Comment: Why we need a commission for higher education

Professor Sir Keith Burnett, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, writes about the changing world of higher education. An edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times.

Why we need a commission for higher education

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 14.1.18, edited version published by the Sunday Times

The world of higher education is changing, and I don't just mean the wise men gathering around our new born regulatory child, the Office for Students.

We have an education system that was built for the good times, or to be precise the ‘things are bound to get better’ times. This meant good state funding for Universities and low or no tuition fees for our children.

When ‘austerity’ hit Britannia, higher education held on to the good times by replacing state funding with higher tuition fees, boosting the numbers of students, in particular international ones, and also by being the lead nation in European research funding.

Those are the reasons we are still number two in the international league tables. Yes indeed, UK children, Chinese parents and the European Commission have kept us pumped.

But the wave of steady progress for all is passing. Graduate salaries for any old graduate are stalling or falling around the world. And the good old UK is seeing that too.

And that is the world into which the new University regulator, the OFS was born. It was conceived by a government eager to encourage a new era of streamlined marketisation for parents seeing the real cost to their children of paying for University but not getting the golden ticket they got for free. They are asking questions – questions that need answers.

Are universities doing too much research and not teaching our kids what employers want?

Are universities paying people too much?

Have standards gone down because they just want bums on seats?

Are there just too many universities?

Could the private sector do it better and cheaper?

In fact, these are the issues that many universities, certainly mine, have hardly stopped thinking about for the last ten years.

But we now have a market, so we don’t need to worry - the market will sort things out, won’t it?

The people setting up the OFS know, of course, is that it is by no means simple - market price information alone is not enough. So, the regulator will construct information to give proper ‘signals’ beyond the price, which is fixed, to the market. These signals are the Teaching Excellence Framework or the TEF, which will run alongside the Research Excellence Framework. With these in place a proper regulated market will sort things.

So, is there anything we need, as a country, to worry about?

Well, yes.

First let’s make sure the thumping great cross subsidy from internationals students keeps coming in. That’s more of a real market, with variable prices in a fully international market place. And prepare for the failures of places if the international flow stops where competition or visa issues bite.

But there is more than that. Something our students are asking - shouldn’t we actually be thinking about whether the system as a whole is right? Is the whole idea of getting more and more people buying this regulated, and highly subsided, product past its best before date?

If the wave is passing, what should education be in twenty years’ time? Do we have the ability and vision to change the whole system?

Markets can be good at changing the quality of an individual product at the margin but can’t change a whole system.

We have seen it with other aspects of our public services - for example, the railways. Private companies have done a decent job of running and improving parts of the system but they still need a hefty subsidy. And now almost even everyone says we need a commission, an ‘organising mind’ to look after the public and the UK.

And that is why I am sponsoring, with our Students' Union, a commission on higher education to do just that.

And by the way, we’d better keep some of the Euro funding, along with the ton of clever staff it has brought us.