The British government has now issued its long-expected and somewhat delayed White Paper on the future of England’s system of higher education. The title – Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System – gives a clue as to how the government wants to present its new educational order. It is being presented more as a framework for empowering students than as a framework for adjusting funding methods and sources.
It seems to me that the following three paragraphs (6, 7 and 10 in the executive summary) describe the essence of the government’s higher education policy for England.
‘6. The changes we are making to higher education funding will in turn drive a more responsive system. To be successful, institutions will have to appeal to prospective students and be respected by employers. Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.
‘7. We will move away from the tight number controls that constrain individual higher education institutions, so that there is a more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow and where all universities must offer a good student experience to remain competitive. We will manage this transition carefully to avoid unnecessary instability and keep within the overall budget.
’10. We will make it easier for new providers to enter the sector. We will simplify the regime for obtaining and renewing degree-awarding powers so that it is proportionate in all cases. We will review the use of the title ‘university’ so there are no artificial barriers against smaller institutions. It used to be possible to set up a new teaching institution teaching to an external degree. Similarly, it was possible to set exams for a degree without teaching for it as well. We will once more decouple degree-awarding powers from teaching in order to facilitate externally-assessed degrees by trusted awarding bodies.’
On the whole, early reaction has been fairly balanced, as this site maintained by the Guardian shows. But the substance of the White Paper has been described by some commentators as a further move towards the commodification of higher education. I’m not sure I necessarily see it that way. Rather, the British government is presenting higher education as part of a new competitive environment, in which institutions compete for students and the resources they bring, and with each other and with new entrants (many of them private and for-profit).
The question that this poses is whether such competition will prompt excellence and innovation, or whether its impact will be less desirable. For example, will new private teaching institutions raise the overall pedagogical game as the government anticipates, or will they merely produce commercial advantage for the new players? Could leading global news organisations – the New York Times being the latest one that is making such a move – introduce something innovative and interesting? Or might this be just a corporate land grab that won’t add anything to higher education innovation and quality?
In fairness we probably have to say that the jury is out. The government is presenting its ideas as being about institutional responsiveness to student interests (which some students might find hard to recognise given the new fees régime) – will they also be able to prompt educational excellence? What makes at least this commentator sceptical about that outcome is that the White Paper is focused primarily on process and resources, rather than on pedagogy and scholarship. Chapter 2 of the document does address teaching excellence, but places it mainly in the context of contact hours and course information. In the end though it is the content and method of teaching, and the link between student learning and staff scholarship, that determine excellence. They are more important even than money, or at least they come before money in higher education planning. And for reforms to work, that must be understood.