On the 9th September 2015 Jo Johnson MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science, delivered a speech entitled ‘Higher education: fulfilling our potential’. The speech begins to lay out the direction of travel after a period during the coalition where there was much thinking and little action.
Word clouds are a crude device, but it is interesting that the big words are:
“Students are the primary source of income for undergraduate study, but their interests are insufficiently represented in our structures and systems.”
It seems that now students are customers they should have more representation. Yet students do not generally see themselves in this way. Representation is not quite the same as partnership, which, although more challenging, would perhaps result in much more debate about what a university education should be all about.
“To ensure students have real choice that reflects their diverse needs, we must continue to open up the higher education market and put in place a regulatory framework that reflects today’s challenges.”
The idea of the development of new or much modified regulatory institutions that would, for example, take on the validation of degrees so that new providers do not need to partner with existing institutions would indeed open up the market. The question is, what sort of regulation, and how would it affect existing institutions? Martin Paul Eve of Birkbeck is clear in his blog that the aim is a huge financial shake-up of the whole system, using the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) as a key tool .
That is, widening participation (WP), remains firmly on the agenda with a plan to provide much better data so that work can be done to address issues around specific underrepresented groups. It is good news that WP is not being side-lined, which many thought might happen.
There were some harsh words about the perceived variability of teaching quality in the speech;
“This patchiness in the student experience within and between institutions cannot continue. There is extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition. And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system. It damages the reputation of UK higher education and I am determined to address it.”
He went on to say;
“The new framework will aim to give students more information about the actual teaching they will receive, drive up student engagement with the learning process and reward universities that do most to stretch young – and also not so young – minds.”
On that last point, Johnson mentioned mature students in his speech but, as Mark Leach points out in his WonkHE blog, there is no reference to part time study. Indeed, there is nothing on postgraduate study either. The now much vaunted Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is not one of the big words in the word cloud, because as yet there is no clarity at all as to what TEF will look like or how it will be managed. There is a lot of discussion. A Green Paper is due in the autumn (that is, by the end of December), so there is very little time to move from muddle to clarity, and, if other sources are right, to get TEF1 in place for 2016 and to produce metrics that inform funding decisions. These decisions would then allow some institutions to raise fees in line with inflation, based on what can only be a very crude measure of teaching quality.