Prioritise students or face more regulation, says ex-Ucas head

Mary Curnock Cook says universities are paying the price ‘for not demonstrably shifting their priorities from research’

January 26, 2018
Mary Cunock Cook
Source: UCAS

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.

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Reader's comments (2)

I hope that CDBU was offered the opportunity to respond to this article prior to publication. Mary Curnock Cook’s address to the AGM of the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) on 23 January was indeed robust and provocative, and as someone who campaigned on behalf of CDBU during the parliamentary debates on the Higher Education and Research Bill in 2016-17 I should like to comment on some of the issues mentioned in your report of the event. 1) With regard to the need to shift priorities from research to teaching, as Dorothy Bishop pointed out in her response to Mary Curnock Cook (, it is unfair to blame academics for any imbalance in the current situation because (a) many of them show real dedication to their teaching, and (b) it is the financial incentives imposed through the Research Excellence Framework that have skewed the priorities of HE institutions in favour of research. CDBU’s position in the matter is clearly stated in its list of aims ( it is committed to promoting and enhancing the fruitful interaction of teaching and research, not to prioritising the one over the other. 2) CDBU has campaigned vigorously against the marketisation of higher education for a number of reasons. One is the risk inherent in encouraging a proliferation of low-cost, low-quality for-profit providers (; another is the tendency for such a system to generate a transient teaching force, which cannot be in the best interests of students ( Thirdly, it is misguided to infer from the fact that higher education is now substantially financed through student loans that it should therefore be treated as a consumer good: as the National Audit Office noted in a recent report (, the outcomes students can expect to achieve on university courses “depend on the ability and commitment of the student as well as the quality of the provider”. These and other issues are fully addressed in CDBU’s response to the recent government consultation on the functions of the Office for Students (OfS), which can be downloaded from our website ( 3) To argue that those who criticise the TEF for its lack of credible metrics should suggest some other way of measuring teaching excellence is to miss the point of the criticisms. The maintenance of high standards by the academic profession inevitably depends on the freedom of academics to make independent judgements with regard to the teaching and assessment of students in their subject area. It was for this reason that, in its lobbying on the Higher Education and Research Bill, CDBU pressed hard for quality assurance to be placed in the hands of a body that was genuinely independent of the OfS: quality control in university teaching needs to be protected from the enforcement of a market approach, which is one of the primary responsibilities of the OfS, and which creates pressures on institutions to nurture the loyalty of their customers in ways that may run counter to the maintenance of high standards. 4) In its response to the consultation on the functions of the OfS, CDBU also challenged the use of the phrase “value for money” as a proxy for the quality of teaching provided because, like all political slogans that appeal to subjective judgements, it clouds the issue. In educational policy making, perceptions of what students say they want are no substitute for the independent judgement of academics on what students need to do in order to achieve the level of qualification to which they aspire. Let’s hope that the OfS, once its modus operandi has been clarified, will succeed in discouraging poor quality education while allowing institutions that pose lower risks to students to flourish, as proposed in the government’s consultation document; that the independent review of the TEF required under the Higher Education and Research Act (section 26) will take us towards a quality assurance regime that does enjoy the broad confidence of the academic profession; and that, under the new Minister for Universities, the HE sector may continue to provide the high quality and diversity of higher education that has been the basis of its outstanding international reputation in the recent past. CDBU will be watching developments closely over the coming months with a view to offering further constructive criticisms wherever these appear necessary. David Midgley
Ms Curnock Cook she seem to be a bit of "I know it all" well she does not. There are many crap managers in Universities and many excellent academics and sometimes the reverse. If you only get promoted for research then that is what academics will tend to prioritise, until the best teachers are properly rewarded and recognised by promotions and pay which is fairly easy to spot over time then there will not be much improvement no matter how much "Quality control" is put into place. Also you cannot keep pouring money into ever more managers and senior admin staff and waste huge amounts of time and money on quality control and then then not pay properly the academics as there is no money left to give them a decent standard of living.