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Higher education white paper: the big changes

mike boxall | the guardian | 16 may 2016

The government’s higher education white paper and the legislation that will follow, will redraw three fundamental relationships that have defined higher education in the UK for 100 years. These are between universities and the state, between universities and students and between university teaching and research.
The assumptions shaping each of these relationships have been taken for granted and largely gone unchallenged for many years, and were undoubtedly overdue for overhaul.  Yet the laudable aim of the white paper to address these relationships and to create a more accessible, accountable and relevant higher education system also brings real dangers of unintended consequences.

Universities and the state

Universities have long enjoyed benign government sponsorship through predictable and steadily-rising grant funding. They have had assured student numbers and protection from competition, within a regulatory regime that they have largely designed and operated for themselves. 

However, the shift to funding through student tuition fees and the lifting of student quota controls has begun to expose universities to something approaching open market competition.  The white paper extends this process, encouraging the entry of new and alternative higher education providers, and accepting that this could be at the expense of established institutions.

This is causing at least some universities to re-examine their offers and ways of working. But a significant number of institutions are already struggling to recruit enough students and cover their costs.  The white paper makes clear that there will be no bail-outs for failing institutions, whose ‘exit’ would be welcomed as a way of freeing up room in the market for more entrepreneurial and innovative new entrants. 

This stance is based on a trusting, not to say naïve, faith that private providers, and the investors behind them, will rush to fill any void left by failed traditional institutions. The reality is that the struggling institutions are most likely to be found in socially deprived areas, and to have focused on recruiting among disadvantaged populations, with courses heavily geared to lower-paid occupations in healthcare and public services. By contrast, private providers have concentrated on what their critics would call ‘cherry-picking’, focusing on courses in business and professional studies leading to high-paying careers for home and international students in London and other prosperous locations.

This will make it hard to reconcile the government’s ambitions for improved opportunities for disadvantaged students with the forces of sink-or-swim provider competition.

Universities and students

The white paper, extending changes introduced over recent years, seeks to empower students as paying consumers of higher education services and pressure universities to enhance the quality and value of those services.  The principal vehicle for this will be the much-anticipated Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). 

The intentions driving these reforms are laudable.  Despite numerous attempts to improve the transparency and accountability of universities’ deal with students, the system remains heavily weighted to academic paternalism and institutional bureaucracies.  There is also a grain of truth in ministerial assertions that student interests are too often subordinated to staff preoccupations with their research and personal agenda.

The problem is that the new approach risks homogenising and over-simplifying the diversity and complexities of higher education and learning. The great strength of the higher education system has always been the diversity of opportunities that it provides.  The very nature of higher education varies hugely between disciplines, from intensive lab-based science projects to one-on-one tutoring for aspiring artists and musicians.  This diversity cannot be captured by standardised metrics, and we must hope that the new Office for Students will be enabled to supplement the TEF with more nuanced judgements of quality.

Teaching and research

The third key reform in the white paper is to uncouple the link between higher education teaching and research. Almost every university claims that research is central to their mission, and puts research aspirations at the heart of their institutional strategies. Even though for most universities research income in practice represents only a small part of their revenues, all would claim that their research culture and capabilities are crucial.

In many ways, these reforms simply extend a process that has been unfolding for some years, as research funding has become concentrated among a small number of Russell Group universities and policy has increasingly focused on major national centres like the Crick Institute and the Joint European Torus.  Nonetheless, the implications are significant. The prospect of teaching-only universities, still regarded by many academics as an oxymoron, will become a real prospect as will the emergence of research-only institutions on the lines of the German Fraunhofer Institutes. 

These changes, if they happen – and the white paper makes them quite likely – will differentiate the UK higher education system from every other system in the world, with unpredictable implications for international institutional rankings and the competition for internationally-mobile students.  

Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting Group

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