From education to employment

Neoliberal or not? English higher education in recent years

finger pointing at words in large book

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published a new Debate Paper, Neoliberal or not? English higher education (Debate Paper 34), which includes two contrasting chapters by Professor Roger Brown and Nick Hillman as well as a Foreword by Professor Sir Chris Husbands.

Roger Brown argues that the organisation of English higher education in England has come to resemble a market. He covers the core principles of neoliberalism before identifying the key aspects of a ‘neo-market’ as:

  • consumer information;
  • privatisation;
  • (de)regulation; and
  • ‘user pays’.

Professor Brown concludes the consequences of recent higher education reforms include ‘institutional stratification, the commodification of learning and (for some groups) reduced participation, or at least lower levels of participation than might otherwise have been the case.’

In contrast, Nick Hillman argues recent changes are better understood on their own merits rather than as part of a neoliberal crusade. He says the reforms that culminated in higher tuition fees, the removal of student number caps and a new market regulator flowed from cross-party commitments to focus public spending on other areas, in line with the priorities of voters.

Hillman also argues the changes are sustainable, noting they reached their apotheosis after the so-called ‘neoliberal order’ is thought to have come to an end. His chapter ends with a plea for more supply-side reform: ‘the biggest disappointment in recent higher education policies for those of a free-market disposition is how this agenda has fallen off the table.’

Professor Roger Brown, the lead author of the Report, said:

‘Student learning is far too complex an activity to be effectively regulated by an external agency or an external “market”. The institutions and their staff just have to be trusted, and the resources available for regulation – both at the system level and within institutions – have to be put to the best possible use. There just is no alternative.

‘However, there can be no doubt that the introduction of full-cost fees and the liberalisation of entry to the higher education “market” is a game changer so far as the assurance of quality is concerned. Perhaps what we need is a new Council for National Academic Awards – independent of both the Government and the institutions – to accredit providers as meeting the standards expected of a British degree and to support institutions in maintaining that accreditation.

‘In such a fiercely competitive environment, withdrawal or conditioning of accreditation would be a powerful, effective and well-understood sanction.’

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

‘There is a lot of nonsense talked about recent English higher education reforms. They have been aimed less at implementing neoliberal ideology and more at finding ways to fund universities properly while removing limits on student places when voters have more urgent priorities.

‘Recent higher education reforms have generally worked out rather well, but they are currently becoming clogged up. Freezing fees in an era of high inflation, limiting institutions through over-regulation and failing to see through past promises on supply-side reform put the whole edifice in question.

‘We should be focusing more on staying ahead of other countries’ fast-improving higher education systems.’

In a Foreword to the paper, Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University (and a HEPI Trustee), writes:

‘Roger Brown argues that the neoliberal political order shaped higher education policies decisively in the United Kingdom from the later 1980s. … The expansion of higher education in the face of rapidly rising demand was also characterised by increased competition, deregulation and more sharpy defined hierarchy. These were key concepts in higher education policy for the Thatcher and Major Conservative Governments, the New Labour Governments of Brown and Blair and Cameron’s Coalition Government. The 2012 fee settlement for higher education, in which virtually the entire cost of higher education participation was passed to the student / graduate was, on Brown’s analysis, the culmination of a long-term policy drift – the embedding of the neoliberal order in higher education policy, bringing universities sharply into a competitive market place.

‘Nick Hillman addresses the concept and the underlying ideas of neoliberalism from a different perspective. Where Brown is concerned with over-arching concepts and the way they shape political ideas, Hillman looks at the often day-to-day choices made by politicians; these were politicians who had a variable grasp of the intricacies of the system they were overseeing, but a keen understanding of economic pressures and the art of the political possible. His is therefore a more fine-grained analysis from the point of view of a key actor in the decisions made in the early 2010s … Where Brown reads political choices as subordinate to powerful overarching ideas, Hillman explores the range of choices which seemed to be available to politicians and the decisions made as a result of short-term political and financial pressures.

‘The debate is not simply a technical one; it has powerful implications for the unfolding of higher education policy in the years to come. … It is by no means clear, as “political disorder and uncertainty reign” what comes next. If Roger Brown’s argument is right, higher education policy will need a new paradigm, and one which is as yet undefined. If Hillman’s argument is right, the existing paradigm may be adaptable and malleable as old and new political and economic ideas clash for supremacy.’

Read the paper here

Related Articles