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In a week when the government reshuffled its cabinet, HE issues that made headlines gave the newly-appointed universities minister a taste of things to come, says Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive of the Institute of Student Employers .
The past week’s events and news are a sign of turbulent times for UK universities, warns Nicola Owen, Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) at Lancaster University.
Mike Ratcliffe, academic registrar at Nottingham Trent University, reflects on issues emerging from a packed week of higher education news.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education has reported almost a 21 per cent rise in the number of complaints it received from students last year – rising to their highest ever level at 2,371.
The higher education green paper has many worthy aims, but the ways it proposes to achieve them are problematic, argues Monica McLean, Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham.
The higher education green paper ’Fulfilling our potential: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice’ deals with the unfinished business of ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ (White Paper 2011). The main idea is to bolster the higher education market by way of student choice in a diversified system. There is little to argue within the three main aims: improving teaching; encouraging and supporting wider participation of students from disadvantaged and black and ethnic minority groups; and, ‘ensuring’ students get value for money and good employment prospects.
At the centre of the proposals is a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to mirror the REF which could be a redress of the unfair nature of league tables which are based on wealth and research performance. However, the TEF appears to be an attempt to manipulate differentiated fees. So far, this has failed because universities are reluctant to signal an educational offering of lower quality.
Now under the green paper plans ‘institutions providing high-quality teaching would be able to lift tuition fees in line with inflation; those failing to meet expectations would risk losing additional fee income’. Moreover, what is meant by ‘excellence’ is under-specified and the measures mentioned include student satisfaction (the chasing of which is known to have perverse pedagogical effects); and retention and graduate job prospects (both of which disadvantage institutions appearing low in the usual league tables). It might well be (though we don’t know) there is too much lack-lustre teaching which does not challenge students sufficiently, but a tick-box approach will not improve it.
Nevertheless, the proposal to encourage take up of higher education by more students from disadvantaged and Black and Ethnic Minority backgrounds is welcome. Similarly, there is a recognition that for some members of these groups staying the course and a good degree might require more pedagogical support than is always offered.
That said, whether the proposals actually do promote social mobility will depend on whether the system continues to be stratified. Included here are proposals to offer a wider range of qualifications and to make it easier to establish new higher education institutions. The problem with differentiation of institutions is that, on the whole, it institutionalises social hierarchies because poorer students are more likely to attend lower-status -and perhaps in the future cheaper- institutions (see the chapter entitled ‘A tale of two campuses’ in Mike Savage’s newly published Social Class in the 21st Century).
Yet again, the green paper calls for a ‘greater focus on employment’- and there does seem to be a problem recruiting for STEM posts. Of course, all graduates want to get a job that is satisfying and remunerative, but a university education can also offer personal transformation and the capability to participate and contribute to society in a range of other ways. None of this is evident. A new ‘Office for Students’ is to replace HEFCE and OFFA. It will provide a new regulatory framework to oversee access, teaching funding, TEF and quality assurance, all in the interests of students. The combination of the discourse of ‘value for money’, high fees and the emphasis on student satisfaction is likely to exacerbate the tendency, observed by many academic teachers, of students being shaped as customer consumers which degrades the experience of teaching and of learning.
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