The Higher Education Green Paper has turned into a White Paper
The Higher Education Green Paper has turned into a White Paper. There is some evolution between the two following the government’s consultation exercise, but not that much. For research-intensive universities, indeed, for the sector as a whole, it is very challenging. That is not an accident, because it is supposed to be. Do recall that the minister for higher education views some of the education we provide as, quote, “lamentable”. As a sector we are labeled the “incumbents”, delaying or even preventing the introduction of innovation.
It is important for all institutions to work out how to react – as react we must. For Warwick, there are two particular issues I would like to focus on: TEF and new entrants. But before I do, let me just bridle at those accusations. “Lamentable” education is not an accusation supported by any evidence at Warwick. Over a dozen of our courses are regularly ranked in the world’s top 100. Look at the work in Engineers without Borders, WBS Create, our new degrees in Global Sustainability Development, and indeed so much of the work of IATL. And the charge of being “incumbents”? Given our proactive engagement with a whole series of regional partners in other parts of the education sector, in business, culture and industry, and indeed our California initiative – again, the evidence does not support the myth.
Let me turn first to the Teaching Evaluation Framework (TEF). TEF rankings will define how much we can raise fees in relation to inflation. The full implications of TEF are as yet undefined, but scheduled to be introduced as soon as 2017 and progressively increase in complexity thereafter. We do not know how TEF will be measured, but my main fear is the level of bureaucracy. For the last Research Excellence Framework – the only comparator exercise we have, Warwick’s submission was 2,741 pages; we estimate it took 50 person years. That is not 50 person years producing knowledge or disseminating knowledge; it is just the exercise of producing evidence for as-yet ill-defined assessment.
Think of the logic. If a fee of £9,000 is the appropriate rate, then surely it is obvious that inflation should, over time, be built in? If that is not the case, the fee actually decreases over time in real terms. Is this fair to students inter-generationally? You may disagree with the balance of contribution between student and State; but once that fee level is set, it simply needs to keep pace with inflation. In other words, the link imposed between TEF and fee inflation questions the very heart of the balance of contribution between student and State. Is that truly the intention? Further, once education is ranked across four levels – ranging from ‘does not meet expectations’ through to ‘outstanding’ – this will undoubtedly influence student choice. So, a university that doesn’t do well can’t inflate its fees, and becomes less attractive in the market place in the bargain. The HE equivalent of the “sink estate”. Where is the mechanism of intervention to turn around that decline?
Then consider the proposals on new entrants. I have no objection in principle. If new organisations offer education that students want and can’t access in the existing market, of course that should be facilitated. However, within three years of opening, such an organization will be able to offer degrees? That is high risk for both students and the sector. If the institution then fails, the continuation of those students’ degrees becomes whose responsibility? Existing universities. The failure would have negative implications for the capacity and reputation of UK HE as a whole. And what are new providers, especially for-profit providers, going to teach? Most probably only those subjects where the financial margin is greatest. That will almost certainly not be in science, technology or engineering. How does this help our national Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – STEM - agenda?
Of course, these issues have been widely debated in this University. An Assembly was called and passed a motion condemning the developments in the White Paper. This was taken to our Council, and after a thorough and wide-ranging debate, the Council resolved that it had “…independently reached similar views on the proposals for reform in the sector and was in sympathy with the views expressed at the meeting of the Assembly on the HE Green Paper”. [Unconfirmed minutes]. Similar views have been aired at our Senate, where there was a full debate last week; and in heads of department meetings. I have expressed these views in correspondence with the minister, and in meetings with various other ministers and senior officials. My hope is that these arguments – which of course are being made across the sector – might have some traction in the parliamentary debate, particularly in the House of Lords. We will see. We can hope, we can lobby, we can support. But we also have to start preparing for the world created by the new HE legislation.