President Post: The Green Paper on Higher Education

13 November 2015

Last week the UK Government finally released their long-awaited Green Paper on Higher Education.  Being a ‘Green Paper’ means that comments can now be submitted.  It is to be hoped that the proposals will be revised in light of such comments, since as it stands it is at best a missed opportunity, and at worst could prove disastrous for UK students and for the UK university and higher education systems.

There has long been concern at the time, effort and resources that go into what used to be referred to as the ‘research assessment exercise’ and what last time round was called the ‘research excellence framework’.  However, some mechanism is needed to distribute research funding, so there is a view that some such exercise may be worthwhile, even though the current costs and waste could and should be reduced.

Far from suggesting such efficiencies, the Green Paper suggests that this bureaucratic exercise be doubled, with a similar effort introduced for evaluating the quality of teaching.  This is ironic, coming from a Government that had claimed to want to cut red tape and bureaucracy.  Why on earth would this be suggested?

One possibility might be to make it easier for private-sector companies to enter the market, competing against the existing universities.  Such new entrants would not need to bother with the expense of research or any of the other non-teaching roles and activities that great universities have traditionally been involved with, from civic engagement to regional economic capacity building.  Instead, new providers can simply aim to maximise their scores on the ‘teaching excellence framework’ exercise.  This could be done not only by avoiding the above costs associated with the wider contributions that universities make, but also by focussing on ‘customer satisfaction’ rather than on challenging students.  All the pressure will be towards grade inflation – selling what’s wanted.

Thus, it is unlikely that the ‘teaching excellence framework’ will measure teaching excellence. And it’s not a framework.

Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor has pointed out that UK universities do well in the global competition for students.  But this will not be helped by the proposed system which will inevitably declare some of our leading universities to be failing, or at least poor, or second-rate, at teaching – while overseas universities continue to advertise their strengths and successes at teaching and the associated student experience.

There had also been talk of the Government using this Green Paper to propose positive measures in terms of access and widening participation to higher education.  This is much needed, as the number of part-time students has been falling as a result of the increased fees caused by the ‘Equivalent or Lower Qualification’ (ELQ) policy whereby funding is no longer provided if the student already has a qualification at or above the level they now wish to study at. But governments are continually urging greater labour force flexibility in face of global competition.  This requires a willingness to learn new subjects and skills in face of new demands.  But then the qualification one has to study for is bound to be at the same level or lower as the qualification one will have received originally in the first subject studied.  The ELQ policy locks students into their original choices and subjects.

More broadly, flexibility must mean people going back to college later in life to change directions or retrain.  It must also mean people accessing higher education on a part-time basis whilst they continue with their jobs and careers – learning as they’re earning.  So how many times are mature students referred to in the Green Paper, and how many times are part-time students mentioned?  Zero, and zero.

Jonathan Michie