Higher Education White Paper a ‘recipe for disaster’

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The Government’s recent higher education White Paper was “a real missed opportunity” according to Lancaster’s Vice Chancellor.

The long-awaited White Paper outlines the future of higher education and student funding and has caused controversy in the higher education circle since its publication at the end of June. Sir Steve Smith, the outgoing president of Universities UK, the body that represents UK universities, said that with the White Paper the Government had given the green light to a market for A-level students with the best grades.

Under the proposals set out in the White Paper, from September 2012 English institutions will be able to take on an unlimited number of students who achieve AAB grades at A-Level. Universities will be allowed to offer financial incentives to these students, effectively producing a bidding war for the best and brightest students. Universities could offer these students cut-price deals or bursaries to try to secure them for their institutions.

But there are pitfalls for institutions that attract fewer top pupils than they do currently. Sir Steve said: “The complication for universities is if you don’t recruit the same percentage of students with AAB or better than you had last year what happens is you lose the funding for those students.

“That means those students become very attractive and thus institutions will do what they can to lower the cost of attending university in order to attract them.”

Recent data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) has shown that the universities most likely to benefit from this ability to recruit unlimited numbers of high-achieving students are those that currently perform lowest on widening participation.

HESA’s data shows that universities in the existing AAB elite have a strong showing in tables of institutions with the fewest students from state schools, from less wealthy socio-economic classes and from low-participation neighbourhoods, the Agency’s three widening participation indicators.

Of the 10 universities with the highest proportions of AAB students, six are in the bottom 10 of English institutions on all three widening participation indicators. These are Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, Bristol, University College London and Exeter.

Speaking to the Times Higher Education supplement, Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group of newer universities, said the “misguided AAB policy will result in more resources for the most socially exclusive universities.”

“By favouring measures of input quality over measures of added value, the government is damaging widening participation, which it claims to favour.”

The General Secretary of the University and College Union, Sally Hunt, branded the introduction of a higher education market as “a recipe for disaster.”

“With teaching budgets being slashed by 80%, institutions are desperate to attract students to replace this lost income,” she said.

“The Government is obviously hoping that expanding places for students with AAB grades will lead to a bidding war and drive down costs, after it spectacularly botched up its sums on university funding. I fail to see how moving from a system where there is collaboration between institutions to one which encourages cut-throat competition is in the interest of our sector.”

In contrast, the 1994 Group of research intensive universities welcomed the introduction of “flexibility to the allocation of student places” as positive news.

Lancaster University’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Paul Wellings, speaking in his role as Chair of the ’94 Group said:  “It’s good news that the White Paper will introduce flexibility to the allocation of student places. Allowing the best universities the freedom to expand will encourage competition for students based on the quality of experience on offer. However, the Government needs to take a rich view of quality. High quality student experiences are not confined to a small group of institutions that are perceived to be the elite.

“The Government also needs to avoid driving down standards by auctioning students to low cost institutions. Student places must be awarded where there is clear evidence of good value. We should not encourage higher education providers to short-change students by cutting corners. We will look at the details of student places with interest.”

Wellings also pointed out that in not mentioning financial support for research, postgraduate students or the internationalism of the British higher education sector, the Government had failed to seriously consider Britain’s global standing.

He added: “At a time when international competitors are growing ever stronger on all of these factors, the White Paper’s failure to set forth a comprehensive and compelling vision is a real missed opportunity.”

The new president of Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU), George Gardiner, said: “LUSU is continuing its proactive approach in response to the changing environment in higher education. Following the publishing of the White Paper, LUSU is looking to strengthen student representation in order to ensure value for money, whilst simultaneously helping students understand their rights and obligations under the new system.

“The Union will continue to play its part in national consultation, developing opportunities for students that will help to make Lancaster University the university of choice for more prospective students. In particular we will deliver activities to support widening participation, whilst consistently ensuring all our activities support the development of student employability.”

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills caveated the changes, saying universities will need to meet tough new criteria for attracting the brightest students from lower income backgrounds, including fee waivers and bursaries.

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