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Hopes, fears and predictions for the coming White Paper

Ten experts of different stripes from across the HE sector share their hopes and fears about the coming White Paper and Bill which although now imminent, has so far remind tightly locked away in Whitehall.
This article is more than 8 years old

News, analysis and explanation of higher education issues from our leading team of wonks

The sector is bracing itself for the next stage in the government’s higher education reforms with a White Paper and Bill expected to published next week. We found out what the biggest concerns are among higher education leaders and wonks, but also what positive effects and changes could come out of the plans.

Andy Westwood, Associate Vice President of Public affairs at the University of Manchester and Professor of Politics at the University of Winchester:

“It’s difficult not to envisage a white paper that accelerates the direction of reform set out in David Willetts’ 2011 White Paper. We can expect more reforms that increase competition, market mechanisms and regulation and more information and metrics to underpin them. New providers, value for money and innovation are part of the narrative. So too are new organisations such as the Office for Students and the Teaching Excellence Framework.

Ministers usually underestimate the turmoil that major structural change creates as well as the time it takes. There will be considerable upheaval for the research councils and innovate UK as they come together under a new umbrella body. And that’s with less capacity and experience at BIS, as well as a challenging spending settlement. For the next two or three years this transition will dominate HE. Scrutiny of any legislation – including from an increasingly combative Lords (where HE has always been well represented) – will affect some of the White paper’s plans. It’s ironic that a Bill that has been five years in the making now feels so rushed as a result of the EU referendum timetable demanding that the government show it is in control.

My hope is that all these strands come together into a coherent view of a sector that does more things well than it does badly. My fear is that they don’t and we’re left with a series of disconnected and complex initiatives that aim to reform what Jo Johnson has described as “a market [that] hasn’t had sufficient demand side pressures in an optimal way…””

Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive of Million Plus:

“Our biggest concern is that the interests of students are compromised as a result of the government’s ambition to make it easier for alternative providers to enter the market. Our hope is that the Office of Students remains independent with holistic oversight over the sector including quality-related research funding. Moving the latter to Research UK would compromise the long-term future of research funding in universities including for postgraduate students.”

Paul Greatrix, Registrar of the University of Nottingham:

“The White Paper is already feeling to me like a bad party which you have to go to but you know there are going to be awful people there, perhaps one or two people you do want to meet and others you’d pay to avoid.

My sincere hope is for a rational reinterpretation of the Green Paper’s regulatory dog’s breakfast into a more coherent and less costly framework. This will not be easy given the conflicting policy priorities of introducing the TEF, opening up higher education to new providers and separating teaching and research funding. I’m also rather keen not to see everything tipped into one Office for Students, just down the metaphorical corridor from the Minister, when higher education is much broader, multifaceted and dynamic and not solely about students (essential though they are!). This new coherent framework needs to be significantly less burdensome than the current regulatory juggernaut. The White Paper has the opportunity to revoke the seemingly inviolable higher education rule that as funding declines, regulation grows. Will it? My fear is it won’t.

More optimistically, I’ve got a bet on the number of references to the mythical ‘level playing field’ at very good odds so am hoping for a big win there (there were eight in the Green Paper).”

Maddalaine Ansell, Chief Executive of University Alliance:

“The White Paper will introduce the next phase of the Government’s extensive reform programme. So far, this has been radical – going right to the heart of what higher education is and who it is for. We expect this trend to continue and the sector should be ready for more disruption. Our hope is that this disruption creates space for innovation. If the TEF is set up in a way that rewards those universities that have always put their students at the heart of what they do and have constantly challenged themselves to do better – for example through their links with business or by using their research to enhance their teaching – it will be a good thing.

The fear is that it will drive universities towards playing safe, creating a system where everything looks more or less the same. Or worst of all to chasing the students that are most likely to succeed rather than opening up opportunity to those from less affluent backgrounds.

Keeping the theme of hoping the system will be better at recognising excellence, we will be looking for reassurance that, even if QR is moved to Research UK, the dual funding system will be protected and that any changes to the REF make it more rather than less likely that excellence will be recognised wherever it is found.”

Emran Mian, Director of the Social Market Foundation:

“My hope is that the Office for Students will live up to its name. The alternative to student-centred regulation is a bias to short-term institutional interests or students fending for themselves as consumers. The former will mean that tough questions about quality and sustainability among weaker institutions aren’t asked, and opportunities to draw in new provision are missed. The latter is simply unfair – regulators should always be more focused on the interests of people not providers and supporting them wherever they can.

My biggest fear is that, as the Government continues to develop the detail of Teaching Excellence Framework, the sometimes passive-aggressive response from the sector will mean the TEF turns into a bossy and bureaucratic tool. Many teaching staff and university leaders dislike the idea of the TEF. Nevertheless consultation responses from the sector focus on the detail rather than the principle. Yet the more detailed and indeed subtle the TEF becomes the less likely it is to make a large difference to teaching quality and the more likely it is to create administrative and pedagogical burdens for teaching staff.”

Joy Elliot-Bowman, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at Study UK:

“While many may say the upcoming White Paper is about competition, I would argue it’s about student choice. In the absence of legislation, the past decade has seen a dazzling array of opportunities open up for students. The lines between FE and HE have blurred and emerging specialist, vocational and industry-driven courses have flourished due in part to the higher fee regime. The challenge for the sector is that regulation has not kept pace. Public information on alternative provision is limited and students struggle to understand marks of quality.

This White Paper presents an opportunity to bring a sense of order to the system. Past attempts at regulating quality without legislation, especially since 2011, have been reactionary and optional – a dangerous mix for both students and providers. The White Paper should establish a single route into the sector where all providers must prove their quality and which gives prospective students the reliable information they require.

Let’s be clear, however, that a level playing field is one where the rules work for everyone. It is not simply forcing everyone to come and play in your field and then calling it level. We need a single system which focuses on student choice, and recognises that competition naturally underpins this choice. Competition will work when students get the information they need to judge each college and university on its merits and decide if it’s right for them. That is what will make or break the single route.”

Martin McQuillan, PVC Research, Kingston University:

“I sincerely hope that the occasion of the White Paper allows for sustained public scrutiny of the direction of higher education policy since 2010. Democratic oversight has been required since the Conservative-led Coalition set out on a path to transform English universities into a mechanism for maximising graduate earnings and human capital potential. I have no illusions that the White Paper will be amended or defeated but the discussion is long overdue. I hope this becomes a cross-over issue for the mainstream media.

My fear is that in the absence of an effective opposition, the Conservatives will attempt to get away with as much as they think that they can get away with. The White Paper was written in a rush by pressured civil servants currently threatened with what amounts to constructive dismissal. That doesn’t make for good bill-drafting. Although it doesn’t require primary legislation my big fear is that the White Paper paves the way for a future student finance regime that restricts access and funding to certain subjects on the basis of graduate earnings and percentage repayment of student loans. Having scorched the HE policy earth for this parliament, other more unpalatable things may follow by statutory powers and related Bill amendments before we are through with this government.”

Andrew McGettigan, higher education journalist and author:

“I did not see very much of any merit in the Green Paper and, by all reports, the government has not made much effort to engage the sector subsequently. I fear a White Paper would try to push further with ill-judged plans for market reform and increased involvement from private equity and other money funds. One hope would be that the government has finally clocked that it needs to do something about part-time students, mature students and retraining – a glaring absence from the Green Paper and one that any government serious about productivity must address.”

Jane Forster, Vice-Chancellor’s Policy Advisor, Bournemouth University:

“Comment on the TEF up to this point has tended to focus on principle, and on the risks of a TEF done badly. Of course that is fair enough, but there still could be a silver lining. After all, we all believe in excellent teaching and widening participation in HE, and I want my children to choose the right universities for them and be employable in their chosen field, whatever it is.

So I hope that next week we will see proposals for a TEF structure that will celebrate and encourage innovation and diversity in learning opportunities and teaching informed by research, that will recognise opportunities to learn the so-called ‘softer’ skills, and will value creativity and the growth of new learning for their own sake. There will still be a lot of work to do, but we may get enough detail to move on constructively with a practical rather than theoretical debate.

My fear for the TEF itself (ignoring for a moment concerns about fees, social mobility and the reputation of the sector) is that we’ll get a predetermined set of metrics that will result in a ‘greige’ approach to teaching and learning. Fingers crossed.”

Chris Hale, Director of Policy at Universities UK:

“My hope is that the package of proposals set out in the White Paper and Bill celebrate and reinforce institutional autonomy. The autonomy of the sector is an essential characteristic of the system and the envy of many of our competitors. Erosion of autonomy will undermine dynamism, competitiveness and the sector’s ability to innovate. The question of autonomy will surface in many areas; getting the design of OfS right will be a critical element of this, particularly ensuring it can continue the important role of mediating between the sector and government in an appropriate way

Although unlikely, my fear is that the government hasn’t listened to the 600+ responses it received in response to the Green Paper. There were many excellent responses, full of constructive input and where they did disagree, many alternative approached signaled. The ones I have seen are a real credit to the wider policy community in higher education.”

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