The report is launched with a foreword that begins: "Our university sector has a proud history and a world-class reputation, attracting students from across the world". That’s true and it’s nice to see the Government acknowledge this, but we won't for much longer with the restrictions the UK Border Agency is putting in place. The message overseas is not a positive one and other countries are being quick to capitalize on the opportunities to divert international students their way.
The second sentence I found particularly amusing as it stated that "Higher Education is a successful public-private partnership: Government funding and institutional autonomy". Unless I'm missing something, the Government funding seems to be reducing and, the last time I checked, autonomy means ‘self-government’, which is hardly the case when our full-time undergraduate numbers are strictly monitored and there is a Government-imposed limit on what we can charge for our services. The partnership, I’d suggest, is an increasingly uneasy one.
The foreword goes on to tell universities that we will be under competitive pressure "to provide better quality and lower cost". How exactly – with a magic wand? Where else does low cost mean better quality?
The Paper itself starts with an admission that “Higher Education has a fundamental value in itself” (I wholeheartedly agree) and that “the challenge [universities] face is putting the undergraduate experience at the heart of the system”. Again, true, but excuse me, I would suggest that most universities have been focusing on putting the student experience at the heart of what we do for some time now because if we don’t, we won’t have any students. I’m also not convinced that restricting student numbers, cutting funding and limiting university income potential are the really best ways to do this.
It points out that “the current system of controls limits student choice because institutions are prevented from expanding in response to demand from applicants”. This has been one of my biggest frustrations: UCAS applications to Birmingham City University rose 63% in a period where our numbers were capped. The Paper talks about creating “a more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow”, which sounds fantastic until you take a look at the criteria for releasing places. The Government is going to allow unconstrained recruitment of roughly 65,000 high-achieving students scoring the equivalent of AAB or above – okay, so that keeps the Russell Group happy. It’s also going to create a flexible margin of about 20,000 places to reward universities and colleges “who combine good quality with value for money and whose average tuition charge (after fee waivers) is at or below £7,500 per year.” But what exactly constitutes good quality and value for money and how much influence will the price have on the decision to award extra places? What if, as a result, your university doesn’t meet the eventual criteria but remains one of the most popular? It doesn’t sound like the “level playing field” the Government is keen to foster.
Where I think the Government has it right in terms of creating real market forces is the focus on transparency when it comes to our performance. I do support the plans to “radically improve and expand the information available to prospective students”. Universities should be proud of what they have to offer and unafraid of the indicators that benchmark them. And, in a university where we are leading the way in student engagement (on the back of our THE ‘Outstanding support for Students’ win last year), it’s not surprising that I support the move towards greater student feedback and consultation. Our services should be market-driven.
I do fundamentally agree – though I might not like the personal implications for my family – of having a system where the beneficiaries make a larger contribution to their costs on a “pay as you earn” basis. What I’m less comfortable with are plans to charge a levy on those who want to pay off their loans early. Consultation on the Early Repayment is taking place now and, following all the negative publicity about the fee rises, it’s particularly important we get this right. To make sure your voice is heard, visit www.bis.gov/HEreform.
On the whole, for me, the White Paper raises more questions than it answers and is somewhat self-contradictory. I do sympathize with the “enormous deficit” and resulting “spending pressures” the Government has inherited, but I am particularly anxious about plans to reduce the core allocation of student numbers at universities every year, particularly if the focus on additional numbers remains cost-driven and on an assumption that better quality equates to lower cost.