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UK Higher Education White Paper: The things you need to know

The UK Government has launched a brand new Higher Education White Paper, receiving a mixture of appraisals and criticism from the region’s sector professionals.

The paper, along with the following legislation, re-evaluates the integral relationship between the state, its students and research which has defined UK higher education (UKHE) for the past century. But the reforms have been met with some controversy, since plans to implement a more accessible, transparent and accountable education system also poses a certain amount of risks and unforeseen consequences.

The Paper’s key points include:

1. A brand new Office for Students (OfS) is to be launched, merging the learning and teaching provisions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).

The OfS will provide quality assurance and serve as a student watchdog, restoring students’ faith in UKHE after widespread complaints that teaching hours are too sparse and students are not provided with sufficient information before starting their degree.

Ministers believe the OfS will encourage innovation among UK universities, and boost the number of highly-skilled graduates entering the jobs market.

What the experts say:

Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive of Million+ university group, on the OfS: “Will the OfS be independent from government or reduced to the role of a regulator like Ofcom, bearing in mind that, unlike Hefce, it will no longer be funded by BIS but from prescriptions paid by universities and other HE providers?”

2. The Government wants to allow universities to increase fees in line with inflation, provided they meet the standards laid out in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TeF) in 2017-2018 and 2018-19, before differentiated caps are introduced in 2019-20.

The TeF will be phased in over the next four years, assessing which institutions will be able to increase their fees.

There have also been suggestions that it should be made easier for students to be able to switch courses and universities.

What the experts say:

Sorana Vieru, Vice President of the National Union of Students (NUS), on increasing fees: “Students will understandably be outraged at any suggestion universities could be allowed to put fees up even higher in order to improve teaching quality – it was only four years ago that tuition fees were trebled.

“The proposed [TeF] should not be linked to any rise in fees – the government should urgently reflect on this and drop this muddled proposal.”

Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University College Union (UCU), on the TeF: “It is hard to see how many of the measures which have been proposed [the TeF] will either measure quality or improve it. UCU believes a critical weakness of our current system is the precarious employment of university teachers, 49% of whom are on precarious contracts.”

3. Minimum student requirements are to be reduced, allowing smaller institutions to class themselves as higher education providers.

New providers can immediately offer their own degrees for a probationary period, subject to continuing mentoring and annual reviews.

Universities will be assessed in terms of student satisfaction, retention and graduate employment (as well as other criteria yet to be discussed), with students eventually being able to access comprehensive information on graduate earnings by individual degree course, due to be published in summer 2016.

What the experts say:

Sally Hunt on new providers: “Despite repeated warnings from UCU about the danger of opening up UK higher education to private, for-profit providers, the government is setting out on a clear course to privatise higher education.

“We have already seen too many scandals involving alternative providers in the UK and U.S., so if we are to protect the global reputation enjoyed by our universities, lessons must be learned and rigorous quality measures applied before any new provider is allowed to access either degree awarding powers or state funding.”

Pam Tatlow on degree-awarding powers: “The White Paper’s proposals to make it easier to gain a university title and degree-awarding powers will need to be carefully considered to ensure that the interests of students are not put at risk.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom in the world of UKHE; Mark Leach, founder, editor and director of Wonkhe also told The Guardian: “The White Paper is a much more sturdy and coherent document than the Green Paper that went before it…There are plenty of challenges to the sector but I sense a general willingness to make it all work.”

But with dramatic reforms set to take place over the course of the next four years, including the possibility of even higher fees and new providers that threaten the quality on offer in the world’s second-most popular study abroad destination, what lies in store for the UKHE’s global reputation, as well as for the overall integrity of the UKHE sector?

Quotes via The Guardian.

Image via Flickr.

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