Simple blueprint for a genuine market based on quality and variety

The sector doesn't need a Byzantine White Paper, says Aldwyn Cooper: it needs clear criteria, empowered universities and greater diversity

June 23, 2011

The rumours suggest that the higher education White Paper (yet to be published at the time of writing) will be unnecessarily complex, the result of a doomed attempt to please everybody. But I propose that with a measure of courage, an excellent, varied, access-oriented solution to higher education's problems could be achieved by putting the responsibility for managing provision back in the hands of the institutions themselves within clearly defined criteria.

Comparing the UK's per capita public investment in higher education with what the other developed economies spend on their academies is a sterile debate. The real issue is not an input factor, such as the Higher Education Funding Council for England's budget, but the outputs from the system, such as the employability of graduates, the sector's contribution to the arts, its international influence and its economic impact. Anyway, it is clear that there is no public appetite for increased university funding through taxation.

Most people agree that a world-class higher education system is crucial to the future of the UK, its citizens and its economy, although there are widely differing views on how it should be funded and what it should do.

Universities UK suggests that the value of the sector is about £59 billion a year because it delivers a wide variety of programmes, research and services in many different ways. But not everybody wants or needs the same thing. Delivering this breadth of offerings requires a real market wherein people can decide on the outcomes and experiences they want, the way they want to study and the sums they are prepared to invest in their futures over and above the limited state funding that will be available. At the same time, we must ensure that the brightest, best and most motivated students are not excluded through financial disadvantage.

We can create an affordable, diverse sector that meets all the fundamental needs: a first-class, relevant student experience; research excellence; promotion of social mobility; protection of the arts; local engagement; international reputation and influence; public- and private-sector provision; affordable public funding; and options in terms of methodology, experience and pricing.

The key factor is quality. The value of UK higher education lies in the recognised excellence of our provision, but there is a clear and present danger that this could slip.

The criteria for being recognised under Tier 4 for overseas student-visa sponsorship should be extended to any institution wishing to offer any higher education programme, either its own or those of other accrediting bodies. A satisfactory institutional review from either Ofsted or the Quality Assurance Agency should be the minimum entry requirement. Provision should exclude those "students" who simply want visas and ensure that genuine international students receive a quality experience and outcomes consistent with the high fees they pay.

As the Browne Review proposed, the cap on student tuition fees should be removed entirely. The student number cap should also be scrapped. The pressure on the student loan book should be relieved by limiting the maximum fees loan that can be drawn by any student from the Student Loans Company to £6,000 a year and ensuring that this be open to students at any institution that meets the quality criteria - public or private, charitable or for profit.

Support for financially disadvantaged students can be achieved in other ways. All universities are private institutions and charities. They should be required to meet the tacit requirement for educational charities to move towards dedicating 5 per cent of their turnover to bursaries and scholarships for the poor.

I propose that this requirement also be imposed on the private for-profit sector - this should be the price exacted for their right to offer higher education in the UK. The tax that they currently pay does not remotely compensate for the benefits they receive.

My prescription would create a real higher education market where top universities could charge the internationally competitive fees they believe are justified to deliver quality programmes, with other options becoming available in a diverse market mix.

Even in high fee institutions, financially disadvantaged students would be able to draw on the student loan scheme and more generous bursary funds without taking on huge debts. The developing private sector would make a genuine contribution to access on a level playing field for quality, visa sponsorship and access to loans.

Student numbers might decline marginally and some institutions might be forced to change their models or close, but this would be for the best.

It would be stupid not to keep it simple.

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