Higher education policy in the UK

The new coalition in Britain has now published its programme for government, Freedom, Fairness, Responsibility. One of its 31 chapters concerns ‘Universities and Further Education’, and it contains some old and new proposals for England (Scotland and Wales have their own systems not run from London). Here’s a statement that caught my eye:

‘We will publish more information about the costs, graduate earnings and student satisfaction of different university courses.’

It is difficult to know what exactly is intended here, but publishing data of this kind has for some time been part of the Conservatives’ political frame of reference. The better availability of impartially gathered data about university performance is supposed to allow students and their families to make informed choices as to the institution chosen for him or her. How this will link to the established newspaper league tables for universities remains to be seen.

The programme also goes on to say:

‘We will ensure that public funding mechanisms for university research safeguard its academic integrity.’

Clearly the value of any research strategy is undermined by any doubts that may exist in people’s minds about the integrity of the institution and its staff. Ultimately however this is a matter for each university, and I cannot immediately see what the Cameron/Clegg partnership can aim to do here.

The funding issue is another matter. The coalition document undertakes to ‘ensure a properly funded university sector’. With reference to Lord Browne’s ‘independent review of higher education funding and student finance’, the programme for government gives the Liberal Democrats an opt-out from any decision to increase income from student fees for the universities.

In my view there are some good aspects to this programme, but there are also some warnings. England, like Ireland, is at risk of developing a highly bureacratised system for monitoring and controlling universities. This kind of outlook sees education as a process, and it will usually lead to greater administrative burdens without particularly prompting substantive education reforms.

English universities are now overseen by two politicians (Vince Cable and David Willetts) who are both highly intelligent and curious; but they must not be tempted to adopt the prevailing control-driven culture. For our English colleagues, there is much to play for.

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One Comment on “Higher education policy in the UK”

  1. Vincent Says:

    A lot of Con types I know in the UK will be spitting feathers on reading this programme for it reads like something New Labour might produce before they became to comfy in power.

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