Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


Government Higher Education reforms cost 1 billion more than forecast

A new report by the respected Higher Education Policy Institute claims that the Government reforms in Higher Education funding will cost more than 1 billion more than forecast. The huge oversight is due to over optimistic assumptions, unforeseen consequences, and neglect of potential risk factors. That the Government is sticking to this policy bears out the widespread view that the changes had nothing to do with deficit reduction. Even had the Government not been so way out in their forecast, the policy was always going to cost more in the short term. Only later, it was hoped, would the initial increased expenditure begin to be recouped, as students payed back their loans. Ironically, it now turns out that the new funding ‘system’ could easily end up costing more than the original arrangement it replaced. Supposing that the Government is still in power in the medium term, and that it is unlikely to abandon the policy, which was drawn up by the last Labour regime, this leaves only four viable options.

  1. The shortfall can be met from general taxation, so that the Government and taxpayers contribute more.
  2. Student numbers can be held down or brought down further.
  3. Loan subsidies provided by the Government can be reduced, so that students contribute more.
  4. The remaining HEFCE grant can be reduced, which would impact adversely on Research funding or support for STEM subjects.

In my view option 1. is the only viable one. It is probable that the current Government will opt for 2. and or 3. is almost certain to happen because the government have already given themselves the powers to change the loan terms by means of secondary legislation, which would not require the change to be voted on by parliament.

The End of the University

Monday 5 December, Sussex University, Stefan Collini spoke on “The Very Idea of the University” when he gave the John Burrow Memorial Lecture at Sussex University.
Here is something I have recently written on that topic. It’s a reframed and revised version of the piece I wrote with Danny Hayward ‘Education Towards Heteronomy’, to whom I remain much indebted especially for the section on the Thatcher Era, which was Danny’s work.

The End of the University: Politics in Higher Education in Britain since 1979

In one form or another, universities have been around for centuries. They existed before what is now known as the Westphalian world of sovereign states did. They survived through seismic shifts in the historical, social, intellectual and epistemic landscape, from the fall of the Aristotelian and Scholastic world view, to the rise of modern science and invention of modern academic disciplines Read more

On Bullshit, The Big Society and other Bollocks

“One of the most salient features of our culture” observed the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt “is that there is so much bullshit.” Frankfurt advances a theory. The bullshitter’s statements reflect his indifference to the matter of their truth or falsity. That makes his deception distinct from, and in one respect worse than the liar’s. For the liar, who intends to deceive by presenting as true what he knows to be false, honours the truth in his own perverse way. Frankfurt observes that the realms of advertising and indeed “the closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.” Politicians are prone to bullshit because they are required to have opinions about things they don’t know, and because they often say things merely for effect. Bullshit is among their chief weapons of mass distraction. Read more

Willetts and the AHRC: Big Society or Big Brother?

In response to the  Observer article which claimed that “the AHRC was told that research into the “big society” was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year“, the AHRC has been embarrassed into posting an ‘Important Statement’ in which it ‘unconditionally and absolutely refutes the allegations reported in the Observer’.

The refutation is in fact only a denial. The denial consists in asserting that they “were NOT instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced by BIS or anyone else into support for this initiative”. They offer little evidence for this assertion, apart fromthe fact that the “Big Society’ initiative connects up with the Connected Communities Research Programme they have been running since 2008. They also point out that the Observer offers no evidence for its assertion either. This is true, but then the Observer would be unlikely to disclose its sources, if they are appropriately placed in Government or the Research Council, and thus credible.

So which account is true? For they surely cannot both be.

Read more

More on Willetts, Gadaffi and Rawls

To use Facebook speak, which is now already the lingua franca of the social world:,Gordon likes this:

As the URL says, it’s Glen Newey on Degree shopping on the LRB blog.

For those of you who want to read David Willett’s deeply confused Speech to parliament on February 25th, you can find it here.

And there is a useful commentary and analysis, from William Cullerne Bown here.

Finally, here is an analysis by Thom Brooks.

Overall I would say that UK government policy is unravelling fast. Is it a cock up or neo-liberal conspiracy? A neo-liberal cock up, perhaps, but very definitely a cock-up. Somewhere, I once remember reading or hearing this: “Beneath the surface appearance of mind-boggling incompetence, there is a deeper pattern of of even more mind boggling incompetence.” It sums up the last several years of HE policy in the UK quite well.

Read more

Letter to Vince Cable and a Reply from someone working for David Willetts

On December 1st, 2010, I sent the following letter to Vince Cable, in response to a speech he made in Parliament, about University Funding. (I have since numbered the points I made.) I received a reply, three months later, from someone in BIS called Cate Hilton, working for David Willetts.  Cate trusts that she has answered the concerns expressed in my letter. In my view, trust cannot be stretched that far. This is just a piece of pro-forma bullshit from someone who either has not read my letter, or who has, but cannot understand my concerns. What do you think? Read more

Letter from Australia

Dear Pommie bastards –

Wisdom from my desk calendar: “Drink champagne in defeat as well as in victory. It tastes the same, and you need it more.” This is advice I will have to take tonight!

I have only one sober comment to make: not only have we been thrashed, we have no reason to expect any improvement, since a fundamental difference between the two teams seems to be in the players’ heads: England are composed and clear-headed, and so go about their business efficiently, working to a plan; whereas our lads are full of anxiety and so keep making dumb mistakes. So what I had thought might be a close tussle now looks like it will be a veritable spanking!

The plus side is that it helps me to concentrate on my work.

Yours despairingly,


Read more

Education towards Heteronomy: A Critical Analysis of the Reform of UK Universities since 1978.

by Gordon Finlayson and Danny Hayward.

Download the pdf of this article here.


In the last thirty years the university system in the UK has changed radically, and since 2003 it has also changed rapidly. Four different rationales have been put forward by successive administrations or their appointed advisors for these reforms:

1.      Expansion

2.      Efficiency

3.      Economic accountability – i.e. value for money

4.      Political accountability – i.e. democratisation or widening participation.[1]

At the same time all the reforms have been accompanied by the now implicit, now explicit aim of undoing the old collegiate organisational structures of universities and replacing them with corporate structures. This now endemic structural transformation of universities has been by far the most important effect of the reforms. It would be wrong to think that universities have survived more or less unchanged in their nature and function, while merely having been made larger, more efficient, more accountable, more open to a broad social constituency and less remote from social needs.

In the following we will present critical history of UK Higher Education reform. We show that universities are fast losing their status as self-governing educational institutions and their relative independence from the economic and political systems. The academic values that used to govern their activities of researching, teaching and learning have gradually been sacrificed to the instrumental values of economic usefulness and financial rentability. Where universities were once part of the ecology of civil society (as opposed to the state and the economy) they have now been politically repositioned as engines of economic growth. In place of education, they are now supposed to offer training for work. In place of research and free inquiry, they are supposed to produce the intellectual property and human capital required to drive the knowledge economy.

The official line is that expansion and corporatisation belong together. In the last 25 years Government officials and the various experts appointed to conduct reviews of the Higher Education sector (usually from outside academia) have argued consistently that its expansion calls for a new mode of governance, and recommended that the traditional collegial models of organisation should be abolished and replaced with corporate organisational structures.  However, it is wrong to think that the aims of expansion, efficiency and accountability required the corporate restructuring of Universities, for it is by no means clear such restructuring conduces to any of these ends. What is clear, however, is that corporate universities are much more responsive and also more vulnerable to the demands of the national and global economy, that they can be more easily ‘managed’ from the centre, and that they are far more amenable to direct and indirect Government control.

The narrative we offer is of necessity abbreviated, stylised and simplified. It is not supposed to be a detailed and comprehensive account. Still we believe that the broad contours of our interpretation are correct, and consistent with the historical facts of Government policies and their implementation in the period. The aim of the narrative is to pick out the overall pattern in successive Higher Education and University reforms, and to provide sufficient context for those affected to make sense of the changes which are currently being ushered in at breakneck pace throughout the university sector. These changes have not come out of nowhere. Nor are they just the unplanned, quasi-natural consequences of broader social and historical changes: they are the effects of specific policies aimed at repositioning the UK in respect to the global economy, and of the various audits put in place to monitor their performance.

It is also our intention to paint in a background against which the continuities and differences between Conservative and Labour policies can be understood and assessed. Crudely, put, Conservative reforms under Thatcher and Major paved the way for Blair and Brown’s unashamedly neo-liberal policies. Where the former had been devised and pursued for the sake of getting value for money and making universities more efficient, the latter served the primary aim of increasing the economic return from university research and teaching. Conservative policy was about reducing the economic input, whilst Labour sought to increase the economic output. Under New Labour corporate restructuring was accelerated with a vengeance, due to a sea change in the conception of the UK’s economic competitiveness. Henceforth universities were to become the primary drivers of a new economy. By far the most impressive consequence of three decades of university reform is that UK universities are now regarded by government, by funding councils, and, obligingly, by their own Vice-Chancellors and senior management groups primarily as agencies that offer skills-training for employees and research-and-development options for UK businesses (who have themselves been notoriously lax in both these areas).

In our view these reforms will have a baneful influence on the epistemic values of the pursuit of truth and knowledge for their own sake and on free intellectual inquiry. These bad consequences will make themselves particularly severely felt in the humanities.

Moreover, these reforms may not improve the performance of Universities measured even in the narrowly economic terms which frame Government policy. More worryingly still, these policies have been undertaken without due consideration to the wider meaning and value of the universities and university education for culture, society, democracy, social well-being and quality of life. No-one knows in advance what effects this government led colonisation and marketisation of Higher Education Institutions will have on the social, political and cultural life of Britain, but generally speaking the colonisation of formerly non-marketised domains of social life, and the erosion of civil society institutions that embed the political and economic systems, has a pathological effect on democratic society. It would be naive to expect these to be an exception.

Read more