CEO Blog: The White stuff? Key questions about the HE White Paper

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

  • Will student and taxpayer interests and the UK’s international reputation for high quality universities be undermined by a reduction in the criteria for taught degree-awarding powers and university title?

The Office for Students

  • Will the abolition of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and its replacement by the Office of Students (OfS) provide additional value for students, employers and universities in England?
  • What governance arrangements will apply to OfS and how will it exercise holistic oversight of the higher education sector if Research England takes over research assessment and quality-related research allocations?
  • Will the OfS be independent from government or reduced to the role of a regulator like Ofcom, bearing in mind that, unlike HEFCE, it will no longer be funded by BIS but from subscriptions paid by universities and other HE providers?   

Research funding and UK Research and Innovation

  • What governance and funding arrangements will apply to UK Research and Innovation?
  • In particular, will the quality research funding and the postgraduate and PhD students currently funded by HEFCE continue to be supported if research funding is transferred from HEFCE to Research England and UK Research and Innovation?
  • Will the establishment of Research England really create a more dynamic research and science funding system for universities and what are the implications for universities, funding councils and governments in the rest of the UK? 

Older students

  • Bearing in mind the link between social mobility and students studying for a university degree later in life, why is the HE White Paper silent on older learners?

The Teaching Excellence Framework and fees

  • What impact will the link between the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and fee increases have on students and universities in the long run?
  • Will the TEF provide an adequate way of judging the quality of teaching bearing in mind the many different ways and environments in which students study?
  • Will the TEF increase administrative costs and hinder innovation in teaching?

Skills White Paper

  • How will the Skills White Paper impact on the HE White Paper and vice versa?

Costs vs direct investment

  • What are the short and long-term costs for students, universities, the government and stakeholder organisations of implementing the new structures and governance arrangements?
  • Will administrative costs increase and might these resources be better invested directly into university teaching, research and student support?

UK-wide implications

  • What are the implications of the White Paper and any HE Bill for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?