17 May 2016
It is no surprise that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) sought to take careful control of the news agenda in advance of the publication of the HE White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. This well-known tactic is one exercised by governments of all persuasions. We can now expect reams of analysis and articles in the HE trade press and elsewhere, especially if as expected, an HE Bill is included in the Queen’s Speech.
It can be argued that Ministers have listened to some degree to sector responses to the HE Green Paper consultation. For example, as we and others argued, the timetable for the Teaching Excellence Framework is extended. However, metrics such as retention and graduate earnings which were rightly cited as problematic in Green Paper responses as having little to do with the quality of teaching and learning, remain in play.
Ministers may also have persuaded themselves that the White Paper answers sector concerns about the quality of providers who may be permitted to enter the market in the future. Nonetheless the door is undoubtedly open to a lowering of the criteria for degree-awarding powers and ultimately university title itself. Both have been hard won and underwrite the UK’s global reputation for a high quality university system. The proposal that degree-awarding powers could be awarded after three years (in other words: one cohort of students) begs real questions about whether this is in the interests of either students or the taxpayer. The suggestion that providers can be expected to exit as well as enter the market is unlikely to help the targets for international recruitment that both BIS and the Treasury have championed.
Ministers have listened to the many representations for the need for an independent quality assurance organisation which, if the HE White Paper is carried into legislation, will now be underpinned by statute. The somewhat unsavoury tensions between the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and other organisations appears to be have been settled by Ministers and, perhaps unsurprisingly, not in HEFCE or its successor body’s favour.
As for HEFCE itself the demise of the funding council and its replacement by the Office for Students (OfS) is not necessarily good news, although the OfS will remain a non-departmental body much the same as HEFCE. Ministers are proposing to remove the Business Department’s responsibility for resourcing OfS which the White Paper proposes will be funded by its registered subscribers. Universities, HE providers and, indirectly, students will again have to pick up the tab for another element of the current BIS budget.
The proposed transfer of research assessment and allocations of quality related research funding from HEFCE/OfS to Research England begs more questions than it answers and was opposed in Green Paper responses not only by MillionPlus, but also by Universities UK.
Another issue on the horizon is alluded to in the HE White Paper. A Skills White Paper based on a review by David Sainsbury, will be published by BIS in the summer. It surely cannot make any sense for an HE White Paper to be considered separately from a Skills White Paper and any parliamentary timetable for an HE Bill must take this into account.
The White Paper and the TEF technical consultation will undoubtedly be subject to many critiques but MillionPlus has highlighted the key overarching questions of principle that should inform discussions with Ministers and MPs in the coming weeks.
We do not expect answers on a postcard but as the Association for Modern Universities we do believe that the pros and cons of the reforms to the university system in England which are being proposed by Ministers should be subject to careful consideration and debate. They will, after all, impact on the next generation of students, taxpayers and employers as well as on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and on the global reputation of the UK’s universities overseas.
MillionPlus key questions
University title and new institutions
The Office for Students
Research funding and UK Research and Innovation
The Teaching Excellence Framework and fees
Skills White Paper
Costs vs direct investment