The Browne review of higher education

The Browne report on Higher Education (HE) was published about 3 years ago. Some of its recommendations have been implemented and we are now beginning to feel the changes. So it may seem odd that here I choose not to examine how the recommended changes are faring. Instead I want to look at the basic premise of the review.

Why?

I expect in the future we may see more reviews and more changes. It is vital to get the basis on which we base our decisions right. Also, the recommended £9000 tuition fees cap is now being deemed as too low to be sustainable by some in higher education.
The remit of the review was restricted to examine the teaching provision across institutions of higher education in England and Wales. Research was excluded.

This leads to the first fundamental issue with the review.

An inappropriate business/economic model: In the present era almost all universities carry out research, teaching, policy, outreach, consultancy work, disseminating knowledge that filters into society and sets the context for discourse in a modern society etc., in other words there are multiple tasks and outputs connected to Higher Education Institutes (HEIs). The economic model/logic implicit in the review only considers one output: teaching. All other outputs and business including research are ignored.

However economic studies on principal-agent modelling have shown that where there are several tasks performed by an agent (some of which are less measurable than others) it is inefficient to base performance-based rewards and incentives only on the measurable output. It leads to agents prioritising this output and neglecting the others that may be equally or even more important. It can also lead to agents skewing metrics to show attainment. This view is supported by another paper(1) on teaching performance and see footnote*. Such happenstance can harm the very output that the review aims to improve: teaching provision.

The Browne review hoped to use market forces (students choose the best value for money HEI) as a way to stimulate across the sector improvement in teaching, better access to students, and lowering the outlay from the public purse towards HE. However, since teaching is not the only output of the HEIs and the other outputs are not so easily measurable (by way of student preference for a course at an institution), it is flawed at its very heart in being able to achieve its stated objectives. Indeed, it may well lead to other less beneficial changes in the long run as well: risking the quality of research output of HEIs, all universities raising their tuition fees to the capped value, courses that have lower market appeal (as perceived by students) disappearing and an overcrowding in some courses.

The second flaw in the review is ignoring the nature of the HE market and using the wrong indicator to measure teaching performance. Several factors determine the reputation and desirability of an HEI as a place to undertake taught study. Paradoxically research is chief amongst these. Students often use the reputation of an institution as a key metric in choosing where to study (Russell group universities are often the aspiration for students because in the job market the university brand name carries weight), though this reputation can be more directly linked to research than teaching. If we consider student satisfaction as a metric and look at the results of National Student Survey, we find that for identical courses offered by several universities, in many cases Russell group universities score lower than smaller and less research intensive counterparts. Yet, consistently year on year the places are filled at the Russell group universities faster.

The underlying assumption in the report that students choose to study at an HEI for its teaching alone or primarily is not correct. Therefore student choice for some HEIs cannot be used as a reliable indicator of the teaching excellence of the HEIs; it is in fact not the right indicator or metric for the economic model the review employs. A more deep understanding of the nature of relationships at play in the HE market is needed to hew the necessary measurement instruments.

The third basic issue lies in the approach when commissioning the report. Universities and HEIs are similar to businesses in some aspects, but are not by their nature a business in the same way as a shareholder owned enterprise. The stakeholder distribution for the two is not identical and therefore using the lens of free market economics to look at HE is not right.

Businesses exist to provide a profit to the shareholder/owners through providing service to customers. Profit is the chief concern and may at occasions even be at odds with customer concerns. On the other hand, HEIs have several stakeholders: students, research councils, companies, charities and other funding bodies, the larger society. The primary concern for HEIs is rarely monetary profit. Most HEIs are also charitable institutions. Therefore, it makes little sense to apply a treatment (that works for commercial businesses) to HEIs when the two are completely distinct species of institutions. Some may say this is the foremost argument against the way this review was conducted.

Any future reviews would I hope address the totality of the causes and effects that play a part in shaping higher education.

Footnotes and references
*As a concrete illustration of the distortions that testing can cause, in 1989 a ninth-grade teacher in Greenville, South Carolina was caught having passed answers to questions on the statewide tests of basic skills to students in her geography classes in order to improve her performance rating (Wall Street Journal, November 2, 1989
1. Hannaway, Jane. 1991. “Higher Order Thinking, Job Design and Incentives: An Analysis and Proposal,” American Education Research Journal (forthcoming).

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