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HEi-think: Tertiary review must untangle some knotty problems facing HE

The review of post-18 education launched by the Prime Minister faces some knotty problems to untangle over higher education funding and student finance, but in itself adds another thread to the tapestry of changes woven around the sector, says Diana Beech, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Higher Education Policy Institute.


After months of speculation, the long-awaited review of tertiary education in the UK is finally here.

In many ways, it was only a matter of time before the Government focused its attentions on the UK’s provision of post-18 education.

On the one hand, Labour’s ability to appeal to younger voters in last year’s General Election through its pledge to abolish tuition fees unearthed a political time bomb – one which threatens to lock the Conservatives out of the student vote unless they can prove their finance model for higher education is truly progressive, sustainable and fair.

With just over a year to go until the UK is set to formally leave the European Union (EU) on 29th March 2019, the Government knows it needs to do something quickly to ensure the UK is training up sufficient ‘home-grown’ talent for key vocational professions, essential to the UK’s success in a post-Brexit economy. Universities and colleges, with their function of providing high-quality tertiary education to the nation, hold the balance of power in both cases.

Yet, fees and funding are not the only features of the UK higher education landscape to come under review. Over the past 18 months, uncertainty has become a fact of life for UK universities, with reviews being conducted into almost every aspect of their operations and delivery. Most notably, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has just finished collecting evidence for its review into the impact of international students in the UK, which is set to influence whether the Government will continue to count international student numbers in net migration targets and, ultimately, determine whether universities will continue to have access to a truly global talent pool.

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – the new Government initiative for measuring and improving teaching quality in UK universities – is also due to come under a full, independent review in 2019, meaning that the reforms to which universities have been forced to adjust over recent months to become fully registered ‘providers’ of higher education may well be altered yet again. The major review of university funding announced today, therefore, represents just one more thread in the complex tapestry being woven around higher education and its place in UK society.

Although the prospect of reduced tuition fees may appeal to those considering embarking on higher education, considerably altering the way universities are funded raises a number of complex questions for Government, for universities and for wider society. First, any reduction in fee levels would equate to less income for higher education institutions, giving universities less money to spend on teaching, accommodation and vital student support services. Any attempt to make up this shortfall by Government would inevitably beg the question whether taxpayers who haven’t been to university, and thus haven’t had the chance to benefit from the higher salaries a university education brings, should be footing this bill, or whether the money would be better spent on other public services like schools or the NHS.

Second, the prospect of introducing differential fees, dependant on subject studied, could also risk being regressive on three fronts: If Arts and Humanities degrees are to be priced lower than more scientific courses, due to graduates in these subjects generally earning less afterwards, then this could deter students from poorer backgrounds from taking more expensive courses and fulfilling their academic potential. Moreover, if the Government wishes to combat skills shortages in subjects like Engineering, then surely it is not wise to make degrees in these disciplines more expensive purely based on the increased contact time and resources required? Plus, if the Government really values the contribution of the creative industries to society, then sending out a message they are second-rate qualifications is neither helpful nor progressive.

Instead, practical measures could be taken to improve perceptions of student debt, including reducing the current interest rate applied to student loans, especially while a student is still enrolled at university, and re-introducing maintenance grants for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

The focus on tuition fees and student debt nevertheless risks taking attention away from the fact that there are currently no number controls in the UK higher education sector, meaning that anybody who wants to go to university has the chance to do so. Any move which could impose greater costs on taxpayers would make the re-imposition of student number caps much more likely, so the onus is now on the review panel to maintain access to higher education for those who want it, particularly as the number of 18-year-olds in the UK population is set to grow over the coming decade. The Millennium Cohort Study revealed that 97 per cent of mothers want their children to go to university in the future, so we should be respecting their aspirations, not curtailing them.

Of course, increasing student choice is one aspect of the review few would dispute, and measures which appeal to part-time and mature learners, plus those in more vocational areas, would undoubtedly be welcomed by the sector. However, improving further and technical education should not come at the expense of higher education, and the task for the review panel will be to ensure access to different routes and opportunities is extended simultaneously. Indeed, some of the best technical education is already delivered by the UK’s universities – in the form of degree apprenticeships or vocational degrees – so, if conducted well, the review could increase the profile and prestige of some of the UK’s more modern and innovative universities.

As it stands today, then, the future of the UK’s higher education sector – and indeed the future of millions of young people – rests on the ability of the review panel to unknot the complexities around what a university education should look like, who should be paying for it and what it should provide in the long-term. Coming to a conclusion on this won’t be easy, but there is a lot of political capital resting on it, not to mention people’s hopes, dreams and ambitions.


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