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30 October 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 4:05am

Assessing the Browne Review

The report on higher education treats degrees as financial instruments.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

This is a guest post by a lecturer in a humanities subject at a Russell Group university. The author wishes to remain anonymous.

Prevalent among criticisms of Lord Browne’s report on the future of higher education is that it transforms students into consumers, and university courses into products. This is both erroneous and overly optimistic. A consumer relationship, no matter how vulgar, undignified, or reified it may be, implies at least some form of gratification. If the marketplace undoubtedly debases many of these forms, it is nevertheless a fact that many students currently choose their courses on the basis of intellectual interest, and actively seek to be challenged intellectually. With information so readily available thanks to the internet, there is already a “marketplace” for university courses.

Students can see for themselves that different departments in roughly equally selective or demanding universities will treat the same course very differently, according to varying emphases, interpretations, or theoretical approaches. It is entirely positive that students make themselves aware of these differences, which themselves reflect debates within disciplines and the broader academic community, and choose their places of study accordingly. If the Browne Report furthered this sort of phenomenon I would applaud it. I certainly don’t think it errs in giving too much decision-making power to 18 year-olds, who some feel are unready to use it wisely.

Unfortunately, the Browne Report in no way proposes treating university education as a consumer product. Rather, it posits it as one thing only: an investment. For Browne, the student is not a consumer but a stakeholder, and the degree is only a financial instrument, not intended to provide any gratification of any sort, but rather judged solely on how well it can produce a monetary return. Naturally, the bigger the mountain of debt necessary to fund university studies, the more the beleaguered future graduate is forced to consider the financial possibilities her or his degree will open. These will be determined not by the universities but by employers, who will make clear which degrees from which universities they reward financially and which they don’t. Heavily indebted students will not be able to afford to ignore such realities, regardless of the intellectual content they might like to “consume.” As universities will be almost entirely dependent on student-loan money for survival, they won’t either: they’ll have to tailor their degree structures and content in accordance with what the business community is favouring, in order to attract the students who in turn will need ever higher-paying jobs to pay off their debt.

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If Browne transferred power from the universities to the student-consumer I would applaud it, but it does not: it transfers power to the profit-driven business community, now the dominant decider regarding the content and purpose of higher education. This is the true purpose of Browne and also the reason it must be opposed not in its details but at the very heart of its project, by all concerned parties: by the Sciences and the Humanities (STEM, root and branch, dare I say), by the comparatively privileged universities and those more fragile, by faculty and students. The craven pleas from the Russell Group to the lift the cap off fees is not only abhorrent ethically in its elitism, but idiotic strategically if the goal is a preservation of the university as a place of independent enquiry and thought. Thankfully, events like the recent protest by the Oxford Education Campaign, bringing together students from both Oxford University and Oxford Brookes, give us some reason for optimism. Let’s hope they’re not alone.