Green Paper Summary, Monday 7 November 2015

Today’s Buzz is a summary of the HE Green Paper released last week.

The government’s Green Paper, Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’ sets out proposals to reshape the higher education landscape by focusing on Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. The highlight of the Plan is to develop an approach for better ‘Value for Money’ for students, employers and taxpayers. Before drafting a potential White Paper and bill, it has been released for consultation until 15 January 2016 for plans which aim to: introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF); widen participation from disadvantaged and under-represented groups; create a new single entrance for all providers to drive opening up the sector to new competition; and merge HEFCE and OFFA into a single new regulatory body, the Office for Students.

The document is made up of five parts:

PART A: Teaching Excellence, Quality and Social Mobility PART B: The Higher Education Sector PART C: Simplifying the higher education architecture PART D: Reducing complexity and bureaucracy in research funding

Together these Parts target six main challenges: productivity, transparency, teaching standards, social mobility, fairness for new providers, and simplicity of the HE landscape and funding.

The Productivity Challenge recognises that productivity drives the economy, and within that process improving skills is essential. The Plan states that Higher Education plays a vital role in productivity, however – using research from HESA, HEPI, HEA, BIS and UKCES among others – there is a shortage of skills and mismatch of graduate qualification and suitable employment. It suggests that both employers and learned societies representing professions should be involved in the designing of relevant curriculum.

The Transparency Challenge is based on the view that there is a lack of information on teaching quality, course content and graduation outcomes available to students. It claims a dissatisfaction of students who are increasingly concerned about value for money, and also suggests that employers do not know what they are getting in terms of particular universities reflecting quality of education. The Plan highlights grade inflation as a concern which providers need to address, and that the current degree classification system in ‘no longer capable of providing the recognition of hardworking students and the information employers require’. As such, the inclusion of the Grade Point Average system in degree outcomes is proposed.

The next challenge, to drive up teaching standards, argues that there is no mechanism in place to award teaching, and that this results in research dominating HE, and in sidelining the importance of high quality student experience. The aim of TEF is to recognise and award high quality teaching through the teaching quality, learning environment, and student outcomes and learning gain – however criteria to assess these need further development (p 32-33). The Plan sets proposals for design, fee increases, assessment, criteria and metrics as well as incentives. There are blurry lines in terms of what amounts to successful assessment, which will play a decisive role in which HE providers are allowed to increase their fees in line with inflation by 2017/18. In Part A (Chapter 1), the Plan proposes that the TEF will change providers’ behaviour, and therefore the HE culture. The investment in quality teaching will attract students, but also result in lower quality providers ‘withdrawing from the sector’ (p 19). Meanwhile, financial incentives will be set up, whereby providers can raise fees according to which TEF level they are allocated.

The Plan states that ‘the criteria and metrics used for the TEF will develop over time’ (p 23), however at present the proposal is that the TEF will have four levels. ‘Institutions will automatically achieve TEF level 1 by holding a recent successful quality assessment (QA) review’ (p 23), and this will be reviewed every three years within the first two years, and then potentially five years afterwards. The use of ‘common metrics’ will inform applications for higher TEF awards, initially built from already existing data collections (p 33) from: the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education Surveys (to measure employment/destination); the UK Performance Indicators by HESA (to measure retention/continuation); and the National Student Survey (to measure student satisfaction indicators). As of February 2016, which will be the most recent review undertaken by the QAA, providers will be TEF Level 1 eligible. Year 2 will introduce higher levels of awards.

Chapter 2 of Part A outlines the assessment process, outcomes and incentives proposed for TEF. Applications for higher TEF awards will be assessed by an Independent Panel, comprised of ‘academic experts in learning and teaching, student representatives, and employer/professional representatives’ (p 28). Three suggested pre-conditions (p 27) are that the provider will need:

An Access Agreement for widening participation

Show compliance with the Competition and Market’s Authority

To state whether they use the GPA system or not (although it will not be a pre-requisite for higher awards).

Rather than applications being made on an ongoing basis, the model proposed is a rolling cycle of TEF assessments (p 28). The idea to create a non-bureaucratic and simplistic approach to be able to differentiate and compare between and within institutions, and for the assessments to work at a disciplinary/subject level.

The Social Mobility Challenge will continue to work towards access, retention and progression of disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, with the 2020 aim to double the percentage of disadvantaged groups and raise BME groups by 20%. The Plan suggests creating more information on student origin and their background, application and learning outcomes. It also proposes to use TEF for the inclusion of widening participation metrics, by measuring retention and completion rates for example. The TEF proposal suggests that obtaining higher TEF levels requires fulfilling widening participation expectations as a pre-condition. Interestingly, the Plan recognises that students from disadvantaged backgrounds ‘tend not to perform as well as other students’ (p 31): this information will be used in consideration with other metrics so that providers with high proportions of such students will not be penalised. Further action includes issuing new guidance to the Director of Fair Access, having UCAS adopt a ‘name blind’ recruitment system, using TEF to measure access and success, and developing the Degree Apprenticeship programme launched in March 2015.

The Fairness for New Providers Challenge in linked with the concept that more choice can provide better value for money (Part B). It is quite controversial with its market-economy approach to higher education, however the aim is to improve efficiency and remove what is conceived to be ‘unnecessary barriers’ to create a ‘level playing field’ (p 42) with a ‘risk-based approach that safeguards quality’ (p 50). The Plan also suggests that more choice will provide the opportunity to attract communities and groups that are ‘hard-to-reach’ and not ‘well-served’.

The proposal is that the Office for Students acts as the single body which providers submit their information for the application process. Other key features would be that providers receive quicker access to student funding, no cap on student numbers, earlier application for degree awarding powers, and the ability to secure university title earlier (p 45-48). Further opportunities on how to streamline the process – with or without legislation – are being considered. This includes possibly removing the role of the Privy Council in making decisions about degree awarding powers (p 48).

The last Challenge is based on transforming and simplifying the ‘outdated’ regulatory landscape by amalgamating existing bodies (HEFCE and OFFA) into the new regulator and student champion, the Office for Students (OfS) (p 57). The proposal is to bring together access agreements, teaching funding, TEF, and quality assurance into a single body to help reduce bureaucracy, increase transparency and save money. The OfS’s duties would be to (p 58):

Operate the entry gateway

Assure baseline quality

Run the TEF - Collect and provide information

Widen access and success for disadvantaged students

Allocate grant funding

Ensure student protection

Promote the student interest

Ensure value for money for students and the taxpayer

Assure financial sustainability, management and good governance

As for the last section focusing on research, Part D, proposals are pending based on future conclusions provided by the Nurse Report, which would ‘affect the future design of the research system’ (p 70). The main suggestion is to reduce cost and bureaucracy, hence future exploration into options to ‘streamline and reduce burdens in the design of a future REF’.

The common thread throughout the Plan is to create improved student experience through ensuring that they are offered value for money.