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Owen, R --- "The view at the start of the decade" [2010] LegEdDig 21; (2010) 18(2) Legal Education Digest 16

The view at the start of the decade

R Owen

44(1) The Law Teacher, 2010, pp75-86

The end of the noughties witnessed an outpouring of reports directly relevant to the future of higher education which have provoked a lot of interest.

This section will look at the following reports and some of the reaction to them: the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (hereafter the IUSS) Select Committee Eleventh Report of 2008-09 Students and Universities and the government’s response thereto; the CBI Higher Education Taskforce report Stronger Together Businesses and Universities in Turbulent Times (the CBI Report); Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions (the Milburn Report) and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills report Higher Ambitions: The Future of Universities in a Knowledge Economy.

As a general reaction to these reports, none of the major stakeholders seems to see anything seriously wrong with the state of the higher education sector in the UK. The priority of politicians seems to be to evolve the system particularly in the light of new funding methods. Repeated National Student Surveys show broad student satisfaction with the sector although with reservations particularly in relation to assessment and feedback. The CBI Report celebrates the strengths of the HE sector although it identifies some weaknesses, particularly in relation to students’ employability skills and its main priority is to sustain these strengths in an area of threatened spending cuts.

The IUSS Report, in its review of the situation in England, goes furthest in its criticisms of universities but has not commanded the unqualified endorsement of front bench politicians with one describing it as ‘too clumsy and too negative’ and losing sight of ‘the sheer excellence’ that goes on in many universities. It has also been criticised for its insularity, looking only at the US model and ignoring other models in the European Union, Asia and Australasia and a lack of an evidence base to support its conclusions. The government, in its response, often states that it has not taken current developments adequately into account. However, it is very wide ranging and an interesting source of ideas on the student experience.

The introduction of variable university tuition fees in England and Northern Ireland was one of the landmark events of the last decade not just for higher education policy but for government policy generally. However, the term ‘variable’ is a misnomer as virtually everyone charged the full fee and the picture varies throughout the United Kingdom.

There is a clear expectation among the various stakeholders’ emerging agendas that the universities should not get ‘something for nothing’ and any increase in student fees must be matched, among other things, by an increase in the quality of learning and teaching, which is discussed further below. The major political parties see the rise of student fees going hand in hand with the rise of the ‘student consumer’. Lord Mandelson has said that students should be encouraged to be more ‘picky, choosy and demanding’ and ‘as students who go into higher education pay more, they will expect more’. Meanwhile the CBI Report exhorts students to be more demanding of academic institutions to ensure that their employability skills are developed from day one.

Of course, raising student fees is not the only way to raise additional income for universities. The IUSS Report recommended that the government commission research into the effect of higher fees on quality and that the government investigate alternative methods of funding. There is little indication within the report as to what these alternative support funding systems will be. However, as part of its deliberations, the IUSS committee paid a visit to the United States, so it could well have been thinking of US success stories such as the use of alumni in raising funds. It must not be supposed that the IUSS committee was totally in thrall to the US system. It noted the deleterious effects that higher levels of student indebtedness have had in the US including difficulties attracting students into the lower paid professions. While it specifically mentions the popularity of the legal profession with American graduates as an area with high starting salaries and therefore speedy debt reduction, this does not make a sufficiently refined analysis of the diversity of the legal profession with consequential variations in starting salaries.

Other alternative funding streams which have been suggested in the CBI Report include commercialisation of teaching, as well as greater university-business collaboration.

The IUSS Report criticised the operation of the current bursary system in England for not equitably matching student support with student need. It was particularly critical that a student at a Million + university with the same needs is likely to receive less than a student at a Russell Group university where there are fewer poor students. It favoured a national bursary scheme and recommended that the government, as part of the Browne Review, invite comments on a national bursary scheme.

The IUSS Report noted that part-time students are ineligible for the same level of fee and grant support as full-time students. It recommended that the Browne Review examine support for part-time students, which has since been included within its terms of reference. It also recommended that a deadline be set by which the treatment of undergraduate students becomes broadly similar irrespective of whether they study full- or part-time.

There is a consensus that more needs to be done for part-time and mature students. The Milburn Report calls for accelerated part-time programs with a range of entry points allowing part-time students to enrol on and undertake courses at more flexible times in an all-year-round academic calendar. It also called upon universities and the government to develop a transferable credit-based learning system to recognise student achievement in discrete modules or mini-courses. This has implications for professionally qualifying law degrees as the current credit transfer rules only allow for the transfer between institutions or between degree programs within the same institution for one or more full (emphasis added) years of study.

There is also an emerging consensus on allowing clearer progression routes from vocational courses into higher education. The Milburn Report called on the government to fund 3000 Apprentice Scholarships to higher education rising over time to 10,000.

The Milburn Report advocates local partnerships between universities and individual schools particularly where there are low progression rates and each profession should develop compact arrangements with university faculties to link up recent entrants into the profession as personal mentors with young people in schools.

The idea of taking contextual factors into account in university admissions has also received wide approbation although the Milburn Report sets its face against a quota system for minorities that operates in many places such as Harvard. Although the recommendation to take social and educational context into account is directed at selecting universities there will be a tension in some cases between the Milburn Report encouraging students from less represented groups from taking up places at selecting universities and its recommendation for a ‘fee free’ university for those who attend their local university. The government also approves the taking into account of contextual factors.

There is a broad consensus emerging in recent reports that students’ employability skills need to be improved. Higher Ambitions states that the government will bring together employers, HEFCE and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to identify and tackle specific areas where university supply is not meeting demand for key skills, and will expect all universities to describe how they enhance students’ employability. The CBI Report saw universities as having a role to play in nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit among graduates and an ability to understand risk taking in a business context. Language skills and an ability to work in a multicultural environment, as well as foreign language proficiency were also highly valued. They found that a third of employers were dissatisfied with graduates’ business and customer awareness and two-fifths were dissatisfied with graduates’ foreign language fluency.

With a rise in student fees in all parts of the UK, except Scotland, seeming increasingly likely it is not surprising that attention has been focused on the quality of teaching in the higher education sector. The IUSS Report had a number of concerns about the quality of teaching: the use of graduate students, universities’ unresponsiveness in the face of student complaints of poor teaching and the lack of requirements on the part of HEIs that academics obtain teaching qualifications.

It recommended that all academic staff – new entrants, current staff and graduate students – obtain a higher education teaching qualification either through initial training or by continuing professional development. It also recommended that the government review the use of graduate students. It further recommended that the government agree a strategy to require all university staff engaged ‘in regular and significant teaching’ to undertake appropriate training in pedagogical skills and encourage all staff in HEIs in England to obtain a teaching qualification and that all HEIs have programs in place to enhance teaching effectiveness of all staff who have teaching qualifications and QAA monitor and review the extent to which institutions are meeting this requirement.

The government in its response clearly thinks that a lot has been done already to incentivise and promote high quality teaching by e.g. the Professional Standards Framework (PSF) and the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme. However, it has committed itself to asking HEFCE to explore with the HE sector whether institutions’ human resource strategies provide adequate information about their approach to staff professional development and QAA will often comment on this as part of the monitoring process. It also set itself against a review of graduate teaching although it undertook to ask the Higher Education Academy to better promote to higher education institutions the guidance which they can offer to support graduate students in teaching roles.

It would not appear that there is much appetite at present to reform the system of student complaints. The IUSS Report’s recommendation that the government and HE sector draw up and implement arrangements applicable across the sector that allow students to convey their concerns about poor teaching and which ensure that universities take remedial action was dealt with by the government response that there were sufficient processes in place with the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education providing a backstop when universities’ own processes are inadequate. If there is a change of government a slightly different approach might be taken. David Willetts, the Shadow Minister for Universities and Skills, has criticised the lack of effective rewards and incentives for successful university teaching and is championing the idea of a ‘rate my professor’ website subject to unspecified safeguards to prevent bullying of academics.

The IUSS recommended that the Higher Education Academy draw up a code of practice on (i) the timing, (ii) the quantity, and (iii) the format and content of feedback and require higher education institutions to demonstrate how they are following the Code when providing feedback to students. Again essentially the government sees the work being currently undertaken by the Higher Education Academy, HEFCE and the QAA as already addressing this issue.

There is also a broad consensus that universities work more closely with business. Higher Ambitions states that: ‘business and employers need to contribute more. They will do this through joint research programmes, vocationally orientated courses that they part-fund, sponsorship of students and much greater use of universities for management and leadership training. Universities will need to market their capacity to provide these services both domestically, and in an increasingly global market for higher education and distance learning through the internet’.

Priority is to be given to a diverse range of models of higher education including: (1) part-time and workplace-based courses aimed particularly at mature students or those from non-conventional backgrounds; (2) the further expansion of foundation degrees; (3) apprenticeship programmes and vocational qualifications at technician level; (4) locally accessible higher education; and (5) The commitment to business participation in course design and workplace learning, including apprenticeship is bipartisan.

The IUSS Report advocated reforming and re-establishing the QAA as a Quality and Standards Agency possibly by Royal Charter. However, there does not seem any great appetite to do this. The government believes that the QAA should take on a more public facing role and one which allows any concerns about quality and standards to be investigated more quickly but does not want it re-formed and overall thinks that it does a good job. This would also seem to be the same for David Willetts who is not signalling a radical change in the QAA and has said that he does ‘not want to see clunky initiatives like an Ofsted for universities’.

Higher education is being increasingly seen less as a benefit in its own right but rather as a means into employment. It seems probable that the funding gap will be met in most parts of the UK partly by increasing student fees and, in turn, this will see the rise of the ‘student consumer’ with increased information provided to them particularly on employability and teaching quality before they commit to courses. The ‘student experience’ is likely to be a more central concern in selective, research-intensive universities than it has been hitherto. The rise in student fees is also likely to see a targeting of student support specifically on the least well off with a more level playing field between part- and full-time students. Widening access will be addressed by local partnerships between schools and universities, partnership compacts between professions and university faculties, strengthening of vocational routes into higher education, greater HE in FE provision, a wider range of degree course models, more blended e-learning and face-to-face delivery, as well as greater accreditation of short courses and credit transferability. Selective research-intensive universities, in particular, will be under pressure to take students from less well represented groups and take contextual factors into account in their admissions policies. There will be greater emphasis on developing students’ employability skills, continuing professional development of tutors’ teaching skills and addressing student concerns over poor teaching more quickly. The QAA will not undergo a radical transformation but will be expected to react more quickly to concerns and the external examiner system will be reviewed. There will also be pressures to standardise student workloads across institutions and different disciplines.

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