Millward: ministers have ended reliance on market for quality

Former regulator highlights increasingly interventionist Westminster policies

June 16, 2022
Stressed man looks at markets
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Recent government interventions in English higher education show that the Conservative administration has lost faith that a market-based system can be relied upon to drive up quality, according to a former regulator.

Chris Millward, who formerly held senior positions at both the Office for Students and its predecessor, the Higher Education Funding Council, said that the past two years had seen a distinct shift away from the language of students as consumers in public policymaking.

Interventions such as bringing back student number caps and ordering “boots-on-the-ground” inspections necessitated a new evaluation of the relationship between the state and the sector after a decade of deregulation, he said.

Speaking at a 25th anniversary debate for the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), Professor Millward, who now teaches at the University of Birmingham, charted what he saw as the rise and subsequent fall of a market-driven system in the country.

“Over 25 years of QAA, many of my colleagues in English universities think universities have ceded authority over quality to the state and the state has imposed a market,” he said.

“I think it is more complicated than that. You are seeing the rise and the fall of the market and the empowerment of consumers within our system. As ever, a lot of this has been about pragmatism and finances as it has about ideology.”

Professor Millward said that the introduction of tuition fees in 1998 and subsequent rises in the fee cap to the current £9,250 in 2021 brought about a focus on student choice and tools that enabled comparisons between institutions such as the Teaching Excellence Framework.

He said that the OfS, where he served as the first director of fair access and participation, was set up as a “classic market regulator”, intent on “providing confidence around a baseline and facilitating competition above it”.

But Boris Johnson’s government – elected in 2019 – has tasked the body with making more direct interventions, including the recently announced plans to inspect providers over quality.

“The current government in England has concluded they can’t rely on markets. And that’s not just a higher education issue. It can’t rely on markets to deliver the promises of Brexit and levelling up. It couldn’t rely on markets during the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.

“I think we are currently seeing less reliance on the market, less of the language around students as consumers. That does take you back to the foundations of the QAA. It does, for me, mean we have to think about a different kind of settlement between universities and the state.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Free markets don't cap the price of the goods they sell and employees of competing businesses don't have to all be paid the same. In free markets sales are uncapped and choice is limited by ability to pay rather than the intellectual calibre of the buyer. In free markets for conventional goods (eg washing machines) one can compare quality across the sector because someone can test drive all of the competing options in a meaningful way - that's not possible in HE. In free markets, the product is shaped by the needs of the consumer (who in this case wishes to obtain a piece of paper saying they are brilliant) - whereas govt wishes to retain control over the product to service the needs of business and the wider UK economy. If Thacherite ministers are wondering why their ham-fisted free market experiment in HE hasn't worked out the way they had hoped - two explanations are (1) a free market was never introduced in the first place and (2) the market can't work because the buyer and the intended beneficiaries of the product are neither the same person nor do they have aligned interests. Ironically, what actually happened in HE over the last decade was actually an unprecedented level of govt intervention in the sector. Their solution? - more govt intervention.