Will the HE green paper make the grade?

12 Nov 15

Will the changes outlined in the higher education green paper empower disadvantaged students, or hamper efforts to improve social mobility?

Green and white papers are published for a variety of reasons, aside from the need to ‘consult’ prior to legislation. A new minister wants to make his or her mark. The government needs to save money. A department wants to show it is doing something, usually a new organisation with a new acronym. Whatever the reason, they are rarely all they seem, and the outcomes don’t always match their ambitious good intentions.  

So how does the latest universities green paper, Higher education: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice, match up? Among its new ideas is a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), a way of holding universities to account on an aspect of their delivery that is decidedly patchy, and a new Office for Students (OfS) which will be a ‘single, light touch regulatory system’ that will ‘empower students, drive quality, eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and save taxpayer money’.

The detail may still be dependent on MPs’ approval, though the acronyms are already in place. But can the Office for Students (OfS) really do all of these things successfully, and what will it do as a single entity for social mobility that maintaining the successful Office for Fair Access, and expanding its remit a little, would not achieve? The new Office will not only see OFFA absorbed under its wing, it will also run the new teaching framework, absorb HEFCE’s regulatory role and provide quality assurance.  

Sensibly, it will not take over the creaky behemoth that is the Student Loans Company, and the department itself wants to change how the remaining teaching grant is allocated to universities. There must, however, be concern at the suggestion that raising the fee cap would no longer require a parliamentary vote, and could be done by power of the Secretary of State.

The new body will operate in the students’ interest, we are told, but it will be funded by universities. There is much that is good about the overall functions of the new entity – it will have specific duties to promote students’ interests, excellent teaching and fair access. It will also be the body charged with deciding which new providers can offer higher education and providing better information on choices.

Having had my time in Whitehall, I can see how logical all this may seem. Government loves having everything ‘joined up’. It promotes efficiency and collaborative working, the civil servants hum. It (ostensibly) saves money, the chancellor purrs. And it gives me something to be seen doing in parliament, the minister cheers.  

But I’m not convinced it will meet another important objective of the green paper: improving social mobility. One of the less well publicised government targets (they’re back in favour again, apparently) is to double the percentage of disadvantaged students going into higher education from 13.6% in 2009 to 27.2% by 2020, and to improve access for minority ethnic students. The figure was 18.2% in 2014. Achieving this will require real focus, not least with potential cuts in the spending review of widening participation funds, and a drive that ensures the target isn’t met simply by plucking the lowest hanging fruit – there is still an eight fold access gap in our most elite universities, after all.

The record of ‘logical’ mergers in recent years is hardly encouraging. The Every Child Matters agenda under the Labour government was a worthy and logical attempt to join up education and children’s services. The result was a lost focus on education standards in many local authorities where a social services agenda dominated, or vice versa. The resultant loss of dedicated child protection teams as part of that agenda arguably contributed to the Baby P case in Haringey. The ‘logical’ merger of the National College of School Leadership with the Teaching and Development Agency has been accompanied by a teacher recruitment crisis and the near-destruction of a programme credited by the OECD as ‘changing the landscape of school leadership.’  Both were affected by a loss of focus.

The Office for Fair Access has had a good record since its inception in 2004. Its access agreements have kept universities accountable in a very specific area that is vital to social mobility. The duty to report on access to parliament, combined with the power to prevent universities charging higher fees, have supported improvements in access from disadvantaged students despite the trebling of those tuition fees.

The green paper would not take away any of these powers, and it would maintain the access regulator’s post. Indeed there is an expectation that the regulator should look also at the destinations of access students, a welcome extension of the existing remit. Improved information for students would be a great boon too. But the new Office would absorb OFFA into an entity with lots of other complex responsibilities. The result could be a gradual erosion of independence and loss of impact in a body that is likely to spend much time on the complexities of competition. That would not be good for social mobility.

There is much to welcome in the new green paper, not least the stronger role for students and the overdue focus on teaching. But the danger is that in its desire to create a clean new ‘architecture’ the Office for Students ends up creating something closer to the Walkie-Talkie than The Shard. We need to be convinced otherwise.

This article was first published via the Sutton Trust blog

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