If policy represents solutions to problems, it’s hard to regard the government’s efforts this week as a great bit of wonkery. The White Paper’s title contains the phrases “Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”, yet its proposals contain limited measures that might actually improve the quality of teaching.
The absence of proposals to improve (rather than just expose the lack of) social mobility is another problem. And the definition of student choice in this context (most of HE will further homogenise, but you too could get into a lifetime of debt with a degree from someone that’s never awarded one before but wants to make a profit from you) is dispiriting at best.
But while this is a ‘no consultation’ White Paper, there are still things that can be done to improve it.
The first eye-catching proposal that is central to Cameron’s “social justice” themed Queen’s Speech is the formalisation of the focus on diversity and fairness by tracking success measures other than access throughout the student life cycle. OFFA has been working in this direction anyway and will help end the scandal of students that aren’t ‘traditional’ being properly understood only before, rather than during, their studies.
But measuring at institutional level masks huge inequalities across subject mixes within HEIs, so given we’re due a TEF that works at the subject level, we really need access agreements that work at this level too.
I’ve often thought that going to university in the UK as an undergrad is like visiting a theme park- the big maps, the smiley people in t-shirts, the expensive catering; there’s a bunch of costs you haven’t thought about, no redress once you’re in if half the rides aren’t working. And it’s not as if you can easily change your mind if you’re disappointed on the day.
So perhaps the most intriguing proposal in the white paper is a watered down version of my proposal from my Wonkhe blog of November 2014 – the launch of a “call for evidence” on whether students “should be able to switch course more easily”.
If like me you believe that the ‘voice’ side of Hirschman’s exit/voice options for wielding power is great for the collective student interest in the long term but useless for individual redress in the short term, the potential strengthening of the ability of students to take their money elsewhere is exciting.
Beware, BIS, the clutch of ‘evidence’ you’re about to receive which will all claim there’s no problem here – it’s likely to be as reliable as some of the claims in universities’ dodgy prospectuses that students are so upset about in the first place. If BIS really wants to empower students rather than prospective students, the exciting next step would be only to incur debt for year one – and only prevent students going to a new HEI in the future – once a student is safely installed in year two.
Depending on where you sit in the HE sector, you may or may not believe that the REF is effective, but its power is not in the exercise itself, it’s in the way the results can go on to dictate funding. A government that has given up on direct grant funding of universities will therefore never make a TEF work in the same way, and the White Paper demonstrates this.
For students, there’s much sound and fury about fees and the potential for them to rise but the smart student would be wise to worry about the stuff not mentioned – the untampered ability of the government to play about with repayment terms, the dodgy repayment calculators from government agencies failing to tell them how much they’ll pay back, the outrageous clutch of hidden course costs that the CMA is only just starting to uncover, the hugely market-distortive role that university pricing policy is having on the cost of accommodation and the wafer thin student protection policies for new entrants.
If the government wants to intervene to make the market work for students when it comes to costs, it should start by preventing itself from changing loan terms once a deal is signed and end by looking at the range of costs and debt now being faced by potential undergraduates.
Students’ unions and NUS dodged a bullet having been braced for tough measures. NUS’ disaffiliation battles at present are probably a blessing, given a Secretary of State not minded to view the student movement with benevolence can probably point to NUS referendum requirements in the Education Act 1994 and regard them as doing the job they were designed for. Meanwhile, concerns about SU transparency and accountability hinted at in the Green Paper look to have been largely headed off, with OfS set to work with the Charity Commission on making sure everyone can see what all of them are up to.
The sad bit is that while the White Paper “recognises the roles that SUs play”, in truth it massively sidelines them. A combination of not wanting to impose SUs on the new “challenger institutions” and NUS’ dalliances with a boycott of the TEF results in SUs being at best optional when it comes to student voice in the TEF technical consultation.
The government could choose to extend the SU bit of the Education Act 1994 to new providers; it could require that new providers include students on their governing bodies, and it could ensure that valuable individual advocacy offered to students by unions in the event of a problem or complaint is a right extended to all HE students. I doubt it will.
There are, of course, plenty of other missed opportunities. Creating an Office for Students without involving them in its governance (that we know about) is disappointing. Carefully regulating what a university can charge without doing anything to regulate what you might get for that debt is remarkable. There’s nothing substantial on course closures (only institution-wide closure), nothing on the scandal of the UK external examining system (students are paying to be marked as much as they are being paid to be taught), and ominous deregulation paragraphs that could lead to the asset-stripping of institutions that all of us as taxpayers have contributed to over the years.
But perhaps the most miserable thing about the White Paper is the lack of focus on what will actually be delivered. You can’t have it both ways. If it’s a market where providers and consumers are free to choose each other, HEIs won’t risk dwindling capital on the sort of expensive HE vocational stuff that the labour market needs. And students will never choose degree level apprenticeships unless and until they look as expensive and ‘prestigious’ as ‘academic’ HE.
Attempts to level that playing field so far, for instance by making nursing students pay for the privilege of staffing our hospitals at weekends, have been in the wrong direction. What is perhaps needed is an OfS charged with making sure that provision exists across the UK and that cold spots, both from a general HE participation perspective and from a subject level perspective, are tackled. It’s not too late.