What is Higher Education in the UK?

A summary of the Higher Education Green Paper

The Higher Education Green Paper, , published today, signals perhaps the biggest shift in the national framework for higher education, in England, for a generation. The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act codified the approach we have today (with some gentle evolution along the way) and a lot of the landscape that has become very familiar, but this is all about to change. The Green Paper’s contents are not entirely unexpected, however. Some of this is unfinished business from proposals first mooted back in 2011 and is about transforming a sector infrastructure designed for a largely publicly funded system to one that is focused on students and teaching, and promoting competition. That’s not to say Jo Johnson hasn’t brought his own flavour to this.

The proposals for sector infrastructure are bolder than seen previously and the emphasis on teaching excellence is very clear, not least given the Green Paper sets out how the widely anticipated Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is going to work. There is also a strong political focus on social mobility, reflected in the title of the Green Paper itself. That’s not to say this is all set in stone, the emphasis in the Green Paper is very much consultation, and there are a number of big questions left quite open.

TEF

A hefty slice of the Green Paper is taken up with TEF and more detail is promised in a technical consultation to follow in 2016. In essence, the first iteration is going to be fairly light touch and linked to successful quality assessment (QA) review. At least initially this is where the link to any inflationary fee rise will lie and it makes a lot of sense in terms of keeping initial requirements proportionate and cementing progress towards a more full blown exercise. On the latter, thinking is clearly already well advanced. As well as teaching excellence, it is interesting that TEF will also play a significant role in driving many of the policy objectives set out in the Green Paper. It will be linked to Competition and Markets Authority requirements, a push to encouraging adoption of Grade Point Average, as well as success in participation and access. There are lots of commitments to keep TEF light touch and low burden, but the real challenge will be ensuring it is focused given all of the expectations being placed on it. There will be common, but benchmarked, metrics supported by a wider narrative element, with learning gain and teaching intensity flagged for the future- certainly areas to watch.

The Green Paper only briefly touches upon the quality assessment (QA) reforms, but there is a commitment to align this with TEF, which is helpful given the overlap. It will be important not to lose sight of the QA reforms HEFCE have initiated, which focus on targeting regulatory effort where it is most needed. Given that the Office for Students will have the powers for quality assessment in England, picking up these reforms and getting them integrated effectively with TEF should probably be near the top of the to-do list. Making sure the new system can work from a UK-wide perspective will also be important, so good and close relationships with the devolved nations will be essential.

Office for Students (OfS)

In terms of the other big ticket issues in the Green Paper, the future of sector infrastructure in England (notably HEFCE) is clearly signalled through the proposal for an Office for Students. It will have a more explicit emphasis on promoting and protecting the student interest than HEFCE currently has. Much of this chimes with the UUK report on regulation published earlier this year, where we called for a lead regulator to provide a clearer gateway into the sector for providers and strengthen the student interest. UUK has also called for any new regulator to merge with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), which is proposed in the Green Paper and is a helpful step toward strengthening effectiveness in this area and doing away with duplication. The development of the powers for the Director of Fair Access will need close attention, and UUK has been asked to set up a group that can advise on supporting progress on social mobility.

There will of course be some big challenges in terms of managing the transition to OfS and getting all of this to work. My initial thoughts on some of these are:

  • It will be important to get the set-up of OfS right. It is helpfully recognised that it will need an arm’s length relationship with government and institutions (a Non-Departmental Public Body would be the most effective and likely approach in that regard). It will also be important to make sure current expertise within HEFCE is not lost in the transition. The powers for OfS will need careful scrutiny (as will those proposed for the Secretary of State) and there will also need to be more discussion on who carries the cost of regulation, in light of the proposed subscription charge. There are plenty of examples of where regulators are paid for by the regulated, but given the strong public interest in higher education and diversity of risks and requirements it may not be appropriate for institutions to carry all of the cost.
  • The question of where teaching funding goes is left open in the Green Paper, although there is a proposal that BIS and the Student Loans Company (SLC) could play a greater role. If OfS is going to be effective, it will need to be the mechanism through which teaching funding is channelled in the future (notwithstanding the outcomes of the Spending Review). This will give OfS some policy levers (and sanctions), but it will also mean that it keeps the reporting burden for institutions to a minimum. Remaining teaching funding is also increasingly regulatory in nature and focused on market interventions, so it fits well with the proposed focus of OfS.
  • The relationship with the SLC will need to be looked at very closely. If the new regulator is going to be effective, regulatory requirements will need to link directly into the accountability for receiving student support and leave no ambiguity in terms of the role of SLC and potentially BIS and the Secretary of State. This is an area desperately in need of some tidying up and may require some primary legislation to fix.
  • Much of the proposed consolidation of sector infrastructure makes sense and can help streamline the system, but data collection absolutely needs to remain separate. In the same way that through the ONS government data is collected separately, so in higher education this should be the case through HESA. It also ensures some continued plurality within the system, which underpins a healthy regulatory system. The proposed powers for the Secretary of State with regard to data on page 64 will therefore need to be looked at carefully.

Research

Research gets four pages in the Green Paper, but it is of course careful not to pre-empt the findings of the Nurse review, due to be published shortly. The implication of the changes to HEFCE are that block grant research funding, or quality research funding (QR) as it is known, will be relocated. In all likelihood, as widely speculated, this will be brought alongside the Research Councils with more strategic coordination. The big question here of course is the implication for the future integrity of the dual support system.


Interesting facts:

The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education are a set of professional standards for the UK higher education (HE) sector which emerged for the White Paper The Future of Higher Education (2003). Various bodies in UK...

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