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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.
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Faster routes for new university providers, measures to drive out poor teaching, and protection for student consumers, will be at the heart of a higher education green paper to be published this autumn, Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science, told vice-chancellors at their annual conference.
The proposals will make it easier for “alternative” education providers to become universities, and there will be new “exit routes” for both new and established “failing” institutions in order to protect students, said the minister. He announced that the government will shortly be lifting its moratorium on new applications for degree awarding powers.
“Success in higher education should be based on merit, not on incumbency. I want to fulfil our aim of a level playing field for all providers of higher education,” he said.
The minister described the present system of universities validating degrees at other institutions as “frankly anti-competitive” and announced that the green paper will consult on alternative options for those that do not want to go down the institutional validation route. Requiring new providers to seek validation from incumbents was “akin to Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant”, he said.
Later he told journalists at a press briefing: “We want much faster routes to access student support, much faster routes to degree awarding powers and much faster routes to university title.
“We will be consulting on how to make the whole process less conservative, in the sense that it entrenches incumbency and makes it really very hard for new players to get in and offer choice for students,” he added. The new faster routes would not be “dumbing down or lowering quality”, he insisted, adding that there will be consultation on potentially lowering the threshold of student numbers that applicants must meet to be considered for university status.
In his speech the minister also re-emphasised his concern over the “patchy” quality of teaching across the sector. The green paper will suggest two incentives for institutions to demonstrate teaching excellence through the new Teaching Excellence Framework - one being reputation and the other the ability to index fees with inflation. Asked what form the reputational incentive would take in the TEF, he said he was thinking was “more of bands rather than rankings”.
The minister used his keynote address at the Universities UK conference at the University of Surrey to outline his priorities to provide more choice, clearer information and a guaranteed high standard of teaching to young people making a significant choice and investment in their lives.
The focus will also be on driving forward social mobility and the green paper will consult on ways to accelerate progress on widening participation, addressing particularly the under-representation of disadvantaged white boys. He will be asking the Office for Fair Access to focus on this in their guidance to institutions for the 2017 and 2018 access agreements.
To get a better understanding of how students’ background, prior attainment and course choices lead to an offer of a place, the minister has written to UCAS to ask them to publish a recent analysis of offers, broken down by ethnic group and type of institution and the underpinning data. The first analysis will be published in the next few weeks. The move follows growing pressure on UCAS to release data on the social background of students to help inform efforts to widen access.
Turning to research, Johnson said he supported the present method of awarding funds, but there was scope for a simpler system that put less burden on academics and for more efficiency in the organisation of the research councils.
“We don’t need Nobel physicists running car parks. We want the scientists focused on science,” he later told journalists.
Asked whether he would be willing to see a public university fail, Johnson replied that a properly functioning market “has to have scope for both market entry and market exit”. Students were now consumers of their education and yet they did not have the safeguards that exist in other complex regulated markets.
“Our higher education sector should only have room for high quality providers. We will therefore be consulting on measures to require all providers to have protection measures in place so that students who benefit from greater choice and diversity do not lose out in the event of provider failure,” he said.
The National Student Survey had started to shift the focus back towards teaching, feedback and academic support within universities but some did not do nearly enough, he said. While there would be financial incentives behind the new TEF, he wanted it to bring about a fundamental shift on thinking about the value of teaching.
“It will help, I hope, create a culture where teaching has equal status with research, with our great teachers enjoying the same professional recognition and opportunities for career and pay progression as our great researchers,” he said.
While he had experienced inspirational teaching at university, some institutions and individual academics took a different approach, described in a recent book by David Palfreyman and Ted Tapper as “a disengagement contract” with their students:
“This goes along the lines of ‘I don’t want to have to set and mark much by way of essays and assignments which would be a distraction from my research, and you don’t want to do coursework that would distract you from partying: so we’ll award you the degree as the hoped-for job ticket in return for compliance with minimal academic requirements and due receipt of fees.’ This is not a contract I want taxpayers to underwrite,” he said.
Patchiness in the student experience needed to be addressed, “lamentable” teaching must be driven out of the system, and mediocre teaching improved, he said.
Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham and former head of Wellington College, the independent boarding school, called the minister’s comments “a breath of fresh air”. In the question and answer session with the minister he said he had taken three to four thousand students through to university and though they said they enjoyed the university experience, very few had mentioned inspirational teaching.
“I am thrilled to hear about this focus on great teaching which should be at the very heard of the university experience,” he said.
But Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Surrey, said he did not recognise the world that Seldon and Johnson had described. It might have been true 10 or 15 years ago but there was a time lag.
“The message I get is one of considerable satisfaction with teaching so we need to be careful that we recognise that and celebrate successes as well as looking at areas where we can improve, because there can always be improvement,” he told the minister.
Dame Professor Julia Goodfellow, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, in her first major speech as President of Universities UK, stressed that teaching excellence needed stable and sustainable funding. Maintaining the value of home undergraduate tuition fees in real terms is essential, she said. Turning to research funding, she said the UK was a world-leading research power.
“However, the UK has invested significantly less in research as a proportion of GDP than the OECD and EU averages. There is a real question about how long this position will last if investment levels in the UK continue to lag behind our competitors,” she said.
She urged the government to remove international students from their net migration targets but the minister said it was “a bit of a theoretical question” because there was no cap on international student numbers.
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