HE White Paper: Five key talking points

THE editor John Gill assesses whether the White Paper does enough to answer critics of the government's HE policies

May 16, 2016
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The higher education White Paper has been published: so how has Jo Johnson dealt with five of the big concerns raised about his policy plans in recent months?

Concern: That the metrics powering the teaching excellence framework (TEF) are fundamentally flawed, and they do not, in fact, measure teaching quality.

Has it been resolved?
The three core metrics are to remain the same: student satisfaction scores (National Student Survey), graduate outcome data (Destination of Leavers from Higher Education), and continuation rates.

Jo Johnson has also confirmed that an element of human intervention – some sort of peer review – will help to soften the edges of this metrics approach, and indicated that the technical consultation will ask for sector input into how the disciplinary assessment in year four of the TEF will work, while Hefce has been asked to look at additional metrics that might be considered.

However, as things stand it appears that the the fundamental focus of TEF is largely as set out previously (and as critiqued by the BIS Committee inquiry).


Concern: That by linking TEF performance to a higher fee-cap, the government risks a range of unintended consequences. For example, universities that teach students from less privileged backgrounds may be penalised because of more modest graduate career prospects, and universities that struggle to provide high-quality teaching could be starved of the cash they need to improve.

Has it been resolved?
There has been significant movement, insofar as there is now no plan to introduce a variable fee cap for institutions based on TEF results for the first two years.

Instead, universities that are judged to have teaching that “meets expectations” would be allowed to raise fees in line with inflation. However, the impression is that this is a slowing of pace rather than a U-turn, with universities minister Jo Johnson buying time to iron out the stubborn creases in his plan, with a view to reintroducing differential fees linked to TEF scores further down the line.

Johnson told THE: "Institutions do need to be able to address the real-terms erosion in their fee income... [but] in years one and two, we want the emphasis to be on getting the system right before we hang financial consequences from it."

Everything you need to know about the higher education White Paper: Success as a Knowledge Economy

Concern: That the floodgates will be opened to alternative providers of varying quality, putting at risk the gold standard status of UK universities.

Has this been resolved?
Not really. With this White Paper, Johnson pushes hard at the door that was prised open by David Willetts during his time as universities minister, introducing a raft of measures to encourage what the government calls “challenger institutions”.

Interestingly, when speaking to THE, Johnson’s examples were primarily specialist institutions focused on economically important subjects such as engineering, and foreign universities (he mentioned both Harvard and MIT, as well as the Indian Institutes of Technology) that might want to set up shop in the UK.

This is a long way from the focus on cheap-to-teach, high-demand subjects such as law and business that have typified the “alternative provider” market thus far, and the overtly commercial nature of many of the private providers that made hay when they were first allowed to access publicly backed student loans.


Concern: If you’re on the other side of the argument, it has long been a complaint that the barriers to entry for genuinely valuable new providers have been too high, and that higher education has resembled a protectionist cartel, keeping the competition out in the cold.

Has this been resolved?
Several measures announced in the White Paper tackle this concern. When A.C Grayling set up the New College of Humanities as an £18,000 a year "alternative to Oxbridge", not only was he unable to access university title quickly, he also has to rely on an existing university –  Southampton Solent – to validate its degrees.

The White Paper promises to change this by allowing new entrants to apply for degree-awarding powers on day one on a “probationary” basis, “building up their three-year track record during this period”. Degree awarding powers would be fully conferred after this three year period, with university title available after a further three-year “review” period.

Johnson also told THE that, on the question of market exit, "one of the conditions of registration that the Office for Students will operate is that any institution accessing public funds must have in place a student protection plan. At the moment only around half of institutions have student protection plans."


Concern: That higher education policy is increasingly concerned with the economic role of universities, with degrees first and foremost seen as a ticket to a higher-paying job.

Has this been resolved?
No. The title of the White Paper, “Success as a Knowledge Economy”, could not be clearer: universities are being told that they must embrace their role as drivers of economic progress.

The BIS briefing document refers to the importance of “high-level graduate skills” and demand for a “more highly skilled workplace”. This demand for graduates is, of course, a positive for universities at a time when the number of graduates is growing, but there is a lingering concern that the focus on economic value is too overbearing.

Asked directly whether this was a fair reflection of Johnson’s philosophy as universities minister, he said: “We do want students to get good outcomes from their time at university, and there is no better way to improve your life chances than getting a good higher education, and we want everyone who goes through our system to get a good outcome.”

Read next: Degree powers from 'day one' for new providers, says HE White Paper

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