United assault on Clarke plans

April 11, 2003

Unions representing more than 110,000 academics and 5 million students are "utterly opposed" to the government's plans for the biggest shake-up of higher education since the 1960s.

Lecturers' union Natfhe, the Association of University Teachers, and the National Union of Students have united in a campaign to block plans in the white paper on the future of higher education to introduce top-up fees, to concentrate research funding, and to allow the creation of teaching-only universities.

After the three unions met higher education minister Margaret Hodge this week, Natfhe's head of universities, Tom Wilson, told The THES: "The whole of the sector stands shoulder to shoulder, united in its vehement opposition to the plans. But it (the government) seems determined to steam ahead regardless. It is incredible."

The AUT was the first of the three unions to finalise its formal response before the April 30 deadline. After months of consultation, including a survey of 10,000 of its members, the association said: "We are utterly opposed to the creation of a differentiated system offering differential access for students and an impoverished professional life for staff."

The AUT paper warns that plans to concentrate research funding and create more teaching-only departments and institutions "make a mockery of the pretence that the new students that we want to attract will receive an equally valuable educational experience".

Viewed alongside plans to introduce differential tuition fees and to push expansion through two-year foundation degrees, "it becomes clear that a tiered system of universities will be created".

The AUT claims that the government's desire to recruit, retain and reward staff will fail without a significant improvement in pay and conditions.

Limited initiatives such as localised performance-related pay and pay differentiation will not be sufficient.

Natfhe's draft response echoes the AUT's. It says: "Differential fees will entrench the most divisive and elitist features of the current system."

A spokesman for the NUS said: "We are vehemently opposed to the idea of allowing different institutions to charge different fee levels - a situation where students base their choice on cost rather than course and course content. We don't think a token grant makes any difference and the poorest students will still be £900 worse off."

Universities UK, representing vice-chancellors, is also worried that a differentiated sector will be created. Its response says: "Overall, there are serious fears that the white paper's proposals will produce a specialised and differentiated sector that does not reflect the complexity of how universities have to operate in the public interest regionally, nationally and internationally.

"Proposed funding for teaching is inadequate and plans to further concentrate research funding are damaging, with too many of the teaching funds tied to specific purposes and some are just too small."

UUK says it is "vital" that public investment in teaching is maintained or increased once the cap on tuition fees is raised in 2006.

Plans to fund centres of excellence in teaching also raised concern. The proposals include "an assessment mechanism that could risk bureaucratic and distorting effects", UUK says. Instead, it proposes channelling funding through National Teaching Fellowships, the teaching academy and human resource strategies.

UUK is "deeply concerned" about increasing levels of selectivity in research funding. "There is a real risk that the present system will ossify and there will be little or no opportunity for new research teams to emerge." Collaboration, it says, is not a "quick-fix for dealing with the consequences of a stratified sector".

The Coalition of Modern Universities issued its own response. It says that modern universities have a "sense of betrayal" at attempts to confine them to a teaching-only role, particularly in light of their work to widen participation.

UUK says knowledge transfer should be encouraged wherever it occurs, not just in less research-intensive universities.

It welcomes the increase in the access premium to 20 per cent but argues that expansion should not be restricted to foundation degrees. And it says that the government should urgently consider increasing the restored maintenance grant to at least the level of the education maintenance allowance - £1,500 a year.

Plans to change the rules on the use of the university title have alarmed vice-chancellors: "If the requirement for research degree- awarding powers is to be waived for institutions applying for the university title, there must be a requirement for demonstration of significant research activity in the institution concerned."

But higher education college heads have called for a further relaxation of rules governing the use of the university title.

In its response to the white paper, the Standing Conference of Principals urges the government to start fresh talks with college heads over possible rule changes in the light of moves already under way to "liberalise" the title.

Scop argues that all higher education institutions should be allowed to include "university college" in their name, in addition to current proposals for a fast track to university status for colleges with taught degree-awarding powers.

Scop also calls for a revision of restrictions on university status based on the size of an institution and the breadth of its provision, and proposes that small and specialist institutions with taught degree-awarding powers should be offered an alternative title such as "specialist university institute".

Scop wants the government to streamline the process of scrutiny that colleges must go through before acquiring taught degree-awarding powers and the university title.

A survey of Scop member colleges found that the current process was heavily bureaucratic, time-consuming, expensive and lacks transparency and structured feedback to institutions.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education says the paper ignores the needs of adult learners and part-time students and its proposals are too deeply rooted in old assumptions to reap the benefits of reform. More than half of all higher education students are mature, it says, but the white paper "is seriously flawed in failing to pay sufficient attention to adults of all ages and to part-time students and their demands on a flexible and diverse higher education system".

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