In C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers novel sequence, several of which are set in a fictional Cambridge college in the 1930s and 1940s, older dons could remember the time when college fellows weren’t allowed to marry. As late as the 1960s universities remained a world apart. There were just 22 in the UK, reserved for a privileged 5 per cent of the population – and in some of them students still had to be in by 12 at night.
Of all our enduring institutions (Oxbridge dates back to the !2-13th century), over recent years the universities have perhaps travelled farthest in the shortest period of time. There are now 150 of them in the UK, and Tony Blair’s target of 50 per cent participation has pretty much been met. The all-important student satisfaction survey naturally ensures that no vestiges of restraint on night-time entertainment endure (today’s equivalent may be ‘safe spaces’, but that’s another story).
That is certainly an achievement, but as recent political headlines over tuition fees and teaching attest, it is far from an unalloyed or uncomplicated one. For the recent history of the university sector is an object lesson in the unexpected consequences of opportunistic policy-making, a number of which are now coming destructively home to roost.
The first is perhaps the most straightforward. One powerful justification for university expansion was the supply-side argument that boosting educational levels would respond to employers’ demands for a more capable workforce and thus benefit the economy as a whole. Fifty years on, employers are still whingeing about the wrong kind of qualifications – and these days they’d often rather not employ anyone at all, particularly expensive graduates. It was always the demand side too, stupid.
As commentators such as Alison Wolf have consistently argued, the reverse of the coin of privileging university education is the scandalous neglect of further and vocational education such as apprenticeships. In the resulting mismatch, overqualified graduates are being employed for jobs which previously would have gone to the less well qualified, compressing the latters’ employment and social chances, and everyone's wage rates. This not only stokes the political pressures that are now all too evident, but also ensures that the expensive loans taken out to buy an income boost that hasn't materialised, will never be repaid.
There have been internal growing pains, too. As with much in Britain, universities, in the words of Andrew Adonis, head of Blair's No 10 policy unit, have developed haphazardly, with ‘one thing leading to another, in a typically unplanned British way, on the part of successive governments’. As the university estate has grown, and encouraged by successive governments, notions of choice, competition and latterly value for money have steadily come to the fore. Particularly consequential (and not in a good way) has been the regime of targets in the shape of the Research Assessment Exercise and its successors instituted by the Thatcher government in the 1980s.
As with all such measures, the consequences were predictably unintended. Thus making a large chunk of university funding dependent on research quality provoked massive gaming on one hand (a burgeoning transfer market for prolific researchers, exclusion of weaker colleagues from assessment, huge expansion of conferences and learned journals to report on and in), together with reduced emphasis on teaching on the other. Teaching quality hasn’t suffered – competition for posts among a vastly increased supply of young PhDs has seen to that – but quantity has. Teaching is now to be subjected to its own assessment, with no doubt similar perverse effects, not to mention spiralling bureaucratic demands: university head of department is in practice now a full-time management job, with no time for either research or the teaching that the incumbentwas taken on to perform.
Meanwhile, tuition fees and the insidious marketisation of education generally have increasingly displaced competition between institutions from the academic to factors such as facilities and ‘the student experience’. Universities now think of themselves as ‘brands’, with a massive increase in spending on marketing and related activities – and managerial types to do it. While lecturing salaries are subject to a 1.1 per cent annual growth cap, no such restriction applies to management. Adonis points to soaring vice-chancellors’ pay, which drags other managerial ranks up with it. Bath University employs 13 managers on more than £150,000 a year, and 67 on £100,000. Many universities actually make a ‘profit’ on tuition fees: dispiritingly, this is where the money goes instead.
Which brings us back to the bottom line: who pays? Adonis is right that fees set at £9,000 a year (a cynically and supremely opportunist move by George Osborne to fund tax cuts for the better off), soon to go up again, are a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ and in the long term untenable. No one should have to begin adult life with debts of £50,000 hanging over them. But the effects ramify out from individuals to the entire macroeconomy. For a start, starting debt levels are now so high that even after 30 years, three-quarters of students won’t have paid off their debt, according to the IFS. On the government’s own estimates total unpaid loans will hit £100bn next year and double again in a decade.
That’s unconscionable enough. But there are huge knock-on effects too. There was always a sneaking suspicion that one intended side-effect of making young adults pay for their university education might be to curb student activism. At least in the US, that seems to have been the intention. But the indirect costs are now mounting vertiginously. Indebted graduates are delaying having families while they search for reasonably paying jobs. As for buying homes, forget it – as also the furniture and other stuff that go in them. In fact, impaired credit ratings make it quite hard for them to make any substantial purchases at all. Dampened spirits and high anxiety levels are being connected with health issues such as depression, and marital failure. Finally, the debt overhang is also reckoned to be a factor in the worrying fall-off in rates of entrepreneurship and new business formation.
It takes a special kind of management to transform a policy that was presented as having only upsides into something now characterised as ‘unsustainable’, ‘in tatters’ and a 'substantial economic headwind'. It will take something equally special to unravel it, but the other way round. But that would require an ability to register and learn the lessons of past mistakes – so don’t hold your breath.