Missing from  all the debates over the Higher Education and Research Bill  is the issue of Two Year Degree courses. . The government is keen to encourage the development of two year degree programmes , to respond to demand and to offer more flexibility, innovation  and choice to students. Always popular with mature students, there is growing evidence , not least from a recent consultation, that debt sensitive  young students who want to enter the job market earlier  might find it more attractive to get  a bona fide degree after two years rather than three,  and pay around £18,000 as opposed to £27.000.

But the government needs to incentivise both private and state funded Higher Education Institutions to do this. As things stand the institution that has done more than any other  to put  quality assured, two year degrees on the map is the University of Buckingham but its students can only access £6000 loans each year  (£12,000 in total )although the course fees are much more than that . Now thats not  fair. State funded students can access £9000 loans and obviously the institutions have their fees capped at that (going up to £9250 this year). But why would an HEI be keen to move to two year degrees if its going to lose out on one years tuition fees?  (ie it will get £18,500 as opposed to £27,750 tuition fee income ) The answer is to offer  parity between the private and public sectors and reform the fee structures for two year courses, so that state funded institutions can charge more for two year courses  and students on private courses can access bigger loans, so  that providers in both sectors  are incentivised to deliver these courses. The Competition and Market Authority has recommended “that the Government should examine how degrees structured in an alternative way could be supported by introducing more flexibility into the yearly funding rules. Whilst we note that accelerated degrees would still need to operate within the aggregated funding cap, there may be scope to allow more innovation whilst still maintaining public expenditure controls. Such degrees would still need to meet the baseline level of quality.”

Pam Tatlow, the chief executive of MillionPlus, has added her voice  (Times Higher 9 January 2017) saying that  CMA was right to point out that there was a clear disincentive to expanding accelerated-degree provision. The Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson is also keen , but needs to put incentives in place if its to happen.


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.



Sir Anthony Seldon ,the Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham ,in a new pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation think tank, lays out  his vision on how to enhance, professionalise and make more consistent the quality of teaching at British universities for undergraduates and postgraduates, without burdening universities with a heavy,  costly bureaucracy ,which runs  the risk of  delivering  drab, formulaic teaching.

Much can be learnt ,he says, from the Secondary sector. Sir Anthony  draws on his experience as a successful  teacher and Head , who transformed two schools in the private sector.(Brighton College and Wellington College)

There is a perception that Universities spend too much time focused on building up their reputation for research ,and too little in ensuring that their students benefit from, and are inspired by, good teaching.

Sir Anthony says:

” “Universities should be every bit as much about the interests of the student as the academics. Yet it is abundantly clear in too many universities today that the leadership and the academics care far more about their research than about the quality of the learning experience of their students”

Sir Anthony  identifies  the ‘Big Ten’ characteristics that all good teaching exhibits:

Engagement of all students. In the digital age, it is more vital than ever that teachers learn how to actively engage the attention of their students.

Deep teacher subject knowledge, informed by the latest research / scholarship. Digitalisation means that students more than ever before can have access to information in real-time. Teachers need, as never before, to be on top of their fields, and to have a depth of understanding, in order to set the ubiquitous information into context.

Clarity of teacher exposition / organisation, and understanding of course requirements. Far too often, teachers can be unclear in their communication, or can fail to spread the material to be studied out over the time available in a balanced way. Students need to feel complete confidence that their teacher understands what they need to learn, and the pace at which learning is to take place.

Forging of positive relations, and a genuine and felt desire to see students make progress. Students learn better when they have a good relationship with their teacher. Students have a right to feel that their teachers have a positive interest in their academic development.

Willingness and skill at engaging in discussion and debate, and asking challenging questions. The best teachers know how to pose the questions that make the students think. Great teachers let the students work out the answers, rather than tell them the answers themselves.

Highest expectations, which stretch all students. The best teachers know exactly how high each student can aspire, and helps them to achieve at that level.

Setting and assessment of purposeful and relevant assignments. Assignments are vital as a way of testing understanding, and consolidated learning. Assessment by the teacher needs to show the student what they need to do to improve.

Ability to communicate in a differentiated way appropriate to the capabilities and potential of students. Classes are made up of students of vastly different capabilities and needs. The great teacher understands each individual student and addresses them appropriately. Learning is the end, and the best teachers help the student to become autonomous learners.

Promotion and achievement of independent learning, recognising that most learning will take place away from the academic.

Technical mastery, e.g. a voice that projects well and is audible, and mastery of technology. There is no point in having teachers, however brilliant and empathetic, if they cannot be heard clearly, or if they can’t use technology appropriately.

Solving the Conundrum-Social Market Foundation -May 2016


Note- The most recent University Guide places the University of Buckingham top for  ‘student satisfaction’, ahead of Oxford and Cambridge and other elite universities in the Russell Group.