British Universities Would Compete More for Students—and Funds—Under Proposed Overhaul

June 29, 2011

The British government outlined a series of proposed higher-education reforms on Tuesday that put in stark relief how quickly England's higher-education system is moving toward a market-driven orientation, with an emphasis on consumer choice, competition, and accountability. Among the most controversial proposals in "Students at the Heart of the System," the government's long-awaited white paper, are measures that would put private players on equal footing with public institutions, which could radically shift the composition of what is now an overwhelmingly public system.

The market sensibility on display in the report has been a consistent theme in the coalition government's approach to higher-education policy since it took office over a year ago, and has underscored other measures it has backed, such as the controversial increase in tuition at universities in England that will take effect next year.

The reforms outlined in the report would build upon the sweeping financing changes that were enacted last year. Universities have faced deep cuts to their teaching budgets, with some institutions announcing the elimination of courses they can no longer afford, and the new financing system is designed to shift more of the burden of paying for higher education from taxpayers to high-earning graduates. Beginning next year, universities in England will be able to charge annual undergraduate tuition of up to £9,000, although fees are backed by government loans that are not due for repayment until graduates earn more than £21,000 a year.

Some of the white paper's proposals, including an expanded role for private higher-education providers and measures to ensure greater institutional accountability to students, have already been widely discussed.

Opening Competition for Top Students

Among the most controversial provisions is one that would allow universities to freely compete for students who score the top grades in national A-level examinations, upon which university admissions are largely based. As public institutions, British universities are restricted in the number of domestic students they can enroll and are fined if they exceed those limits. Under the new proposal, overall institutional quotas would remain in place, but students recruited from among the 65,000 top-achievers on the A-level exams would not be counted toward an institution's total, and financing for those students would follow them to whichever institution they attend.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, an independent think tank, said that much of what the government is attempting to do with the proposed reforms is constrained by the fact that "it is impossible to allow the free exercise of choice by students where every student recruited costs the government money."

Eliminating the top-scoring domestic students from the quota cap would result in "greater competition for places on the more-selective courses," according to the white paper, but Mr. Bekhradnia said that whatever competition it produces is likely to arise only among leading institutions and would have very little adverse impact on them. Second-tier universities, meanwhile, would face the prospect of being unable to attract the same number of students as before, resulting in an eventual reduction in their overall allotment, he said.

Another detail in the white paper, however, could have more far-reaching consequences, Mr. Bekhradnia believes. That proposal would remove, on a pro-rata basis per institution, "a flexible margin of about 20,000 places" that are now distributed across the university system, and award those places to "providers who combine good quality with value for money and whose average charge is at or below £7,500." According to the paper, "this will make it easier for further-education colleges, new entrants, and other nontraditional providers that can attract students, to expand to meet demand."

The effect of this proposal, Mr. Bekhradnia says, "will be to take places away from public universities and to give them to private universities and further-education colleges. It is from this number that the private sector will expand." The 20,000 together with the 65,000 places for the high-achieving that will be removed from the quota system makes 85,000 places that will now be up for grabs, representing nearly a fourth of all incoming undergraduates.

The government has already moved to expand the range of higher-education providers in Britain, last year conferring the title of university college for the first time on a for-profit provider. The universities minister, David Willetts, said in remarks in the House of Commons on Tuesday that the government will take additional steps to "review the artificial barriers to smaller higher-education institutions taking the title 'university.'"

Such regulatory barriers "are preventing a level playing field for higher-education providers of all types, including further-education colleges and other alternative providers," according to the report.

There has been vociferous opposition to such a prospect, especially from the national faculty and student unions, which point to the problems that have embroiled for-profit private providers in the United States in recent years. Mr. Bekhradnia thinks those worries are overstated. He called the government approach "measured and sensible," and said that if those providers are submitted to the same regulatory oversight as public institutions, many of the problems that have arisen in the United States should be avoidable.

Move Toward Openness

Many of the proposals in the white paper are aimed at improving the student experience, in part by giving students more information for assessing and comparing institutions. It calls for collecting data from individual institutions and the national body through which admissions to all institutions are coordinated on matters like the qualifications of previously admitted students and employment information for individual programs. It also suggests requiring institutions to publish student evaluations of their courses.

Mr. Willetts said on Tuesday that the proposed reforms "put students in the driving seat," but the National Union of Students said in a written statement that it did not think that goal had been achieved. "We welcome the focus on students' unions and the drive for better information for students," the union said, but it noted that "market competition alone will not drive up quality."

The 1994 Group, an organization that represents 19 research-intensive universities, also said that the white paper fell far short of expectations. It welcomed the idea of flexibility in the allocation of student places, but emphasized that "high-quality student experiences are not confined to a small group of institutions that are perceived to be the elite" and said that the government "needs to avoid driving down standards by auctioning students to low-cost institutions."

In separate statements, the Russell Group, which represents Britain's top 20 research-intensive universities, and Universities UK, which represents the vice chancellors of all British universities, both expressed concerns about "unintended consequences" of those proposals. The Russell Group hoped that any expansion of the private sector would not "significantly increase pressure on the already expensive student support system," while Universities UK said the measure making 20,000 student places available only to institutions that charge tuition of £7,500 or less should be monitored to ensure that "this does not undermine the quality of the higher-education system."

The government plans a "full consultation" on the reforms before bringing a higher-education bill up for a vote sometime in 2012. With such a range of views already in evidence, "this will be a very controversial discussion period," Mr. Bekhradnia said, adding that despite the opposition, he expected many of the measures to be enacted.


More global news from The Chronicle

SIGN UP: Get Global Coverage in Your Inbox
JOIN THE CONVERSATION:    Twitter     LinkedIn