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In the Higher Education market struggle, who points the finger of blame?

Part of 'Man's Struggle'. by Walter Ritchie, Coventry 1959

"There will ultimately be an almighty struggle between Government and Society, with Universities in the middle, as a chaotic marketplace unfolds.

A new generation of students will point the finger at those to blame"

If there was ever proof needed that we live in a grossly unequal society it was the news earlier this week in ‘The Times’ that students in the USA can pay over $10,000 in fees to a private company to get unpaid internships in the UK [1]. The company concerned is called ‘Global Experiences’ and promises placements all over the world for those who can pay. It boasts: “We Believe You Deserve a Career You Love: Award winning International Internships and Career Readiness Programs”. It offers some scholarships but mostly it provides advice about raising funds and about payments; that can be by instalment at 5% interest. If the student can introduce other students to them, then the cost can fall. Fortunately ‘The Times’ is not an employer named on their list. I was quick to check.

Such a practice is perverse and it should be banned on the grounds that it ‘buys’ advantage. A free market in higher education is on one level but this strays onto another level of cheating a system simply because it is a free market. Buying a way into any market is dubious at the least.

In the USA, if there is a niche in the market it will be filled.

Along with another example from the USA, this sends out a warning that equal opportunity could be a tragic illusion. In February, Times Higher reported that in the USA a lawsuit, against a family that had not paid all that was due, had revealed that they owed $1.5 million to get a student into a top US University [3]. This was originally reported by Inside Higher ED [4]. The practice of hiring consultants to smooth the way through university applications in the USA is commonplace and expanding fast [5] but the amounts charged by this particular company were very high. The sums involved in seeking multiple applications add up fast and are simply staggering.

The company involved is called ‘Ivy Coach’ [6] and their web site reveals an interesting philosophy. Hiding inside is a very stern criticism of a young would be university student called Micheal Brown. He comes from a very modest background in Texas but his academic ability has earned him a potentially bright future. His high school grade point average and SATS scores are amazingly high. His recent success made the news across the USA (Huffington Post and CNN give the best overviews of the success [7]). However all was not good. Fox News referred to his success as “obnoxious” for no apparent valid reason. Ivy Coach perhaps reveals the problem they have with him in their blog, that is within their website [8]. They openly challenge him to a debate for getting admitted to 20 universities (the upper limit of number of applications permitted by candidates in the USA) including eight Ivy League Universities. He is 17 years old. They also refer to an earlier post [8] that says “Micheal only took slots away from other deserving candidates. That should not be applauded by the press. It should be condemned. Hey, we’ve never been told that we don’t tell it like it is.” It might have said that he potentially took away slots from lesser candidates that paid them to assist in their applications. Micheal comes from low income family and is likely to be unsure of himself. Stanford or Harvard are reported as his preferred options but the whole process must be overwhelming for him at this time. It was legitimate for him to try for up to 20 universities and so he did. I am sure all of them will fill their places with deserving candidates in time.

A chaotic marketplace in the UK.

The ‘market’ in attracting the best students is becoming a problem also in the UK. Our universities are increasingly making so called ‘unconditional offers’ to students that they believe are the best. This is to effectively bypass the convention of waiting for A-Level results to come out later. ‘Poaching’ might be a better description. Last year over 50,000 students were offered places in University early. The Complete University Guide [9] has a good description of the practice and sound advice for students. The practice leads to many adverse consequences. Some students may feel pressurised to accept a university place early in the process; possibly one they cannot really afford or are unsure about. In many cases, not accepting early means the offer is removed. Universities are becoming more obsessed with the A-Level tariff points of their students in the league tables race, so this is hoped as a way to secure a position ‘higher up the grid’. Naturally, it has come in for considerable criticism from UCAS who believe that students will instead react by ‘slowing down’ their studies and effectively devalue the A-level system (reported in the Independent [10]).

It is clear that the UK government, in creating a false market in universities, has led to some inevitable consequences that were surely avoidable. However, it seems the system in the UK will be slow to react.

The Office for Students lays down the challenge.

There were other events this week that illustrate the dangers of the chaos that the UK Higher Education system is facing.

There is a widening dichotomy between the apparent aspirations of government and the opposing actions being taken by them. The Office for Students (OfS) sets out demands that are countered by government policies that pull in the opposite direction. The level of disadvantage in the country will increase as universal credit is further rolled out this week. Many will eventually lose free school meals to be replaced by breakfast clubs that will be geographically patchy and optional.

With such societal challenges looming, the OfS took over from HEFCE and the Office for Fair Access this week and set about its business. Immediately, it seems that they are making demands of universities whilst at the same time denying they have any responsibility themselves. Its business case published in 2016 [11] is worth revisiting. In aspiring to be a “new market regulator” it will have a three pointed hat of teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice. One issue reported more widely has been the demand from OfS that all institutions must register and also “must”, from August 2019, “deliver for all students successful outcomes which are valued by employers, or which enable further study” and “ensure that qualifications awarded hold their value over time, in line with recognised standards”. The fear is that this will further fuel grade inflation in an increasingly tense market place where degrees are bought and sold [12].

The OfS also sets out in its regulatory Framework a requirement for universities to have a Guidance and Access Plan [13]. The aim is to “increase the entry rates of students from underrepresented groups to higher education, in particular reducing the participation gaps for those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and at higher tariff providers, where they are widest.” But then it is clear that the Universities are told that they must decide how to achieve this themselves. Indeed they must do this against a backdrop of other diametrically opposed government policies. This includes maintenance loans that are too low, resulting in the likelihood of students trying to succeed whilst holding down part-time jobs and living in poor accommodation or commuting long distances. There can only be one way out and that will mean diverting resources in their direction from within the universities and then create a market in disadvantaged students that will have to succeed. This will no doubt be based upon yet another league table. The Government is thus pushing responsibility for Social Mobility onto the universities without addressing the underlying causes.

University administrators and legal advice will determine the priorities.

Meanwhile, one of the first acts of Nicola Dandridge, the new Chief Executive of the OfS and former Chief Executive of Universities UK, was to address the spring meeting of the Association of Heads of University Administration (AHUA) in Manchester this week [14] . The AHUA is the “representative body for senior University managers (Registrars, Chief Operating Officers, Heads of Administration) in the United Kingdom and Ireland”. Its meetings are closed – but the programme is available online. Much of the programme is taken up by legal firms, that also sponsor the event, advising on employment issues such as management of academic performance. One session explores “the thorny issue of academic freedom, specifically the extent to which universities can manage academics who assert that invoking performance management processes breaches that concept”. Remember these are heads of ‘Administration’ discussing this, not academic leaders such as VCs. Distinctly missing is a session on the real challenges of the Social Mobility demands. Instead there is a session led by a legal firm and sponsor on: “the scope and implications of ….the new regulatory framework for higher education which is being established by the Office for Students”.

The academics and a wider societal perspective.

In stark contrast to the AHUA meeting was the meeting of The Centre for Global Higher Education in London this week. All of the proceedings and talks are available on line [15].

In addressing: “Student choice in higher education – reproducing social inequalities?” Claire Callender (OBE and Deputy Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education) argues that “policies introduced to promote and improve student choice first limit or constrain student choice, and secondly contribute to further social inequalities in higher education”. She concentrates on the incredible decline in part-time students in the UK as they are priced out of the market [16]. This damages many universities in addition to the Open University and the wild demands put on the Universities by the OfS will do little to solve the problem in the end. A genuine joined up approach by government is urgently needed instead.


The academic case surrounding the dichotomy between government policy and their apparent aspirations is very clear. The evidence is mounting that creating a market place in Higher Education is already producing astounding reactions by the so called ‘providers’ that are tangled up in league tables that compete with each other. A social mobility league table where an ‘our disadvantaged students are better than yours’ attitude will clash with strategies to attract students from outside the UCAS system. Chaos will rule and the perversity of ‘consultants’ assisting richer families to play the system in the USA will no doubt wash up on our shores soon.

There will be ultimately be an almighty struggle between government and society, with Universities in the middle, as a chaotic marketplace unfolds. A new generation of students will point the finger at those to blame.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. 


[1] The Times April 7 2018. US teenagers pay five-figure fees to become unpaid interns

[2] Global Experiences web site.


[6] Ivy Coach web site

[7] Huffington Post April 10 2018 Fox Anchors Slammed For Calling Black Teen Who Got Into 20 Colleges 'Obnoxious'.

and CNN News March 31 2018 He applied to 20 of the best colleges and got a full ride to all of them

[10] The Independent March 4 2018. UCAS warns surge in unconditional university offers means students may take 'foot off the gas'.

[12] Times Higher Education April 10 2018. ‘Extraordinary’ OfS rules risk grade inflation, says ex-QAA head.

[13] Office for Students Regulatory Framework. February 2018.

[14] The Association of Heads of University Administrations Spring Conference 2018

[15] CGHE 2018 annual conference: The new geopolitics of higher education.

[16] Claire Callander OBE. See from 6h.55m.33s into the video


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