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Emerging HE policies highlight new political landscape

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.

Moving the HE landscape’s quality contours … again

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.

Thursday 10th September saw a swathe of announcements from the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson; the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan; the Department for Education (DfE) and the Office for Students (OfS) regarding significant changes to the regulatory landscape for the Higher Education Sector.
Alongside the reductions in regulatory oversight such as reductions in enhanced monitoring and the suspension of random sampling by QAA, the announcement that may resonate most with academic staff is that of ‘a radical, root and branch review of the NSS’.

Wherewith the NSS?

Given how the NSS has become fundamentally embedded within the evaluation systems of the sector, for example as a major measure in most domestic league tables and as a key element of the TEF, the DfE’s statements about the NSS are damning:

"Since its inception in 2005, the NSS has exerted a downwards pressure on standards within our higher education system’ and that there is a valid concern that ‘ … good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards …." Furthermore, the DfE accepts the view that the NSS is open to gaming as well as being a distraction from teaching and research activities.

Nonetheless, it is also the case that, over its 15 years, the NSS has caused Vice-Chancellors to take the student voice seriously.

So where is the Quality landscape going?

The timing of all this is of great interest: OfS has been charged with completing the review of the NSS by the end of the year. At the same time, they are working on a new model for TEF, also due for completion this calendar year, which is still likely to be drilling down to subject level; and, of course, we are still awaiting the report from Dame Shirley Pearce’s review of the TEF, which should have been published in July 2019.

There will be many in the sector who will be delighted at the changes but there were also words of warning in the Secretary of State’s speech:

"However, we must acknowledge that we are not quite there yet in achieving our goals. There are still pockets of low quality. One only has to look at the Guardian subject league tables to see there are too many courses where well under 50 per cent of students proceed to graduate employment."

Somewhere in the background still sits the Augar review with all its recommendations for changes to the organisation and funding of higher education. As Michelle Donelan observed in this context: "..we will respond in parallel with the Spending Review. Rest assured, the global pandemic has not and will not throw us off course".

It seems certain that value for money will be high on the agenda for the sector over the coming year, with graduate outcomes to the fore. But it is clear that the measures of outcomes are also not without significant problems.

The measures of retention (progression from the first year of study to the second in consecutive years) have significant flaws. For example, if a student withdraws from year 1 on health grounds and then returns the following year to complete their studies, they are still counted as not retained. Conversely, relaxation or even removal of an end of first year progression hurdle is a good way of ensuring excellent retention figures.

The new Graduate Outcomes Survey and the use of Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO), which report on graduate earnings, offer an apparently useful indicator of value for money - but they need to be carefully nuanced if they are not to be a very blunt tool. As one example, not only do the LEO data reflect on the progression of students who may have started their degrees a decade before the data are measured, but also they currently do not reflect the local economies. A local graduate employed in an economically disadvantaged region may be contributing significantly to that area, and be earning above the local average income. But they may nevertheless be earning below the national averages, in which case their salary outcome would be considered as reflecting poor value for money. Under these circumstances, should universities in disadvantaged areas encourage their graduates to move to London to ensure high salaries or remain in their local area and support its economy? There have been initial attempts at reflecting these aspects but they are not easy to establish.

It is vital that there is a clear and united approach by the sector to confirming to government the value of higher education locally and nationally, so that value for money is a measure of real societal value, not purely financial.

All of us should also be concerned as to what will happen to the student voice and how that will be heard within the new frameworks. If the sector is serious about increasing the concept of partnership with students in their learning, the review of the NSS must be taken as an opportunity to improve the quality and not diminish the strength of that voice.

These issues should be high on the list of considerations for whoever becomes the new Chair of the OfS when Sir Michael Barber steps down next year.