What does the next government hold for higher education?

What is best for graduates? 'pamhule/flickr', CC BY-NC

In the area of higher education, there is one key issue which divides the UK’s political parties: funding. All the party manifestos take distinct approaches to funding, and to the autonomy of universities and colleges.

University tuition fees were introduced by Labour in 1998, at a low starting point of £1,000, which the coalition government has now pushed up to £9,000 a year. This has expanded access to student loans to “alternative” private providers and has severely reduced the levels of governmental operating grants to institutions.

Labour – now critical of its previous policies – is promising to lower the maximum charge to £6,000 a year. This is to help reduce both individual debt, and the increasing national debt that the taxpayer picks up from deliberate “debt forgiveness” policies or unpaid loans.

Yet it is not clear whether Labour proposals to compensate institutions for the “lost” £3,000 can be sustained for long, in the face of competing fiscal demands. The fiscal constraint to whittle away at the UK’s annual and accumulating deficit is a component of both Conservative and Labour policies. And university vice-chancellors tend to think that government-supported student fees and loans come with fewer strings attached than government grants.

Moving towards a graduate tax?

In the wake of a hung parliament, the manifestos may be regarded more as opening bids for post-election coalition haggling. For instance, it is not difficult to see a move towards a graduate tax in a possible Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. There are strong elements within both parties for such a development, which would helping to avoid squabbling over tuition fee levels.

But the prospect of a graduate tax would alarm institution leaders even more than a reduction in tuition fee levels. Such a change which would amplify concerns about institutional autonomy, and uncertainties over the levels of grants and their conditions in the years ahead. The Green Party’s proposals to abolish tuition fees and to cancel all student debt, would further heighten concerns within institutions.

This prospect of a move towards a graduate tax has been reinforced by the findings from the non-partisan Institute for Fiscal Studies, which question the equity claims made for reducing fee levels. It argues that Labour’s proposal to reduce tuition fees – supported by the SNP – actually harms the worse off in favour of high earners.

High earners tend to pay off their student debts relatively quickly, so a reduction in tuition fees helps them considerably. However, those who earn relatively modest amounts either face longer-lasting payments, or do not earn enough to be paying loan debts at all. They will have them written off (that is, paid by the taxpayer), regardless of whether fees are at £6,000 or £9,000. Meanwhile, the SNP may favour low or no tuition fee levels but still uses loans rather than grants for student maintenance purposes, which also disproportionally harms the less well-off. Perhaps a graduate tax would help both Labour and the SNP solving the equity issues in their funding policies.

Lifetime earning potential

The value of degrees remains remarkably high and stable in terms of lifetime earnings potential, compared to those without such a qualification. Despite the tuition fee increases of recent years, they do not seem to have dissuaded those from less well-off backgrounds from applying.

Nonetheless, there are still difficulties of outstanding levels of overall debt, which are likely to go unpaid in the years to come. A Conservative government, for example, would surely have to reduce numbers exempted by current policy from repaying debts, perhaps by lowering the income threshold levels.

The leaders of strong, research-based universities may also be worrying about the lack of commitment by Labour to protect the science budget. Meanwhile, other university and college heads may be concerned that access funds will be redirected to the schools sector – also promised by Labour.

Teaching REF

The Conservative manifesto also contains an aspiration to create a “teaching Research Excellence Framework”, to “recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality”. The Research Excellence framework is a device for allocating research monies from funding councils to institutions on the basis of peer-judged performance over the recent past. It is competitive and attempts to reward research success. A “Teaching REF” presumably would be similarly competitive and aim to reward those institutions that have the best teachers (although how such judgements would be reached are not yet clear). This would reinforce the Conservative’s longstanding coalition commitment to help re-balance the focus between teaching and learning, and research.

The Conservative manifesto calls for more information on student employment outcomes, although it remains silent as to how such data might be used for new policy initiatives.

It is hard to think why more data on student employment and learning outcomes would be a problem for universities and colleges, in this age of increased transparency and consumerism. Although nobody has much control over how this data may be chopped and diced, and utilised by university rankers, more output data on students’ disciplinary and skills outcomes would arguably be useful for all stakeholders.

If rewarding institutions’ learning and employment outcomes is what is meant by the Conservative manifesto commitments on a “Teaching REF”, then fine. However, if it is a glorified attempt at highlighting “excellent teachers”, then it is not clear that the data obtained would actually help to counterbalance the Research Excellence Framework by awarding funds to those who excel in the classroom. The methodologies would be even more problematic and controversial than those used for the real REF.

This is because it is far too difficult to describe how one judges a “good teacher” in universities. Do poor student scores reflect the hardship of the particular discipline and the scholastic rigour of the teacher, or indicate poor teaching practices? The closed classroom world of the university teacher – mostly free from peer observation – hardly helps such endeavours.

Digital revolution

Are online learning spaces really improving grades? 'Ed Yourdon/flickr', CC BY-NC-SA

The ongoing digital revolution in higher education indicates that any REF for teaching is best focused on student outcomes, rather than on the “teaching performance"indicated in the Conservative Manifesto. Online learning has the advantage of being team-based, interactive, and recordable.

The fingerprints of classroom activity – what works and what does not – are all over the scene, unlike the individual teaching performance in lecture theatres. Far better to reward and incentivise institutions for innovation in learning processes and improved student outcomes than bother with finding "teaching heroes”.

Immigration and international students

Conservative sympathies in the higher education sector are likely to be constrained by the continuing clampdown on international students, through further tightening of the visa rules. Yet Labour and the Liberal Democrats appear much more relaxed about net immigration targets, and are willing to exempt international students from immigration figures.

Despite Conservative support for the alternative private sector, it is not clear why such colleges would benefit from increasingly tight constrictions on the recruitment of non-EU students. An underpinning (though mostly unstated) theme in the Conservative manifesto is that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will disappear as a government department. This will leave the Home Office to be become the most influential regulator of higher education.

Any additional funding for improving the quality and standards of university teaching should focus on facilitating innovation and better student outcomes. There is a question to be raised, however: should we leave innovation in learning and teaching to the competitive rigours of the more supercharged markets in higher education? Or is there a role for stronger guidance and funding from government? On this point, the manifestos are silent.

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