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“As of ill parody” – re-assembling the shattered future of UK HE [April Fool]

David Kernohan's first analysis of the draft HE White Paper, found last night.
This article is more than 5 years old

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

Like most of you, I’ve been pouring over this document since it came to light earlier this morning. Maddeningly abridged, full of spelling errors, the pages from the White Paper give us an eye-popping preview (in almost Yes Minister-esque detail) of policies currently being formed.

I should note that, as with all leaks of this nature, that we should be careful not to get carried away. There is no telling what the status of this text is – whether “Draft 4.1” is a long-discarded early attempt or a representation of the very latest thinking. Though it was discovered and shared with the editorial team late last night, it may have lain undisturbed for some time beforehand. Though there is reference to missing content and approval both within the scraps of full text that have come to light and the list of contents, we don’t know if what is on the page is the previous draft of just a placeholder (a judicious search for the text in the paragraph labelled 3.32 would suggest that at least some of the latter is the case).

But there are two huge stories with a level of detail that warrants, whatever their status, fuller analysis. Here I leave aside the many compelling details – the lateness of the contribution from 10 Downing Street, the seeming re-emergence of the National Licence for research first postulated by HEPI this time last year, the separate section in the Green Paper response annex dealing with Dr Martin Eve’s epic open response, the small hints of an expanded role for the The Higher Education Academy –  that have already fascinated many commentators on Twitter.

Regarding the The Office of Quality Student Experience (OfQSE, which I’m reading in my head as ‘off queues’ – but confusingly rendered “OfQSA” in a couple of places in the contents), we are looking at a classic ‘one statutory body to rule them all’ as seen in policy documents since time immemorial. In this instance a range of what are basically market regulation/information functions are rolled into the current QAA, rather than the traditional HEFCE. Though this is unusual enough to raise eyebrows, there is a sort of twisted logic in building additional functions into an organisation with a track record of conducting inspections and reviewing institutional documentation.

Encapsulating functions from the whole alphabet soup of other bodies also serves to tie the TEF (note that this, as per paragraph 3.28, is no longer linked to fee levels) more closely into the regulatory and data collection end of quality assurance than previous formulations. Learning Gain, and parallel Jisc (amusingly, and antiquely, rendered in all caps with the definite article in the paper!) work on sector-wide learning analytics look a sensible rationalisation of control over emerging data sources. And the linking of QR (REF-related research funding) to teaching performance alongside the new QT allocations, though somewhat puzzling in intention, is easily achieved.

Perhaps those years of ‘research-informed teaching’ claims from certain institutions are coming home to roost?

But the real shock is the transfer of the statutory powers currently held by HEFCE, the Home Office(!) and the Privy Council. This is perhaps the ultimate streamlining of sector entry, allowing degree awarding powers, Tier 4 designation and fee loan designation to be managed within a single interaction with a single organisation. Indeed, the same organisation would also manage all monitoring and compliance activity, alongside student complaints, financial concerns and sector exit. A genuine “one stop shop” for HE? Intriguing.

Ending some elements of fee loan support for non-STEM subjects – for how else should we see paragraphs 3.19-3.22? – would be an enormously radical change to funding, even with the ‘co-funding’ sop offered to existing providers. I suspect we are not looking at lower fees for these courses, rather market entry for a range of alternate loan providers. Whereas the attempt to match funders with courses is laudable, it does look like we could be looking at a huge reduction in courses offered that do not directly link to employer needs.

It is a shame that we do not have the text of previous part of chapter 3, which would surely offer further details of this policy – including, perhaps, some kind of justification. The Arts Council estimate an economic contribution from the arts and culture sector of some £7.7bn in 2013, the Economic and Social Research Council have a similarly impressive range of impact measures. There are shades of a neo-Thatcherite attack on the social sciences, that appears both economically illiterate and staggeringly short sighted. The argument that these subjects should pay their way via appeal to industry is perhaps the final nail in the coffin of HE as a societal good.

Reading the attack on the Open University (paras 3.23-3.25, and implied to exist earlier in the document) is, frankly, surreal. Whereas the OU does currently run a deficit, this is not due to the core activity of part-time distance learning. And whereas there has been a slight drop in year-on-year enrollment, the OU remains the largest HEI in the UK. There is nothing about any recent institutional performance that suggests privatisation is the answer, though some former staff may laugh ruefully at the proposed regional focus of the result.

Even if this represents a genuine, recent, draft of the forthcoming White Paper, it is important to remember that the White Paper itself represents another consultation opportunity and that there is still chance to stop much of what today’s discoveries have presented via lobbying and activism. The sector should use this opportunity as an early insight into the battles that may be fought during yet another unsettled summer of HE policy making.

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