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‘What gets measured, gets managed’

October 13, 2012

Those of you who follow this blog will be familiar with my position on student loans and the effects they generate beyond the debates about the headline figures of fees.

John Morgan in last week’s Times Higher Education covered the question of whether the new funding regime is sustainable in its current form.

There I warned of a new ‘unpleasant performance metric’ based on the loan non-repayment rates for graduates of particular institutions (and particular courses). At the Conservative Party Conference this week, David Willetts expressed ‘incredible frustration’ that such metrics were not already available. As reported:

Setting out his “vision”, he said it was “incredibly frustrating” not knowing the individual RAB charge for each university.

Speculating further, he said: “Imagine that in the future we discover that the RAB charge for a Bristol graduate was 10 per cent,” he suggested, meaning that the government would recover 90 per cent of loans. “Maybe some other university … we are only going to get 60 per cent back.”

He added: “Going beyond that it becomes an interesting question, to what extent you can incentivise universities to lower their own RAB charges.”

Such incentives might involve allowing ‘good’ institutions who perform well on this measure to set fees beyond the maximum or threatening ”poor’ performers, for example, by depriving their students of access to the loan book. (The latter would need primary legislation, but was proposed in the Technical Consultation that accompanied the 2011 white paper).

Owing to the nature of the requisite datasets and the patterns of repayment on the new loans, it will be a few years before these measures are anything like robust. But you have been warned. Financialised performance metrics will be far more pernicious than the misuse of the National Student Satisfaction survey of Key Information Sets.

Given that the same Times Higher Education article, tellingly titled ‘Wake Up to a New World’, also demonstrates Willetts’s refusal to accept that a reduction of 50 000 undergraduate places this year is anything other than ‘modest’, can we ask at what point the sector will recognize him for the dangerous ideologue he is?


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