The Government published its Green Paper 'Fulfilling our potential: Teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice' on Friday. It is followed by a period of consultation which closes on January 15th. Comment and feedback can be made online here. The Paper is 103 pages long, but this includes 4 Annexes so the main body is 80 pages long.
Interested stakeholders have scrambled to make a quick response. A selection of these is provided below.
Times Higher Education (John Morgan)
Russell Group (Wendy Piatt)
Universities UK (press release)
'Fulfilling our potential: what policymakers' rhetoric reveals about the future of higher education' (Simon Jones, LSE blog)
'NUS responds to higher education green paper' (Megan Dunn, NUS national president)
'How the teaching excellence framework will work'. The Conversation (Andrew Gunn)
'Jo Johnson's university reforms: reactions from the experts' (Guardian Higher Education Network)
No doubt more in-depth critiques will emerge throughout the month.
In this blogpost I offer an initial response through the lens of flexible learning.
Given the emphasis on learner choice which lies at the heart of much flexible learning thinking and practice, the title of the Green Paper seemed to offer much. Yet a cursory examination reveals little to support the notion of genuine learner choice in the way this site defines it: offering learners choice in how, what, when and where they learn. Right from the start the Paper sets out its stall. Part A chapter 1 paragraph 1 reads:
During the previous Parliament, the Government introduced a number of reforms to encourage greater choice in higher education. Students were given more information to help choose the right course; funding was reformed to create a more progressive system with no upfront fees; new providers were encouraged into the sector to widen choice; and student number controls were removed from 2015-16. These reforms gave providers the opportunity to grow and there have been signs that students and the sector are responding to the new opportunities.
The choice is therefore at a very high level, principally focusing on providing learners with greater choice about which institution to attend and enabling them to make that choice in a more informed way. The TEF will contribute to that since institutions will be required to articulate the evidence to support their quality of teaching and accompanying learning. Greater information (the TEF will provide potential students with information previously unavailable) therefore equates to greater choice. How will that work?
Some institutions will 'seek to raise their teaching standards in order to maintain student numbers and/or raise fees, focussing effort on disciplines that receive a poor TEF assessment'; others will 'differentiate themselves as a lower cost or specialist provider, focussing effort on the disciplines that receive strong [TEF] assessments' (Annex A, para 18). The Paper recognises that this choice may not be as available to some students as others. Adult learners, who may be less mobile due to family, caring and work responsibilities may not therefore be in a position to 'choose' the best institution for their aspirations and needs - which may be geographically distant from them - and have to settle for ('choose') one nearer their location even if it offers less of what they're looking for. Across the board, students who are particularly financially challenged are unlikely to be able to 'choose' to apply to a 'higher quality institution' even if this represents better value for money.
In reality, therefore, there is little, if anything, about the Green Paper which promotes a genuinely flexible approach to HE. Just as consumers are encouraged to 'choose' which bank, energy company and broadband provider they sign up with on the basis of having more and more information to help them make these choices, so students are going to have to wade through more and more information about higher education providers in order to decide which best suits their aspirations. Not only so, but the very students (learners) who most need genuine flexibility - adults, mature learners, those juggling families, work, travel and leisure - will (a) be least able to take advantage of such 'choices' and (b) have the greatest challenges in terms of time to read, study and evaluate. Even for the traditional 18 to 21 year old student market the prospect is daunting. As members of my own family go through the process of trying to decide which universities to apply for, to decide which to prioritise for their UCAS application, to take time out to go and visit on Open Days, and at the same time to give their all to their A level studies, I am more than aware of how the TEF is highly likely to complicate what is already a complex juggling act for 17/18 year olds and their families. In the (adult) world of banking, energy bills and broadband contracts, we are encouraged to jump ship if the information made available to us indicates that we are not getting the best deal. Is this envisaged for higher education? Will students be encouraged to move from one institution to another mid way through their course? We already know that the credit transfer mechanisms for this to happen are insufficiently robust, not helped by the fact that institutions are reluctant to see students leave them and go elsewhere. Or is this information intended to function at one point, and at one point only - preparing for the UCAS application, the very moment when students and their families are least informed about how to make informed choices about the information they are provided with, and have least time to engage with that information.
I am not making a comment here about the TEF or its potential benefit to the sector. What I am commenting on is how the Government is selling it to us, and on what seems to be its understanding of its benefits. Student choice should not be the TEF rationale. Student learning should be. Academic teaching should be. But not, in this instance, student choice.
The Green Paper makes unrealistic claims about student 'choice'. It favours the 18 to 21 year old student population and does no favours to the already beleaguered part-time, adult and mature learner population. But if the TEF is to be used primarily as a consumer-led recruitment tool then its purpose and benefit is already in question.
Since writing this blogpost, the following letter has been published in the Guardian. It echoes my concerns exactly.
Tuesday 10 November 2015
The government’s green paper, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, outlines the means by which market forces will be permitted to permeate further into higher education in England and to a more limited extent the rest of the UK (Editorial, 8 November). It is likely to lead to higher tuition fees for many, increased state intervention into the organisation and delivery of HE, more bureaucracy for staff and less autonomy for student unions.
Universities will be fundamentally transformed by these proposals, and the sector will be further disaggregated. Funding will be concentrated on a few leading institutions, and higher education will once again become available only for a minority who can afford to bear heavy debts. Open scholarship, collaboration and the sharing of discoveries for all are set to be displaced by objectives that privilege corporate interests and employability. The framework advocates the further embrace of metrics, the use of price as a proxy for quality, the relaxation of conditions of entry to the sector for private providers, and the creation of a regulatory body to ensure consumer protection from the abuse of market power. This is a failed model – the same one that failed to prevent the financial crash and the banking crisis.
Universities should be places where staff and students can take risks, to develop critical and creative skills, to innovate and inspire – and, above all, to teach, research and learn without the fear that their every move is to be measured and quantified. The proposals outlined in the green paper will make it harder for universities to deliver high-quality education for all. We have committed to the holding of a convention for higher education in February 2016 to bring together as wide a constituency as is possible in defence of the sector from the reforms. We welcome all those who share that commitment to join with us. We can be contacted via https://heconvention2.wordpress.com/
Tom Hickey Brighton UCU
Professor John Holmwood Nottingham, and Campaign for the Public University
Professor Martin McQuillan Kingston, and Council for the Defence of British Universities
Professor Des Freedman Goldsmiths
Dr Sean Wallis UCL, UCU national executive committee and London region
Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia UCL UCU
Professor Miriam David Institute of Education
Professor Dennis Leech Warwick
Priyamvada Gopal Cambridge
Feyzi Ismail SOAS UCU
Professor Bob Brecher Brighton
Professor Richard Farndale Cambridge
Dr Adrian Budd South Bank UCU
Professor Jeff Duckett Queen Mary University
Professor Natalie Fenton Goldsmiths
Professor Jane Hardy Hertfordshire
Dr Carlo Morelli Dundee, and UCU national executive committee
Professor Malcolm Povey Leeds
Mary Claire Halvorson Goldsmiths
Dr Geoff Abbott Newcastle
John Wadsworth Goldsmiths
Dr Deirdre Osbourne Goldsmiths
Dr Michael Bailey Essex
Professor Jane Rendell UCL
Dr Bruce Baker Newcastle University
Dr Stacy Gillis Newcastle University
Dr Alison Le Cornu is a freelance Consultant in Academic Practice working in higher education. She specialises in flexible learning which she understands as empowering learners by giving them the ability to choose how, what, where and when they study. This is very dependent on institutional systems and structures having the capacity to facilitate this. She works with institutions at all levels to help them bring about the institutional/student partnership that this requires.