Guest Post: Another fine mess in Higher Education

Roy Blatchford revives his proposals from 1993 and calls for action from the Office for Students.

 

Just fifteen months ago, at the start of last academic year, I urged the Higher Education sector to put its house in order before others intervened. I wrote as follows in this column.

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I recall working with Lord Dearing on his landmark 1997 report ‘Higher Education in a Learning Society’. Such was the esteem in which he personally was held that the introduction of the annual £1,000 fee went through almost on the political nod. And raising it to £3,000 a few years later seemed a matter of pragmatism if targets to open up Higher Education to a much wider group of eighteen year-olds were to be achieved.

Twenty short years on from Dearing, what has gone wrong, to the point where opprobrium from all quarters is being poured upon the university sector?  

First, the major hike in undergraduate fees to £9,000 per annum has rightly drawn a sharp focus on value for money. Whilst those studying sciences enjoy acceptable contact hours with tutors and in laboratories, many arts and humanities students have documented that they meet a tutor all too infrequently and sit in overcrowded lectures.

Second, the value-for-money focus has also shone a light on some highly variable teaching. By any measure, teaching quality in schools has been transformed over the past decade. Students moving from accomplished A level teaching into university seminars of mixed quality have not been slow to make comparisons.   

Third, the pastoral care systems of a number of top universities have been shown to be wanting, with respect to both home and international students. In particular, clumsy press handling of a few high profile suicides has drawn stinging criticism from student unions.

Fourth, the new Teaching Excellence Framework, whilst flawed, has been treated in a cavalier spirit by certain universities resting on historic reputations. Their irritated response to being awarded a bronzerather than the presumed goldhas served only to reinforce students’ views that complacency characterises too many universities.

Fifth, the unacceptable gap between many academic staff’s salaries and those of the senior management has not surprisingly raised uncomfortable questions, including about poor governance.

Sixth, and potentially theissue poised to cause genuine havoc across the UK HE sector, are the intolerable behaviours of the government-owned Student Loan Company and the legislation which has allowed inexorable rises in interest rates on loans.

An unfortunate cocktail has emerged: students (and their parents) to whom I have spoken recently perceive that they are receiving a higher education experience that is mixed in quality, overpriced and led by complacent, overpaid vice-chancellors.

In the pause of August and as the new academic year beckons, there is an urgent need for university and political leaders to turn their gaze towards resolving all of the above. Their time is short.

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Sadly, Higher Education leaders have done little over the past year to rectify matters. Inward-looking complacency permeates. Recent reports of university bailouts are another manifestation of the sector’s deep malaise.

 And now we have the unthinking behaviour of an increasing number of universities in their widespread unconditional offers to students. Just listen (ASCL podcasts, October 2018) to headteacher Sarah Balaam from North Yorkshire. She speaks candidly about the damaging effect that such uncontrolled market behaviour had last year on the examination performance and motivation of some of her sixth formers.

 As a headteacher in 1993 I wrote in the education press about the messiness of UCAS clearing. I proposed then that there should be a radical change in university admissions procedures: namely, students should apply to university with substantive grades, entering university the year after they have taken A levels, bridging the gap months with community service or learning a new language abroad. The flawed process of predicted grades would disappear at a stroke.

I ask now the Office for Students and its distinguished Chair Sir Michael Barber to revive my proposal. And, in the meantime, to introduce a Code of Conduct for universities which prevents this unscrupulous hunt for students.

Urgent action is required to prevent apparently out-of-control elements in Higher Education not only further tarnishing the reputation of the sector, home and abroad, but damaging the very integrity of A levels.

Self-regulation in the sector has used up its last chance. Considered and effective action from the regulator, Sir Michael, is imperative.

Roy Blatchford CBE is the author of ‘The Restless School’ and ‘Success Is A Journey’, available from the John Catt bookshop. He is a former HMI and founder of www.blinks.education

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