Ministers do not trust the HE market to regulate quality, says Millward

A former senior official from the Office for Students thinks the cost of tuition fees had led ministers to change higher education policies

The government has concluded “it can’t rely on markets” in England because of the “size, the shape and the character of provision” of higher education, a former senior official from the Office for Students (OfS) has opined. 

Chris Millward, professor of practice in education policy at the University of Birmingham, is the former director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students. In December 2021, Millward left his board-level position, which undertook to improve the outcomes and recruitment of students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Millward argued that the language of Conservative ministers around quality assurance in HE since the pandemic differed notably from their Tory predecessors, predominantly because of the cost of HE to the state.

“I think we’re currently seeing less reliance on the market and less of the language around students as consumers,” Millward told delegates of a 25th-anniversary event organised by and for the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). The change of governmental tone precipitated “a different kind of settlement between universities and the state”, he added.

The event, entitled ‘Quality is in the Eye of the Beholder’, sought to discuss how a good-quality student experience should be understood and measured. 

The QAA was founded in April 1997 by the Conservative government, progressing plans for quality assurance in HE first introduced in 1992 with the Further and Higher Education Act. The act introduced public oversight of degrees because of the cost of HE to the taxpayer. At the same time as the QAA, ministers founded the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) to oversee individual student complaints. 

Since then, Millward summarised: “I think many of my colleagues working in English universities think that universities have ceded authority over quality to the state, and then the state has imposed the market.

“I think it’s more complicated than that. I think what you’re actually seeing is the rise and fall of the market and the empowerment of students as consumers within our system; a lot of his has been about pragmatism and finances as much as it has been about ideology.” 

Millward suggested the creation of the QAA and OIA was “a kind of compromise between universities in the state and the empowerment of students as consumers”. The “framing” of students as consumers “follows progressively increases in English tuition fees”, he continued. 

From 2010, ministers exhibited “greater reliance on the market”, expounding “language around transparency for students on the content and outcomes from their courses, with the intention that informs choices”. The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework in 2016 was an attempt by ministers “to provide clear and comparable quality grades” for students. In 2017, with the establishment of the OfS, ministers sought to provide students with “confidence around a baseline, facilitating competition”. 

Although HE policy since the 1990s had overseen “the rise of the market,” Millward said, “I think that’s changed during the last two years. 

“I think the current government in England has concluded it can’t rely on markets… It’s concluded that student finance, advised by the Office for National Statistics, is a very substantial cost to the state. 

“[The government] is concerned about the size, the shape and the character of provision that might be flowing through from the interaction between students choice, expectations and feedback and competing providers. 

“I think you can see that in some of the positioning around, for example, student number controls, the National Student Survey, inclusive education assessment, and perhaps in the appetite for ‘boots on the ground‘ as well. 

“I think we’re currently seeing less reliance on the market, less of the language around students as consumers, [which] I think that does take you back to the foundations of the QAA because it means we need to think about a different kind of settlement between universities and the state.” 

In March 2021, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted public spending on student loans would reach £13 billion by 2025-26.

Less than a year later, the government announced the second part of its response to the Augar review of post-18 education. Central to the new plans is a desire to put the student finance system “on a more sustainable footing”. By retaining the current cap on tuition fees at £9,250, cutting interest rates on loans and lowering repayment thresholds for future graduates, ministers say they can make the system fairer for taxpayers and graduates. 

A decade after the coalition government tripled the student tuition fee cap to £9,000, the current student loan amounts to £161bn. Without reform, the Department for Education (DfE) estimates over 40% of student loans will be written off by the taxpayer, meaning the cost of tuition fees will reach “half a trillion pounds” in today’s prices by April 2043. Only 23% of students entering university in September 2023 will repay in full, a figure the DfE argues its reforms increase to 52%.

In the months since leaving the OfS, Millward has openly criticised the plans of his successors – particularly proposals for minimum entry requirements for student finance.

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