Academic Funding

Are we sleepwalking into the US higher education system’s mistakes?

August 1, 2011 770

This was originally published on the Guardian Higher Education Network blog.

By Patrick McGhee

As a busy vice-chancellor I cherish those moments when I can take a break and catch forty winks – a lazy Sunday afternoon under a spreading oak tree, resting on a beach in the Mediterranean or during Matters Arising at the Quality Audit Committee.

Peter Williams, former chief executive of the QAA, used to say that the institutional audit handbook was highly recommended for any VC suffering from insomnia. Not, he said, because it was a boring read but rather because it gave the kind of assurance that aided restful slumber.

As we enter a new landscape of for-profit providers in the UK the role of the QAA will be particularly crucial if any of us in higher education are to rest easy. High quality private providers have much to offer directly and through partnership with established universities but the white paper does more to encourage new entrants to compete on price alone.

Yet at the very time when the UK HE white paper is putting in place a framework for deregulation and subsidies for for-profit providers, the US government is now, following deregulation by the previous Bush administration, looking for ways to reduce such funding and create tougher rules for no-frills colleges.

A year-long US Senate investigation found that for-profits had dropout rates of 50%, charge twice as much as a four-year public university and often provide inadequate support for the low-income students they attract. One of the greatest abuses has been in vocational education with promises of jobs in specific areas not being fulfilled which has led to new “Gainful Employment” rules focusing on student affordability.

Are we going to sleepwalk into all this in the UK? Why learn from our mistakes when we can learn from someone else’s? My concerns on for-profits multiply when I look at the UK fees model – not necessarily as it stands but what the new model potentially lays the ground for in the future.

At the moment the cap is £9,000 but there are already muted calls for it to be raised. The threshold for repayment is £21,000 but the temptation to lower it might be irresistible to a future administration. 100% of fees are currently deferred, but the current system makes it too easy to introduce a percentage or flat rate up-front payment.

Putting the machinery in place for repayment was the tricky part, requiring students to pay something up front is just a matter of political will. Any of these moves erode the public vs private distinction and would encourage US-style no-frills, for-profit providers even further, in my view to the detriment of students and the reputation of the UK brand.

While we do need a Private Higher Education Act of the kind advocated by HEPI in May and a stronger QAA with real teeth, we also need to challenge the fees model itself. We should not underestimate what this new machinery is and what it can do. We should not be caught asleep on this watch.

Professor Patrick McGhee is the vice chancellor of the University of East London. He tweets at @VC_UEL

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