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The government's announcement of a major review of the National Student Survey signals a worrying shift in the HE regulatory landscape, warns Jon Scott, higher education consultant and former Pro Vice-Chancellor (student experience) at the University of Leicester.
Statements from ministers this week have made it clear that higher education in England is facing significant reforms, re-setting its focus towards helping to plug the UK's skills gaps and rebuilding the economy. Fariba Soetan, Policy Lead for Research and Innovation at the National Centre for Universities and Business, argues that the proposed changes bring a welcome focus on graduate outcomes and supporting the careers of young people.
Universities UK and GuildHE have commissioned the Quality Assurance Agency to develop a new approach to reviewing and enhancing the quality of UK TNE. QAA will consult on a new review method later this year and will launch a programme of in-country enhancement activity in 2021.
After a week of largely disappointing news for UK higher education, Nicola Owen, Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) at Lancaster University, fears that gloomy forecasts for the future of the sector may prove to be uncomfortably accurate.
A new student-focussed super quango merging the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access would be created under proposals outlined in the government’s higher education green paper, published today.
The Office for Students (OfS) will bring together responsibilities for monitoring quality, teaching excellence, social mobility, and entry to the higher education market by new providers. It would also have new powers requiring higher education bodies to release data to better inform students and help the sector focus its efforts on widening access to HE for disadvantaged students, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills said.
“For the first time, the main higher education regulator would have a clear duty to promote the student interest when making decisions and will be responsible for ensuring value for money for students and taxpayers,” it added.
The OfS will be responsible for overseeing the English sector’s quality assurance regime, either taking this in-house or commissioning it from the Quality Assurance Agency. Two options are proposed for allocating the teaching grant, currently carried out by HEFCE. Either BIS officials will “determine a formula for allocating teaching grant”, or the OfS will take responsibility for the allocation formulas, with the Student Loans Company or “another funding body” to make the payments.
The green paper entitled "Fulfilling our Potential - Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice", which marks the start of a ten week consultation until 15 January 2016, also paves the way for variable tuition fees set by ministers rather than legislation in parliament. It sets out details for a Teaching Excellence Framework at subject level under which institutions that have met or exceeded expectations in all sections of a recent Quality Assurance Agency review (or equivalent) would be deemed to have achieved a “Level 1 TEF award”, allowing them to increase fees beyond £9,000 in line with inflation up to a cap to be set by ministers, for a three-year period. The higher fees could be introduced from 2018-19, and could lead to a further set of differentiated fee caps beyond that point.
The green paper also announces plans to create a new Social Mobility Advisory Group reporting to universities minister Jo Johnson on progress towards meeting the Prime Minister’s targets to double the proportion of disadvantaged students entering HE and increase the number of Black and Minority Ethnic students by a fifth by 2020.
The government will “strengthen guidance” to the Director for Fair Access, encouraging greater emphasis on tackling drop-out rates and improving graduate employment for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The green paper outlines proposals for a TEF to encourage, monitor and reward excellent teaching in the sector and provide students with more information about the type of teaching they can expect at each institution and their likely career paths after graduation. The TEF will use a range of measures including student satisfaction rates, student retention rates and graduate job prospects, rewarding institutions that score well with permission to increase tuition fees in line with inflation. The paper adds that “those that fail to meet expectations would risk losing additional fee income”.
The government proposes to break down all metrics to get results for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and under-represented groups. This information “will be used in making TEF assessments” with a consultation on the details of this planned for 2016.
As the TEF develops, the government plans to add further metrics, including areas such as “learning gain” achieved by students during their time at university. Other metrics that have been proposed include measures of teaching intensity, including the amount of time students spend studying, as measured in the UK Engagement Survey; the proportion of staff time spent on teaching; and the amount of teaching that takes place in small groups. The training and employment of staff could be measured, potentially including the proportion of staff on permanent contracts, and use of “appropriate pedagogical approaches” could also be analysed.
The TEF will also encourage universities to adopt the new 13-point Grade Point Average system already piloted by a number of institutions, to run alongside traditional degree classifications.
The green paper confirms plans to move to a “risk-based” approach to regulation, "so that quality assurance resources are concentrated where they are most needed". But it adds that there should be a level playing field in the regulation of new and established universities, with a single gateway for new players wishing to enter the market and a faster process for gaining degree awarding powers and university title.
To manage the risk of opening the door to new providers, the paper proposes introducing a student protection requirement that all institutions must have a contingency plan in the event of failure to ensure students can continue to be taught and will receive financial compensation.
The green paper says the government is committed to maintaining the dual support system for funding research, but it will consider the recommendations of the Sir Paul Nurse review of the research councils, and envisages “a simpler system enabling the research base to increase its strategic impact”. It will also consult on ideas for reducing the costs and burden of the Research Excellence Framework “while retaining its strengths”.
Commenting on the proposals, universities minister Jo Johnson said the new Office for Students would “have a clear remit to champion value for money and the student interest in its decision-making.”
He added: “Our ambition is to drive up the quality of teaching in our universities to ensure students and taxpayers get value for money and employers get graduates with the skills they need.”
OFFA Director Les Ebdon, said the proposed new regulatory framework “has the potential to increase the importance of fair access, improving coherence and collaboration and maximising impact”.
But he added: “In implementing these changes, it will be crucial not to dilute or subordinate fair access to other, possibly conflicting, priorities. It will therefore be important that, within the proposed new Office for Students, the Director of Fair Access is able to operate free from conflicts of interest and ‘sector capture’.”
Professor Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE Chief Executive, said the funding council would “continue to perform our current role and functions to our usual high standards throughout this period of deliberation and transition”.
Douglas Blackstock, Chief Executive (Interim) of the Quality Assurance Agency, said: “QAA has a key role in ensuring that only those providers that can demonstrate they meet the high standards needed to award UK degrees achieve this prestigious status.
“In opening the sector to new providers, the interests of students should be paramount and appropriate protections put in place. A degree is a lifelong investment for students and they need to know their qualification will always have value.”
University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said the TEF had to “consist of more than just a series of measures to rank teaching”, and that a “proper appraisal of university teaching was required”.
She added: “‘We have concerns about exactly what measures would be used in any TEF. Simply finding a few measures to rank teaching will do nothing to improve quality and we fear that manipulation of statistics may be the name of the game, rather than bolstering the student experience.
”Quality teaching is underpinned by decent working conditions for staff and a good place to start to improve teaching would be to tackle the widespread job insecurity that blights the university sector. Good teaching also needs to be properly recognised in academic career structures.”
The Russell Group said its member institutions were "far from complacent" in their efforts to boost the quality of teaching, and were also making efforts to widen access.
“The autonomy of our universities is crucial to their success. It is vital that any regulation is risk-based and proportionate and does not add to the current burden or stifle innovation," it added.
Professor Dave Phoenix, Chair of the university think-tank million+ and Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University, said: “The Green Paper's emphasis on social mobility and the student interest is to be warmly welcomed but any new Office for Students must be independent of government. It is also important that an independent quality assurance system is retained since this has done much to secure the reputation of UK universities overseas.
“Vice-Chancellors will want to look carefully at proposals around research funding and the development of a Teaching Excellence Framework in England but the suggestion that that any link with fees will depend on a successful quality assurance audit at least in the first instance, shows that Ministers are in listening mode."
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