Higher Education Green Paper

It has been an extremely busy past week. Between the release of the Higher Education Green Paper and the Autumn statement the political system is in top gear just before the holiday season. While we are also quietly creeping towards an inevitable vote for airstrikes in Syria. So I am going to look at part 1 of this past week which is the Green Paper. I have no choice but to be interested in this really as I am a student in university, so I feel it is an obligation (some reason I highly doubt most other students will sift through the document, but rather attach themselves to the headlines and staunch opinions).

Firstly, this paper was undeniably needed, student satisfaction and fees has been a volatile issue prompting the need to provide a new look. The OECD just came out with figures suggesting on average the fees at U.K. universities are higher than those of the U.S. With this particular headline just being more fuel to a fire of sensationalism around the issue of fees. It has to be appreciated that while paying £9,000 a year an individual has access to the preeminent British institutions of education such as Oxford, Cambridge, and the rest of the Russell Group. While in the United States at a typical Ivy League university take Yale for example you pay £30,000 a year, as a domestic student. Admittedly both countries take advantage of you when you are an international student (good I got my British citizenship before I went to university).

The first part addresses teaching excellence and quality. The main concept behind this is that students will m0ve towards identifying their university of choice based upon the teaching rather than the reputation. On this basis this is a good idea, pushing forward the teaching excellence framework (TEF). However, it is the following part in the paper which is of concern. Increasing levels of the TEF would enable universities to increase tuition fees. Now the inequality that may create is relatively clear, my biggest concern is what the benchmark for performance is. The top universities in the UK all already charge the full £9,000. If the university performs well with TEF could they then charge across the board higher tuition fees for all their course? In which case could someone justify paying something like £15,000 for an English degree knowing the average salary that such a degree leads to in terms of a career after university?

Supposedly a newly formed Office for Students is meant to overlook that targets are set sufficiently high, and to bring into enforcement the desired goals. There is also the inclusion of needing “widening participation”. Yet I am always cautious of such friendly phrases such as widening participation. On an initial view it looks like a firm trying to maximise profits. Perform well on a set criteria that students might not actually have such a powerful say in, have higher fees, bring in as many students as possible, and then profit. Now obviously this is a considerable simplification with undeniably a skeptic’s view. However, there is an issue to address here and one of those is the longevity of universities in a sense they cannot be subject to the current whims or social leanings of a new set of students every year, as well as the challenge of managing expectations.

Regardless of its perceived shortcomings it is a step in the right direction, realising that students are paying for a service and there must be quality in that.

The following section was with regard to the education sector as a whole. Namely the idea to enable the creation of a universities in that rewarding institutions with degree awarding powers. An example is A.C. Grayling’s New College of The Humanities, which while a full education institute can only award degrees through the University of London external program. The idea here is to bring more competition in the market, and undoubtedly to challenge the institutions which have been comfortable with their awarding powers up until now.

This sector is going to become more dynamic and less antiquated which I believe is the main goal. While not agreeing with every notion in the paper, I feel it was an important step towards improving the industry as a whole. I am unsure of the impact it has on those in research roles and the funding they may get, so I will look into that further.

Education is always a complex issue, with teaching quality being quite a precarious variable to measure. Personally I have felt that the larger issue amongst U.K. universities is that of spirit. Compared to the U.S. counterparts a large part of student satisfaction is derived from the university identity, sports, music, and other inclusive events. It will always be a hard sell when the product is a two hour lecture on statistical theory even with the greatest teaching quality, so this is just another area to consider.