The post-1992 universities: overseas, overstretched?

An extract from the concluding chapter of Peter Brady’s new book Internationalisation of Post-1992 UK Universities: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Anthem Press)

Post-1992 universities working internationally

UK universities work all over the world, and make a real difference. Teaching teachers in Palestine, working with micro-banks in India, educating healthcare workers worldwide, teams of academics and administrators have gained funding from governments and NGOs to use their skills to help others.

However, these are a small part of most UK universities’ international activities. Their main effort has been in commercially exploiting international students.

Polytechnics, and later post-1992 universities, did the heavy lifting in the massification of UK higher education. They took more students and taught them for less money than their pre-1992 counterparts. Eventually, however, efficiency gains were not enough to ensure that the system was adequately funded.

So, the government encouraged UK universities to look for funding outside government sources. Tony Blair’s Prime Minister’s Initiative for International Education (PMI) encouraged them to regard the recruitment of international students as a commercial venture. The reduction of international students to government-endorsed targets has meant that they are treated as a commodity, not as young people making the most important decision of their life. Rather than being guided towards the best educational experience, they are harassed and cajoled by agents and recruitment teams into universities desperate to meet targets – all watched by admiring media and government agencies, excited that education is now one of the UK’s largest exports.

There was no plan to ensure that this influx of international students, and increasing international experience of academics, was to be used for the national good – to give home students an international education. While countries such as China, Malaysia, Sweden, Denmark and Poland ensured that their universities developed home students who had an international education, the UK did not. Meanwhile, UK universities have helped these other countries develop higher education systems that internationalise their own students – without any educational benefits to UK students.

For post-1992 universities, by far the largest source of non-exchequer funding was from international students – but these universities had the hardest sell and sold the hardest, taking more risks. It is no surprise that only post-1992 universities have had problems with their visa sponsorship status.

In the UK, post-1992 universities pride themselves in accepting students with lower and different academic qualifications, and have developed systems to help these students study at degree level. This experience was transferred overseas.

Many used the post-study work visa, which allowed students to work here, thus attracting students who could not afford our fees to come here and work to pay back loans. The pool of students they attracted was thus poorer – academically and financially – than those attracted by the majority of pre-1992 universities. Post-1992 universities were then hit harder by economic problems in the target countries, or a tightening of UK visa controls.

Within days of becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson reintroduced the post-study work visa, alongside increased targets for international students. Despite the fact that almost all non-Scottish universities charge £9,000 fees for home students (and most would be considered well-funded in world terms), they are still likely to use this new visa system to trawl the world for students who cannot afford the fees, encouraging them to take out loans and promising them that they will be able to earn enough in unskilled jobs to repay them.

Rather than being guided towards the best educational experience, international students are harassed and cajoled by agents into universities desperate to meet targets

Media scrutiny

The media look on benevolently at the UK’s 170 universities, seldom penetrating the veneer of middle-class politeness and superiority. Despite the Augar Review, no one seriously questions whether UK universities (largely state-funded) should teach programmes overseas, which have little positive academic effect on home students. Nor do they question whether the amount of money spent by international students, often from very poor families, is justified by the education they receive.

Almost any behaviour carried out overseas is heralded as good news rather than scrutinised. When Glasgow Caledonian University opened its New York campus, it was lauded. Universities opening campuses overseas is only ever considered a good thing – whether in Dubai, where British academics have been imprisoned, or in Myanmar while it carries out ethnic cleansing.

The myth that all universities are equal

The prevailing argument, presented by media, politicians and the sector itself, is that we have a world-class higher education system, including all our universities.

The depth of this belief in a single higher education sector is surprising given that, in reality, we all have a notion of which universities are best, reinforced by league tables and other metrics.

Tony Blair’s PMI did much to advance the view of a single sector by lumping all UK universities under a single brand. But there was already a wish for it to be a fact. When post-1992 universities were given their charters, all political parties saw the binary divide as being a form of discrimination. This was a direct result of the funding difference between both sides of the divide. The polytechnic side of the divide, with poorer funding, was more working-class than the pre-1992 sector. Now, any belief that post-1992 universities should be treated differently is seen as backward, a wish to return to the binary system.

The lack of debate here stems from the belief that the binary divide was designed to deliberately create two classes of universities, a barrier to meritocracy. However, the purpose of the binary divide was the opposite: to emulate the European system, where vocational higher education was seen on a par with academic higher education. The polytechnics arose from a need to develop a vocational sector with equal esteem to the academic sector.

This never came about. Polytechnics were underfunded compared to universities. Some post-1992 universities developed vocational programmes, and graduate employability is now a measurable factor. But that does not mean that vocational education, even in pre-1992 universities, enjoys parity of esteem with its academic counterpart.

The desire for parity between vocational and academic streams has been a mantra of politicians over the decades. Prime ministers, mainly Oxbridge graduates, have stood in front of the cameras and said that they will no longer tolerate the notion that a vocational education is inferior. But none have developed a proper strategy to counter this, and parity of esteem has not followed.

That being said, despite underfunding and top-heavy boards of governance, polytechnics fulfilled a different mission from universities. They maintained the part-time route in higher education, were remarkably successful in expanding sandwich course provision, and expanded in business and social sciences.

Polytechnics also expanded access to new kinds of students. They were particularly successful in increasing numbers of women, students from ethnic minorities, mature students and, to some extent, students from working-class backgrounds. More than half of degree entrants had non-traditional qualifications. A higher proportion of their graduates than those from universities entered employment, particularly in engineering and manufacturing.

Polytechnics had assured government that, when they gained university status, they would retain their distinct mission. They did this believing that they would get a fair share of the funding. However, it became apparent that this would not be the case. Many ex-polytechnics reckoned that, in order to access research funds and more non-exchequer income, they would have to align with those research-intensive universities they were competing with.

But almost none have been successful, and they are still being funded less than – and seen as a second choice to – their pre-1992 counterparts. The average entry requirements for programmes in pre-1992 universities is higher than post-1992 ones for almost all programmes (Institute for Employment Research, 2012). The Augar Review found that most institutions which have graduates with a negative ‘graduate premium’ (ie the increased salary they command as graduates is not enough to offset the fees they pay) are in the post-1992 sector. With the change to university status, most of what made polytechnics different was lost, and they have drifted into becoming poorer versions of their pre-1992 counterparts.

The polytechnic experiment was doomed by underfunding and over-management. But the real nail in the coffin was the lack of a farsighted strategy to make a fundamental change to the education system. Created in industrial cities in a post-industrial Britain, the polytechnic sector had a traditional view, equating vocational qualifications to industrial qualifications – although it added some new vocations such as business studies and computing. What it failed to do was to redefine vocational studies.

If the funding and staff to train such truly vocational, albeit non-industrial vocations – doctors, lawyers, dentists, vets – had been transferred into the polytechnic sector, it would have changed (and still could change) the status of vocational qualifications. One heartening recent development is the creation of five new medical schools in England, all either located in, or in partnership with, post-1992 universities.

Senior management

The rise of the principal or vice-chancellor as a CEO created a group of universities where the senior staff act as if the university belongs to them, and where financial decisions are not sufficiently scrutinised. It is no surprise that two of the UK universities that lost their visa sponsorship status had significant financial problems that could be attributed to a mixture of aggressive commercial behaviour by their principals and weak governance.

Universities UK is accepted by the press and media as the voice of the sector, but is in fact the voice of the principals and vice-chancellors of universities – just as the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics (CDP) was the voice of the leaders of polytechnics. The CDP’s members had high salaries and total control. Universities UK has a similar role: hence the ‘voice of UK universities’ routinely defends VC salaries, and the fact that many VCs are on their own remuneration committees.
For there to be a real debate within the sector, there needs to be another voice that canvasses the views of all stakeholders and is heard by the mainstream press.

A multilayered university sector

Alongside a lack of oversight from boards of governors in post-1992 universities, there has also been a lessening of control from the state. Before student caps were abolished, there were attempts to ensure that the sector prioritised subjects deemed to be in the nation’s interests. However, by introducing international students, UK universities could ignore national interests. For post-1992 universities, in particular, this meant that business schools became larger and larger.

In subjects such as STEM subjects, where universities found it difficult to fill quotas with UK students, they actively recruited in Europe to fill their quotas, as EU students were treated as home students. This meant that they were filling places, in subjects for which we needed more domestic training, with European rather than UK students. It is little wonder that we need to turn to Europe to find qualified staff in many areas such as the NHS.

The internationalisation of post-1992 universities has changed them fundamentally. Home students meet other young people from around the world. Academics and administrators have learnt much about working on an international scale. Local communities have had overseas money spent on them. And crucially, universities have been able to spend the money received on better facilities and resources. But are these benefits enough for these universities to operate unquestioned in the international market?

After Brexit, the UK will have a new position in the world. It will need more internationally competent graduates, and more graduates who meet local needs. Viewing higher education as a single sector is a barrier to a proper university sector that is best for individuals and the nation. We must look at governance and funding, and find new ways to value vocational and non-vocational education equally.

Universities have long argued for total freedom from government interference. This may be desirable for some universities, allowing them to carry out research that may have uncomfortable results for those in power. But it does not have to be true for all universities. A tiered higher education sector, with different goals for each tier, should not be dismissed by a small group consisting of VCs and principals who fear a loss of status.

The Augar Review shows that the free market is no way to allow the university sector to operate. It has failed to improve access for disadvantaged groups, attain parity for vocational higher education, or develop a technician-level education on par with our European neighbours. To achieve these objectives will require a rethinking of the notion that higher education is a single ‘world-class’ sector. We should also end our reliance on league tables.

We must open the debate, and not shy away from a realistic appraisal of our higher education system – one that acknowledges its weaknesses along with its strengths.


Internationalisation of Post-1992 UK Universities: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Peter Brady is published by Anthem Press. For more information, visit: www.anthempress.com

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