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Conceptions of what is excellent in higher education are starting to change

Professor Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, outlines strategies adopted by NTU that are boosting social mobility and which helped it win the inaugural Guardian University of the Year award, a gong he believes shows how notions of excellence in HE are changing.

A house divided? Growing divisions and inequalities in HE

Mike Boxall, who has thirty years' experience as a consultant and commentator on strategic developments in higher and further education, finds evidence in recent news of growing and worrying divisions within UK higher education.

UK HE must put its house in order to maintain global excellence

News on higher education over the past week highlights an urgent need for the sector to get to grips with ethical issues that have a bearing on the way it is managed and governed, argues Sandra Booth, Director of Policy and External Relations at Council for Higher Education in Art and Design (CHEAD).

Rising staff costs putting universities under greater pressure, warns Moody's

UK universities will face greater financial pressure over the next three years due to rising staff costs as they accommodate more students, retain talent and negotiate pay rises,  Moody's has warned.

Higher vocational STEM education can lead to better earnings than degrees, study finds

Earnings of people achieving higher-level vocational qualifications in STEM subjects can exceed those of people who pursued the same subjects at a university level, a study has concluded.

University finances and LEO trump Brexit in HE news headlines

In a week when the country was even more focussed on Brexit than usual, other issues were preoccupying higher education, finds Professor James Miller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Social mobility advances in HE offer hope in challenging times

Professor Kathryn Mitchell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby, reflects on a week of higher education news.

HEi-think: Modern universities should welcome the HE White Paper

While there will inevitably be concerns about elements of the HE White Paper, modern universities have reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the government's plans, argues Dr Mike Hamlyn, Director of Academic Enhancement at Staffordshire University.

 

In its White Paper "Success as a Knowledge Economy - Teaching Excellence, Student Mobility and the Student Choice", the Department for Business Innovation and Skills says it will help deliver choice and opportunity for students. The new plans will "make it easier to set-up high-quality new universities to give students more choice; create a rigorous drive to raise teaching quality and ensure universities focus on getting students into graduate jobs, and  deliver on key manifesto commitments to ensure universities deliver the best value for money for students and recognise the highest quality teaching".

For a modern connected university, dedicated to student success, there are reasons for us to be cautiously optimistic.

We should welcome the idea of celebrating and promoting teaching excellence. While proposals for the Teaching Excellence Framework might not have been uniformly welcomed by the sector, we should want to be recognised for great teaching.

It is important that a university like Staffordshire University, that prides itself on its commitment to widening access and its understanding of higher education as a transformational experience that promotes social mobility, makes sure that the teaching and learning experiences that are provided to students are not just meeting expectations, but are excellent or outstanding.

The note of caution relates to the detail of how that excellence is to be assessed. The metrics proposed (National Student Survey satisfaction scores, Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey and non-continuation rates) which are essentially a league table by any other name, don’t tell the whole story. Pleasingly though, the White Paper states "we recognise that metrics alone cannot tell the whole story; they must be benchmarked and contextualised, and considered alongside the additional narrative that can establish a provider’s case for excellence". Hence, individual institutions will be able to demonstrate how they are actively raising the profile of teaching excellence, and developing measures for this in parallel to developing research excellence.

We should not be completely sceptical about all potential new entrants to the market either- provided that the organisations coming forward can provide a significantly different offer for potential students, rather than just cherry picking subjects that are considered to be cheap to teach, such as accountancy and law. They must be able to deliver the full higher education experience, which is so much more than training for employment.

New entrants could be seen to be a potential competitor to more established providers, but an established institution with a broader view of innovative and applied learning will be able to demonstrate the benefits of its connections to wider communities and, through cross-subject working, its ability to deliver a wider range of student experiences. 

Another challenge of new entrants to the higher education market will be a renewed focus on the range of courses we deliver in future: traditional three- or four-year full time undergraduate degrees; a two year accelerated degree; studying part time; in modules; from a distance, or in a Degree Apprenticeship embedded with an employer. A university like Staffordshire, committed to innovative and applied learning, is well placed to be able to capitalise on providing these different modes of study, and our current offer of Degree Apprenticeships and Fast Track 2 year undergraduate programmes is evidence of this.

Finally, the government commits to the role of education in improving social mobility. As Pam Tatlow, CEO of Million+ has said, we need plans which will "maintain and enhance a high quality university system which supports anyone who has the ambition, talent and desire to succeed". We should welcome this commitment to work more on the pronounced differences in retention, degree attainment and progression to employment and further study, between students from different backgrounds.

In recognising that those universities with a broad widening participation remit might not have benefitted from the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework, it is important to note that the metrics will be benchmarked against factors including subject, prior attainment and age. Providers will be assessed on the performance of those from disadvantaged groups, so that universities that do provide a route into higher education for students who would otherwise might not participate, should not be penalised.

In conclusion - many of the principles in this White Paper are ones that we can agree with. The details that will come through legislation, and with the technical consultation on the TEF, will provide us with all the answers that we need.

william87 / 123RF
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