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Whatever Happened to the Polytechnics? Part III

March 2, 2018

I will now turn to what I consider to be the moral imperative for part-time provision, which leads me to conclude that we have grave problems with our current funding settlement. (Series starts here with Part One).

Regardless of debates about what the proper cost of HE should be, what we have is a system that gives people in the main one shot at funded study and a culture that pushes them to make that decision at 17 or 18. As someone who changed undergraduate courses in the mid-90s, I am acutely conscious of the pressure put on young people to go to university too soon and the difficulty of redressing mistaken choices. The fee-loan regime introduced without adequate credit transfer arrangements is hopeless from this perspective.

It is very inflexible and at odds with lifelong learning and retraining. Crosland laid great stress on these points – the Polytechnics would have close ties to industry, business and the professions and in doing so would not only offer part-time provision (that was not beholden to e.g. the University of London external degree programmes)[ but offer training and retraining opportunities to citizens and workers throughout their lives.[1]

Given the subsidy built in to Student Loans Company loans and the repayment threshold of £21,000 (now £25,000) being common to graduates regardless of study mode, it may at first sight seem rational to choose the full-time degree.

However, there is an obvious problem in maintenance support for full-time study.

What is broken is maintenance support for full-time away from home students, where the chief villain is student rents. These have more than doubled since the early 2000s: purpose-built accommodation in London now averages over £220 per week (I say ‘now’ but that was in 2015/16).[2] Since students are asked to sign rental agreements for over 40 weeks, this is a very real problem: the maximum maintenance support (calculated in relation to household income) is based on a thirty-week model.

Let us briefly look at how Wales has set out its calculations for its proposed revisions to maintenance support (a mix of loans and grants there) – the maximum available amount is reached by taking the

  • minimum wage – £7.20 per hour
  • hours worked – 37.5 per week
  • weeks of study – 30 weeks

to give a total loan outside London equal to £8100 per year (£7.20 times 37.5 times 30 equals £8100).

These figures are very close to those established for new English-domiciled starters in 2016/17.

New Picture (3)

For London, the maximum available to English-domiciled students is £10,700. If you sign a 40-week contract for £200 pw rent (termly in advance) then you are left with £2700 for everything else (including travel another big cost in London even with the 30% discount).

I don’t think we can assume that students are able to locate sufficient paid work in the Summer holidays to generate a surplus that would cover costs for the other 40 weeks of the year.

Taking on excessive work in term-time clearly affects student performance and mental health – as does taking on other, more onerous, commercial debt (overdrafts, bank loans, credit card debt and payday loans – I know of one London HEI where 10% of students admit to having used payday loans). Despite their lower nominal balances, these debts are tougher for students and graduates to manage. It is an embarrassment that the government has commissioned no research on the effect of debt on young graduates and that it is sitting on the latest version of its regular study of Income and Expenditure for students (2014/15). [And still doing so nearly a year after I gave this paper!]

While this issue of rents and maintenance support goes unaddressed, we are effectively blind to a huge structural advantage to those coming from wealthier backgrounds and the source of what appears to be an expanding mental health crisis amongst students. It’s the stress of making ends meet and the burden of commercial debt which weighs most. Making an extra £2-3000 per year in SLC loans available is the sensible option.

The high-cost of SLC loans for borrowers and government and the hidden costs of full-time study – the gap between funding and costs – point to a concrete problem, but also an intangible one. The loss of goodwill universities have suffered.

Glib rent policies – ‘it’s the market rate’ –  and management enthusiasm for higher fees leave universities very close to having their Gerald Ratner moment: revealing their contempt for their customers.

At the moment, students don’t feel they have reasonable alternatives given the signalling function of the degree in the English jobs market. The degree makes sense insofar as the other options look worse or non-existent. This is a recipe for huge resentment! And that’s not a good basis for a sustainable higher education system. Particularly when the government seems keen to exploit this resentment to discipline universities through consumer pressure and new earnings data.

Academics are beginning to clock on to this. It is striking to me that in the early months  of 2017 in London I heard academics  -in universities – talk openly about repositioning their institution as a polytechnic. Here they meant teaching-focused, care-focused and cheaper. Were liberal arts colleges more prominent in the UK, it is possible that this is the analogy they would reach for.  But they perhaps have in mind offering a better deal to undergraduates in terms of contact time and less time of their own spent in the swamp that is the public procurement tender exercise known as the REF.

Before concluding with a sketch of a solution, I want to flag up a further consideration – what happened in 1993 did not create a unitary system – it created a stratified ladder. It’s a bit much to expect HE to be an engine of social mobility when it in fact does something else – it reproduces the middle classes by rationing positional goods: access to particular jobs. This unpleasant truth underneath the jibes about ‘former Polytechnics’.

Here is the annual income of each HEI in England in thousands.

New Picture (4)

Hesa 2014/15 data

This chart exemplifies the hierarchical ladder that Crosland feared would result from a unitary system with the established universities at the top.

In the face of funding, financial and health pressures, ‘academic drift’ and the loss of flexible study options, it’s in the interest of all to rethink part-time provision and to recognise that the current fee-loan regime cannot fix this problem. Part-time, lifelong learning cannot be funded as the subordinate to the full-time fee-loan regime.

The current funding incentives privilege full-time degree study – it is seemingly the best option for institutions and students. And so flexible modes of study have atrophied and withered.

As Wolf notes: “Under current conditions, students are offered one loan, tied to a degree, once. Publicly-supported institutions therefore have no incentive to offer anything other than degrees of maximum length at maximum permitted cost.” [2016, p. 8] (my emphasis)

In concrete terms, this means that staff cannot offer to students a change in mode of study, when their circumstances change. And loan restrictions mean that those wanting to retrain in later life – a core constituency for an alternative institution – are currently excluded in the main.

In the next part, I will draw these threads to a close, arguing for a different form of institution.

To the final Part.


[1] This is a few years before the creation of the University of the Air – the Open University.

[2] £143pw in the rest of the UK. London is rent driven up by the plethora of studios averaging £270 pw.


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