What will Browne mean?

Submitted by Matthew on 21 October, 2010 - 11:33

Solidarity asked J, a UCU activist at York University, her views on the Browne Review.

The Browne Review’s proposals could open the door to an American-style system. Universities will, with a few caveats, charge whatever they like. We will have a marketplace where certain institutions pitch for working-class students by charging lower fees, while the more prestigious universities are essentially closed off to anyone who can’t afford yearly fees of £10,000 or more. Is that a fair assessment?

I’m not sure about “lower fees”. Browne is talking about a fee of £6k as a way of nearly paying the cost of educating a student for a year.

He reckons that the real cost now is £7k, and the lower figure is set to give universities the incentive to be more efficient i.e. cut costs. So, if there is the predicted 79% cut in Government support for teaching, universities will need to charge £6k to get near breaking even.

It’s hard to see how some universities can charge less, unless they’re able to do it in some departments that are cross-subsidised.

And new universities, with low levels of research income and funding from industry, will be particularly hard hit by the loss of teaching support.

So I can’t see how certain institutions could afford to make the lower pitch. The minimum cost of a three-year degree is likely to be just under £40k.

(See the UCU calculations at bit.ly/ucu40.)

As far as the “prestigious universities” go, this may well open up some fabulous opportunities. The Times Higher Education Supplement last week quoted a professor at LSE saying that “market forces create incentives to quality... it is terribly important to set quantity free”.

What he means is that Browne recommends no limits to individual universities’ intakes: so LSE thinks it will be able to up its fees and rely on its reputation to maintain the number of applicants.

If adopted, how will the Review’s proposals intersect with trends we’ve already seen developing in the HE sector, such as attacks on courses or departments without a specific vocational (that is, money-making) application and the demands for two-year degrees?

I’m not sure about the demand for two-year degrees — but Browne is definitely going to have an impact on arts and humanities degrees in particular.

Courses which he does not treat as “priority” will have to fund themselves out of fee income, or be supported via income from elsewhere in the same university, or close.

Or there may be expedients like cuts and mergers, so University A supplies a particular degree to Universities B and C when they close their own departments.

Results can include a selection from: a big reduction in choice, the disappearance from the UK of some areas of teaching (and the research that it was based on), job losses, students whose degree course shrinks drastically while they’re taking it (because the department will close when they’ve graduated), loss of international standing in research areas, higher student/staff ratios, worse facilities...

What’s the likely impact on international students?

Browne has a lot to say about international challenges and competitiveness, but nothing about international students.

They won’t be affected by the proposed changes in fees for home students. But they may well be affected by further increases in the already high fees they have to pay, hiked up on the basis that they’ve always paid more than home students, so the differential has to stay.

And the loss of government funding for teaching plus the demand for “efficiency” are likely to have adverse effects on their experience. Which may well make it more attractive for international students to go elsewhere for a degree — cutting off what is currently a hugely important source of university income for the UK.

What about the impact on education workers?

This is going to affect everybody in the sector. Universities are major employers. Closures of departments and of universities, plus pressure for “efficiency” will eliminate jobs in teaching, research, cleaning, catering, admin, IT, library, maintenance, portering, etc.

On the academic side, it is likely that there will be fewer permanent contracts and yet more teaching done by hourly-paid temp workers. This has implications for teaching quality for students — higher student/staff ratios, fewer teaching hours, less chance to make contact with staff for advice outside class time.

And there are also bad implications for access to library, etc, facilities, upkeep of University premises...

So Browne is likely to be bad for education workers and local economies.

How do you think the implementation of the proposals can be resisted?

We need active union work (including students and all the people who work in universities) plus a campaign to spell out the implications of Browne: a worse deal for most people and a massive loss of opportunity for families on low incomes.

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