Lobbying on behalf of alternative providers: what is going on?

Guest blogpost by G. R. Evans


Original photo by James Boyes from UK - Brighton v Spurs Amex Opening 30/7/11 Uploaded by Kafuffle, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18281683

Original photo by James Boyes from UK – Brighton v Spurs Amex Opening 30/7/11 Uploaded by Kafuffle, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18281683


Who ‘represents’ providers of UK higher education?

Alex Proudfoot, the CEO of an organization called Independent Higher Education, was invited as a witness to the Committee evaluating the Higher Education and Research Bill. His views were taken seriously and were quoted in prepared statements by the Minister during the discussion. So who exactly does Alex Proudfoot represent? Is Independent Higher Education the voice of the ‘alternative providers’? The evidence suggests there are reasons for doubt, not least of which is that it appears to have no significant membership among the 117 alternative providers listed on the HEFCE Register.

The Higher Education and Research Act is intended to create a single system of higher education provision in England. In the evidence session held at the Committee stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill on 6 September, witnesses appeared on behalf of three ‘interest groups’ representing existing providers, Universities UK, GuildHE and Million Plus.  In addition, there was Alex Proudfoot  its CEO and Paul Kirkham its Vice-Chair, representing a newcomer called ‘Independent Higher Education’.

The other witnesses represent well-established interest groups. Universities UK (formerly the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals) is the Vice-Chancellors’ longstanding membership organisation. The Vice-Chancellors elect a 24-person Board and a President from among themselves. UUK does not exclude alternative providers which have university title. For example, Regent’s University may be found there. GuildHE, founded in the 1970s as the Standing Conference of Principals, now has about three dozen full and associate members, some now with university title. Million Plus describes itself as the ‘association for modern universities’. It lists about 20 members, all post-1992 universities, none of them alternative providers.

A first attempt to create an interest group for alternative providers was led by Aldwyn Cooper, Vice-Chancellor of Regent’s University in January 2015, initially representing eight providers with degree-awarding powers or university title. This took the loose title of the Independent Universities Group, but has encountered difficulties in defining a common cause. IfS did not join it and it became uncomfortable about including the University of Law after that was taken over by Global University Systems. It was not invited to give evidence to the Committee in September 2016.

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Reclaiming the University of Aberdeen

Guest Post by Professor Timothy Ingold, University of Aberdeen

We, staff and students of the University of Aberdeen, are angry. We are angry about the way our academic community and our commitment to education and scholarship have been eaten away by a corrosive regime of management that works by bullying and intimidation. We have watched in anger and dismay as fundamental principles of trust, professionalism and freedom of expression on which academic life depends have been crushed under an avalanche of mindless bullet points, dehumanising and dysfunctional IT systems, arbitrary directives and sham consultations. During the spring and summer of last year, amidst cuts to academic programmes, threats of redundancy and collapsing morale, this anger turned to outrage. In response, we mounted a campaign to claim our University back from the regime.

We launched the campaign, under the banner ‘Reclaiming our University’, on 15th October 2015. The off-campus hall we had hired for the occasion was packed with staff and students, and the atmosphere in the hall was electric. Our aim was not so much to protest – though there was plenty of that – as to think about how things could and should be done differently: about the kind of University we want, how it should be run, and how to achieve it. The idea was to use our anger to energise a programme of reconstruction: to turn the crisis into an opportunity to rebuild the University into the kind of institution that, in the present climate, we could only dream of.

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The Higher Education and Research Bill: What’s Changing?

Guest post by Gill Evans, Professor Emeritus of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge

History demonstrates a longstanding need for vigilance about the creeping powers of Secretaries of State and the enthusiasm of Governments for greater state control. Since early in the twentieth century two important protections had maintained a balance. First, the Haldane Principle – the notion that “decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians”, and second, the autonomy of universities. Replacing public funding of teaching by tuition fees and reorganising the public funding of research now throws this tested machinery into question.

Last week saw publication of the White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy, rapidly followed by the Higher Education and Research Bill, the most comprehensive piece of higher education legislation since the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. This proposes a radical reduction of the numbers of ‘sector bodies’. How direct may future Government interference be, with the new or continuing ‘sector bodies’ and with institutions themselves?

The ‘Government bodies’ which are to be rearranged for merger are untidily clustered in two ways in the White Paper, as shown in Figure 1. There are to be two new statutory bodies, the Office for Students (OfS) and a single research funding body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

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What is the Purpose of the Teaching Excellence Framework?

Opinion Piece by Joshua Forstenzer (Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow for the Public Benefit of Higher Education, University of Sheffield)

The higher education Green Paper is a radical document. From its proposed rework of the higher education sector’s governance and regulation structure, to its plans designed to introduce greater competition between newly formed private providers (giving them greater access to university status and degree bearing capacity) and public universities (ridding them of the responsibility to respond to Freedom of Information requests), the Green Paper presents a series of sweeping changes to British higher education. However, nowhere is the Green Paper’s radical potential more directed at the very core of university life than in the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). That is why this report focuses exclusively on the TEF.

The general ambition of the TEF is to rebalance ‘the relationship between teaching and research’ in universities and to put ‘teaching at the heart of the system’, by introducing a teaching quality assessment mechanism using core metrics and qualitative evidence. In exchange, universities deemed to have ‘excellent’ teaching will be rewarded with the right to increase undergraduate fees in line with inflation. Although there will be a technical consultation about the exact metrics used in the TEF, it will start with three readily available common metrics, namely: Employment/Destination; Retention/Continuation; Student Satisfaction indicators from the National Student Survey (teaching quality and learning environment).

While the government has sought to depoliticise the TEF, there is a more fundamental set of political and ethical questions about the purposes and social value of higher education that needs to be at the heart of this debate. Indeed, over the last few decades, much has been written about the overall trend towards marketisation in British higher education. This report proposes to understand the TEF as a policy proposal forming part of that wider trend, by considering the following criticisms: the TEF is not really about teaching excellence, but about fees; the TEF does not serve students, but an imagined group of employers; the TEF ignores the wider public benefits of undergraduate education.

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University teachers: an endangered species?

Opinion Piece by Marina Warner

Current policies are imposing business practices on education, and the consequences are blighting the profession, and will continue to inflict ever deeper blight on the people engaged in it – at all levels. The relinquishing of financial support by the state is not accompanied by diminution of authority: indeed the huge expansion of management follows from direct state interference in education as well as other essential elements of a thriving society.

Last September I wrote an article for the London Review of Books about my departure from the University of Essex, followed by another piece in March reflecting on the perversion of UK Higher Education. The responses I had to these articles came from people at every stage of the profession. I had feared that I was a nostalgic humanist, but if I am, the ideals of my generation have not died. Access to education to high standards fits very ill with business models – as the strong drift towards removing the cap on fees shows. The result of the market will be an ever-deepening divide between elite universities at one end and ‘sink’ institutions at the other.

I am going to focus on those who fulfil the prime purpose of the whole endeavour; that is those who pass on their knowledge and foster the spirit of inquiry and understanding in their students: the teachers.

First, the policies that are now being discussed, changing the rules regarding Further Education in particular, will need more and more teachers. Yet throughout the profession there is a shortage, and the toll taken on those who do teach in higher education is heavy and growing heavier – economically, psychologically, socially.

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