The government’s higher education reforms meet old problems and miss new ones


On Monday, the Government published half a bookshelf worth of documents outlining their higher education policies. There was the new white paper that has been widely covered in the media, but there was also a summary of the 600 responses to last year’s green paper, a technical paper on assessing university teaching, a call for evidence on students changing course, a review on the employability of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates and another on computer science graduates. Even that is not the complete list.

There has been so much immediate reaction that many higher education commentators must feel like the book reviewer who said they had been so busy reviewing a book that they had never got around to reading it properly. There is much to digest, on issues ranging from making it easier to establish new universities, through assessing the quality of university teaching to reducing the number of partner bodies that sit between universities and government.

The details are important. For example, ministers say they are reducing those partner bodies from ten to two. That will please the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. But there are smoke and mirrors involved because one of the two new bodies, to be called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), will have nine separate internal sections. The seven research councils, Innovate UK and the research funding functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) will all retain their identities within the new organisation.

So the details of all the various new official papers matter. Moreover, some of the announcements, such as the idea of helping students change course, came out of the blue. Yet it is still important to see the wood as well as the trees. One point that is missing from the coverage so far is that much of the Government’s programme has arrived five years late.

We have been in need of a new legal framework for higher education ever since university funding was transformed by the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees. For example, higher fees led to a big growth in so-called ‘alternative providers’ (renamed ‘challenger institutions’ in the new white paper) but there was insufficient regulatory oversight of the poor ones.

The Coalition’s higher education white paper from 2011 promised to help new providers, to boost social mobility and to turn the main higher education regulator into a student champion, just as the new one does too. But the proposals were not implemented back then because senior Lib Dems blocked them throughout the 2010 to 2015 Parliament. As I reveal in a new paper on the Coalition’s higher education reforms in the Oxford Review of Education, which was also published this week, this stopped the Coalition from having a narrative on higher education that went beyond fees and funding.

Now the chocks have been removed, we can expect rapid and substantial change. As many of us working on higher education policy have spent the last few years saying we desperately need a legal framework, it would be churlish not to welcome wholeheartedly the first new significant higher education legislation for a dozen years.
Yet we will still be playing catch up. We will be solving the regulatory problems five years after they were meant to be solved and ignoring the new pinch point, which is funding to maintain our world-class university system. When, after last year’s election, George Osborne promised to continue freezing – rather than cutting – the amount of money spent on science and research, it was seen as a triumph. But it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not delivering enough to keep our higher education sector world beating, particularly given the speed of change in Asia.

In fact, given that UKRI will be told to spend money on important new priorities, such as interdisciplinary research, money will be even tighter in the new world than in the one we are currently in. Passing new higher education legislation will help but it cannot, on its own, enhance the standing of UK higher education relative to the rest of the world.

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