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UK – steps towards a major higher education and research reform

On 16 and 19 May, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – the UK equivalent to a Ministry of Education – launched two key documents meant to support systemic reform of the UK’s higher education and research sectors. The White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy, made public on 16 May, outlines the main areas of the reform, while the ensuing legislation Higher Education and Research Bill, of 19 May, is meant to enact the changes announced just days earlier, in the White Paper. 

The White Paper has been drawn so as to significantly redesign the relation of UK’s higher education sector with the state, the students and with research. This is clear while going through some of the key points of the document, which include:

  • Competition from new higher education providers. The new proposals would make it easier for new and/or alternative providers to be granted degree-awarding powers (from day one, if high-quality standards are met and based on annual reviews, compared to a 4 years ‘probation’ period, previously) and enable new providers to fill the education gap in case traditional providers fail. This makes it easier for new and smaller providers to compete with established universities. These changes are supported by the Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson’s statement that “Making it easier for high-quality challenger institutions to start offering their own degrees will help drive up teaching quality, boost the economy and extend aspiration and life chances for students from all backgrounds,”
  • Quality of teaching: the paper reconfirms last year’s announcement of the launch of a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which is to encourage universities to raise standards and widen access of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The TEF is also to link, for the first time, and similar to the research field, the funding of universities to the quality of teaching (and no longer to student numbers). Institutions that will meet the TEF standards will be allowed to raise their fees above the current GBP 9 000 limit, in line with inflation, to incentivize high-quality teaching and ensure financial sustainability. Teaching quality is likely to be assessed on a wider range of indicators, from drop-out rates, employability and student satisfaction.
  • Access and system architecture: The paper also proposes the creation of a single register point for both public and private providers – the Office for Students – replacing the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and the Office for Fair Access.
  • Research landscape: The current research councils and bodies would be brought under one umbrella – the newly created UK Research and Innovation. Nevertheless, the principle of “dual support”, meaning that block grants and research funding are provided from both higher education funding institutions and research councils, would continue, allowing researchers to pick and choose.

As expected with any initiative of this magnitude, the proposals were met with mixed feelings by the sector. While there is general consensus on the good intentions behind the White Paper and the necessity of change, fears are that the devil is, as always, in the details. Some of the most often voiced concerns so far relate to the

  • Privatization of higher education in the country and the potential consequences for the quality of education
  • Access to higher education, some fearing that due to the possibly rising tuition fees, university level education would become even harder to access for students, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • The indicators for measuring teaching quality, some actors doubting the appropriateness of the metrics and their potential to incentivize quality improvements.