Summary of the Higher Education Green Paper, "Fulfilling Our Potential"

Prof. Alvin Birdi, The Economics Network
Published January 2016 in the Economics Network Newsletter

Introduction

A large part of the Green Paper concerns plans for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Other parts outline plans for increasing social mobility and widening access, simplifying the architecture of higher education and opening the sector to new/ alternative providers. There is a small section at the end on funding for research.

The main drivers of TEF are:

  • Improving the incentives for excellence in teaching.
  • Better service for employers by producing work-ready graduates. The Paper suggests that that a closer alignment with the needs of employers will enable students to attain better jobs and higher wages thereby also reducing the pressure on public finances by quicker repayment of loans.
  • Improved information for students about their courses allowing clearer comparisons between courses. The paper notes that currently only “imperfect proxies” about teaching quality exist and that students are not receiving the information they need.

More generally, the proposals include measures to:

  • Level the playing field between existing and new providers and between different types of institution (e.g HECs and older charter universities).
  • Increase access and outcomes for disadvantaged groups (e.g. 20% increase in BME students). The TEF metrics will be disaggregated by under-represented groups. The belief is that better information about value for money for students will encourage participation.

Timelines

The Green Paper consultation closed on 15th January 2016. There will be a technical consultation that follows in the Spring which will look more closely at the metrics that will be used in the TEF.

The proposal for the TEF is that it will be introduced in 2016/17. For this initial year it will be a threshold test to establish whether a provider satisfies quality standards or not, similar to the current QAA Higher Education Reviews, and providers will be allowed to increase fees in line with inflation from 2017.

From 2017/18, there will be a more detailed TEF layered on top of the 2016/17 TEF which will separate providers into 4 levels.

It is envisaged that the metrics used will evolve alongside the TEF and that eventually the TEF will become disciplinary rather than institutional, though there are no timescales proposed for this.

Many of the changes, including the introduction of TEF, will not need primary legislation. However, there are many aspects of the Green Paper, most importantly the dissolution of HEFCE and the incorporation of its functions into a new Office for Students, which will require primary legislation.

Proposals on TEF

"Eventually the TEF will become disciplinary with results aggregated to provide an institutional award."

The initial TEF introduced in 2016/17 will be at the institutional (rather than disciplinary) level and will be an assessment of threshold quality. Existing successful QAA reviews will be accepted as satisfying TEF requirements and successful providers will be allowed to increase fees in line with inflation for the student cohort arriving in 2017/18 with students’ fees fixed for the entire programme.

From 2017/18 three further levels of TEF will be layered on top of the threshold level to distinguish providers. Financial incentives for institutions will be aligned with these levels although the details of these incentives are not clear. Providers will voluntarily enter into assessment for these higher levels.

A 5 year frequency for the TEF is proposed, although the initial assessments in 2016/17 will only be effective for 3 years. Re-assessment can also be triggered by institutions who want a higher level award or by some significant change in status/ risk (e.g. change in ownership). It is envisaged that the system would be rolling, with a window for applications each year, rather than comprehensive and periodic as with the REF. This implies that some institutions will have assessments that are more recent than others. The costs of the TEF will be borne by the institutions.

The TEF assessment will be based on common quantitative metrics supplemented with a qualitative case. The metrics will initially be ones that are readily available such as the DLHE data (and matched HMRC data), HESA data on retentions and NSS. The qualitative case could involve a narrative about such things as the context of the institution and the types of students it admits, contributions to social mobility and incentives for excellent teaching. No visit to the institution is envisaged as part of the assessment but one could be “invited”.

It is envisaged that the metrics will be based around the broad themes of learning environment (e.g. incentives for teachers) and student outcomes. They will evolve as more reliable metrics become available and are tested in the future. The paper stresses that any metrics used need to be valid, robust, comprehensive, credible with the sector and current. There are a number of ongoing projects in the sector looking at, for example, learning gain, engagement with study and teaching “intensity”. All metrics used will be broken down, where possible, by disadvantaged groups.

Eventually the TEF will become disciplinary with results aggregated to provide an institutional award. The assessment will be by subject expert peer panel which may include academics, students and employers.

Proposals around social mobility

There is a clear steer in the Green Paper that the TEF will explicitly consider social mobility within its assessment. As noted previously, all metrics will be disaggregated by disadvantaged groups and qualitative cases would be expected to explain how institutions encourage success within these groups. The focus is more evenly on progression and success of these students and not just admission into higher education.

Other proposals in this section include “name blind” recruitment (to overcome perceived unconscious biases in the admissions processes of institutions), degree apprenticeships and sharia-compliant student finance.

Proposals for new/alternative providers

The Green Paper includes measures to encourage and ease the introduction of new providers into HE and measures to “level the playing field” between new and old providers.

There is an expedited process suggested for gaining degree-awarding powers (DAP) so that a new provider could attain DAP within 4 years and university status within 5-6 years (as opposed to 5 and 8 years respectively at present). The Paper also considers extending the validation system by which new providers currently offer degrees – specifically, the Office for Students is named as a body that could potentially validate degrees for new providers. In addition, the Paper talks about opening validation powers to other non-teaching bodies who have no incumbency interest. There are also plans to relax student number controls on new providers based on performance.

There are also proposals to ease the mechanisms by which institutions can change their governing articles which currently require approval from the Privy Council, a process which can create inflexibility for older institutions. There are also proposals to allow some institutions (Higher Education Corporations) to dissolve themselves in order to exit from the industry (currently this power rests with the Secretary of State). A part of the Green Paper discusses mandating the existence of contingency provisions for students who may be affected by closure of an institution.

It is also suggested that universities may be exempted from the Public Body requirement around FOI requests (a requirement which does not apply to new providers).

Proposals on HE architecture, research and funding

It is proposed that HEFCE’s, OFFA’s and the QAA’s functions are incorporated under a new “arms-length” Office for Students which will be subscription-funded by institutions. The new Office will have responsibility for funding matters related to teaching whereas research funding will now be divorced and taken into the control of the research councils (and Research UK). The paper reiterates the Haldane Principle in decisions on research funding and the desire to continue the dual-funding model (QR and grants) but it is not clear whether QR funding and REF will pass to Research UK.

Though the Office for Students will not have formal powers over research funding, it will have overall regulatory power over universities not just with regard to teaching and learning functions. For example, it will have overall responsibility over the financial sustainability, management and governance of institutions. It is envisaged that the SLC will continue to fund students through loans.

Much more on this topic is available via WonkHE's list of responses to the Green Paper.

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