The debates around higher education have become one long wrestling match with no referee. Whether the discussion is on policy changes, degree courses, fees or staff pay it seems as though everyone has an opinion but no one can find the right solution! Well in January I went to an event hosted by the University of Arts of London students’ union who partnered with the London School of Economics students’ union to ask the question whether there is a so-called ‘death of HE’.

New Legislation (info taken from UAL and LSE)

The death of HE debate stems from the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, passed on the 27th of April (implementing the government’s White Paper from 2016 and previous Green Paper from 2015). There are three parts to the act:

  1. It has established a new body known as the Office for Students (OFS) and creates a new single entry system for HE providers.
  2. Introduces alternative (Sharia-compliant) — student finance and makes all HE providers sign up to the Office Of The Independent Adjudicator (OIA).
  3. Creates a new body known as UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and creates a new sub-body known as Research England.
The Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE)

HEFCE distribute public money for the work that universities and FE colleges do. They work across regulation and assurance, analysis and insight, funding and finance, skills, research, learning and teaching in HE, student access and success, and knowledge and exchange. Recently, one thing that the HEFCE feel they cannot help with is the controversial argument over how much vice chancellors get paid. Professor Madeleine Atkins CBE who is actually the Chief Executive of the council stated on a HEFCE blog post that they are not legally obliged to tell universities how much a VC can get paid. However, they can dish out grants and set certain limits on the grants provided. What they can also do is raise issues around how a university is governed.

Her comment:

‘HEFCE can — and does — investigate any governance issues arising in universities, case by case, where there is value in doing so. This includes governance around the setting of VC pay. That is what we did in the case of the University of Bath, resulting in a report that included 13 recommendations for change. The University is required to report back on its progress on implementing these before Christmas. We have subsequently received another complaint relating to governance issues around the retirement package of the vice-chancellor of the University and we are currently making initial enquiries into this’.

 The Office for Students

The OfS was created to connect certain parts of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) — this had made proposals for increased tuition fees and university ranking tables. But the goal of the OfS is to provide more choice for all students — no matter their background. It aims to be: ‘innovative in its approach to student participation, success and employability’. It further seeks to: ‘Hold universities to account over issues such as vice-chancellor pay and free speech’. So VCs, BE AWARE!

Recently though, some issues occurred because of one chair member. Toby Young had to resign due to the horrible Tweets he wrote about women in the public eye that are too mean to even mention! The other peculiar thing concerning the OfS board is that they have only hired one student. This begs the obvious question; why say it’s for students when you only have one student voice on the board?

What does this mean for HE?

Attendees of the event sat down to discuss what the issues are and whether the HEFCE and the OfS are creating a ‘death of HE’. The following conclusions were reached:

  • The OfS seem to be promoting a marketization of HE. Many students feel that they need to pick market-based subjects rather than those they would actually enjoy. This might be one reason why appointments for mental health services at universities are always full.
  • Large companies such as Apple and McDonald’s now offer degrees in Business Management. This can be good for some mature students but the issue is that they won’t be represented by a student union.
  • The government seem to be pushing STEM courses more and many students studying for humanities or creative degrees feel disheartened and unwelcome in the HE sector. Some arts universities now even try and offer business courses to make the government happy.

One question is whether the OfS is actually for students? The Vice President (2015) of the National Union of Students, Sorana Vieru was interviewed about policy changes in HE and stated that:

‘I call it OFSET — Office for Students, Employers and the Taxpayer. We have done a word count on the Green Paper: there are thirty-three mentions of what employers want and only sixteen mentions of what students want. Even then it is in relation to taxpayers and employers. So no, it is not in the interests of students. The Green Paper sees universities as churning out students fit for employment afterwards rather than seeing education as a public good’.

Interview comment from Education Officer at UAL SU:

 ‘Higher education research bill, Tory government and the marketization of education, [have all made] it less accessible to people. Education should be an investment. It’s a shame … it’s destroyed the future of students and the education system’.

Personally, I do feel that there has been a death of HE. When I was at university, it did seem like degree courses were purely focused on what job you will get, with many students discussing their application for Goldman Sachs.

Of course it is important to consider what career you expect to have after you graduate. But it is equally important that universities remain places of learning, where students can debate and interact on various topics and develop their critical thinking skills. I also think it’s plain ludicrous that there is just one student employed on the board of the Office for Students!

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