University of Cambridge: Green Paper plans risk ‘considerable damage’

Cambridge’s consultation response outlines opposition to ‘further marketisation’ via TEF and variable fees

January 25, 2016
King's College Chapel, Cambridge

The government’s plans for higher education in its Green Paper could cause “considerable damage to the sector and its international reputation”, the University of Cambridge has warned.

In a scathing response to the Green Paper consultation, Cambridge says the document “fails to demonstrate an understanding of the purpose of our universities”.

The university warns that the government must not create a “two-tier system” of separate teaching and research institutions; that the plan to create a new regulator in the Office for Students is “not acceptable”; and that it is “opposed to further steps towards the marketization of higher education implied by increased differentiation of fees” via the teaching excellence framework.

Cambridge’s response is co-authored by Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the university’s vice-chancellor.

Meanwhile, the University of Oxford’s Green Paper response says that the costs of the government’s TEF plans in current form “would outweigh its benefits”.

And the Russell Group says in its response that the TEF as currently proposed “could increase this [regulatory] burden in the long-term” and that there is “a systemic risk to the international reputation and standing of UK Higher Education (and potentially to the reputation of individual institutions) from a poorly developed, misused or misinterpreted TEF”.

The critical responses from Cambridge, Oxford and the Russell Group – three organisations whose views carry significant influence in the national media and on government – are potentially damaging for Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister.

Universities UK had already criticised the plan to create “three or four” different award levels in the TEF, each linked to a different fee cap (with an increase in line with inflation the maximum rise allowed).

Cambridge’s response says that there is “much in the Green Paper to endorse”, including plans to recognise teaching excellence and widen participation.

But it adds that there are “three aspects of fundamental concern: the mechanisms proposed to secure these objectives, which in many cases are likely to be counter-productive; the proposal to separate wholly the regulation and funding of teaching from research; and, linked to that, the removal of one regulatory body independent of government with oversight of the entirety of university activity”.

Cambridge’s response continues: “Unless these issues are satisfactorily addressed, the proposals will cause considerable damage to the sector and, consequently, to its international reputation; they will also risk undermining the very priorities they are designed to advance.”

The Green Paper “fails to demonstrate an understanding of the purpose of our universities and the reasons for the sector’s international standing”, Cambridge says.

“The ‘long-reach’ aim of universities is to help students grow into thoughtful and critical citizens, not just earners and consumers,” it adds.

On funding, the university says that “we do not support the linkage between TEF and fees: it is bound to affect student decision-making adversely, and in particular it may deter students from low income families from applying to the best universities”.

Although the government says that any fee rises arising from the TEF would be capped at the rate of inflation, Cambridge acknowledges suggestions from some in the sector that the government’s ultimate aim is to pave the way to a system of truly variable fees, in which some universities charge significantly more than others.

“If a TEF is associated with an ability to increase tuition fees beyond inflation, students would be forced to choose between quality, as measured by a TEF, and affordability,” it says.

Instead, the TEF should purely be a “Kitemark” of teaching quality, Cambridge advises.

The Green Paper includes plans to merge the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access, creating a new market and student-focused regulator called the Office for Students.

Hefce’s research responsibilities would be passed to a new Research UK body, the government has proposed.

“The absence of one overarching independent regulatory body for universities at arm’s length from government with responsibility for overseeing the full range of a university’s activity is a basic flaw in the Green Paper’s proposed new architecture,” Cambridge says.

The university also warns against “crude or reductive metrics” being used for the TEF.

Oxford warns of a “possible deleterious separation of research and teaching”, calling the split of Hefce’s responsibilities between the OfS and Research UK “a potentially damaging move”.

On the TEF and fees, Oxford says that “we do not see a scale of three or four levels as being ‘simple’, and we are not clear on what basis differentiation would be made between different levels”.

The university adds: “It is not clear to us how the proposed system of financial incentives is intended to function. If, as seems possible from a reading of the proposals, the different levels of award are to work within a narrow range of tuition fee caps, based on inflation adjustments, the cost to institutions of seeking a higher level of award, in additional data collection, monitoring and reporting, could well be greater than the financial gain.”

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