Higher education bill faces stiff examination

University blues: general secretary Sally Hunt says 'as it stands, the legislation will strip away crucial safeguards' Credit: UCU

Sally Hunt of the University and College Union tells Chief-Exec.com  that the Government’s planned shake-up risks higher fees, lower quality and untold damage to the sector’s global reputation

The controversial Higher Education and Research Bill is back in the spotlight as it faces the next stage of scrutiny in the House of Lords.

The bill is not short of outspoken parliamentary critics, and academic peers – including Lord Chris Patten – have been leading the charge against its most damaging aspects. These include plans to make it easier for new providers to enter the sector, the transfer of unprecedented powers to the new Office for Students, and imposition of the much-maligned Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

A new survey of more than 1,000 lecturers and professors, conducted by YouGov for the University and College Union (UCU), has revealed that a large majority of academic staff share many of these concerns, and believe that key proposals within the legislation will have a detrimental effect on the sector.

Four-fifths (81 per cent) of those questioned said they thought that plans to make it easier for new providers to award their own degrees, gain a university title and access public money would have a negative impact on higher education in the United Kingdom.

Baroness Alison Wolf has warned that the plans could lead to an ‘American-style catastrophe’

My union has vocally opposed these proposals because of the significant risk they pose both to students and to the UK’s global academic reputation. As it stands, the legislation will strip away crucial safeguards designed to ensure that new providers are up to scratch and allow them to award their own “probationary” degrees from day one. That could be disastrous for students if the provider fails, leaving them with nowhere to complete their studies or with a virtually worthless qualification.

These concerns aren’t without foundation – history in the United States and the UK tells us that deregulation of new providers leads to rapid expansion of private, for-profit provision which is often of low quality. Baroness Alison Wolf has warned that the plans could lead to an “American-style catastrophe” and just last week, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute described the plans as “a risk too far”.

Three-quarters (76 per cent) of respondents to the survey also thought that the bill’s proposed link between the Teaching Excellence Framework and tuition fees would have a negative impact on the sector. The plans, which have also drawn criticism from students, would see universities awarded a gold, silver or bronze rating for teaching quality, and allow those with higher ratings to raise their fees in line with inflation. The ranking system has been dismissed by peers as overly simplistic and was described by one Conservative peer as fit for turkeys, not universities.

The academics surveyed by YouGov also raised concerns about the specifics of the TEF, questioning the efficacy of the government’s proposed metrics for assessing teaching quality. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of respondents said student satisfaction would be an ineffective or very ineffective measure of teaching quality. While 55 per cent said that graduate employment would also be an ineffective or very ineffective measure and 59 per cent said they did not believe student dropout rates would be an effective measure of the quality of teaching in UK universities.

At best, these three measures are poor proxies for teaching quality, and it’s clear that academics simply do not believe the government’s plans can be effective. Importantly, they fail to address fundamental employment issues which have a more significant impact on the student experience. A recent UCU analysis revealed that as many as 53 per cent of staff are employed on insecure contracts. Many of these teachers struggle to make ends meet and deliver the extra out-of-hours support students need. At the very least we think that the TEF should include a measure of how much undergraduate teaching is delivered by staff on insecure contracts.

So, as the bill is debated, I would urge the government to respond properly to the significant concerns being expressed by academics and politicians alike.

A report from the Higher Education Policy Institute described the plans as ‘a risk too far’

Academics from London’s universities have joined the critics of the bill in a letter to the Evening Standard that says the reforms risk undermining the capital’s great universities.

They argue that changes to the way universities are organised and assessed would damage London’s stature and deter students, particularly those from overseas, from choosing to study here.

To protect our students and the global reputation enjoyed by UK universities, we must have more rigorous quality measures applied before any new provider is allowed to access either degree awarding powers or state funding via the student loans system. And it’s time for a major rethink on the TEF, which cannot be successful while so many question its value.