Hello (Green Paper), I Must Be Going.

It finally arrived on Friday. Remastered versions of familiar themes, obscure demos, reworked masters. But enough of the reissued 1980s Phil Collins albums and how about the green paper: ‘Fulfilling Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility’ and I’ve already forgotten the last bit… Oh yes, ‘Student Choice’? It does read a little like a collector’s edition of the 2011 classic ‘Students at the Heart of the System’, but lovingly revisited and remastered – and just in time for Christmas.

There are some familiar themes. More information, more metrics, more of a market built on all of these and on students at the centre and (probably) paying more. Taken at face value a more literal title might have been ‘Student Fees (and loans) at the Heart of a Higher Education Market’? Very nearly as snappy.

The producers and technicians have really been allowed to let rip. There’s a part A on the TEF, a part C on architecture and a part D on research. All versions that might have been seen in the original white paper release back in 2011. But it is clear that they have spent significantly more time on some issues rather than others. As expected, the TEF dominates and there’s plenty of detail about how it might or will work. The scope of possibility is admirable – as is the openness to consultation and getting the detail right. Jo Johnson has wisely resisted the temptation to rush in half cocked. But the direction is firmer. There will be a TEF and there will be no escaping it.

Similarly there is some significant prescription about the ‘architecture’ and particularly the replacement of HEFCE and OFFA (and possibly others) with a new ‘Office for Students’. But as many have already spotted, there isn’t much about research, nothing on postgraduates or part time and precious little on technical and professional education. Nothing on place or regions either. This is still a vision of a single system, based on similar, largely young, students looking for a similar and familiar full time experience. That feels like a significant set of mistakes and oversights that any eventual white paper will have to rectify.

There are even some older throwbacks to the days and language of New Labour. The title of the green paper looks like it’s come from a Gordon Brown random phrase generator housed somewhere in his early 2000s Treasury. The promised future of a market facing regulatory bureaucracy more like a technocratic, top down missive from Blair’s No 10. Anyone remember Tony Zoffis?

Purists – and Vice Chancellors – may prefer the imprecision as well as the more familiar structures (and firewalls) of these originals. Obscurists used to debate the correct pronunciation of HEFCE. Policy wonks were divided between supporters of either the hard or soft ‘c’: ‘hefsea’ vs ‘hefkey’. That schism, along with the council itself, is all but over. It’s now all about the Office for Students. Ministers will be hoping for a respectable, perhaps even deferential acronym – the OfS. However there’s already a dispute developing between those liking ‘Off stud’ and others preferring ‘Off stewed’.

There is though an important theme developing here in Conservative policymaking. Offices are smaller than Councils aren’t they? They sound altogether more workmanlike and rather less grand. Sleeves rolled up and no jacket required. A little more ‘Wernham Hogg’ and bit less ‘Spectre’. Readers can decide which metaphor they wish to apply to New Labour, the Coalition or to today’s Conservative party. But ‘the Office’ does conjure up images of running Government from a single building. Steve Hilton reputedly explored this in 2010 when thinking about how big government might sensibly or usefully be. He liked the idea of doing it from Somerset House, the former home of the British Empire. He never mentioned Slough.

Importantly, this is ‘small state’ thinking. What can or should others pay for? What desired services and outcomes can be delivered without state involvement or subsidy? What should Government stop doing? In the longer term – perhaps at least over the next decade – this is more significant than deficit reduction and cuts this year and over this Parliament. Reading the philosophies behind the Spending Review will ultimately be more important than the spending or savings that it allocates. The tide will roll away leaving relationships (or markets) between students, graduates and their chosen universities. Perhaps with business and communities or places too? But Government in a different role, standing back and lending money and enhancing and regulating a stronger market-consumer relationship. A relationship that both universities and students fundamentally still find rather uncomfortable.

Just like the music companies searching for every last pound of profit from a back catalogue there are other reissues due out before Christmas. We must await at least two more. First will be Sir Paul Nurse’s reworking of the Research Councils. We look forward to new versions of old favourites such as ‘Dual Support’, ‘Research Councils Together’ and the 1918 classic, ‘the Haldane Principle’. Then the biggest remake of all, the ‘Comprehensive Spending Review’. This has been reissued regularly over the past few years including in 2007 and 2010 and new versions of ‘Flat Cash’, ‘the Northern Powerhouse’ and ‘Living within our Means’ are all eagerly anticipated.

But seriously, who knows what will come after them? What is left in the back catalogue? Quite a lot from the 1980s and early 1990s it seems. Legislation probably. Perhaps a remake of the 1992 classic – the Further and Higher Education Act?

This blog was first published by HE/Research Fortnight in November 2015

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