Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

Autumn Term Blues


As we approach the beginning of September the HE sector is busy preparing for the new term, and worrying about the new term blues (well, there are no yellows left!)

So what’s on the agenda for the term ahead?

Teaching excellence and quality 

New Head Boy, Jo, has been busy since May considering his plans for this term and preparing his Green Paper on what a new Teaching Excellence Framework might look like. This “soft consultation” has been running alongside HEFCE’s rather harder consultation on the future of quality assessment, although it looks increasingly likely that these will end up being merged. Despite HEFCE’s more radical proposals it looks like both the QAA and independent, external, cyclical peer-review will survive – even if in revised formats.

There has been much talk about the TEF and various possible metrics, but the key question for many will be what expectation the Minister might have about whether all institutions should “pass” the TEF. There has been a suggestion that in order to demonstrate its rigour it might be necessary that some (many) institutions will have to “fail” to pass the threshold and therefore not be allowed to charge the £9,000 plus interest in the first iteration.

The narrative around any “failure” will be key, not least in the context of the UK’s international reputation. There will clearly be concerns about the evidence base for making this kind of assessment. However, if this is a route that the Minister is looking then maybe there might be something to draw on from the REF with 2 star research being “internationally recognised” and one star “nationally recognised”, and not “failing” per se although neither grading receive funding.

Another question is whether the TEF will look at institutions as a whole or look at departments, or indeed both. Whilst there will be institutional approaches and policies there are likely to be differences in the quality of teaching across an institution, although there are likely to be challenges in TEF.1 to develop this level of nuance. There will also be practical legal difficulties of allowing part of an institution to increase fees by inflation but not the whole institution which may prove beyond the limits of law without an HE Bill.

Spending review

With the public sector taking a deep breath in the lead-up to the Chancellor’s November Spending Review there is a question about whether higher education will feel the brunt of this through, the already announced, changing student grants to loans or whether there will be more pain through more direct cuts. BIS are making the case to the Treasury about how the Department can play its part.

Bodies such as GuildHE are already making the case of the importance of various aspects of public funding, whether to maintain the diversity of the HE sector through institution-specific funding (specialist institution funding), supporting access to higher education of a diverse range of students through the Disabled Students Allowance and Student Opportunity (widening participation) funding or looking at how we define high-cost subjects and the actual costs of different subjects often not recognised such as music and performance.

In considering any funding changes we would encourage the Minister to consider the higher education landscape that he would like to see in 2020 and therefore mitigate against the unintended consequences of some cuts such as on the diversity of students or institutions.

Regulation

Whilst much of the discussion about regulation has been focused on the TEF and future of quality assessment this was the missing piece to the Coalition’s HE reforms around the regulatory landscape. It is likely that these issues will re-emerge, as questions around protecting the student interest in the case of institutional failure, levelling the playing-field for alternative providers that have met the regulatory regime, as well the linkages between regulation coming out of other coming government departments such as the Home Office and DfE. These questions are likely to re-emerge during the parliament, if not immediately, and likely to fill out the rest of an HE Bill at a future date.

There is always much on the agenda for any incoming Government and the new Minister has already shown that he is prepared to ask difficult questions and shake things up if necessary. But as we think about the kind of higher education sector that we want in 2020 and beyond, there are likely to be a number of features including maintaining our reputation for excellence, ensuring the accessibility of higher education to all and I believe that a diverse range of institutions plays a key role in this.

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