White Paper: first reactions from the sector

In their initial reactions to today’s White Paper, the sector expresses support for measures supporting students such as increasing the amount of information available to people before choosing university, the emphasis on widening access and the new Office for Students. Concerns are mainly around both the way that TEF will be implemented and the possibility of new providers entering the system hurriedly, as many stress the importance of maintaining the quality and reputation of UK higher education.

Still, reactions from the sector show variety so far, read below for some initial views, we’re sure more will come later as everyone digests this morning’s White Paper fully:

Dame Julia Goodfellow, President of Universities UK said: “We support the government’s aim to protect the interests of students, increase fairness and demonstrate the value of a university education.
The university sector is an international success story in terms of the quality of teaching and research. It is important that any reforms recognise this and build on that strength.

Established universities are not standing still and are always seeking to improve what they offer to students. Providing a high-quality, world-leading experience for all students is central to what our universities do.
It is important also that any new higher education providers awarding their own degrees or calling themselves ‘university’ meet these same, high standards.

We are pleased that government has listened to the views of universities on their plans for a Teaching Excellence Framework. Universities will work with the government to see how this can best add value to all students, whatever their choice of subject or university.

The focus on improving access to higher education is to be welcomed. Universities have made considerable progress in recent years to increase the numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university. This is ongoing work, and we recognise there is still more to do.”

Tim Melville-Ross, Chair of Higher Education Funding Council for England said:

“The higher education white paper heralds a significant reshaping of the higher education landscape which has students at its heart. HEFCE welcomes the government’s commitment to a diverse and world-leading higher education system which offers students choice and value for their investment in education.

“We also welcome the government’s continuing commitment to dual support. UK higher education research is internationally recognised, and produces ground-breaking work for the benefit of the economy and society. HEFCE will continue to contribute our experience and expertise wherever it is needed. Higher education changes lives, and makes a vital contribution to social mobility and economic growth. HEFCE will collaborate with government, students, the sector and others to ensure a smooth transition as the reforms are implemented, subject to parliamentary approval.

We welcome the government’s commission to HEFCE to deliver the 2017 TEF exercise, and we will work closely with providers and students during the period of the technical consultation to establish a robust and inclusive process. We also look forward to working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the development of TEF beyond 2017.”

Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, stressed the importance of an independent fair access regulator:

“I welcome the increased emphasis on fair access to higher education in this important White Paper. Making sure that talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to access – and succeed – in higher education is key to increased social mobility.

“There are greater rates of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education than ever before. I believe that an independent Director of Fair Access, with the profile, authority and tools to challenge universities, is crucial to accelerating future progress. I am pleased that ministers recognise the importance of this independent role within the new Office for Students, and look forward to working with them, and the whole sector, as we work towards the Prime Minister’s fair access goals.”

Mary Curnock Cook, UCAS’ Chief Executive, highlights their role in upholding and increasing transparency: “We welcome these measures which will help ensure students can be confident about courses that offer a high quality education, will challenge them intellectually, and equip them to succeed in the graduate employment market.  Transparency about access should mean that all applicants can be sure that they will be treated fairly in the admissions process, regardless of their ethnic or social background. To help meet the new transparency duty UCAS will be publishing the first transparency reports for universities on 9 June.”

Douglas Blackstock, Chief Executive of the Quality Assurance Agency said: “The government has struck a balance between encouraging competition and rigorous protection of UK higher education’s world class reputation, including independent quality assurance and the requirement of new providers to meet the expectations of the UK Quality Code.

“QAA supports measures to protect student interests and the new flexible routes to achieve degree awarding powers at Bachelors and subject level, which will allow new providers to develop their capacity over time.”

Professor Stephanie Marshall, CEO of the Higher Education Academy said: “The HEA welcomes the White Paper as an important contribution to rebalancing and reinvigorating HE’s focus toward teaching and research-informed teaching.

“We are pleased that a number of suggestions made by members of the HEA’s PVC network have had influence on BIS thinking underpinning White Paper policy. These include a reduction in TEF levels from four to three to avoid undue complexity, the inclusion of Commendations to further acknowledge and encourage distinctive approaches to excellence and the inclusion of qualitative evidence in support of TEF submissions – something the HEA has argued for since day one.

“The White Paper represents a seismic change for the HE sector – but one most of the institutions we are working with are prepared for. The number of teaching staff recognised as Fellows is the HEA is now fast approaching more than 75,000, approximately 30 per cent of all academic staff, and more than 120 institutions have HEA accredited CPD programmes

“Most institutions accept that expectations of teaching quality have risen dramatically in recent years.  Partly this is a result of the very real financial investment now made by students in their studies. They graduate into a highly competitive job market and a good university will not only give them the employability skills they need to secure a good career but also the rounded knowledge and worldview we would all wish them to have to contribute positively to modern society.

“As a body of and for the sector, the HEA looks forward to working with institutions to further enhance the global reputation of UK HE teaching – from provision of our UKES survey, now recently verified as linking higher levels of student engagement to higher levels of Fellowship, to working directly with the sector on the development of the assessment of teaching excellence at discipline level.”

Maddalaine Ansell, Chief Executive, the University Alliance, said: “The right regime for higher education and research is essential for building the knowledge economy of the future. These plans strike a healthy balance between protecting the quality and global reputation of our country’s universities, whilst also encouraging innovation.

Implementing the Teaching Excellence Framework in a steady way over time is the best way to ensure it is flexible enough to recognise the strength and diversity of the higher education sector.

Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive of MillionPlus said:

MillionPlus believes that universities should be research active, operate for the public good and in the interests of students and we welcome the government’s interest in teaching excellence.The government’s reforms will have UK-wide implications and we look forward to working constructively with ministers to ensure that these plans maintain and enhance a high quality university system which supports anyone who has the ambition, talent and desire to succeed.

Wendy Piatt, Director General and Chief Executive of the Russell Group said:

“We share the government’s desire to strengthen the UK’s world-class higher education system. Russell Group universities deliver outstanding research hand in hand with excellent teaching – this is central to the student experience they provide. A huge amount of time, effort and resources have been devoted to improving the education and student experience at our universities. And this is reflected in feedback from employers and our students who year on year express above average levels of overall satisfaction with the quality of their course. There is always room for improvement but this is best delivered through a risk-based approach to regulation that protects the institutional autonomy, diversity and competitiveness that our system thrives on.

“We support the government’s commitment to maintain and build on the world-class research and innovation taking place at our leading universities. Not only are we world-leaders in research but we also punch well above our weight so the government should be careful about making any substantial changes to a successful system. Allowing the research councils and Innovate UK to retain their identities and budgets is a step in the right direction but we urge them to proceed with caution.”

Gordon McKenzie, Chief Executive of GuildHE said: “GuildHE welcomes the HE White Paper’s focus on excellent teaching, student choice and fairness. Universities play a central role in delivering well-qualified graduates, producing cutting-edge research and translating this into practical uses and helping drive our knowledge-based economy.

“GuildHE institutions make a massive contribution to enhancing skills, productivity and social mobility with teaching, research and knowledge exchange activity that is grounded in close links to the professions and industry.

“We particularly welcome that the Government has listened to the sector in a number of key areas not least the Government’s decision to phase the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework and to slow down the introduction of differentiated fees – it really is essential to take the time to get this right. The proposal to designate bodies for quality assurance and data is an elegant solution, providing much needed stability for QAA and HESA and one that recognises the importance of co-regulation with the Higher Education sector.

“GuildHE has always welcomed high quality new providers of higher education and we support the Government’s intention – but in deciding to relax the requirements for Degree Awarding powers it is essential they set commensurately high expectations for entry to ensure high standards are maintained. We look forward to working with BIS to implement the details of these of these proposals and the changes expected in a Higher Education Bill.

“With funding for blue-skies research (QR Funding) going into the new UK Research and Innovation body it is essential that the new system continues to fund excellent research wherever found.”

Though NUS is mainly concerned with the potential for fees to rise it praises the government’s commitment to widening access but says more needs to be done to prove it has a genuine commitment to that aim. Sorana Vieru, NUS Vice President for Higher Education, said: “It is positive to see the calls from NUS and students’ unions for the need for progress on access and widening participation have been recognised, but clearly the government’s actions will need to match its rhetoric.

“We have consistently seen dramatic cuts to support for the most disadvantaged students, with the abolition of maintenance grants in universities only this year – and so the government certainly has a lot to do to prove it takes this work seriously.”

On the proposal to link a possible rise in fees with the teaching excellence framework Vieru said: “Students will understandably be outraged at any suggestion universities could be allowed to put fees up even higher in order to improve teaching quality. It was only four years ago tuition fees were trebled and students now face debts up to £53,000 when they graduate. Universities, students and staff have all been very clear the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework should not be linked to any rise in fees and the influential BIS Select Committee urged the government to do some serious rethinking before taking this forward. The government should urgently reflect on this and drop this muddled proposal.”

On the plans to make it easier for new institutions to be given degree-awarding powers Vieru said: “The government has serious questions to answer before it can make it easier for new providers to enter the sector. We need to know what protections they will be required to give to students, to ensure they are not left in the lurch and ripped off by institutions that may be focused on shareholders rather than students’ interests.”

The Universities and Colleges Union released a statement warning against the rapid expansion of the sector and said that better job security for teaching staff would ensure higher teaching quality. The General Secretary of UCU, Sally Hunt said: “Despite repeated warnings from UCU about the danger of opening up UK higher education to private, for-profit providers, the government is setting out on a clear course to privatise higher education. We have already seen too many scandals involving alternative providers in the UK and the USA, so if we are to protect the global reputation enjoyed by our universities, lessons must be learnt and rigorous quality measures applied before any new provider is allowed to access either degree awarding powers or state funding.

“Everyone knows the importance of teaching, but it is hard to see how many of the measures which have been proposed for the TEF will either measure quality or improve it. UCU believes a critical weakness of our current system is the precarious employment of university teachers, 49% of whom are on insecure contracts. The best way to raise teaching quality is to ensure that academic careers in the UK are attractive to the brightest talent at home and abroad, but this needs an investment in the workforce that has been lacking for many years.

“We remain deeply concerned by any proposed link between quality as defined in the TEF and additional income, and will oppose any move to further increase the lifetime cost of higher education, which already sits at over £50,000 for the poorest undergraduates.

On access: while increased reporting requirements on universities are to be welcomed, the government must do more to address the persistent barriers to higher education for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We need tougher action on universities who are missing access targets, better support for part-time and mature study, and a national inquiry on our broken admissions system to ensure fair access for all.”

Emran Mian, Director of the Social Market Foundation, said:

“Higher education is too much like a club where the rules are made for the benefit of universities. These reforms will begin to change that. Students will have access to more information when they’re making application choices; and universities will be under more pressure to improve the quality of teaching.

“The white paper gives more detail on how new providers will be regulated. There have been problems with quality among new providers in the past and government now recognises that a tougher approach is needed. At the same time though, the sector has risked seeming complacent about quality among incumbents. The measures to ensure “student protection”  in the white paper begin to show a new direction.

“The right approach for the future is a level playing field for new and old. As participation in higher education rises, students should have the opportunity to choose from the widest range of courses; and feel confident that complaints will be taken just as seriously by the regulator wherever they are studying. The government might have gone further in offering variability in fees for the future. Almost every university charges the same amount despite large differences in the quality and intensity of teaching. The proposals in the white paper will largely leave that status quo in place.

“The test for these reforms will be whether the quality of teaching among universities at the bottom of the league tables improves. Through a combination of new entry and tougher regulation, the pressure on these universities will increase. Now the onus is on them to respond.”

Martin Doel, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges said: “Choice, access and quality are the welcome watchwords of the government’s long-awaited plans to open up higher education and to allow more colleges to award HE qualifications.

This step change away from the country’s traditional university system will empower more people than ever before to access HE in their local area through a college.

It will also provide a wider choice of courses that are linked to employment. Students, colleges and employers will welcome these plans, which mean more opportunities for people to access the most suitable and best value higher education courses. This is a particular benefit for those who are employed and want to study part-time. We will be interested to see how the recommendations relate to findings of the review into technical and professional education carried out by a panel led by Lord David Sainsbury.”

Aldwyn Cooper, Vice Chancellor of Regent’s University London and Chair of the Independent Universities Group said: “The central objectives identified for implementation in the white paper are very positive. The focus on quality to be the key determinant for acquisition of university title, student experience, graduate employment and innovation are of crucial importance to the UK’s continuing gold standard position in world Higher Education.”

Alex Neill, Director of Policy and Campaigns at the consumer group Which? said: “Our research has shown that students struggle to obtain the information they need to make informed decisions about university choices. We welcome measures to give students more insight into student experience, teaching standards and value for money. These proposals could not only drive up standards, but could also empower students ahead of one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives.”

Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, said: “The Open University, the largest and the only UK wide university, is committed to the success of the UK as a knowledge economy. We share the Government’s ambition for teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice.

We welcome the White Paper’s express commitment to flexible, innovative and lifetime learning. We are actively working with the Government on this agenda. Switching courses and universities (credit transfer) can give huge opportunities to maximise success for many more students – studying the right course, at the right university, at the right time.

The Government will not meet its ambitious targets for much greater social mobility, better life chances and a more productive British economy unless many more adults gain part-time degrees, particularly where the skills gaps are greatest.”

Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, said: “We welcome Government’s clear commitment to part-time study as an important element of flexible, innovative and lifetime learning in today’s White paper. The White Paper’s reaffirmation of Degree Apprenticeships as a key part of higher education provision is also pleasing. Degree Apprenticeships draw on the flexible learning approach already championed by Birkbeck and we are committed to developing further this innovative and vital strand of higher education.

“We look forward to learning more about the Teaching Excellence Framework and how non-standard institutions such as Birkbeck – as a specialist in evening teaching – will be measured, while ensuring that people from the widest possible ages and background benefit from entering higher education”.

Judy Clements, the Independent Adjudicator and Chief Executive at the OIA, said: “The OIA welcomes the way that the white paper expressly links registration as a higher education provider to membership of the OIA Scheme. This opens up access to independent review of complaints for students who are unable to resolve issues at their provider. It also ensures that the way that providers handle complaints and academic appeals will be based on good practice. These are positive developments that will contribute to student protection . We look forward to working with officials to finalise the details as the new regulatory framework takes shape.”

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