Posted on Fri 06 Nov 2015 at 14:59 by Charlie Hindhaugh
This morning the Government released their long-awaited (or dreaded, depending on your point of view!) policy document on the future of Higher Education in England.
This 105-page ‘green paper’ sets out quite possibly the biggest shake-up to Higher Education in the last twenty years. These reforms are bigger than the introduction of £9,000 fees and will radically change the sector. In a nutshell – despite being full of empty rhetoric regarding “student choice” - it’s really not great.
The Green Paper is in essence a consultation document: a statement of intention. The government has opened a consultation on the paper until 15th January 2016. It’s likely that this Green Paper will go on to be presented in Parliament, and then voted on as a bill.
As a Students’ Union, it’s our job to provide a strong voice in opposing the changes proposed in this paper and putting pressure on the University to do the same. It is the policy of this Union to campaign - not just against rises to tuition fees, but to demand an alternative vision for Higher Education that is free and accessible to all.
We need to do this not just because it’s the right thing to do for our members – the overwhelming majority of whom undoubtedly oppose tuition fees - but also for the future of Higher Education, and the future of Students’ Unions.
Here’s a brief rundown of the headline policies and what they will mean for students and Higher Education:
Tuition fee rises could be imposed directly by ministers - without a vote in Parliament. At the moment, raising the tuition fee cap requires a vote in Parliament. These proposed measures would instead put the power to raise the cap in the hands of one minister. The Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, has refused to rule out raising the cap above inflation. The government wants to make it easier to raise fees, and take away any scrutiny in doing so. So much for “accountability”!
Fees will rise, at least with inflation, from 2017. While tuition fees will rise, however, the government is imposing a dangerous double-standard – the rules of inflation will apply to fees, but not to repaying your student loan. Check out my previous blog for more info on how this effectively means that you will begin paying your student loan off sooner, and for longer.
The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will happen. Teaching ‘excellence’ will now be defined by what businesses and the market wants - not by what is beneficial for students or academics. Our professors and seminar tutors will be forced to focus on an increasingly narrow range of performance indicators, rather than spending time creating an environment that challenges us and expands our minds. One troublingly superficial metric that will be used is graduate employment – though how on earth where you end up working defines teaching excellence hasn’t been explained. The TEF will also be linked to tuition fee rises – thus effectively punishing students for attending a University that receives a good TEF ranking with more debt to pay off. In addition, TEF also cynically attempts to depoliticise the rises in tuition fees, framing it in terms of “value for money” and removing accountability for these rises from the politicians imposing them.
More private sector involvement is coming - and the government is effectively setting universities up to fail. The Green Paper sets out provisions to make it easier for new providers to enter the “market” – meaning that public money will now be given to new and private institutions aiming to make a profit. There will be lighter checks on what counts as a University and who can award degrees, which creates the potential to undermine existing universities and set up a two-tier system. The paper also includes provisions for institutions to ‘leave’ the market. Essentially it is creating a framework where the Government is expecting to allow Universities to fail, to the detriment of the students and the staff that work there. So much for education being a public good.
Introduction of Sharia-compliant loans. On the surface this seems like a nice move, until you remember that we used to have a system of Sharia-compliant funding: grants.
An uncertain future for Students’ Unions. The Green Paper only includes two paragraphs on Students’ Unions - worryingly though, they are mentioned directly in the context of the government’s trade union reforms, which have been a direct attack on the ability of groups to organise and protest. Students’ Unions are one of the proudest traditions in UK Higher Education - by standing up for our members, we have immeasurably improved the quality of education for students, and as a national movement we have been at the forefront of progressive campaigning. We cannot stand by and let the government cripple Students’ Unions for purely ideological reasons, thus turning us in to glorified student service departments. If we cannot raise our voices, we effectively cease to have one.
Creation of a new regulator - the Government would like to abolish the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and replace it with the ‘Office for Students’, a department that sounds like it’s come straight out of The Thick of It. This will be modelled on existing market regulators such as Ofgen - thus further reinforcing the marketisation of education by perceiving students solely as consumers ingesting a ‘product’.
Removal of Universities from Freedom of Information requests. In order to allow new private providers to compete on a “level playing field”, the Green Paper plans to remove Universities from Freedom of Information legislation. No longer will we be able to find out where our money is going or hold universities to account on these decisions. Again, byeee accountability!
In a 105-page document on the future of Higher Education, there is not a single mention in the drastic decline of part-time students. These numbers have plummeted and no plans are being put forward to counter this and improve accessibility to education for part-time students. This is a paper which, while claiming to value “accessibility”, views students as a strictly homogenous block – it is targeted solely at full-time students who have come straight from school, with no mention of how mature students or part-time students will be supported.
If you do a quick ‘Control-F’ of the 35,000 word document, you will only find 2 mentions of mature students, 2 for Teachers, 2 for Academics, 1 mention of part-time students, and 0 for Educators. Conversely, there are 27 mentions of “value for money” and 35 for “what employers want”. These figures speak for themselves about the values of this Green Paper.
If these changes are allowed to slip through unopposed, the future of Higher Education in the UK will be radically different to what it is now. We will certainly see increased fees, not to mention further attempts to marketise and impose market-logic into education - all to the detriment of students and staff. They will not only reinforce the existing inequalities in Higher Education but make them bigger, creating a two-tier system that could brand some universities as second-class.
We are increasingly moving towards a university education being nothing more than a glorified training ground for private firms. This is a model in which academics are pressured to meet narrow metrics defined solely by the needs of the “market”, rather than focusing on expanding the minds and challenging the opinions of their students. Education should enrich society by emancipating our minds, not just be a conveyor belt for graduate schemes and corporate interests.
We have a fight on our hands to protect Higher Education and to protect Students’ Unions.
Once again, young people and those attempting to better themselves are being forced to pay for the mistakes of previous generations. If you love education and want everyone to be able to enjoy the same standards of education – no matter where they are from in the country or their socio-economic background - then we must unite and fight these measures. While Higher Education is being slowly eroded for us, we need to ensure that our siblings, our children and future generations can enjoy the same access to education experienced by those who ironically now seek to remove it for others.