UK universities risk being subjected to further government control and regulation if they do not prioritise teaching quality and embrace initiatives such as two-year degrees, a former Ucas chief executive has warned.
Addressing the annual meeting of the Council for the Defence of British Universities, Mary Curnock Cook said that although many attendees would regard universities “primarily as places for research”, for the “man on the street” nowadays they were places of “mass higher education”.
And while the CDBU “rails against ‘consumers’ and ‘customers’ of higher education”, “undoubtedly a market has been created now that the rationing of student enrolments around the sector isn’t controlled by the government’s student number restrictions”.
As a result, Ms Curnock Cook said, the focus for students and policymakers was now on teaching quality and value for money.
The experience of schools education showed that the adoption of similar priorities in that sector had led to “increasing interventions” to check on standards, spending and student destinations, she said, adding that this was being “replicated as we speak” in higher education, with a focus on data about access, retention and career destinations.
Much of the current criticism of the sector on these and other issues broadly reflected how universities were “paying the price for not acting, for not demonstrably shifting their priorities from research on to students and education”, Ms Curnock Cook argued.
Universities’ attempts to stop the negative headlines that have recently dogged them must start “with the recognition that in the public mind’s eye, universities are about students, first and foremost”, Ms Curnock Cook told the event. “You might not like that, nor the utilitarian view that students are paying to study for a degree and the path to a successful career, but that is, on the whole, what they are doing.”
She said: “If you don’t think the teaching excellence framework measures teaching excellence, then figure out how you would measure it. Because the fee-paying, loan-taking students and their parents definitely want to know.
“Two-year degrees and online learning may be anathema to CDBU members, but closing your mind to their potential for some students is short-sighted when people’s lives, and their social and working patterns, have changed so dramatically with the march of technology in recent years.
“If you don’t like having to play in a market for students, then refresh your business model to do without tuition-fee income.
“If you don’t want professional services and professional management to interfere with your life, then you’re in trouble because they are essential ingredients in attracting students and managing the successful outcomes students want in return for their engaged participation in their studies, their fees and their repayment obligations.”
In short, the best way to defend universities was “to be really, really good at educating students”, Ms Curnock Cook said.
The speech provoked a lively response from audience members. One, Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, told Times Higher Education that Ms Curnock Cook was labouring under a “terrific misapprehension” if she thought that people in the room did not care about students.
Other audience members felt that the responsibility for poor teaching lay with politicians, vice-chancellors and managers, pointing to the detrimental impact of short-term academic contracts.