UK Higher Education in Peril with New Bill

The Bridge of Sighs – Cambridge

Quietly, under the loudly trumpeted Euro referendum, something is happening in higher education that will affect not only our children and grand children but the concept of the UK as a nation of revered and respected Universities.

The new Higher Education Bill means a radical reform for university education such has not been seen for almost two generations. While the government says that the new bill will support institutional autonomy, academic freedom and excellence in research, it is not so if you read between the lines.

One of the reasons that the UK higher education system is so lauded around the world is because they are mostly independent of government interference. However, under the new law (if it is passed, and it looks likely to be) Ministers will have the powers to revoke royal charters. Thus the Oxbridge universities or the Royal College of Physicians will lose their standing and become on par with XYZ “university” with less than 100 students.

Because that is the other thing – institutions that apply for University status would no longer need to have the usual minimum of 1000 students. In fact, there will be no minimum number. These newly-minted universities like our hypothetical XYZ University will slowly push smaller, excellent public universities out of the competition. This would be because they can operate on such low quality standards, not to mention the shorter time it will take them to be deemed a University – three years, just long enough for an undergrad cycle – definitely not enough to gauge the quality of an institution.

The new Office for Students (OfS) that the bill would set up would be granted new and unprecedented sweeping powers: over standards, quality, revoking University status as well as the powers of “entering and searching premises with a warrant”. The bill states that the OfS will have “powers to enter and search premises in England occupied by supported higher education providers” and check if they are breaching the conditions of their status as a provider of higher education.

These new steps are a result of the legislation announced in the Queen’s speech
. It is based on a White Paper that aims to ease the entrance of new providersgraduation-879941_1920 into England’s higher education private sector. The Private universities will still be allowed to dip into tax payers’ public funds to award degrees. More and more high quality research in community colleges, serving the low-socioeconomic demographic, will slowly die away. The new Teaching Excellence Framework will add even more pressure on teachers to tick boxes to do with testing and standards rather than teaching, which is the last thing they need (see my other posts on SATs and teachers leaving the UK).

Privatisation does this, though, especially if also supported by the government. The new regime of universities will have students taking on ‘mortgage-style’ debt, paying more and more for an increasingly corporate set of money-making values in higher education. Education is a public good, not a private privilege. It is not right to make money off the education of future generations.

What this means though, is that higher education will no longer be the great leveller of society. It will result in the removal of degrees from the grasp of people in the lower financial strata, who may not have the social and financial capital to choose higher education. Thus social mobility slowly goes out the window.

What do you think about the commercialisation of Higher Education in this country? Do you think education should be about knowledge and lessening social gaps or do you think it is alright to have more competition and private players entering the market? Please do share your thoughts below.