Higher education Green Paper: reaction

Universities and other sector bodies have given a cautious welcome to proposals contained in a new Green Paper on higher education

November 6, 2015
Graduates in academic gown

Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said that UUK welcomed the Green Paper’s “emphasis on protecting the interests of students and demonstrating the value of a university education” but said it was important that the teaching excellence framework not increase red tape.

“The recognition of high-quality teaching in our universities is a welcome step, but we must ensure that this exercise is not an additional burden for those teaching in our universities and that it provides useful information for students, parents and employers,” she said.

Dame Julia also gave a cautious welcome to plans to help new providers enter the higher education market.

“It is important…that any new higher education provider entering the market is able to give robust reassurances to students, taxpayers and government on the quality and sustainability of their courses,” she said.

“With a wide range of issues covered in the paper, we will be considering carefully the complex, but vitally important, areas such as how funding and regulatory powers are integrated, the future of the sector bodies and their relationship to government, and how the Green Paper protects the autonomy of our world-class university sector.”

Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which the Green Paper recommends be superseded by the Office for Students (OfS), said the body would “look forward to contributing to the debates and developments it will foster”.

“We will continue to perform our current role and functions to our usual high standards throughout this period of deliberation and transition,” she added.

Gordon Marsden, Labour’s shadow higher education and further education minister, said: “Anyone would welcome a focus on teaching quality and improving the student experience, but this is looking like a Trojan Horse for increased tuition fees and a two-tier system where this government effectively brands some universities as second-class, with the consequent impact on their students’ life chances.

“The proposed merger of Hefce and Offa, currently with quite different remits, seems a candle-end economy that needs the closest scrutiny.

“The government is proposing to fast-track new HE institutions and degree-awarding powers, but where are there any robust safeguards for this? Has the government forgotten the abuses of rogue private institutions in the FE sector?”

Les Ebdon, head of the Office for Fair Access (Offa), which will also become part of the OfS, said he welcomed the proposal that as director of fair access he “should play a specific and strengthened role within the proposed new Office for Students”.

“I also welcome the proposal that fair access should be embedded in the metrics being developed for the teaching excellence framework. The proposed new regulatory landscape has the potential to increase the importance of fair access, improving coherence and collaboration and maximising impact. I am determined to seize such opportunities.”

However, he added: “In implementing these changes, it will be crucial not to dilute or subordinate fair access to other, possibly conflicting, priorities. It will therefore be important that, within the proposed new Office for Students, the director of fair access is able to operate free from conflicts of interest and ‘sector capture’.”

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said the group will “look forward to responding in detail to the proposals contained in the Green Paper to ensure students continue to receive an outstanding education”.

But Dr Piatt indicated that universities would not welcome any diminution of their autonomy as that was “crucial to their success”.

“It is vital that any regulation is risk-based and proportionate and does not add to the current burden or stifle innovation,” she added.

Million+, which represents many post-92 universities, welcomed the Green Paper’s focus on social mobility and the student interest.

However, Dave Phoenix, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University and chair of Million+, said that there were concerns over the proposed merger of Hefce and Offa to create a new Office for Students.

“The Green Paper’s emphasis on social mobility and the student interest is to be warmly welcomed, but any new Office for Students must be independent of government,” said Professor Phoenix.

“It is also important that an independent quality assurance system is retained since this has done much to secure the reputation of UK universities overseas.”

He added that university leaders will want to scrutinise plans for the TEF and ensure that the focus on social mobility means more than a focus on highly selective universities.

“Getting a few more working-class young people to enter Oxbridge is not the only – or even the most important – game in town,” he said.

“If the Green Paper succeeds in changing the terms of the social mobility debate, that would be a prize worth having.”

Megan Dunn, National Union of Students president, said: “Change should be driven by the people at the heart of the system – students, teachers and staff. It will not be good enough for the government and institutions to decide what is in students’ interests without asking them.

“It is reassuring to see the government putting access to education at the heart of their proposals, but we must see action as well as promises.

“Teaching should always be a key focus of higher education, but the NUS is adamant that the teaching excellence framework should not be linked to an increase in fees. Students should not be treated like consumers.”

James Elliot, a member of student Left group the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and of the NUS national executive, said: “These proposals are being openly touted by Jo Johnson as treating students as ‘consumers’.

“If implemented, they will mean potentially unlimited tuition fees, and, by linking teaching funding to graduate earnings, threaten to impose cuts on humanities and the arts. It will be a disaster for students and education workers alike, meaning more fees and debt, and threatening jobs too.”

Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of University Alliance, said that universities will “welcome the government’s commitment to support more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access, and succeed within, higher education”. 

“But this does come at a cost. If this is not recognised in the forthcoming spending review, today’s commitment is just empty words,” she said.

Ms Ansell also welcomed the commitment to retain the dual-support system for research.

“This makes our system dynamic and promotes innovation,” she said, adding that “while we recognise the value of reducing the cost of participating in the research excellence framework, any simplification must not introduce concentration by the back door.”

Douglas Blackstock, interim chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), said the organisation “believes that co-regulation and external assurance through an independent body are key to the international reputation of UK higher education”.

“The teaching excellence framework offers the opportunity to focus on continuous improvement of students’ academic experiences,” he said.

“QAA has a key role in ensuring that only those providers that can demonstrate they meet the high standards needed to award UK degrees achieve this prestigious status,” he added.

The University and College Union (UCU) urged the government to step back from plans to allow more for-profit companies easier access to the higher education sector.

“One of the easiest ways the government could improve academic quality and standards is to restrict, rather than increase, the role of for-profit, private providers,” said Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary.

She said the government should pay attention to some of the scandals surrounding the quality of courses offered by some for-profit providers, which were funded largely using state-backed student loans.

Ms Hunt also expressed concerns about “exactly what measures would be used in any TEF”.

“Simply finding a few measures to rank teaching will do nothing to improve quality, and we fear that manipulation of statistics may be the name of the game, rather than bolstering the student experience,” she said.

“Quality teaching is underpinned by decent working conditions for staff, and a good place to start to improve teaching would be to tackle the widespread job insecurity that blights the university sector,” she added.

Joy Carter, vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester and chair of GuildHE, said that she welcomed the Green Paper’s “increased focus” on widening participation and looked forward to “working with government to ensure this important work is sufficiently supported and funded”.

Meanwhile, GuildHE chief executive Gordon McKenzie said that it was important not to “get it wrong” on the TEF by “trying to rush in the first year. We welcome the minister’s measured approach and allowing the TEF to develop and evolve over time.”


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Reader's comments (1)

Fearful of this new world order in HE? You shouldn't be. This "new" agenda is actually not terribly new or controversial at all. In his influential study 'Rethinking Higher Education: On the Future of Higher Education in Britain' [Institute of Economic Affairs], Thomas Lange called for variable tuition fees nearly 20 years ago. It was the right idea then, it is the right idea now. At the time, Prof Lange also made the case for 2-year degrees ... everybody and their kitchen sink 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 by Lange ... ; again, introduced soon thereafter. The short of it: apart from some structural changes and institutional mergers, the current Green Paper doesn't really provide terribly novel ideas or approaches of substance. Some (e.g. flex fees) have been around for some time.