Government Green Papers rather went out of fashion for a while. After all, why bother consulting when you know exactly what you want to do.
But the publication of Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice last week seemed to be in the best tradition of a Green Paper; setting out a direction of travel, floating options and seeking to build consensus before legislating.
That is positive but we should not be complacent. Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, is not going to be waiting around if he senses that the sector is navel-gazing or stalling. So universities have to be robust, strong and coherent in their response.
Inevitably, the teaching excellence framework will garner most attention. There are some tired old prejudices rehashed in the Green Paper, such as that research intensives always relegate teaching to a poor second place. But as a Conservative manifesto commitment, the TEF is going to happen and the sector should not be on the wrong side of the argument.
The Green Paper rightly aspires to a TEF that is as unbureaucratic as possible, so the phased introduction is to be welcomed. We can also all agree on the need for a single and integrated system of quality assurance. Yet it is hard to see how the proposed higher-level TEF awards can be anything other than a significant new burden on universities whose autonomy is, at the same time, prized in the Green Paper.
There is also a risk that too much is loaded on to the TEF, with everything from widening participation, through consumer legislation compliance to more nuanced degree classifications. Anyone who knows anything about regulation and inspection will tell you that that is not a good idea.
On fees, the Green Paper is monumentally underwhelming. It implies that no increase, at whatever TEF level, can exceed inflation. Taking the current retail price index of 0.8 per cent, the TEF would seem a lot of work for a small increase. So the question is whether something more dramatic on fees, requiring primary legislation, might be afoot when the TEF matures.
But a very simple level-one TEF, which encompasses almost all universities, would not satisfy the government when it came to unlocking fee increases above inflation. So universities concerned for reputational and financial reasons to achieve a higher TEF “score” will have to accept a more intrusive process, which could get down to the subject level.
This is where the “greenness” of the Green Paper helps. There is an opportunity to create a proportionate, sensible system that, over time, seeks to include some direct measures of quality and learning gain. One coda, though, speaking as ex-chief inspector of schools: any Ofsted-style arrangements will be a costly disaster.
When it comes to research, the Green Paper says very little, but what it does say is positive and needs to be reinforced throughout the consultation period. Dual support and the research excellence framework remain, although there are hints that the latter might change. It is likely, though, that a wholesale shift to a metrics-based approach would be unwelcome in the sector.
As for the research councils, the government appears to have outsourced advice to the review being led by Sir Paul Nurse. Some kind of rationalisation seems inevitable and it is here that the commitment to dual support and how it operates needs to be tested.
But we know that some changes to the wider higher education landscape are afoot with, at the very least, the merger of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access into a new Office for Students.
It might be tempting not to care too much about the “architecture”. That would be wrong as the Green Paper churlishly fails to acknowledge Hefce’s contribution under a succession of outstanding leaders. More importantly, it is a profound mistake to separate the oversight of teaching and research, as well as the many other functions universities undertake. At a time when it will be easier for new entrants to come into the system, it is bizarre to remove any capacity for the work of universities to be seen in the round by a single body.
When it comes to new providers, there is little to object to in a more diverse higher education sector. What would be objectionable are different rules applying to new providers.
Call me old-fashioned, but there is a very strong sense in the Green Paper that ministers do not much care about which institutions call themselves a university. Perhaps the government should go the whole hog and just call us all “providers”, in the ugly Whitehall-ese of the Green Paper. So much for the reputation of UK higher education, much feted in its opening sections.
There is a lot to play for in the consultation phase ahead and, again, credit to the minister for not moving immediately to a White Paper and legislation. But whatever else happens in the period ahead, we should never tire of reiterating the intrinsic value of higher education. Surprising though it may seem to some in government, that is what continues to motivate students and staff alike.
Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor of the University of Reading.