The government must avoid fragmenting UK higher education

As officials begin to look through the responses to the Green Paper consultation, Shirley Pearce flags up four risks they need to avoid

January 18, 2016

Ministers and officials in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will this week start to assimilate the responses to the Green Paper consultation, which closed last Friday.

I anticipate that the responses will welcome the greater focus on teaching quality that the Green Paper heralds. There is likely, however, to be significant variability in views about both how a teaching excellence framework should be delivered and how the higher education landscape should change.

In order to understand these different perspectives, the Quality Assurance Review Steering Group, established last year by the UK funding councils to advise them on a system of quality assurance that is fit for the future, comprised people from different parts of the rapidly changing higher education sector. It listened to people working in higher education and looked at research from across the world.

A strong message from the steering group, which I was privileged to chair, to the funding councils was the need for any system of quality assurance to support and respect the diversity of different institutions with different missions. This is a powerful strength for UK higher education as a whole, with economic as well as educational implications.

But there are also likely to be some strong common threads in the responses to the Green Paper if the deliberations of the steering group are reflected across the sector. There are four messages that I hope the government will receive and take on board.

Firstly, while differences in funding and governance arrangements between the four parts of the UK must, of course, be respected, any quality assurance process or TEF must enable a “read across” between institutions in England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It will be destructive to the international position of UK higher education, from which the UK economy as a whole is a significant beneficiary, if the systems cannot be implemented in a way that allows easy comparison of performance across the devolved administrations.

Secondly, the teaching, research and knowledge transfer activities of a university cannot easily be separated. They influence and inform each other and benefit from integrated planning. Students benefit from research activity, and research funding, even in institutions that are not highly research intensive. And all universities have developed knowledge transfer programmes, working with businesses and the wider community for economic, social and cultural benefit. Unintended consequences of the greater separation of the teaching, research and knowledge transfer funding should be carefully explored.

Thirdly, the regulatory environment for higher education is complex and respondents to the consultation are likely to welcome the consideration given to simplifying it. The focus on a body that has student interest at the core is timely, but there are risks to considering the student interest in isolation to everything else that the institution does. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has been appreciated for the role it has played in understanding and supporting higher education institutions as a whole. No other body has that overall remit. It is understandable, in a more market-driven environment, that we consider how to protect and support the student interest.

To imagine, however, that this is not intimately related to the overall institutional performance will be a mistake. It is very much in the interests of future students that our regulatory architecture has the capability to promote the development of high-performing, sustainable higher education institutions for the long term. In establishing the office for students it will be important to ensure that we do not forget this bigger picture.

Fourthly, the starting point for the steering group’s discussions (which all parties agreed, despite the different environments they came from) was the need for assessment and assurance programmes to be proportionate, risk-based and cost effective. So far as possible, they should place responsibility squarely on each higher education institution itself to secure and demonstrate the quality and standards of its own provision. And they should not be designed in isolation, but should have regard to the powerful drivers that are already causing institutions to focus on improvement and innovation in teaching and learning.

In establishing a TEF alongside the QA process, it is to be hoped these principles will be maintained. UK higher education will benefit if these processes sit easily with each other and do not require duplication of effort. Too often in the past new ideas and measures have led to universities having to provide the same information in similar, but frustratingly different, forms, imposing unnecessary costs and distractions that militate against the student interest.

The government has rightly raised the profile and importance of teaching excellence and this will be welcomed. The debate is less about the principles and more about how we best implement and deliver an approach that successfully promotes better teaching and learning in the student interest, while avoiding excessive cost and complexity. In implementing a TEF and delivering the simplification of the regulatory environment for UK higher education, I hope that the government will recognise the complex interaction of factors that determines excellence in teaching and learning (as well as research) in different settings.

UK higher education has a much-deserved leading position internationally, and we must ensure that this continues.

Dame Shirley Pearce was chair of the Quality Assurance Review Steering Group and is former vice-chancellor of Loughborough University. She writes in a personal capacity.

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