The future of higher education: the outlook from England

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.

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14 Comments on “The future of higher education: the outlook from England”

  1. Fred Says:

    “… is that the White Paper is focused primarily on process and resources, rather than on pedagogy and scholarship”… I am afraid that it is all about money. There are already enough places to study in England and its hard to imagine how new entrants can help the system in any way other than making money for themselfs.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    When I read the full Report yesterday there was one sentence which I could not get out of my mind by the end of it, it’s in paragraph 10 above: ‘We will review the use of the title ‘university’ so there are no artificial barriers against smaller institutions.’
    This sentence is indicative of the philosophy, or better ideology behind the whole report, a university is just a title which so far has been artificially exclusive (an inplicit reiteration of the old ivory tower cliche’? discussed, among others, in a previous blog post), it is just a conferring degree institution, forget about the *meaning* of the word university derived from the Latin (universitas magistrorum et scholarium), i.e. a community of teachers and scholars. Here come the freedom fighters of market education and finally any other ‘smaller’ institution can become a university, as if it was only a matter of size! And what about the ethos, the mission, the mentality, the scholarship of such (mostly private) new comers on the educational scene? Actually, forget about scholarship altogether, a university in the brave new world of the White paper is all about teaching, or more specifically about the mechanics of teaching, that key link mentioned in Ferdinand’s post ‘between student learning and staff scholarship’ is completely obliterated, (no mention of post-graduate provision/research in the report). In an interview yesterday the Minister (and I’m quoting by memory) said that universities should forget any affiliation with the public sector. It is exactly the idea of the university as a *public* institution for the *public* good that is dispatched with in the Report and replaced by the idea of the university as a business corporation like any other, this coming from a Goverrnment that believes in a *Big Society* is somewhat ironic.
    What comes out of England right now makes the whole idea of an independent Scotland all of a sudden more palatable…

    • Ken Says:

      A useful model in this area is New Zealand, where the purposes of various types of higher education institutions are set out in the Education Act 1989 (which also – in s 161 – guarantees them academic fredom):

      “Section 162(4) In recommending to the Governor-General under subsection (2) that a body should be established as a college of education, a polytechnic, a specialist college, a university, or a wananga, the Minister shall take into account—

      (a) that universities have all the following characteristics and other tertiary institutions have 1 or more of those characteristics:

      (i) they are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence:

      (ii) their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge:

      (iii) they meet international standards of research and teaching:

      (iv) they are a repository of knowledge and expertise:

      (v) they accept a role as critic and conscience of society; and

      (b) that—

      (i) a college of education is characterised by teaching and research required for the pre-school, compulsory and post-compulsory sectors of education, and for associated social and educational service roles:

      (ii) a polytechnic is characterised by a wide diversity of continuing education, including vocational training, that contributes to the maintenance, advancement, and dissemination of knowledge and expertise and promotes community learning, and by research, particularly applied and technological research, that aids development:

      (iia) a specialist college is characterised by teaching and (if relevant) research of a specialist nature that maintains, enhances, disseminates, and assists in the application of knowledge and expertise:

      (iii) a university is characterised by a wide diversity of teaching and research, especially at a higher level, that maintains, advances, disseminates, and assists the application of, knowledge, develops intellectual independence, and promotes community learning:

      (iv) a wananga is characterised by teaching and research that maintains, advances, and disseminates knowledge and develops intellectual independence, and assists the application of knowledge regarding ahuatanga Maori (Maori tradition)” according to tikanga Maori (Maori custom).

  3. A goof idea except that in sophisticated services (eg. financial services) it is easy to sell low quality products and so there will need to be good regulation which is not an easy thing to do. It has been my experience that when students are offered courses with similar qualifications from competing institutions they will pick the easier or faster one (eg. a part-time course that offers 60 ECTS per year as opposed to one that offers 30 ECTS per year).

    However, in regulating we need to protect ourselves from people who know how it should be done and want to measure inputs (“In the end though it is the content and method of teaching, and the link between student learning and staff scholarship, that determine excellence”) and instead get good at measuring the learning outcomes which is what really matters.

    • OK Brian, in protecting yourself against me :), how are you going to measure the outputs? Degree classifications? Really? Measuring anything in education is very complex and not necessarily useful. I’m certainly not suggesting measuring the inputs.

      As for your first paragraph, if you were right not a single student would opt for Harvard.

      • Harvard could be considered to be a special case and certainly not all prospective students are that unaware of the importance of quality. However, with a very large proportion of students applying to mid-range higher education institutes there is a significant danger that they will not be able to differentiate between offerings of differing standards and if regulation is not good enough there could be a race to the bottom (I could give some examples in my sector but it would not be a good idea to do that in public).

        Sure, measuring outputs is hard, but it is better to measure badly what you need to measure than to measure precisely some proxy that may not guarantee your outcomes (eg. GNP vs well being in society). To do so will, more often than not, stifle innovation. There are many ways to skin a cat.

        As a supporter of competition and activity of the private sector in higher education, I can’t believe that I’m arguing for more regulation.

      • I thought your statement:
        ““In the end though it is the content and method of teaching, and the link between student learning and staff scholarship, that determine excellence””
        essentially suggested that we should measure inputs. I would particularly worry that you might suggest that we should specify allowable teaching methods or require certain levels of staff scholarship. I may have taken this up wrong.

  4. cormac Says:

    Many thanks for the link to the vole blog Anna, that’s an interesting find

  5. Eddie Says:

    I am not so negative about the White Paper. When private providers enter England HE sector in a big way, and say offer degree courses which span only 2 years by reducing the Easter, Summer and Winter recesses, suddenly it will become attractive for overseas students as well as many English students too. Once this trend is up, it is only a matter of time before these providers will enter Scotland. Just Think of a private provider in Aberdeen , and the Aberdeen College follows the example of English colleges (thanks to Willets White Paper of liberating the colleges from franchise shackle by creating a central accreditation and validation body for them-like the CNAA of yore) and introduces its own validated degrees.

    Imagine also Salmond introduces the referendum bill, and removes Scotland from Britain and into the clutches of Merkel and Sarko and takes share of the bail outs of Greece and Ireland. Interesting days ahead, even if Scotland goes its own way!!

  6. anna notaro Says:

    Readers of this blog might be interested to know that an alternative White Paper has just been published today. It has already been signed by hundreds of academics, available at

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