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Power to the students: how the nature of higher education is changing

Robert Kneschke/

Power to the students: how the nature of higher education is changing

A large majority of UK undergraduates are satisfied with their university course, according to the results of an annual survey of 15,000 full-time students. But the 2016 student academic experience survey found perceptions of “good value for money” are in decline, indicating that students are becoming more demanding.

This year, only 37% of students felt they get value for money at their university, compared to 53% in 2012. And 86% do not want to see higher student fees, even where an excellent experience can be demonstrated.

Measuring the student experience is a central theme in the Conservative government’s new higher education white paper, where students are regarded as consumers. The proposed reforms include the creation of a new industry regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), with a remit to act in the interests of students by ensuring competition and choice as well as assessing quality and standards across higher education.

But the reforms go much deeper than merely rebranding a sector agency – they involve several serious measures designed to give students, as consumers, much greater control.

Putting excellence into practice

This can be seen in the creation of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which will give more power to consumers by helping applicants make a more informed choice. The TEF results seek to provide comparable information on the quality of teaching at different universities, which has not been available in the past.

Asking universities to report on the quality of their teaching, the support they offer students and the employability of their graduates not only provides information for consumers, it also encourages universities to make performing well on these issues a much higher priority.

Following consultation on a green paper, the full TEF has been moved back one year to allow lessons to be learned from a pilot year. Allowing universities to make additional above-inflation increases in undergraduate fees based on TEF results has been moved even further into the future. This means large variations in fees between universities won’t emerge for several years.

New metrics are being developed for later years of the TEF, including a new dataset using tax records to show actual graduate earnings. Pilots within certain disciplines will be undertaken to help the TEF drill down to the level of individual subjects.

Fast tracking

The white paper is accompanied by two technical consultations. The first deals with the details of the TEF, explaining how it will eventually be extended to taught postgraduate courses, for example. The second explores the viability of two other schemes to increase student choice: accelerated courses and switching universities.

Accelerated or fast-track courses are typically two-year degrees, where a traditional three-year degree is completed in two years by attending over the summer. The government wants the higher education sector to offer more flexibility and appreciate that all students may not want the standard three-year undergraduate experience.

Since their introduction, the demand for two-year degrees has remained relatively small; although this may be because the current choice of courses available is quite limited. Accelerated learning has been criticised and questioned by those who argue it means fewer opportunities for reflection that fosters a better understanding of a subject. Two-year degrees have been condemned by campus trade unions who describe them as “sweatshops” for university teachers.

The government also wants to see how the process of switching universities could be made easier. The TEF results may be useful for applicants who are yet to make their choice, but they aren’t useful for students already studying whose personal circumstances or course may have changed if they cannot easily “vote with their feet” and go elsewhere.

Power to switch

The government wants a system where the money follows the student, enabling students to switch universities rather than being locked into one place. To make this work, they envision a “credit transfer market” where students can take credit from their existing university to another that better fits their current needs.

Even if the number of transferring students was small, a credit transfer market would increase the power of students as consumer by challenging the entrenched idea that university choice is a “one-off purchase”. Another reason the government wants to do this is because it foresees a situation in the new marketplace where some providers may close down. Ensuring the stranded students affected can complete their degrees elsewhere needs to be considered.

In the US, switching course is common. shawncalhoun/, CC BY-NC

In the US, student transfers are the norm, and the numbers are on the rise. A recent report found that over one third of students who began their studies in 2008 transferred to a different institution at least once. Out of these students, almost half changed their institution more than once. But the US context is quite different to English higher education. For example, the Wisconsin system of community colleges and universities is one entity where credit has common currency and students move from associate to bachelor degrees.

Yet Australian higher education, which is more comparable, shows how it is possible to make transfers between universities easier by having a national framework and more visible and straightforward policies within each institution.

The reforms show the government’s resolute determination to achieve greater competition and choice in higher education. These are reforms that seek to shift the balance of power to ensure the higher education sector delivers what students wish to receive, rather than what universities wish to offer.