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Change is a positive influence, once you choose to embrace it - Prof Nick Petford

HE changes at the coal face - a VC's perspective

Professor Nick Petford, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Northampton gives his view on the Government's latest White Paper

Posted by Hannah Oakman | May 23, 2016 | Finance, legal, HR

The latest Government White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, is being hailed by some as the greatest shake up of Higher Education (HE) since 1992 — and as “dangerous for students” by its critics.

By the time it was presented as the Higher Education and Research Bill by Her Majesty the Queen, the proposals and their implications had been pulled apart by experts, analysts, pundits and colleagues, who will be most affected by the changes at the coal face.

In essence, the headlines of the White Paper boiled down to the following key points:

·       Universities will be allowed to increase fees in line with inflation if they meet the basic standards set out in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in 2017–18 and 2018–19, before differentiated caps are introduced in 2019–20

·       New for-profit private universities will be allowed to award degrees, and have access to fee loans and public teaching and research funding. These new providers will be able to offer their own degrees immediately, and the minimum student numbers requirement for institutions hoping to gain university title — currently 1,000 — will be scrapped

·       Plans to allow students to be able to switch university courses and providers more easily

·       A single research funding body known as UK Research and Innovation, which will bring together the seven existing research councils, Innovate UK and the research and innovation functions of HEFCE.

My own initial reaction echoes that of Universities UK, which is that the renewed focus on teaching quality is welcome, but must build upon the superb work that existing providers such as the University of Northampton have spent many years establishing. The reforms are ostensibly designed to bring about better teaching, better student experience, improved contact hours and more graduates going into graduate-level jobs. But the devil is not so much within the detail, but in the lack of it.

Contact hours

While contact hours is a key component of the reform, there is precious little information regarding what will be considered “contact” (the White Paper states merely that HEFCE has been asked to look at developing methodology for measurement). The Quality Assurance Agency has already developed a robust definition of contact hours — stating clearly that it refers to the amount of time students spend learning in contact with teaching or associated staff, developing subject knowledge and skills, and opportunities to develop independent learning. This definition requires no improvement, and will be the cornerstone of our courses at the University of Northampton as we rejuvenate our own teaching and learning model ahead of the move to our new Waterside Campus in 2018.

“Challenger” institutions

The possible rapid expansion of providers needs to be closely monitored and regulated in order for the excellent reputation of HE in the UK to be maintained, and not degraded by institutions with no track record or academic reputation. Not to mention the financial impact on the public purse of new providers entering the sector. We are all acutely aware of the marketisation of HE, but like any other market, there needs to be appropriate regulation to maintain standards.

With regard to transferring from one course or provider to another, I will be looking for clarification regarding overseas students who wish to change, as there is as yet uncertainty that they will be able to remain in this country or have to return to their country of origin to reapply. With increasing global competition for students, could this be a potentially damaging oversight?

We are all acutely aware of the marketisation of HE, but like any other market, there needs to be appropriate regulation to maintain standards

Teaching excellence framework

I am sure you each have your own thoughts on the relative merits and flaws within the TEF plans, and it is certainly a topic that will be argued for some time. Something that leapt out at me though, is that the proposals for the TEF explicitly link the framework to employability outcomes. However there is a fundamental need to address the fact that a study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, found that British black and minority ethnic (BME) graduates are between 5% and 15% less likely to be employed than their white British peers six months after graduation, potentially placing institutions that have excellent teaching standards and a high proportion of BME students at a disadvantage compared to those whose cohorts are predominantly white British. Without Government recognising this — and ensuring BME graduates are not disadvantaged in finding employment — funding may be directed away from those institutions that may be doing the most in terms of widening participation, which is a key justification for reform.

Despite looming reform that can initially seem daunting, above all it is important that colleagues in the sector are assured that — together — we are more than capable of meeting any challenges laid before us in the months and years to come. Change is a positive influence, once you choose to embrace it.

Do you agree with Professor Nick Petford? Let us know via email here or tweet us to @UB_UK. Contact Nick on Twitter via @nick_petford

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