Labour Party responds to ‘dangerous’ HE White Paper

Shadow minister for higher education, further education and skills, Gordon Marsden, offers his thoughts on the government’s HE plans

May 17, 2016
Gordon Marsden, MP Blackpool South, Shadow Minister Further Education Skills & Regional Growth
Source: Alamy
Higher role: Gordon Marsden

On new universities/ challenger institutions

The government’s new HE White Paper proclaims its wish to allow “students more choice over the type of education they receive”.  Brave words, but the safeguards permitting a rapid expansion of what the government calls its challenger institutions” currently appear to be inadequate. Ministers want new providers to be given degree awarding powers straight away, and then build up a three-year track record on a probationary basis.

Giving providers this option could, potentially, be very dangerous. Students would in effect be taking a gamble on probationary degrees from probationary providers. Who picks up the pieces if it all goes wrong?

It is still unclear what resources the proposed Office for Students will have to police this process. What if the problems weren’t picked up until, say, 18 months of students working for their degree? The White Paper chirrups “the possibility of exit is natural part of a healthy market”, but students aren’t market traders. They don’t easily slip a second time into the womb of higher education when let down by that shiny new market.

Another huge question that hangs over the White Paper is the future participation (or lack) of further education colleges. The White Paper consistently talks simply about “universities and possible new universities. This, to a significant degree, sidelines the role of further education colleges, and the existing providers who currently deliver at least 10 per cent of all higher education participation.

Even if further education colleges were eventually to get a fair crack of the whip, it may be a problematic one given that the rhetoric of the White Paper is all about new market driven, possibly virtual competitors. Given the cumulative effect of the government’s cuts in further education college funding, the scrapping of maintenance grants for the disadvantaged, the alarming failure of take-up of post Level 3 loans by adult further education students, and the disruptive effects of area reviews, what state will many colleges be in to take up degree powers even if they want to?

There are big question marks as to how the new challenger institutions are defined. Will they include online higher education? Will these institutions be for-profit or not-for-profit?  Will existing commercial bodies be eligible? And how will challenger institutions be policed if they are based outside the UK?

On the teaching excellence framework

I have long argued for the celebration of teaching quality in higher education. But concern as to the equity of the TEF to carry this through is hugely increased by the government saying it’ll be linked to rising fees for higher education students.

Because of strong concerns we and others have voiced, Jo Johnson is now saying it will only apply inflation-based fee rises for successful TEF applications. But even that could come as early as 2017, and there is no guarantee that there wouldn’t be a free for all by 2019.

The government has announced a technical consultation on the TEF, ending in July. But they have also said that higher education providers could volunteer to be guinea pigs for the TEF in 2017/18. Surely a huge gamble for the reputations of those participating?

The government still seems to be proceeding on the basis of having only one separate TEF assessment per university. But surely a more delineated TEF assessment, such as by schools of humanities or social sciences within higher education institutions, would be both fairer and more useful for would-be students?

On the Office for Students

The government says that its proposed new Office for Students “will cover, among other areas, access and participation” as they lay out sweeping agendas for its monitoring of their big bang changes, but there is little detail as to what resources this new body will have.

In any case, people are entitled to be sceptical about this government’s agenda to widen participation when its sustained funding cuts have shredded and undermined the capacity of both colleges and universities to fulfil them. At the same time, the White Paper remains thin on a specific strategy for expanding the number of adult and part-time students, often including disadvantaged learners, after a huge drop in numbers.

The small incremental improvements already announced, not due until 2018, are inadequate to do this or deliver the social mobility, productivity and economic success to which for adult learning is central.The government is in danger of producing narrow 20th-century solutions to 21st-century challenges.

There is also no reference as to how “DevoMax” will bring a much larger role for combined authorities over skills and higher education strategy in places such as London and Greater Manchester with their clusters of universities. This is another huge omission. It leaves the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills stuck in a goldfish bowl of Whitehall micromanagement at a time when we desperately need to re-engineer the delivery of our productivity and job needs across England.

Finally, the government’s White Paper overlooks a vital factor. There is little sense of its knock-on effects for “UK PLC”.

Higher education providers across England and the devolved nations of Britain are internationally competitive because of a trusted UK brand. There needs to be a UK-wide strategy in place to safeguard it. Without it, this White Paper could dismantle that brand. Having a three year period of what it calls “dissolving”  the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the  Office for Fair Access while establishing the Office for Students won’t help.

So, it’s not surprising that many stakeholders have stated that this White Paper calls for pre-legislative scrutiny rather than any overhasty rush to legislation. And that must include far closer dialogue with all existing providers, with business and with the people who work in our universities and colleges as well as those who study at them.

Gordon Marsden is Labour’s shadow minister for higher education, further education and skills

Read next: Higher education White Paper: key points at a glance

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