- Fri Jul 10, 2015 7:12 pm #420203
"Open the market" - all you need to know about how these spivs see everything.
The Red Arrow is currently appearing in 'Norks O'Rorke and the Convent of Doom' at the Royal Court Theatre, London.
Haven't time to do one properly at the moment, but here's a brief summary (of sorts) and a few (long-ish) extracts. In short, it suggests that the Green Paper is muddled (at best) and (at worst) part of an on-going campaign to destroy the idea that a university should be "a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals"; one run on the "belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance are self-evident public goods; and so on."Bones McCoy wrote:Any chance of a summary?
The second, is to do with what the document calls 'new providers':The first is what it calls the 'architecture' of the higher education sector. Here again, what it proposes may appear to be perfectly sensible, but the likely outcome has a sinister aspect. In recent years, the quangos involved in running higher education have proliferated, and the main one, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), has in effect lost its central function since it no longer distributes a block grant for teaching. The proposal is to abolish it, along with the Office for Fair Access and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, and replace them all with one new super-quango – the Office for Students, which the Green Paper queasily avoids calling 'Ofstud', preferring instead the unpronounceable OfS: 'This would be the first time that a higher education regulator has been explicitly designed to promote the student interest, and approach higher education regulation through a student lens.' The Green Paper does not speculate whether the NUS, and even possibly individual student unions, might now want to dissolve themselves, secure in the knowledge that the student interest is in such good hands, but the government wants everyone to know whose side it's on. In fact, OfS's remit will include the protection of other weak and vulnerable groups: it will 'empower, protect and represent the interests of students, employers and taxpayers'.
Although most public funding of teaching was withdrawn in 2012, there remains a residual teaching grant for the support of high-cost Stem subjects and other 'priorities', so if Hefce is abolished a new way to do this will have to be found. One method that seems to appeal to the government (now, why might that be?) is 'for BIS ministers to set the strategic priorities for teaching grant … This will enable ministers to strengthen incentives for higher education provision that supports the needs of the economy.' More significant, a new mechanism would have to be found to distribute the research funding that results from the REF, also currently done by Hefce. At present, the basic funding for research goes directly to universities, in line with their REF performance, while funding for particular projects is distributed, on a competitive basis, through the research councils, which are separate organisations. The Green Paper ostensibly reaffirms a commitment to these two separate strands of funding, but it raises the possibility that both might be administered by a single 'overarching body'. A review of the role of the research councils, conducted by Paul Nurse, former president of the Royal Society, has been taking place alongside the discussions that have issued in the Green Paper. One of the review's main recommendations appears to be that the research councils should be under the aegis of a new 'ministerial committee chaired by a senior minister, so we have the political will for science and can use it for the good of the UK'. (The Times Higher has reported that 'the most likely candidate to chair this committee would be George Osborne.') It isn't hard to see how the creation of a single, overarching body will make it easier to direct money to what ministers identify as 'strategic needs'.
The third is to do with widening participation, where there is "the usual mix of well-meaning confusion and blank evasion."Until recently, it wasn't easy for an existing educational institution to become a university, and it was even more difficult for a commercial enterprise to set one up from scratch. There were strict controls on the use of the title; degree-awarding powers were granted only with the approval of the Privy Council; fledgling institutions often had to endure a longish period during which their courses were validated by an established university, and so on. One might have thought that these safeguards had contributed to the generally high reputation of British universities for the greater part of the 20th century, but now we are told 'innovation and diversity in higher education provision are crucial to our ability to maintain our international reputation.' Moreover, it is axiomatic that increased competition means increased innovation (and provides better value for money). So the Green Paper proposes to do away with many of the existing checks. There will be no need for Privy Council approval; no requirement concerning minimum student numbers (no need any longer for the designation 'university college'); any institution that passes rather minimal requirements will be free to call itself a university. They won't even have to be teaching institutions: 'Degree awarding powers could also potentially be made available to non-teaching bodies meeting appropriate standards.' And they won't have to pass the present tests on their track record and financial sustainability. The Green Paper notes in passing that henceforth the accounts that meet the financial sustainability test may be 'the accounts of a parent company, if the provider is a wholly-owned subsidiary' – so we know what sort of animal these 'alternative providers' are likely to be.
So, Cramme, Chargem and Skimpe will now be able to set up EasyUni without too much difficulty; its students will be eligible for publicly backed loans, the profits from which will pass to the parent company, CCS Holdings Ltd. EasyUni will innovate like crazy, up-ending hidebound ideas about education, and its offer of Quick 'n' Cheap degrees will help drive the long-established University of Loamshire out of business. For it is central to government thinking that there should be losers as well as winners. 'In a changing and more competitive sector, providers that innovate and present a more compelling value proposition to students will be able to increase their share of total students – in some cases this may be at the expense of other institutions.' The Green Paper outlines arrangements for what it coyly terms 'provider exit', whether as a result of 'financial failure', or because an institution is closed down by OfS, or 'as a result of voluntary exit by the provider'. So, the plan is to have lots more organisations calling themselves universities, more cut-throat competition and more closures. We shan't be able to say we weren’t warned.
The Green Paper concludes with a remarkable couple of pages on the REF, which have little organic connection to the proposals in the main body of the document but should not be missed by anyone who savours life's little ironies. What is most striking is the note of surprise, even shock, that the REF should turn out to be a) extremely expensive to run, and b) so burdensome that it 'attracts such negative views from some in the sector'. What is so disingenuous here is that the costs and the bureaucracy are indeed shocking, but they were widely predicted, and were the inevitable result of the measures successive governments imposed on universities. One small indication of the monster that has been created is that in 2008 the Research Assessment Exercise, which was already widely criticised for its expense and bureaucracy, cost approximately £66 million, while the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, in which the most notable innovation (apart from some laudable equality and diversity safeguards) was the requirement to demonstrate certain kinds of social and economic 'impact', cost £246 million.
It is at this point that the disingenuousness reaches almost comic proportions. 'We must … address the "industries" that some institutions create around the REF and the people who promote and encourage these behaviours,' the Green Paper declares. 'There are cases of universities running multiple "mock REFs", bringing in external consultants and taking academics away from teaching and research.' It hardly needs saying that these 'behaviours' have not been 'promoted and encouraged' by mischievous elements in universities: they are the direct result of the system imposed by the government. Yet the Green Paper shows no sign whatever of recognising this fact. Indeed, it casually speculates that more use could be made of metrics to 'refresh' results in the years between the regular REFs – in other words, yet more data-gathering and assessment. And whatever changes may be made to the REF, tackling its most obvious and expensive failing seems already to have been ruled out: the Green Paper stubbornly maintains that any future exercise must continue to 'provide a clear sense of strategic priorities (for example around the introduction of impact)'.
Ministers have been accused of an "outrageous" attempt to sneak through their proposals to end student grants in England without proper scrutiny by MPs.
The plan to scrap maintenance grants, which help half a million of the poorest students pay for university life, will go through a legislation committee on Thursday, without a vote and debate on the floor of the House of Commons.
It was first put forward by George Osborne in July, when he proposed turning maintenance grants into loans from September 2016 in a bid to save money.
Labour is opposing the change and the lack of scrutiny. Gordon Marsden, the shadow universities minister, said it was "not simply technical tinkering but a major change by the government that will deprive around half a million of England's students from lower income and disadvantaged households, of maintenance grant funding".
He added: "It will leave them having to take out loans as a leap in the dark. It has been done without consultation, with warning signs already being flagged up by the department's own equality assessment and wholly without the detailed and proper parliamentary scrutiny such a step-change demands."
The government – or more accurately, the Department for Business, Industry and Skills – thinks Britain's universities let down their students. They do not teach well enough, and graduates are not getting good enough jobs. They are not playing their part in increasing social mobility, and employers complain that, despite the big expansion in student numbers, there is still a skills gap. The answer to all this is to make competition the driving force shaping higher education. "Challenger" for-profit private universities will be allowed to award degrees to students who will be paid for out of public funds.
Yet in the white paper published on Monday there is no evidence to show that increased competition will guarantee a better offer to students or employers, nor that demand for higher education places outstrips supply.
See elsewhere for the angle taken by the Mail.The higher education bill is to be one of the centrepieces of a Queen's speech on Wednesday that is advertised as an agenda for social justice. Yet it does little to tackle the real barriers to social mobility. It offers nothing new to part-time or older students; and, while it continues to trumpet the benefits to the economy of expanding higher education, it goes on loading the cost on to the individual.
The move to increase university tuition fees in England to £9,250 has been launched - without any announcement from the Department for Education.
The changes to the fees, affecting more than 500,000 students beginning in the autumn, was put onto a government website last week.
Opposition parties have called it "shabby" and "avoiding scrutiny".
The Department for Education has rejected suggestions it wanted to deflect attention from the increase.
The government faces a huge cross-party revolt next week over controversial reforms of higher education that would make it easier for new colleges to award degrees, become universities and make profits from teaching students.
Labour, the Liberal Democrats and crossbench peers in the House of Lords have joined forces in an attempt to scupper what they believe is an attempt at full-scale "marketisation" of the sector – a move they say would lower standards and damage the UK's reputation for running many of the best universities in the world.
The peers – and university leaders – also say the reforms would destroy the cherished autonomy of UK universities and allow political interference by ministers into how they are run, teach courses and conduct research.
On Sunday, in a further blow to the higher education and research bill, Lord (Chris) Patten, the former Tory party chairman and now chancellor of Oxford University, described the reforms as "hamfisted", coming at a time when universities were already facing massive challenges as a result of the Brexit vote and changes to immigration policy.
Referring to attempts to turn the sector into a marketplace, being championed by universities minister Jo Johnson, Patten says ministers appear to have little regard for, or knowledge of, the university system.
"To give the impression that one goal is to inject a shot of entrepreneurial vim, so that universities can replicate the energy and outlook of – who shall we say, [former BHS owner] Philip Green? – seems unlikely to convince those who work in and study at our universities that ministers understand and care much about what they are doing," Patten writes in an article for the Observer.
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