If you’ve had a conversation with me recently, chances are I’ve mentioned the fact that the Higher Education Green Paper has taken over my life.
If you don’t know what that means, let me explain:
A green paper is something the government publishes that details ideas for things they want to bring in. They then consult with the public and sector bodies to find out what people think of these things. Then they take that consultation, make adjustments to the green paper, and present it as a white paper to go into law or practice.
The HE Green Paper is 105 pages long and has 28 consultation questions. It presents the biggest change to Higher Education since the 1992 Further and Higher Education act.
But what does it mean for students?
Well, I’ve written a basic breakdown of the things in the paper that you may/will be affected by.
The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)
Basically, the idea of the Teaching Excellence Framework, or TEF, is to create a system by which higher education institutions can have their teaching assessed. Metrics will be graduate employment data, student retention data, and student satisfaction data from the NSS.
This is extremely problematic, because what field of employment someone ends up in after they graduate is not, in any way, an indication of how ‘excellent’ the teaching they received on course has been. Whether students stay on their course or not is also not an accurate reflection of teaching excellence, there are many other factors in students’ decisions to leave higher education. There can be several reasons why a course, department or faculty is not retaining students. For example, it could be down to financial reasons, like, I don’t know, raising tuition fees by 0.8% per year.
Which brings me nicely on to fees. Yes, the TEF will allow those universities that are deemed to have ‘teaching excellence’ by their metrics to raise their tuition fees. Higher education providers that meet the requirements of tier one of TEF will be entitled to raise their fees in line with inflation up to this amount for new students from 2017/18.
The only positive I can take from that is that the move is not retrospective, it won’t affect current students, only those attending university from 2017/18 onward. But that is the only positive.
The paper also makes references to the CMA (Competition and Markets authority,) and about its regulations. So to achieve teaching excellence Higher Education institutions will also have to be CMA compliant. Of course it’s a legal requirement that Higher Education Institution’s (HEI’s) are compliant with the CMA’s regulations (hurray for marketisation,) but including that in the TEF framework is only furthering the trend of treating education as a product and universities as businesses. Ew.
But going back to fees, another thing I’ve noticed is there’s no mention of international students? Given they already pay far more than home students to come to university, some up to £35’000 per year for the same degree a home student would receive for £9’000 per year. One would think they might be made exempt from the percentage-linked rise. But apparently not.
To achieve higher tiers on the TEF will be linked to meeting targets on helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and focusing on BME students’ attainment gaps. Which is a positive move, obviously we want universities to work on widening participation and helping everyone to achieve. But how are they going to do that when the most disadvantaged students have been priced out of education?
The paper talks frequently about widening participation and social mobility. The paper is actually titled ‘Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility, and Student Choice.’
How can you preach widening participation when the strategy and rhetoric you’re laying out literally prevents it?
And access to Higher Education is so much more than recruitment. It goes beyond getting BME students and students from low participation neighbourhoods through the door. Access includes student resources, particularly what resources are available to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Access includes support for these students, and for students who define into a liberation or section, (LGBT, international, mature and part-time etc.) Access includes a focus or provision to tackle BME attainment gaps and attainment gaps for students from low income backgrounds. Access encompasses all of this and more, and it most certainly doesn’t end once a student has enrolled on a course.
The Office for Students & Student Protections
Speaking of pricing out disadvantaged students and BME student attainment gaps, the government is getting rid of the Office for Fair Access. Yes. That’s happening. They’re also getting rid of HEFCE, which is the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and making them one organisation. The Office for Students.
The paper claims that this will ’empower students, strengthen competition, drive quality, eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and save taxpayer money.’
I don’t think that the government knows what empowering students’ looks like. No where do they talk about asking students what they want, surely giving students a voice in what this ‘Office for Students’ looks like would be far more empowering than dissolving two Higher Education organisations, merging the remainder together and seeing what happens?
Oh, if only there was an organisation that championed the interests of students already. *cough* NUS *cough*
The government states concerns over the BME attainment gap, but also the low attainment of disadvantaged white men, and low levels of access to selective institutions for disadvantaged groups. They seek to make improvements in this area by joining up work on access and widening participation in the Office for Students so that it can set institutional targets and goals on access, and the ability to reject an access agreement if it fails to meet the set targets.
They’ve also written in an exit strategy plan into the Office for Students remit, to provide student protection. There will be increased protections for students if a course or institution fails.
Here’s a quote from page 54 of the green paper:
‘As the sector becomes increasingly driven by student choice, this may also bring an increased likelihood that a provider may need to exit perhaps as a necessity or alternatively through its own choice. “Exit” may happen at provider, course or campus level. This chapter considers all of these possibilities’
Please feel free to read that as ‘we know some HE providers will not survive these changes. Please form an orderly queue to leave the sector.’
Also saying that the sector will become ‘increasingly driven by student choice,’ is another among countless nods towards the further marketisation of higher education this paper proposes.
Freedom of Information Acts
Universities may be made exempt from the freedom of information act.
This will make it much harder to hold them to account, as it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get documentation from institutions in order to either back up or disprove queries.
The Office for Students will, alone, have the right to request documentation from HE providers, and that’s more in order to award funding. See:
‘Responsibility for protecting the public interest in their governing documents would transfer to the OfS, with the principles of public interest incorporated in to the terms and conditions of grant funding.’
The justification of this is to create a level playing field with private providers, who are exempt from Freedom of Information requests and other public body requirements.
So, marketisation and privatisation, awesome.
Which brings me nicely on to private providers. The Government aims to remove barriers to entry for private providers. They want to streamline and speed up process of obtaining degree-awarding powers. Under the new proposals, a private provider could get degree awarding powers in less than four years and university status in less than five. This new process would be administered by the Office for Students. The issue with this is if the institution lost its degree awarding abilities after 5 years, then graduates from that institution risk having their degree invalidated. This isn’t fair on the graduate, and frankly it’s too high-risk. As I’ve previously mentioned, the Government have written an exit plan into the Office for Students remit. The OfS can both give, and take away, the ability to award degrees.
The government has set out plans to introduce an alternative to student finance, which is Sharia-compliant.
My handy friend Wikipedia says Sharia-compliant finance is: ‘…banking or banking activity that is consistent with the principles of sharia (Islamic law.) …Sharia prohibits acceptance of specific interest or fees for loans of money whether the payment is fixed or floating.’
This is something the student movement and NUS have been fighting for, and is a very welcome announcement from the government. This is one of the very few wins for students detailed in the green paper.
This part of the paper starts out by saying Students’ Unions have an ‘important role representing student views and promoting the provision of academic and other services.’
Then the next paragraph reads:
‘The Government is currently taking steps through our trade union reforms to improve union practices and increase transparency around how funds are spent. In this consultation, we are asking for public views on the role of students’ unions and what further steps could be taken to increase transparency and accountability to individual members.’
No further information was given on this, but it’s clear that this thinking is linked to the government’s current reform of trade union democracy.
Because this government has shown how much it loves trade unions, with the trade union bill specifically designed to silence their voices, and try and stop their collective power.
And with regards to our accountability to our members, well, that’s just it. We’re accountable to our members. To our students. We work for them. And I think the government should be asking students what they think of their unions, not the general public. We can see how this is going to go.
‘Oh, Students’ Unions don’t have high engagement.’
‘Oh, they don’t have high voter turnout in their elections.’
‘Hmm, let’s make them an opt-in, rather than an opt-out.’
It’s going to be bad.
We know that we do incredible things. Student opportunities, e.g societies and sports teams, make people’s lives at university better. There’s really exciting research starting at the Liverpool Guild of Students on the effect that joining a society has on retention rates. It’s early days, but I think we can predict, from hearing multiple personal stories from multiple kinds of people, that societies, sports teams, etc. do keep students in university. And that, right there, speaks volumes for the value of Students’ Unions.
We provide campaigns on issues that impact our students. We represent their views to the university. We make sure minority groups are heard. We’re here to improve the student experience, for every student.
We need to make sure the government knows that.
They talk about social mobility and BME attainment gaps, and then price students out of education. They talk clarity and accountability, then open up the consultation to the public we’re not accountable to. They talk about giving universities an equal playing field with private institutions, then have an exit plan for the HEI’s they are obviously predicting won’t make it through these changes.
I think Higher Education is facing the biggest fight it’s had since the 1992 Further and Higher Education act. And I think that we, students, should be leading that fight. As the ones who are directly affected by the measures laid out in the green paper, we need to fight back. As the next generation, who are having barrier after barrier put in our way, making it ever more difficult for us to build a future for ourselves, we need to fight back. As people living, studying and maybe working in this country, we need to fight back, and tell the government that enough is enough.
You cannot take our grants, raise our fees, and blatantly threaten our Students’ Unions, without a fight.