Browne’s Gamble

Cov3221Stefan Collini in LRB:

Much of the initial response to the Browne Report seems to have missed the point. Its proposals have been discussed almost entirely in terms of ‘a rise in fees’. Analysis has largely concentrated on the amount graduates might pay and on which social groups may gain or lose by comparison with the present system. In other words, the discussion has focused narrowly on the potential financial implications for the individual student, and here it should be recognised that some of the details of Browne’s proposed system of graduate contributions to the cost of fees are, if his premises are granted, an improvement on the present patchwork arrangements.

But the report proposes a far, far more fundamental change to the way universities are financed than is suggested by this concentration on income thresholds and repayment rates. Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds (in recent years supplemented by a relatively small fee element). Instead, we should think of it as a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e. universities). The single most radical recommendation in the report, by quite a long way, is the almost complete withdrawal of the present annual block grant that government makes to universities to underwrite their teaching, currently around £3.9 billion. This is more than simply a ‘cut’, even a draconian one: it signals a redefinition of higher education and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for it.

Instead, Browne wants to see universities attracting customers in a competitive marketplace: there will be a certain amount of public subsidy of these consumers’ purchasing power, especially for those who do not go on to a reasonably well-paid job, but the mechanism which would henceforth largely determine what and how universities teach, and indeed in some cases whether they exist at all, will be consumer choice.