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by Emma Petela 1st November, 2016
3 min read

Higher Education: The Heart of the System

The Higher Education & Research Bill, currently passing through parliament, seeks to enshrine in primary legislation principles which were first set in motion in earnest at the time of former Minister, the then Higher Education Minister David Willet’s ill-fated 2011 White Paper. This White Paper championed the principles of improved student experience, expanded choice and greater accountability for universities. Taking this vision forward, the current Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, is presiding over a higher education sector which has at its heart the following principles:

Competition and Innovation 
The Coalition Government’s decision to increase tuition fees to £9,000 per year kick-started a review by the Competition and Markets Authority, which found that students should be viewed as consumers. Having accepted the failure to foresee that the majority of Higher Education Institutions would increase their fees to the maximum limit, the Government is now seeking to drive innovation and greater student choice though increased competition. By allowing students at Alternative Providers to access student loans (up to £6,000), changing the funding system so the funding follows the learner, uncapping student places at degree awarding providers, offering a fast-track route to degree awarding powers and university title, and allowing for market entry and exit, the government has made clear its drive towards increased competition, marketisation and parity for providers.

Risk-based regulatory framework
A greater number of providers necessitates a change in approach to risk. The Government has made clear that the future Office for Students (OfS) will adopt an Annual Provider Review process. This will allow the OfS to discharge its duty to assess quality and standards as part of a single risk-based regulatory framework for all of the providers it regulates. A significant change to the previous quality assessment arrangements, this more systematic and formalised annual process required the designated quality body to carry out in-depth quality review visits where there are serious concerns about an individual provider.

Teaching Excellence 
This more risk based regulatory approach has coincided with the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The TEF is a clear effort from government to place teaching at the heart of the system and make clear that the quality of teaching is just as important as the quality of research. It will rate providers as a gold, silver or bronze, and will aim to drive up positive outcomes for all students, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds. One of the most interesting aspects of the TEF metrics debate is whether and how learning gain can and will be measured. Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFC) is expected to launch a research project this week aimed at providing an evidence base for the long-running debate about learning gain. HEFCE have today published guidance on TEF 2, in which they have reiterated that assessment will be based on a “holistic judgement by a TEF panel”. This judgement will also take into account factors such as strong responses to the National Student Survey, high levels of progression and retention, and success in going on to further study or securing highly skilled employment.

Research Excellence Framework (REF)
Whilst TEF has undoubtedly been in the spotlight, research funding continues to be a major source of income, and therefore importance, for universities. The establishment of United Kingdom Research and Innovation will seek to cement the UK’s position as a world-leader on the research and innovation stage and maximise value for money from Government’s £6bn annual investment in research and innovation. Importantly the Government has already committed to protecting the science budget in real terms and will preserve and protect in law, for the first time ever, the dual support research funding system in England – providing both competitive grants alongside block grants for universities to invest according to their own. The sector will no doubt also be eagerly awaiting the Chancellors upcoming Autumn Statement for any commitments to research and innovation.

Student Mix 
No overview of the HE sector is complete without an assessment of the future student mix. Recent announcements on the ability of providers to recruit international students based on “quality” have once again brought TEF to the forefront of debate across the sector. Whilst the Home Office made no clear indication of how it intends to measure quality, there is a pervading view that plans for a reformed student visa scheme may be linked to the quality of course or institution. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly given the government’s increasingly strict rhetoric, international applications grew by 1% on last year according to UCAS data published last week.
However, the number of European Union students applying to early-deadline university courses in the UK has fallen by 9 per cent in the wake of the country’s vote in favour of Brexit. The Government will be hoping that its recent announcement of continued funding for EU students applying for 2017 will reverse this decline by the final UCAS deadlines. With the former Home Secretary retaining a close watch on policy announcements relating to international students, the political compromise reached between DfE and the Home Office will be crucial to ensuring the UK continues to attract talent and investment from abroad.

At GK Strategy we work with HEIs to provide information, insight and strategies to ensure they are mitigating risk and benefiting from opportunities arising from government policy.

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