“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.