MUCH TO COMMEND IN GOVERNMENT REFORMS OF HIGHER EDUCATION-SOME PEERS CONCERNS ARE OVERBLOWN

As the Times said in a Leader on 4 January ’Lord Pattens claims that the  Higher Education bill threatens universities’ autonomy are overblown . He fears that it would inject the state into research appointments and funding decisions hitherto taken by academics, and would undermine the value of British higher education as an export.’ The main threat to exports has nothing of course  to do with this Bill, but a lot to do . instead, with our visa policy,  the hostile narrative  engineered by some politicians and inclusion of students in migration figures . As for Brexit, yes, it will present significant challenges  and  remove the source of some  funding but it will also incentivise universities to  forge  new  research alliances, seek new  sources of funding  and  to become more global in their outreach.( Big , prestigious   research rich Institutions  such as Imperial College , London ,already get 86% of their research funding from outside the EU)

Opposition to the Bill is coming from vested interests which always seek to protect the status quo, which, in practice  is  producer interests   masquerading  as concern for all the HE sector. Resistance to change has always occurred when any reforms have been mooted. Whether it was during the creation of new ‘Red Brick’ Universities back in the 1960s  or when the old Polytechnics sought university status. This is no different

The new reality is that the consumer is king. Student’s access to high quality information is vital if they are to make informed choices, as is  more accountability of institutions to students . Universities must be more open about the information they give and how much their degrees are worth in the job market, as well as  give more reliable destination measures.Too many students are paying for poor quality degrees that have no currency in the job market and which are not  even rated highly by academics themselves.   Of course universities are not just about gaining qualifications for the job market, but  that is at least  a  significant part of what many students expect from Higher Education .

Also, introducing new flexibility so students can change courses and institutions with the idea of Credit Accumulation and Transfer, will help in the UK’s drive to improve flexibility in higher education courses and ensure that new types of students from diverse education backgrounds are able to access relevant offerings

The balance between the research function and teaching at universities has long been weighted heavily in favour of research , to the detriment of the student offer and teaching quality. The quality of teaching in Higher Education remains, overall, poor and patchy. More competition  in the sector will lever performance and innovation and  force universities to  monitor and respond  more quickly to shifting demand, and the student voice, in a way that too many  HEIs are currently failing to do.  . The Bill gives an opportunity to address this imbalance and places the needs of students not academics first. The TEF will help achieve this.

The Office for Students is to replace the obsolete Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce). It would speed up the process of accrediting new institutions with the right to award degrees while giving the regulator the power to revoke that right from universities that fail to make the grade. The government’s goal which is sound is to widen the access to higher education while maintaining teaching standards through closer scrutiny. This is sound.

A diverse supply side in the sector, opening up competition will improve choice for students, drive innovation, and force institutions to raise the quality of both their academic and pastoral offers  to students. Of course the market needs robust regulation and the Bill makes provision for this. The US Higher Education sector with many private providers is acknowledged to be the best in the world , so we must open our minds to the possibility of more private operators entering the market, both for profit and not for profit

Sir Anthony Seldon said in a Times letter (4 Jan)’ For too long the sector has been dominated by the producer interest in higher education, ie the academics and administrators rather than the students, whose interests lie at the heart of the proposed legislation. The bill introduces long-overdue regulatory reform and highlights the importance of excellent teaching. The bill stimulates innovative thinking that will underpin, not undermine, the success of our university sector.’ He continued ‘If Lord Patten and others wanted to help British universities, they should be campaigning harder in the House of Lords to make visa applications easier for overseas students; they should be fighting to improve the dire mental-health position of students and, above all, they should be working to improve accountability while extending, not restricting, competition. Brexit is a reason not to delay, as Lord Patten argues, but to forge ahead.’

All this said, the Bill must guard against a potential danger of weakening standards, less effective quality control and consequent damage to international reputation and standing.  The government should be absolutely committed to maintaining the highest standards in the sector, both in maintained and private provision, ensuring that the new risk based regulatory system safeguards quality while improving competition and choice.

The sector is overly  keen to turn ifs guns on the private sector, and ‘profit making’  which is largely a distraction , from its own problems, which too often include ,  poor teaching, poor accommodation, poor tutorial support,   poor pastoral care, grossly over paid Vice Chancellors, poor  value added links with businesses and employers, ,  and a failure to acknowledge, or   respond to ,shifting demand and to meet  the aspirations of their students.

Sudents are beginning to look at  how their tuition fees are being spent, and they want value for money.

It is  no accident that its a private, independent , not for profit  University in the form of the University of Buckingham that consistently tops the league table for teaching quality and student satisfaction.

The House of Lords, with no democratic  mandate,  should take note  of all this before it seeks to undermine the very  purpose of a Bill that has  safely navigated  its passage through the Commons.

 

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