Emphasis on safeguarding institutional autonomy and following through in widening participation targets featured heavily in responses to the government’s new Green Paper published today. The document, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice for Higher Education, has attracted responses from across the sector.
Professor Madeleine Atkins, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) chief executive, said:
“The higher education Green Paper proposes a reshaping of the higher education system which puts students at its heart. We look forward to contributing to the debates and developments it will foster.
“We will continue to perform our current role and functions to our usual high standards throughout this period of deliberation and transition. We welcome the government’s clear acknowledgement of the strength and success of England’s world-class higher education system, and we will continue to work on behalf of students and the public to promote excellence and innovation in the sector.”
Atkins also made the point that the Green Paper “Explicitly recognises the strength of expertise and understanding of higher education in HEFCE”.
HEFCE is now set to merge with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to become the “Office for Students”, potentially overseeing quality assurance itself or allowing the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to continue doing so. OFFA’s director, Professor Les Ebdon, said:
“This Green Paper confirms the ambition of the government to improve fair access to higher education, building on the Prime Minister’s challenging target of doubling the proportion of disadvantaged students entering higher education by 2020.
“I welcome the proposal that the Director of Fair Access should play a specific and strengthened role within the proposed new Office for Students. I also welcome the proposal that fair access should be embedded in the metrics being developed for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The proposed new regulatory landscape has the potential to increase the importance of fair access, improving coherence and collaboration and maximising impact. I am determined to seize such opportunities.
“In implementing these changes, it will be crucial not to dilute or subordinate fair access to other, possibly conflicting, priorities. It will therefore be important that, within the proposed new Office for Students, the Director of Fair Access is able to operate free from conflicts of interest and ‘sector capture’”.
Douglas Blackstock, Chief Executive (Interim) of QAA, said:
“We welcome the government’s commitment to the quality of higher education. We believe that co-regulation and external assurance through an independent body are key to the international reputation of UK higher education.
“The TEF offers the opportunity to focus on continuous improvement of students’ academic experiences. We will continue to advise the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on its development.
“QAA has a key role in ensuring that only those providers that can demonstrate they meet the high standards needed to award UK degrees achieve this prestigious status.
“In opening the sector to new providers, the interests of students should be paramount and appropriate protections put in place. A degree is a lifelong investment for students and they need to know their qualification will always have value.”
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice chancellor of the University of Kent, said: “We welcome the Green Paper’s emphasis on protecting the interests of students and demonstrating the value of a university education.
“The recognition of high quality teaching in our universities is a welcome step, but we must ensure that this exercise is not an additional burden for those teaching in our universities and that it provides useful information for students, parents, and employers. Universities are already improving the amount of information to students about courses to ensure that their experience matches their expectations.
“The diversity of providers and the range of courses offered is one of the strengths of the UK university sector, and we support competition and choice. It is important, however, that any new higher education provider entering the market is able to give robust reassurances to students, taxpayers and government on the quality and sustainability of their courses.
“Universities UK looks forward to leading the Social Mobility Advisory Group announced in the Green Paper to build on progress and identify best practice.
“With a wide range of issues covered in the paper, we will be considering carefully the complex, but vitally important, areas such as how funding and regulatory powers are integrated, the future of the sector bodies and their relationship to government, and how the Green Paper protects the autonomy of our world-class university sector.”
The issue of independence was also brought up by the Russell Group, among others. Wendy Piatt, its director general, said:
“The autonomy of our universities is crucial to their success. It is vital that any regulation is risk-based and proportionate and does not add to the current burden or stifle innovation.
“The current system continues to drive up quality and evolve in line with the high expectations of students and our focus on excellence and innovation. In the latest National Student Survey our students continued to express higher than average levels of overall satisfaction with the quality of their course.
“Our universities make huge efforts to improve access for the most disadvantaged students and real progress has been made. But we must not lose sight of what the Green Paper refers to as ‘the root causes of inequality of access’ in higher education – such as under-achievement at school and poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university degree course.”
Gordon McKenzie, CEO, GuildHE said:
“The TEF presents the chance to showcase excellent university teaching and drive up quality where it is needed, but let’s not get it wrong by trying to rush in the first year. We welcome the Minister’s measured approach allowing the TEF to develop and evolve over time and the further consultation on technical details.
“GuildHE also welcomes the opening up of the higher education sector to more high quality private providers, particularly where that increases student choice and healthy competition. The Green Paper highlights some of the challenges needing further consideration and the consultation will allow this so we have the right safeguards for students in place, particularly in the event of market exit.
“Student interests must be protected. As higher education is increasingly funded directly by students through loans – it is right that they are put at the heart of the regulatory system and the proposed Office for Students will place student views first.”
McKenzie also wrote a full reaction piece for Wonkhe.
The focus on social mobility was also welcomed by University Alliance’s chief executive Maddalaine Ansell, who urged the government to follow through in its commitment to widening participation.
“We will only achieve the highly skilled workforce this country needs – and give everyone a stake in its success – if universities are truly open to all who can benefit. We welcome the government’s commitment to support more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access, and succeed within, higher education. But this does come at a cost. If this is not recognised in the forthcoming spending review, today’s commitment is just empty words.
“As institutions that are above benchmark for both recruiting and retaining widening participation students, we are pleased this will be recognised in the TEF. Our success in achieving great outcomes for all our students comes in part from our strong links with industry and the professions.
“While we recognise the value of reducing the cost of participating in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), any simplification must not introduce concentration by the back door.”
Million+ welcomed the document’s focus on social mobility but underlined the perceived importance of the Office for Students being independent. Professor Dave Phoenix, its chair, and vice chancellor of London South Bank University, said:
“The Green Paper’s emphasis on social mobility and the student interest is to be warmly welcomed but any new Office for Students must be independent of government. It is also important that an independent quality assurance system is retained since this has done much to secure the reputation of UK universities overseas.
“Vice chancellors will want to look carefully at proposals around research funding and the development of a TEF in England but the suggestion that any link with fees will depend on a successful quality assurance audit at least in the first instance, shows that ministers are in listening mode.
“If the government is serious about delivering the Prime Minister’s ambitions to improve participation it must recognise that supporting a few more working class young people to enter Oxbridge is not the only – or even the most important – game in town.
“Modern universities have excelled in providing opportunities for students from a wide range of backgrounds and a third of students enter university when they are over 21. If the HE Green Paper succeeds in changing the terms of the social mobility debate that would be a prize worth having.”
The University and College Union (UCU) said the government needs to set out how its proposals would improve the student experience more clearly.
According to UCU, plans for a TEF had to consist of more than just a series of measures to rank teaching. It also suggested that “a proper appraisal of university teaching” was needed.
General secretary Sally Hunt said:
“We have concerns about exactly what measures would be used in any TEF. Simply finding a few measures to rank teaching will do nothing to improve quality and we fear that manipulation of statistics may be the name of the game, rather than bolstering the student experience.
“Quality teaching is underpinned by decent working conditions for staff and a good place to start to improve teaching would be to tackle the widespread job insecurity that blights the university sector.
“The time has come to ensure that the staff voice is heard on the bodies that will shape how quality and the student experience is monitored and improved.”
The union also urged ministers to step back from plans to allow more for-profit companies to access the HE sector more easily.
“One of the easiest ways the government could improve academic quality and standards is to restrict, rather than increase, the role of for-profit, private providers”, Hunt added.
Professor Stephanie Marshall, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy (HEA), said:
“We welcome the government’s focus on teaching and look forward to contributing in the consultation process. Students have the right to excellent teaching to achieve their full potential, and this will come about through a shared commitment by institutions and individuals to improvement.
“We are clear that those involved in teaching must be given the incentives and reward, as well as the environment, for continued professional development so that students have access to the best possible learning experience throughout their time in higher education.”
Marshall also said she is “pleased” to see the Grade Point Average included alongside traditional degree qualifications given HEA’s work last year. Writing for Wonkhe, she last month set out what a “sustainable” TEF would look like.
Study UK referred to the Green Paper’s “exciting proposals” and “fully endorses Jo Johnson’s drive to create a dynamic and innovative sector in which students have more choice, information and assurance than ever before.”
It claimed that the Green Paper addressed four of the six recommendations for higher education reform made in the Study UK Manifesto 2015 “in detail”. Chief executive Alexander Proudfoot reflected:
“Students should be in the driving seat of their own education, but they need unbiased information on the quality of teaching and graduate outcomes to help them see beyond the fog of reputation and marketing, and find the course which is right for them.
“The UK has some of the oldest and best universities in the world, but we also have a host of alternative providers driven by an independent and entrepreneurial spirit to innovate in education.
“This Green Paper is a real vote of confidence by the government in the new ideas and energy that independent providers can bring to the higher education sector, and we can’t wait for more students than ever before to benefit from the excellent and unique programmes they offer.”
A consultation on the proposals in the Green Paper opened today and will run for 10 weeks up to 15 January 2016.
Wonkhe’s Green Paper liveblog will be updated with reaction and analysis throughout the day.