling because of them terrible high fees; educational opportunity is being compromised by an uncaring government.

Astonishingly, the same government is apparently not being interventionist enough and not telling universities what they should be doing. (It’s always a worry when people blame government for problems and then prescribe yet more government as the solution).

Let us leave aside the fact that there is very little that could be described as a market in higher education. Supply is artificially restricted and prices are controlled. Competition between providers is regulated. It’s about as much a market as tractor production in Russia circa 1950. The Coalition’s reforms will hardly ripple the surface of this placid pond.

Self-pity is among the least attractive features of academic culture. It’s tempting to see the complaints as the bleatings of those who have benefited from a snugly complacent, standardised HE system. They seem fearful of the chill winds that blow through the open spaces of the private sector – even though they will remain sheltered from the storm.

Inhabitants of this comfy environment preach that public funding is automatically good and that freedom to work outside state fetters is unavoidably bad. They believe that efficiency, which to most of us is a good thing and has ultimately provided comfort and self-determination to much of the world, is by definition a threat to quality. Let’s get back to hand weaving, a planned economy and mere subsistence: curses to those who would make our lives easier and longer!

I’m afraid I don’t buy into the doom-mongers’ narrative. Demand from students is very healthy. Applications are higher than in 2009 and at any time before. It doesn’t need the wisdom of Solomon to predict that universities will be turning plenty of qualified potential clients away come next autumn. Show me evidence that deferred loans for fees actually deter students. There isn’t any.

And here’s news for those who think competition damages quality. Universities have undoubtedly improved their offer to students because of limited (state-sponsored) competition over the last ten years. Some of them are simply brilliant at providing an outstanding student experience – and good luck to them. There’s no better evidence that competition drives innovation in higher education.

There is no indication that any of the proposed changes will disadvantage poorer students. There is no reason at all why larger student cohorts should lead to a worse experience – unless you think that you can teach them in just the same way as small groups.

Where the alarmists are right is that there is a genuine threat to quality. The risk, though, is not from reform of finances or trivial bits of tinkering to open up higher education to other providers. It’s the dangerous combination of an over-dependent system, hopelessly mortgaged to the state, frightened of change – and a controlling government that seems determined to ratchet up the level of bureaucratic, petty demands on universities as the price they pay for reduced public funds.

Some universities will rise above this, and excel; others will go on muddling through, secure in the knowledge that they cannot go bust, confident of a bailout. Now if that’s not a menace to quality, what is?

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