Change for better higher education, or just for higher fees?

YUSU President gives us his thoughts on the recent higher education white paper put forward by the Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, the less infamous brother of Boris

Image: British High Commission, New Delhi

Earlier this week Jo Johnson, Universities Minister, released a White Paper that sets out his plans for Higher Education over the coming years. It’s a mixed bag of reforms that, when implemented, will be the biggest shake up to the sector in decades. I’m not excited and you shouldn’t be either.

In 2012, tuition fees were raised from £3290 to £9000 per year. In doing so the government took another step toward a market-led Higher Education system. This week’s proposed reforms see HE carrying on down this path. In the opening pages of the paper Jo Johnson writes:

“Competition between providers in any market incentivises them to raise their game, offering consumers a greater choice of more innovative and better quality products and services at lower cost. Higher education is no exception.”

This principle is the foundation upon which most of the reforms are built, and one that I fundamentally disagree with. Higher Education is, and must be, an exception. In order for York to be successful the students and the University must be collectively invested in the learning, teaching and research that takes place here; we all have a part to play. Reducing University to a mere consumer and provider transaction establishes a relationship that is centred around value for money, not progressing society. It undermines the very core of Higher Education, and in the context of York, the community approach that has allowed us to flourish.

One of the changes most commented on by students since the release of the paper is the plan to allow Universities that score highly on quality teaching to raise their fees above £9000. To be honest, with the current marketisation trajectory the government is on, this was inevitable. With the cost of running degrees increasing annually a fee cap wasn’t sustainable. This move sees the government fully committing to a process that started years ago. A process that takes us further away from a model that treats education as a right, as opposed to a commodity. This new fee structure, alongside the steady increase of hidden course and accommodation costs, sees estimated debt at graduation rising well above the current £44,000.

One of Jo Johnson’s stated aims is to provide students with choice and drive up teaching quality. This principle, in and of itself, is no bad thing. Although it is derived from his marketisation agenda, I don’t think it is incompatible with an education system that truly puts learning at its heart. The way this principle has manifested itself in the White Paper, however, is concerning. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will be used to judge the quality of teaching at institutions through the analysis of three overarching metrics – student satisfaction, retention and graduate employment (potentially encompassing graduate earnings). Higher Education is incredibly complex. The learning and teaching that takes place between departments, never mind institutions, varies drastically. Trying to assess it through a simplistic standardised metric system will not only reduce the variety of choice on offer, but will, I fear, also set up HE to cater solely towards students who want high paid, corporate jobs. That is not an education system I want to see.

Are all the proposals bad? No. The paper has ditched previous plans to remove Universities from the scope of FOI legislation, as well as outlining new transparency duties on institutions and establishing a new focus on widening participation. Both proposals are excellent and simultaneously underwhelming. Although I do fully support increased transparency, in the midst of a geared up marketisation agenda, this may well encourage students to continue down the path of treating institutions as providers as opposed to partners. By the same token, can we trust an apparent widening participation agenda when fees are set to rise and maintenance grants, the Disabled Students’ Allowance and NHS bursaries are set to be scrapped? Isolated, these initiatives are fantastic. In the context of this paper and the current HE environment, they are fairly meaningless.

Although at this stage we can only speculate about the impacts these reforms will have on York, from my perspective some things can quite easily be predicted. Our current approach to learning and teaching matches up well with the TEF. This means it’s likely the University will be assessed favourably, which will have a positive impact on its reputation. It also means fees at York are likely to rise in the coming few years. Along with this, and as a result of the TEF, there is a risk that increased resources will be directed towards getting students into highly paid, corporate jobs, as opposed to third sector jobs that many York students are typically attracted to. Essentially, the institution does well under this new system, whilst students are negatively impacted.

These are my final few weeks of involvement in Higher Education and I am leaving on a precipice of change. Change that continues to neglect the views of students. What is at risk is our education; the years of our lives where we challenge ourselves to learn, develop and grow. If you haven’t done so yet, put aside some time to look at the proposals and form your own opinion. You may well disagree with my take – that is absolutely fine. What we can’t do is allow these reforms to be pushed through without analysis, without question, without criticism. Future students will be impacted the most, and we, the current students, are the people who must stand up for them and fight for an education system that is governed by progress, not by money.

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