Book Review: The Great University Gamble by Andrew McGettigan
London, Pluto Press, 2013. Pp. 232. Hb. £15.00.
Reviewed by Roger Brown
If anyone has any doubts about the radicalism – or the complexity – of the Coalition Government’s higher education reforms, a read of Andrew McGettigan’s The Great University Gamble will quickly remove them. McGettigan demonstrates that the near-abolition of the block grant for teaching, the near-trebling of the full-time undergraduate fee, the expansion of the scheme to designate courses at private providers for student loan support, and the dilution of the rules for university title are all part of a plan to create ‘a lightly regulated market of a diverse range of private companies with direct public funding of institutions diluted to homeopathic levels’ (p. 2). The Government’s very clear intention is to shift market power away from public institutions and their academic communities towards students as consumers, where what is produced is determined by consumers rather than producers, and where the crucial measure of quality is graduates’ performance in repaying their loans rather than their achievement in graduating. In the process, the Government is creating a much more stratified system where, in football terms, there will soon be a Premier League and a Conference, with no possibility of movement between them.
McGettigan also shows how the Government has made these changes with a bare minimum of Parliamentary scrutiny or public debate: what discussion there was mainly focused on the increased cost for most graduates rather than on the much more fundamental issue of the balance between public and private interests in a properly funded and regulated system. At the same time, little thought was given to the detailed consequences: this was not a controlled experiment, and there is no Plan B if this fails. Finally, he provides an excellent and very clear guide to the various financial flows through higher education, and the ways in which these are being rearranged to suit a limited class of stakeholders. It seems clear that whatever the Government’s rhetoric about students being ‘at the heart of the system’ (to quote the 2011 White Paper justifying the reforms; BIS, 2011), the real beneficiaries will be unaccountable private companies and their owners. All this may be familiar from other privatisations over the past quarter of a century.
The only major reservation about the book is that the context for the reforms – and especially the groundwork of previous governments in introducing research selectivity, cost-sharing, and expanding the market as the basic building blocks – is rather lightly sketched in. I hope I will be forgiven for suggesting that if the reader will care to read The Great University Gamble in conjunction with Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education (Brown with Carasso, 2013), s/he will have a full and well-grounded picture of what is almost certainly the most far-reaching set of reforms ever to have been visited on any major higher education system.
BIS (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (2011) Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, London: HMSO.
Brown, R. with Carasso, H. (2013) Everything for Sale? The marketisation of UK higher education. London and New York: Routledge and Society for Research into Higher Education.
Correspondence: Professor Roger Brown, Faculty of Education, Liverpool Hope University, Hope Park, Liverpool, L16 9JD, UK.