The UK higher education system works. So why overhaul it?

There really is no need for the Higher Education and Research Bill, says Anne Sheppard

January 3, 2017
Houses of Parliament, Westminster, government
Source: iStock

With Britain set on a course to leave the European Union, many are worried about the prospects for the economy. The UK’s government has taken steps to reassure the car industry that Britain is a safe place to invest after Brexit. And so it should.

But there is one area in which the UK is a world leader where, rather than securing similar protections, the government seems intent on fundamental reforms that risk undermining it. This is, of course, the higher education sector – and I refer to the government’s Higher Education and Research Bill, which reaches committee stage in the House of Lords next week.

UK universities are perceived to be among the very best anywhere. Vast numbers of students from across the world – and indeed many of the world’s leading academics – flock to this country for a reason. It is extraordinary that the government should be seeking to turn the entire system on its head.

Those of us who work in UK higher education know that things are not perfect. But we also know that, ultimately, British higher education institutions work so well because of a key and long-standing principle: a clearly defined separation between government policymaking and the freedom of universities to teach and research according to aims and standards refined down the years.

When people come here to study, to teach or to undertake research, they know that they will be part of a rigorous educational system created through scholarly and independent-minded engagement without any undue political interference or pressure on what and how to teach. These institutions exist purely as centres of research, teaching and learning.

The bill would create a vast new behemoth of a regulatory institution, in the form of the Office for Students – a government-appointed body that will wield an unprecedented degree of direct control over the sector, to be paid for by universities and therefore ultimately through rising student tuition fees. By giving it power over fees, teaching standards, validation of new providers and extending access, it will pretty much control the entire landscape in which the higher education sector operates.

Additionally, the bill also establishes a second quango in overall control of all research funding, thus driving an organisational wedge between the teaching and research functions of universities. This is a political power grab of extraordinary proportions.

Probably the most pernicious element in the government’s agenda for universities is the teaching excellence framework (TEF), which is modelled on the unloved research excellence framework and will be part of the OfS’ responsibilities. This entirely new exercise has already started: what is to prevent it mushrooming into an expensive bureaucratic nightmare?

Already it is claimed that teaching quality cannot realistically be measured in the way the government intends; the currently deployed proxies are bogus and anathema to any self-respecting academic. The only answer is that universities should have complete autonomy to design and administer convincing routes to the assessing of quality.

Has the government thought all this through? You have to doubt it.

One of the most bizarre proposals in the bill is that a proportion of institutions is set to be deemed “failing” simply because the government is determined to establish a ranking system based on the TEF in which some must be seen to be doing well by comparison with others. Therefore, universities would find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to market themselves to students at home and abroad as substandard – “bronze”, as the government puts it.

Students from bronze universities will need all the luck they can get applying for jobs in an increasingly competitive job market.

As a whole, and in its present form, our university system is a success story that immensely benefits our country and the wider world. Its autonomy has been fundamental to this success. Outside the European Union, it is more vital than ever that we retain our competitive advantage.

We need a major continued inflow of foreign students (although UK policy on student visas is a conversation for another day). But we also need to ensure that our academic institutions are producing world-class research and that we are producing world-class graduates who can help this country compete in what government politicians have endlessly referred to as the global race.

Writing about the bill in Times Higher Education, the UK universities and science minister, Jo Johnson, spoke of “the freedom to interrogate, discover and learn”, which our universities embody, as a principle that “upholds the UK’s prosperity and delivers breakthroughs that can change the way we live and work”. He then claimed that the bill “goes further than respecting autonomy – it enshrines it”.

Methinks he doth protest too much.

Anne Sheppard is professor of Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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Reader's comments (5)

"...we also know that... British higher education institutions work so well because of a key and long-standing principle: a clearly defined separation between government policymaking and the freedom of universities..." On this sentence your whole argument relies, but can you really suggest that this opinion is shared by all who work in academia? Perhaps you could reasonably make the argument that 'disestablishmentarianism' is one of the reasons for the success of higher education in the UK, but you ought to provide readers with some kind of substantiation for that claim. I don't know what it is about THE as a journalistic platform which encourages academics to suppress the high standards of proof and reason which they usually apply (we would hope) when undertaking their academic work.
More University bureaucracy that UK cannot afford...more paper...more committee meetings, more useless inspections and as a result even more costs to be passed onto students. Crazy.
Uk higher education is not ok! The world has turned to the US for leadership on HE. It may be true that the US has its own share of troubles, but the UK's outdated system needs to change dramatically if it is to gain any respect internationally.
@mildredbray can you back your assertion up? US has over 2400 4 year degree awarding colleges, compared to around 150 in the UK. If you follow rankings (however flawed) they generally put a greater proportion of UK institutions in the top universities in the world. Over 50% of UK universities listed in the THE rankings compared to less than 10% of US universities listed. Similar leading position for UK as a proportion of all institutions in the country in ARWU.
I have to pretty much agree with the author. Additionally, the teaching role of a university is in good part to bring the student (not pupil) rapidly to a level where they can and do study on their own, with a modest dependence on actual teaching. Having said that, so-called teaching staff have to lessen dependence on chalk and become empowered to facilitate and lead discussions in more tutorial environments. The school system has been ground down by interfering politicians who don't understand teaching. It is for universities to take the high ground and demonstrate that politicians should get better understandings of education in the wide.

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