Higher education is being turned upside down at completely the wrong time

The changing landscape of UK higher education. shutterstock

There is little doubt that the challenging, turbulent and uncertain times faced by the UK’s university sector in 2016 are set to continue well into 2017 – with the focus now swiftly turning to the Higher Education and Research Bill, which is currently before parliament.

Under the new bill, alternative education providers would be able to gain degree-awarding powers and university titles more easily. And it is this seemingly full-scale “marketisation” of the higher education sector that is causing concern for many.

The Higher Education Policy Institute’s recent report showed that three-quarters of these alternative providers – many of which are privately owned and overseas – will remain unregulated after the new bill becomes law. This is because students at these small overseas providers often do not receive financial support from the Student Loans Company – meaning that the institutions aren’t automatically registered as a higher education provider. This will mean that these types of institutions can easily slip through the net – as registration for them will be optional.

One of the report’s co-authors, John Fielden, concluded that:

Alternative providers are numerous and diverse, with over 700 institutions operating in England alone. Designing a regulatory system for both the traditional sector and the newcomers is a bed of nails.

While Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, cautioned:

As the higher education market continues to change shape, we must be vigilant in ensuring bad apples do not contaminate the sector as a whole.

This suggests that higher education markets are currently not efficient or tight enough on regulatory matters. And a recent report by University College London confirms this. It found that most private higher education providers outside the UK are teaching only institutions – so they don’t undertake their own research – and are less prestigious and less innovative than public sector providers.

But universities minister Jo Johnson argues that the success of UK universities on the world stage is in part due to their independence and autonomy to decide how and what to teach and research. And Johnson believes that the bill will in fact “enshrine those values in legislation”.

It’s hard to know what the future of UK education will truly look like. Shutterstock

Under the bill, the future of research is also feared. Currently there are ten UK institutions ranked among the top 50 worldwide in terms of their research. High quality university research is vital for the lifeblood of a civilised nation and should not be undermined.

But this could all be about to change as the new UK Research and Innovation body will integrate the seven current research councils with Innovate UK. Never before has one organisation been responsible for the distribution of that volume of money – and the impact this will have on higher education is as yet unclear.

The point of the bill

It is easy then to see why so many in the sector are up in arms about the drastic new proposals.

But as supporters of the bill claim, the main aim of these reforms is to provide greater choice for students. Arguably, these are the people who really matter in all of this. And the government has claimed that greater transparency around university rankings is one way this “choice” can be achieved.

The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will see English universities ranked gold, silver or bronze depending on the quality of their learning and teaching. A bronze rating will mean “significantly below” benchmark standards in some areas. And from 2018, these ratings will determine which universities can raise tuition fees by the rate of inflation.

This could well be a game-changer for UK higher education – with the 2016 Student Experience Survey revealing that 84% of university applicants would consider the TEF score when choosing a university.

Student experience is said to be at the heart of these changes. Shutterstock

But the TEF could also cause more than a few problems. Take for example London Business School which is top in the world in the Financial Times Global MBA rankings – above Harvard. Yet it actually has the lowest number of faculty members with teaching qualifications in the UK – which is a component of the TEF. So under the new system, this world-class business school could effectively be rated as “significantly below benchmark standards”.

Fears for the future

It is questionable then how “bronze” institutions will market themselves to potential students. Plus there are also concerns that graduates from these institutions may find marketing themselves to potential employers increasingly difficult.

And, of course, measuring teaching quality through TEF types of metrics is questionable. As Phil Baty, the Times Higher rankings editor, pointed out:

Many would argue that the best university teaching involves making students feel challenged and even uncomfortable; something that cannot always be associated with satisfaction.

Government claims that the changes will help to boost social mobility, life chances and opportunities may also prove untenable. This is because for many poorer students the location of a university is a key factor in their choice of where to study. So these students may well end up having to attend a low ranked university as it is simply closer to home.

But while the true nature of many of the reforms are still unclear, what is for certain is that if things continue as they are, by mid 2018, the UK’s higher education system will look remarkably different from the one we know today. And only time will tell whether this is a good or a bad thing.

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