How can universities aim higher?

What does the Government’s ‘Success as a knowledge economy’ White Paper mean for Higher Education?

The Government’s reforms to higher education, set out in the recent White Paper Success as a knowledge economy are important parts of the Government’s agenda to shake up the higher education system, making it more accountable to students as consumers and encouraging innovation to the sector by encouraging new entrants. These reforms could be some of the most significant in decades.

The UK higher education system has gained an international reputation for quality. The question is whether giving students more power as consumers and removing many of the barriers to new universities being established will help to build this reputation for quality, or put it in jeopardy.

The core measures, including the introduction of a new Teaching Excellence Framework, which will allow the monitoring and assessment the quality of teaching in universities, in addition to the current system which focuses on research as a mark of quality. Fee increases and discounts will be linked to teaching performance.. Other initiatives include allowing students to switch courses more easily and requiring institutions to publish the gender, ethnicity and social backgrounds of their student intake to “shine a light on their admissions processes”.

The increase in student fees to £9,000 a year in 2010 was supposed to empower students as consumers as they became the ultimate purchasers of the education services they receive from universities. The reality has been that there has been little differentiation in fee levels, with 98 percent of universities charging the full £9,000 despite significant differences in quality and expected returns from enhanced earnings post-graduation.

Under the proposed new system, the fact that fee increases above £9000 will be tied to teaching quality is expected to open greater variation. This is an attractive prospect for leading universities allowing them to charge students higher fees.

The newly created Office for Students, which merges the Office for Fair Access with the learning and teaching functions of the HEFCE, will also act as a watchdog with significant powers and responsibility to police student choice and oversee teaching quality and social mobility so that they are duly and appropriately considered by institutions. Of all the reforms floated in the White Paper, this may actually have the most significant impact on the sector.

Despite the likelihood of fees increasing further, much of the commentary has been positive, with stakeholders from Which? to HEFCE recognising the government’s commitment to students and research. The University Alliance, for instance, claimed the Government had struck “a healthy balance between protecting the quality and global reputation of our country’s universities, whilst also encouraging innovation.”

The area that provoked some of the biggest reaction has been around how to pave the way for new private providers to enter the market and immediately have degree-awarding powers. The Government believes this will deliver greater competition and choice, which will in turn improve quality of provision and provide students greater value for money.

Others voices are concerned about what the opening up of the university market and streamlining the regulation around degree awarding powers will mean for the UK’s reputation for quality. Notably, the Universities and College Union has warned that encouraging private institutions puts the UK’s reputation at risk and opens the possibility of students and taxpayers being ripped off by low quality institutions.

It was always going to be difficult for the government to reform higher education and balance the varying demands of students, institutions and other bodies, but the level of criticism or lack thereof has been surprisingly, considering how radical these changes could potentially be. The lack of criticism may be due in part to the approach taken by the Universities Minister Jo Johnson who has been keen to build a co-operative relationship with the higher education establishment rather than one of confrontation.

This may be the calm before the storm and could change as the Higher Education and Research Bill enters Parliament and the detail of the proposals faces more scrutiny.