HE Green Paper: just another cost-benefit analysis

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As students, it can feel as though we sometimes arrive at the debate a tad too late. Protesting laws that have already passed can be admirable, but fruitless at times. Therefore, the unfolding discussion on the government’s higher education green paper, still in its consultation stage, has been interesting. Backlash is only to be expected, as students are not statistically likely to be part of the Conservative faithful. But can you really oppose a paper that urges us to fulfil our potential, through ‘teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice?’ Well, when the pervasive theme in the paper is the clear marketization of higher education, I’ll leave that decision up to you.

This core theme is particularly apparent in its approach to assessing the quality of teaching. The paper outlines the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the new method of assuring quality in teaching at universities. TEF would be used to rate institutions. Higher TEF ratings allow institutions to ‘unlock’ the right to charge higher tuition fees. A fall in TEF rankings would equal a reduction in the amount of fees an institution could charge.

Days after a student march to protest any further rise in tuition fees, it speaks volumes that our government decided to propose to raise them in such a way. The rationale behind this would be that money and profit are an incentive in business. Business. Not education as a value in its own right, but business, the commodity that higher education has become. To complete the set, the paper further proposes that it should be easier for private providers of higher education to enter the market. Doing this should provide us with healthy competition, rising standards and falling tuition fees. Except how can this be the case, when the same government implements policies that adversely affects students coming from overseas? These private institutions need the funding of overseas students.

Using a system that tries to narrow the quality of teaching down to a quantifiable science does not reflect the complex nature of a student’s learning experience. ‘How is your university, rate 1-5?’ is clearly a ridiculous question, when trying to gauge the teaching experience, and so is any method that aims to use a metric approach to an issue of quality.

Image courtesy of lse.ac.uk
Image courtesy of lse.ac.uk

The government attempted an admirable focus on the issue of social mobility in this paper. Yet I cannot see how setting up a system which gives certain universities more funding based on TEF can further their aims. Encouraging a tiered-system to this extent, one that creates a link between higher fees and better quality is disastrous for any social mobility agenda. Inevitably those who struggle to get into higher education are priced out of the ‘best’ universities, while the universities they may end up at are seen as worthless. This two-edged sword promotes elitism and raises tuition fees.

Of the many important issues to be raised, the impact of these proposals on research at universities should not be downplayed. Praise for the quality of research at UK universities appeared to be contrasted with the notion that teaching was not of the same quality. As Lancaster University students we have the privilege of being taught by people who are also undertaking research of some kind and are very active in their field. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that research-led teaching is a key strength in the best UK universities. It is disheartening to see the government appear to put some distance between the two (research and teaching), juxtaposing them as interfering with each other. Unfortunately this appears to be a result of the government’s intentions to encourage more private providers of education. These institutions are not particularly focused on research and it seems that the government has allowed this business-driven narrative to inform its policy.

As a nation, we traded in our research-focused academic institutions for business a long time ago. The focus is now on education as an instrumental good; to impress employers, to create a thriving market of higher education, to join the soulless line towards the workforce. There is no shame in referring to profitability in higher education anymore, or pricing people out of the best universities. Education is supposed to be the great equaliser, no matter your lot in life, you have a window of opportunity. But if you take one thing away from the government’s green paper, let it be that your education is little more than a cost-benefit analysis to them.

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