Higher education 'green paper' an 'important statement of intent', experts say

Out-Law News | 09 Nov 2015 | 1:29 pm | 4 min. read

The UK government has set out wide-ranging plans to "change the higher education landscape", improve value for money for students and make it easier for new providers to enter the market.

A 'green paper' on the future of higher education in England includes proposals for a single route to university status for providers, a new 'Teaching Excellence Framework' (TEF) and setting up an 'Office for Students', to bring together existing regulators and promote students' interests. The government is now consulting on the contents of the paper until 10 January 2016.

Universities expert Nicola Hart at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com said that the paper was an "important statement of intent" which "faces up to and proposes ways of tackling a number of unacknowledged and longstanding issues for the HE sector".

"The paper tackles the poor relation status of teaching compared to research; slow progress improving access by disadvantaged students into the most highly sought after institutions; proliferation of regulators and general over-complexity; unequal treatment - often for no good reason - of different types of providers; and the lack of any regime for sector exit," she said.

"There is a lot that needs to be sorted out and the green paper is quite open on how these issues might be resolved. There is a long way to go and many hurdles to overcome before any of this becomes law - but if and when it does it looks as if we could end up with a more coherent sector, perhaps less complex, but probably at least as regulated," she said.

The paper sets out the government's plans for the new TEF, in line with its manifesto commitment to introduce a framework for excellent teaching. The TEF would be used to "recognise and reward high quality teaching", give students a tool to help inform their decisions about which institution to attend, and give employers "better signalling" about which institutions produce highly-skilled graduates, according to the paper.

The government is consulting on the principles behind the TEF, the proposed design of the framework and how providers would be assessed against it, and the criteria and metrics that could be used. Suggested measures include student satisfaction, retention rates and graduate job prospects. Providers that achieve the first level of the TEF, equivalent to a recent successful quality assessment (QA) review, would be eligible to increase student fees in line with inflation from academic year 2017/18, according to the paper. Those that scored poorly would risk loosing additional fee income, the government said.

Further proposals would create a single 'gateway' for those wishing to enter the university market, as well as new student protection measures that would kick in on market exit. Under plans to create a 'level playing field' for regulating new and established universities, the government would speed up the process through which a new provider could gain degree-awarding powers and call itself a university. All institutions would also be required to have a 'contingency plan' in place to ensure that students could continue their studies if they went out of business.

"The high profile criticisms of a minority of the alternative providers in recent years have clearly been taken into account by the government and the green paper seems to be trying to achieve a balance between allowing competition to grow - which is good for the student consumer - whilst ensuring quality of provision is maintained - which is crucial for the international brand and profile of UK higher education," said universities expert Gayle Ditchburn of Pinsent Masons.

"However, this works both ways and there are proposals for universities to allow benefit from regulation to level the playing field in terms of legislation where they are treated as public bodies but private providers are not caught. One such area referred to is the Freedom of Information Act, which is a huge financial and administrative burden on universities and it would be a welcome relief if they were no longer caught by its provisions," she said.

The green paper proposes the creation of a new 'Office for Students', which would bring together the existing functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCA) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA). This new regulator would be given a clear duty to promote student interests when making decisions, and ensure value for money for students and taxpayers. The new regulator would have oversight of quality, teaching excellence, market entry and social mobility, and would be given new powers to require providers to release data with a view to widening participation for disadvantaged students.

The paper also targets increased participation in higher education among "disadvantaged" students, and proposes a 20% increase in the number of black and minority ethnic (BME) students in UK universities by 2020. A new Social Mobility Advisory Group would be established, to report to the government on how best to meet these targets. The government is also seeking views on the application of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), without pre-empting Sir Paul Nurse's review of the research councils which is due to be published shortly.

Christopher Mordue, an employment law expert with particular experience in the universities sector, said that the TEF proposals in particular would require "a well-judged institutional response to ensure staff engagement".

"Performance management is a controversial issue in the sector at the best of times and the proposed link between teaching quality and higher tuition fees and a focus on 'value for money' for students are likely to make it even more contentious," he said.

"The challenge will be to get beyond the inevitable accusations of 'managerialism', 'consumerism' and 'box-ticking', and to build a culture that promotes and sustains excellent teaching as a critical part of the university's core mission and values. Developing a definition of high quality teaching that is credible, tangible and translates into easily understood goals and benchmarks will be key to gaining staff buy-in," he said.