White Paper: reactions round-up

Politicians, vice-chancellors and lobby groups have all given their initial responses to the publication of today’s White Paper on higher education. Here are a selection:

June 28, 2011

“The move to a funding system that is flexible and responsive will help ensure greater student choice. However, the government must ensure that the detailed proposals on student number controls do not result in unintended consequences that could be damaging to students and universities’ efforts to widen participation. For instance, proposals to create more places for students with at least AAB A-level grades should explicitly allow universities to use contextual data in the admissions process. We must also ensure that by allowing only universities charging average fees of less than £7,500 as part of the ‘core and margin’ proposals, this does not undermine the quality of the higher education system. This is uncharted territory and will have to be monitored closely.

“The UK has one of the best higher education systems in the world. Our rigorous quality assurance system has been vital to this success. It’s encouraging that government is seeking to strengthen this system while lightening the bureaucratic burden on universities. It is crucial that this tough quality assurance system applies in the same way to any new providers of higher education.

Sir Steve Smith, President of Universities UK.

“A White Paper that aims to put ‘students at the heart of the system’ is very welcome in principle. However there appears to be nothing new here for students and absolutely no evidence that the competition Ministers are trying to inject will actually improve the quality of the student experience.

“Worse still, Ministers are putting at risk the social mobility they insist is at the heart of their reforms. A mini-market in ‘AAB’ students could favour students from independent schools and actually constrain a university’s ability to widen access. Meanwhile, by failing to acknowledge that universities plan to charge fees above £7,500 to protect the quality of the student experience in the face of huge cuts, encouraging low-cost providers would be in the interests of the Treasury and not in the interests of students.

“At a time of unprecedented change for UK universities, the Government should not be in the game of undermining degree awarding powers. The strict criteria for awarding degrees in the UK is why our universities are very highly regarded both in Britain and internationally. Watering-down quality and using taxpayers’ money to incentivise private providers may benefit shareholders but it will do very little for the student experience and student choice.

“What Ministers needed to do today was to make crystal clear that studying at university is the best career move that people can make. Students should be encouraged to study for the degree that they need, to get the job that they want, rather than shop around for the cheapest course. The Government appears to know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.”

Professor Les Ebdon, Chair of million+ and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire.

“Today’s White Paper recognises the benefits of affordable, quality college higher education in England by providing 20,000 extra student places available for institutions setting 2012 course fees under £7,500; the vast majority of further education colleges teaching HE will be charging £6,000 or below next year.

“While we would have liked to see even more places available and a price threshold lower than £7,500 as a welcome first step in creating more affordable places, in a way that is flexible and leads to improved life and career prospects, we understand the pressures on the public purse that necessitate a limit on additional places.

“Allowing more institutions to award degrees and foundation degrees will ultimately increase the opportunities for students who want to pursue vocational, employment-focused higher education in colleges and this is a positive commitment to widening participation.”

Association of Colleges Chief Executive Martin Doel.

“Our overriding concern is that the White Paper does not address the full range of activities that go on in UK universities. The best student experiences are found in institutions that are excellent across the board. There is nothing in this White Paper on how the government intends to support research, so important to the country’s future economic prospects. There is nothing on post-graduate students, the next generation of academics. And there is nothing on internationalism, and how UK universities can assume an ever more impressive status on the world stage. At a time when international competitors are growing ever stronger on all of these factors, the White Paper’s failure to set forth a comprehensive and compelling vision is a real missed opportunity.”

Paul Wellings, Chair of the 1994 Group and Vice Chancellor of Lancaster University.

“The White Paper is a step in the right direction, but it is a very small step. Competition is important, but the rhetoric runs ahead of reality.”

Tim Leunig, chief economist, CentreForum.

“To use proposals for more information as a justification for lifting the cap on fees to £9,000 is outrageous and will not fool students and their families. It's the price rather than educational standards, that will have tripled.

“Ministers are at risk of creating stability for the perceived best but complete chaos for the rest. The vast majority of university entrants, who don't get the very best grades, will be treated to complete market chaos and real uncertainty about their universities and courses.”

Aaron Porter, president, National Union of Students.

“Trying to force down the cost of a degree after the government got its sums wrong will not solve the funding crisis it created. The only thing the government is likely to force down is quality.

“The siren voices calling for more for-profit universities here are the same as those who have immersed higher education in the US in a series of mis-selling scandals where poor students have lost out.”

Sally Hunt, general secretary, University and College Union.

“While there is much in the White Paper we welcome, our concern is the political pressures that caused delays to its publication have led to the wider economic vision being lost. We would urge the Coalition Government to look beyond the immediate changes and provide the much-needed economic vision that recognises universities – delivering work-ready graduates and research with impact – as key to growing the UK out of recession and driving an innovation-based economy.“

Libby Hackett, Director of University Alliance.

“We welcome the move to put a high quality student experience at the heart of the White Paper. We have worked closely with Government to ensure that students are centre-stage in our universities and that we work together to achieve an outstanding learning experience. The decision to go to university is a major investment in the future – more so now than ever. That is why all 23 Alliance universities have signed up to a vision for the empowered student, placing them at the centre of their learning. The work I have been leading on student charters and Key Information Sets will extend the provision of information for both prospective and current students, leading to the exercise of informed judgment on their part about choice and quality.”

Janet Beer, Chair of University Alliance and Vice Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University.

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