In Higher Education, change has been the only constant in recent years. There seems to have been hardly a day when one reform or other was not in progress.
However, when Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, published Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, in November last year, we knew this was a pivotal moment.
As a “Green Paper” formally laid before Parliament we know this will lead to reforms, some of which will require primary legislation. It is the most radical thing to happen to higher education since the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 and will define the sector for the next generation and beyond.
It proposes to “simplify the higher education architecture”, by creating an Office for Students to champion students’ interests. This will potentially be a very influential organisation and its role must be carefully thought through so that it can benefit from the best practice of HEFCE and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), whose role it will take over, and oversee higher education truly in the interests of all learners.
Running in parallel with the already established Research Excellence Framework will be a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). This has to be a good thing, shifting the focus of all providers of higher education towards the quality of teaching. However TEF must ensure it recognises and encourages the many providers of higher education, such as ourselves, not just those who are research focused. The TEF is probably going to be set at four levels of quality and will be linked to the ability of an institution to raise its fees to learners. However, it would be a shame if financial incentive is all that results from it: the raising of teaching quality in a context of widened participation should be its prime objective.
The process of gaining degree-awarding powers (DAPs) and the right for an institution to call itself a “University” will be simplified, opening up the sector to competition far more than it has been in the past. This too is a welcome levelling of the playing field in recognition of changes in society and in education, but once again quality must be protected in the interests of learners.
Widening participation is an aim that is not new, but the Green Paper puts it centre-stage, which again has to be a good thing. In my view, the Green Paper is a welcome development and has the potential to raise the quality of teaching in higher education while enabling more institutions, ourselves included, to widen and deepen their involvement in higher education for the benefit of everyone who has the ability and wish to participate.
Like so many policies, it is the detail that will make the difference. There will be a more technical consultation later this year once responses to the Green Paper have been looked at by BIS, and we will be following developments closely.