English Universities In Crisis: Markets Without Competition by Jefferson Frank, Norman Gowar and Michael Naef

The Blurb On The Back:

Recent policies have replaced direct government funding for teaching with fees paid by students.  As well as saddling graduates with enormous debt, satisfaction rates are low, a high proportion of graduates are in non-graduate jobs, and public debt from unpaid loans is rocketing.

This timely and challenging analysis combines theoretical and data analysis and insights gained from running a university, to give robust new policy proposals: lower fees; reintroduce maintenance awards; impose student number caps; maintain taxpayer funding; cancel the TEF; re-build the external examiner system; restructure the contingent-repayment loan scheme; and establish different roles for different types of institutions, to encourage excellence and ultimately benefit society.

You can order English Universities In Crisis: Markets Without Competition by Jefferson Frank, Norman Gowar and Michael Naef from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Jefferson Frank was founding head of the Economics Department at Royal Holloway University and Norman Gowar is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of London. This informative, if at times a little dry, book offers a good summary of how we got to the existing model of university funding in England, how it’s created perverse incentives and increased dissatisfaction across students and academics alike and suggests ways to improve it.

The authors begin by setting out the development of the university system in England, including the changes to the ways in which the same are funded and policies surrounding access to education and examinations.  I found this very useful in terms of understanding how the current situation came about and the different priorities that have come through within the sector.  They then move on to the Browne reform proposals of increasing market competition within university education and how the Coalition government’s refusal to accept all of Browne’s recommendations – most notably capping student numbers so that universities would have to compete for the best students, which would result in them improving teaching rather than simply admitting weaker students for the fees.

Where the authors are particularly good is in setting out the different stakeholders and their interests in the university system and how “mangerialism” has proliferated within the current system at the expense of the role of academics and the effect this has on the university experience (including the rise in Vice Chancellor salaries).  This ties in well with their description of the various supervisory bodies with responsibilities for regulating universities and how that increases the amount of resource and paperwork on universities at the expense of teaching.  The authors also consider how to widen participation within universities by students from lower income households and how the use of fees and student loans feeds into this together with how universities could provide financial inducements and incentives.  I was particularly interested in a section the authors provide on the Open University and its historic role and objective in increasing participation, which I found fascinating – especially as the institution seems to have suffered due to funding changes since the 1980s.

What comes through loud and clear in the book is that the decision of the Coalition Government in 2010 to reject the Browne proposal of setting fees at £6000 and instead increasing them to £9000 was disastrous for the sector.  It’s resulted in high levels of debt, which cannot always be met by graduate jobs, caused grade inflation within universities and led to a focus of universities on building new, shiny facilities rather than on teaching resources.  This has in turn seen a relative disenfranchisement of academics within university management and set academics and university managers on a collision course when it comes to funding pensions and salary levels.  

At the same time, while the authors make clear their criticism of the current system, they nonetheless put forward suggestions that operate within it rather than seeking to replace it, which I can see as being divisive but at least shows some willing to try for reform, which could bring consensus.  Having benefited from the maintenance grant system myself, I completely agreed with their proposal to reintroduce it for lower income students and re-work the loan system.  I also found myself agreeing with their criticism of the Russell Square Group system and how it skewers perceptions of the value of a university education.  However I will qualify that by saying that while I agreed with their proposal that universities focus on specific areas and skills offerings as a way of differentiating themselves within the market to students, for those students seeking careers in law or banking or accountancy, there will need to be some kind of education process for HR departments who would otherwise default to perceptions that “elite” universities produce “elite” graduates.

Published in 2019, this book pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial crisis it is creating for English universities but it nonetheless gives you a good understanding of the seeds of the same.  Given the move to on-line teaching and the implications this has for those expensive facilities universities have invested in (and the debt incurred to pay for the same), I would be interested in seeing a further edition of the book where the authors consider the effects and take the same into account within their reform proposals.  

Some parts of the book were a little dry for me – most notably the economic modelling sections, which did go a little over my head.  However I found it easy to follow and the authors make their points in a coherent, reasoned way that I found convincing.  All in all, I thought it’s an informative read for anyone with an interest in the area and as such, worth checking out.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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