The Implications of the BIS White Paper Students at the Heart of the System for the University of Greenwich: Part 1

Part 1: The main elements of the White Paper

In this first post of a two part series I will discuss the main elements of the White Paper that are of most relevance to the University of Greenwich, and then in a second, later post I will assess their implications.

The Government’s White Paper which sets out the overall policy objectives for Higher Education was released in June 2011 and is presently in a discussion and consultation phase. Its central focus is the education of students (especially financial reform of home undergraduates). It is largely silent on postgraduate education, research, knowledge transfer and the role of universities in civic society. The White Paper signals very significant changes in the higher education landscape which all institutions, including Greenwich, need to prepare for carefully and deal with astutely. There has been widespread discussion of the White Paper already within the sector including consultation responses from Universities UK and various mission groups, a HEPI paper and extended treatment in the press including several pieces in THE.

The key proposals in the White Paper are:

• Changes in the financial footing by shifting spending from block grants to universities towards repayable student loans from 2012/13, and a price-based core and margin student number control system affecting initially around 85,000 places (25%). Excluding AAB+ students (which will be removed from student number control), institutions will have their student numbers cut on average by around 8%. Those institutions with net (after waiver) fees set below £7500 will be able to bid for some proportion of 20,000 additional student numbers. At a minimum this creates uncertainty in the system, encourages caution, and will result in considerable extra work for universities.

• Attempts to develop the market in student education through encouraging the entry of new providers into the system, new higher variable fees, greater use of scholarship and bursary incentives, more information to inform student choice, student charters, etc. There is a sense that today’s imperfect market would benefit from greater information and stimulation, and that universities need the encouragement of alternative methods of education. This is in spite of the Government’s acknowledgement of the great success of the sector.

• Plans to increase social mobility (especially to the most selective universities) through several mechanisms including access agreements, a national scholarship programme, student number price-control, higher maintenance grants and loans for many students, and possibly post-qualifications applications. In spite of the considerable progress that many universities have made in recent years, the Government wants to provide even greater opportunities for students to better themselves through education. I think we all applaud the principle if not the proposed mechanisms. Universities wishing to charge fees in excess of £6000 have now all submitted and had approval of their OFFA agreements (including Greenwich).

• Suggestions of a new regulation regime by tackling micro management through a risk-based approach and a new role for hefce. The gotcha here is that the White Paper itself adds enormous amounts of additional regulation and bureaucracy. We will have to wait and see if reality matches the rhetoric.

• A new review of business-university collaboration (to be conducted by Sir Tim Wilson). This is planned to report at the end of 2011.

• A restatement of the value of the teaching role of universities and university staff, and the importance of high level qualifications for university academic staff.

Taken as a whole, the White Paper is not so much a vision for the future of higher education in the UK as a blueprint for student funding and social mobility. Much of the paper is to be welcomed as a way to ensure continuity of finance for the sector and, possibly, even a real term increase in funding. Many of its recommendations will be a challenge for universities to implement and a number may result in unintended consequences of less social mobility, fewer people participating in HE, and a decrease in diversity as competition drives everyone to the safe centre ground. We can be sure that the past will not be the best guide to navigate the future.

BIS 2011 Students at the heart of the system http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/higher-education/docs/h/11-944-higher-education-students-at-heart-of-system.pdf

John Thompson and Bahram Bekhradnia 2011 Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System. An Analysis of the Higher Education White Paper http://www.hepi.ac.uk/466-1987/Higher-Education–Students-at-the-Heart-of-the-System.-An-Analysis-of-the-Higher-Education-White-Paper-.html

Ann Mroz 20 June 2011 Leader: A big paper but no grand plan http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=416658

Universities UK 2011 Response to the Higher Education White Paper http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/Publications/Pages/UniversitiesUKResponsetotheHigherEducationWhitePaper.aspx

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