Edition 175 - November 2015

United Kingdom: Tory plans for higher education shake-up

This month saw the higher education debate in the UK heat up as the Tory government presented its vision for the sector in a much-anticipated green paper titled Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. Unveiling the green paper on 6 November, Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said the proposed reforms aim to increase teaching quality in universities to ensure better value for money for students and taxpayers. The government is also promising increased social mobility, relevant skills for employers of graduates, reducing regulatory burdens and easing the entry of new higher education providers to the market, among other changes. 

The green paper envisages the introduction of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), an assessment framework to monitor teaching quality and provide better information about programmes based on metrics of employment outcomes, student retention and student satisfaction. Universities which achieve the highest levels of excellence in the quality review will be allowed to increase their tuition fees above the current maximum of GBP 9 000 (around EUR 12 800) per year in line with inflation. The paper also addresses grade inflation, pointing out that over 70% of graduates now leave UK universities with a First Class or 2:1 degree, compared to just 47% in the mid-1990s. In an attempt to decrease this inflation, the government recommends universities to use the Grade Point Average (GPA) system with its 13-point scale alongside traditional degree classifications to provide employers with detailed information about student performance throughout the course in addition to performance on examinations. 

The government also proposes to transfer the power to set the tuition fee caps from the parliament to the secretary of state, which would enable governments to raise tuition fees more easily in the future. In another controversial proposal, the government alluded to exempting universities from requests under the Freedom of Information Act, potentially leading to decreased public scrutiny. The plans also include an acceleration of the accreditation process for for-profit providers, enabling successful new institutions to gain university status in just six years. 

Although the green paper claims to have the interests of students at heart, the suggested reforms have already been met with a backlash from student organisations, which argue the changes would lead to further marketisation of the higher education sector and pricing out of socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Until 15 January 2016, the green paper is open to public consultation, which may determine which proposals make it into a potential bill.  

Press release

Green paper

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