Innovation and Change in Higher and Professional Education
What are the connections and tensions between policies regarding funding, access and quality in higher education?
Research into education policy suggests that it cannot be understood simply as a statement, transparently communicated and put into place by Government. Rather, as Ball (2008, pp.6-7), Trowler (2003, p.96) and Taylor et al. (1997, p.13) have repeatedly emphasised, policy must be understood as a complex and ongoing process. It involves debates and contestations before its emergence as policy text, varying interpretations and implementations of the text itself, and ongoing negotiations and reworkings after the event of the text. Further to this, as Gale (2006; 2007) has discussed, its historiography, or its relation to past policy texts, legacies and debates is also important and must be taken into account. Ball (2008, p.13) and Taylor et al. (1997, p.28) have also focused on the inherently ideological nature of the policy text. It encodes specific values, which act in the interest of specific power relations. Policy discourse includes the configuration of specific values for political aims, naturalising and legitimating certain modes of behaviour, while excluding or demonising others. To draw on the work of Foucault (1989, p.49), discourses enable, constrain and constitute their subjects, or in this case the policy actors who produce play out and are affected by the policy texts. Understanding ‘funding’, access’ and ‘quality’ as important policy discourses allows for an analysis of how they have been constructed and used at different times in the interest of specific Governmental politics. Access and quality in particular have come to mean quite different things in different policy contexts and interpretations, and policy texts have functioned to legitimate their own definitions as ‘natural’ or neutral objectives. This has led, particularly in recent times, to different proposals for and ideological narratives to support different funding structures, redefining relations between the state, universities and students. The three terms are, as will be seen in this analysis, mutually imbricated, and changing one will affect the definition, understanding and effects of the others.
Using this framework, then, as a basic context for the analysis of education policy, ‘funding’, ‘access’ and ‘quality’ will be understood as key regulating discourses, ideologically loaded and mobilised in specific ways in the interests of political parties through their construction and proliferation in policy texts. The main focus here, to allow sufficient depth within the scope of the study, will be on New Labour higher education policy, developed from 1994 onwards (IPPR, 1994), through key policy events in 1997 (NCIHE, 1997), 1998 (DfES, 1998), 2000 (Blunkett, 2000) and 2003 (DfES, 2003). In an attempt to actively construct and enforce new definitions of ‘quality’ and ‘access’ as key tenets of higher education policy, it will be argued, shifts in the structure of funding became an inevitable focus of such policies and their subsequent critiques. These critiques will be outlined and engaged with, focusing on the key issues at stake regarding the three main terms. In order to enable a more historiographic approach, however, New Labour policy will also be situated within an historical policy context. The emergence of tensions between funding, access and quality will be traced back to the Robbins Report of 1963, debates between expansion and the binary divide of universities and polytechnics, and James Callaghan’s speech on education in 1976. Considering the legacies of New Labour policies, a section will examine the development of funding, quality and access in a post-New Labour context. Finally, this will lead to a concluding section, which summarises the connections and tensions and reaches a conclusion including more personal response.
Historical Contexts: Expansion and Binary Divide
Drawing on the importance assigned by Gale (2007) to policy historiography, this section will put New Labour Higher Education policy into historical context through an outline of two key moments in policy history – The ‘Robbins Report’ of the Committee on Higher Education of 1963 and Prime Minister James Callaghan’s speech at Ruskin College in Oxford in 1976, considering how they relate to issues of funding, access and quality. The Robbins Report (1963) raised four essential objectives for higher education: promoting work skills; increasing general mental ability; advancing learning; and improving a common form of citizenship. (Ross, 2003a, p.37). It also, crucially defined an ideal of “equality of opportunity” which included providing places for students from all classes:
It is not merely by providing places for students from all classes that this ideal will be achieved, but also by providing, in the atmosphere of the institutions in which the students live and work, influences that in some measure compensate for any inequalities in home background (Robbins, 1963, para.28)
The report, while not specifying exactly which students should be included within higher education, did document existing inequality, in terms of gender for example, and suggest a clear direction for widened access within the sector (Ross, 2003a, p.37). Access was defined primarily in terms of challenging existing inequalities to the system. Ross (2003a) summarises the task for universities set out by Robbins as challenging “the inequalities and imbalances in the higher education population, in terms of gender and social class” (p.43). Access, then, is defined in relation to these pre-defined social categories. The report’s claim that “courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and wish to do so” (Robbins, 1963, para. 31) was described by contemporary analysts as “overwhelmingly well-received” (Morris, 1964, p.109) seeing it as breaking down barriers and divides in society between a higher educated elite and those with no access to higher education. While some have been critical of the failures of implementation of some of the ideals of the report (Ross, 2003b), it has also been seen as fundamental in shaping concepts of access to have great impact on later policies (King and Nash, 2001, p.185). As Wiewel and Perry (2008, p.62) argue, while highlighting the report’s contextual relation to the politics of its day, Robbins’ fundamental focus on the expansion of higher education has had great effect on concepts of access today. King and Nash (p.88) also point out how the report provided a radical break from previous liberal humanist discourses of education ‘for it’s own sake’ and university freedom, connecting higher education instead to state-driven economic growth and productivity. The policy discourses of access, funding and quality, however, have always been connected. Negotiations and discussion of any one, in other words, will inevitably also shape the others. The focus on access fundamental to the Robbins Report led to discussions on quality in terms of what type of education was being provided as well as the suitable ‘quality’ of a wider range of students to more academic-oriented courses. Ross (2003b) goes on to describe a general shift away from universities onto local polytechnic access in the years following the Robbins Report, leading to the ‘binary divide’ between academic universities and vocational polytechnics described by Wiewel and Perry (2008, p.62). Tony Crossland, Labour Secretary of State for Education in the late 1960s criticized the way that higher education had become “synonymous with university education” (Crossland, 1982, cited in Ross 2003b, p.46) and set out to develop a more vocational alternative as a more ‘inclusive’ option. His White Paper of 1966 proposed the creation of a separate system of polytechnics (Glennester, 2007, p.138). It can already be seen therefore, that ‘access’ is being contested and reformulated during this period. The Robbins Report focused on the expansion of the university system to allow those groups who had been underrepresented to gain university education. The binary divide argument, on the other hand, proposes that a split in higher education would allow greater access through vocational specialisation.
Debates within the Labour Government of the 1960s between expansion and binary division also lead to questions of funding. The connection of higher education more directly to the economy creates a situation where the burden of funding can more easily be formulated as responsibility of the student ‘buying into’ future employment, whether through social mobility or through vocational training. Callaghan’s speech on education at Ruskin College in Oxford in 1976 can be located within the aftermath of this context. Glennerster (2007) situates it as part of a general political shift away from public spending and toward the development of areas such as education as sites of economic growth, “education had become too concerned with giving children a good time, standards were too low and schooling was too little geared to the needs of a modern economy” (p.170). Callaghan’s speech focused partly on the importance of adult education and lifelong learning arguing for a “greatly expanded programme of education and understanding” in order to educate the trade unions. His speech was seen as one of the first movements of education policy into mainstream politics, foreshadowing Tony Blair’s later famous cry in 2006 for the importance of ‘Education, Education, Education’ (Ball, 2008, p.2). For Callaghan, “The Labour movement has always cherished education: free education, comprehensive education, adult education. Education for life” (1976). Higher education, then, was seen as vital in terms of it connections to industry and in terms of employment, its goal being to equip students “to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive, place in society, and also to fit them to a job of work”. Callaghan, also foreshadowing contemporary valorisations of ‘freedom’ from state bureaucracy (DfE, 2010) emphasised but questioned the importance of the role of the state in education provision:
We spend £6bn a year on education, so there will be a discussion. But let it be rational…I repeat that parents, teachers, learned and professional bodies, representatives of higher education…all have an important part to play in formulating and expressing the purpose of education and the standards that we need. (Callaghan, 1976)
This was combined, as Blair (1996) later pointed out, with a focus on key state-determined standards of quality, such as what would become the National Curriculum, that should be adhered to. These contexts, then, provide an important framework for definitions of and shifting relations between funding, access and quality, particularly their legacies in Labour policy. Quality, suggested by Robbins and made clear through Callaghan’s speech, becomes connected to employability and work, a legacy that would continue, as Glennerster argues (2007, p.170) in later Conservative policy. Access forms the framework for a debate between university expansion or a stratified system of universities and polytechnics, while funding remains the responsibility primarily of the state, yet starts to shift, along with the linking of quality to economic growth, away from state support. It would be rewarding to consider the developments of these relations through Conservative Thatcherite policies of the 1980s but it is not within the scope of this research to cover so much material. Attention will now turn to the mix of Labour legacy and Thatcherite neo-liberaism that came to define ‘New Labour’ ideology and its associated education policies.
New Labour Higher Education Policy
Tensions and connections between funding, access and quality have been key to New Labour higher educational policy. Tony Blair (1996) proposed that Callaghan “raised the right questions but did not provide all the answers…Callaghan expressed the view that the education service should aim to produce young people able to take a lively constructive place in both the workplace and in society at large”. This task for New Labour in continuing the legacy of previous policy has largely been formulated in terms of the importance of two policy discourses: ‘quality’, in specific terms of increased competitiveness in a globalized market; and ‘access’ in terms of increased participation in higher education. The desire to focus on both of these objectives has led to continued debate and problems around issues of funding. Although associated mainly with Tony Blair’s election as Prime Minister in 1997 and subsequent reforms, ‘New Labour’ education policy was being formulated as early as 1994, with the Commission on Social Justice (IPPR, 1994), which pointed to the necessity for expanded participation, increased funding and a contribution to funding from students (Tapper, 1999, pp.99-100). Hill (2009, p.225) outlines the shift in Labour agenda toward neo-liberal ideologies of free market capitalism fundamental to the shift to New Labour in 1994 and 1995. It is the combination of these two legacies – on one hand, the drive to wider participation; and, on the other, the connection of education to business, globalization and the market, that have led to tensions ever since. Archer, Hutchings and Ross (2003, p.1), for example, discuss the importance of access, including the aim to have had 50 percent of 18-30 year olds in higher education by 2010, as a fundamental feature of New Labour educational policy. At the same time, Callender (2002, p.70) emphasises how New Labour “embraced Thatcherite legacy” by tying education to economic competitiveness, while Ball (2008, p.14) discusses the importance of this ‘economic perspective’ as the key ideology of New Labour education policy. This tension led to the radical shake-up of higher education funding proposed by the Dearing Report of 1997 (NCIHE, 1997) and largely put into place by the 1998 Teaching and Higher Education Act (DfES, 1998). The funding system was changed to abolish student grants in favour of repayable loans, and to introduce top-up fees at an initial maximum of £1000 a year.
New Labour’s policies can be examined in more detail through focusing on a speech on education made by the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment David Blunkett in 2000. Blunkett (2000, para. 4) makes reference to the Robbins Report in his speech, arguing that it was a defining moment but failed in terms of its implementation. In terms of the issues of funding, access and quality, Blunkett’s speech assumes that a shift in funding can improve both quality and access. The discourse of ‘quality’ is key to the intended message of the speech, “quality is at the heart of these proposals” (2000, para. 27), and is defined primarily in terms of wealth creation and international competitiveness in the face of increased global competition. The fact that quality “must not be sacrificed for access” (para. 29) is emphasised, suggesting a shift from the focus on inclusion in 1960s and 1970s policy. While sharing in some of the values of previous policies such as the Robbins Report, his speech also highlights inherent problems such as a potential conflict between access and quality. While this was previously addressed, by Crosland, in terms of a stratified system – universities and polytechnics, Blunkett is keen to stress that his proposals will not lead to stratification of education (para. 29), yet are also not a ‘one size fits all’ approach (para. 30). His way out of this dilemma is to promote the ideal of a diversity of quality with different institutions playing to their individual strengths (para. 30), leading, for example, to the introduction of vocational degrees within the university system (para. 33). In contrast with Crosland’s approach, Blunkett proposes that social divisions can be addressed not by the creation of a separate realm of study but through the higher education system itself (para. 66). In terms of funding, he argues that state supported tuition fees have not addressed problems of access and that privately paid ‘top-up’ fees offer a more effective way of “directing resources” to those most in need (para. 70). Blunkett emphasises the importance of globalisation on education policy in terms of the increased competition that internationalisation brings (para.8). He points to the importance of technology in developing new forms such as e-learning and virtual environments in this context (para. 18), as well as the importance of working with businesses and other partner organisations in order to “underpin economic competitiveness” in the sector (para. 10). On one hand, he describes a context where multinational brands and media organisations such as News International play an increasing role in education, competition for international students is fierce and students are “stakeholders” in processes of the markets of the global economy (para.11-13; 28). On the other hand, however, within this context, he argues, there must be “social justice in participation in learning” (para. 11). Access in terms of broadening participation in university education remained important throughout New Labour education policy. Estelle Morris, Education Secretary in 2001 argued that “our pledge to increase participation is one of this Governement’s highest priorities” (cited in Callender, 2002, p.69), while 2003 Education and Skills Secretary Charles Clarke’s ‘Future of Higher Education’ White Paper (DfES, 2003) continued the development of issues of funding and access, as Brown (2003) has argued, elaborating on Blunkett’s themes. It continued the target of getting 50% young people into higher education, and introduced the ability of universities to set fees “from £0 up to 3,000” from 2006. The paper again drew attention to processes of globalization and increased international competition, arguing that “a market incentive” for universities to set fees is necessary to maintain competitive quality. ‘Quality’ is thus further defined in terms of global markets. It also maintained focus on access, proposing that admissions procedures must be tied directly to funding and ability to charge higher fees (DfES, 2003).
New Labour higher education Policy, as discussed, must be understood not merely as a statement but a process involving contestations and negotiations over its interpretation, implementation and ideological assumptions. It has been subject to much critique on a variety of fronts. While Blunkett argued, for example, that he was proposing a non-stratified system, Thomson’s (2000) analysis argued that the New Labour system is and must inescapably be deeply stratified. Brown (2003) focused on the trade-off between the ideals of the department and the actual policies that emerged, proposing that there was a fundamental conflict between the “desire to expand the system and the costs of that expansion” (p.1), or, in other words, between access and funding. The effect of this, he argues, is to create a scenario where processes of social exclusion continue. Watson’s analysis of the reforms also points to “the re-emergence of a re-stratified system” (2006, p.4). He points to issues such as how the ‘maximum’ £3000 fee actually became standard (p.5), and how in the focus on quality at the very top ‘world-class’ level and at the lowest level (avoiding the collapse of institutions), quality within the rest of the sector is overlooked (p.11). Watson is also critical of the legacies of ‘widening participation’, questioning what this means and how it can be seen to have actually hampered university funding (p.14). Education policy in the UK has traditionally understood access in terms of a ‘deficit’ model, focusing on those who are under-represented, such as the need highlighted in the Robbins Report to recruit more working-class students (Archer, Hutchings & Ross, 2003, p.1). This can lead, however, to a number of problems – students of a higher ‘quality’ may miss out, for example, as they are not representative of the desired target group. The inter-relation between access, quality and funding, therefore, is not as simple as the policy texts attempted to make out. It may define ‘quality’ in a particular way and propose this as a ‘natural’ guiding assumption of the policy text, yet critique shows how this simultaneously represses other ways in which quality could be understood, challenging the very assumptions of New Labour policy texts. ‘Access’ similarly is not a fixed assumption with a shared meaning, but a particular formulation which works within the interests of the policy text, but misses out other potential interpretations. Studies such as Taylor’s (2006) suggest that the Government failed in its mission of participation. Taylor draws on figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) to argue that fewer students from poorer backgrounds are attending top universities, despite policies of inclusion and access. The number of degree students from lower socio-economic groups, according to the figures she quotes (2006, no page references) was actually decreasing rather than increasing at this time, suggesting that, against the Government argument, top-up fees were not encouraging less well off students to go to university. This view of the negative impact of fees was supported by Barr and Crawford’s study (2005, p.181) Watson (2006, p.15) hinted toward other models such as the US focus on building a new ‘class’ of successful students rather than focusing on what is lacking in existing models, although such approaches are not without their own problems.
Callender (2002) collates data and conducts research that supports and summarises a lot of these critical claims. The introduction of fees and replacement of grants with loans, she argues, ultimately failed to widen access and did not lead to social cohesion (p.70). Her research suggests that the new funding structure is actually regressive rather than progressive as it benefits the middle classes over the less well off (p.72). Labour’s responses to criticism of fees through attempts to provide financial support for the disadvantaged has led to “a complex, confusing and bureaucratic system” (p.71) rather than a cohesive way of widening higher university participation. The threat of future debt, her research suggests, does act as a deterrent to study for students from lower income backgrounds, “with rising student debt, entering higher education has become an increasingly risky investment decision, especially for low-income students” (p.76). This is supported by her study, along with Jonathan Jackson (Callender & Jackson, 2005), which uses responses from students to conclude that New Labour’s assumptions that student debt will be taken on by students as part of a long term investment is simply not the case among students of lower-income, leading to social divides (p.17). Labour’s ‘marketisation’ of quality in the education system, in other words, and its universalisation of expected assumptions about debt and investment, have actually alienated rather than empowered potential ‘stakeholders’ in the system. Lawson (2006) draws on research to support Callender’s arguments, “the percentage of students going to university from poor families has fallen. The number from state schools has fallen too…teenagers in the richest areas could expect a better than 50% chance of going to university, while in the poorest enughbourhoods it is 10%”. He points specifically to New Labour’s uncritical connection of education to globalisation, transforming students to “human capital, calculating a return on their university investment”. Ultimately, for Callender, the 1998 reforms have failed, “[the funding system] neither adheres to progressive principles nor facilitates access – quite the contrary” (2002, p.85). What is required instead, she argues, is a far more radical approach – a coherent policy framework, which lacks the contradictions that have been the defining characteristic of New Labour definitions of funding, access and quality, and , through using proactive incentives for redistribution of funding, widening participation needs to become the main aim of policy (p.85). Policies should acknowledge the “differential impact of funding tools on diverse income groups” (2005, p.17) rather than employing discourses of quality and access as supposedly universal ideologies.
Post New Labour
Critics have focused on other shifts within higher education. Gumport (2005), for example, argues that the relation of funding to demands for ‘relevance’ of research must be examined, while Enders (2005) considers the relation of university provision to issues such as lifelong learning and the shifts in notions of access this creates. Ball places shifts within a framework of shifts from governments as hierarchical networks to governance through the increased importance of informal networks of power (Ball, 2008, p.156). New Coalition Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government policy (DfE, 2010) shifts the relations again between funding, access and quality, maintaining the connection of quality to discourses of global competitiveness, attempting to retain notions of access as participation and inclusion but remaining unclear about where increased funding will come from. One clear shift in funding structures comes from the removal of state support and the shift onto increased student payments, legitimated through discourses of ‘freedom’ of institutions to resist state bureaucracy and charge higher rates (DfE, 2010). Such focus on ‘freedom’ it could be argued, has the effect largely of allowing freedom to adhere to the coalition cuts programmes, and will lead to a continued process of policy negotiation, implementation and debate. The ability of universities, in the current climate, to charge between £6000 and £9000 in tuition fees has been seen by some as the best way to improve quality and access (Gove, cited in Sheperd, 2010). In order to maintain quality in terms of research and teaching universities must find ways to fund and support their institutions. On the other hand, however, others have been deeply critical of the impact the fees raise will have, combined with cuts in state support, on both quality and access. Ball, (2008) for example is critical of the market model and assumptions that have emerged through Conservative, New Labour and Coalition education policies. Such a model, in the wake of financial market crisis, has been shown in its unregulated form, he argues, simply not to work, and demands new thinking. While quality and access are tied to deregulated markets, proposed funding structures are threatening both access (in terms of poorer students missing out of higher education) and quality (through universities being under-funded. The raising of fees has repeatedly been cited, against Government claims, as a deterrent to students on lower incomes (Sheperd, 2010; Lawson, 2010). Debates over discourses of quality, funding and access, connected both to the legacies of previous policy debates, and to the contemporary context of debt and restructuring of society, remain fundamental sites of conflict.
Conclusion: Funding, Access and Quality
To conclude, it is important to place contemporary debates around funding, access and quality in higher education into historical context, considering how connections and tensions between educational policies have affected these key issues. It is also important to adopt an appropriate methodological analysis of policy texts in order to examine what is at stake in the production of specific policy discourses. As Ball has shown (2003; 2008) it is the production and circulation of such discourses within policy texts that actively constructs expectations and identities for policy subjects such as teachers as well as students. The Robbins Report can be seen as a call for widening access without a loss of quality, which ran into problems in terms of funding. Later Labour policies of the 1970s tried to address these problems with the stratification of higher education into universities and polytechnics, redefining notions of both access and quality. One of the fundamental features of New Labour educational policy, as well as elements of its continuation in contemporary Conservative policy (DfE, 2010) is the connection of notions of ‘quality’ to discourses of globalisation and neo-liberal market competitiveness. ‘Access’, at the same time has come to be defined primarily in terms of participation in university education, centred around a ‘deficit’ model of pre-existent identities seen to be lacking from such ‘participation’, rather than the production of a new identity for an educated class (not necessarily centred on issue such as class, race or gender). Blunkett’s 2000 speech, and its development in later policies such as the 2003 White Paper, can be seen as drawing on traditions such as the Robbins Report but proposing something different, where universities compete globally, with a diversity of quality and sense of social justice. This has led, however, to further complexity and tensions. Writing in 2005, for example, Barr and Crawford (2005, p.181) argued that the funding crisis in higher education had led to a decrease in quality with no increase in access. The situation now provides another crisis point, with tuition fees being increased and an even more stratified market-driven landscape emerging. Amidst crises of funding, issues of quality and access are again becoming vital for educational policy to re-address. Callender (2002) proposes that it is precisely the tensions between funding, access and quality, and the desire to satisfy all of these objectives, that has led to such confusion and a complex contradictory education system.
In terms of personal response, I would argue that the most important conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is the necessity for a through engagement with and critique of the criteria used in establishing the terms (funding, access and quality) themselves. Since New Labour’s policy interventions, and even more so in contemporary educational policy discourse, ‘quality’ is synonymous with specific values of neo-liberal capitalism such as ability to compete strongly within unregulated markets. While such definitions are inherently ideologically loaded, policy discourses function as ways to naturalise such association of criteria as natural and desirable. This is why critical policy analysis becomes such a vital tool for entangling the ideologies at play within the tensions between these key terms. Defining quality purely in terms of market value makes it, as Brown (2011, p.20) has argued, a difficult quantity to measure, leading to the increased value of other indirect factors such as ‘prestige’ coming to dominate, and therefore a replication of social divisions in educational divisions and failures of policies of inclusive access. With such a commodification of learning where knowledge is measured purely in exchange value rather than use value (Brown, 2011, p.43), it makes sense for students to pay fees according to an open market of educational choices. Once such assumptions of quality are questioned, however, the funding system needs to be thoroughly re-appraised, along with the general reduction of learning to a commmodfiied piece of market empowerment. Ball’s analysis discusses how New Labour policy has been constructed through the repetition of key signifiers, “transformation, modernization, innovation, enterprise, dynamism, creativity and competitiveness” (2008, p.14), which have been key to producing and maintaining new definitions of quality in the context of global capitalism. More recent Coalition policy introduces new terminology focusing on individual choice and freedom, but, it could be argued, shifts relations between access, funding and quality very little. Overall, this study has been very informative in highlighting the importance of and development of vital issues in education policy. As mentioned briefly before, the research could be expanded through an in-depth focus of Conservative policy, starting in the 1980s and tracing relations between this, new Labour policy and contemporary Coalition educational policy. This would require work on another project. In the current debates around fees and funding, however, it remains clear that policy contestations and negotiations must continue, addressing and redefining directly the key tensions between funding, access and quality.
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