Having your cake…and paying for it

Reflections on the future of social science in UK universities

I don’t usually comment on UK politics at martincoward.net. This is largely because I want the content on this site to reflect my particular research interests and activity. My expertise lies in the intersection of political philosophy and international politics. More specifically, my interests are in thinking about the inter-related topics of cities, security and political violence. I have therefore, largely confined myself to comments on these issues. However, as a politics scholar at a UK Higher Education (UKHE) institution, the nature and future of social sciences in UK universities is something I am both interested and invested in.

Last week’s Browne Review of Higher Education and tomorrow’s Spending Review (SR), will have significant consequences for social science in UKHE. While Browne proposes allowing universities to charge as much as they like for degree courses, the SR is rumoured to eliminate a substantial amount (if not all) of public funding for research and teaching in arts, humanities and social science in UK universities. For social scientists as well as their potential students (and their parents), these proposals have the potential to distort the balance of teaching and research in universities, restrict access to degree courses, hinder the international competitiveness of research  and, ultimately, recast the relationship between universities and wider UK society. As someone with both an individual stake and a professional interest in how these changes will unfold, it would seem appropriate to offer a few reflections.

Support for the principles of the Browne review reveals a belief that education beyond the age of 18 is a private, not a public good.1 Those who argue for increased contributions by individual students regard enquiry into, and propagation of, knowledge beyond basic competence as a private matter that individuals would only undertake if it gave them some sort of benefit.2 Supporters of the idea of increased individual contributions see enquiry into arts, humanities and social science subjects such as English Literature, Anthropology and Politics as unnecessary unless it can confer competitive advantage onto an individual in the job market. And if it can do so the individual, not society, should pay. In espousing this notion of training (this is not a vision of education) Browne and his supporters demonstrate a very poor understanding of the nature of higher education.

The question is, therefore, what is the nature of social science degrees in UKHE? For the most part pre-university schooling emphasises instrumental, goal oriented tasks. As such many students lack a strong grasp of what it means to conduct independent enquiry. Put another way – in the language that employers might understand – they lack a firm grasp of what it means to exercise initiative as opposed to following guidance. University exposes these students to a structured learning environment in which they are challenged to acquire the critical thinking skills that will enable them to exercise independent judgement. My role is to support them in acquiring those skills – which by definition must be independently achieved – through structured courses, environments and exchanges. Their final degree classification (a system which could be reformed, by the way) reflects the extent to which they have utilised our support and gained an independent grasp of how to find, order, understand and critically evaluate knowledge (n my case, knowledge of politics in a variety of forms). In addition it reflects the extent to which they can communicate that knowledge verbally and in writing.

That’s what we do: build the ability to locate, understand, evaluate, organise, structure, present and communicate knowledge in an independent fashion. That’s why our graduates are employable – they are flexible, adaptable, able to take initiative, reflect and communicate.  If society can only see this as a private good, it is short-sighted. Their presence in society means that the UK is a better place and that the public and private sector organisations that employ our graduates are better able to adapt to the challenges they encounter.

As an aside, I would venture that this failure to conceive of the education of social science graduates as a public good could be linked to a perceived lack of interest in independent judgement across wider UK society. This might help to explain why organisations such as Migration Watch are able to publish flawed statistics in order to support their exclusionary stance towards immigration. Or indeed, why the present government managed to misrepresent crime statistics when in opposition (or indeed how it has managed to perpetuate the myth that welfare spending ballooned under labour). Were the general population more concerned with understanding the manner in which knowledge is represented and communicated, it might reject such flimsy misrepresentations. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that Browne’s idea of education as a private good has not been met with the widespread incredulity it deserves.

What will happen, then to social sciences in UKHE? And how might universities respond?

In the first place, I think it is worth pointing out that cabinet millionaires probably don’t care either way what what happens. Increases in fees for their children are small change however steep they are. It is also worth noting that there is a real danger that UKHE will return to being the elite institution it was for much of the twentieth century. Stripped of state support for social science teaching, many universities will set fees at a level that will deter those who might not traditionally go to university. Ultimately, only the wealthy will be able to dig their children out of the debt-trap of university fees. The middle classes will, of course, continue to see the benefit of going to university but the debt their children will accumulate is likely to seriously dent any increase in earning they might have expected to see.3 As such they are likely to consume less and afford smaller houses. The ripples could be significant. But the headline is that fees are more than likely to entrench the boundaries to social mobility that keep children who would not traditionally go to university – children from economically deprived areas – out of the UKHE system.

This, however, is unlikely to be the end of the effects of fees. The following are also very possible as a consequence of removing a cap on fees income:

  • Privatisation: Browne (and Cable’s) vision is of a market in which the provider sets the price, but the government actually hands out the money. Moreover, in return for this distorted vision of a market, providers are supposed to submit to a super-quango that will regulate all areas of their activity. It is difficult to imagine any private sector company operating under these conditions. It will not take long before universities in a strong financial position realise this and make moves to become private entities. Once they do they will control their income stream and they will be exempt from overbearing regulation. We can only hope they chose to be not-for-profit organisations. Needless to say, privatisation will break up the idea of a university system in which institutions enjoy a certain parity of conditions.
  • Wage inflation: On the one hand, graduates saddled with mountainous debt will demand higher salaries. If they have to take on the costs of their education, they will make employers pay in return. Similarly, if universities seek to capitalise on the public profiles of their researchers to attract paying customers they will have to pay for that talent. At a time when universities are seeking to end the implicit bargain that saw researchers who could earn more in the private sector accept lower salaries in return for decent final pensions, this could lead to wage inflation. Universities will not want to see good researchers and teachers leaving because pay (immediate or deferred) cannot compete with private sector employment (or indeed with competitor institutions). Universities will be in no position to drive their most talented staff – the very staff that will help them recruit customers – away.
  • The end of social bargains: There is an implicit bargain that gives both government and the private sector access to university graduates and research for very little in return. Academics frequently offer their services for free: charging no consultancy fees and receiving only travel expenses in return. This bargain will end. Government can expect to see universities charge commercial consultancy rates for the services they provide. Similarly, ideas such as open access publishing may die. Similarly, employers recruit graduates without paying any sort of premium beyond corporation tax. While universities will want their graduates to be employed, they will also want a greater income from the very people that benefit from those graduates.
  • The emergence of entrepreneurial leaders: At present Vice Chancellors (VCs) are, for the most part, academics who have chosen administrative roles over research roles. On the whole they do a good job because they understand the nature of academia. But markets and privatisation will require VCs to become entrepreneurs. They will need to have commercial sensibilities. This will not be about managing budgets made of of bloc grants, but rather nurturing talent, growing income streams and diversifying portfolios. Once entrepreneurial managers move in (with the inflated wages common to the private sector), who knows where institutions will go. While I have no particular love for VCs (most of them have lacked the courage to control the growing administrative strata in HE institutions and have thus failed to keep research and teaching staff focused solely on these tasks), the loss of academic managers in HE would be as significant as the loss of clinician managers in the NHS.
  • Loss of international competitiveness in research: At present the UK social science research base is broad and diverse because all institutions stand to benefit by engaging in research. However, many institutions will see teaching as a more reliable – and bigger – source of income post-Browne. As such they will not consider research vital. A two-tier workforce of teachers and researchers will emerge. As such social science research will be consolidated in a smaller number of universities. UK social science will be narrower and poorer for this consolidation.

I have mixed feelings about how this will unfold. I suspect that in 10 years time UK social science will be a much narrower field, research output will have declined, institutions will have closed and social mobility will have been reduced. I hope that universities find a way to become not-for-profit entities that can escape the shackles of overbearing government regulation, protect the balance between teaching and research, and yet at the same ensure sufficient income is invested in bursaries for those who might be deterred from attending university by cost considerations. I am not optimistic, however. What is certain, however, is that if those who seek to destroy the idea of education as a private good – the ConDem small-state ideologues – get their way, they will pay for it.

  1. Here I take it that support for increased contribution by individual students, not simply increased fees, reflects a belief that education is largely a private good
  2. As an aside it is worth noting that this a vision of human behaviour rooted in the narrow confines of rational choice theory – a theory whose contrived propositions and anomic consequences Adam Curtis showed so well in his TV series The Trap
  3. If, as is often said, a graduate can expect to earn £100,000 more than a non-graduate across the course of their career, accruing £35,000 of debt will seriously dent the benefit of gaining a degree

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2 Responses to “Having your cake…and paying for it”

  1. Kyle Grayson says:


    Thanks for providing this insightful (and sobering) analysis. It strikes me that there are two additional risks of removing the current fees cap and ending public funding of the arts, humanities, and social sciences related to what you’ve outlined.

    The first is grade inflation. With increases in fees doing little more than covering what was previously provided by the state, institutions are going to struggle to demonstrate ‘value for money’. Most will increase contact time and probably seek to improve the level of pastoral care on offer. However, there is no guarantee that these will increase student satisfaction. Similarly, what students perceive as ‘quality’ teaching and what is perceived as ‘quality’ teaching by professionals are not always the same things. Given these uncertainties, grade inflation is a quick, efficient, and low-cost (at least to universities) way of increasing student satisfaction and satisfying ‘objective’ indicators like ‘value-added’ so beloved of league tables and government ministries.

    The second is probably a subsidary of your observation that there will be the establishment of two tiers of academic employment (research and teaching). I would add that teaching employment will likely emulate practices based on fostering flexible pools of casual labour. Why hire teaching staff on permanent contracts–leaving yourself vulnerable to overspending if demand drops–when you can hire them on low cost fixed contracts with no obligation to nuture talent or make pension contributions? North American academia’s dirty secret is that the majority of university lecturers are not permanent staff. They are contracted based on short-term teaching needs. They are poorly paid, overworked, and undervalued. They have neither the time or energy to pursue active research agendas. Teaching quality suffers under these conditions. People are incentivised to teach outside of their core competencies and are often juggling employment across several institutions in order to cobble together a living wage. Any sense of a community within the university dies with lecturers (and students) being part-time. This not only demoralises and alienates staff but it also affects the student experience when one can no longer build-up learning relationships–like you’ve outlined above–with their teachers. It will be a real shame if/when the UK goes down this road…

    • Thanks for these comments, Kyle. I agree, there is very real possibility both of these fears will be realised should Browne’s proposals be implemented.

      Hidden in your grade inflation comments you also hint at another danger – namely that we will see a reactionary and regressive attitude to teaching in which teaching hours are increased in order to give the impression that value is being added (i.e., a bigger product is being given in return for bigger fees – neatly forgetting that the bigger fee is not an increase in price for the product, simply a transfer of the burden for paying for that product from state to individual). Worryingly, then, in response to consumer demand and management profit maximisation we could see more lectures added to the timetable – despite the fact that they are shown to be the least effective means for developing the skills I outline above (which requires active engagement of intellect not simple reception of acknowledge). Students see lectures as contact time with little required in return. As such they are a product to consume without having to work in return (like the sauna at the gym – you feel you are getting something healthy in return for your membership fee, but you don’t have to work at it). On the other hand, managers like lectures because they are efficient in terms of addressing the greatest number of consumers in the least amount of time/space. Adding more of this kind of contact time to the timetable would be a backwards step since it would not advance the kind of learning which makes a university education so valuable (and would fly in the face of pedagogic research).