The future of higher education is back in the spotlight as the controversial Higher Education and Research Bill enters the next stage of scrutiny in the House of Lords this week.
The Bill’s proposals include plans to make it easier for new higher education providers to enter the sector, along with the transfer of powers to the new Office for Students, as well as a new university ranking system.
There has been widespread concern across the sector about these proposals, with many fearing not only that they are taking higher education in the wrong direction, but also that it is not the right time to start implementing such massive changes.
But House of Lords approval of the Bill is by no means certain as the Conservative government doesn’t have a majority in the upper house and the Liberal Democrats – who hold very different views on higher education – have significant representation. The Lords also has a strong track record of providing serious scrutiny of higher education policy, usually more forensic than the oversight of the Commons, often to the irritation of the government of the day.
And this track record of serious scrutiny could well be important, as a new survey of over 1,000 lecturers and professors, conducted by YouGov for the University and College Union (UCU), has revealed that a large majority of academic staff believe that key proposals within the legislation will have a detrimental effect on the sector.
These problematic proposals are outlined below:
1. The issue of university autonomy
A main concern is the proposal to give the new industry regulator, the Office for Students, the power to revoke the charters universities hold which gives them the power to award degrees. This is controversial because it transfers powers away from parliament and into the hands of ministers and government controlled agencies.
The recent YouGov survey shows that 49% of academics thought these changes would have a negative impact on the sector – with only 2% believing it would be a positive move.
2. The use of the TEF
A second problem comes from the government’s continued commitment to use results of the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to inform undergraduate fee increases. This idea has not gained support in the higher education community, because many believe that the idea of rewarding universities for achieving good TEF results by allowing them to charge higher fees is flawed – as it doesn’t produce the right incentives. And in the YouGov survey, 76% of the academics said they believe that linking TEF results to fee increases would have a negative effect on UK universities.
The survey also cast doubt on proposed TEF metrics for assessing teaching quality. Many of the respondents believe that student satisfaction and graduate employment rates are an ineffective measure of teaching quality. And the use of student dropout rates as a measure of teaching quality has also been brought into question.
3. Degree awarding powers for all
The power to award degrees in the UK is currently tightly restricted. Obtaining these powers means meeting extensive criteria and demonstrating a long track record. The Bill wants to change this by enabling new providers to offer their own degrees right away – enabling them to compete on a level playing field with existing universities from the start.
The strong sentiments against this are reflected in the YouGov survey – 81% of academics think making it easier for new providers to award their own degrees, gain a university title and access public funding will have a negative impact on UK higher education. Only 4% believe this would have a positive effect. And in response to the findings of this survey, UCU called on the government to require all new providers to demonstrate a track record of higher education delivery before gaining degree-awarding powers.
But although many argue longstanding commitments to quality and comparability have taken second place to the desire to open up the market to the for-profit providers, it has been suggested that established universities are actually protecting their own interests. Some suggest it is time to open the “closed shop” that is the higher education sector by removing the barriers that prevent new providers from entering the marketplace and that more competition is a good thing.
4. The backdrop of Brexit
The effects of Brexit were not foreseen when the reforms in the Bill were developed. And considering the challenges and changes that are on the horizon, it has been argued that the reforms are now too risky and it is the wrong time to change the architecture of the higher education system.
The YouGov survey also found 90% of academics believe Brexit will have a negative impact on UK higher education and almost half of those questioned said they know researchers who have already lost access to funding as a direct result of the Leave vote.
The survey also investigated the possibility of a “Brexit brain drain”. It found that 42% of academics say they are now more likely to consider leaving the UK. This figure rises to 76% for non-UK EU academics.
All of which will certainly be food for thought for the House of Lords, as they subject the Bill to a line by line examination in the coming days.