Government Green Paper released

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The government’s much awaited education green paper aptly named Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice was released on Friday Week 5 to wildly mixed reviews.

This was the first report to make substantial changes to the sector since the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, as it sweeps away the funding and regulatory regime to replace them with new rules of engagement and controls. These new changes come in a number of forms, each outlined in different sections of the Green Paper.

The Green Paper introduces a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) that plans to ensure excellent teaching and recognize inclusive universities. Many academics and journalists, however, have expressed their concern with multiple issues in the report.

There is an assumption that a focus on research is harmful to teaching. Many of the best universities in the UK are research led and many of the best researchers are the best teachers. The ideas put forth in the Green Paper put the relationship between the research and teaching at risk if not implemented in the right way.

The report discusses ways of streamlining the funding system, which could either be incredibly helpful, or very harmful for many programs. At this stage, where the system hasn’t been introduced, it is impossible to tell what the implications might be. A worrying implication of any change in this area, however, is that responsibility for teaching and research would be completely separated in policy terms in England.

The Green Paper explicitly mentions there will be no approach to regulating the higher education system, as is currently seen through HEFCE. In the past, HEFCE has been able to take a strategic oversight in terms of teaching and research funding, quality and capital, as well as wider institutional concerns such as financial sustainability.

The Green Paper also signals a strong desire to create more competition. This section particularly focuses on new market entrants and new ways to speed up the process of creating new universities and education providers. The proposals cover what is a complex set of mechanisms around ‘Degree Awarding Powers’, ‘University Title’ and designation processes.

The report also discusses ways for the government to ‘manage’ the new institution’s entrance into the market effectively, as well as exiting the market if they are failing. Plans to protect students from the failure of institutions have also been included.

An interesting aspect of the focus on the creation of new (private) providers is how they relate to the research debate, explained above. While these private providers come in various shapes and sizes, from BPP and the University of Law to the New College of the Humanities, what they all share is a focus on teaching, not research.

The TEF would provide the ‘Quality Assessment’ (QA) which is a initiative to evaluate and rank universities. This arguably brings the biggest controversy of the report – a rise in tuition fees based off the quality of the university. This is an area of concern for many in the industry.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union said she was concerned about “exactly what measures would be used in any TEF. Simply finding a few measures to rank teaching will do nothing to improve quality, and we fear that manipulation of statistics may be the name of the game, rather than bolstering the student experience.”

While this opinion comes from the educator side of the issue, the opinion is mirrored on from the student perspective. Megan Dunn, president of the Nation Union of Students said that “teaching should always be a key focus of higher education, but the NUS is adamant that the teaching excellence framework should not be linked to an increase in fees. Students should not be treated like consumers.”

One other goal set forth for the TEF is the continued growth of inclusion in UK universities. The Green Report creates a new Social Mobility Advisory Group who would create a plan to present to the Universities Minister with a plan to meet the Prime Minister’s ambitions to increase the proportion of disadvantaged students entering higher education and increase the number of BME students by 20% by 2020.

Many of these goals are to be done underneath the new Office of Students (OfS) which plans to  bring together existing functions on quality, teaching excellence, market entry and social mobility. This is done by merging the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).

For the first time, the main higher education regulator would have a clear duty to promote the student interest when making decisions and will be responsible for ensuring value for money for students and taxpayers. The OfS would also have new powers requiring bodies providing a higher education service to release data in order to better inform students.

Although the report seems to be full of industry changing ideas, it is important to emphasise that many of these issues are very much open to discussion and change. Many of the proposals, such as the TEF, will not require changes to legislation, but the changes to HEFCE and OFFA and the creation of OfS very likely will.

There are also many problems with the ‘legislative plumbing’ that have been patched up or worked around in recent years that still need fixing. Any major Education Bill will require a strong political agenda, which will slow any implementation of the major aspects of the Green Paper. In addition, the Green Paper is not the only education report coming out.

In a few weeks there will be a Nurse Review and then on Wednesday Week 8 the Spending Review outcomes will be released. Those events and the response will also shape much of where this Green Paper goes. Lancaster’s University Management Advisory Group are meeting before Christmas to formalise a response to the Green Paper, as part of the consultation. The deadline for the consultation is 15 January.

University Head of Communications Vicky Tyrrell noted that a formal statement will be released by the university after this time.

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