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England: Much anticipated higher education white paper is released

On 28 June 2011 a long-awaited higher education white paper was released by England’s Department for Business Innovation & Skills. In releasing its first higher education policy paper since the Labour party’s Browne Report in October 2010 (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, October 2010), the coalition government sets forth its vision for the future of the country’s higher education sector. In addition to endorsing previously announced changes to the student finance system, some of the most significant changes include plans to

  • ease current restrictions to encourage more private higher education providers to move into the sector. In addition, some students from private institutions will be eligible for loans up to GBP 6 000 (EUR 6 677);
  • review the current stipulations used to categorise an institution as a university and
  • alter the role of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), whereby HEFCE will serve as a consumer ‘watchdog’ for students and promoter of the new competitive funding structure.

Plans are also outlined to “make around 85 000 student places contestable between institutions in 2012/13”. With regard to 65 000 of these slots, institutions will be able to freely vie for top-performing students (i.e. students with grades AAB or higher). The other 20 000 undergraduate places will be available to institutions charging tuition of GBP 7 500 (approximately EUR 8 350) or less. This two-tiered approach thus allows higher education institutions to compete for roughly one in four new undergraduate places in 2012/13, and is set to expand in subsequent years.

Some critics believe the new system will result in further stratification. Namely, elite universities will continue to attract the ‘best of the best’ and increase their funding because of the new tuition fee structure. This may force middle-tiered institutions to lower tuition with the hope of capturing a portion of the 20 000 spaces designated for the lower-cost options. More developments are on the horizon: the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) is set to release its final decisions on institutional requests to increase tuition on 12 July (see Wales says “no” to increased tuition fees in our June 2011 edition). Without doubt, the English higher education landscape is in the midst of undeniable transformation. 

Department of Business Innovation & Skills