Will the Browne Report improve the quality of higher education?

Rather than create a bureaucratic and imperfect measure for quality, our proposals rely on student choice to drive up the quality of higher education.”

The Browne Report claims to improve the quality of higher education, which may be why some MPs were persuaded by it.  According to the report, universities in the UK are in serious need of reform.  They need to improve on quality to keep up with their international competitors.  Quality ought to be measured by ‘student choice.’

Here are four quick reasons why Browne’s proposals will almost certainly undermine the quality of higher education:

1. Pressure on lecturers – Academics already face immense pressure to ‘publish or perish.’  Getting a job, staying in a job and having any influence within universities depends on having a high level of publications in the right journals.  Combined with teaching commitments, academia is becoming an increasingly stressful workplace.  Now, academics will be under constant pressure to ‘improve quality.’

This might not necessarily be a bad thing (we’ve all had bad lecturers), but who is the judge of quality…

2. ‘Student Choice’ – What eighteen-year-old knows the ins-and-outs of university life: the most important subjects for a solid grounding in an academic discipline, how a degree should be structured, what they actually want to study long-term, what makes a good or bad essay?  I didn’t set out to study Political Theory, I discovered it during my undergraduate degree in politics.  In terms of deciding what I should have studied as an undergraduate theorist, I really don’t think I was the best judge.  The most important political theorist of the twentieth century is John Rawls – someone I hadn’t heard of before my degree, who is bloody boring to study and I would have avoided like the plague if possible.  But I would be a much poorer political theorist for it.  Will universities now teach ‘crowd-pleasing’ courses to appease ‘student choice’ rather than intellectually valuable or rigorous subjects?  Whatever happened to peer review?

If we’re basing university assessment on student choice, we have to know what students really want…

3. What students want – Students want high grades, especially if degrees are exclusively seen as a stepping-stone to a job rather than a good in themselves.  Will there be pressure to inflate students’ grades?  If a student is paying £9000 per year, they’re not going to settle for a 2:2 are they?  What if a student relies on getting certain grades to maintain their subsidy?  Will lecturers feel undue pressure to add a mark or two?

Students also want more contact time with staff…

4. Mass redundancies – If there are mass redundancies, there will be less staff to go round.  This undermines students’ wishes to have more contact time with staff; they will actually have less support.  It also means higher class sizes.  Staff will have more marking to do, more students to see, more responsibilities in general and less time to research, therefore undermining what students want and ‘student choice’, increasing pressure on lecturers and reducing the quality of research.

If we want to improve the quality of higher education, marketisation is not the answer; it creates a whole new set of problems.  Browne thinks his recommendations will improve the quality of higher education because, like any other market fundamentalist, he believes in the power of market forces to sort the wheat from the chaff in every possible sector – as the Report puts it, ‘Competition generally raises quality.’ Rationalising turning higher education into a marketplace by claiming it will improve quality is a clever smokescreen and clearly it has fooled some MPs, but it hasn’t fooled anyone with an understanding of the government’s Thatcherite agenda.

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4 Comments

Filed under Education, Student Protests

4 responses to “Will the Browne Report improve the quality of higher education?

  1. For all the reasons that you point out the Browne proposals were a lot of bollox.

    The lie at the heart of Browne is that consumerism guarantees quality and therefore commodifying learning and knowledge will make HE better for all. It’s an argument that is difficult to sustain. Think of supermarkets, the citadels of consumerism, for instance. Quality for such retail giants is relative, with some supermarkets catering for the cheap and cheerful end of the market, where ‘every little helps’, while others can make their pitch in terms of high quality produce. (This isn’t just an education. This is a Russell Group education.) Like supermarkets, universities will be stratified and students will internalise what every supermarket customer knows in his or her heart, you get what you pay for. Nobody buys an Asda pudding and expects M&S flavour, just as people with little money and no expectation of ever being rich will get used to the educational equivalent of Ryanair.

    • Thanks for your comment Stephen. I completely agree. We already have a stratified education system with degrees from certain universities seen as more worthwhile than others (not to mention public schools and inequality pervading every level of education), but I can only see Browne’s proposals exacerbating the problem…

  2. AdamV

    I totally agree. This notion that marketisation brings choice brings quality is without evidence.
    For one, we already have choice. Courses that under-recruit are at risk of closure. Adding variable fees to the mix will not change this equation other than to lead to good courses closing simply because of arithmetic.

    For some reason Browne seems to be unable to grasp that courses that the lecturing team put effort into do well and those that dont dont. This is the main factor in “quality”, and using no matter what sticks government have will not change this.

    If this is about quality, why is the coalition cutting £400M from the budget BEFORE introducing higher fees? If higher fees are such a good idea, why do they want to create a massive funding shortage?

  3. Hello, me again 🙂

    I work for a Russell group University, and I believe interesting times are soon to be upon us. Having worked for 4 different public sector organisations (2 councils, an FE college and a University), the least professional of all of them by such a massive margin is a University. I think I (with next to no business knowledge) could make some almighty savings on our budget, with not too much effort at all. The level of business professionalism where I work is also really low, and really shoddy. To describe self-interest as rampant is to put it mildly. I regularly feel guilty that I earn twice my FE wage for a lot less impact. I am seeking self-employment as a part marxist excuse / defence.

    I think this paragraph above highlights the double danger of marketisation – one turning education into a marketplace isn’t morally right, but most universities simply aren’t built to produce marketable items. Every time my University has to make a business decision, consultants start popping up everywhere. You try to suggest some cost benefits analysis modelling and people look at you funny. SWOT analysis (which is something people do in GCSE business studies) is still seen as a useful tool. I know, I am a twat, I could just leave and go work elsewhere. It’s a valid point. I accept it. I do try to give a lot to charity, and if out with student mates, drinks are on me. Universities simply aren’t ready for it. A lot will grind to a halt.

    This is the key weakness in Browne’s model. Capitalism can definitely be applied as a model to most markets – supply and demand, elasticity, yadda yadda yadda. But what other product ties you in for three years, gives you next to no refund or guarantee of quality and has a directly affects the rest of your life? Not one I can think of. Think of what universities can actually compete on as well? Price? Degree quality? Likelihood of having fun? A job? Debt? Halls? Sports? It’s a very hard choice to make, and a choice for which the information is scarse.

    I helped to author a tool to assess lecturer performance this year. Was it to understand the opinions of students? No, it was so lecturers could ask for a pay rise.

    Quite correctly, there is no way an 18 year old can be expected to understand this. I know I didn’t – I was given a UCAS book and told to pick some courses. I liked playing computer games, so did computing. Three years later it had bored me, so I went off to do music business training. Then people told me I had oddly matched qualifications.

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