The Higher Education and Research Bill – what does it mean for the UK’s education sector

Students are paying more than ever before for their university experience and understandably expect more than just a Facebook album of photographs and an unpaid internship at the end of it. There has been a conscientious effort amongst policymakers over the past few years to ensure that university remains a worthwhile and satisfying endeavour during what has been a difficult period for graduate employment prospects. Furthermore, there is currently a greater emphasis on promoting a knowledge economy in the UK that will stimulate inclusive economic growth.

Introducing the Higher Education and Research Bill

Announced during the Queen’s Speech on 18 May 2016, the Higher Education and Research Bill is the first piece of Higher Education legislation to be published in over a decade – and has caused controversy across political divides. The Bill focuses on three key areas:

  1. The creation of a competitive market
  2. Increased choice for students
  3. The updating of regulatory architecture

The Bill implements legislative proposals in the Government’s Higher Education White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice (May 2016) and Nurse Review (November 2015). Provisions included in the document extend mainly to England and Wales; some aspects apply to England only and Part 3 on research is predominantly UK-wide.

The Bill proposes to move towards a more risk-orientated regulatory framework and to form a single entry into higher education. Other outcomes include the following:

  • A Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will be introduced with the aim of raising the quality and status of teaching within higher education institutions.
  • The Office for Students (OfS) will be created to act as a ‘consumer focused market regulator’.
  • There will be a brand new, overarching research body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) comprising the UK’s seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and new body, Research England.

Whilst many thought the Bill might stall in the process of the EU referendum, it is still making its passage through parliament with the Second Reading having taken place in the House of Commons on 19 July 2016. At this reading, the House debated the whole principle of the Bill.

Naturally, students will be wondering what this will mean for them, their education and their long-term prospects. Likewise, university staff will have concerns over the effect on their working lives and overall job stability.

A new age for social mobility?

This legislation will make it much easier for new and existing education providers to enter the higher and further education sector. Currently, educational organisations must have been running for over five years before they are awarded degree-granting powers. The Higher Education and Research Bill will allow institutions to award degrees straight away instead, building a three-year track record as they go forward on a probationary basis.

The intention of raising teaching standards and giving students the type of transferable, relevant skills that employers are looking for are given as priorities, responding to both skill shortages amongst employers and provision dissatisfaction amongst graduates. This in turn is believed to serve the best interests of the tax payer and the economy. Furthermore, it is anticipated that UK-based research will benefit from strengthened capabilities and boosted innovation, keeping UK research competitive in a shifting global knowledge economy.

One of the greatest praises bestowed upon the Bill is that the new legislation will mean prospective students will have access to information that was not previously made available to them, such as detailed data regarding teaching standards and career prospects. This will arguably empower them to make more informed decisions when choosing where and what to study.

Supporters believe that the Bill will enable more people to pursue higher education, tackling the elitism and accessibility issues reported within the higher education sector. Comparable to the shift in 1992 when polytechnics were awarded university status, students will be given a much broader choice in terms of their university education. It could therefore be argued that the Bill will encourage social mobility, changing the way in which we view the modern student while enhancing life chances and opportunities for all.

In addition, one of the requirements of the Bill is that universities will need to publish information regarding application and admission statistics including factors such as gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background, thereby improving transparency. This could help to encourage greater diversity within UK universities and ultimately within professional workplaces, reflecting a contemporary and positive sense of social responsibility.

A dangerous gamble?

Despite its positive motives, the Bill has met substantial opposition in parliament. Gordon Marsden, Shadow Higher Education, Further Education and Skills Minister, has warned that it could prove to be ’very dangerous’. Marsden has noted the ‘gamble’ that students would be taking on ‘probationary degrees from probationary providers’. He argues that through having the ability to award degrees straight away, these providers will not have had the necessary time period in which to prove themselves to be high-quality institutions.

The Bill will ultimately lead to a flourishing of new degree providers, many of which will not fit the traditional format of what we currently know to be a university.  For example, these providers will not be required to fulfil some of the wider functions of a university such as research, third mission and community engagement. The National Union of Students (NUS) has expressed concerns about the extent to which students will be protected from providers who do not meet strict requirements.

Furthermore, there are widespread questions as to how some providers could damage the esteemed reputation of UK higher education as a whole. Critics have pointed towards the for-profit degree providers of the USA, which have a rather gloomy reputation of unfavourable student outcomes, with a greater focus on marketing and profit sharing than on the provision of high-quality teaching. The increased marketization of universities has long been a cause for concern for the National Union of Students (NUS). According to Sorana Vieru, NUS Vice President, ‘a climate of competition will never be in students’ best interests’.

Indeed, speaking about students as consumers is somewhat at odds with the purer ideals of education and academia. According to Professor of Sociology John Holmwood, this Bill represents ‘a major assault on the idea of a university and its essential role in the public sphere of facilitating the creation and dissemination of knowledge and debate about common objectives’. Holmwood argues that the fundamental changes the Bill proposes could have detrimental, long-term effects for UK universities, undermining the frameworks that have so far ensured the excellent global reputation of the UK higher education sector.

Perhaps most worryingly of all is the prospect of institutions being given the ability to raise their tuition fees to different levels in accordance with how they perform within a new Teaching Excellence Framework. The very real possibility of this leading to a hike in tuition fees has led to students and education activists protesting against the Bill outside the houses of parliament. This legislation promotes an ethos of choice and competition within the higher education sector. However, increased competition for higher education funding could mean that it is the poorer students who may pay the price, undermining any social mobility benefits promised by the Bill from the start.

Conclusion

The nature of the higher education sector has changed drastically since the 1990s in taking on the shape and often the language of big business, dividing opinion in the process. It is now expected that universities compete for students who ‘shop around’ for the best deal. However, it is clear that many experts view the Higher Education and Research Bill as being a step too far. Indeed, during what has been a turbulent period in British politics in regards to the government restructure and Brexit negotiations, this could be an uneasy time to instigate such a drastic transition.

The Russell Group has spoken about the care that needs to be taken when enacting the Bill, emphasising how the manner in which the principle of ‘reasonable balance’ is determined in terms of funding for the Research Councils and Research England. The group argues that ‘the combination of stable core funding and competitively awarded grants ensures the diversity and breadth of research in the UK’.

It is a positive and natural motion that the government should wish to improve and expand upon the reputation of the UK higher education sector. After all, universities are crucial sites of economic growth and social mobility and must move with the times to avoid falling behind on the global platform. However, actions taken should be measured and proportionate to ensure that the existing quality reputation of university teaching and research remains protected. Most importantly, actions will need to be put into place to ensure that the best interests of students are prioritised over profit.

As always, Idox’s POLICYfinder team will be on hand to track the changes, developments and outcomes as they unfold.

By Julia Banim, Idox

 

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