Higher education: lower standards?
The Higher Education and Research Bill currently going through Parliament poses a serious threat to the UK university sector by allowing more low-quality private providers to enter the system, the UCU lecturers’ and university staff union is warning.
And the government’s previously-announced plan for a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), linked to higher student tuition fees, will put more pressures on lecturers already beset by high workload and performance expectations.
The TEF will also increase spiralling student debt and impact on efforts to widen participation in higher education, says the union.
The UCU says that many of the measures in the Bill do not enjoy the confidence of the sector. Universities UK (UUK) — the umbrella body representing university vice-chancellors — and the NUS students’ union, have also voiced concerns about a Bill that fundamentally reforms the regulatory architecture for higher education in England.
This involves the creation of a new “Office for Students (OfS)” — which will take over responsibility for the regulation of higher education providers from the Higher Education Funding Council for England which is to be abolished. As a devolved matter, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland retain separate regulatory arrangements.
New higher education providers
Responsibility for granting Higher Education institutions (HEIs) degree-awarding powers and for awarding university status in England will be transferred from the Privy Council to the OfS, and the Bill makes it easier for new higher education providers to attain these attributes.
Under the current system, HEIs are required to have a “track record” in delivering higher education for at least four years. For new providers, this usually comes through an arrangement with an established university which validates its degree.
But under the new legislation, HEIs will be able to offer their own degrees on a probationary basis from day one — with no track record — and will then be able to apply for full degree-awarding powers.
Making it easier for new private providers to obtain degree-awarding powers is “plainly at odds with the primacy of academic quality” the UCU says. And general secretary Sally Hunt says that the government’s determination to push ahead with these “dangerous plans” ignores “a string of scandals” relating to for-profit private colleges. The NUS, meanwhile, has warned of the risk of students “losing both their time and money if untested providers do not meet strict requirements”.
Private providers in higher education
The UCU lecturers’ and university staffs union has long campaigned against government policies to facilitate the entry of private providers into the higher education sector.
It says that allowing for-profit companies and private equity funds into the sector with poor regulation has exposed the UK system to the problems experienced with for-profit higher education in the United States.
It points out that in the USA, such institutions “face continued pressure to water down standards in order to turn a profit”. The union cites the example of Trump University, set up by presidential candidate Donald Trump and currently subject to a number of lawsuits related to fraud allegations.
And it says that in the UK, the rapid increase in taxpayers’ money paid to private providers in recent years has already tarnished the reputation of the higher education system, with reports of “phantom students, fraud and low quality of education”.
According to government figures, there were 138 alternative or private providers designated for student support funding (government-backed loans for tuition fees and maintenance) in 2014-15. Since 2010, funding for these providers has soared from £43.2 million to £311 million.
Last year, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee criticised the government for failing to heed warnings about the risks posed by the rapid expansion of private providers.
Margaret Hodge MP, then committee chair, said that this had led to £3.84 million of public money being given to ineligible EU students in the form of student loans and grants where EU students had either chosen not to, or had been unable to prove that they met eligibility criteria on residency.
She said that the government had been “unable to quantify how much money has been lost when it has funded students who have failed to attend, or failed to complete courses, or were not proficient in the English language, or were not entered for qualifications, or where courses themselves were poorly taught”.
Under the Bill, new providers will also be able to charge tuition fees up to the maximum level (currently £9,000) rather than the current cap for new providers of £6,000. In addition, they will be able to access block grant funding for teaching and research.
The Bill also removes the requirements to teach a minimum of 1,000 full-time students in order to be awarded university status, and reduces the minimum time for eligibility for new HEIs from eight years to six. These proposals have been criticised by university leaders as well as the UCU.
UUK has warned that the reduced qualification period for university status “increases the risk of lower quality or transitory providers being awarded a university title, and creates the potential to undermine trust in the sector through rapid expansion — particularly from small, teaching-only institutions”.
And the UCU says that removal of the student numbers limit for university status could “fundamentally challenge the concept of what a university is”. It also points out that abolition of Privy Council involvement in granting university titles, and transfer of responsibility to a body entirely appointed and overseen by the education secretary (currently Justine Greening), removes a key and crucial level of parliamentary scrutiny from the process.
Reduction in autonomy of higher education institutions
Both UUK and the UCU have also raised concerns about the powers the Bill gives to both the OfS and the education secretary that impinge on the traditional autonomy of the sector.
The education secretary will be able to “frame” the guidance the OfS gives to HEIs in relation to particular courses. This could potentially refer to the desirability, or not, of establishing or closing particular courses. UUK says that this “creates the potential for an unprecedented breach of the autonomy of institutions to decide what courses should be run”.
Linkage of student fee levels to TEF scores
While vice-chancellors have been broadly supportive of the TEF, both the UCU and the NUS are campaigning against the plan and particularly the linkage to tuition fee levels. The government claims the TEF, to be launched in 2016-17, will “ensure better outcomes for all students” and help inform the decisions of prospective students when choosing which institution to apply to. HEIs with high TEF scores will be allowed to raise tuition fees in line with inflation.
The TEF will be implemented in stages. In the first year, all participating HEIs with satisfactory quality assessments will automatically be allowed to increase their tuition fees by inflation. But in subsequent years, only HEIs with higher TEF ratings (of “excellent” or outstanding”) will be allowed to do so.
From the second year, HEIs will be assessed according to their performance on student satisfaction, drawing from the National Student Survey (NSS); student retention, looking at how many students have dropped out of their course; and the employment rate of recent graduates.
The government has said the TEF will be voluntary. However, those not participating will not be able to increase fees.
The devolved administrations have given HEIs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the nod to participate in the first year if they wish, but will decide after the first year if they wish their HEIs to continue to participate.
TEF will not lead to improved teaching
The UCU briefing on the Bill says that it welcomes a focus on the importance of teaching within universities, which for too long has been viewed as a “poor relation” to research. But it does not believe the TEF will be effective in assessing teaching quality “as it is based largely on a flawed system of metrics which are poor proxies for quality”.
The UCU’s Sally Hunt said that the TEF would not be able to achieve the government’s desired improvements “unless systemic issues, like the widespread use of casual employment contracts in universities, are addressed”.
A report from the UCU earlier this year showed that 49% of teaching staff in UK universities are employed on insecure contracts. And previous UCU research showed that more than 21,000 teaching staff are employed on zero hours contracts across 75 HEIs.
The union also pointed to already high workloads for teachers and warned that the TEF would introduce “high-stakes” pressures on teaching staff.
Further increases in tuition fees would not be conductive to widening student participation in higher education, it said, with UK fees already among the highest in the world.
English universities can currently charge annual tuition fees up to a cap of £9,000.
Arrangements are more complicated elsewhere in the UK. For example, in Scottish universities, Scottish students do not pay fees, but those from elsewhere in the UK can be charged up to the £9,000 cap.
Home students in Wales and Northern Ireland pay a reduced fee, but students from elsewhere pay up to the full £9,000. And Welsh students studying elsewhere in the UK also get their fees partially paid.
When maintenance loans are taken into account, students in England studying for a three-year degree face debts up up to £51,600 when they graduate (or £59,106 if they have studied in London).
As of August of this year, the UK government also abolished the remaining maintenance grants available to the poorest students in England, meaning they will have to get additional loans.
And the government last year announced that it was freezing the earnings threshold above which graduates need to start paying back their student loan repayments — currently at £21,000 a year — for the next five years. This means that with inflation diminishing the value of earnings, there will be a real terms decrease each year in the amount graduates have to earn before they start paying back their loans.
Graduates pay back their loans at a rate of 9% of earnings above the threshold, with the amount owed also accruing inflation-indexed interest.
Most graduates in England are likely to still be paying back their loans at the end of the 30-year maximum loan repayment period — at which point the loan is written off.
In July, the government also confirmed that it was pressing ahead with plans to extend the tuition fees and loans regime in England to nursing and allied health professional students from 2017, scrapping the bursaries they currently receive.
This was despite fierce protest from health unions.
Impact of EU referendum
Despite all this, and despite the uncertainty besetting the higher education sector following the June vote to leave the EU, the Bill was given its second reading in the House of Commons in July.
The UCU said that going ahead with the Bill in these circumstances was “absurd”, while Labour shadow education minister Gordon Marsden also called for the Bill to be paused.
The UUK has called for the further development of the TEF to be delayed in light of the instability caused by the referendum result. University vice-chancellors had overwhelmingly endorsed a Remain vote in the EU referendum, citing the critical importance of EU funding and research collaboration as well as (non-UK) EU academic staff to the sector.
Just over one in six academic staff in the UK hails from other European Union countries, and around 17% of total science research grant funding in the UK comes from EU programmes.
UK universities received £836 million in research grants and contracts from EU sources in 2014-15, and win close to a quarter of the EU research funds granted to universities throughout the EU on the basis of scientific excellence.
The UCU has called for a “non-partisan inquiry” looking into how the future of universities can be safeguarded and ensuring that staff and students from around the world continue to be welcome in the UK. And the union and the NUS have announced a joint national demonstration in central London on 19 November to demand an end to the marketisation of university and college education and to rally for “free, accessible and quality further and higher education across the UK”.
Hunt told Labour Research that the Bill itself “is wrong-headed and will not achieve its stated aims to improve quality and student choice”.
Public services union UNISON — representing higher education support staff — says it has written to MPs to express its concerns over the Bill. It is calling for greater parliamentary scrutiny over the increased role the Bill could give to for-profit providers and over further rises in tuition fees. And it says the government should be focusing more on promoting education as a “public good” based on collaboration, rather than on “increased marketisation and competition between institutions”.
The HE and Research bill
Tuition fees and participation