I have never seen as much change or felt as much uncertainty from within the HE sector as I have in the past 18 months. Change in itself is not necessarily a bad thing and funding models certainly needed reviewing if the UK was to continue to support a world leading HE system that could underpin the volume of teaching and research our knowledge based economy needs.
However, the government's approach to implementation has carved up higher education policy thereby failing to recognise the interrelated nature of research, teaching and knowledge exchange.
The British HE sector is internationally renowned for the quality of tuition, student experience and research and for this to continue we must ensure that educational excellence and the pursuit of knowledge remains at the centre of how we define our universities.
Creating a two-tier market
Plans to remove students achieving at least AAB or the equivalent from the quota system and the removal of 20,000 places for an auction amongst providers who charge below an average of £7,500 in annual fees is supposed to create a more dynamic market. In reality this will leave less choice for prospective students because middle-ranking universities who provide the core of provision will be squeezed by the removal of places. There are excellent examples of colleges and universities working in partnership to enable students to have clear progression routes to university, but instead FE colleges and universities will be encouraged to compete with each other based on delivery of a degree - not provision of a university experience.
The equivalences between different awards at AAB+ remain unclear and discriminate against a range of European qualifications which will restrict opportunities for international mobility and the ability for institutions to attract the best in Europe. One of the key concerns about the white paper is that it is says very little about the place our Universities have within a global market place. We must continue to attract young people into HE from outside of the UK if we are to grow and innovate as a country.
Finally, the plans to drive down cost of tuition and treasury liabilities will not result in an enhanced quality of education. Low-cost providers will not be universities in the universal definition. The government's proposals will undermine the reputation of British HE by creating a rigged market based on artificially designed student number controls, hindering true engagement with internationally recognised qualification frameworks by focusing instead on alternative private sector models and use of two-year degrees.
No matter how good the government's intentions are, the point is that universities will now be restricted from competing on a level playing field and will instead implement barriers that impede the choices of students from middle/lower-class backgrounds who want a quality education.
Research Research Research
The government has carved up education policy by having a White Paper that focuses on teaching and a separate research and innovation strategy. This is not conducive to a sustainable education strategy that will support the UK economy.
World class research with a real world impact should be funded regardless of the institution and there is a danger that the government will choose to direct too great a level of funding at the research-intensive institutions. The basis of a valuable university education is that students are taught by academics who are themselves undertaking research and therefore at the forefront of thinking in their fields. When combined with a range of changes to teaching there is real potential for too great a concentration of research to further compound the two tier effect and further undermine the UKs international reputation for higher education.
Creating a long-term, sustainable HE future
Universities still remain in a state of limbo regarding the number of places that could potentially be taken away. So, now it is down to us to ask ourselves, what can we do to ensure that we keep the pursuit of knowledge at the heart of everything that we do?
New policy needs to be put in place to actively support a review of the sector, taking into consideration that a university education is based more than teaching alone and not symptomatic of A-Level results or social status. We need to ensure that students are getting 'bang for their buck', giving them a high quality education and equal access to the true university environments that they deserve.
Policy needs to put HE in an international context and look at it as one part of the UK education strategy. Most importantly it needs to recognise that education and learning is at the heart of everything we do and should be treated as a vital, yet precious gift. With a government that is making thirst for knowledge a trail of uncertainty, we risk making our world-renowned HE sector an unrecognisable beast.