Wednesday, 12 December 2012

What now is the role of government in regulating Universities?

The relationship between government, universities and industry is of fundamental significance in a knowledge economy (see for an excellent analysis of this using cybernetic theories). The regulation of education by government inevitably has knock-on effects throughout the rest of the economy.

In industrial society, governmental regulation was partly a matter of deciding how many engineers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc were needed and what sort of research was required in the national interest. Resources could then be allocated centrally to institutions who were trusted to organise themselves in the delivery of suitably qualified individuals.

In a post-industrial society - particularly one with a massified higher education system - things are not quite so simple. There are of course still calculations done on the number of teachers, nurses (now this requires a degree), doctors, etc are needed. But education is largely treated as a commodity which is saleable in its own right, with its own market, providing its customers have the means to purchase. Government increasingly has taken the attitude that giving students the means to purchase education (through the provision of loans) is all that it requires to do to regulate the education system. The market for education will self-organise and deliver effective education (which may be exportable) given the provision of resource by government to students. To what extent are they right?

Education is a peculiar kind of industry. Institutions operate as autonomous entities but dependent on student numbers and (most importantly) political policy. Institutions, for all their claims of autonomy and independence, are beholden to the will of ministers. For ministers themselves, the fundamental question concerns the basis of their policy-making and the treatment of individual institutions. Whilst officially, government appears merely to be providing the resources to students so that they can purchase education, behind the scenes a completely different (and somewhat chaotic) picture emerges of lobbying by institutions trying to influence policy to favour their particular circumstances. Simple things make a big difference: for example, the allocation of 'student numbers' to institutions determines an institution's maximum potential income. 'Student numbers' are bid for by institutions and allocated by a rather opaque bureaucratic process where no institution can be entirely certain of the outcome. Added to this, with more providers entering the market, and with the highest-performing students excluded from the student-number control, the government appears set on producing increased competition in the sector, particularly at the lower-end, as Andrew McGettigan explains (see

"With the government maintaining control of overall student numbers through controls on recruitment, we would see more outfits competing for a limited number of students: intensifying competition. It is one thing to use private providers to increase overall capacity (as recommended by Browne), quite another to intensify a zero-sum game: recruitment and marketing will eat up a significant proportion of the new higher fees."

But the zero-sum game isn't quite what it seems. There is a kind of aleatoric element in university funding which is itself a regulating mechanism. The fact that lobbying can affect the outcome of student number allocation or policy initiatives introduces further levels to the regulatory game. There is some kind of process of allocation of numbers; there is also some kind of political game that must be played with the minister. Given this rather frightening scenario, one wonders who would want to be a Vice Chancellor. Of course, individuals with certain Machievelian character traits might thrive in this situation, but they are not necessarily the character traits that one would wish for in a leader of a university! To be fair, Vice Chancellors may well resent the assault on their institutions and the system. But who would dare speak out for fear of upsetting the minister? Many, I should imagine, find themselves in an impossible position - which seldom brings out the best in anyone.

The problem with all this is that it is completely unaccountable. The minister acts as a shadowy kingmaker behind the scenes playing a cynical game with the electorate whilst "leading on" university leaders. Universities find themselves in financial trouble and its their fault, despite the fact that the minister may well have been pulling the strings for some ulterior motive. At the same time, it is not inconceivable that institutional managers themselves may have ulterior motives. These may or may not also have been manipulated by the minister, but however it is inspected, the complete absence of a clear organising principle for higher education can mask mismanagement, injustice or (potentially) criminality.

This is a toxic cocktail of unaccountability, indiscriminate regulation, personal ambition and political manipulation. It may, however, work for a while. When is it likely to break down? As we have seen in other recent instances of institutional trauma (the press, BBC, MP expenses, etc), I think there will be some kind of shock. The problem with any unaccountable system is that people eventually get sloppy and make mistakes which gives the game away. As the shock is absorbed, and people unravel the tangled mess that has become educational regulation, they may well ask the question that so badly needs to be asked: "Why are we doing this?"

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