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Give The New Higher Education Act A Chance Before Tearing Into Universities

24/09/2017 14:58 BST | Updated 24/09/2017 14:58 BST
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As we enter party conference season universities should brace themselves for more sustained criticism. While we should always listen to people's views there is something curious about the timing.

Many politicians seem to have forgotten that they have spent a considerable amount of time in the last twelve months reforming the universities through the now enacted Higher Education and Research Act. The Act will completely re-cast the framework in which universities operate.

There will be a new regulator (the Office for Students), greater competition through new 'alternative' providers, and, of course, there is the new Teaching Excellence Framework (the 'TEF') - the first ever assessment of the quality of university teaching. Given that many of the reforms in the Act are yet to come into force it is a little premature to be demanding more.

Our democracy is based on strong parliamentary scrutiny. As the House of Lords proposed and debated over 600 amendments to the Higher Education Act one cannot claim it was not properly scrutinized. It is particularly disappointing that Lord Adonis waited until after the Act became law to voice his concerns about universities.

Anyone who sits silently when they can affect how the rules are changed but then takes to the airwaves to complain about those same rules may not be well-suited to the scrutiny of legislation.

Legislation was necessary. There was a need for a new regulatory framework to deal with the different environment in which universities now operate, and to respond to the public's concerns. Universities have been seen as unresponsive and self-serving.

Take issues around teaching quality. Parents and students have raised these for a long time. We can argue about the details but it is an open secret that most incentives for academics tilt them towards research and away from teaching. The TEF will change this.

The TEF is an imperfect measure which, at best, only captures proxies for teaching. However, it is here to stay and we need to engage to improve it. The sector should not be - and cannot be seen to be - lukewarm about the government assessing the quality and effectiveness of our teaching.

The TEF is also a distinct improvement over league tables - currently the basis of most people's assessment of university quality. Don't mistake me. I am delighted that the University of Portsmouth has risen six places to 53rd in this year's Times/Sunday Times ranking. But what do league tables measure? And what perverse incentives do they create?

Would we consider it appropriate to rank gyms on the basis of the fitness required to join? Very fit people might go in, and very fit people might come out, but no-one would be any the wiser about the quality of the gym. Yet if the only differentiating factor between two universities is that one has higher entry requirements then it will be ranked higher in many of our league tables. This naturally drives behaviours that hinder attempts to widen participation.

Some league tables also use the number of students who attain a 2:1 or 1st degree as a measure of quality. This might point us to one of the sources of grade inflation. Having first raised the problem in 2015, Jo Johnson has now given us a year in which to 'reach sector wide agreement' on the way forward.

One obvious way forward would be the incorporation of 'valued added' TEF metrics into league tables so that everyone has a better understanding of students' development while at university.

Problems with league tables are well-known but the sector has seemed slow to respond. Coupled to controversies over value for money for students and over the pay levels of senior staff, you can understand the healthy dose of scepticism with which the public receives universities' pronouncements.

I welcome greater scrutiny and a requirement to justify pay levels. University autonomy comes with a responsibility for transparency and an acceptance of public scrutiny. The university sector must be more open and we must respond quicker to the public's concerns.

But, equally, politicians and the wider public must have patience and let the new reforms take effect. The TEF will re-order the higher education landscape in the UK. The Office for Students will force us to improve the student experience - and so will greater competition from new providers. But change takes times and knee-jerk reactions usually have perverse effects.

I am optimistic. The UK has a world-leading and diverse university sector which is making a real difference to our students' lives. Despite the criticisms, most people accept that our universities are socially and culturally important and central to the success of our post-Brexit economy. There is no other sector that has both a presence in every region of the UK and significant partnerships around the globe. The new Higher Education and Research Act will force us to up our game. But please give it a chance to take effect.