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Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.
Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.
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Universities should be allowed to charge up to £27,000 for two-year “accelerated” undergraduate degrees, the UK’s competition watchdog has suggested.
Currently, fees for two-year courses would have to be capped at £18,000 because of the annual fee limit of £9,000, but the Competition and Markets Authority says this does not give enough incentive for universities to provide shorter degree courses for students who want them.
It says universities should be given flexibility and have the same aggregate fee cap for accelerated courses as they do for standard ones (£27,000).
The recommendation is one of three made by the CMA in a letter about the Higher Education and Research Bill to the Universities Minister Jo Johnson.
The CMA’s acting chief executive Andrea Coscelli writes: “One of the main barriers to the development of accelerated courses is the annual structure of the fee cap which means that institutions are not able to charge an appropriate fee for the same course delivered over a shorter period of time.”
The CMA says providers would have an incentive to compete on price below any new cap, adding that there might be a need for “safeguards” to ensure accelerated courses were of a similar quality to standard ones.
The watchdog says as a whole, the government’s plan for HE has “the potential to improve competition and choice, thereby helping to improve the quality of HE provision”.
Another recommendation is that any link between the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and tuition fees should be at discipline level rather than institutional level, to give would-be students a better indication of course quality.
Universities which “meet expectations” are allowed to raise fees in line with inflation, and proposals in the Bill are that in year four of the TEF (2019-20), assessments are made at disciplinary rather than university level.
The letter from the CMA says although government officials say there are “practical difficulties” with caps at discipline level, there are “significant benefits” from doing so, and these should be overcome “so that the TEF can reach its full potential as an aid to student choice and an indicator of excellence”.
The third recommendation is that the new Office for Students proposed in the HE bill would be responsible for giving “approved status” to providers which want universities to validate their courses.
The CMA says some institutions are put off from such arrangements because of the regulatory risk – of their being held responsible if the organisation they validate fails.
“In many cases the validating partner has regulatory responsibility for the validated institution, but often without commensurate powers to impose changes on it,” the letter says.
The CMA also backs the government’s view that it should not usually bail out failing institutions, and that there should be safeguards for students affected.
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