MPs maul ministers' blueprint

July 11, 2003

The select committee has marshalled the concerns of higher education to savage the white paper. Alan Thomson contrasts its verdict with the government's vision.


What the white paper says

• Concentration of research funding in the very best research institutions and in larger, better-managed units created through collaboration. Creation of a new tier of super-research universities with 6* ratings

• Steer non-research-intensive institutions towards other parts of their mission, allowing the funding council to focus money on the best research

• The Higher Education Funding Council for England announced a cut in funding for departments rated 4 in the 2001 research assessment exercise to protect departments rated 5 and to create the financial flexibility for the funding of the new 6*s

• The Roberts review of the RAE, published after Hefce changed the funding mechanism, proposed a way by which weaker research departments could secure funding without risking all in the RAE

• Government proposal to grant university titles to institutions that do not award research degrees and do not necessarily carry out pure research but only have to engage in scholarship: in other words, keeping up with the latest research and development.

What the committee says

• We are not persuaded that even greater concentration is necessary to achieve the government's aim of enabling the country's best research institutions to compete effectively with the world's leading universities (Paragraph 38)

• We recommend that the government reinstates the £21 million taken from the budget for 4-rated departments for this year. Such a change makes no sense when a new assessment procedure has been proposed. Changes in funding should be introduced alongside changes in assessment (Paragraph 47)

• We urge the government to reconsider its position on RAE funding for middle-ranking departments for the remainder of this RAE round (Paragraph 49)

• We believe it is important for the quality of students' educational experience that research should continue to be undertaken in higher education institutions. (Paragraph 52) "The government's proposals for further concentration of research funding were almost universally criticised in evidence."

"We were told that the loss of funding for 3a-rated departments and the reduction in funding for 4-rated departments would seriously affect medical schools."

"In most disciplines, intellectual collaboration between researchers in different institutions does not require resources to be concentrated in a select few universities."

"Over time, the absence of RAE funding is likely to erode an institution's capacity to maintain the infrastructure required to sustain and develop a research capability."

"It is particularly difficult to understand why funding was changed in advance of the recommendations of the Roberts review, which, if adopted, will have far-reaching effects on the pattern of quality-related research funding."

"There needs to be opportunity for 'unfancied' institutions to develop their research capability and, in due course, take their place among the best."

"The government has sought to play down the connection between good teaching and high-quality research, but we are unconvinced by the argument."

HE and business

What the white paper says

• Permanent third stream worth £90 million to support links with business

• Funding to set up 20 Knowledge Exchanges to "promote the critical role of less research-intensive HE institutions" in transferring technologies and knowledge to local businesses

• The promise to drive forward foundation degrees, making them the main work-focused higher education qualification.

What the committee says

• The strict separation that the white paper appears to envisage between those universities undertaking research and those involved in knowledge transfer is unlikely to operate in such a clear cut way in practice, whether or not the government wills it (Paragraph 65)

• We remain to be convinced that Knowledge Exchanges will serve any real purpose (Paragraph 66)

• We recommend the government takes no action to encourage the phasing out of HNCs and HNDs. (Paragraph 67)

"Knowledge Exchanges appear to be one of those innovations for which there is no obvious need."

Teaching & learning

What the white paper says

• Rebalance funding to support teaching

• Student satisfaction survey to drive up teaching quality

• Funding for academic pay linked to university strategy to promote good teachers

• Institutions to gain "university" title without having research degree-awarding powers.

What the committee says

• We believe the government needs to improve academic and other salaries to address problems of recruitment and retention. It might be that this is an issue that will need to be dealt with in the next comprehensive spending review round, but this will not help the immediate problem (Paragraph 83)

• It would help if we knew how much of the £170 million for human resource development is likely to be available for payment of salaries; and the £35 million a year that will be spent on centres of excellence by 2006 might be better spent on a general, if modest, uplift of salaries for those at the beginning of their careers, where the problem of low pay is most acute (Paragraph 84)

• University title must continue to be awarded by the Privy Council against set criteria. Thorough debate about the merits of the proposal to award university title to institutions without research degree-awarding powers should take place before it is implemented. (Paragraph 86)

"It is surprising that a funding settlement for higher education that is generally regarded as one of the most generous for years should not provide the money to address one of the most significant issues in higher education, that of poor levels of pay for academic staff."

"We have serious concerns about the decision to award university status to institutions without research degree-awarding powers. There has been insufficient discussion about the implications this might have."

Expanding HE

What the white paper says

• Affirmation of the need for a 50 per cent expansion target for higher education by 2010

• The bulk of expansion to come through two-year vocationally oriented foundation degrees, often delivered in further education colleges, with little or no expansion of traditional three-year honours degree places.

What the committee says

• Unless the government allows the funding of more honours degree places, there will be considerable unmet demand for places in higher education from people with a minimum of two A-level passes (Paragraph 107)

• We believe it is a mistake for the government to have made such a strong link between the move to 50 per cent participation and foundation degrees.

It appears to be another illustration of the government's tendency to overprescriptive management of higher education (Paragraph 108)

• Foundation degrees should be allowed to take their place in the portfolio of higher education qualifications without being burdened with the achievement of this target (Paragraph 109)

• The government should help the expansion of higher education in further education colleges by simplifying funding procedures and ironing out anomalies in the funding mechanisms, and in inspection and assessment regimes. (Paragraph 111)

"The 50 per cent target is, as far as we can judge, an arbitrarily chosen government target."

"The government has created problems for itself by insisting that it wishes to see expansionI mainly by expansion in foundation degrees. This has generated some scepticism, with foundation degrees seen in some quarters as a means to an end."

"There is a danger that foundation degrees will become degrees solely for students from poorer, non-traditional backgrounds, thus reinforcing social stratification in higher education, not weakening it."

Fair access

What the white paper says

• Reform of secondary and further education performance is critical to widening access in higher education

• Ensure university admissions procedures are professional, fair and transparent

• Better benchmark data on which universities can judge progress on widening access

• Reform of the access premium for attracting and retaining poor students

• Appointment of an access regulator and Office for Fair Access

• Grants for the poorest students.

What the committee says

• The basis for any discussion about widening participation and ensuring fair access must be that access should depend on academic ability (Paragraph 132)

• The priority for widening participation must be action in schools (Paragraph 134)

• We are very concerned to discover that the increase in the access premium is not new funding but represents a redistribution of resources in the teaching budget (Paragraph 135)

• Our evidence suggests that... the most effective way of improving retention is giving increased support and personal attention to students in their first year. It is for this reason that we are so concerned about the access premium that underpins this support (Paragraph 136)

• The white paper is principally concerned with young full-time students.

The needs of those who fall outside that category must be properly taken into account if the higher education sector is to provide truly improved access (Paragraph 37)

• We recommend that the government does not proceed with the introduction of the Office for Fair Access and leaves responsibility for monitoring universities' policies on access with Hefce. (Paragraph 140)

"Given the enormous disparities to be found in the educational and social background of applicants for degree places, the key area of reform is in secondary education."

"The access seen by many in the sector as a piece of unnecessary micromanagement by the government. The Office for Fair Access appears to be driven by political considerations rather than having a practical purpose."

University funding & student support

What the white paper says

• A new Leadership Foundation for higher education

• A task force to reduce red tape

• Support for increasing university endowments as the key to real funding freedom in the long term

• Freedom to set tuition fees between £0 and £3,000. The flat-rate, means-tested element - currently £1,100 a year - will remain. The top-up fee element will be £1,900 at today's prices

• Raise the threshold at which student loan repayments start from £10,000 to £15,000

• New grants for the poorest students from 2004.

What the committee says

• The government should consider introducing a levy on businesses above a certain size that do not commit a minimum proportion of their turnover to research and development to contribute to a pool of funds that flow to research and development activities at universities (Paragraph 188)

• We recommend that the government explores ways of encouraging a more substantial contribution from business and individuals through the taxation system (Paragraph 189)

• The evidence we have heard suggests that the differentials in fees charged by universities and colleges will be small at best and possibly non-existent (Paragraph 190)

• We hope that the government does not intend to seek to impose a market and believe it would be a very grave error of judgement if it did so (Paragraph 193)

• The success of the government in providing substantial extra funding for universities in this spending review will have lasting effect only if the amount of public expenditure on higher education is at least maintained in real terms at the levels announced in this white paper (Paragraph 194)

• We welcome the deferral of payment of fees until after completion of a student's course; this removes one very significant disincentive to participation in higher education (Paragraph 199)

• With the shift to payment of fees after the completion of a course, the money used to pay up to £1,100 in fees for poor students could instead be used to provide more substantial maintenance grants (Paragraph 200)

• We recommend that if the government continues to pay fees for poor students, it should fund the full cost of fees for eligible students, not just the first £1,100 (Paragraph 201)

• The increase in the income threshold at which loans begin to be repaid from £10,000 to £15,000 announced in the white paper is welcome, but still falls far short of the committee's previous recommendation that the level should be average earnings (currently about £24,500), and should keep pace with changes in the level of average earnings (Paragraph 204)

• If the money spent on the interest rate subsidy (on student loans) was used instead to enhance maintenance grants, it would be possible to pay full-cost grants to students from poor backgrounds (for example, at the level of £5,000 a year suggested as a reasonable amount for living expenses by the secretary of state) (Paragraph 207)

• Charging the government interest rate on loans would also allow larger loans to be offered... and so make it less likely that students would have to borrow or incur credit-card debts at commercial rates. (Paragraph 208) "It is correct to seek a contribution from the individuals who benefit from higher education."

"There is, however, no acknowledgement of the benefit employers derive from a workforce trained in higher education through funding provided by government and by students themselves."

"On the evidence we have heard, the logic of the government's position is that the cap should be set at £5,000. If it does not wish to take that step, it may have to resign itself to the fact that many, if not most, institutions will set their fees at the maximum."

"It has been reported recently that the government will... seek to impose a market if one does not arise. Should the government intervene in this way it would undermine its whole policy."

"Keeping the cap at £3,000 in real terms until the end of the next parliament (so possibly until 2011) is likely to result in universities' income stagnating by the end of the period."

"If the government decides it will continue to pay the fees of poorer students...then we believe logic demands that they agree to pay the whole of the fee the institution charges rather than just the first £1,000."


Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University and president of Universities UK

"The whole university system is based on the concept of university teachers being involved in research. To lose that would be a real danger."

Steve Wharton, chairman of the AUT education and development committee

"We all know that good teaching is informed by good research and that in many cases that research goes beyond simple scholarship."

Rick Trainor, vice-chancellor of Greenwich University

"The more general point here is one of potential ossification of the system."

Geoffrey Copland, rector of Westminster University

"Knowledge transfer comes on the back of research."

Michael Brown, vice-chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University

"Without university staff with practical subject expertise based on research activity, there will be nothing substantial to transfer."

Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College London

"I just worry that employers will look at these foundation degrees and say 'what is that, what is the value of a two-year degree, a two-year foundation?'"

Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary

"We are particularly concerned at the very, very little mention (pay) has in the proposals being put forward, simply because universities are their staff."

John Brooks, vice-chancellor of Wolverhampton University

"I cannot discern any benefit from identifying 70 centres of excellence in teaching. All HE teaching should aspire to excellence."

Paul Light, principal of King Alfred's College, Winchester

"Most of the institutions that might make an application (for university title) are at least as strong in their research base as many existing post-92 universities."

David Wallace,vice-chancellor, Loughborough University

"The funding for (the increased premium) has been created by cuts in the core teaching grant."

University of Birmingham response

"It would be unfortunate if (the 50 per cent target) were to be achieved via the expansion of foundation degrees and not the internationally respected, universally understood, tried-and-tested, honours degree."

Chris Weavers, vice-president of education, NUS

"(Foundation degrees) should not just be a way of achieving the 50 per cent target."

Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and vice-chairman of Scop "The access regulator has just not been thought through at all. It is bound to involve a layer of bureaucracy."

Mandy Telford, president of the NUS

"We think that differential fees are wrong and will create a two-tier elitist system."

Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England "I assume that every university will want to keep their options open and will plan on the basis that they are going to charge £3,000."

Howard Newby, chief executive of Hefce

"If it had been £5,000, only a few institutions would have charged it, but at £3,000 it is difficult to judge. I would say as many as three-quarters of institutions will charge it."

Nicholas Barr, professor of public economics, London School of Economics

"Tax funding is deeply regressive. If the money comes from general taxation, the taxes of the hospital porter pay for the degree of the old Etonian."

Arthur Lucas, principal of King's College London

"People have mentioned endowments but it takes a long time to build up that sort of pool."

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