The Browne Report

On Tuesday 12th October the independent review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance in the UK released its findings – the Browne Report.

The Browne Report proposes a radical overhaul of the British University system, with unknown implications for future students. This space is for further analysis of the report, the context in which it has been released and its implications for the future. It is designed to further the discussion from our debate at the opening Student Seminar of 2010/11.

We asked:

– What would be the impact of the proposed changes to the education system in the UK?
– In the current economic climate, what are the social implications of such reforms to Higher Education?
– In what way does the report reflect a redefinition of the role of the State, Universities, Students and Society in the UK?

This is an issue that will affect students across the UK, so building the widest range of opinions and furthering our understanding is highly significant. Please get involved.

The Report itself can be found here

All comments are welcome and encouraged.


6 Responses to The Browne Report

  1. Pingback: Seminar on the Browne Report and its implications for University education in Britain | KCL European Studies Research Students

  2. Simon says:

    Whilst the Browne report is an independent document and does not constitute a specific government stance on the issue of university funding, I feel that there are some significant elements that should be noted. These elements can be divided into three sections:

    Firstly, we find incongruities with the message sent by the report and the political programme of the coalition government. During the election the Conservative party slogan was that of The Big Society, the aim of which was to devolve power-making decisions to the frontline operators of public services. This means Doctors having increased responsibility over the running of hospitals, surgeries and local health trusts, for example. Why does this not reach universities? Why instead do we find suggestions that decisions on the quality of education will be made not by those in contact with students but by board managers and Directors?

    Secondly, the idea of increasing student fees in the name of ‘fairness’ seems to many to be contradictory. Much has been said in the press about the likelihood of families from disadvantaged backgrounds being put off sending their children into a more expensive Higher Education system for fear of incurring enormous debts. This risks creating an education system based on economic resources rather than individual ability and equal opportunity. It also assumes that universities will compete in a fair market, degree prices will be set by supply and demand, and their future value can be predicted today. But will this market exist?

    Thirdly, and related to the above, the report’s content is representative of a specific perspective on how society and politics should be understood and structured in the UK. Universities are presented as businesses that must be economically viable and offer value for money. Students are posited as consumers of the university: they are simply individuals buying degrees, that enable them to find employment. The role of the State here is not to provide education for the population, but to facilitate access to education. The State regulates, whilst the market provides.

    Here the following arises, however:
    – Do universities simply provide qualifications to be bought by students? Or do they serve wider social and cultural functions?
    – Are students mere consumers and are their choices dependent on rational cost/benefit calculations on the value of their qualification?
    – Is the student body, and society at large, no more than the aggregation of individual consumer interests?

  3. Kaan says:

    First of all, it is accepted by many that higher education in Britain needs to be restructured. That’s why, I see the Browne Report as one of the contributions to the debate on the problems of higher education. I must say that I don’t object to a reasonable rise in tuition fees. But I absolutely reject the idea that advocates marketization of higher education and makes tuition fees as the major factor of advance in science as well as the main determinant of students’ career choices. From this point of view, the Browne report falls short of giving a comprehensive solution for the question of the relationship between science and higher education. To me, the Report seems to deal with the problems of higher education whilst neglecting the problems of scientific community and academic research in general.

    I totally agree on the observation that in the Browne report universities are considered as businesses, students as customers and in that case academic staff is a bank clerk rather than a scientist. This brings us to the conclusion that it is highly likely that the academia or scientific community will look like a marketplace where transactions between buyers and sellers occur. Hence, academia is marketized and higher education becomes a commodity that can be provided according to the rules of the market which are presumed to be perfect. However, academia is not a market, rather it is a forum where science is made and where scientific knowledge is shared. It is a fact that scientific knowledge is not an exclusive commodity and science progresses incrementally. I think that if the higher education is marketized any degree which is not getting enough demand for a period time is destined to be perished by the forces of market. But lack of demand for a degree in a specific field does not necessarily render the scientific practice and research in that field of science obsolete. Oddly enough, the forces of market can lessen the choices for students, or rather customers despite the claims of the Browne report about providing students with more choices. Unless the government allocates funds for the less popular degrees, British academia will not able to contribute to the scientific knowledge, which also contradicts the main objective of the Browne Report, that is pursuing the higher standards in science.

    Furthermore, this may probably cause disequilibrium between demand and supply, which brings us to the long-existing criticism that market is rarely perfect. Even if there is a market for higher education this market suffers from two main problems. The first problem is that the commodity sold by universities, which is a degree in one field, is to a certain extent easy to cater since its raw material, scientific knowledge is not scarce. On the other hand, the utility gained from the commodity depends on the job market where demand(read: jobs) can change over night because of an economic crisis whereas supply (read: university graduates) cannot be altered quick enough to meet the demand. Secondly, the Report gives more emphasis on enhancing choices rather than improving the abilities of students to benefit from those choices. But enabling every citizen to access to the higher education must be accompanied with providing the suitable conditions (not only the right information and advice suggested in the Report though) for graduates to make the most out of their degrees in future.

    All in all, I think rising tuition fees should be one of the items in the recipe for improving higher education but absolutely never the only one. What needs to be done is to consider improvements in higher education together with the improvements in scientific community and research with a broader perspective that can produce better solutions than the Browne Report’s recommendation to rise tuition fees.

  4. I like your idea on the University being a scientific community as well as a market for purchasing degrees Kaan and the separation of the two areas of University education seems just.

    I particularly agree with the contradiction that market forces can reduce the choices for students: the choice will come from a wider range of providers, or from a wider range of techniques, but certainly not from the selection of courses and subjects that can be studied. I would add to this that the current focus on interdisciplinarity may well come under threat if the degree choice of university studies is limited simply to that seen as representing ‘value for money’.

    One aim of the report is to allow specialist institutions focusing on one particular (profitable) area to add to the choice of student degrees, for example, providing training in renewable energies, etc. Funding changes will enable these institutions to invest more, improve quality and award degrees with greater market value.

    Some more questions arise:
    – What if the market demand for labour in that area changes, as Kaan suggests?
    – What if the increase in students on that particular course lowers the value of their degree? Would they have to pay the same price?
    – Could this move us towards a divided and stratified education system? Specialist institutions would struggle to create the varied, interdisciplinary scientific community desired by many universities.

  5. Paolo says:

    I would like to focus my comment on two inter-related aspects of the prospective university funding reform.

    Firstly, what is the rationale behind the Browne report?
    In 2007 (see OECD 2009) the average cumulative expenditure for tertiary students in the UK was 67, 153 USD (for an average 4.34 years of education), quite higher than the OECD average (53,277 USD for an average 4.01 years of education). An increasingly bigger share of this expenditure, however, has been shouldered in recent years by non-state funding, namely tuition fees of non-EU nationals (which can account for up to 30% of the income of leading UK universities), private funding and, since the Labour Reforms of 1998 and 2006, tuition fees of UK and EU nationals. Income from overall tuition fees rose in 2007-2008 to 27% of the total budget of UK universities (see HESA 2009).
    After the banking bail-outs of 2007-2009, all major parties became determined to face the resulting increase of public debt through wide-ranging cuts to the state budget. Even if the cumulative effect of the recent budget decisions implemented and under way is still not clear, average state financing to universities is likely set to fall by 20 to 40% over 4 years. How are universities supposed to make up for the fall in revenues without impairing their strong international competitive profile? Simple: by accordingly raising tuition fees and by reducing their expenditure in “less profitable” programmes (e.g. Arts and Humanities).
    Lord Browne was charged in November 2009 by the Gordon Brown government with preparing the terrain for this shift, and delivered his proposals in October 2010 to the new Con-Dem coalition government. His main rationale was therefore purely budgetary.

    Secondly, what are its likely effects?
    The catchy list of principles contained in the report (choice, fairness, quality, participation…) is a perfect contemporary example of Orwellian ‘newspeak’. Let’s take the first: the report argues that its proposals will increase student choice, as it will allow him/her to “pay more in order to get more”. At the first sight this claim seems spurious, as students will pay in average more to get exactly the same service or a reduced one. What the authors really mean, in fact, is that allowing each university to freely compete for students without fixed limits to enrolments and with the possibility to charge uncapped and differentiated fees will further enhance the difference between leading and prestigious universities and second-class institution. Thus, your ability to choose a (in relative terms) ‘better’ education (e.g. at Oxford and Cambridge) is effectively enhanced – provided that you can afford it!
    The system is thus likely to increase the quality gap between different groups of higher education institutions. Moreover, and despite some advances in the repayment modalities of the debt (the minimum income to start repayment rises from 15,000 to 21,000 pound per year), the steep increase in overall costs is likely to further exclude from (especially prestigious) higher education students with a working-class background. Finally, the whole concept of co-financing of higher education by students is predicated on the idea that a degree is an ‘investment’ toward a higher-paid future job. This has two important consequences: on one hand, both universities and students will increasingly sideline all non-immediately marketable knowledge; on the other hand, the great illusion of a link between university titles and secure and comfortable job perspectives will be reinforced, despite the fact that it is no longer true since the Seventies… Most of university graduates are likely to end up, after a period of underemployment or unpaid internships, into very normal occupations (administration, commerce, services) – paid slightly more than the average maybe, but increasingly precarious and devoid of benefits (e.g. a decent pension).

  6. Simon says:

    Thank you for adding the historical background Paolo and putting the report in context.

    On The London Review of Books website there is fantastic article on this, which summarizes much of what we have mentioned here and in our seminar:

    I particularly like the following analysis of a quote from the report:

    “[According to the Browne Report] Higher education matters because it transforms the lives of individuals. On graduating, graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to move from one job to the next.” This report displays no real interest in universities as places of education; they are conceived of simply as engines of economic prosperity and as agencies for equipping future employees to earn higher salaries

    This article also raises a question related to Paolo’s point on sidelining non-immediately marketable knowledge. What happens if students decide not to study subjects such as medicine, due to the higher costs and perceived lower ‘value for money’? Will hospitals have to ensure doctors get higher wages to compensate? Or will universities have to stop teaching medicine, leading to a very real decline in the standard of future public health services? The report suggests that funding for these subjects seen as being more important will be protected by block grants. Doesn’t this contradict the whole rationale of the project???

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