When I arrived at the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) two-and-a-half years ago, my first publication was Unfinished Business?: Higher education legislation. It claimed that the regulation of higher education resembled an unkempt meadow more than the level playing field promised by the 2011 White Paper.
Since then, the meadow has been subject to fly-tipping, as successive ministers have responded to events by loading hastily written new rules on the sector.
So it would be churlish not to welcome the publication of a new higher education White Paper, which is expected to lead swiftly to a new bill. As the director of a thinktank dedicated to encouraging debate about higher education, I relish the opportunity that new primary legislation provides for a full and frank debate in Parliament and elsewhere.
The White Paper stresses four themes.
First, competition from new providers. Making it easier for the best alternative providers to achieve degree-awarding powers is sound in principle. It has been too hard for new providers with robust quality standards to obtain sufficient investment and too easy for less good ones to churn out qualifications.
The government has provided two examples of the sort of institutions that the new changes will help: a proposed new specialist engineering institution in Herefordshire; and University Campus Suffolk, which has taken time to get where it wants to be. This omits the most important driver of the changes, which is A. C. Grayling’s New College of the Humanities. There is considerable support for NCH in the corridors of power, yet it has faced financial and practical challenges in meeting its original mission.
Unless we want the whole sector to be fixed in shape, we need to recognise that new institutions have to begin somewhere.
As Paul Kirkham, the managing director of the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, reminded the audience at a recent Hepi-Higher Education Academy event, University College London (UCL) was once derided as a “humbug joint stock subscription service for Cockney boys”. Kirkham drily concluded: “That critique sounds very current from where I sit.”
The White Paper’s second important area is teaching. The Hepi-HEA Student Academic Experience Survey, which is referred to a few times, consistently finds some dissatisfaction among students with teaching and learning.
When £9,000 fees began, policymakers said that universities would become much more responsive to their students. That has happened, but somewhat more gradually than was hoped. Yet it is hard for ministers to prove. If they want to show that the UK’s research base is among the best in the world, they can point to the research excellence framework (REF) or Times Higher Education’s league tables. But they cannot currently prove that teaching and learning have improved as a result of the more market-driven system that they have introduced.
There was a hostage to Jo Johnson’s original promise that the TEF would “be proportionate and light touch, not big, bossy and bureaucratic”. Proxies for good teaching, such as student satisfaction, are imperfect measures and good teaching and learning come in different forms. Some sector leaders, such as John Vinney of Bournemouth University, have called for more focus on peer review. This is reflected in the latest proposals, which will give an enhanced role to qualitative and institution-specific information. But complaints about the cost of the peer-reviewed REF are a reminder of the trade off between the simplicity of using existing metrics and the extra bureaucracy associated with peer-review processes.
The third focus for the ministers is widening participation and student choice. The government is ploughing ahead with shining a spotlight on widening participation as well as fair access to the most selective universities. It is also asking whether students should be able to swap courses more easily. I sense the hand of Emran Mian of the Social Market Foundation in this. He wrote in the THE last year that the removal of student number controls means that “sometimes the most effective way for an institution to bid for growth will be to poach students from another institution”.
It is important to remember that the government’s overall approach on social mobility and higher education represents a 180-degree volte-face on behalf of the Conservative Party. The last time there was major higher education legislation, in 2003-04, Conservatives opposed tuition fees, opposed expansion and opposed the Office for Fair Access. Had that position won, it would have meant fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Now, we have a Conservative government committed to a more sustainable funding model, expansion of higher education and renewed focus on access. It is important, in the weeks and months ahead, as we debate the finer details, that we do not lose sight of the wood for the trees by forgetting what a significant change of heart that is. A few years ago, Conservative MPs wanted to sack Offa chief Les Ebdon; now, they want to give him more powers.
This time, it is Labour that is more sceptical of tuition fees and we could see some interesting amendments to the bill on this. I don’t foresee the government being defeated on the issue, although it could get close. If Labour, the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats and others were to act as a concerted bloc, they would need fewer than 10 Conservative MPs to rebel to win.
The fourth really significant part of the White Paper is on the research landscape.
This is based on implementing the review published last year by Sir Paul Nurse. This recommended streamlining what goes on at the research councils in Swindon, thereby allowing politicians to say that they have reduced the number of partner bodies that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has to deal with. This was to be done via the eccentric mechanism of adding a new layer of bureaucracy, for Nurse recommended a new chief executive of Research UK to be the accounting officer for all the research councils.
Paul Nurse is a brilliant man, but his report was misconceived. As Paul Nightingale of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex said when it first appeared: “It’s not clear what the point is. BIS may have an overly complex organisational structure, but it’s doubtful anyone would mistake the Arts and Humanities Research Council for the Medical Research Council. Having an extra layer of bureaucracy may not help.”
Nonetheless, the government accepted the Nurse recommendations, and this is perhaps the one area where there is the biggest break with the previous government.
The coalition rejected making significant changes to the landscape of partner bodies in higher education for either teaching or research. The new White Paper boasts the number of arm’s-length bodies for higher education and research will fall from 10 to two.
If I had to predict where the bill could have the most difficult time, it is on the research changes.
Some of the great and the good of higher education may pore over the details and decide BIS’s desire to reduce the number of arms-length bodies is being put above the importance of maintaining the independence of our research funding structures. It could even come to resemble the current row over whether the BBC will be sufficiently independent in future. Remember, the House of Lords is more willing to flex its muscles than in the past and the Conservatives no longer have a majority in there.
The one silver lining is that it is hard to see how Nurse’s vision, including more support for interdisciplinary work, can work successfully without more cash. Perhaps there can be a deal to buy off any potential opposition?
Finally, it is worth remembering that the publication of the bill is not the end of the process. At our conference last Wednesday, we had a presentation from Chris White, who worked for the coalition as a special adviser to more than one chief whip and more than one leader of the House of Commons. He warned us that every piece of new legislation starts with ministers promising their colleagues it is complete and will not change during its parliamentary passage, but every one gets altered in fairly significant ways due to the government’s own amendments, let alone those of other parties.
So, with apologies to Churchill, the White Paper is more likely to be the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end.
Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
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