Browne Review research spending

It was revealed some time ago that Browne review had a research budget of £120,000, of which £68,000 was spent, and most of that on an opinion survey. The results of the opinion survey were also unpublished. Well, that irked me. So I lodged an FOI request to receive the survey and its results, and I received those back without hassle. Fair play.

The opinion survey is protected under copyright law, so apparently it would be deeply uncool for me to start sharing it around on a public website. But I can sure talk about what’s in there.

The opinion survey asked 80 school pupils, 40 parents, 40 early-year University students, and 18 part-time students for their opinion on University funding. Let me quote the report up-front, so that we’re all clear on something:

The findings in this research are based on a qualitative sample which is large enough to provide in-depth indicative findings. However, the findings are not statistically robust and should not be treated as such.

The interviews took place at various locations, and sought to include people from different backgrounds, but we still have the fact that this survey was the only real research that took place to feed into a report that influenced the wrong Government’s policy. (The Browne review was initiated by the previous government.) It’s a survey almost 50% made up of latter-year school pupils, which has been interpreted incorrectly by the Government. Face decidedly in palm.

The basic jist of the report is that questions were asked regarding what levels of fees, if they were to be raised, would be acceptable. The survey also highlighted what I think many of us in the sector implicitly knew: most people are unaware of how much funding the Government provides the tertiary teaching sector per-head.

So the survey has a feel around to find out what people think, and concludes that some people are comfortable with fees set to £6,000 per annum, assuming that £6,000 is the cap. The new £9,000 cap is not mentioned once in the report. Nor is the concept of the withdrawal of the state from tertiary learning in England and Wales, which is the real reason the fees are now rising.

A couple of key quotes from the survey document:

Most full time students and parents believed that the cost of providing higher education should be shared amongst government, graduates and parents.

And also:

Most participants believed that the government contribution to the costs of tuition and support for students is important for a number of reasons: there was the perception that the government benefits from higher taxes from graduates throughout their lifetime and a more skilled workforce able to generate wealth and deliver better public services. Some students and parents believed that government contributions to higher education are important in making it accessible to students from a wide range of different backgrounds, and avoiding a system based on the ability to pay. When completing a ‘pie chart’ exercise, marking relative proportions that the government vs. graduates should pay towards higher education, most full time students and parents believed that the government should pay at least half the cost of higher education. ((Footnote: It is important to note that this exercise did not focus on actual amounts of money, rather on the principle of the burden of funding.)) This is because the personal benefits of higher education were seen by many to match the benefits to society.

So the coalition Government found this opinion survey that says students and parents might be just happy enough to pay £6,000 tuition per year, but ignored all the parts like this:

most full time students and parents believed that the government should pay at least half the cost of higher education.

And so it seems they worked backward from the amount of money people might be willing to pay to rather ham-fistedly reduce tuition spending, rather than use any additional income to boost tuition spending. If the purpose of the survey was to determine how education spending could be boosted with additional income from graduates, then the results from the survey has been taken and used; the purpose of the survey, on the other hand, seems to have been ignored.

Quite simply, this is a survey that makes the assertion that students will find increased fees acceptable, given deferred payment, but makes no assertions regarding a corresponding reduction in state support. It raises concerns over an emerging “two-tier” system if variable fees are allowed, but does not resolve them. It is fully an opinion survey to determine just how much pain the public might be willing to take, but primarily asks school pupils for the answers. In brief, it is a survey which states its results are not statistically significant given the sample size, which discusses only one half of the course of action taken by the coalition Government.

Update, 2011-03-27: The document released as part of my request is now available through


Posted by Stephen Strowes on Thursday, March 3rd, 2011. You can follow me on twitter.

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