Monday, 6 December 2010

Danny Hayward on Lord Browne

Dear Harriet Harman MP,

As a constituent of Camberwell and Peckham, I write to you to voice some concerns about the proposal to restructure Higher Education fees, to be put to vote in Parliament on December 9th. I'll state my principal objection to the proposal upfront. I believe that the proposed change in fee structure will inevitably have the effect of discouraging poor people from attending university; and in consequence that it will inevitably fortify social inequality. Despite the fact that degrees will be “free” at point of service, I think it is quite clear that the prospect of approximately £30,000 in debt has a meaning quite different for a teenager from a working class family than it does for a teenager from a middle- or upper-class family. Pointing this out does not involve accusing working-class teenagers of being incapable of “rational choice.” It involves acknowledging two things. First, that working-class teenagers know at first hand how difficult it is to earn such large sums; and second, that unlike middle-class children, they are used to living without significant financial support from their parents.

My mother is a dyslexia tutor in a Further Education College in Kent. Recently she reported to me (with some surprise) that many of her students had remarked that they would never contemplate paying the proposed fees. For these students, the news that universities will charge at least £18,000 for a degree is just the sound of a door slamming shut. It is a sound most of them know well. In the current debate on fees, the absence of discussion of the psychology of social exclusion is lamentable. It is also a perfectly predictable consequence of the decision to commission a man like Lord Browne to determine and advocate “sustainable” fee structures.

I expect that these points have been made to you before. Before I finish, I wish to make some remarks about competition as it is discussed in the Browne Report. As you no doubt know, Lord Browne was an employee of BP for the great majority of his working life (1966-2008). The structure and ambitions of a global oil and gas company could hardly be more different to those of a university. Universities are successful where they can cultivate and maintain an atmosphere of mutuality and co-operation within a horizon of shared interests. The cheerfully abstract assertion in the Browne Report that “competition generally raises quality” (p. 4) is in my opinion an indication of Browne’s unfamiliarity with the university system. A more intelligently cautious assessment of competition is that it leads to different effects depending on where it is introduced. Competition among academics (for example, to provide the “best” teaching experience) could well have unforeseen and unwanted consequences. I’ll adduce two examples. Browne imagines that publication of student rankings will increase competition among academics and therefore institutional success. But by incentivising institutions to “cater” to students, we may in fact place a downward pressure on standards of assessment. And by incentivising lecturers to “follow the choices” of their students (in effect, by encouraging them to do more teaching in areas outside of their areas of expertise), we may produce a declension in the quality of teaching. Incentivising universities and lecturers to scramble after the approval of their students can have negative as well as positive effects.

However, this isn’t my central point. I mean only to say that one ought not to imagine that competition is a kind of aphrodisiac for institutional effectiveness. My central point is that competition in the form of highly bureaucratic centralised assessment can alter an institutional atmosphere, often for the worse. It can produce stress, anxiety and mutual suspicion. Certainly academics have no prerogative for exemption from those phenomena; but I write to you to say that in five years as a student, on three course programmes and in two universities, I have had plenty of opportunity to observe the consequences of stress, anxiety and mutual suspicion for academic work. The consequences are not ‘improved quality’.

Universities do not deserve special dispensations, but the recommendations of the Browne Report are indicative of a false belief, widely shared, that market imperatives can “generally” improve “quality” in any institution irrespective of its organisational structure or purpose. I can say from experience that in universities the imposition of market imperatives is just as capable of vitiating results, because good results in universities depend on the preservation of a humanely co-operative working environment. Competition is just as likely to promote exhausted, bickering and uncreative faculties, offering superficial teaching in popular subjects and practising reduced stringency in assessment.

I encourage you to speak to workers and “service-users” in this constituency about their experience of the impact of competition on “quality”. But, more pressingly, I urge you to vote on Thursday against any increase in fees.

Yours Sincerely,

Daniel Hayward

Phd in English
Birkbeck College
University of London

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