The Government's Green Paper consultation has much to offer UK universities and students, but there are also concerns about how educational excellence is identified and developed - Professor Aldwyn Cooper, Vice Chancellor of Regent's University London
As ministers and officials at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills start to analyse responses to the Green Paper consultation - also known as 'Higher education: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice' - there is optimism that the Government's proposals promise real change.
On the surface all appears well and good. However, while it is unlikely the paper will proceed to become a Bill, it should be noted that many of the proposals it contains could be pushed forward without formal legislation or changes to the law. These are serious issues of which that the public remains largely unaware.
Among the Green Paper's key ambitions are changes to the way university title and degree-awarding powers are granted; a strengthened focus on student experience; improved access and mobility for disadvantaged students, enhanced equality for alternative education providers, and a reduction in unnecessary bureaucracy by way of a simplified regulatory structure.
The function of universities is to both create and disseminate knowledge. Not every university needs to give equal weight to these goals, but the balance has become worryingly focused on the value of research, rather than effective teaching and learning.
Institutions charging fees for educational programmes must become student-centred and provide a fully supported learning experience with appropriate outcomes. Being distinctive because of high profile research achievement, or having a 'celebrity intellectual' on board does not guarantee excellence in teaching or management of the complex processes that ensure consistent quality.
In response, here are the top five issues impacting students and graduates that need to be addressed by the Green Paper consultation:
1. Universities have to earn their title
The green paper makes little distinction between an institution with Taught Degree Awarding Powers (TDAP), and one with the title of 'university.' The suggestion of giving TDAP to an institution based on it having operated for two years' is extremely high risk. In the UK there are fewer than 175 universities. Their quality is recognised globally and this is a major factor in attracting overseas students. In America there are close to 5,000 universities of varying quality. If we follow the current proposal the UK could end up with upwards of 1,000 universities - a position which could seriously damage our reputation for higher education excellence and graduates' prospects.
2. Funding by results threatens the disadvantaged
Linking costs and funding availability to the proposed introduction of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) - which would see the government monitoring and assessing teaching quality in England's universities - could increase inequalities at institutions which have a strong focus on supporting students from disadvantaged groups.
If TEF is linked to increased fees it could create unintended consequences, with students from particular backgrounds more likely to drop-out of their course. It is worth considering that some students drop-out for the 'right' reasons, whether they are moving to a different institution or even receiving a job offer. Either way, no one should be encouraged to stay on a course if it's not right for them.
3. Equality and student voice matters
Care should be taken not to oversimplify and to consider 'Black and Minority Ethnic' (BME) groups as a standardised category. Other groups need to be considered and have appropriate support that encourages their participation and supports performance. The Green Paper briefly mentions the role of professional bodies in relation to apprenticeships but their contribution needs much more consideration - they are key stakeholders who inform learner, university and employer needs.
4. Informing student and employer decision-making
There is plenty of information of varying accuracy that students and employers can look at to learn about the value offered by different universities. Sources include the National Student Survey (NSS), Which?, What Uni, I-Graduate and rankings in the Times, Times higher Education, and Guardian. However, research shows that very few applicants actually look at any of these, bringing into question whether the costs of implementing a new TEF will be justified. This area requires a thorough review.
5. Teaching excellence is tough to define
Teaching quality is difficult to assess and specialist needs must be considered where different models are put in place, such as blended or distance learning. It is not possible to provide any realistic estimate without specialist observation and analysis, and it is important to understand that there is no single definition of 'teaching excellence.' Any system of measurement must recognise that teaching quality in any institution has to allow for different learning styles. We should also always recognise and reward excellent teachers as well as valuing those who support learners.
Despites all of these issues there also many positives in the Green Paper. It rightly identifies that the UK sector must maintain its global and enviable reputation for delivering continued excellence in higher education. The elimination of any genuine barriers that exist is of course welcome, but great care must be taken to ensure that processes ensure quality and reduce the risk of poor institutions being allowed to emerge.