Edition 171 - July 2015

UK: Driving up teaching quality - and tuition fees.

Higher education made the headlines of Chancellor George Osborne’s Summer Budget speech on 8 July. 

One of the most controversial announcements concerned the elimination of maintenance grants (typically awarded to students from lower income backgrounds), which will be fully replaced by loans. Students will be able to borrow up to GBP 8 200 per year, in some cases, money which they will only need to begin repaying once they earn over GBP 21 000.

The move, critics say, will discourage disadvantaged students from applying to university. To this, Chancellor Osborne cries ‘nonsense’:  In his speech, he took care to remind people that the rise in tuition fees during last Parliament had not had the feared effect of putting poorer students off higher education. And it appears to be true: UCAS figures published in January 2015 show that the number of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to university has reached a record high. And the move towards loans and away from grants, Osborne said, is expected to save the State a precious GBP 2.5 billion by 2020-2021. This will enable the removal of the cap on student numbers, which was also announced on this occasion.

Equally controversial was the announcement that institutions “offering high quality teaching” will be allowed to increase their tuition fees with inflation from 2016-2017. How exactly “high quality teaching” will be measured, and what percentage of universities might be given the green light to exceed the current GBP 9 000 ceiling, however, remains unclear. In a speech delivered a week earlier, Minister for Universities Jo Johnson made allusion to the upcoming development of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to drive up teaching quality -- in all likelihood, the very mechanism that would be used to sort out the best universities, teaching-quality-wise. However, Osborne made no reference to the TEF in his speech, which struck many as an odd thing. Will the TEF be developed in time to be usable by 2016-2017? If so, why not allude to it? If not, how will teaching quality be measured instead?

We expect the veil of mystery surrounding the Teaching Excellence Framework to be removed very soon-- only then will we have a better idea of the number of universities which will be allowed to raise their tuition fees. 

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