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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.
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