Higher Education and Research Bill Threatens Prioritisation of Marketing over Teaching

By Sophie Gregory 

Aimed at increasing competition and choice, the Government fact sheet claims to be “safeguarding institutional autonomy and academic freedom” in making changes to higher education.

Yet despite this claim, that the Higher Education & Research Bill will help them “to boost social mobility, life chances and opportunity for all, and enhance the competitiveness and productivity of our economy.” The proposed reforms have been controversial.

The bill’s proposals aim to raise the standards of teaching and ensure that students graduate with the necessary skill sets to secure employment.

The reforms attempt to counter some of the issues raised regarding the value of student courses, with one-third of undergraduates believing that their course does not represent value for money.

It further claims to be promoting social justice in rectifying the issue of uneven access, as those from advantaged backgrounds are six times more likely to go to the most selective universities than those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The proposed reforms include increasing choice in the education sector by allowing specialist providers to set up degree programmes.

Companies such as Facebook or Google could establish private colleges if they are deemed to be of a high enough standard.

Pearson College London is currently the only FTSE 100 Company to design and deliver degrees. Graduates from Pearson College graduate with just 70% of the level of student debt when compared to the average debt held by a graduating student from a public provider.

Concerns, however, have been lodged against plans to open higher education to the market.

The bill’s changes would lead to a consumerist relationship between universities and their students, who essentially become customers, it has been said.

Condemning proposed changes, Baroness Alison Wolf, an advisor to the Department for Education, claimed that to force universities into a consumerist climate threatens to create a similar environment to the “American-style catastrophe,” whereby universities spend more on marketing than on developing teaching.

In response to these fears, a Durham University spokesperson said: “Durham has a global reputation for teaching and a key focus of our University Strategy is to deliver education that is challenging, difficult, enabling, research-led and transformative.

“The institution’s current expenditure on marketing is relatively small compared to the resources that we dedicate to teaching and to the wider student experience.”

Reforms aim to establish a new attitude of transparency whereby universities will be required to publish application, offer, acceptance, and progression rates broken down by gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic background to ensure students are able to make an informed choice about the course they wish to follow.

Further proposed reforms include Sharia-compliant loans whereby Muslim students who were unable to take out interest-bearing student loans will now have the “power to make alternative payments.”

A new regulatory system, the Office for Students, will combine many of the powers of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access, which aims to ensure “compliance with the conditions of regulation, including imposing monetary penalties, suspending, or de-registering providers if the OfS feels a higher education provider is not meeting the minimum thresholds or breaching specific conditions of registration,” according to the Government’s factsheet.

Ministers have, however, been sceptical about the ability to ensure that those providing degrees are truly offering worthwhile courses.

University College Union General Secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “If we are to protect our students and the global reputation enjoyed by UK universities, the new legislation must protect taxpayers’ money from being handed over to a potential pool of unscrupulous providers.

“We must have more rigorous quality measures applied before any new provider is allowed to access either degree awarding powers or state funding via the student loans system.”

One of the major contentions with the new bill is the potential rise in tuition fees.

The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which measures student retention, student satisfaction, and graduate employment outcome, “will put in place reputational and financial incentives that will drive up the standard of teaching in all universities,” according to the Government factsheet.

In reality, the TEF’s judgements allow for universities to raise tuition fees further from the current £9,000 cap to a potential £9,500 per year.

During the summer, prior to any decisions being reached regarding the Higher Education Bill, several universities, including Durham, set their tuition fees at a higher rate of £9,250 in line with inflation.

The University told Palatinate that they “intend to opt in to TEF2.”

The NUS too has issued a response to proposed changes.

Sorana Vieru, the Vice President (Higher Education), said: “NUS is strongly opposed to the marketisation of the higher education sector, as a climate of competition will never be in students’ best interests.

“The Government’s proposals could be hugely damaging to the reputation of our world-renowned higher education sector.

“The so-called Office for Students doesn’t even have one reserved place for a student representative, despite the huge impact its decisions will have on students’ lives.

Further tuition fee rises are totally unacceptable and new providers should be held to extremely high standards, not given degree-awarding powers on day one.”

Chris Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University, further raised concerns that the reforms in the Higher Education Bill will give “the secretary of state greater power than ever to direct the course of research,” curbing the autonomy of universities as research institutes.

In response to this fear, Durham said it “aims for excellence in research and education, and regards academic freedom as being vital to this goal.

“We are monitoring the draft Higher Education & Research Bill currently under consideration by the House of Lords.

“However, given that the final form of the bill is yet to be agreed, the University has no direct comment to make at this stage.”

The House of Lords have blocked the Higher Education & Research Bill in its first stages.

Labour, Liberal Democrat, and crossbench peers in the House of Lords voted against the controversial bill in its current form by 248 votes to 221 on the basis that the proposed reforms threaten the quality of British education and allow private companies to exploit the education sector for profit.

Monday’s cross-party debate saw peers proposing a first set of changes in order to prevent the marketisation of education and ensure that universities remain autonomous.

Shadow Higher Education Minister, Lord Wilf Stevenson, said: “Many peers who spoke at Second Reading felt that, as drafted, the bill fails to understand the purposes of higher education.”

The Higher Education & Research Bill now requires amendments before continuing to the next stage of the parliamentary process.

Photograph: Bankenverband

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