HE Bill second reading: change is needed post-Brexit, say university leaders

Ahead of the HE and Research Bill's second reading, vice-chancellors Steve Smith and Edward Peck explain why they think reform is necessary 

July 18, 2016
Westminster, Houses of Parliament
Source: iStock

TEF and fee increases: a case for investment in excellence

Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter

Notwithstanding the momentous political events of recent weeks, the publication of the government’s White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, has presaged the beginning of yet another period of immense change for universities. 

Many are now questioning whether the HE Bill will make it through Parliament, given the uniquely unstable political context; while others will worry that the bill contains challenges and threats to the higher education sector, particularly if it is not robust enough in protecting the interests of students with regard to new providers.

I want to be clear that I have concerns about some of the proposals, especially some of the details. They need refinement and proper scrutiny through the parliamentary process and sector leaders have a role to play in bringing about improvements. But in my view, it is essential that we proceed with the teaching excellence framework (TEF) linked to tuition fee increases, a policy that offers significant benefits for the quality of higher education that are important to both students and universities.

This is why the Universities UK board unanimously supported the link between an effective TEF and fee rises.

The reason for this is that the TEF, providing institutions perform well and teaching is excellent and leads to the creation of highly skilled employable graduates, will allow institutions to increase fees by up to the RPIX measure of inflation (estimated to be 2.8 per cent for 2017-18) year on year. This matters because the tuition fee cap has been fixed at £9,000 since 2012 and is not currently indexed to inflation. 

Many of us have long argued that in order to provide the best quality education and student experience in our universities, and to compete with our global rivals, we need the resource to invest in our teaching facilities, in outstanding staff to educate our outstanding young people, and in the highest quality campus environment that we can.

In the current academic year, the £9,000 tuition fee in England is worth only about £8,200 in real terms compared with its value in 2012, and the value is falling in real terms each year. Only by linking the fee to inflation will we be able to reach the levels of investment we need to continue to be the world-leading higher education system that our students expect.

Therefore, at a time when our institutions face significant cost pressures, the TEF presents us with an opportunity to invest in our students’ futures and the long-term economic success of our country, and to be recognised for outstanding teaching at the same time. 

Given the result of the EU referendum, we now move into a period of even greater financial uncertainty. Throughout the preceding campaign, universities made no bones of the negative consequences (financial or otherwise) of a Brexit. Without the ability to increase fees in line with inflation, the quality of our students’ education and their wider student experience will suffer.

It is therefore a very welcome move by the government to offer a light at the end of a funding tunnel that was, literally, unsustainable.

Of course, the TEF has to be carefully designed in such a way as to measure reliably the quality of teaching and the student experience, and it is vital that there is no set limit on the percentage of institutions permitted to charge any one level of fee increase.

The government rightly wants "something for something", for the economy and for students. For the economy, the TEF offers a way to support the continued improvement in the contribution of higher education to the knowledge economy through the creation of graduates with the skills needed by industry and business. For students, the “something” is a funding mechanism that allows institutions to invest in teaching and the student experience and thereby to preserve and enhance the quality of education in our universities.

Brexit makes that even more important than it was before the referendum.

Creating a university sector for the future

Edward Peck, vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University 

UK universities rightly promote their role in leading the world in driving innovation across a wide range of industries. However, when it comes to innovating the ways in which they run themselves, the pace of change can appear leisurely.

In a market where the product has increased sharply in price over the past few years, the offer from universities has remained substantially the same. Prospective students’ expectations are higher than previous generations and rightly so. In order to meet them, universities must balance better teaching and research through becoming more student-centric and outcome driven. Furthermore, they need to accelerate their contribution as catalysts for social mobility; in the wake of the polarising EU referendum, this last priority has only taken on more urgency and importance. 

Since the days of the coalition government, there have been complaints from the higher education sector about the inadequate regulatory system that currently governs our work. The last administration was seen to have overextended its plans for reform without putting in place the necessary framework to underpin them. Indeed, the method by which universities are funded has changed significantly since the current regulatory regime was introduced.

With this in mind, the government’s new Higher Education and Research Bill is timely in providing the opportunity to secure reforms needed for the sector to adapt and grow. The retention of Jo Johnson as minister of state for universities and science in the new government is presumably in part intended to provide continuity as the bill receives its second reading this week (on Tuesday, 19 July).

Central to the new approach is the introduction of the teaching excellence framework, which will necessitate universities giving more focus to the satisfaction, retention and job prospects of their students. Linking increases in student fees to performance under the TEF is a further safeguard for students, one that has now been largely accepted by the sector.

However, there are already voices being raised to suggest that the implementation of the TEF should be slowed down in the context of Brexit. Mr Johnson should resist them.

Of course, Brexit does carry threats to our universities. In particular, the probability that the growing number of new EU students coming to study here each year will come to a juddering halt in 2017 if access to support from the Student Loans Company is stopped. Early reassurance is required here, well before the recruitment round gets into gear in the autumn.

At the same time, in the context of the UK embracing the wider world with renewed enthusiasm, now is surely also the moment to remove international students from the immigration target and declare unequivocally that we welcome their presence and their contribution.

Of course, British universities are hailed across the world for their exemplary research as much as their teaching. Leaving the EU will undoubtedly have negative consequences for our ability to maintain this; indeed, they may have started already as UK-based researchers’ involvement in future pan-European bids is reportedly downgraded by partners. The UK – now more than ever – needs a strong and unified voice to advocate the value of our research both within the UK and overseas.

The creation of a single overarching body in the form of UK Research and Innovation proposed in the bill should ensure that investment is both maximised and coordinated. Furthermore, it must continue to ensure that world-class research is supported in whichever university it is located and prevent any attempt to concentrate even more our research funds into a small number of institutions.  

There are aspects of the higher education bill that do require further thought.

The roles and responsibilities of the proposed Office for Students and making university title and degree-awarding powers easier to obtain, for example. But there seems to be a genuine openness to listen and respond within the government and the higher education sector is keen to take the opportunity to engage in the debate to create a framework that best serves the needs of students, society and universities themselves.

In an era of huge uncertainty about the future of our country, we cannot allow the necessary work of government and Parliament to falter. Securing a fit-for-purpose regulatory framework for our universities, one that allows the entire sector to prepare for the future, is a vitally important part of this work.

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