Higher education White Paper: Mixed response emerges from sector’s key figures

Top reactions to White Paper's focus on student choice, teaching quality and social mobility

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The Independent Online

As the Government publishes its White Paper on higher education (HE) reform, plans have emerged to make HE more open and competitive with new universities entering the market, transparency and support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and more of a focus on the quality of teaching, graduate outcomes, and employment.

However, despite Universities Minister Jo Johnson reinforcing how student choice, teaching quality, and social mobility lie at the heart of the document, reaction from those within the sector has emerged mixed:

Alex Neill, director of policy and campaigns at Which?: 

“Our research has shown students struggle to obtain the information they need to make informed decisions about university choices. We welcome measures to give students more insight into student experience, teaching standards and value for money.

“These proposals could not only drive up standards, but could also empower students ahead of one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives.” 

Sorana Vieru, NUS vice president (HE):

“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 tuition fees were trebled and students now face debts up to £53,000 when they graduate.

“Universities, students, and staff have all been very clear the proposed the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) should not be linked to any rise in fees and the influential BIS Select Committee urged the Government to do some serious rethinking before taking this forward. The Government should urgently reflect on this and drop this muddled proposal.

“The Government has serious questions to answer before it can make it easier for new providers to enter the sector. We need to know what protections they will be required to give to students, to ensure they are not left in the lurch and ripped-off by institutions that may be focused on shareholders rather than students’ interests.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC):

“Choice, access, and quality are the welcome watchwords of the Government’s long-awaited plans to open up HE and to allow more colleges to award HE qualifications.

“This step away from the country’s traditional university system will empower more people than ever before to access HE in their local area through a college. It will also provide a wider choice of courses that are linked to employment.

“Students, colleges, and employers will welcome these plans, which mean more opportunities for people to access the most suitable and best value HE courses. This is a particular benefit for those who are employed and want to study part-time.”

University and College Union general secretary, Sally Hunt:

“Despite repeated warnings from UCU about the danger of opening up UK HE to private, for-profit providers, the Government is setting out on a clear course to privatise HE.

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

“We remain deeply concerned by any proposed link between quality as defined in the TEF and additional income, and will oppose any move to further increase the lifetime cost of HE, which already sits at over £50,000 for the poorest undergraduates.

The Government must do more to address the persistent barriers to HE for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We need tougher action on universities who are missing access targets, better support for part-time and mature study, and a national inquiry on our broken admissions system to ensure fair access for all.”

University Alliance chief executive, Maddalaine Ansell:

“The right regime for HE and research is essential for building the knowledge economy of the future. These plans strike a healthy balance between protecting the quality and global reputation of our country’s universities, whilst also encouraging innovation. 

“Implementing the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in a steady way over time is the best way to ensure it is flexible enough to recognise the strength and diversity of the HE sector.

“The Government is right to emphasise supporting social mobility and progression, encouraging universities to focus on getting students into employment and increasing transparency for potential students.

“The decision to protect the dual support funding system for research in legislation is very welcome as is the recognition of the importance of innovation in the new institutional architecture.”

Douglas Blackstock, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA):

“The Government has struck a balance between encouraging competition and rigorous protection of UK HE’s world-class reputation, including independent quality assurance and the requirement of new providers to meet the expectations of the UK Quality Code.

“QAA supports measures to protect student interests and the new flexible routes to achieve degree awarding powers at Bachelors and subject level, which will allow new providers to develop their capacity over time.”

Emran Mian, director of the Social Market Foundation:

“HE is too much like a club where the rules are made for the benefit of universities. These reforms will begin to change that.

“Students will have access to more information when they’re making application choices, and universities will be under more pressure to improve the quality of teaching. 

“The White Paper gives more detail on how new providers will be regulated. There have been problems with quality among new providers in the past and Government now recognises a tougher approach is needed. At the same time, though, the sector has risked seeming complacent about quality among incumbents. The measures to ensure ‘student protection’ in the White Paper begin to show a new direction.

“The right approach for the future is a level playing field for new and old. As participation in HE rises, students should have the opportunity to choose from the widest range of courses - and feel confident that complaints will be taken just as seriously by the regulator wherever they are studying.”

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, the Association of Modern Universities:

“The Government’s reforms will have UK-wide implications and we look forward to working constructively with ministers to ensure these plans maintain and enhance a high-quality university system which supports anyone who has the ambition, talent, and desire to succeed.

Aldwyn Cooper, vice-chancellor of Regent’s University London:

“The focus on quality to be the key determinant for acquisition of university title, student experience, graduate employment, and innovation are of crucial importance to the UK's continuing gold standard position in world HE.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust:

“We welcome the White Paper’s focus on access, and its assertion of the independence of the Director of Fair Access within the new arrangements.

“However, we are disappointed the Government has apparently dropped encouraging proposals to give the director more powers to set targets where universities are not making progress.

“This softening of the original proposals is likely to make it much harder to increase the participation of disadvantaged students.”

Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK:

“We are pleased Government has listened to the views of universities on their plans for a TEF. Universities will work with the Government to see how this can best add value to all students, whatever their choice of subject or university.

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“The focus on improving access to HE is to be welcomed. Universities have made considerable progress in recent years to increase the numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university. This is ongoing work - and we recognise there is still more to do.”

Mary Curnock Cook, Ucas chief executive:

“Transparency about access should mean all applicants can be sure they will be treated fairly in the admissions process, regardless of their ethnic or social background. To help meet the new transparency duty, Ucas will be publishing the first transparency reports for universities on 9 June.”

Tim Melville-Ross, chair of Higher Education Funding Council for England Chair (Hefce):

“We welcome the Government’s continuing commitment to dual support. UK HE research is internationally recognised and produces ground-breaking work for the benefit of the economy and society. 

“HE changes lives and makes a vital contribution to social mobility and economic growth. Hefce will collaborate with Government, students, the sector, and others to ensure a smooth transition as the reforms are implemented, subject to Parliamentary approval.”

Gordon Marsden, shadow minister for HE: 

“It is of great concern the Tory government is putting [the UK’s] hard-won reputation at risk by giving degree-awarding powers to new institutions from day one, including private providers with no previous track-record in education.

“With over 60 per cent of students feeling their course is worse than expected, we welcome the focus on improving teaching standards. However, the timescales for introducing TEF look very tight, and concerns remain it will be used as a Trojan Horse to increase fees even further and unleash the full force of the market in HE.

“We welcome the focus on improving participation of disadvantaged groups in HE but, if the Government were serious about this, they would never have replaced maintenance grants with loans which risks putting off students from poor backgrounds from achieving their potential.