Lecturers look set to strike again

UCU Pensions Strike 2018 (Chris Bertram)

Academic and academic related staff in just under 150 UK universities are to be balloted for strike action in the Autumn after negotiations between the University and College Union (UCU) and the university employers association, UCEA, have broken down.

It is very disappointing to report that the employers failed to improve their offer/ failed to sufficiently improve their offer,” wrote the UCU’s Head of Higher Education, Paul Bridge, in a note to local union branches. “In line with the decisions taken by the Higher Education Committee (HEC), UCU has today written to the heads of institutions we believe are part of the New JNCHES national bargaining arrangements lodging a trade dispute with each institution and setting out the steps they should take to resolve the dispute.”

“It is highly likely that UCU will now proceed to a statutory ballot of members over pay this autumn,” the note explained. “As agreed by HEC the ballot will open towards the end of August and run into October. Exact dates are to be finalised and branches and members will be advised in advance of the opening of the ballot.”

As part of the negotiations, UCU has demanded on behalf of their members:

  • An increase total spine points on the 50 point national pay scale of 7.5% or £1,500 whichever is greater
  • Nationally agreed framework for action to close the gender pay gap by 2020.
  • Nationally-agreed framework for action on precarious contracts
  • Nationally-agreed payment to recognise excessive workloads

Last month UCU consulted members on UCEA’s final offer of a 2% pay rise, with no agreement on national action on gender pay, precarious contracts and no payment in recognition of excessive hours and workloads.

UCU members that voted overwhelmingly rejected the offer, with over 80% of members voting against. Additionally 65% of members said they were prepared to take sustained industrial action if necessary.

However, while the turnout of 48% was the highest recorded by UCU for a UK wide pay consultation, it did not reach the 50% stipulated by the 2016 Trade Union Act. If the union is to take national strike action, it will need to exceed this number in a statutory ballot.

To deliver such a result, UCU branches are being encouraged to engage in ‘Get the Vote Out’ campaigns, which the union will hope will deliver the kind of sustained and widely supported action seen in the UCU pension strike earlier this year.


“We are the Lions, Mr Vice-Chancellor!”


“We are the Lions, Mr Manager!” is a brilliant play by Townsend Theatre Productions currently touring the UK about the 1976-78 Grunwick Film Processing Factory Strike and its equally brilliant leader Jayaben Desai.

As Linda McDowell and colleagues explain, “after a long day’s work in the cramped and poorly ventilated space where the photographs were collated and packed”, Desai, in response to a “demand to work beyond her core hours with no notice” walked out of the Grunwick factory in protest. By the following Monday morning, “an additional 132 workers failed to show up for work, all of whom were sacked when they demanded union recognition”.

“The Grunwick strike has become a persistent myth in the British labour movement. It is a mythical story of brave, fragile women, recent in-migrants to the UK, exploited and oppressed not only by capitalism but also by patriarchy at home and in the workplace and by the consequences of post-colonialism that saw them expelled from East Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who nevertheless became the active participants in strike action.

“The cause of these women workers – low-paid factory workers, processing the holiday photographs of the more affluent British working class – was taken up by the union movement as a grand struggle about workers’ rights to join a trade union and by the women’s movement as a valiant struggle against patriarchal power. At its height, several thousands of industrial workers – miners, postmen, electricians and other representatives of the then industrial, dominantly male, working class as well as a range of other supporters ranging from women’s groups to left-wing activists – were involved in mass picketing.

“The strikers ultimately lost, but the strike has become constructed as an iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recognised the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.”

As I watched the Townsend play in Coventry last week, organised by Coventry Trades Union Council with the support of the local trade union and labour movement, I was struck by the similarities to a struggle that is currently being waged in the city between Coventry University and its University and College Union (UCU) branch, over the right of staff in one of the University’s wholly-owned subsidiaries – CU Coventry – to be collectively recognised by the union.

Firstly, a large proportion of the staff in CU Coventry – which offers no-frills “life shaped learning” to students who don’t necessarily want the traditional model of campus-based, full-time education with the £9,000 price tag that goes with it – come from minority ethnic groups and are on precarious contracts.

Secondly, the working conditions more accurately resemble a sweat shop than a college or university, with staff working long hours with a heavy teaching load – what Desai described in her context as ‘forced overtime’ – low pay relative to unionised colleagues in universities and high levels of management bullying and intimidation.

Thirdly, and most importantly, in response to staff in the University’s subsidiaries self-organising with the help of UCU, demanding their legal right to union recognition, the University is trying by any means necessary to prevent these workers from having collective representation.

For the last three years, Coventry University UCU has been fighting for recognition in the University’s subsidiaries where teaching is taking place. Two years ago, the union successfully balloted English pre-sessional teachers in another subsidiary, CU Services, gaining statutory recognition with an impressive 100% yes vote on a 76% turnout.

However, just two weeks later, the University sacked all these English teachers, forcing them to re-apply for their jobs via another subsidiary, this time a student temping agency ‘thefutureworks’. After a painful and highly-public campaign by the UCU – with the University’s employment practices being compared by Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian to that of Sports Direct – these teachers were reinstated on their original contracts and with their recognition agreement in place.

Meanwhile, the local UCU branch has also been for the last two years been working with colleagues in CU Coventry to get union recognition. Earlier this year, the union had the support it needed to go through the statutory route and sat down with management to discuss voluntary recognition, only to find that the University had six months previously registered its own staff consultative forum – intentionally set up to undermine the union’s growing influence in the subsidiary – as a trade union and voluntarily recognised it for the purposes of collective bargaining.

This kind of premeditated union-busting behaviour is literally unprecedented in higher education, and has been seen only rarely in the private sector, for example in the recent case of Boots Pharmacy, which also recognised its own staff association to prevent the Pharmaceutical Defence Association (PDA) going through the statutory route.

Since this development, the UCU has launched a national campaign to shame the University into de-recognising its staff consultative forum – under the hashtag banner #CovUniShame – and to grant its employees their legitimate and legal right to be collectively represented by whatever union they wish.

Again, like Desai and the Grunwick strikers, the brave and determined education workers at CU Coventry have enjoyed fantastic support from local politicians, with local MP Jim Cunningham slamming the University’ behaviour in a public statement and submitting an Early Day Motion in Parliament. The EDM now has over 25 signatures, including Jack Dromey, MP for Erdington in Birmingham, who played such a pivotal role in supporting Desai and the Grunwick strikers

Although the campaign at CU Coventry hasn’t had quite the same level of backing from the trade union movement – it is early days, and there has been massive support from within UCU, from other branches across the UK as well as the national executive – a demonstration on the 16 May (3pm Broadgate) coinciding with a meeting of Coventry University’s Board of Governors, like the mass pickets at Grunwick in June 1977, may present the perfect opportunity.


Sweat shop university

At a deeper level, it is the similarities between CU Coventry as an institution and the Grunwick factory that are not only striking, but also disturbing, revealing much about the state of higher education today.

Coventry University has pioneered the use of subsidiary companies to create for-profit higher education within not just a still quasi-public sector – with the taxpayers effectively subsidising the student fees and loans system through the amount written off after 30 years (the so called RAB charge) – but within a single charitable institution.

Alongside CU Coventry, the CU Group, which could be described as a ‘super-subsidiary’, also includes for-profit colleges in Scarborough and London. All these subsidiaries are 100% owned by the University as sole shareholder, and have members of the Coventry University senior management team as directors and board members. All profits of these subsidiary colleges – which have proved to be very lucrative, with CU Coventry registering a post-tax profit of £3.8 million in 2016 – are then ‘gift-aided’ to the University at the end of the financial year.

All of this is perfectly legal, although ethically questionable. UK charity law encourages the creation of for-profit subsidiaries, so that charities can engage in business activities not directly related to its primary purpose, if the profits made as part of these activities are then redirected to this purpose. However, it states clearly on the UK Government website, “trading subsidiaries must be used for non-primary purpose trades involving significant risk” (emphasis added).

In the case of the Coventry University, its for-profit subsidiaries are engaging in the charities primary purpose. Furthermore, these activities – through the union-busting that the University itself argues is necessary for the ‘business model’ of these subsidiaries to be viable – are in a serious way undermining the reputation of the registered, tax-exempt charitable owner.

As the UK Government advice to trustees makes very clear, “trustees of charities with one or more trading subsidiaries need to be aware of their responsibilities”. The primary responsibility of any charity trustee is to “avoid exposing the charity’s assets, beneficiaries or reputation to undue risk”. The Government continues that trustees “need to remember, in all decisions made regarding a trading subsidiary”, that “the interests of the charity are paramount”, and that the interests of a trading subsidiary, its directors, creditors or employees, “must all be secondary to those of the charity”.

“This is because the purpose of using a trading subsidiary is to benefit the charity in some way, for example to protect the charity’s assets from the risks of trading, or to increase the level of financial return to the charity by saving tax. If the charity’s assets are employed or put at risk for the benefit of the subsidiary, or its directors, creditors or employees then that purpose is frustrated. In such cases, the trustees of the charity may be personally liable for any loss of, or decline in value of, the charity’s assets.”

By not just endorsing but actively scheming against union recognition, the trustees of Coventry University have clearly vacated this responsibility. But where does this drive to experiment with subsidiaries come from? What was wrong with just offering quality higher education through the Coventry University charitable vehicle, which, after all, has won numerous awards over the last few years for teaching excellence and student experience?


Universities as TNCs

Much has been written on the ‘marketisation’ of higher education since the Tories began their “great university gamble” in 2010. For almost a decade now, they have been aggressively deregulating the English higher education system (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved responsibilities for this sector, and in Scotland in particular, deregulation has not been pursued with anywhere near the same vigour), beginning with drastic cuts to public funding, replacing the university teaching grant with direct funding through the ‘income-contingent’ student fees and loans system, and legislating for the easier entrance of new, for-profit ‘alternative providers’.

Critics often counter the arguments of free market ideologues – like former Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, and chair of the higher education regulatory body, the Office for Students, Michael Barber – for increased competition, which is said with almost religious fervour and faith to “drive up quality”, with a defence of the public university system, which is now viewed with the rosy spectacles of hindsight.

However, to obsess about the dangers of competition and to moan about the power of students to hold their ‘service providers’ to account is not only to leave oneself open to accusations of conservativism and the defence of narrow interests – what Willetts calls “producer power” –  but also to misrecognise both the origins of marketisation and its ultimate direction of travel.

Marketisation really began in the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher. As part of the Higher and Further Education Act 1992, polytechnics – public institutions for higher learning created out of the democratic optimism of the 1960s – were made into universities. While this represented an important move away from the ‘binary divide’ in elite and mass higher education, through ‘incorporation’, the ‘norms’ of corporate capitalism were introduced into the system.

Polytechnics became ‘higher education corporations’ with a ‘chief executive’ officer at the helm, governed by boards dominated by a business consensus of white, male, corporate ‘lay’ elites. The Act also abolished academic tenure – a core pillar of academic freedom – and subordinated academic self-governance to neutered ‘academic boards’ with little say over the direction of travel of these increasingly competition-obsessed institutions.

Vice-chancellors of traditional, elite universities subsequently started to become envious of the executive power and freedom of their ex-poly colleagues, and began to emulate their peers, replacing academic self-governance with ‘new public management’ and capturing power and monetary reward for themselves.

Combined with savage cuts to higher education funding under Thatcher – while the system continued to expand – university leaders increasingly pushed for marketisation ‘from below’. The 2010 reforms, therefore, were merely the completion and acceleration of tendencies already present (which may partly explain why there was not more resistance from both vice chancellors and academics to market reform).

But the crucial thing to understand is where this is all heading. Willetts and Barber say they want a market in which institutions respond to the needs and demands of students, shedding the clunky baggage of traditional universities to concentrate on a ‘unique selling point’: no frills, elite, cool, luxury, etc. But in fact, as evidenced by Willetts’ memoirs of his time as Minister ‘A University Education’, what they know will really happen is a rapid consolidation of this market in which the big fish swallow up the small, with those that do not play the game falling by the way side in a race for monopolisation.

Coventry University, then, is merely ‘playing the game’, rigged by neoliberal reformers in favour of monopolisation. The subsidiary/group model that Coventry University is using to exploit its staff and outmanoeuvre union recognition is in fact a model straight out of the private sector. It is also a model – an experiment that the University of Central Lancashire tried first, before the reality of reputational damage made them reverse course – which allows subsidiaries in foreign countries to be created, by-passing even the basic UK labour rights that even CU Group must respect.

This is the future of higher education, not just in England, but in the US too. Universities as ‘trans-national corporations’, loyal to no community, happy to outsource labour costs to developing countries, with ‘lecture-capture’ and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) providing the technological infrastructure to scale up the ‘no frills’ CU Coventry model for the creation of super-profit.


Why should you care?

If you are an academic, you should care because this could be your future, sooner than you think. No one has counted how many universities use subsidiaries, but from a preliminary search on Google, it looks like most of them. In many cases, these subsidiaries are being used for what they were intended, non-primary trading. It seems that only the most ‘entrepreneurial’ of the post-92 universities have experimented with for-profit teaching subsidiaries. But you can bet, as the history of marketisation above indicates, if there is a surplus to be made, others will follow suit.

If you are a UCU activist – and if you are an academic and not yet a member of UCU, now really is the time to join – you should care because the struggle at Coventry University is a struggle over the future of the union. Aside from the outright attack on UCU and unions in general that the creation of this sham union represents, the use of subsidiaries to by-pass collective bargaining and national framework agreements means, in the long-run, a shrinking core of traditional academic staff and a growing army of de-professionalised, non-unionised, casualised ‘workers’ in the periphery.

If you are a member of a community surrounding a university, you should care because the somewhat uneven economic benefit that these growing universities provide is increasingly being directed away from the community. The gentrification that comes with university expansion in local areas creates not just fashionable shops, cafés and craft beer bars but also unsustainable hikes in rent and house prices for ordinary people and relentless pressure on public services already subject to massive cuts, with universities, students and student-housing landlords not contributing anything to these communities through the tax system.

As we know from 30 years of neoliberalism, multi-national corporations are loyal to no-one, they will move production to wherever is cheapest, with the subsidiary model, in conjunction with technological rationalisation, as argued above, providing the ideal means of shifting universities overseas to where labour rights and land-access are least protected. Tory reformers are incredibly naïve and short-sighted in thinking that if they help create English educational corporations they will stay in the country and contribute to the regeneration of our stagnating post-crisis economy.

But most disturbing is the fact that with the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act – rushed through Parliament just before the snap election the same year – universities can fail, with no guarantee of a government bailout. As Willetts has suggested, rather than direct government support, most likely profit-driven multinational corporations – not necessary educational – would be courted by government to come in and ‘save’ these HEIs. All the public wealth and civic space attached to them would also be handed over, and there would be even less concern for the welfare of local communities.

For post-industrial cities like Coventry, almost anything would be better than a return to the past. As Coventry-based The Specials famously sang: “This town, is coming like a ghost town/All the clubs have been closed down/Bands won’t play no more/Too much fighting on the dance floor”. I remember what this was like, growing up in the city during the 1980s.

But we can prevent this from happening again by drawing a line in the sand. No more union busting, no more marketisation. We need to support our brave and determined colleagues in CU Coventry before it’s too late.

“What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager!”



#CovUniShame (again)

Coventry University has yet again responded to a legitimate and legal request from its staff for union recognition with shameful union-busting tactics, this time in its wholly owned teaching ‘super-subsidiary’, the CU Group.

After a three year campaign to get the University and College Union (UCU) recognised for collective bargaining in the CU Group – which includes ‘no frills’ higher education campuses in Coventry, Scarborough and London – union representatives found out that the employer had instead recognised its own staff consultative forum as a trade union, preventing UCU from applying for statutory recognition.

In response, UCU has launched a national campaign which has so far included local media coverage, letters from local politicians and trade union branches across the UK to the vice chancellor, an impressive protest on graduation earlier this month, and an early day motion to Parliament from Coventry MP Jim Cunningham.

UCU say that they will not stop until the university’s ‘sham union’ is de-recognised and UCU recognised in its place. On the 16 May (3pm), the union will be holding another national protest, this time to coincide with a Coventry University Board of Governors meeting.

Sweating the assets

Exploiting a loophole in UK charity law, Coventry University has pioneered the use of subsidiary companies to engage in profit-making activities and subvert existing collective bargaining and national framework agreements.

Although perfectly legal, such profit making subsidiary companies are not supposed to be used to engage in the charity’s primary objective, in this case education, but are rather designed to help the charity make some extra money to better achieve the primary objective.

As the university proudly boasts, its for-profit teaching subsidiaries, now brought together within the ‘super-subsidiary’ the CU Group, offer ‘no frill’ HE at £6000 per year.

According to UCU, it does this by pressing down on the terms and conditions of its staff, paying de-professionalised tutors less than their Coventry University equivalents, and offering only the minimum of holiday, sickness and pension contributions.

In a letter to The Guardian newspaper earlier this year, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt wrote: “Let’s be clear about what “no frills” actually means in this context. Coventry University College, or CU Coventry, as it’s now called, charges lower prices for its three-year degrees and claims to offer students a more flexible experience.

“But if you teach at CU Coventry – a subsidiary of Coventry University – “no frills” means you get paid much less than your colleagues at the university, your teaching year is much longer, your workload heavier, and you have no access to a decent occupational pension.

“About 40 per cent of the teachers are paid by the hour and this “sweating of the assets” means there is a heavy turnover of staff.

“All of which helps to explain why these teachers are fighting hard for a union. Their colleagues at Coventry University can be in a number of unions that are recognised by the university.

“Appallingly though, the board of governors at CU Coventry decided recently to resist any approaches from unions at the college.

“CU Coventry’s “no frills” model is highly profitable. In 2016 it registered post-tax profits of £3.8million which it then gift-aided to its sole shareholder, Coventry University.

“The CEO of CU College is the pro-vice-chancellor of Coventry University and the board includes two deputy vice-chancellors and the university secretary.

“The university sector is currently beset by scandals over senior pay and perks, and it is right that a light is finally being shone on the murky world of remuneration committees. It is also time to take a proper look at the role of subsidiary companies and how they treat their staff.”


The Coventry University UCU branch has for three years now been campaigning for UCU recognition in Coventry University’s subsidiary companies.

In 2016, UCU successfully balloted staff in professional training subsidiary CU Services – where English pre-sessional teachers, who had once been employed as Lecturers in the main University, had been ‘outsourced’ the year before – achieving an impressive result: 100% of respondents wanted UCU to be recognised for collective bargaining with 76% of staff turning out to vote.

However, just a few weeks after UCU secured recognition, CU Services Ltd announced that it was “reviewing its business model” and sacked many of its staff. These staff were told that if they wanted to continue doing the same work, they would have to register as agency workers with a company called thefutureworks – a trading name of Coventry University Enterprises Ltd, also wholly owned by Coventry University.

Coventry University insisted that its subsidiary companies were autonomous and made their own decisions. However, the companies have only one shareholder, which is Coventry University, while their directors include senior university officers and members of Coventry University’s board of governors. Until October 2015, vice-chancellor John Latham sat on the board of CU Services Ltd.

Subsequently, Coventry University appeared in The Guardian, where Aditya Chakrabortty compared the University’s employment practices to that of Sports Direct, which had just been slammed not paying its workers the national minimum wage, penalising staff for taking a short break to drink water and for taking time off work when ill. Chakraborty wrote:

“Running through the debate around Sports Direct is a comforting, dangerous delusion. It is that such horrors are never visited on People Like Us. Victorian workhouses? Staff so terrified of losing their jobs they dare not protest their abuse? Terrible – but (guilty whisper) it only happens to the low-paid and the low-skilled, at dead-end jobs and in left-behind colliery towns. Right?

“Wrong. Mike Ashley, with his wad of fifties and his helicopter commutes, makes an easy newspaper grotesque. But it’s his treatment of employees that is the really grotesque thing. And those practices are creeping into the lives of more and more workers – even those with the whitest of collars and the longest string of letters after their names. Think your job can’t be Ashley-fied? Then come to one of the most admired universities in Britain, and meet a group of lecturers who say they’ve just been given the full Sports Direct treatment.”

After this national coverage, and the threat of a protest on a major Open Day for prospective students and their parents, the University reinstated these English teachers on their original contracts.

Meanwhile, UCU had also been campaigning in another subsidiary, then called CU College, now CU Coventry and subsumed within the ‘super-subsidiary the CU Group.

Two years later, UCU finally had the numbers to apply for statutory recognition through the Central Arbitration Committee, and met with the employer to notify them only to find out that the CU Group has recognised its own staff consultative forum instead, which under trade union law meant that UCU could no longer go through the statutory process.

Even worse, UCU later found out – through a freedom of information request for the minutes of CU Group board meetings – that the CU Group had discussed this option explicitly as a way of preventing UCU recognition as early as 2016.

Sally Hunt responded: “These shameful dirty tricks by the Coventry University Group are designed to deny staff their right to proper, independent trade union representation.

“Staff have made it quite clear that they want to be represented by UCU.

“The management needs to respect the wishes of staff by scrapping the sham union, confirming they will recognise UCU now and granting the union proper negotiating rights.

“If Coventry’s approach does not change it risks an academic boycott with UCU members refusing to work or collaborate with the university and its subsidiary companies.”

Local politicians intervene

From the beginning, the campaign against union busting at Coventry University has had the support of local MP, Jim Cunningham, who within days wrote a letter to the vice-chancellor, John Latham.

“The approach taken shows a worrying disregard for the wishes of CUG staff and their right to meaningful collective bargaining on the issues of concern,” Cunningham pointed out.

”I have urged the University to change its course, reconsider this approach and agree to an appropriate recognition agreement with the University and College Union (UCU).”

The next MP to wade in was Jack Dromey, Labour MP for Erdington, who also wrote to the VC outlining his concerns about efforts to “deny staff their expressed will and thwart their legal right to a union.

“This appears to have been a deliberate and planned move on the part of the Coventry University Group to exploit the law and deny staff their expressed will and thwart their legal right to a union.

“I find it deeply concerning that Coventry University, a major employer in the West Midlands, should take such an apparently hostile stance towards trade union recognition.

“I note that UCU have launched a petition calling for full recognition of the union which has received almost 10,000 signatures.

“In light of this, I would urge you to reconsider your approach and to intervene to grant UCU recognition across the Group for collective bargaining at the earliest opportunity.”

Other notable interventions have come from local councillor John Mutton, who up until recently worked with John Latham on the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), and UCU branches all across the UK.

Jim Cunningham MP has, after receiving no response from the VC, submitted an early day motion to Parliament, which at the time of writing has over 20 signatures.

The motion reads: “This House notes that Coventry University revealed that it had registered its staff association, the Staff Consultative Group (SCG), as a union and signed a recognition agreement with it; is alarmed about reports that the majority of Coventry University staff were unaware of the staff association and were not consulted; is concerned that this means that staff in the Coventry University Group (CUG) have been denied a union since the company was set up five years ago; further notes that members and staff have made it clear that they want the UCU to represent them; notes that a petition has been started on this issue, gaining 9,453 signatures so far; and calls on Coventry University to derecognise its company union and recognise the UCU for collective bargaining with immediate effect.”

Pressure mounting

On 18 April, Coventry University UCU held a regional protest on a postgraduate graduation day, with over 150 people turning up to show solidarity with CU Group staff, including the UCU vice-president Douglas Chalmers.

Another demonstration has been called for 16 May – to coincide with a meeting of the Coventry University board of governors – this time a national protest that will hopefully see even more people express their anger at the shameful union-busting practices of one of the UK’s leading modern universities.

Coventry University has been claiming that they have offered to negotiate with UCU, with representatives telling the local media that they “have always made clear that we’re open to continuing talks with UCU”.

“We believe the protest was misguided and unnecessary because we have agreed to meet with UCU to discuss their concerns in a positive and constructive manner on multiple occasions.

“Instead, regrettably, we feel UCU has embarked on a negative and misleading public campaign and reneged on commitments made to us.

“We remain open to positive dialogue with UCU.”

However, UCU has issued a clarification that disputes this claim, pointing out that as yet, the University has put nothing definite on the table and that trust between staff and the CU Group is non-existent.

“Coventry University needs to stop spinning and demonstrate it actually wants to get this sorted,” a spokesperson from UCU said. “They can stop it all immediately by simply agreeing to recognise UCU.

“We’re happy to meet any time to discuss how an agreement will work but we’re not going to suspend the campaign until they confirm that they will recognise us, now, in line with our statutory rights.

“We’ve asked the university to confirm this, in writing, repeatedly since March 8 and they still won’t do it.

“Coventry can’t be allowed to pick and choose what they negotiate with us just because they are prepared to trick their staff out of legal recognition.”

What can you do?

Willetts the conqueror Pt 5: knowledge exchange

The sausage room at the P & M Packing CompanyScene in the sausage room at the P & M Packing Company. Source: U.S. National Archives & Records Administration.

This is Part 5 in a five-part series on Willetts: Introductionpart 1part 2part 3part 4.

The last two installments of this multipart review of David Willetts’ A University Education analysed the rationalisation of the two core functions of the modern university, as envisaged by Alexander von Humboldt in the early 19th century: teaching (part 3) and research (part 4). This installment completes this analysis, following the addition of a ‘third mission’ to the university within neoliberal marketisation: ‘knowledge exchange’. The introduction of this new mission—pursued aggressively by Willetts’ successor, Jo Johnson—represents not only a fundamental attack on the academic profession, but also a desperate attempt to marshal the knowledge-producing powers of universities to kick-start a stagnating post-crisis global economy.

Although only in its infancy, the third performance management system for English higher education, the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF)—which completes the set alongside the Research and Teaching Excellence Frameworks (REF and TEF)—may turn out to be the most devastating to the academic profession.

While the REF and the TEF ‘nudge’ the core functions of the 19th century modern university, research and teaching, towards a neoliberal governance agenda, the KEF explicitly and directly imposes the needs of an increasingly desperate monopoly capitalist system as it faces an intractable long-term economic crisis.

For decades, the so-called Haldane Principle—which protects academic freedom from interference from government—has been considered, even by Margaret Thatcher, sacred. But now, a Conservative government freed from compromise with Coalition partners and bolstered by its own narrative of austerity, has its sights set on finally disregarding this Principle.

The austerity agenda, now ten years in, has not helped the UK economy recover, and if anything has lengthened and deepened the recession resulting from the 2008 Financial Crisis.

Rather than address the underlying causes of this recession—which is, as monopoly capitalism theorists point out, in fact a return to the norm of stagnation that haunts the capitalist system of accumulation—the Conservatives have returned to well-worn neoliberal themes: human capital theory and Silicon Valley style ‘disruption’.

The 2017 Industrial Strategy—a remarkable document that seems to recognise the problem of stagnation while making every attempt to obscure its significance—calls for renewed investment in niche, highly advanced technologies and the skills development needed to support these proposed economic growth areas.

Universities play a key role in this strategy, providing both the skilled workforce required for these new industries—that in fact only make up a tiny proportion of the economy overall, which is dominated by mainly non-productive services—and ‘impactful’ research.

However, for Willetts, an important aspect of such impactful research has been forgotten: research and development (R&D).

R&D is the kind of potentially monetisable, useful research that companies should be investing in to generate ‘organic’ growth (as opposed to ‘inorganic’ growth coming from acquisitions and mergers), but are not currently pursuing due to unfavourable economic conditions and acute risk-aversion.

Today, the key problem for neoliberal governments like that of the UK is how to incentivise companies, especially big multi-national corporations—which are currently sitting on billions of dollars of unproductive yet liquid capital, and working well below productive capacity—to invest in such organic innovation.

The neoliberal solution is to provide universities as outsourced R&D factories for multi-national corporations, in the naïve hope that by subsidising private-sector R&D, companies will keep some element of production in the UK, re-balancing our own services dominated economy.

Thus, by connecting the dots of performance management systems like the TEF, REF and now the KEF with larger scale initiatives concerned with overcoming the acute stagnation of a global neoliberal economy that has run out of steam, we can see the true direction of travel of marketisation.

Although currently only a tentative set of largely unconnected proposals, the KEF—which according to Louis Coiffait’s (Wonkhe) latest intelligence, could represent a sizable £14 billion carrot for universities—is the final piece of the puzzle and the biggest threat to the academic profession so far.

The invention of research

Returning to his theme of the history of universities as subsequent waves of market disruption (see Pt 1), Willetts recounts the creation of the “research-intensive university”—which still provides a model for universities worldwide—at the hands of Wilhelm von Humboldt in 19th century Germany.

In a short policy paper “which proved to be one of the seminal documents in the emergence of the modern university”, according to Willetts, Humboldt proposed that “the “university should become a centre of research” (p. 90).

Willetts explains that before this, research—by which he means science—was mostly conducted outside universities, in independent academies. Universities had become dominated by religious conservativism, and were hostile to the new science.

Crucially, the modern German university established the autonomy of research from state interference: “Göttingen was the first German university to break free from religious censorship and establish philosophy as the dominant discipline. Kant’s essay The Conflict of the Faculties uses this pre-eminent role for philosophy to place academic study above censorship.” (p. 91)

While this model was exported to the U.S. during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies, Willetts criticises the UK for “lagging behind” Germany and the US, slow to realise the power of scientific research for building what David Edgerton calls the ‘warfare state’ (p. 94).

This situation eventually changed, prompted by the First World War, which showed just how advanced Germany had become because of its rapid industrialisation in the late 19th century, within which the new universities played a key role.

Richard Haldane, an intriguing figure in early 20th century British history—Secretary of State for War 1905-12, raised to the peerage as Viscount Haldane in 1911, Lord Chancellor between 1912 and 1915, finally joining the Labour Party and again serving as Lord Chancellor in 1924 in the first ever Labour administration—exerted a lasting influence on British higher education.

Haldane recommended in 1904 the creation of the University Grants Committee, a body composed of academics who would together advise the government on where public funding for higher education and research should be allocated.

Then in 1918, Haldane recommended that research, while funded by the government, should be under the control of the autonomous UGC, which would be free from political and administrative pressures that might discourage research in certain areas.

Meanwhile, new ‘redbrick’ universities were set up to meet the new economic research needs, based on the Humbodltian model, thus also importing the strong institutional basis for institutional autonomy that came with this model: the freedom to choose what to teach (Lehrfreiheit) and the freedom to choose what to research/study (Lernfreiheit).

So, when the UK did finally pump money into university R&D after the Second World War, it only strengthened the independence of academia, with individual institutions and national funding allocations governed collegially by academics.

In practice, then, what became known as the ‘Haldane Principle’ formed the ‘de facto’ basis of academic freedom in the UK, until the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act codified this Principle for the first time in law.

Willetts is extremely ambivalent towards institutional autonomy. Firstly, he sees the Haldane Principle as the basis for the continued tendency of academia towards ‘scholasticism’, the “classic weakness of academic research”: “looking inwards not outwards” (p. 254).

As noted in Pt 4, for Willetts this tendency is exacerbated by the REF, which puts “relentless pressure on academics to produce papers that are going to be assessed by fellow academics as of the highest quality and frequently cited” (p. 253).

However, we also argued that while the REF reinforces the power of ‘star academics’ to resist marketisation, open access licensing, MOOCs and centre-periphery casualisation actually re-capturing the value created by these academics through

More importantly, for both Willetts and his successor Jo Johnson, the Haldane Principle prevents the UK government from directing research—specifically R&D—towards the wider economic needs of neoliberal capitalism.

Willetts confesses that, while the Haldane Principle is “right”, it does “not fully resolve the task of finding the right and respectful way of linking university research and public policy” (p. 110).

With so much prestige and research activity concentrated in autonomous universities and protected by the Haldane Principle, critics argue that the balance of power is with the university ‘providers’ not the Research Council funders, which means that ministers require a certain amount of ingenuity to deliver any more detailed strategy than excellence everywhere. (p. 114)

What happened to R&D?

Willetts spends a long time in his account of research in A University Educationlamenting the loss of publicly-funded R&D outside universities.

The account of the origins of the research-intensive university is designed not just to give historical context, but, like the revisionist history earlier in the book, is there to distinguish ‘bad monopolies’ that undermine ‘diversity’ from the ‘good monopolies’ that drive competitive change.

We saw in the opening chapters how the mantle of Oxbridge autonomy has fallen on more and more universities. So a university founded by the local business community to meet their needs becomes increasingly detached from these origins. It operates in an environment where there is only one way of being ‘good’ and that means becoming a prestigious research-intensive university. (p. 264)

Willetts again attacks the REF for exacerbating the alleged inward-facingness that comes from institutional autonomy. Teaching and applied research “do not score well in the university rankings”—which it is true, as league tables are disproportionately weighted in favour of academic research—and other kinds of activity focused on “local or national priorities loses out.”

Public research institutes seek the safe haven of a university and research becomes predominantly a university activity. So there is a limited range of funding streams and a limited range of types of institutions doing the research—notably the research-intensive university. Diversity is lost. (p. 264)

This alleged prejudice against publicly-funded R&D is traced back to that bastion of academic self-governance, the University Grants Committee: “After the Second World War there was a fear that science unconstrained by the ethical framework of the humanities and Sir Walter Moberly [head of the UGC from 1935 to 1949] argued that scientific research should therefore best be conducted on a multidisciplinary university campus.” (p. 97)

Even Thatcher is scolded for her attitude towards publicly-funded R&D. Perhaps surprisingly, she wasn’t interested in subsidising applied research for businesses: “Government should concentrate on funding basic science and leave its application and development to the private sector” (Thatcher, In Willetts, p. 261).

Thatcher was responding to a proposal by Victor Rothschild, which Willetts enthusiastically approves of in the book. Rothschild proposed a what Willetts calls “a kind of dual system”:

On the one hand there would be a science budget focused in blue skies research and academic excellence and protected behind the bulwarks of the Haldane principle … [On the other hand] separate from a general science budget, [government] departments should become contractors, buying the research that was needed for their priorities. They might even use the funds to run their own research institutes. (p. 260)

Willetts obsession with departmentally commissioned R&D is bizarre as it seems to contradict the direction of travel he himself initiated with the marketisation of higher education.

Firstly, such direct purchasing of R&D with public funds would be an example of old fashioned statism, rather than the kind of competitive, indirect funding he prefers for non-R&D research and HE teaching.

As Willetts himself points out, such funding—as it comes out of departmental budgets—would be subject to changes in government priorities and to budget cuts if costs needed to be slashed.

Furthermore, if departments did run their own institutes, employees in these institutes would be civil servants and subject to public sector standards of pay and terms and conditions, which are predominantly set by national agreements between employers and public-sector trade unions.

Most bizarrely, Willetts suddenly, somewhere near the end of the chapter on universities as ‘drivers of innovation’, gives up on the idea of publicly-funded R&D outside universities and the Rothschild proposal

In the end, Willetts “recognises the obvious”: “British universities are where most of our publicly-funded research happens.”

Therefore, rather than redirecting funding away from these universities towards third sector research institutes, the “university takes on a broader role as the driver of innovation” (p. 267).

The university may not have sought economic greatness but finds greatness is thrust upon it. The role of the university is brought into every discussion of growth, innovation, and productivity. As well as teaching and researching they take on what called a ‘third mission’ of promoting economic growth. (p. 267)

One metric to rule them all

Jo Johnson—who succeeded Willetts as Minister for Universities and Science in 2015 and oversaw the implementation of the TEF—is also ambivalent about what he calls “curiosity-driven research”.

On the one hand, such research is of “vital importance” and the UK’s status as “research superpower”—based on ‘field-weighted citation impact’ measures—is something “to be proud of and respect.”

On the other, “high-quality publications do not by themselves guarantee impact in the world at large”, nor is there “a simple linear relationship between academic excellence and economic growth.”

“If the research that goes on in our universities is to have the greatest possible impact, our universities need to be deeply connected to the wider world. This is an important challenge in any advanced economy.”

Johnson points to the “outsize role” that UK universities play in the country’s “research and innovation system.” “Over half of the money the UK taxpayer provides for R&D goes to the higher education sector – £4.8 billion out of £8.8 billion in 2015.”

“The result is a far greater proportion of R&D—26% – takes place in our universities than in comparable countries, with 20% in France, 17% in Germany, 13% in the U.S. and 12% in Japan.”

But Johnson draws a much clearer conclusion than Willetts: this public investment “brings with it increased responsibilities.” In other words, like ‘curiosity-driven research’ and teaching, ‘knowledge exchange’ (KE) must be performance managed.

“Because they loom so large in our research ecosystems, it is particularly important that universities engage with the wider world, and help to ensure that their work leads to wider social and economic benefits.” Johnson proposes a series of measures to bring KE—the new “third mission” of universities—in line with both the wider rationalisation of higher education and the needs of neoliberal capitalism.

Firstly, the impact weighting of the REF2021 should be raised to 25%. In fact, as Johnson notes, this decision had already been taken by HEFCE and UKRI, and he “welcomes” this “greater emphasis.”

Secondly, twelve more ‘Science and Innovation Audits’ (SLAs)—a government-led initiative designed to “help local organisations map their research and innovation strengths and identify areas of potential global competitive advantage”—should be undertaken.

And finally, a new performance management system, the Knowledge Exchange Framework —which I argue, rather than the TEF (and contra Andrew McGettigan), is the ‘one metric to rule them all’—should be introduced.

It is noteworthy that the UK university system has public frameworks to track two of the missions of universities—the REF for research and the TEF for teaching—but nothing for the third mission of knowledge exchange and engagement.

Given the importance of knowledge exchange to the national mission of universities, I believe there is a strong case for doing more to measure how good a job universities are doing and to link funding more directly to such an assessment.

I see a key role for an enhanced performance assessment in creating a constructive competitive dynamic between institutions that incentivises them to make the most of opportunities they have for knowledge exchange.

However, while Johnson notes that the UK government has the “building blocks” for the KEF, as well as “considerable amounts of relevant data”, information about “excellent (KE) practice” is “hard to access.”

Additionally, such information is not “weighted to reflect the differences in size and research income between different institutions.”

In a moment of frankness regarding the real function of such assessments, he admits that this limits the capability of a future KEF to identify the “outperformance and underperformance” of universities.

The return of stagnation

But where does the ‘knowledge exchange’ (KE) agenda come from?

As Professor Dame Ann Dowling explains in the 2015 ‘Dowling Review of Business-University Research Collaborations’, “business-university collaboration has been an exceptionally popular target for reviews and studies in recent years”—see Figure 1— something she considers “not surprising given the significance of research and innovation as drivers of a knowledge-based economy.”

Recent Reviews addressing Business-University Collaboration

Dowling also points to the “several important developments in the UK research and innovation landscape” leading up to 2015, including: “the growth in innovation funding through Innovate UK, establishment of the network of Catapults, introduction of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and the conclusion of the first Research Excellence Framework (REF).”

But Dowling returns repeatedly to one, over-arching factor, mentioned in pretty much all the policy-based justifications for increased university-business interaction from Willetts to Johnson: “the need to boost UK productivity.”

As Johnson explains in the Foreword to the Dowling Review: “Excellent research, as well as being worthwhile in its own right, is vital to tackling the productivity gap that is the foremost economic challenge facing this country.”

“Business research and development is the foundation of productivity and growth; university research collaborations have a vital role in providing business with new processes and technologies, highly skilled people and access to world-leading experts.”

In other words, this isn’t just the usual ‘human capital’ argument for expanding while privatising higher education in advanced economies.

There is a startling recognition in the Industrial Strategy white paper is that a deep problem is haunting the British economy: stagnation. A condition Marxian political economists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy argued was the “normal state of monopoly capitalist economy” (Monopoly Capital [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966], p. 108).

Expanding on this pathbreaking work, John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff explain in The Great Financial Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009) that the “enormous productivity of the monopoly-capitalist economy, coupled with oligopolistic pricing, generates a huge and growing surplus, goes beyond the capacity of the economy to absorb it through the normal channels of consumption and investment.”

As a result, the capitalist system is constantly required to find new ways of externally stimulating ‘effective demand’ to counter-act this norm of stagnation, for example through civilian government (the welfare state) and military spending, the expansion of the sales effort (marketing/advertising), and most recently, speculative finance.

However, all of these artificial stimulants “prove inadequate to support the economy over time, since bigger and bigger injections [are] needed just to keep it going.”

Stagnation doesn’t mean that there is no growth, but rather that the economy functions “well below its potential—with appreciable unused productive capacity and significant unemployment and underemployment.”

The problem of stagnation can be evidenced by data on the current state of the UK economy.

According to Trading Economics, capacity utilisation in the UK “decreased to 81% percent in the first quarter of 2018 from 85% in the fourth quarter of 2017.” (NB: Capacity utilisation in the U.S. is even lower, just about rising to “78% in February from 77% in January of 2018”). This means that about a fifth of our productive capacity is not being used.

Despite the claims by the Conservatives that the employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 who are in work) is now the highest since comparable records began in 1971, this has been achieved through an increase in precarious work. Figure 2 shows that employment numbers have in fact only just returned to approximate pre-2008 levels.

Unemployment rate in UK 1971–2016

Out of this recovery, 43% of this growth actually comes from self-employment—the so called ‘gig economy’ (Figure 3). According to the Labour Force Survey, the number of self-employed in the UK “increased from 3.3 million people (12.0% of the labour force) in 2001 to 4.8 million (15.1% of the labour force) in 2017.”

Self-employment as a proportion of new jobs

The situation in the UK is only one part of a larger, global stagnation problem, that in fact began before the 2008 Financial Crisis. According to Foster and Magdoff, “the total cash available to corporations, just ‘sitting in the till’ at the end of 2005 was, according to Barron’s, a record $2 trillion” (Great Financial Crisis, p. 37).

For Ursula Huws (Labor in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes of Age[New York: Monthly Review Pres, 2014]) the 2008 Financial Crisis merely coincided with a crisis of profitability for international capital that was already undergoing massive restructuring.

While 2007 “represented a peal in global investment flows”, the number of ‘green-field FDI projects’—a type of foreign direct investment (FDI) in which a company builds its operations in a foreign country from the ground up—“actually decreased” by 6% to 11,703 in the year.

This indicates that though the process of concentration was accelerating, there was actually a slowdown in the generation of new production.

In other words, the largest transnational corporations (TNCs) were sustaining their profits not so much as a result of new production but through the cannibalisation of pre-existing production capacity. Without some new source of commodities from which to generate surplus value, the preconditions were in place for a decline in profitability.” (Huws, p. 120)

As argued in previous instalments, the marketisation of English higher education is driven by these macro-economic changes.

Opening up the accumulated public wealth contained in some of the world’s best universities to private capital is one short-term solution to this crisis of profitability.

Forcing those universities that do retain their public function and ‘quasi-public’ status to perform R&D for corporate capitalism is another.

Sausage factories

The (Conservative) UK Government’s 2017 Industrial Strategy—which, among other things, has a whole section on universities and knowledge exchange, announcing the introduction of the KEF and the increase of impact weighting in the REF to 25%—is an astonishing document.

In the section ‘Ideas’, it admits to four fundamental challenges facing the British economy that seem to come straight out of, and confirm, monopoly capitalism theory.

The first, arguably most serious, challenge is that “neither the government nor the private sector is investing enough in R&D.”

The following diagram included in the document shows nicely the problem with ‘innovation’:

UK Innovation Survey Data 2015

Although the graph is meant to show that the UK is innovating well, when the figures contained in the graph are actually broken down, it shows, if anything, the kind of serious lack of innovation that monopoly capitalism theorists see as a sign of stagnation.

For a start, the headline claim is that only half of UK firms are innovating. Furthermore, of all the types of investment illustrated by the graph, only one can be characterised as the kind of investment that actually adds something: the introduction of new products.

And even then, for monopoly producers, a large part of this 36% will mean line extensions or rebranding/repackaging of an existing products rather than genuine innovation. In other words, a percentage of a third of a half of firms in the UK are innovating.

For the Conservatives, R&D is the solution to the UK’s underperforming—or stagnating—economy, exacerbated and extended by austerity.

We need more “lively and thriving start-ups” and publicly-subsidised universities “need to do more to ensure that [this R&D] translates into improvements in earning power.”

Part of the problem, the manifesto admits, is that the UK economy is “dominated by services”—which by definition don’t produce anything—and what little R&D exists is “concentrated in a small number of big businesses and in a small number of sectors such as pharmaceuticals, motor vehicles and technology.

This is as clear acknowledgement of the oligopolistic nature of global capitalism as you will get from a neoliberal tract like the Industrial Strategy. “Indeed, just over three quarters of private R&D investment in the UK is driven by 400 businesses.”

What the Conservatives can’t admit is that no amount of R&D will do anything to address wage stagnation, which is not the direct result of low productivity but of the weakness of collective bargaining in the UK.

Strong unions—not hamstrung by repressive laws like the Trade Union Act 2016—and full employment are the drivers of wage growth, while wages are actively undermined by the growth of precarious work and self-employment.

The second challenge has already been mentioned: private companies and universities need to do more to commercialise R&D: “our world class science and research does not always feed through to world-leading home-grown businesses.”

Again, the impact of monopoly capitalism is indirectly acknowledged: when ideas are developed they are “bought by businesses overseas”:

We are good at low-cost innovation and flexible start-ups but the long and patient process of getting a new technology to market is difficult. As a result many of our innovative businesses are nimble, flexible and imaginative but do not grow to be substantial, big or strong. There are exceptions, but in general British businesses’ R&D tends to favour quick routes to market, rather than long development times, and selling businesses to growing them.

The point about monopoly capitalism theory isn’t that competition doesn’t exist or that there aren’t any small or medium sized businesses (SMEs) with competitive advantage. The point is that these businesses and their practices do not represent the norm.

Furthermore, while these ‘innovative, nimble, flexible and imaginative’ start-ups and SMEs may grow fast and disrupt existing markets, as soon as they are established and clearly profitable, monopoly interests usually swoop in and buy them out.

The third challenge, according to the Conservatives, is the London-centric nature of the UK economy. This challenge is barely addressed, with the strategy proposing some undeveloped and woolly ideas about regional “ecosystems” and “clusters” as potential solutions.

However, the Conservatives have been over the last few years pushing ahead with their devolution agenda, which does not refer to the devolution of some budgetary and policy areas (for example, higher education funding) to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but to the creation of regional ‘combined authorities’ (CAs).

As Richard Hatcher argues, business leaders sit directly on the boards and committees of these CAs, rather than merely advising local government as has been the case with the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).

Additionally, the political function of the CAs is to defer responsibility for austerity onto regional authorities, with the elected Mayors becoming distractions from the real source: central government. By asking local people to vote for a leader of something they know little about, due to the obscurantism of devolved governance structure, the blame as always lands with ordinary people.

The fourth and final challenge is the one most directly relevant to universities: how to square the circle of international competition and the collaboration that is a necessary part of the idea of the ‘community of the competent’ that John Dewey argued was the basis of academic freedom, and therefore the academic profession.

It is this contradiction that held back earlier reformers like Margaret Thatcher: what happens to knowledge and education when they are instrumentally directed to narrowly economic ends?

Again, this question goes right to the heart of the capitalist model of production. As Karl Marx explained, the extraction of surplus involves at its most basic level a conversion of quality into quantity: of labour into labour-power, of use into exchange, of the individual into the mass.

But as Marx also pointed out, the annoying fact for capitalists remains: real people have real needs that must be met for commodities to keep circulating, profit to be extracted and the system to retain its legitimacy.

Higher education is no different. It’s primary functions are education and research, the further it strays from these activities in the pursuit of economic objectives, or ‘nudged’ towards them, the more its ‘quality’ is undermined.

Willetts the conqueror Pt 4: Audit Culture

Figure 1: Lars Plougmann - Taylorism (Wikimedia)

The previous instalment of this multipart review of David Willetts’ ‘A University Education’ began to analyse the conversion of quality into quantity that is a necessary part of the process of marketisation, beginning with one of the two main functions of the university: education. Part 4 – which was originally published on Monthly Review Online – follows this by looking at how this process unfolds in relation to research, the other core function of the modern university. Specifically, this instalment examines how the ‘impact agenda’ in UK research policy institutionalises within universities a form of ‘scientific management’, the purpose of which is to break down and rationalise the labour process of academia so that a surplus can be created, which can in turn be put towards the expansion of the university as a transnational corporation (TNC).

Strangely, Willetts doesn’t say much about the Research Excellence Framework (REF), one of the three metrics-based, performance management systems created by the UK government to direct, in an indirect way, the output of universities towards neoliberal economic and social needs.

When it comes to research, Willetts is far more interested in R&D – the kind of ‘useful’ knowledge needed for innovation, i.e. the organic expansion of the global capitalist system – which he thinks has been forgotten within the market reform of English higher education, that he led as Minister of State for Universities and Science between 2010-15.

However, since stepping down as Minister – being replaced first by Jo Johnson and now by Sam Gyimah – the UK government has announced it will create a Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) to complement the REF and the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework). Although the creation of the KEF is still in the consultation phase, it is clearly meant to address this area of university output that Willetts thinks has been forgotten.

Willetts’ arguments concerning R&D are extremely important, and will be covered in a later instalment of this multi-part review. This part is chiefly concerned with the REF, and the way that it complements the TEF within an overall process of rationalisation necessary for both the corporatisation of the university and the marketisation of the sector.

Willetts criticises the REF for its role in incentivising competition over collaboration, and in reproducing the ancient hierarchy in HE based on ‘star researchers’ and traditional university dominated league tables. His vision of competition – which I’ve been arguing in this series is pure neoliberal ideology – is, in contrast, one of driving disruptive competition through the system via new, teaching-only for-profit providers, breaking up this system and replacing it with a consumer- and business-focused marketplace driven by price signals.

On this basis, Willetts argues against A. H. Halsey’s thesis in ‘Decline of Donnish Dominion: The British Academic Professions in the Twentieth Century’ that research performance management – first introduced in the UK in 1985 through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) – would lead to a decline in the power of academics.

Willetts criticises the REF for exactly the opposite effect: the emphasis on ‘star professors’ and league tables undermines collaboration and risk-taking in research, which are the hallmarks of the classical idea of scientific research operating with what C. S. Peirce called ‘communities of inquiry’.

As with many of Willetts arguments – which is why this extended critique of his book is important – they hide a deeper truth about the material changes taking place within marketisation.

What Willetts is pointing to, while obscuring, is the ‘centre-periphery’ model of de-professionalisation –  with relatively secure academics producing research which is then ‘delivered’ by a growing army of casualised ‘tutors’ with no research responsibilities – that is a necessary part of the ‘corporatisation’ of universities as higher education is subsumed into the global monopoly capitalist system.

While this model is increasingly adopted by universities trying to restructure themselves to meet the demands of this system, pushing down on staff costs to squeeze the maximum surplus (universities while they are still charities can’t make ‘profit’ and have no shareholders) required for expansion, it also provides a model for existing multinational educational corporations to enter the system.

Through what John Holmwood analyses as a process of ‘commercial enclosure’, the research produced by star professors – who, exactly because they believe in knowledge as a public good and provide their research online under ‘open access’ licenses – is used by these education corporations as the teaching material for massive online open courses (MOOCS).

Although initially free, such courses can be monetised either by offering pay-as-you-go accreditation – perhaps through established university ‘partners’ – or through advertising, which would ‘pop up’ within courses. For students-as-consumers who desire some face-to-face contact, deprofessionalised ‘tutors’ following pre-prepared lesson plans can deliver workshops, much like minimum wage Costa coffee baristas can deliver a standardised cappuccino after completing a short course.

On a micro level, this process is mirrored by the rationalisation and quantification of the academic labour process itself within the ‘impactisation’ of the REF. Just like teaching quality is measured by proxies and rated numerically in the TEF, an essentially social relation between researcher and research subject is converted to a measurable outcome by ‘impact case studies’.

Therefore, at an institutional level, both TEF and REF function as Taylorist mechanisms of scientific management, where top down government level objectives – themselves driven by the wider economic needs of neoliberal capitalism – are met by bottom up processes of rationalisation.

The Research Excellence Framework

As Willetts points out, within the British ‘dual support’ system of research funding, the Higher Education Funding Council of England (Hefce) provides about £1.6bn of ‘block grant’ funding directly to universities – which is “more likely to be used for blue skies research” – with the UK Research Councils also providing funding for specific research projects and programmes directly to researchers and research projects (p. 104).

The other strand is quality-related (QR) research funding, allocated through a ‘periodic assessment’ called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). There has been one REF so far in 2014 – often referred to as REF2014 – with the next one taking place in 2021.

Willetts explains the background to the REF:

Originally the grants from the University Grants Committee (UGC) to universities for their research were not separate from funding for teaching – they were all included in a single university grant. They were then disentangled in separate grants in the 1980s. The specific valuations of research were introduced in 1985 and research was to be funded selectively by the UGC on the basis of these confidential assessments of quality. (p. 104)

The first ‘specific valuation’ – or performance management system – was introduced by Margaret Thatcher. The Research Selectivity Exercise (RSE) in 1986 began a long process of incentivising first internal and later sector-wide competition in research, undermining the autonomy of academics in evaluating research and destabilising local balances between teaching and research.

The direction of travel of was divined before the introduction of the RSE, as Willetts acknowledges, by A. H. Halsey in 1982:

But who now, it may then be asked, are the powers? Power over the emerged system of higher education, it is widely believed, has moved decisively out of that system. For the universities it is not to be found even in the UGC, but in the Treasury and the DES … the present Secretary of State for Education has told the relevant Select Committee of the House of Commons that the contraction of the universities (‘changing gear’) is a good time to review existing practice and “it may be that government will in future, after dialogue with the UGC, wish to take responsibility for the very broad character of any distribution (of recurrent grant)”. While such developments do not demonstrate they do suggest the possible decline of donnish dominion. (Halsey, p. 226)

Willetts notes that these government-led research output management systems, anticipated by Halsey, “operating over 30 years, transformed the performance of British research by putting academic researchers under greater pressure to perform than in any other national system”.

However, while Willets agrees that the RSE, RAE and REF represent an over-arching neutering of academic power and the increasing micro-management of academic labour, he disagrees that this has had the effect of undermining what Halsey called the ‘donnish dominion’ in HE.

For Willetts, the REF has in fact had the effect of “strengthening” the power of well-established professors, who by playing the game of the REF – “calculating how much funding they individually bring into their university” (p. 105) – become “star researchers”.

These professors, who have already accumulated a certain amount of research power over their careers – especially if they work at elite institutions like Oxford or Cambridge – gain leverage with universities desperate to win as much funding as possible while maintaining their position in rankings, and can enjoy tenure-like security and benefits.


From the point of view of less established, so called ‘early career researchers’ (ECRs), the view looks very different. Where star professors in many cases benefit from metrics and status obsessed marketisation, ECRs are often stuck in temporary, teaching-heavy roles or on fixed-term contracts attached to time-constrained research projects.

According to a new report from the University and College Union (UCU), “some universities rely on hourly-paid staff to do as much as half of all their teaching” while on average they “use hourly-paid staff for 27% of their teaching”. However, the union also points out that “the true scale of universities’ reliance on an hourly-paid workforce is impossible to quantify because many refuse to hand over the data”.

According to my own analysis using Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data, the proportion of academic staff on insecure contracts – including ‘a-typical’ and fixed-term’ contrast types – stood at about 50% in the academic year 2015-16 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Academic contracts by contract type 2004 – 2016 (Source: HESA)

This situation is not just difficult for people on such contracts – not knowing whether there will be a job in the future and not being able to plan ahead – but also causes ‘inefficiencies’ in the research process itself –  according to UCU “around a third of contract researchers estimated they spent 25% of their funded time working towards their next contract, time that could have been spent on the research they were contracted to conduct”.

In general, it is assumed that casualisation is a consequence of marketisation. However, the above graph in fact shows a decrease since 2010 in the proportion of insecure academic staff. Contrary to the customary view, and in line with the interpretation developed in this series based on the theory of monopoly capitalism, I argue that casualisation is a necessary condition of marketisation.

Figure 2 shows that there was a significant expansion in full-time postgraduate students just after the 2008 Financial Crisis, increasing almost 30% between 2007 and 2011 and remaining at this level ever since:

Figure 2: Number of postgraduate students from 2006 – 2016 (Source: HESA)

For many who went to university just before 2008 (including myself), remaining in higher education – especially for one more year as part of a Masters degree – was a way to avoid the immediate effects of the crisis and distinguish oneself from others in an increasingly competitive job market.

So we see, in Figure 2, a significant rise in the number of students choosing to stay in full-time education after completing undergraduate degrees, assuming that the majority of people studying at postgraduate level do this as a continuation of study. The increase is particularly marked with taught postgraduate programmes – Masters degrees – but a slow but steady increase can also be seen with research degrees (Ph. Ds).

As Karl Marx explained, capitalism constantly goes through phases of qualitative change in the composition of capital followed by phases of quantitative accumulation. The 2008 Financial Crisis was one such moment of qualitative change, when huge masses of productivity were annihilated within a short time, and in consequence, masses of workers lost their jobs.

Monopoly capitalism theorists also argued that, particularly after financial crises, capitalism returns to the long-term ‘norm’ of stagnation: low productivity and relatively high levels of relative unemployment. In order to escape this tendency towards stagnation, new sources of capital accumulation must be discovered and put to work.

Ursula Huws points out that after the 2008 crisis – although this has been a long-term trend within neoliberal government policy –  public services presented such an opportunity for capital accumulation, if they could be privatised or procurement contracts ‘outsourced’ to private capital.

As these services have for decades been provided by the state – with labour within such sectors enjoying relatively secure employment, decent pay and generous pensions as a result of strong trade union density – for these public sectors to be integrated with the global monopoly capitalist system they must go through a directed and often forcible process of privatisation.

This requires a simultaneous de-professionalisation and discipline of the labour force, with explicit and sustained attacks on not only the terms and conditions of this labour, but on the trade unions representing labour in specific workplaces.

As Marx explained in Capital Vol 1, the ‘reserve army of labour’ is not only an effect of capitalist crises, but also a precondition of renewed accumulation. This reserve army provides an increasing number of desperate and mostly unionised workers to occupy the new, outsourced, deprofessionalised jobs while reminding those lucky enough to retain work that they can be replaced if they dare to cause trouble.


Before this reserve army can be put to use, however, the power and autonomy of skilled labour must first be broken up. In higher education, academics still hold a relatively high level of autonomy when it comes to their labour. In other words, academics are still highly qualified professionals and therefore difficult to replace.

As argued in Pt 2, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) provide a way for universities to drive down costs, by replacing expensive teaching labour with online videos and activities. Modern universities – which were given private sector like corporate form in 1992 – have used ‘wholly owned subsidiaries’ to circumvent local and national collective bargaining agreements to offer “no frills” education to finance rapid expansion and get ahead of the coming monopolisation of the sector.

Crucially, this process also drives a wedge between the teaching and research function of the university – so important for Humboldt’s vision of the modern university in the 19th century, which has become the model for all universities today across the world – allowing the academic labour force to be split asunder and the integrity of the academic labour process itself to be rationalised and more importantly, managed.

John Holmwood in 2013 presciently criticised the celebration of ‘openness’ in academic research, not because he disagrees with the idea of a community of inquirers sharing their knowledge for the progress of science, but because an uncritical view of openness obscures the way that open access copyrights can be used to further the process of privatisation and rationalisation described above.

Martin Paul Eve defines open access (in academic research) as:

The removal of price and permission barriers to scholarly research. Open access means peer-reviewed academic research work that is free to read online and that anybody may redistribute and reuse, with some restrictions. (p. 1)

There are two kinds of open access (OA), he explains: ‘gold’ OA, which is free at the point of access and is usually paid for through ‘article processing charges’ (APIs), either by academics themselves or by institutions employing these academics; and ‘green’ OA, in which research is placed in a repository after being accepted by a publisher and is open for viewing in the repository alongside publication, usually after an ’embargo’ period.

In 2012, the UK government-sponsored Finch Report supported the case for open access, recommending that if possible academic research should be made available to the public through the ‘gold’ route. This recommendation was taken up by Research Councils UK, which established a block grant for open access to be paid directly to institutions according to their research output and made it a requirement that all RCUK funded research should be made open access, either through ‘gold’ or ‘green’ routes.

Holmwood, however, rightly asks why RCUK didn’t stipulate that such open research, whether made available through green or gold OA, should come under a non-commercial license with a ‘share-alike’ clause – for example the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA license – as this would at least “require negotiation of commercial use for publications and retain intellectual property rights in the format of publication”.

While RCUK acknowledge that publicly-funded research could be exploited commercially in innovative and value-adding ways, and recognise that concerns have been raised over the use of the CC-BY license, it fails to see the danger of what Holmwood calls “commercial enclosure”, where the social value of such research is captured by private interests and then placed behind paywalls, often re-branded as to re-establish propriety copyright.

Holmwood links this danger to the project of ‘opening up the system’ of English HE to the competitive challenge of ‘alternative providers’ (see Pt 1) – teaching-focused for-profit universities and colleges – in particular within the Silicon Valley inspired theory of ‘unbundling’, put forward by Michael Barber (now chief executive of the Office of Students) and colleagues.

In an influential paper, ‘An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead’, Michael Barber (who has now been appointed chair of the Office for Students) and colleagues argue that the traditional model of higher education, linking teaching and research – “so obvious that [it is] taken for granted” (pp. 5-6) – is no longer relevant, and that universities need to ‘unbundle’ the functions of the university.

Rather than trying to combine all the functions of higher education under one roof – as with Clark Kerr’s quintessentially modern idea of the ‘multiversity’ – if existing universities want to ride out the gale of creative destruction caused by the entry of technologically-enabled for-profit ‘disruptors’, they should divest from expensive activities like research and concentrate on finding their ‘unique selling point’ (USP).

In this somewhat dystopian vision of the future of higher education, as with all capitalist-ideological utopias, the reality of class is ignored. As Holmwood points out, it is not the elite, research-intensive Russell Group and Oxbridge universities that are subject to disruption. These institutions are protected by decades and centuries of accumulated cultural capital – and financial capital coming from alumni donations – it is the modern, ex-public universities that must be restructured.

For post-92 universities “that fall between the elite and for-profit providers”, the same model that provides a way in for multinational educational corporations – using open access research to provide the material for monetised, branded and advertising dominated MOOCs – also provides a way for these universities to restructure themselves into competing multinational corporations through what Megan Kimber calls a ‘centre-periphery’ model of exploitation.

In this model, early career researchers, recently graduated Ph. D students and migrant academics desperate for a permanent academic post – no matter how little such a post resembles an ‘academic’ contract – provide the ‘human capital’ for entrepreneurial experiments in corporate form and ‘top up’ face-to-face delivery options for MOOCs, while representing a constant threat to the shrinking ‘core’ of relatively secure professors churning out 4* research for REFs and league tables, to be subsequently recycled in the re-branded MOOC and ‘no frills’ teaching material delivered by this periphery.


This ‘macro’ process of technological rationalisation is complemented by a rationalisation of the research process itself through the ‘impact agenda’ in both the REF, and in Research Council UK research funding allocation. Within the first REF exercise – which was completed in 2014 – a new metric was introduced: ‘impact’.

As Laura King and Gary Rivett (p. 221) explain, REF2014 panels assessed three areas: (1) research output, “based on peer-reviewed publications, which made up 65% percent of the research quality rating” (which is ranked from 1* to 4*); (2) research environment, which focused on “grant income and research students’ success, accounting for a further 15%”; and (3) research impact, “which measured economic and social benefits of research beyond the academy that were a direct result of excellent research”.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) defines impact as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life beyond academia”. In the REF2014, impact was measured by impact case studies (ICSs), which “demonstrate the link between particular research findings and observable and provable impact” (King and Rivett, p. 221).

Case studies “contain narratives (with evidence) which demonstrate how the research underpinned (made distinct and material contribution to) the impact and the nature and extent of the impact” (King and Rivett, p. 221). Evidence can take the form of “quantitative indicators, critiques or citations in users’ documents, independent testimony and formal evaluations” (King and Rivett, p. 222).

Although HEFCE – which assesses the REF with the help of academic panels and awards the QR stream of research funding – after some horse-trading between UK government and the research councils took a more “pragmatic” approach to impact assessment with ICRs, moving away from a purely metrics-based approach, the need to ultimately reduce the qualitative content of research to a REF rating (1* – 4*) creates an “epistemological problem”, according to Michael Power.

This problem boils down to the difficulty of showing a “causal relationship between independent variables” – a problem particularly acute for social research, which is fundamentally concerned with “reflexive” human behaviour, “where actors may change behaviours as they discover their previous patterns of response have been analysed” – in the face of a fundamental “indeterminacy” of qualitative evidence.

However, researchers and institutions dealt with this problem in many “interesting” and “creative” ways:

“In essence, they have transformed the problem of the indeterminacy of evidence of impact into a determinate one in a clever way. In short, they have created their own evidence. The more dignified label for this is ‘solicited testimony’, which is recognised as a legitimate form of evidence collection in evaluation studies. The researcher seeks testimony from identified users of her research who kindly confirm that they have been ‘impacted’ by it.” (Power, p. 4)

Power lists the reasons why solicited testimony is attractive not only for researchers, but also institutions, which, within a marketised environment, are under huge pressure to source as much funding as they possibly can to compete with other institutions (and alternative providers, albeit not in terms of research).

Firstly, sourcing evidence outside universities would be very costly. As solicited testimony is collected during the process of research, by researchers, it imposes no extra financial burden on the institution.

Secondly, solicited testimony solves the problem of causal attribution as it constructs the causal links between research and its proposed impact, with the evidence coming from a legitimate and trustworthy source: the research subject.

In a sense, this is the return of what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak problematised as the “native informant”, a figure in colonial, ethnographic research who is exploited by Western researchers to prove theories with Western, often racist, assumptions, while also being materially and politically excluded from citizenship in the home countries of colonising powers.

In the case of ‘REFable’ research, the native informant of the ICR is constructed by researcher to meet the demands of marketisation and then excluded from the benefits of ‘impactful’ research, which are appropriated by the institution for the purposes of surplus generation.

And finally, and perhaps most crucially, solicited testimony makes research impact “auditable” by institutions, thus fitting with the general, corporate organisational model introduced into universities by marketisation.

Thus, the impact agenda institutionalises at a local level – because of efforts by both managers and academics to play the game – the rationalisation and ultimately scientific management of research imposed by the government.

Scientific management

As Harry Braverman explains, such scientific management – inspired by Frederick Winslow Taylor whether this influence is acknowledged or not – is necessary when firms or organisations reach a certain size and level of complexity.

For production to be managed efficiently, labour must be controlled. As far as possible, workers must be removed from the decision-making process not just regarding the operations of the firm or organisation, but over the details of how their work is done.

Typically, this is not a smooth process, as this involves the removal and alienation of the worker from the qualitative aspect of his or her work. Taylor himself formulated his ‘scientific’ theory of management out of his own experience of being a foreman at the Bethlehem Steel Company in the late 19th century, where the establishment of his revolutionary techniques took, in his own words, “three years of hard fighting” (Taylor, in Braverman, p. 97).

The key to scientific management, as Braverman explains, is to transfer the knowledge of the labour process, by force if necessary, to a new class of managers. This new class of managers then assigns an individualised and simplified part of the overall production process to each worker, who then simply follows instructions.

This process of Taylorist rationalisation can be seen to operate in the implementation of the REF, described above.

Braverman (p. 112), writes that the “first principle” of Taylorism is that “no task is either too simple or so complex that it may not be studied with the object of collecting in the hands of management at least as much information as is known by the worker who performs it regularly, and very likely more”.

Performance management systems like the REF begin as elaborate intelligence gathering mechanisms, going through long process of ‘consultation’ before proposals are put forward, and then information is continually gathered as to how to tweak such systems for their aims to be met more efficiently.

Further comment is especially forthcoming from university managers, who look to manage the burden placed on their institutions while extracting any ‘entrepreneurial’ benefits that may result from willing participation.

ICRs are a prime example of Taylorism. An epistemological problem concerning the process of rationalising the research process is set by government – whether on purpose or by accident is entirely irrelevant – which is then solved by institutions themselves.

Specifically, university middle management is tasked with extracting knowledge of the research process from academics, which is then systematised and given back to the academics in the form of policy procedures and performance management objectives.

The impact case study, therefore, is like the “task idea” of Taylor’s third principle of scientific management, that the simplest description of the process must be created so that it can be standardised for all workers.

Taylor’s third principle also states that the overall process of research management should become so opaque and frustratingly over-complicated that no one can be said to really understand it, thus mystifying the instrumentalised and disciplining objectives of the process.

This is certainly true of the REF. As the case of Imperial College London biologist Stefan Grimm shows – who tragically committed suicide after “struggling to fulfil the metrics” imposed by his institution – academic performance management is experienced by academics as an absurd administrative burden that bears no relation to the individual, intrinsic value of research.

Willetts the Conqueror Pt 3: Human Capital

Teaching by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

The following post is the third instalment of the multi-part review of David Willetts’ ‘A University Life’, you can find here the Introduction; Part 1 and Part 2. Parts 3 and 4 take a slightly different approach, diving deeper into the fundamental principles of marketisation, which centre on the conversion of qualitative experience and practice into quantitatively measurable outcomes, which can in turn become proxies for higher education’s exchange value. 

Philosophically speaking, marketisation is premised on the idea that at its most basic level, education is a private good or investment, and therefore must be conceived of as a commodity to be produced and ultimately exchanged within the marketplace like any other commodity. Within this (idealised) capitalist system, a higher price indicates a higher quality education, much as a high price tag is supposed to indicate a faster or more luxurious car.

Within education, this assumption is expressed by market ideologues like Willetts via the theory of ‘human capital’, which states that while investments in people, mostly in the form of education or training, increase workplace productivity, this is an individual investment because:

(1) individuals can take this knowledge somewhere else, therefore it is not rational for firms to make this investment;

(2) individuals benefit directly from such investments through higher wages.

Therefore, individuals should pay for investments in their own human capital, i.e. education. This is, again, classic neoliberalism. Its goal is to shift as much of the social responsibility for reproducing the capitalist system – including the consequences of its inevitable failure, for example with austerity – onto individuals.

At a deeper level, however, the theory of human capital represents a need at the heart of marketisation to convert quality into quantity. This means two things:

(1) social learning processes and the tacit knowledge of teachers as professionals – i.e. qualitative experience – must be made into something that can be measured and managed – i.e. quantified – in order to create a surplus for universities-as-businesses (universities are still mostly charities, so cannot make a ‘profit’), funding further expansion towards their goal of becoming trans-national corporations (TNCs);

(2) that this commodification of learning, therefore, also results in a destruction of the ‘quality’ of learning and teaching – in the evaluative sense – where ‘real’ learning is replaced by a transaction through which knowledge is assumed to be ‘transferred’ from the teacher as ‘service provider’ to the student as ‘consumer’.

But, as any competent teacher knows, knowledge can’t just be ‘transmitted’ from one brain to another; knowledge cannot simply be bought like a fast car, it must be experienced and in most cases, earned. As even the 2015 Green Paper ‘Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice‘ recognised, quality learning and teaching requires “focus, time, challenge and change” (p. 21). A fundamental contradiction between quality and quantity – reflecting the wider contradiction between use-value (social need) and exchange value (profit) within the capitalist system – is introduced into the heart of the system.

For Willetts, such quantification serves an additional purpose. By quantifying the ‘value added’ that a particular university , or even a particular course at a particular university, provides a prospective student, not only can that student decide whether this human capital investment is ‘worth it’, the government can calculate the ‘risk’ or the loan that it will give to this student in order to pay for their degree. This creates a new performance metric – the one metric to rule them all, as Andrew McGettigan colourfully argues – enabling the government to put financial pressure on courses and institutions under performing in terms of graduate outcomes.


HE as human capital investment

“Now instead of physical capital it is human capital that matters: this is what drives innovation,” Willetts writes (p. 267). Human Capital Theory (HCT) was first introduced by Chicago School economist and Nobel (Economics) Laureate Theodor W Schultz in the early 1960s to expand the idea of fixed capital investment – where firms invest in technology to increase the productivity of the labour process – to include human beings, i.e. workers.

According to Schultz’ version of HCT, economic growth “depends not only on the nation’s physical capital (such as roads), but also on the education and health of the labour pool“. Schultz asserted that the “rates of return on such human capital investment are greater than those for nonhuman capital investments, and that any short term losses incurred as a result of time taken out of careers for education or money invested in health care are acceptable risks as they produce greater long term economic and social gains for both individual and society”.

Willetts helpfully expresses this mixture of individual and societal benefits in a “quadrant” diagram originally created for a 2015 King’s College, University of London, policy paper ‘Issues and ideas on Higher education: Who benefits? Who pays?‘, reproduced in A University Education (p. 123):


Willetts’ reflection on the purpose of HE takes the form of a ‘straw man’ argument, within which HCT is posited as the only sensible alternative to the ‘purist’, i.e. elitist, position (held, it is implied, by academics), that a university education is an ‘end-in-itself’. This argument echoes the ‘market populism’ of his revisionist history of HE (see Part 1).

The value of universities must be explained and argued for. We should welcome the challenge of showing that higher education brings wider benefits – it means investigating evidence that could back up the intuitive case for higher education. ([p. 122)

Willetts’ case begins, as all HCT informed rationalisations should, with the benefits of a university education to individuals. Graduates are more politically aware and involved; they manage the transition to adulthood better, they gain ‘social capital’, i.e. social skills and connections that become important at a later date; and they ride out recessions and crises more effectively.

We are not saying that graduates are inherently better people. It is rather that going to university is a big experience and people who go through this experience are changed by it. (p. 126)

But this individual gain also ‘trickles down’ to the rest of society. As graduates also earn more, they pay more tax and claim less benefits. According to Willetts, graduates contribute an average (male and female) £300,000 extra on top of non-graduates over their life-times. Graduates also contribute more to the overall growth of the national economy:

Graduates represent 26% of all those in employment, but account for 35% of the UK’s human capital stock. A 1% increase in the share of the workforce with a degree increases long-term productivity by between 0.2% and 0.5%, so a third of labour market productivity growth from 1994-2005 can be attributed to rising number of graduates in the workforce. (p. 137)

Graduates also provide civic benefits. Following Gary Becker, he points to lower crime rates in cities with a higher proportion of graduates, quoting figures that show that a 16% increase in people educated to degree level results in £1bn savings in the cost of crime. Additionally, graduates are more socially engaged and co-operative, contributing more to social causes and charities. They also keep their parents “up to date” with the latest health advice.

At a regional level, universities act as ‘anchor institutions’ within economic ‘clusters’ (an idea he gets from Silicon Valley in the US), driving not just economic growth but regeneration in post-industrial areas:

Cities like Portsmouth, Lincoln, Worcester, Winchester and Chester, which had lost their traditional industries or were just facing genteel decay, are being transformed by dynamic new universities. Now towns and cities like Shrewsbury and Hereford want to emulate their success and are actively campaigning for their own universities. (p. 140)

In one of his occasional self-described “fruity, claret-soaked Oakeshottian prose poems to these great institutions” (p. 276), Willetts argues that universities ultimately represent and protect the “social stock” human wisdom and are crucial to the preservation of the “coral reef” of human knowledge as a whole (p. 165).

Willetts concludes that all of this “adds up” to a “compelling case” for more people to go to university. “It is why the removal of controls on student numbers will count as one of the great social reforms of the Coalition Government of 2010-15”. (p. 141)


Signals and proxies

There is, however, a major problem with this argument. Willetts, himself points to one of the major critiques of HCT, signalling theory:

[Alison Wolf] argues that the purpose of education is not to learn things but to signal you are clever by getting through exams and getting into selective universities. So it does make sense to go to university because that is how in a modern economy you signal you are smart. But you don’t actually learn much – there is no improvement in human capital behind it. (p. 144)

The problem is, it is hard to say whether or not higher education really adds anything to an individual’s knowledge or experience. It might just be that HE acts as a ‘sorting mechanism’ for employers, who need a quick way of shortlisting potential applicants. In this theory, the ‘positional’ marker of having a degree (especially from an elite university) merely reflects existing divisions between rich and poor, created by prior advantages such as early pre-formal education, stimulating childhood environments, tutoring, etc. While HCT provides a meritocratic justification for the status quo,  the reality of a two or three tier class system in HE (see Part 2) turns a degree into a reasonably crude marker of class.

While this is not in itself a problem for neoliberals like Willetts, because he and others have made claims about the quality of higher education – specifically that students aren’t necessarily getting a ‘good deal’ out of their £9250 purchase – some way of measuring and presenting the quality of HE must be invented.

The quality of teaching is the biggest problem facing our universities. I have heard too many horror stories of students not getting serious personal academic contact and desperate for more academic input and challenge. When I met with student representatives at individual universities they were not demanding Marxist revolution or the nationalisation of the banks: they were asking for smaller seminars and for their work to be returned promptly. Indeed, the lack of prompt academic feedback is students’ biggest single source of frustration. (p. 204)

Enter the 2015 Green Paper, ‘Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice‘. This represented a watershed moment in the history of marketisation. It laid out the plan to simplify the entry of alternative providers, suggested that universities should be exempt from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, and that they should be able to alter their own corporate form at will. But its primary purpose was to introduce the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the ingenious solution to the problem outlined above that would also manufacture competition in the absence of a price mechanism.

The Green Paper echoed Willetts’ concerns about teaching quality – let’s leave a side the question of what exactly he knows about teaching – that while there were “many examples of excellent teaching within the higher education system”, the National Student Survey (NSS) data suggested that “teaching quality was variable”. Without a functioning price mechanism – as the income contingent loan system meant that students never experience fees as a purchase – imperfect information about teaching quality, course content and graduate outcomes made it hard for prospective students to make decisions on which courses to take or where to study.

We know that information about what they can expect from university is crucial to young people making life-changing decisions. We recognise that higher education is not the only option for young people, so it is essential that they have the best information and support available to be able to make these huge decisions. To be able to make the best choices about where and what to study, individuals need access to robust, timely and objective information regarding the quality of teaching they are likely to experience and what this is likely to mean for their future employment. (Green Paper, p. 11)

Despite “an array of criticisms” of the NSS – including questions about the methodology of the NSS, accusations of students using it strategically (and even in racist and sexist ways), and universities using it to bully staff – the Green Paper’s claims about the uneven quality of English HE were based entirely on its results.

In 2015, more than half of providers performed significantly below expected levels in at least one element of the NSS.

The NSS records scores for ‘assessment and feedback’ and these have traditionally been the area of the student experience with the lowest satisfaction levels. This area has seen focused effort by providers and is now at 74% (from 73% in 2014 and 64% in 2008).

Students are also concerned about value for money, with one third of undergraduates paying higher fees in England believing their course represents very poor or poor value for money. At the same time, 75% of students think they ‘probably’ or definitely ‘did not’ have enough information on how tuition fees are spent. (Green Paper, p. 12)

The solution – despite the fact that the Green Paper also drew attention to the shortcomings of league tables – was to create another ranking mechanism like the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The TEF mirrored the REF almost exactly in its structure: ‘excellence’ was to be measured by a series of metrics, as well as by a panel of experts who would review qualitative submissions.

According to the Green Paper, students had identified in their NSS feedback a number of “clear priorities”: students wanted “more hours of teaching”, “better training for lecturers”, “better learning facilities” and smaller sized teaching groups. These ‘demands’ became the basis for the three core areas for the TEF to assess: “teaching quality; learning environment; and student outcomes and learning gain”.

This all sounds fine, and in the more detailed exposition of each of these areas there is much to agree with. Teaching quality is very much focused on how to get the best out of students, there is the suggestion of “parity of status between teaching and research careers, and explicit career path and other rewards” and that students should be well supported and should actually get something out of their (expensive) education.

But then something strange happens. The Green Paper proposes three “common metrics” based on “existing data collections” that will form the basis of the actual assessment mechanism of the TEF that seem to fall well short of addressing any of these lofty goals:

  • Employment/destination – from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education Surveys (outcomes), and, from early 2017, make use of the results of the HMRC data match.
  • Retention/continuation – from the UK Performance Indicators which are published by Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) (outcomes)
  • Student satisfaction indicators – from the National Student Survey (teaching quality and learning environment) (Green Paper, p. 33)

As indicated by this quote, the NSS is on its own supposed to measure both teaching quality and the quality of the learning environment, with student outcomes being also reduced to purely quantitative measures (we will return to the employment outcomes data below). However, as mentioned above, the NSS is widely criticised for its methodological shortcomings.

One particularly high profile criticism of the NSS came in 2008 from Lee Harvey, who quit as the Higher Education Academy’s (HEA) director of research and evaluation after a letter by him was published in the Times Higher Education magazine which slammed the NSS as “bland” and “methodologically worthless”.

As Harvey went on to explain, institutions and academics are good at manipulation: “While quality assurance is flexible and can be adapted to minimise the game playing, the NSS is a simplistic device that is easy to out manoeuvre.” “What we have is an illusion of a survey of student views … that is so superficial and so open to abuse as to be useless,” he added.

These criticisms seem to undermine the government’s commitments in the Green Paper (p. 31) that “TEF assessments should be based on criteria that are straightforward and robust and are easily understood by students, employers and other stakeholders”. To be fair, the Green Paper (p. 31) admits the shortcomings of its proposals: “we recognise that these metrics are largely proxies rather than direct measures of quality and learning gain and there are issues around how robust they are”.

Crucially, the whole issue comes down to the fact that the government actually has no idea what ‘teaching excellence’ – i.e. quality teaching – actually is: “There is no one broadly accepted definition of ‘teaching excellence’. In practice it has many interpretations and there are likely to be different ways of measuring it.” (Green Paper, p. 21)


Quality into quantity

At the most fundamental level, marketisation requires something that can be understood purely in terms of its use-value – education – be converted into something that can be exchanged and therefore rationalised in productive terms to produce a profit. The Green Paper is a fascinating document as it shows the government  grappling with this problem for all to see.

Within a few sentences of admitting that it had no idea what teaching excellence looked like, the government also realises that “excellence is not something achieved easily or without focus, time, challenge and change”. This is significant, as it recognises that teaching is in fact a process, which may actually need to go beyond vacuous notions of ‘student satisfaction’ – i.e. utilitarian pleasure – and be supported effectively at an institutional level.

Bill Readings, who tragically died at the age of 34 in the plane crash, provided a devastating and now classic undressing of the concept of excellence. For Readings ‘excellence’ was a “meaningless” and “non-referential” unit of equivalence which allowed for the quantification, measurement, comparison, and evaluation of heterogeneous elements that make up the university as an institution.

It is excellence that allows the combination on a single scale of such utterly heterogeneous features as finances and the make-up of the student body. A measure of the flexibility of excellence is that it allows the inclusion of reputation as one category among others in a ranking which is in fact definitive of reputation. The metalepsis that allows reputation to be 20 percent of itself is permitted by the intense flexibility of excellence; it allows a category mistake to masquerade as scientific objectivity … Excellence is clearly a purely internal unit of value that effectively brackets all questions of reference of function, thus creating an internal market. (p. 27)

Writing 20 years before the Green Paper (in a Canadian context), Readings argued that “to understand the University as a contemporary institution requires some reflection on what the appeal to excellence may, or may not, mean”. Essentially, it is the very meaninglessness of excellence which allows it to function as a unit equivalence, flattening all value-based distinctions between and within university, sidestepping the question of quality altogether.

Excellence is not a fixed standard of judgement but a qualifier whose meaning is fixed in relation to something else. An excellent boat is not excellent by the same criteria as an excellent plane….The point is that no one knows what excellence is but that everyone has his or her own idea of what it is. And once excellence has been generally accepted as an organising principle, there is no need to argue about differing definitions. (p. 33)

For Readings, excellence is used to “deflect attention from the questions of what quality and pertinence might be, who actually are the judges of a relevant or a good university, and by what authority they become those judges”. (p. 32)

However, as soon as the problem of quality is sidestepped – through its quantification through metrics – another problem appears. The commodification of higher education through the introduction of fees and loans – and the reduction of quality to student satisfaction and instrumental ‘outcomes’ – actually undermines the quality of teaching and learning.

For paradigm setting theorists like Paul Ramsden – the first executive of the HEA – learning is a social process and teaching a skilled profession. Ramsden, in his groundbreaking 2003 book Learning to Teach in Higher Educationwrote that teaching “takes years of practice to do well, and even then, you will not have learned enough”. Focusing on the process of learning while constantly reflecting on your own practice is an incredibly demanding skill, as any teacher knows very well.

Ramsden introduced the influential concept of student ‘approaches to learning’, designed to replace the pseudo-scientific US ideas of individual ‘learning styles’. Quality teaching is all about getting students to move from ‘surface’ approaches – focused on purely instrumental outcomes such as passing exams, encouraging learners to memorise rather than understand, which Ramsden describes as “disastrous” as students forget everything anyway – to ‘deep’ approaches, which are all about students actively making meaning out of learning material and relating what is learned to personal experience.

Teaching can be improved by basing methods on this idea of learning as an experiential and meaningful, and by finding ways to challenge students to commit themselves fully to this process. One conclusion that is drawn from this theory is that lectures – which are based on a ‘transmission’ idea of learning, where knowledge can be transferred frictionlessly from one mind to another, as if from a jug into a cup – encourage surface not deep learning.

The commodification of learning, which tries to persuade students to think they can purchase knowledge and that it is exactly the job of teaching to ‘transmit’ this knowledge as quickly as possible into their brains so they can pass their exams and get a good job, is clearly also ‘disastrous’ for the quality of this learning. Rather than surface learning being a result of poorly designed courses and lessons, it has become the structural condition for the marketised university.

Fundamentally, the commodification of learning is in direct contradiction with the profession of teaching itself – the former basically says there is no need for teaching, it is merely the exchange of like for like (the money commodity for the knowledge commodity) while the latter insists that knowledge is the reward of hard work and only after the knowledge gained is itself experienced as meaningful by the individual.

This is why the line from the Green Paper – “excellence is not something achieved easily or without focus, time, challenge and change” – was so surprising. It encapsulates the material contradiction at the heart of marketisation: higher education is a social activity that cannot be commodified without changing the very nature of that activity, by effectively destroying it.


Willetts’ anti-vision of HE

Back to Willetts. He has an ulterior motive for the quantification of higher education. The ‘value-added’ of higher education – measured by the amount of money that a graduate can expect to make on top of those who do not go to university, also called the ‘value added’ of a university education – holds the key to not just the rationalisation of HE expansion as human capital investment but also the solution to the never ending debate about the ‘cost’ of the student loans system to the government, and therefore the taxpayer.

Willetts estimates that the graduate premium – averaged out over a person’s lifetime – for men is £168,000 and for women £252,000. Showing both the gender pay gap and the importance of university for redressing this in some way, non-graduates lifetime earnings are £606,000 for men and £475,000 for women: “There have been a series of research papers going back a decade which, even through they use different methods, all tell the same story of a substantial graduate premium in the UK in the £120,000 – £160,000 range,” he explains (p. 129).

Overall the evidence is overwhelmingly that graduates are more likely to be in graduate jobs and better paid for doing them, with an even greater gain for postgraduates. (p. 136)

Andrew McGettigan summarises this vision of HE as ‘human capital investment’ as the “transformation of HE into the private good of training and the positional good of opportunity, where the returns on both are higher earnings”. This agrees with the analysis in Part 2 of this review and also above that marketisation reaffirms the stratification of HE into elite and working class forms. For the privileged, HE is a marker of distinction and a way into elite circles, for the rest, it is a way of standing out in the job market and maybe getting an interview.

But McGettigan also sees something more sinister going in this drive to identify the graduate premium of HE. In line with the anti-democratic way that market reform has proceeded in general (see Part 1), the Coalition government “quietly put in place a series of measures designed to support a new performance metric: repayment of loans by course and institution”. McGettigan describes this, echoing Lord of the Rings and painting Willetts as the Sauron of HE, as the “metric to dominate all others”.

McGettigan points out that Part Six of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employability Act – which received Royal Assent at the end of March 2015 – proposes amendments to existing legislation to allow the co-ordination of data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

“Potential applicants to colleges and universities will in future benefit from information on the employability and earnings’ of each institution’s alumni and alumnae,” McGettigan writes, paraphrasing the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, which adds that the measures “will also help to create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students”.

The Act is the “latest move” in a new phase of tertiary education policy, according to McGettigan. In 2012, a new question was added to the annual Labour Force Survey to allow the “analysis of long-run earnings outcomes from specific institutions”. In July 2014, Lord Young’s report for government, ‘Enterprise for All‘, “recommended that each course at each institution should have to publish a Future Earnings and Employment Record so that students can assess the full costs and likely benefits of specific courses at specific institutions”.

The outcome of these various backdoor measures has been the Longditudinal Employment Outcomes (LEO) data-set – UK Government released statistics matching subjects that students have studied with the employment outcomes related to these subjects five years after graduation  – of which the latest ‘experimental’ release came out in June last year to complement the DLHE data that currently forms an essential part of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).


The graph shows median graduate earnings based on subject studied, with Creative Arts and Design at the bottom of the table, barely reaching the national average for full-time employees of £28,028. Humanities subjects vary in terms of graduate earnings, with education and languages sitting in the middle of the scale malongside the physical and biological sciences. Based on the highest earnings of graduates studying particular subjects, economics and business studies can help students achieve the highest incomes alongside law, while at the top of the scale, medicine and dentistry far outstrips all other subjects in terms of earnings after graduation, with the lowest incomes in those categories being higher than the median graduate incomes of all other subjects.

In a briefing note for the University and College Union (UCU), I wrote, based on McGettigan’s analysis:

As it focuses on economic value over social or subjective value, the LEO data is subject tomisuse by both a government keen to push marketisation further through the sector and by vice-chancellors desperate to gain advantage before new providers fully appear to disrupt the status quo. This kind of data allows higher education to be conceptualised as ‘variable human capital investment’, which is to say as a private investment by individuals in future economic prosperity and an arms length government system for the production of skilled labour to meet the needs of the wider economy. Individuals and institutions are rewarded or punished according to how wisely they invest; education is reduced to cost-benefit analysis. For UCU, the immediate danger is that VCs will anticipate this data being used in future TEFs, and close courses that do not lead to high graduate earning scores.

This is what McGettigan calls Willetts’ ‘anti-vision’ of HE: “let the market decide what should be offered”.

But Willetts had something far more specific in mind for the LEO data. In the ‘income contingent loan’ model, the government promises to write-off a proportion of student loans based on graduate earnings. Projections of how much this write-off will cost are constantly being revised, and with these revisions, tweaks are applied to the terms and conditions of the loans.

For example, in 2015 the percentage of the value of student loans expected to be lost through the 30 year write off went up to 45%, edging uncomfortably close to the 48.6% figure that would signal that the new system would as a whole cost more than the previous model of direct public funding. As a result, the government froze the repayment threshold at £21,000 taking the ‘RAB charge’ (the government accounting term for the projected cost of loans) back down to between 20-25%.

Last year, in response to pressure from students – who were responding positively to Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish fees and loans – Theresa May raised the repayment threshold to £25,000, which also puts the RAB charge back up to 45%, once again dangerously close to the 48.6% figure referred to above.

But LEO data promises an alternative method of managing the ‘risk’ of these loans. As McGettigan explains, student loans “go out into the world and the manner in which they are repaid generates information”. Graduates then become the “bearers of the units of account by which HE performance is set into a system of accountability”. This allows the government to calculate the level of repayments that a particular graduate of a particular course is likely to produce. McGettigan writes:

As Willetts had previously argued in 2012, the figures for non-repayment of loans in the departmental accounts, that 45 per cent, is an aggregate for a sector comprising over 100 HEIs, 300 FE colleges offering HE, and 100 private providers ‘designated’ as eligible for student support. This overall non-repayment figure masks variation in performance by subject (e.g. medicine and law graduates repay more), institution and sex.

While he was Minister for Universities and Science, Willetts indicated his enthusiasm for such a disaggregation of the figures: “I expect that, in the future, as the data accrue, the policy debate will be about the [non-repayment rate] for individual institutions … the actual Exchequer risk from lending to students at specific universities”.

In ‘A University Education’, Willetts has lost none of his enthusiasm for this ‘anti-vision’ of HE, and goes even further. He suggests that, as the government is currently seeking to sell off the student loan ‘asset’ in order to reduce the stock of net Government debt (the Public Sector Net Debt), universities should buy the loans off the government.

Universities would pay the value of the loan minus RAB charge – what Willetts refers to as the ‘market value’ of that universities’ students’ loans – thus providing an opportunity for the university to make some money if they get more of it back than expected.

Arguably, this much more of an ‘anti-vision’ of HE than that described by McGettigan in 2015, with universities becoming debt collectors, incentivised to collect this debt through the profit motive. Willetts washes this idea as an incentive for universities to make sure their graduates good jobs, but, in financialising universities, it is just as likely that these public institutions then begin speculating with these debts in the manner that many financial institutions did before the 2008 Financial Crisis, until the inherently unstable system that such speculation created came crashing down.

In an even more dystopian version of this anti-vision, universities could manipulate this financialised ‘game’ even further by giving graduates jobs at the university. Then, if these graduate employees were to not pay their loans back within a satisfactory time, the university could tweak their employment terms and conditions to make a greater return on the original investment, turning the original loan into a really cheap loan from the student to the university, which the student then pays back through indentured labour.





Willetts the Conqueror Pt 2: Creative Destruction

J.M.W. Turner – Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842)

Welcome to Pt 2 of the multi-part critical Review of David Willetts’ ‘A University Education’. This part of the Review focuses on Willetts’ plans for so-called ‘alternative providers’ – a euphemistic term which should be read as synonymous with for-profit colleges and universities – and his reflections on wanting to see a British higher education (HE) monopoly rise up to compete with global HE mega-corporations.

“One of the most controversial parts of the ‘marketisation’ agenda was my drive to create space for insurgent new providers to challenge incumbents. We have already seen how the story of English higher education in the past two centuries is of successive waves of new entrants.” (Willetts, p. 280)

The above quote clearly links Willetts’ own project of “opening up the system” of English HE to competition from for-profit colleges and universities to the ‘revisionist history’ of English, European and US HE outlined at the beginning of his book. The quote also links with a infamous speech Willetts gave in 2011 to the HE employers ‘mission group’ Universities UK, in which he claimed that letting for-profits into the system would be the “rising tide that lifts all boats”.

Six years later, Willetts seems as convinced as ever, despite the growing evidence that marketisation has failed: “I wanted to make it easier for these alternative providers to get student loans for their students and make it easier for them to get full higher education and university status, and make it easier to establish new providers as well. Insurgents drive innovation.” (p. 282)

In the Introduction to this multi-part Review,  I asked whether Willetts was an ‘idiot’, genuinely believing in the power of competition, or a cynic, rationalising the asset-stripping of HE by private interests (HE Marketisation, 16 January 2018). My answer: Willetts was a textbook neoliberal.

Neoliberalism stretches the common sense meaning of competition to its limits by suggesting that anti-competitive outcomes – for example saturated markets with multi-national oligopolies controlling prices and sitting on mountains of cash – are competitive as long as they are the result of competition (at some stage in the past, no matter how long ago) and are open to the possibility of competition (at some point in the future, no matter how remote or unlikely).

In ‘A University Education’, aside from the occasional ideological flourish, Willetts seems to re-trace the neoliberal journey from utopian free markets to market realism. Rather than competing with established universities, alternative providers went for an entirely new market of working class and part-time students, merely introducing another tier to the traditional two-tier system of ‘elite’ and ‘modern’ universities. Rather than driving innovation, or driving up quality for students, all Willetts’ reforms did was reproduce and reinforce the existing class system of English and global capitalism.

By the end of the book, Willetts abandons the market populism described in Pt 1 (HE Marketisation, 20 January 2018), accepting the reality of one monopolistic system replacing another, reflecting wider national and global capitalist systems of inequality and stratification.

The only thing that Willetts is left with is a vague hope that technology will do the job that alternative providers failed to do, and produce a multi-national educational corporation to fly the (neo-imperialist) flag of English HE across the world.

Tide receding, boats sinking

According to the funding body for higher education – the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) –  as of 13 March 2017 there were 115 alternative providers with specific course designation, which means students at these providers can access support through the Student Loans Company (SLC). Between 2010/11 and 2014/15, maintenance loans paid to students at alternative providers grew from £58 million to £207 million, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) reported, peaking at £292 million in 2013 (HE Marketisation, 13 November 2017).

Loans for tuition fees grew from £36 million to £175 million, during the same period, reaching a high point of £236 million in 2013. According to BBC figures, “about £400m-a-year is received by 112 private colleges through the student loan system”. Including other alternative providers that do not have access to SLC funding, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) estimated that there were over 700 alternative providers in England in 2017.

HEPI summarised the wide range of business models that such providers are based on: “‘catch-up’ for profit; sub-degree colleges; generalist colleges, serving both undergraduates and postgraduates; small specialist, not-for-profit colleges; exclusively postgraduate small specialists; for-profit providers focusing on international students; for-profit distance learning; and campuses overseas”.

“Alternative providers are hard to classify because they have different legal forms, different objectives and different target audiences,” HEPI commented. “They provide a diverse range of academic offers and have a variety of organisational arrangements.”

Rather worryingly, according to Willetts this confusion about what alternative providers are and how many of them currently exist in the system is reproduced within Westminster:

“When I arrived at BIS [the Department of Business, Innovation and Science] it thought higher education in our country was just those institutions funded by HEFCE [the Higher Education Funding for England],” Willetts notes. “Nobody knew much about the rest.”

This is significant because Willetts’ 2010 White Paper ‘Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System’ proposed not only opening up the system to alternative providers but also moving towards a ‘risk-based system’ of regulation:

“We will introduce a risk-based quality regime that focuses regulatory effort where it will have most impact and gives power to students to hold universities to account. All institutions will continue to be monitored through a single framework but the need for, and frequency of, scheduled institutional reviews will depend on an objective set of criteria and triggers, including student satisfaction, and the recent track record of each institution.” (BIS, p. 10)

Problem was, this ‘risk-based system’ – predictably (and as pointed out by pretty much everyone who knew anything about HE) considering how little was known about such providers – didn’t really work.

Willetts acknowledges that “there was some abuse of the system” and that “some courses received loans which should not have done” (p. 283), but does not spend much time dwelling on the actual consequences of his intervention.

In 2014, the National Audit Office (NAO) published an ‘Investigation into financial support for students at alternative higher education providers’, which found that:

“EU students at some alternative providers had claimed or attempted to claim student support they were not entitled to.”

“Dropout rates at 9 alternative providers were higher than 20% in 2012/13. By comparison, the average dropout rate across the higher education sector was 4%, but no-one had defined what might be an acceptable dropout rate when students were benefiting from public support.”

“20% of Higher National students recruited by alternative providers and claiming student support may not have been registered with the qualification awarding body in 2012/13.”

“Between 2012 and 2014, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) suspended payments to 7 providers and their students owing to concerns that providers had enrolled students on to unapproved courses. Furthermore, a lack of clarity has existed within BIS and its partner organisations about which courses were approved for student support.”

“In 3 cases, BIS suspended student support payments to providers or their students where it had concerns that the providers had supplied incorrect information about student attendance.”

In 2017, the NAO published a ‘Follow-up on alternative higher education providers’ which concluded:

“The Department for Education had made progress towards addressing weaknesses in its oversight of alternative higher education providers, but still had important issues to address before it can provide assurance on current and emerging problems.”

“The rate of students at alternative providers who drop out of their studies had fallen, but it remained much higher than in the rest of the higher education sector. Between 2012/13 and 2014/15 the non-continuation rate reduced from 38% to 25%, but remained three percentage points higher than the sector benchmark, and 15 percentage points higher than for the rest of the higher education sector.”

Many critics pointed to the inevitability of such results within a risk-based system, especially as Ministers were ill-informed about alternative providers, and had made little effort to look at what had happened in other countries.

John Holmwood in 2014 pointed to a two-year investigation by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions into for-profit universities in the US higher education system, known as the Harkin Report, as evidence of what would happen if alternative providers were allowed into the system without sufficient regulation. This Report found that:

“Federal taxpayers are investing billions of dollars a year, $32 billion in the most recent year, in companies that operate for-profit colleges. Yet, more than half of the students who enrolled in in those colleges in 2008-9 left without a degree or diploma within a median of 4 months.”

“Many for-profit colleges fail to make the necessary investments in student support services that have been shown to help students succeed in school and afterwards, a deficiency that undoubtedly contributes to high withdrawal rates. In 2010, the for-profit colleges examined employed 35,202 recruiters compared with 3,512 career services staff and 12,452 support services staff, more than two and a half recruiters for each support services employee.”

“This may help to explain why more than half a million students who enrolled in 2008-9 left without a degree or Certificate by mid-2010. Among 2-year Associate degree-seekers, 63 percent of students departed without a degree … During the same period, the companies examined spent $4.2 billion on marketing and recruiting, or 22.7 percent of all revenue.”

“Publicly traded companies operating for-profit colleges had an average profit margin of 19.7 percent, generated a total of $3.2 billion in pre-tax profit and paid an average of $7.3 million to their chief executive officers in 2009.”

Rather than driving up quality, the reality has been that alternative providers drag down the widely-accepted world-class quality of the English HE system pre-Willetts.

Everyone in their right place

For Willetts, alternative providers are “entrepreneurs” that “might spot a gap in the market for training which mainstream providers did not meet” (p. 282). “They are more willing to take risks and they are devoid of the assumption that they should still be around a century from now – that all depends on the market” (p. 286).

Ironically – when it is remembered that Willetts’ intention was to drive up quality through competition – alternative providers did spot a gap in the market that mainstream providers weren’t meeting: “no frills” HE for working class, mature and working students who were less interested in the status of going to university and more interested in getting a signed piece of paper that would help them in the labour market.

Andrew McGettigan has repeatedly pointed that the market in HE has failed to appear not just because of the nature of the ‘income contingent loan’ system – through which students never really see the money they pay in fees, and therefore do not consider the up-front cost of their education – but also because alternative providers did not compete with existing institutions for students, but went for a different market altogether.

Speaking at a UK Parliament Treasury Committee in October last year, Andrew McGettigan said:

“The feeling was that you could run a degree in business or law for £4,500 or £5,000, make a bit of profit, but offer something that would undercut the established provision. Therefore, there would be a downwards pressure on prices elsewhere. That did not happen at all, because by and large the most aggressively expanding of those institutions did not compete for the kind of students who were applying to universities.”

McGettigan pointed out that there were lots of “[alternative providers] in Whitechapel and other parts of London offering the kinds of subjects, like business and law, that they could run for under £6,000 a year”. Between such providers there could be price competition. But as for alternative providers coming in to the system and “challenging established universities”, this “did not work, because those providers, by and large, went to whole new constituencies of people who were not previously applying to university”.

According to an IFF Research report commission by the Department for BusinessInnovation and Skills in 2016, “data returns from 276 alternative providers showed that their population of students was a diverse one” in 2014, with ‘mature students’ aged over 25 at the point of starting their course “represented in greater proportion than in the publicly funded HE sector (44 per cent and 36 per cent respectively)”.

Furthermore, there “was some evidence” that alternative providers were “fulfilling a widening participation role insofar as these students were more likely to be from an ethnic minority background (46 per cent compared to 19 per cent of students in publicly funded HE institutions), the report pointed out, and to have a disability (15 per cent) than students in publicly funded HE institutions (nine per cent)”.

A particularly high proportion of alternative providers’ students were domiciled internationally, outside of the EU, prior to starting their course, the report added. “Such students comprised around a quarter of the known alternative provider student population (27 per cent) compared to one in eight (13 per cent) of the publicly-funded HE population.”

It was also common for students in the sector to come to their course having previously been in full-time employment, the report said, and for them to have a “comparatively low level of prior academic achievement compared to the publicly funded sector”.

What this points to is that Willetts’ market reforms, far from driving up quality or introducing competitive pressure on existing providers, only served to reinforce existing divisions in the English higher education system. Middle and upper class students compete, as they always have done, for places at elite universities and for access into the upper tiers of the British class system.

The majority of other students make decisions as to where they go based on practical considerations – cost of living, distance from home, reputation for student experience, etc – but there is now a division within this category as to how far applicants feel they can commit to a ‘real’ HE experience or just want to get a piece of paper representing a degree. In other words, by creating a new tier below the already second-class ‘teaching-focused’ post-92s, Willetts has made higher education itself into a luxury that not everyone can afford, both in terms of time and money.

This jars with Willetts’ attack on this same class system as represented by Oxbridge and the Russell Group, which for him have a negative effect on not just the English school system – which for middle class children has become a factory for producing successful elite university applicants – but also on the geographical division of wealth, with middle class families clustering near ‘excellent’ rated primary and secondary schools in the hope of getting their kids into good universities.

Of course, Willetts has got this upside down: it is the English class system based on inherited and accumulated wealth and advantages bestowed on those with greater economic, cultural and social capital that determines where people live, go to school and ultimately study. The English HE system merely reflects this stratification, with Oxbridge and Russell Group universities providing access to elite jobs in business, government and the media.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised or shocked if our elite universities reflect our class structure,” Willetts concedes (p. 192). But like the neoliberal rationalisation of monopoly, class is accepted on the condition that people can and do travel up through this class system, that barriers of entry are not absolute.

Willetts holds out hope for this “cautiously meritocratic approach” – which could be better described as pure ideological fantasy – that higher education could counter-balance this class system, succeeding where all previous levels of education have failed.

“The English system is riddled with selection not only to identify the candidates with the greatest potential but to ensure the producers get the most prestige with the least effort to add value. That is why it is right to put them under pressure to broaden access. We are trying to create an open, fair, national higher education system on top of a deeply divided school system.” (p. 201-2)

The problem is that, if alternative “no frills” providers do not challenge this class system and only attract those students that would not have gone to elite or even post-92 ex-polytechnics, then what we have is a system where everyone has their place, much like the Tripartite school system that was abolished in the 1960s and 1970s.

When faced with the facts, Willetts’ meritocratic premise for marketisation is revealed for what it really is: ideology.

Columbus in a mortarboard

Perhaps the strangest and most self-contradictory parts of A University Education are those on ‘The Future’. In the space of three chapters, Willetts abandons the heroic iconoclasm of the first few chapters, describing instead an almost Platonic system of HE divided by class, and then arguing for ‘a broader education’ that the reader cannot but read as a utopia that the masses will soon no longer have access to.

Along the way, Willetts also embraces with open arms monopoly-capitalist future for HE, urging for a bizarre and frankly offensive educational imperialism which suggests it is the duty of vice-chancellors and government ministers to lift the developing world out of economic backwardness through the export of English HE.

Willetts starts the chapter on ‘Globalisation’ with an extended attack on his hard right Tory colleagues, who have insisted that international students be included within immigration figure. For him, recent immigration policy “confuses selling a service with migration” (305), and misses a trick, as the internationalisation of UK HE is a “great British export opportunity’” (p. 305)

“Universities are significant export industries. They are now the leading export industry of towns and cities from Exeter to Bradford. One study showed that Sheffield enjoyed a new benefit of £140 million form its overseas students.” (p. 305)

International students should be seen as “permanent migrants” – an OECD category which covers “regulated movements of foreigners considered to be settling in the country from the perspective of the destination country” – and even if they do decide to settle permanently should be seen by the UK Government as a “national gain not a loss” (p. 309).

Instead “taking a growing share of a growing global market” in international students HE, Willetts berates his colleagues for “deliberate policies” that have “instead seen overseas student numbers in the UK broadly flat, which means we have been losing market share” (p. 307).

This tirade against current policy – which is, without a doubt, absolutely ridiculous and driven by an entirely Sisyphean and reactionary-nationalist project of insulating the UK as much as possible from the outside world – is meant by Willetts to set up a larger argument about transnational education as an ‘investment opportunity’.

Basically, Willetts argues that there is a growing middle class in the ‘developing’ world that needs good quality HE, and that the UK should be exporting – in the sense of international students coming here to study, which counts as an export, but also of setting up foreign campuses to supply these markets directly –  its good quality to these countries.

Yes, this argument is as bad as it sounds. Why do these countries need us to set up shop in their countries or entice their students to come to us instead of studying at home? Willetts names China, Malaysia, Iraq, and sub-Saharan Africa as possible ’emerging markets’ for HE exports – but China has two universities in the top-50 Times Higher World Rankings.

If Willetts, and anyone else trying to sell HE exports in terms of social benefit for that matter, is serious about wanting to help other countries to build their HE systems, he would be suggesting a demand-driven, Government sponsored consultancy service, where representatives from UK HE would go and help in any way they could – if asked – without any expectations of economic returns.

Otherwise this is just state-sponsored neo-colonial, educational imperialism. What is this, the 19th century? But this uncomfortable truth – and its not the first time neoliberalism is associated with neo-colonial foreign policy – see the Chicago Boys documentary or read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine – begins to emerge alongside Willetts’ acceptance of monopoly:

“One reason why I was so keen on promoting alternative providers was that I hoped at least one big British based global higher education chain would emerge. But there is no sign of this. The world now has fifty mega-universities, several with around a million students. But there is only one British institutions on the list – the Open University with around 200,000 students. There are global university chains such as Amity, Phoenix, Laureate, Manipal, and Kaplan but none of these are British.” (p. 317)

Let’s ignore the fact that top executives at Phoenix took home $6m each in 2008 and that in the same year, the US Federal Court jury found the Apollo Education Group – which owns Phoenix – guilty of “knowingly and recklessly misleading its investors” and were forced to pay $280m in reparations. Even more surprisingly, as if Willetts was himself making the link between marketisation and monopoly capitalism, he points to the importance of financialisation in growing such UK-based ‘mega-universities’:

“A major investment bank came to seer me as minister to say that of we could create a commercial model of British higher education they could immediately raise $1bn to invest in it because the global brand was so strong and the international opportunities would create a vehicle to list on the Stock Exchange, and the structure to go global, but none has yet done so. That would give it access to private capital and the capacity to create the broader management structures for a big international organisation.” (p. 318)

Sausage factory

Willetts laments the fact that neither Pearson nor Buckingham University have “so far tried to create a chain delivering higher education across the world” (p. 318). His hope now is with neoliberalism’s ultimate ‘blue pill’: technological ‘disruption’.

“We are now at the moment when the technological revolution which has changed so much else in our lives is going to transform education.” (p. 320)

Predictably, Willetts focuses on Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, in particular the way that they “replace the conventional economics of rising marginal costs of output with a new model in which the marginal costs of an extra student on a course are close to zero” (p. 322). What he means is that, once you have set a MOOC up, it is not only significantly cheaper than traditional HE to run – Willetts estimates that it costs about £55,000 a year – scaling this model up in terms of student numbers makes little difference on this cost.

In this way, MOOCs mirror the wider revolution in logistics that other digital commodities, like music, have already gone through. It still costs roughly the same to produce the original piece of music, but once finished and recorded in digital form, it can be endlessly reproduced with no additional cost(as long as people buy the digital form) and with no cost for storage or distribution.

What he is suggesting is that MOOCs could cut out the need for teachers, who are replaced by videos or online activities. In reality, of course, someone still needs to make the videos, but as Willetts points out, the business model – once a way is found to monetise courses through the additional payments for qualifications or through advertising content – is one of moderate initial outlay and diminishing costs in the future.

The attractiveness of MOOCs for business-focused universities – with ex-polytechnics leading the march towards marketisation since their incorporation in 1992 (HE Marketisation, 4 October 2017) – can only be understood in terms of the introduction of monopoly-capitalist norms into the HE system via market reforms.

In response to the rapid and large-scale changes introduced by Willetts, but even before this when New Managerialism was introduced into modern universities in the 1990s, universities have sought to restructure themselves into what Ron Barnett calls ‘entrepreneurial universities’, led by the figure of the CEO as ‘entrepreneur’ who attempts to move the university through this situation of intensified risk.

Following the rules of the neoliberal game, the VC as CEO must aim at monopoly or bust, seeing marketisation as an opportunity to gain temporary ‘first mover advantage’, establishing the university’s brand before the entry of new providers.

Within this context, ‘lecture capture’ – which provides the material for MOOCs and ‘flipped classrooms’ – provides a way for entrepreneurial universities to push down on costs while increasing margins: “Radically egalitarian peer learning begins to look like a suspiciously neat way to save money on educators,” admits Willetts (p. 326).

Meanwhile, modern universities seeking to gain first mover advantage, such as University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and to a larger extent Coventry University, have experimented with the post-92 corporate form in response to the opportunities presented by marketisation, creating wholly-owned for-profit subsidiary colleges within an over-arching group structure.

Commenting in 2013, in his important book The Great University Gamble, McGettigan wrote that CU Coventry (formerly Coventry University College) “offers a stripped-back model of learning and tuition: classroom-only subjects with all learning materials provided as handouts or online”.

Less diplomatically, University and College Union’s general secretary Sally Hunt pointed out that this “no frills” model is possible because this ‘wholly-owned (for-profit) subsidiary’ presses down radically on staff costs by de-professionalising academics into ‘tutors’, relying on large levels of casualisation, offering only minimal terms and conditions, all possible because workers are taken out of existing local and national collective, union-negotiated agreements.

Essentially such universities are creating what Megan Kimber calls a ‘centre-periphery’ model of exploitation, emulating the global division of labour within a single institution (which is itself increasingly globalised), pitting an expanding reserve army of under-employed ‘early career researchers’ against a shrinking core of traditional academics.

The automated university

Modern universities thus become permanently “restructured universities“, with a two-tier workforce, a shrinking percentage of quasi-tenured star academics in the ‘centre’, producing content and research-funding income, and an army of relatively secure but deprofessionalised and/or ‘permatemp’ service workers delivering standardised ‘products’ in the periphery, all micro-managed through audit by the administrative-entrepreneurial leadership team.

Flipping and (enforced) lecture capture allow expert knowledge to be captured in discrete multimedia packets, distributed via online technology to be administered by de-professionalised, outsourced and casualised tutors. These tutors only need to receive minimal training, much like Costa Coffee baristas, in order to deliver low-cost, minimum effort, ‘life shaped learning’.

This model can be easily scaled up: educational corporations such as Edexcel can offer MOOCs with material supplied through open access research, as well as face-to-face support provided either in-house or in partnership with existing institutions.

Academics uncritically celebrating the revolutionary potential of ‘openness’ do not realise how they are unwittingly obscuring the way that open access functions within a wider process of neoliberal restructuring of HE enabled by the ‘enclosure’ and commercialisation of publicly-funded research.

What we are seeing in higher education is the same process of rationalisation that occurred in the heavy industries in the early 20th century under Fordism and Taylorism, which through management and technology successfully emptied the tacit knowledge of the skilled worker into the machine, and alienated him or her from the labour process the industrial working class (HE Marketisation, 26 November 2017).

This process is also the first part of a neoliberal rationalisation of public services – which we have seen most clearly in the NHS – through which Tory privatisation is prefaced by simultaneous expansion and underfunding to create a ‘crisis’ in the service in question, while – as Ursula Huws explains – public sector work itself is standardised and de-professionalised so that it can be easily outsourced brought in line with the pay and conditions of a globalised reserve army of labour, enabling these pay and conditions to be squeezed collective organisation to be undermined:

“Tacit knowledge is progressively codified; tasks are standardised, output measures are agreed; management processes are reorganised; organisations are broken down into their constituent parts; the constituent parts are formalised, sometimes as separate legal entities; and market-like relationships are introduced between them … Only when the activity has been actually or potentially transformed into something that can be made or sold by a profit-making enterprise is the ground prepared for further restructuring in ways that form part of the normal practices of multinational companies: mergers, acquisitions, reconfiguration of parts in new combinations, and the introduction of a global division of labour.” (Huws, p. 140)

As with his pseudo-imperialist reflections on English HE as economic export, Willetts seems disappointed that this rationalisation hasn’t done it’s disruptive work yet in the English HE sector:

“The next stage could be for the conventional higher education institution and the examining bodies to be disintermediated themselves. The digital revolution exposes universities to these risks as it lowers barriers to entry … It also makes it easier to unbundle the different functions of the university and pick-off specific ones. But so far this unbundling has been more of back-office functions and has not affected the core academi8c functions which students m ost value: the university has not yet been dismantled in front of our eyes.” (Willetts, p. 337)

But as argued in the Introduction, it is enough for the threat of disruption to exist to justify marketisation. That marketisation will end with one monopoly replacing another is a moot point, this is just the market going about its business of ‘creative destruction’.

Willetts the Conqueror Pt 1: Market Populism


In the first instalment of this multi-part critical review of David Willetts’ (2017) ‘A University Education’, we look at his ‘revisionist’ history of the university as it is modernised through successive historical periods – medieval, modern and neoliberal – in Britain, Europe and the US. This post follows the ‘Introduction’ last week (HE Marketisation, 16 January 2018).

Willetts is former Minister of Universities and Science and was the architect of marketisation in English higher education within the UK Tory-Lib Dem ‘Coalition’ Government during the period 2010 – 2015. He decided not to stand in the 2015 General Election, and was replaced by Jo Johnson, who continued enthusiastically Willetts’ marketisation project in English HE. Without the burden of compromise within a Coalition government, Johnson managed to succeed where Willetts had failed: primary legislation, the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (HERA).

As with Willetts’ reforms, Johnson had to beg, bribe and bully this Bill through Parliament, managing to rush it past the post just before the 2017 ‘snap’ general election, which saw the Tories’ majority almost entirely wiped out as a result of Theresa May’s arrogance and complacency. In hindsight, if the Bill would have come after the election, Parliamentary opposition probably would have defeated it altogether.

Willetts’ hindsight in the book is also 20-20, seeing ‘alternative providers’ everywhere in the history of English HE from the 16th century to the present day. Along the way, Willetts by implication compares himself favourably to a series of historical ‘disruptors’ of ‘producer power’, including: Napoleon Bonaparte, Adam Smith, William Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Lionel Robbins, Clark Kerr, and, of course, Margaret Thatcher.

Through history’s mirrored (but distorted) reflection, Willetts considers himself as a great emancipator of higher education, saving universities from the ‘necessary’ cuts of post-Financial Crisis ‘austerity’, finally realising Robbins’ vision of a mass HE system in England.

But Willetts wilfully ignores Thatcher’s swingeing cuts to HE in the early 1980s, part of a now well-documented project of privatisation that sought to simultaneously expand the use of public services while intentionally under-funding them. This creates crises that are firstly meant to show how public funding doesn’t work, and secondly that the only solution is privatisation. This is exactly what we are seeing at a more advanced stage with regards to the National Health Service (NHS).

Rather than representing the realisation of Robbins’ vision of a democratised system of mass higher education, Willetts’ ‘experiment’ in marketisation is in reality the completion of Thatcher’s war against the public sector.


Breaking up the Oxbridge ‘duopoly’

“We can think of today’s wide range of universities as successive levels of archaeological deposits with their distinctive identities shaped by other historical origins. But there is a deep tension between on the one hand the growth and diversity and on the other hand a single dominant benchmark of what is best about a university. While new entrants may do things differently their distinctiveness may be eroded under pressure to confirm to a single scale of values.” (p. 36)

The above quote sets the scene for Willetts’ revisionist history of universities in the UK, Europe and US in the first few chapters of ‘A University Education’. On the one hand, the “distinctive identities” shaped by the “successive levels” of the history of HE are to be celebrated under perhaps Willetts’ foundational concept in the book – ‘diversity’. While on the other, each level presents an obstacle to liberators such as Willetts, with the status quo pushing against what is always retrospectively argued to be necessary reform.

Willetts begins his story in the medieval era, with the Oxbridge “duopoly”. Straight away, even in this precapitalist socioeconomic formation, he sees competition driving efficient outcomes: “the lecturing staff had to submit to a competitive trial to win the custom of their fee-paying consumers … teaching was viewed as a commodity like any other and it was logical that new students should sample lecture courses before making their academic purchase” (p. 1).

Students “came first” according to Willetts: “groups of students were looking for training to get qualifications that would help them practise medicine or law and employed teachers to help them” (p. 13). Willetts points to the tensions “between town and gown” that this new institution created, which often “boiled over into violence” (p. 14).

He also notes the symbiotic relationship between universities and the state that has defined the history of higher education to this day. Early European universities “looked to the Church, the major countervailing power of the time, for protection from hostile locals” (p. 14).

While newly-established universities had to deal with this “persecution” from locals, they also had to contend with “greedy councils taxing them too much”. This perfect storm of demands in some cases forced groups of scholars and students to “march out of town to a new home” (p. 14).

In 1209, a group of scholars and students left Oxford University to found Cambridge University, establishing for the next 500 years what Willetts calls the “Oxbridge duopoly”.

Oxford University “emerged when in 1167 King Henry II banned English students from going to Paris to study because France was too strongly linked to his great opponent, Archbishop Thomas Becket” (p. 14).

After the Cambridge University succession, Oxford University persuaded King Henry III to “issue a proclamation” that no new universities should be allowed except in the form of Oxbridge colleges, and also to impose “an oath on all new masters that they would not lecture outside the universities of Oxford and Cambridge” (p. 17).

However, this duopoly was challenged first in 1828 when English Radicals, “led by Jeremy Bentham”, set up a “secular, fee-based college as a joint stock company” as a “deliberate alternative” to Oxbridge (p. 21). Then in 1872, William Gladstone commissioned an inquiry “into Oxford and Cambridge, what funds they had, how they were used, and what subjects we studied” (p. 23).

Willetts immediately draws an analogy to his own situation as Minster for Universities and Science from 2010-15, grumbling that the abuse Jeremy Bentham received for setting up University College London (UCL) “was similar to what we hear today” about ‘alternative providers’ (p. 231). Willetts notes that UCL “wasn’t allowed to call itself a university” and was “denounced” as a threat “to the established model of a university” (p. 35).

Extending the analogy with marketisation, Willetts then celebrates the creation of the  University of London in 1836 – a “solution brokered by government” to a stalemate that had emerged between Oxbridge and the newly established UCL (p. 35).

Willetts explains how the state-subsidised and managed University of London was given the power to award ‘external degrees’, enabling colleges to be set up across the country, offering degrees validated by the University of London.

Gladstone’s commission, 50 years later, represents for Willetts another example of ‘benign’ government intervention. The commission found that “universities, great institutions with a noble purpose, had been captured by a small self-perpetuating group and were not fulfilling any higher purpose” and that “the collegiate monopoly of instruction had led to decay of professorial teaching” (p. 25).

As a result, an Act was passed in 1877 that “gave Government appointed Commissioners the power to merge and rationalise college fellowships to fund new University professorships and lectureships” (p. 25).

“After the Oxbridge monopoly was broken in the 1830s, England saw the creation of colleges with diverse missions including delivering education and training to meet the needs of the local economy” (p. 35). As a result of the 1877 Bill, there was a “surge in the creation of new academic institutions in Victorian England”, which meant there subsequently “several distinct routes to becoming a university” (p. 26).

Critics who see neoliberalism as an ideology of ‘laissez faire’ may be confused at Willetts’ celebration of government intervention. But for early neoliberals such as F. A. Hayek, ‘laissez faire’ – the doctrine that markets should be left alone and government interference should be kept to a minimum – was a mistake. In the absence of ‘natural’ markets, the role of a neoliberal state was to create the conditions for competition to appear, even if this meant large-scale government intervention.

Willetts clearly, albeit cautiously, recognises this role for the state when it comes to higher education: “the tension between respecting [universities’] independence and challenging what we would now call producer power runs though this narrative and through my time as minister’ (p. 25).


Massification and monopoly capitalism

Willetts continues this narrative of tension into the modern era, with the first ‘modern’ research-intensive university: the University of Berlin.

The University of Berlin was founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810, as Willetts notes, right in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon, the “great disruptive force destroying the decaying medieval universities of Continental Europe” – pushed it to “modernise its failing institutions” (p. 20).

Humboldt “proposed a new type of university that would lead to national renewal”. He advocated a university “which did not just train the elite” but also “promoted research and an understanding of national culture to strengthen Prussia and catch up with the Industrial Revolution happening in Britain” (p. 20). As a result, “German universities were the dominant force in the nineteenth century” (p. 29).

The German research university then became a model for universities across the world through its export to the quintessentially ‘modern’ country, which rose to global dominance in the 20th century: the USA.

According to Willetts, John Hopkins was the “first explicitly research-focused university deliberately based on the Humboldt model” (p. 30). Thanks to the GI Bill – which provided veterans returning from the Second World War with a range of benefits including state-subsidised college education – the US HE system saw a massive expansion within what is often referred to as the American economic ‘golden age’.

Willetts notes the effect of ‘welfarist’ social policy on the growth of the post-war US economy: “this combination of mass access to higher education together with university-based research is the origin of America’s great clusters which drive American innovation to this day” (p. 30).

However, Willetts ignores the other side to this coin – the central role that the US research-intensive university played in the development of what I have referred to elsewhere (based on the work of other theorists) as ‘monopoly capitalism’ (HE Marketisation, 10 December 2017).

In the 20th century, capitalism changed from a decentralised system of small(ish) firms competing with each other through ‘free markets’ to one where saturated markets were dominated by oligopolistic firms exerting a controlling influence on prices and relating to each other mainly through ‘rivalry’ (with frequent mergers and acquisitions).

Reality occasionally breaks through Willetts’ revisionist history – for example when he points to the hugely influential Dartmouth University case in 1819, which led to the judgement that corporations should be treated as ‘legal persons’ with legal rights to make contracts, hold property or commission torts. This case is now cited as a key factor in the rise of the American business corporation.

The American mass, public university system was created by the state in order to boost the monopoly capitalist system that had begun to establish itself before the Second World War. By importing the German university model into the US, the state could supply big, corporate firms with much needed R&D, as well a huge influx of ‘human capital’ as a result of the GI Bill. This intervention combined with other factors to produce one of the biggest economic booms ever seen in the history of capitalism.

Like the US, the UK (eventually) learned from what was going on with HE reform in the rest of the world, and saw how the US was using HE to drive their golden age. The UK was also committed to welfarist social policy after the Second World War, but had been slower to catch up when it came to HE policy.

In the UK, the Butler Education Act in 1944 – “which for the first time ensured universal publicly funded access to secondary education” (p. 33) – provided a demand-side expansion of HE, as a mass educated public began to push agaoinst the limitations of the still very elite English HE system. As Willetts explains: “Access to higher education only really became a major political issue when the Butler reforms together with the post-war baby boom interacted to create real pressure for places in the early sixties” (p. 33)

Although many commentators begin the story of mass public HE in England with the 1963 Robbins Report, Willetts argues that the Anderson Report that immediately preceded it 1962 was just as important.

This report recommended a new system of funding which would enable “British residents with two A-level passes (or equivalent) admitted to first-degree (or comparable) courses” to “receive generous awards for maintenance and tuition that were consistent across the county.’ (p. 41) This recommendation was implemented by the 1962 Education Act, and administered locally according to a national formula.

Willetts also notes that in 1961, the Universities Central Council on Admissions (UCCA) was created in order to manage the “intensified competition for places” which had become “unmanageable” for applicants and institutions.

Under the existing system, universities “didn’t know who was going to turn up at the beginning of term because they did not know if a student had received a separate offer from another university and was going there instead” (p. 42). Through the UCCA, the Government replaced this chaotic and uncoordinated system with a centralised, competitive system of university applications, which eventually morphed into UCAS.

“Macmillan’s Government had created a national system of higher education, but crucially still based on university autonomy and student choice. National government set the terms of the financial support and local government paid it out but universities still had the power to decide who to admit and so in practice determined who received the support. They had created a single market in higher education, very different from the localist continental model and from the American state-based system.” (p. 44)


The long, bumpy road to the market

As the above quote suggests, despite this new “national system” of HE being state-funded, Willetts sees this as a fundamentally important period in the pre-history of marketisation.

But what was significant about this period wasn’t so much the creation of a “single market”, which was if anything a seller’s market; universities chose who would be accepted and were not subject to price competition, as the student numbers cap meant there while there was a limited amount of funding, so there was no shortage of students fighting for places. Rather it was the ‘funding crisis’ that emerged in the wake of the Robbins Report.

Robbins outlined four key aims of HE, including: (1) “instruction in skills”; (2) the promotion of “general powers of the mind”, operating on a “plane of universality”; (3) “the advancement of learning” – teaching should “partake in the nature of discovery”; and (4) the transmission of a “common culture and common standards of citizenship” (Robbins, in Willetts p. 45).

These four aims echoed those of Humboldt, indicating that Robbins recognised the that English HE could play in driving Britain’s own post-war boom. But most importantly, the so-called ‘Robbins Principle’ stated that “courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so” (Robbins, in 45).

These conclusions were accepted by the government on 24 October 1963. Robbins predicted, and along with the government, hoped for a rapid expansion in student numbers in the following years. They weren’t disappointed.

In the following decade, the number of students in full-time HE more than doubled, from 216,000 students in 1962/3 to 457,000 students in the 1970/71 academic year (p. 47). By 2010 – the year that Willetts became Minster for Universities and Science – this number had almost quadrupled again, reaching 1.74 million full-time students in English HE (p. 47).

However, the coherence of Willetts’ revisionist/emancipatory narrative comes under real strain as the story reaches the Thatcher era. He defends Thatcher as an “optimist” who “saw the value of higher education” as Minister of Education. In contrast to her successor, Keith Joseph, she pushed for further expansion.

Joseph had tried to reduce numbers because “he was trapped in a funding model which held the resource per student broadly constant, and therefore controlled public spending by controlling numbers” (p. 57). Kenneth Baker, Joseph’s successor, then “broke this log jam” by shifting to a funding model in which universities received the marginal cost of extra students, unleashing “another great surge in student numbers in the late 1980s and early 1990s” (p. 57).

What Willetts neglects to mention – a strange omission considering the level of detail in his narrative up to this point (Willetts covers the Thatcher era in just under two pages, compared to 17 pages on the Robbins era) – is the swingeing cuts that Thatcher applied to the HE sector during her time as Prime Minster.

For Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, Thatcher’s policies were “the beginning of a long decline” for universities. “The cuts in 1981 were a disaster for British higher education – some of worst things that have ever happened to higher education,” he adds.

Andrew McGettigan, in his hugely important book, The Great University Gamble, uses the following graph to show the consequences of Thatcher’s policy of growing student numbers (which were state-controlled) while cutting public funding (McGettigan, p. 19):

The graph shows a consistent fall in funding per student during the 1980s, only lifting slightly again with the introduction of fees in 1997.

We now know – mainly from the reform of the NHS – that the simultaneous expansion and under-funding of public services is an explicit and long-term strategy of Tory privatisation.

As Colin Leys and Stewart Player argue, the privatisation of the NHS has proceeded through “misrepresentation, obfuscation and deception”:

“Opinion polls show that, any time since 2000, if the public had been asked whether they wanted to see the NHS broken up and replaced with a healthcare market on American lines, to be run for profit by a variety of multinational health companies, private equity funds and local businessmen, they would have overwhelmingly rejected it. If the idea had been openly put before parliament only a handful of Conservative MPs in very safe seats could have risked supporting it. Whatever its faults, the NHS remains the most popular institution in the country. So if the project was to succeed it was essential to minimise public attention to what was really intended – and when attention could not be avoided, to obscure it.” (Leys and Player, pp. 64-5)

Others, such as Charles Webster, accuse Thatcher’s Conservative government of deliberately under-funding the NHS during the 1980s and 90s, thus creating the conditions for it to be replaced by a private insurance based system, as in the US.

More importantly, Ursula Huws points out that multinational companies themselves “actively” lobbied and marketed their services to neoliberal governments throughout this period, advising sympathetic governments on “how to modernise their services, recommending on with one hand the sorts of outsourcing strategies from which they, and other companies, benefit with the other”.

A quote from Willetts is telling: “The shift from elite to mass higher education system had brought with it a significant decline in the quality of the academic experience. Arresting the decline in the funding of students was essential, and a precondition of raising standards.” (p. 204)

Like with the NHS, an alleged decline in the quality of English HE, which if real – the Government has never really evidenced this – had been a result of simultaneous expansion and under-funding, is joined up with a defence of consumer welfare to justify privatisation and marketisation.


The inefficiency of democracy

Within Willetts’ revisionist narrative, the cuts do not point to sneaky Thatcherite privatisation policy, but to HE historically – and mistakenly – being treated like a public service. This meant that when cuts to public funding were ‘needed’ – which they always are under a Tory government in power as capitalism eventually reaches another period of crisis and stagnation – HE fell victim to a ‘necessary’ prioritisation of public funds.

After all, who would argue that higher education was more important than primary or secondary education? Or social services? No one. And this is where what I have called ‘market populism’ comes in (a phrase in fact coined by Thomas Frank who used it in a similar way to criticise the New Economy of the 1990s).

The basic premise of Willetts’ rationalisation of marketisation – after conceding that price competition is impossible due to the income-contingent loan system (see HE Marketisation, 29 October 2017) – is that it provides a sustainable way to fund the English HE system while protecting it from the winds of political change and the consequences of financial crises:

“Universities came to recognise that they needed a source of funding which was not public spending and hence not always at risk of cuts. They threatened to introduce their own emergency top-up fees of £300 per student in 1997 unless something was done, which would have turned higher education into a sensitive election issue. That is why the Dearing Enquiry was set up on a cross-party basis by the then Education Secretary Gillian Shepherd at the end of the Major government.” (p. 64)

The Dearing Report – published in 1997 –  proposed “for the first time” a graduate contribution, Willetts notes, suggesting that students pay £1000 to cover at that time about a quarter of the cost of their education. These fees were “structured as a loan to be repaid as a proportion of the graduate’s income (‘income-contingent’) rather than the fixed repayment mortgage-style loans which shad been introduced on a small scale already” (pp. 64-5).

“As soon as the Financial Crisis broke in 2008 it was clear to the more far-sighted Labour figures – such as Peter Mandelson – that there were going to be more public spending cuts and higher education would not be exempt from them. So he wanted to repeat Gillian Shepherd’s device and set up a review which would identify a way forward and straddle the Election due in 2010.” (p. 65)

The rest, as they say, is history. Under Willetts, £9000 fees and loans were introduced, rising to £9,250 in 2017 under Jo Johnson. At the same time, Willetts pushed for a simplified ‘risk-based’ procedure for granting for-profit colleges ‘university’ status and degree-awarding powers, thus edging closer to his dream of a truly ‘diverse’ HE system in England with ‘producer power’ replaced by ‘consumer power’.

All that was left to do was pass primary legislation: “It was as if we had privatised an industry but without a regulator in place and were expected to use the legal framework of the old nationalised industry” (p. 289).

The Tories finally managed to get the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) passed, rushed through Parliament just before the shambolic snap election in spring 2017. At this point Willetts felt confident enough to write a book reflecting upon just how proud of himself he was:

“The system of fees and loans has now been operating for over a decade. It has been a conspicuous success – broadening participation in higher education, bringing more funds to university education, and saving public money. Taking most of higher education out of public spending has led to the removal of direct controls set by Government on student numbers university by university. Sweeping away those absurd controls away is one of the great social reforms of the Coalition Government and it was fitting that we should announce that policy in 2013, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the Robbins report.” (p. 86)

But while patting himself on the back for ‘saving’ English HE from the cuts – imposed by his own Tory government in response to a Financial Crisis whose causes can in large part be traced back to Thatcher-Reagan neoliberal consensus of the 1980s – Willetts also freely admits to what McGettigan has pointed out was a serious “democratic deficit” in how these reforms were put in place even before HERA.

Willetts remembers how his 2010 White Paper had proposed primary legislation “which would have set up a proper regulatory framework for all this” – but because of “political resistance” and the fact that such primary legislation would provide “an opportunity for another Parliamentary vote on fees”, Willetts decided to “improvise instead” (p. 284).

As clear as day, and without shame, Willetts (p. 284) admits to “using existing powers in ways that had never originally envisaged” to push his reforms – which he knew damn well were unpopular – through Parliament. Rather than admit the legitimacy of dissent in a democratic system, Willetts and his fellow cronies chose to sneak reform through the back door.

Willetts excitedly recounts the example of the College of Law sale to a for-profit, venture capital company, which he achieved with the help of the Higher Education Policy Institute’s founder Nick Hillman.

The Law Society – who ran the College of Law as a charity “for providing legal education to people regardless of their personal financial circumstances” – wanted to sell the College because it had “grown very valuable”. The Society “thought they could best fulfil their charitable purpose not by running a law college but by selling it and using the proceeds for a charitable endowment to help fund legal education for low-income students” (p. 284).

“The sale was a fantastic opportunity, and the College was bought by a venture capital company which shared the vision of its management that legal education was an area where we excelled and aimed to create a big new for-profit enterprise providing legal education to the world.” (p. 284)

But, the new owners wanted assurance that they would meet HE regulations and be able to offer accredited courses, even though they were a for-profit institution:

“Nobody had done this for a private profit-making institution before, and in the absence of legislation there was no clear framework – the rules of the Privy Council for university statues did not apply in such cases. BIS officials and my excellent special adviser Nick Hillman worked hard to steer the project through. We found an ingenious route to do this – by using separate legislation on trade names to give it university title. It was a necessary piece of improvisation and a peculiar way to establish new universities, made necessary but the absence of a legal framework.” (pp. 284-5)

I found the excited language and references to ingenuity and particularly disgusting, because at no point does Willetts acknowledge his utter disregard for democracy –  disgraceful behaviour for an elected Member of Parliament. The absence of a legal framework, as Willetts has already admitted, was not something externally imposed, but rather a result of Willetts’ strategic avoidance of public scrutiny back in 2010.

“Creeping reform is inconsistent with democratic oversight,” McGettigan (p. 5) argues. “The vote on tuition fees in December 2010 was a ‘snap vote’ called with little notice and with little time scheduled in the House of Commons: a tactical means to curtail debate both inside and outside Parliament.”

As McGettigan also points out, the snap vote, brought forward using secondary legislation, happened before the publication of the White Paper – such policy papers are normally meant as public consultation exercises. “It was a political coup … no detail could be examined; the House of Lords, which voted the following week, was deprived of its now conventional role as a revising chamber” (McGettigan, p. 22).

“Had the new maximum fee moved through Parliament slowly, accompanying primary legislation, it may have been lost and split the Coalition. As it was the vote narrowly passed. This abuse had the desired effect of spiking the guns of those opposing the remainder of the plans and confusing potential activists about just what had been won on that occasion.” (McGettigan, p. 22)

The Tories used the same tactic seven years later when they finally felt confident enough to pass primary legislation, rushing the Higher Education and Research Bill through Parliament after Theresa May decided to call a snap election. After a lengthy ‘ping pong process between the House of Commons and the House of Lords – which proposed a series of major amendments which were rejected by the former – the Tories managed to pass the Bill on 27 April 2017.


Why gamble?

McGettigan asks, why gamble with a perfectly acceptable publicly-funded English HE system? He suggests an answer to his own question:

“What we have seen is largely lobbying conducted by either privateers or the vice-chancellors, through Universities UK or the various ‘mission groups’. The interests of these do not match those of academics, students  or the public in general. Universities, increasingly acting like corporations, were paid off: overall universities had expected to see an increase in annual income, albeit unevenly distributed, with the cost -passed on to the individual graduate and the underwriter of the loans: the Treasury or taxpayer.” (McGettigan, p. 6)

Willetts “held twelve meetings with representatives from private equity firms and educational multinationals prior to the publication of the Higher Education White Paper in June 2011” (McGettigan, p. 8). Among the attendees were Pearson, Kaplan, Duke Street, Sovereign Capital, Warburg Pincus, and A4E.

As we will see in Pt 3 of this multi-part critique of ‘A University Education’, Willetts is not ashamed of this attempt to court big business: he was keen to let big capital in to the English HE system to allow home-grown providers to compete with the emerging educational multi-nationals.

This is consistent with the neoliberal worldview: monopoly is ok, as long as it results from competition. Democracy can be inefficient, so can be by-passed for the ‘greater good’ – by which Willetts means the needs of monopoly capitalism.



Guest Post: Ten reasons why USS is a scandal waiting to bite back


Sam Marsh, Sheffield UCU, follows up on his earlier post for HE Marketisation (6 November 2017), giving 10 reasons why USS is a “scandal waiting to bite back”. The University and College Union will announce the results of its national ballot for strike action in response to the threat from universities to end guaranteed pension benefits on 19 January. 


If you’re reading this, you probably know that there’s a lot of fuss over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pension fund for academic and related staff at some of the biggest universities in the country. You’ve probably heard that things aren’t as black and white as some would lead you to believe. But what is it that’s getting people upset? Quite simply, the process of determining the health of the fund appears to be rotten. Here are ten reasons why you might consider what’s happening to be close to scandalous.


Reason 1: a huge best-estimate surplus

As part of their 2017 valuation, USS included a `best-estimate’ of the fund’s health. The result was quite startling. On this measure, they hold a huge surplus, significantly over £8bn. That’s more than £20k for every USS member. And this figure is up on 2014, where it has recently been admitted that the scheme held a £3.5bn best-estimate surplus.


Source: USS 2017 Actuarial Valuation, September 2017


Reason 2: we’re probably overpaying for the current benefits

The 2017 valuation also included a best-estimate for how much of our salaries needs putting aside to secure the current benefits. Our current contributions of 18% for employers and 8% for employees turn out to be a significant over-payment, with USS estimating that 22.5% in total would be sufficient.


Source: USS 2017 Actuarial Valuation, September 2017


Reason 3: ‘de-risking’ causes all the problems

Much has been made by USS of the need to de-risk the scheme, with plans to sell off growth assets (equities, property etc) and replace them with low return investments such as government bonds, in order to ‘match liabilities’’ Much less has been made of the fact that this de-risking is responsible for almost all of the deficit, and that canceling it would allow benefits to remain unchanged at the current contribution rate.

Source: Letter to Sir Keith Burnett by Sheffield UCU, 29 November 2017


Reason 4: de-risking is hugely expensive

Using USS’s projections for investment returns, we can compare the asset growth both with and without the de-risking plans. And the results aren’t pretty. The de-risking is expected to cost universities an eye-watering £11bn over the next 20 years. This will come in the form of increased employer contributions, and will almost certainly be found by squeezing the amount being paid towards future pension benefits.

asset growth.jpg

Source: data based on figures from USS’s Actuarial Valuations, available on Sheffield UCU’s USS: 2017 valuation resources page


Reason 5: the de-risking doesn’t reduce risk!

The most shocking thing about the plans to de-risk investments comes from the graphs below, taken from a USS presentation to Imperial College. The graphs show that, 10 years into the future, the de-risking offers almost no protection against adverse events. Here, the figures for the worst 1% of possibilities (next to the ‘99%’ arrow) are extremely similar whether de-risking or not. In other words, the risk has barely been reduced by the costly change to investment plans. Inexplicably, universities had not been shown this information when they were consulted on how much de-risking they thought appropriate.


Source: USS presentation to Imperial, November 2017


Reason 6: USS have been resistant to showing their workings

In September, USS sent its draft valuation to universities, but had no plans to release it publicly. After significant pressure from USS members, including a petition signed by almost 2,000, the draft valuation finally entered the public domain, courtesy of the University of Sheffield. Unfortunately, the document still left plenty of unanswered questions, with the justifications for the assumptions offered way below academic standards.


Source: ‘Academics urge universities’ pension fund to explain shortfall‘, Josephine Cumbo, Financial Times, 19 September 2017


Reason 7: the Pensions Regulator intervened at a crucial point

Just as USS started consulting with universities over the draft valuation, the Pensions Regulator wrote an explosive letter to the USS trustee board questioning their assessment of the robustness of the university sector. This intervention, while not publicly released, was passed to universities as they were forming their responses, and is mentioned explicitly in some of their submissions. It may well have contributed to the calls for increased de-risking that Universities UK (UUK) say characterised the responses.


Source: ‘UK universities retirement fund `weaker’ than claimed, fears watchdog‘, Josephine Cumbo, Financial Times, 11 October 2017


Reason 8: closing the defined benefit scheme could cause spiraling costs

Counter-intuitively, USS is more stable as an ongoing scheme than if its defined benefit section is closed. Presently, USS has more coming in each month than it pays out (positive cash flow), and is forecast to do so far into the future. Closing the scheme will quickly push it into negative cash flow, at which point assets must be cashed in to pay benefits. The result will be increasing pressure to de-risk as the scheme winds down, which will lead to increasing costs. Warnings of taking such an approach have come from Ros Altman (former pensions minister) and Brian Souter (President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland) among others.


Source: Sir Brian Souter, BBC Today Programme, 4 December


Reason 9: UUK tried to spin the effects of their proposal on income

After Universities UK tabled a proposal in November to close the defined benefit section of USS, it was inevitable that people would want to know the effect on their retirement income. After a significant delay, UUK released modelling in December which, they claimed, showed that people would receive 80-90% of what they would under the previous arrangements. Unfortunately, this modelling was a masterpiece in spin, with investment forecasts used which were significantly higher than those in the USS valuation (and which would show a surplus if applied there!) along with a host of other sleights of hand. Un-spinning the proposals shows that 50-75% would have been a more accurate claim.


Source: UUK can’t transform a sow’s ear into a silk purse, Mike Otsuka, 13 December 2017


Reason 10: much better solutions are available

Even accepting some of the dubious calculations and de-risking plans, there are much, much better solutions than that which Universities UK is painting as the only option. Defined benefits could be retained with a small increase in contributions subject to slightly reduced terms. UUK could rethink their requests for heavy de-risking and hence keep the costs down. Thinking longer-term, solutions could be found which look towards collective defined contribution, a way of fairly apportioning all proceeds of a fund’s growth to the members of the scheme. It is worth noting that this final approach seems to have broken a deadlock in the dispute over pensions in Royal Mail, which for a long time appeared to be heading nowhere.


Source: ‘How UUK’s pension proposal could be greatly improved on, at no cost or risk to employers‘, Mike Otsuka, 26 November 2017


So there we have it. Whether or not this valuation ends up widely acknowledged as a scandal, time will tell. But Universities UK have done serious damage to their reputation by attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of their staff. And it’s hard to see how that won’t bite them back.


More resources

The Sheffield UCU 2017 Valuation Resources page: http://ucu.group.shef.ac.uk/campaigns/pensions/uss-2017-valuation-resources/

Willetts the Conqueror: Introduction


Before Jo Johnson and Sam Gyimah, there was David Willetts. As the Minister of State for Universities and Science from 2010 until 2014, under the Tory-led ‘coalition’ government, Willetts oversaw the introduction of a market into the English higher education system – often referred to as ‘marketisation’. As a result, he has become a somewhat hated figure for those who have had to suffer the consequences of this ‘experiment’ in HE reform, so much so that Willetts has often been on the receiving end of protests and abuse from those studying and working in the sector.

In his recently published memoir-cum-rationalisation ‘A University Education’ (1), Willetts recounts one of the ‘saddest experiences’ of his time as Minister, when he was trying to deliver a lecture on the benefits of ‘unleashing the forces of consumerism’ at the University of Cambridge, only to be ‘shouted down by angry students chanting that they were not consumers’ (p. 279). This is only one of many anecdotes in the book pointing to the massive (justifiable) resistance and anger that Willetts faced while rolling out his reforms.

To say I had mixed feelings when reviewing this book is somewhat of an understatement. I was studying for my undergraduate degree when the Financial Crisis 2008-9 hit, and when I graduated I spent two years unemployed in London. In order to ride out the storm, I started a Masters degree in 2010, the year that marketisation began. After finishing my Masters I managed to scrape a few hours as an hourly-paid lecturer (while holding various other part-time jobs to make ends meet), and have been on such a contract ever since.

I expected to hate the book, for it to be simply an ideological expression of ‘neoliberalism’, an apologetics for the destruction of a world-leading system of public higher education, a justification for the privatisation of yet another institution of the welfare state. It is, in fact, all of these things. However, I found to my surprise that – up to a point – the book was also very readable, with Willetts portraying himself as someone who meant well – the book begins with the statement ‘I love universities’ – and to some extent, meticulously researched.

It is important to give credit where its due, and to note that Willetts genuinely believed and stands by what he did as universities Minister:

‘The system of fees and loans has now been operating for over a decade. It has been a conspicuous success – broadening participation in higher education, bringing more funds to university education, and saving public money. Taking most of higher education out of public spending has led to the removal of direct controls set by Government on student numbers university by university. Sweeping away those absurd controls away is one of the great social reforms of the Coalition Government and it was fitting that we should announce that policy in 2013, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the Robbins report.’ (p. 86)

This quote conveys how Willetts sees himself as a great emancipator, comparing himself (by implication) in the book to not just Lord Lionel Robbins, but also to figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, William Gladstone and Margaret Thatcher. What these figures all have in common is a war against various forms of what Willetts calls ‘producer power’: the absolutist medieval state, the Oxbridge ‘duopoly’ and the trade unions (respectively).

Rather than destroying the HE system, Willetts considers that he ‘saved’ it from the cuts. As will be argued in Pt 1 of this Review that will be published in four instalments over the coming fortnight, he wilfully ignores the origins of these cuts in the Tory austerity agenda, the Financial Crisis and a long history of Thatcherite privatisation that Willetts’ marketisation is in fact the completion of. Nevertheless, he is immensely proud that he was ‘able to deliver one of the single biggest cuts in public spending of the Coalition whilst at the same time increasing the total cash going to universities for teaching and access by £1.5 billion’ (p. 67). ‘That’s not bad’, he concludes.

Willetts the conqueror of bad monopolies – as will be argued below, for neoliberals monopoly is ok as long as it results from ‘market-like’ competition – delivered the ‘necessary’ cuts while increasing funding per student. But more importantly, he found a way to abolish the student numbers cap and achieve what no other UK Government had achieved, not even Labour under Tony Blair: mass higher education. Let’s not dwell for too long on the £50,000 debt that students now leave university with or the infamous and ever-rising RAB charge – which measures how close the reforms get to costing the Government as much as the publicly-funded system that preceded it (a point to be covered in Pt. 4 of the Review).

At first glance, the book seems to be irredeemably beset by contradiction. Again, it is full of contradictions, but there is an underlying ideology that gives it a coherence and that reveals the not so innocent neoliberal political project that Willetts conveniently erases from the book. Willetts surprisingly admits that the market in HE has not appeared and cannot, due to the nature of the income-contingent loans system (see HE Marketisation, 29 October 2017). In retrospect, he also concedes that his claim in 2010 that £9000 fees would be ‘exceptional’ was ‘a mistake – a wrong forecast based on a false analysis’ (p. 83). Willetts reveals that it was this claim that led to the widespread belief that the ‘reforms should generate price competition or they would have failed’ (p. 83).

However – and this seems a little far-fetched, as he was the architect of the fees and loans system – Willetts realised that what ‘really mattered’ for students ‘was the repayment formula not the fee level’. It then it became ‘clear’, he writes, that there would not and should not be much price competition’ (p. 83). This was because students, who in most cases would never pay back the full amount and never saw the money itself, did not treat the £9000 fee as a price, and therefore were not prompted to behave like rational, cost-benefit maximising consumers. In one of the many moments of humility running through the book, he reveals that this lack of price competition was a ‘terrible let-down’ for some of his Tory peers (p. 84).

Yet when he writes about ’empowering the student as consumer’, Willetts argues that marketisation ‘harnesses the power of choice and competition’ to drive up quality (the question of consumerism and quality will be addressed in Pt. 2 of the Review). I originally approached the book with a very simple research question: is Willetts an ‘idiot’ (sorry David, I can’t think of a gentler way to put this) who genuinely believes in the power of competition, or is he a cynic that expounds what Philip Mirowski (2) calls neoliberal ‘double truth’ to hide the harsh reality of corporate asset-stripping of previously state-protected public goods? This question followed from my other work on HE and monopoly capitalism theory, which argues competition is only a momentary reorganisation of a wider oligopolistic corporate capitalist system looking for a temporary boost to stagnating profits overall (HE Marketisation, 10 December 2017).

The answer is quite simple: Willetts is in fact a textbook neoliberal. As Will Davies (3) has shown, the key to the shift from liberal to neoliberal economic theory lay in the latter’s acceptance of monopoly as the successful outcome of competition, not as an example of ‘market failure’, as the former believed. The monopolist is the entrepreneur (individual or firm) that has played the game well, the ability to control prices the reward. But monopoly is only ever temporary – it is always possible for another entrepreneur or firm to play the game better and gain temporary advantage – or in some rare cases, rewrite the rules completely (often referred to as ‘disruption’). In an impressive about-face, neoliberalism ‘reconciled itself to monopoly and became its mightiest champion, despite its worldview—in theory—being based on a religious devotion to the genius of economically competitive markets’ (4).

Willetts seems to rehearse this journey from competition to monopoly through the course of the book, in the latter chapters admitting that the reason he ‘was so keen on promoting alternative providers’ was that he hoped ‘at least one big British based global higher education chain would emerge’ (Willetts p. 317). The justification for monopoly is couched in cliche-ridden theories of technological ‘disintermediation’, which propose, as all theories of disruption do, that the ‘creative destruction’ of traditional markets is inevitable and not a matter of politics at all.

Perhaps more disturbingly, the hope that the UK will produce HE oligopolies to rival those in the US is justified within a neo-colonial ‘ambition’ to ‘help to educate the world, drawing on the prestige of our education institutions and exams and the global role of our language’ (Willetts p. 319). All of these issues that centre on the idea of the university as trans-national corporation will be explored in Pt 3 of the Review.

So why read ‘A University Education’, if it is so ideological and self-congralutalory? Because, if read critically, it contains a lot of useful information about the history of universities, HE policy and the politics of knowledge production. It also clears up many of the common misunderstandings about income-contingent loans and the government accounting mechanisms behind them. But most importantly, it is the clearest expression of the principles of HE marketisation published so far, even more so than some of the best critiques (5). That is because it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.

If you want to understand marketisation, this book is essential reading – especially for activists and trade unionists who are still dealing with the fallout of what is described. But more importantly, the book marks out the terrain of the battle against marketisation, and hopefully the forthcoming four parts of this critical Review in HE Marketisation will help sketch out a map for the war to come.



(1) Willetts, D. (2017) A University Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(2) Mirowski, P. (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. London: Verso

(3) Davies, W. (2016) The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition. London: Sage

(4) Foster, J. B., McChesney, R. W. and Jonna, R. J. (2011) ‘Monopoly and Competition in Twenty-First Century Capitalism’, Monthly Review 62(11) {Online} Available from: https://monthlyreview.org/2011/04/01/monopoly-and-competition-in-twenty-first-century-capitalism/ [Last accessed 16 December 2017]

(5) See for example: McGettigan, A. (2013) The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Pluto Press