The much-anticipated Higher Education White Paper was released on Monday, sending the Twittersphere and other social media outlets into overload. It had been preceded by a Green (consultation) Paper in November last year, but the White Paper sets out what the government will actually be doing with/to HE over the next four years or so. The title ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’ gives some of it away. There is a strong economic focus, more detail on the impending Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), and a range of measures aimed at improving the information and options available to students. There is also a regulatory shake-up, which isn’t evident in the title; perhaps adding ‘Mergers and Acquisitions in Governance and Funding Structures’ to the end would have made it less catchy.
One of the major features of the White Paper is the facilitation of new entrants to the sector, subject to certain quality controls. There will be three levels of provider: ‘Approved (fee cap)’, ‘Approved’, and ‘Registered’. The former is essentially what a university is now – entitled to design and award its own degrees, undergraduate fees not significantly over £9,000, enrolling domestic students who can access government loans, and allowed to recruit non-EU students (who need Tier 4 visas). Registered providers can set fees wherever they like, but can only offer courses up to UK Level 4 (HNC/Degree Level C). They also can’t call themselves universities, meet tuition costs through state loans, or recruit anyone who needs a Tier 4 visa. Approved, as you might imagine, sits somewhere in the middle in terms of fees, loans and so on but they do have a University Title. Proponents of this opening up of the market say that competition keeps everyone on their toes and doing a good job, and while there will be casualties but this is healthy. Opponents would say that it devalues the status of the term university, undercuts the least prestigious universities, and offers opportunities for profit-oriented education providers to access state funding and cherry-pick lucrative and cost-effective degree subjects that are easier to market.
In terms of students themselves, there are four main developments.
- The biggest noise within academia has been about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the new pedagogical sibling of the REF. This will be phased in over several years, becoming more comprehensive/complex (and, probably, expensive) in future iterations. Crucially, providers who achieve excellent or outstanding rating will be able to raise their fees in line with inflation. This has been an ongoing issue for universities under capped fee regimes as many fixed costs such as utilities have been creeping up. TEF is supposed to improve the pedagogical experience, but as with all metric-based systems, it also comes with its application of proxies and opportunities for being gamed by universities.
- A second significant aspect for students is a greater availability of information on courses. This will include current Key Information Set (KIS) such as NSS scores and employability, but also long-term earnings data drawn from HMRC, degree outcomes (i.e.grades), the complaint levels, retention/drop-out rates, and more. Informed decision-making is a good thing, but as always the data made available shapes what students come to expect, and student happiness, or high employment – the latter often being dependent on a healthy economy – do not necessarily equate to a quality teaching experience.
- Flexible pathways are being pushed more vigorously, to allow for changes between full- and part-time during degrees, and for more credit transfer to facilitate moves between universities. This was the aim of modularisation over 20 years ago, but inter-university mobility has never really taken off in the UK. There is an implication that you will be able to transfer between universities of different statuses, a sort of ‘trading up’ (or down, too), but it remains to be seen how warmly elite institutions welcome this in practice.
- Finally, student loans will be made available for Master’s (from this year) and Doctoral and part-time students (both from 2018). This has been promised for some time and is long overdue as support for part-timers and scholarships for postgrads have been in short supply, but the total debt of someone who borrowed at the ‘full set’ over 7-9 years will be in excess of £70K.
As indicated earlier, there has been a significant reshuffle in who/what administers the system. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE, established in 1992) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA, since 2004) are being merged to create an Office for Students (OfS). OfS will be a champion of ‘competition, choice and the student interest’, allocating funding, providing degree awarding powers and university titles to new entrants, monitoring and publicising developments in student access, managing the Prevent (anti-terrorism) Strategy, and any additional functions the state deems appropriate. That is quite a portfolio. Intended to operate ‘at arm’s length’ form the government, its Chair, Chief Executive and non-executive board members will nonetheless be appointed by the government. The seven Research Councils, Innovate UK, and Research England are also being merged into UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). There will no doubt be some reshuffling and a flurry of new letterheads and logos, but given that eight of the nine of these organisations are already all based in the same building in Swindon, it’s not an altogether tectonic shift. The number of acronyms is shortening, but it might be difficult for those studying UK HE over time to remember them all.
While the White Paper does give a nod to the social value of degrees and graduates and promotes widening access, it does lean far more heavily on the combination of competition and metrics as a panacea for all of higher education’s supposed ills. It also continues to: apply the (oversimplified) metaphor of ‘consumers’ to students, frames degrees primarily as personal investments, and charges higher education overall with producing commercially exploitable knowledge in the interests of global economic competition. So it’s business as usual – pun intended – but takes us a number of steps further than we have been before.