Why the government is not paying any attention to evidence on education policy


9:30 am - November 14th 2012

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by Tom Bailey

David Willetts recently wrote that “evidence should be the bread and butter of policy makers”. Unfortunately his call for evidence-based policy is undermined by the lack of evidence supporting his own government’s higher education reforms.

The coalition’s university policies have consistently neglected both evidence and research.

Willetts wrote of the importance of putting “more research in the hands of decision makers” in order to improve policy. However, current higher education reforms have not been based on the thorough research that underpinned previous major change to higher education.

In supporting the introduction of for-profit-providers into the higher education sector, the government ignored the warning signs from the USA. Those private universities do not have a good record: the most recent US Senate report makes for grim reading.

Of the million students enrolled with for-profit companies in 2008-9, over half had withdrawn by 2010. In the companies studied, 22.7% of revenue was spent on marketing/advertising, 19.4% went on pre-tax profit while a mere 17.2% was spent on teaching. Introducing such providers into the UK would not be putting ‘students at the heart of the system’, but private profit, irrespective of the educational outcomes.

Perhaps the worst failures on evidence were those relating to financial calculations.

The government claimed initially that £9000 a year would only be charged in ‘exceptional’ circumstances. That so many universities announced their intention to charge £9000 a year was not surprising given that they have faced a mantra of ‘more for less’ since the early 1970s, with ever greater output expected off the back of stagnating state investment. The government then resorted to creating the complicated core and margin bidding system for student places, yet another development that threatens universities with the worst of both state control and market chaos.

Most absurdly, reforms presented as part of the austerity drive risk increasing overall state spending levels. According to the Intergenerational Foundation (IF), “there is likely to be no saving to the public sector finances from the reforms to higher education funding”.

As student loan repayments form part of the consumer price index (CPI) inflation calculation, the rising tuition fees will force CPI inflation up. Certain government pensions and benefits are linked to the CPI. The IF estimates that this could add £2.2bn to the social security budget by 2016. The latest inflation figures seem to indicate that will effect is coming into effect. Upfront savings on supporting universities could be wiped out by a soaring benefits bill.

Finally, the student loan book could become an extremely dubious liability for the state. The government’s figures are based on optimistic default estimates of only 30-32% losses on loans. The IF argued that a 40% level is more likely and should be adopted. If such high levels of defaults occur, the student loan book could make expensive PFI deals pale into insignificance.

Willetts should not talk about evidence-based policy. His higher education reforms reflect a triumph of both incompetence and ideology over research.


A longer version of this article was published at the Guardian. Tom Bailey is a freelance education writer and researcher.

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Reader comments


“The coalition’s university policies have consistently neglected both evidence and research.”

er ditto Primary and Secondary education.

But this is inevitable, as Gove is like chairman Mao.

His free schools idea, is really “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom”. The direction is one of perpetual revolution, where no sense can prevail.

Actually Armando Iannucci missed a Gove character out from In the Thick of It. In other departments, policy is seen being cobbled together in a state of panic, trying to be coherent and staying abreast of events, always going pear shaped when the ministers look away. Education Policy is made up completely on a whim, and all the aides, secretaries then panic as they try work out how on earth to implement the mad mad policy stream of consciousness Gove comes up with.

I am waiting to see Gove declare that Sparrows are the enemy of education and need shooting, and that school books need burning in order to keep the schools warm.

And you are certain that you are not ignoring any evidence?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Dan

    RT @libcon: Why the government is not paying any attention to evidence on education policy http://t.co/Dzj0Er4N

  2. Tom Bailey

    A brief version of my article for @GdnHigherEd cross posted on @libcon about coalition's HE policy + its many problems http://t.co/ZygrrZtD

  3. Jason Brickley

    Why the government is not paying any attention to evidence on education policy http://t.co/KOXmMnHV

  4. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – Why the government is not paying any attention to evidence on education policy http://t.co/68zsjXTY

  5. Alex Braithwaite

    Why the government is not paying any attention to evidence on education policy | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/P79quwmU via @libcon

  6. _nasdaf_

    For-profit education proves its not For-education. MT @libcon: Why the Gov is not heeding evidence on education policy http://t.co/TJLPYAg7

  7. Mitchell Torok

    The government is not paying any attention to evidence on its education ideas. None, whatsoever http://t.co/n71DYJbb

  8. Martin McQuillan

    Government HE policy 'represents a triumph of ideology over evidence' | http://t.co/dudf6aV3 via @libcon

  9. notanna1AnnaNotaro

    Government HE policy 'represents a triumph of ideology over evidence' | http://t.co/dudf6aV3 via @libcon

  10. Peter Underwood

    The government is not paying any attention to evidence on its education ideas. None, whatsoever http://t.co/n71DYJbb

  11. Michael Abberton

    The government is not paying any attention to evidence on its education ideas. None, whatsoever http://t.co/n71DYJbb

  12. Threadbare Panda

    The government is not paying any attention to evidence on its education ideas. None, whatsoever http://t.co/n71DYJbb

  13. Matt Pringle

    The government is not paying any attention to evidence on its education ideas. None, whatsoever http://t.co/n71DYJbb

  14. Dominic Newbould

    The government is not paying any attention to evidence on its education ideas. None, whatsoever http://t.co/n71DYJbb

  15. Patrick Hadfield

    Rt @libcon: Why the government is not paying any attention to evidence on education policy http://t.co/ep4t6fEm > #gove!

  16. Natacha Kennedy

    Evidence shows why #privatised #universities are a particularly bad idea http://t.co/m8SbZCBk

  17. Socio Imagination

    Why the government is not paying any attention to evidence on education policy http://t.co/efNIFyRq





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