Putting students at the heart of higher education

By David Willetts –

The UK Coalition Government immediately accepted the main thrust of Lord Browne’s independent review of higher education, when it was published last year, because it put students at the heart of a more dynamic system. In all the controversy surrounding the parliamentary votes, the student demonstrations and the raw politics, this has been forgotten too often.

The review team had a clear overarching objective:

“we are relying on student choice to drive up quality. Students will control a much larger proportion of the investment in higher education. They will decide where the funding should go; and institutions will compete to get it. As students will be paying more than in the current system, they will demand more in return.”

This key concept was not plucked from thin air. Half a century ago, it was a feature of the Robbins report, which called for higher fees so that universities’ incomes were more closely linked to the students they taught. In the event, policy went in the opposite direction and university fees for home students disappeared from view.

But, as Lord Robbins himself said, the idea of a graduate contribution was ”ultimately very difficult to resist.” So, in 1997, the Dearing report recommended graduates should contribute one-quarter of the average cost of tuition via new income-contingent loans. After another false start, during which the first Blair Government introduced upfront fees, tuition loans were finally implemented in 2006.

Despite being couched in the language of consumer power, the settlement turned out to be the archetypal New Labour compromise: expensive to the taxpayer and unresponsive to the user. That is why the Browne report marked such an important shift. Using the same logic as Robbins and Dearing before him, Lord Browne called for far more of the teaching costs to be covered by a progressive loans system. If the taxpayer contributions were to shift substantially away from upfront institutional teaching grants towards loans put in the hands of students, then the system could finally become truly responsive. To lubricate the system, it would also be necessary to ensure better information for prospective students, to relax student number controls at an institutional level and to welcome new, quality higher education providers.

One of the key benefits of a more responsive system should be a greater emphasis on teaching quality. In the numerous university visits I have done over the last few years, this is the issue that has been raised most often by students. They rightly want regular feedback, a decent number of contact hours and access to the famous professors in their department. I want to see institutions seeking to attract students on the basis of teaching quality.

The Coalition’s proposals are not a carbon copy of Lord Browne’s, but they do encapsulate the key features of his model. From 2012-13, the first year of the new system, substantially more money will flow via students and less via HEFCE. At the same time, we will introduce a more progressive loans system and larger maintenance support, just as Browne recommended, to make sure no one is deterred from attending university on financial grounds. We will also improve the information available to prospective students and their families, so that they can make more informed decisions – as a first step, by introducing Key Information Sets, which will outline what is on offer in different courses at different universities in areas like student satisfaction, teaching time and graduate employment.

People are rightly asking for more information about how the new system will work in the longer term, rather than just in the first year. Our programme will reflect the Coalition’s wider ambitions to reduce central political control, put more power in the hands of consumers and promote innovative delivery methods. The biggest lesson I have learnt in three decades as a policymaker is that letting new providers into the system is the single most powerful driver of reform. It is the rising tide that lifts all boats.

The very fact that universities don’t get so much grant money and that money will follow learners opens up the system. But we also intend to move towards a single regulatory regime for providers of different types. This is likely to be of interest to the global higher education providers that already operate in many countries, as well as home-grown specialist institutions and perhaps even new liberal arts colleges.

In addition, we will end the fixed, yet illogical, link between degree-awarding powers and teaching. We have, perhaps unintentionally, created a regulatory system which says that awarding bodies must also teach students. That would be seen as absurd in any other part of the education sector. It is also ahistorical, for the past growth of higher education in England was based on colleges teaching students for external degrees. The polytechnics, for example, taught degrees examined by the old Council for National Academic Awards. This is a model with much going for it because it means students at new institutions can obtain degrees or other qualifications from prestigious and well understood institutions. Employers, in particular, are likely to value such clear signals. This is behind my support of initiatives like Pearson’s exciting new BTEC degree, which will enable people to prove they have higher-level vocational skills.

We are also looking at options for freeing up student number controls. For example, one area of potential is tariff-based systems, in which entitlement to public support is linked to prior attainment. The initial response to the ambitious version proposed in the Browne report was not favourable. But are there some categories of students for whom a tariff approach could work, especially once the UCAS review is finished?

Our new student finance arrangements are clear. But reforming funding without liberalising the system so that students’ choices become more meaningful would leave us, like Oscar Wilde’s cynic, obsessed with price and ignorant of value. So we are equally committed to delivering a landscape in which public money isn’t simply linked to students in an unresponsive way, but actually changes direction with the decisions they make.

David Willetts is the UK Minister for Universities and Science.

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