November 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 8

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International Perspectives

“Big Bang” for Higher Education and the Uncertain Future of Sociology in the UK

John Holmwood, University of Nottingham


In the wake of the financial crisis in the UK and beyond, the new Conservative-led coalition government recently introduced dramatic changes to higher education in England (following devolution in 2000, higher education is a responsibility of the separate assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and so the changes are primarily to higher education in England, although they will have their knock-on effects in other jurisdictions). In some respects the changes are not so different from what has happened incrementally in the United States where there is a recent history of declining public funding and dramatically rising tuition fees. However, the difference here is that they are not happening incrementally, but suddenly and systematically.

The government has withdrawn direct public funding of undergraduate programmes in arts, humanities, and the social sciences and replaced their funding with student fees. Their argument is that there is a graduate income premium and that it is right for students to pay for the investment in their human capital (such is their vision of education). The government claims to have made savings of 80 percent on the public cost of higher education and, therefore, helped to reduce the fiscal deficit. At the same time, income going to (some) universities is increased by allowing institutions to charge higher fees, thereby earning the support of university senior managers.

Universities are now able to charge fees in the range of $9,500-$14,000, with most clustered in the upper range. English students will pay, on average, the highest fees of any OECD country. A publicly-funded loans system has also been introduced with a relatively generous threshold for repayments (these do not begin until a graduate has earned $33,000 and then proceed at 9 percent of income over that threshold, with a 30-year limit on repayments). However, most commentators suggest that the cost of this scheme will, over time, exceed the cost of the system that it replaces. In the short term, students are burdened with debt; in the longer term they will become the future tax payers who have to pay its spiralling costs. Of course, the income threshold is likely to be reduced once the new system is established. This is already being lobbied for by those who argue that it will enable the expansion of student numbers, by reducing the cost of defaults.

A Market-Based Approach

The government is keen to encourage a market in higher education and the introduction of for-profit providers, such as Apollo Group, Kaplan, and Pearson. The intention is that the current upper cap of $14,000 on fees will be lifted, so that a small group of elite universities can charge fees similar to those of elite U.S. colleges (and similar to those they already charged to overseas students), while competition by for-profit providers will squeeze other universities and push fees down to $9,500 and less. A new stratification of institutions will be introduced with top universities increasingly serving a social (and international) elite.

Under the old system of direct public funding of places, each university had a quota of students and was “fined” if it exceeded that quota. Under the new system the quota remains in order to limit the cost of the loan system by controlling the number of students with access to loans, but with a twist. High performing high school graduates (so called, AAB students) have been removed from the quota and universities can compete among themselves for as many as they can get. However, they cannot replace any shortfall in their recruitment of AAB students from students with lower scores. Increased competition at the top and bottom squeezes universities in the middle and, I believe, sociology in particular.

Already, patterns are evident, although official applications data is not yet released. Sociology applications nationally are down about 10 percent. However, it is also clear that this drop is significantly greater for students with  scores of AAB and better, who have shifted to subjects of higher status or better expected future income. Moreover, AAB students seem to have clustered at fewer institutions. In so far as income from undergraduate students is an important factor in a department’s financial position, this will potentially have a very significant impact on staff numbers and, therefore, on research capacity in sociology at a number of research-intensive universities.

The government anticipates a further widening of competition by reducing the AAB threshold to ABB in subsequent years. This means the future will be volatile. A 10 percent drop in the number of sociology students overall,  can mean a 30-50 percent fall at some institutions at the upper end, while universities at the lower end may not have the places available for the corresponding increase in applications. The future is highly unstable with likely departmental closures (beyond sociology) and even expected closures of universities (or takeover by private providers).

Why It Matters

The neo-liberal market emphasis on student choice is also evident in the “impact agenda,” which governs research council funding and the distribution of research funds to universities via the research assessment exercise (now called the research excellence framework, or REF). This is an attempt to shape research into a contract model. Engagement with users begins with the identification of ideas that would serve clients or users and the incorporation of that stakeholder view into shaping research purposes and its design. While sociological research may not be expected to have a direct contribution in terms of marketable products, it is expected to contribute to public policy debate and the activities of NGOs as well as have demonstrable consequences. The latter, of course, encourages the idea of policy-based research, rather than evidence-based policy. In this way, the emphasis is shifted toward problem-based research or applied social studies and away from core sociological concerns.

Does this matter? Disciplinary formations wax and wane. I believe that something more profound than mere disciplinary fortune is at issue. What is at stake is the fate of the public university and sociology’s relation to it. The UK Minister for Universities and Science has commented that all universities in England are now private because their funding is primarily from private sources. Behind his pronouncement is a complacent attitude toward the wider public functions of higher education. Whereas previously higher education was associated with education for citizenship as well as employment and a broad mission of social amelioration, the university is now directed toward instrumental ends and is increasingly perceived as an engine of the knowledge economy, bringing both economic growth and widening inequalities.

“The university is now directed
toward instrumental ends and
is increasingly perceived as an
engine of the knowledge economy,
bringing both economic growth
and widening inequalities.”

Sociology’s History and Its Future

Yet sociology has a particular relation to issues of social amelioration and social justice. The expansion of sociology in the UK was intimately associated with a post-war process of democratisation and the rise of mass higher education, which was, in turn, delivered by the public university. Indeed, C Wright Mills’s Sociological Imagination was an important part of the sensibility of British sociology as it expanded and found its place within higher education. The fate of our discipline matters because it mirrors the fate of disadvantaged fellow citizens whose claims for recognition as a proper audience for social scientific inquiry are eclipsed by their de-politicized constitution as “consumers.” The fate of higher education is part of a wider reduction of society and politics to the market. It is a situation that calls for the exercise of the sociological imagination, but it is precisely this that is now at threat.

What is to be done? We cannot leave student recruitment as a zero-sum game where we compete with each other for a declining number. In the UK, we urgently need collective effort to increase the pool of students for sociology and related subjects. This means activity nationally and locally to increase the profile of sociology in schools, with parents, and in the local media. The British Sociological Association will take steps to coordinate such activities; we will call on our members and non-members alike to join this effort. At a time when sociological analysis of our situation is a pressing need we cannot allow the market to undermine our presence.

John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham and President of the British Sociological Association. He is also a co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University (

Submit Ideas for the International Perspectives Column

Footnotes invites contributions from knowledgeable non-North American sociologists on the state of the discipline and profession of sociology in countries outside North America for publication in the new occasional column, “International Perspectives.” Sociological analyses of significant national events in these countries that would be of interest to North American sociologists are welcome for publication. Original contributions must be in English and no more than 1,100 words. To discuss possible contributions or send material, contact Johanna Olexy (

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