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Steps forward, steps backward: what to make of the government’s plans for higher education market reform

There has never been a period when higher education has faced so much turbulence and change as it is now, nor one for which both the sector and government are so ill-prepared.
The UK Higher Education sector is regarded as one of the best in the world, but in an increasingly global market-place, many suggest the signs are that it is beginning to look increasingly uncompetitive too. Across the system as a whole, evidence of flexibility, creativity and sensitivity to consumer demand is patchy.
Policymakers are looking for more efficient, cost-effective ways of delivering higher-quality, and more relevant, higher education, and the English government has recently presented its view of the priorities in a new Higher Education and Research Bill, now working its way through Parliament.
In a series of essays published by the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education, experts including Emran Mian, Director of the Social Market Foundation; Louisa Darian, Deputy Director of Wonkhe, the higher education think tank; Professor Len Shackleton, Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham; and Alison Goddard, Editor of HE magazine, assess the government’s plans for higher education market reform, expressing deep reservations about whether measures addressed to improving the quality of teaching can work and about potential negative effects on the economy and employment.
Download a .pdf copy of the volume here.
Alison Goddard finds that international policy experience offers little reason for confidence in the robustness or efficacy of the government’s (albeit working) list of measures that should be used to assess teaching quality, or the design of the apparatus proposed to monitor it.
While remaining optimistic about the potential for progress in this area, Louisa Darian questions whether substantive variation in quality will emerge, whether the metrics are nuanced enough to accommodate the sector’s diversity, and whether the potential compromise to institutions’ adaptability to the student market will be worth the costs associated with the increased regulatory burden. Emran Mian warns that real-term decline in funding, cost pressures, and sharper competitive conditions arising chiefly from proposed new switching arrangements, mean the potential for market disruption is real. 
The question is whether the new ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ supplies the right criteria for determining the success or failure of institutions. Len Shackleton is frank about the constraints of this framework, believing efforts to link teaching quality with funding in an era of full-cost fees to be anachronistic. The government, he maintains, ought to be looking for ways to encourage more price competition rather than continuing efforts to control prices. In support of a scheme outlined by Peter Ainsworth in another of the essays, Shackleton argues that government concerns about how well degrees equip students for the labour market could be dealt with far more effectively by involving higher education institutions directly in the funding of their students, rather than by trying to prescribe ‘best practice’ to very varied disciplines and institutions.
Ainsworth also expresses profound concern about the government’s ability to prescribe quality in matters of course design and fears that efforts to do so will only constrain institutions’ ability to adapt, and steadily erode their status and relevance. 
While Ainsworth and Nima Sanandaji concur with Harry Patrinos that there is no sector of the economy that will offer better long-term employment prospects than higher education, both question whether three-year, full-time, residential courses can meet the needs of an ever-changing economy and labour market. Sanandaji offers an alternative model for investment in life-long learning to ensure that workers have the capacity to learn new skills and to adapt to changing technologies and working conditions.
Commenting on the essays, Baroness Perry of Southwark, author of the foreword to the volume, said:
At such a critical juncture for the future of higher education, it is encouraging to find a collection of such thoughtful, considered and at times passionate essays dealing with so many of the topics which the system must address. Throughout each essay is the recognition that government has encroached further and further on the autonomy of universities, and with the new legislation will move even closer. The academic world has failed over many decades to address the question of just where the proper dividing line between government and university autonomy should be drawn. One can only hope that it is not too late.
Read the foreword here.
Download a .pdf copy of the volume here.
About the authors
Alison Goddard is the editor of HE, a magazine covering policy and market trends in higher education, published by *Research, which also produces Research Fortnight. She was formerly education correspondent at The Economist.
Louisa Darian is Deputy Director at Wonkhe, the higher education policy think tank. Previously she worked at Which?, where she led on higher education policy and authored the paper ‘A Degree of Value: value for money from the student perspective’. She also recently authored a report for HEPI, ‘Designing a Teaching Excellence Framework: lessons from other sectors’.
Emran Mian is the Director of the Social Market Foundation. A former civil servant, he was Secretary to the Browne Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, and Director of Strategy at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Professor J. R. Shackleton is Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, and is a CMRE Fellow and member of its Academic Advisory Council.
Dr Harry Anthony Patrinos is Practice Manager for Education at the World Bank, for which he leads a team of staff based in Washington D.C. and in 10 Asian countries to provide strategic vision and direction, and encourage and support innovation. Among numerous publications, he was a lead author of the report, ‘Making Schools Work’ (World Bank
2011), and most recently co-author of the working paper ‘Comparable estimates of returns to schooling around the world’ (2014). He is a CMRE Fellow and member of its Academic Advisory Council.
Peter Ainsworth is the Managing Director of EM Applications, a software and consulting firm that assists the global investment community with the measurement and understanding of market risk and uncertainty. He is the author of ‘An equitable approach to the private sector funding of university tuition fees’ (2010); ‘Universities challenged: funding higher education through a free-market “graduate tax”’ (Institute of Economic Affairs, 2014); and co-author of ‘Incentive effects in higher education: an improved funding model for Universities’ (Economic Affairsforthcoming).
Dr Nima Sanandaji is a Research Fellow, and member of CMRE’s Academic Advisory Council. He has written numerous books and reports on a diverse range of policy issues, including recently The Nordic Gender Equality Paradox; Scandinavian UnexceptionalismSuperEntrepreneurs (with Tino Sanandaji); and Renaissance for Reforms (with Stefan Fölster). He is co-founder and president of the European Centre for Policy Reform and Entrepreneurship (
Download a .pdf copy of the volume here.