Green Paper: potential risks and dangers

November 12, 2015

The Green Paper Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice outlines the means by which market forces will be permitted to permeate further into higher education in England and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the UK.

It is likely to lead to higher tuition fees for many, increased state intervention into the organisation and delivery of higher education, more bureaucracy for staff and less autonomy for students’ unions.

Universities will be fundamentally transformed by these proposals, and the sector will be further disaggregated. Funding will be concentrated on a few leading institutions, and higher education will once again become available only for a minority who can afford to bear heavy debts. Open scholarship, collaboration and the sharing of discoveries for all are set to be displaced by objectives that privilege, above all, corporate interests and employability.

The framework advocates the further embrace of metrics, the use of price as a proxy for quality, the relaxation of conditions of entry to the sector for private providers, and the creation of a regulatory body to ensure consumer protection from the abuse of market power. This is a failed model – the same one that failed to prevent the financial crash and the banking crisis.

Universities should be places where staff and students are able to take risks, to develop critical and creative skills, to innovate and inspire and, above all, to teach, research and learn without the fear that their every move is to be measured and quantified. The proposals outlined in the Green Paper will make it harder for universities to deliver high-quality education for all.

We the undersigned have committed to the holding of a “Convention for Higher Education” in February to bring together as wide a constituency as is possible in the defence of higher education from the government’s reforms. We welcome all those who share that commitment to join with us. To contact us, visit

Tom Hickey, University of Brighton University and College Union
John Holmwood, University of Nottingham and Campaign for the Public University
Martin McQuillan, Kingston University and Council for the Defence of British Universities
Des Freedman, Goldsmiths, University of London UCU
Sean Wallis, University College London, and University and College Union national executive committee and London Region
Saladin Meckled-García, University College London UCU
Miriam David, UCL Institute of Education
Dennis Leech, University of Warwick
Priyamvada Gopal, University of Cambridge
Feyzi Ismail, Soas, University of London UCU
Bob Brecher, University of Brighton
Richard Farndale, University of Cambridge
Adrian Budd, London South Bank University UCU
Jeff Duckett, Queen Mary University of London
Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths University of London
Jane Hardy, University of Hertfordshire
Carlo Morelli, University of Dundee, and UCU NEC
Malcolm Povey, University of Leeds
Mary Claire Halvorson, Goldsmiths, University of London
Geoff Abbott, Newcastle University
John Wadsworth, Goldsmiths, University of London
Deirdre Osborne, Goldsmiths, University of London
Michael Bailey, University of Essex
Jane Rendell, University College London
Bruce Baker, Newcastle University
Stacy Gillis, Newcastle University

Some particularly troubling items dropped out when I unwrapped my copy of the Green Paper from its many layers of verbiage, string and sticky tape.

An Office for Students predicated on the presumption that “providers” of higher education are typically “teaching-only” institutions would be a huge change. Research appears pretty briefly, except where it is presented as an enemy of, rather than a complement to, good teaching. “Research students” are not mentioned, unless the bare phrase “costs of training new researchers” counts. We are offered only sketchy speculations about future arrangements for delivering public funding of research. The provisions for funding councils set out in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 make them responsible for administering public funds made available for “the provision of education and the undertaking of research”. The forthcoming legislation must offer a better balance of the dual functions of a provider of higher education in the British system.

The Haldane principle is mentioned only in relation to research, and specifically in relation to “decisions on individual research proposals”. The 1992 act protected the principle that there should be a buffer between state funding and the decisions a provider makes about how it should be spent, in particular that no minister might interfere directly with “activities carried on by any particular institution or institutions”. Behind that clause lay much parliamentary debate, which might explain the hint in the Green Paper that that protection is to continue. This promise will need close watching.

The proposal to make it easier for inexperienced providers to get degree-awarding powers and university title, with the admitted risk that they might fail and the suggestion that the OfS might “itself take on a validation role”, do not appear to inspire confidence even in the authors of the Green Paper. For a “student protection system” is suggested, to assist students unable to complete their courses – or the student might gain a potentially worthless degree from an institution that goes out of business. Perhaps the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills can explain why this new risk is a good thing for students.

G. R. Evans

Fearful of this new world order? You shouldn’t be. This “new” agenda is neither new nor controversial. In Rethinking Higher Education: On the Future of Higher Education in Britain, Thomas Lange called for variable tuition fees nearly 20 years ago. It was the right idea then; it is the right idea now. He also made the case for two-year degrees – everybody wanted to pour scorn on his ideas, only to see foundation degrees introduced almost immediately. An income-contingent loan scheme for tuition fee payment was another “controversial” recommendation; yet it too was introduced soon thereafter. The short of it: apart from some structural changes and institutional mergers, the Green Paper does not really offer very novel ideas or approaches of substance.


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