Classify universities as local or national to restore purpose of HE, report recommends

An EDSK report warns that universities are losing touch with what communities, students and policymakers want

The government should ask universities to distinguish themselves as either ‘national’ or ‘local’ institutions in a bid to stamp out “the increasing homogeneity of the HE sector”, a new report by a former ministerial advisor argues. 

The EDSK think tank report paints a picture of a sector adrift from its purpose, concluding that “many, although certainly not all, institutions appear uninterested in fulfilling” many of the things society, policymakers, and students want. It argues substantial changes institutional and governmental changes are needed to hinder homogeneity, abolish low-value courses and drive up standards. 

EDSK – whose director, Tom Richmond, was an adviser to Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan during their stints at the Department for Education – argues the HE student funding model drove this trend. 

The report recommends universities find a stronger sense of purpose by identifying themselves as ‘local’ or ‘national’ institutions by 2023/24 – with local institutions pursuing locally-set objectives for innovation and training and national institutions pursuing world-leading research and education. The sector also needs to fulfil benefits for their local areas and collaborate more with each other and the further education sector, the report adds. 

Co-authors Richmond and Eleanor Regan argue there are seven purposes of HE but note that not every institution need fulfil them all. The sector should prepare students for work, challenge students intellectually, improve social mobility, support local communities, offer lifelong learning, research and improve the global position of UK HE. 

Identifying the role of a university as either national or local would help “make the ‘value’ of universities as explicit as possible” to senior leaders, staff, funders, industry, students and the governing board, the report recommends. The HE student funding model “makes little distinction between institutions as it merely funds the courses being provided”, Richmond and Regan summarise, which has led providers to abandon individuality in a race to homogeneity and “cheap-to-deliver degrees”. 

The sector is now at a “stalemate”, they observe, with “politicians, policymakers, university leaders and commentators unable to agree on what should be labelled as ‘low value’”. 

The decision by some HEIs to expand courses that offered them the largest financial rewards may have improved their balance sheets, but it has unwisely fed the narrative of ‘low value’ HE as well as raising serious questions among policymakers about the motives of these institutions
– EDSK report

Local and national universities

Local universities would be “engines of local economic growth, social mobility and lifelong learning…tasked with delivering courses at degree and sub-degree level that promotes civic engagement with the local community and support employers”, the report argues. 

They should offer level four and five courses, foundation years and ‘credit transfer’ agreements with FE providers. They should also limit international enrolment to 10% of its student cohort and focus research on applied activities. New ‘tertiary education commissioners’ should oversee providers of post-18 education in every region, bringing together ‘local’ universities, FE colleges and Institutes of Technology under one umbrella. 

National universities would do the complete opposite: instead, these universities should focus on blue-skies research, limit access to courses with state-set minimum entry requirements, and enrol as many as 40% of the student cohort from overseas. They should prize “academic excellence and intellectual challenges” that would best support their international standing, the report adds. 

Read more: Vice-chancellors launch higher technical education report

Regulatory changes 

Data on graduate salaries and employment outcomes are not a good judge of the “value or quality” of a degree, say Richmond and Regan. The government should scrap the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, they add, arguing it has no relevance to students and employers and cannot “accurately pinpoint” quality provision. 

They propose instead that degree courses go through an accreditation system. They should seek approval from professional, statutory and regulatory bodies or gain endorsements from employers via letters or recommendation or by setting students externally-set exams. Courses with this all-important accredited status would receive an extra £1,500 government funding per student – and non-accredited degrees a “negative” teaching grant. 

The OfS should fine universities that surpass a benchmark for drop-out rates. 

Student finance changes

The student loan repayment phase should lengthen from 30 to 40 years. The report endorses dropping the repayment threshold, with lower tiers applied to the lowest-paid graduates that at the moment pay nothing. Graduates should repay loans at 3% of their per annum salary above £12,570 – then 6% on every pound earned between £17,570-22,570 – and then 9% on every pound earned above £22,570. This would “discourage students from selecting a course or institution that offers them no obvious benefits”, Richmond and Regan say. 

By 2030, the government should introduce a post-18 funding model based on ‘Individual Education Budgets’. The Blair government attempted such an idea in 2000 but withdrew it after accusations of fraud and wasted money. These £20,000 individual budgets would make students assess courses more stringently, the report argues. 

Read more: Kathryn Mitchell: ‘I can’t think of a single cabinet minister who didn’t go to university’

Related news: University civic engagement: UPP Foundation identifies public priorities

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