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Higher education: The battle ahead

Friday 26-08-2016 - 17:18

The government is pressing ahead with its misguided HE reforms. We will continue to fight for students’ rights.

As the dust settles on the disastrous Cameron era and Theresa May begins to try and shape the country in her own image, the government’s plans for higher education continue.

The HE Bill takes forward the proposals laid out in the white paper, and is set to be considered by a committee of MPs from September.

It presents a string of justifications for raising tuition fees above £9,000 for home undergraduates, and it exposes the HE sector to increased marketization by allowing unproven private providers to profit from ever more expensive education. These dramatic changes are detrimental to students.

The proposed Teaching Excellence Framework, purportedly intended to improve academic standards, is deeply flawed.

The TEF metrics, which include results from the National Student Survey and data on graduate job prospects, are unreliable and are contingent on all kinds of unrelated factors. It will not be a reliable indicator of teaching quality and should not be used to justify differentiated and higher tuition fees. We will continue to build an alternative vision for teaching excellence that is based on partnership rather than enforced competition.

The student movement has opposed these changes from the outset, and we have already secured some important successes:

  • Students' unions provided one in eight responses to the green paper consultation, and they received a huge amount of support from the sector following government questions over their accountability and transparency;
  • Abandoning plans to exempt universities from the Freedom of Information Act;
  • A delay on the introduction of differentiated fees until at least 2019;
  • Changes to the TEF to include focus on contextualisation and disadvantaged students.

Our role in the process was demonstrated by the impact that we had during the parliamentary debate on the second reading of the bill - we were consistently cited throughout, and our policy recommendations were adopted by a number of MPs. Furthermore, one in ten responses to the TEF technical consultation were from students' unions.

The bill was narrowly passed by the House of Commons in July, but this doesn’t mean that the measures will automatically be implemented in their current form. Plenty of changes can be introduced that will have demonstrable effects on students’ lives, and our range of campaigning is still in action.

We have written a number of amendments relating to our priorities around the bill, and are engaging with MPs and the HE Bill Committee to get them incorporated. We will also be attending party conferences this autumn and providing further support to those unions with a local MP on the committee. Your support in getting this high on every MP's agenda is needed so do get involved - if we can help in preparing for meeting or contacting your MP, please get in touch!

A national demonstration on 19 November – United for Education – will be the focal point for our campaigning journey over the next few months. We need students’ unions up and down the country to mobilise their students and make it impossible for our national voice to be ignored.

We aren't simply a protest movement, but a movement with a vision of education as a public good. At the Zones Conference in October we will be developing an 'Alternative Framework for Teaching Quality' (sexy title tbc) with our vision for improving the quality of teaching and learning to push alongside Quality Doesn't Grow on Fees campaigning. As I've said, NUS has written a better TEF.

The use of NSS data within the TEF also gives us leverage and bargaining power right now. Targeted action could prove the system unworkable, and force a reconsideration of its use in setting differential tuition fees. We can support students’ unions in lobbying vice chancellors to take an active stance on TEF, and you can add your name to the 59 SU signatories on the open letter opposing it.

Keep an eye on our Quality Doesn’t Grow on Fees campaign as we develop a groundswell of opposition to the plans - we have a range of campaign materials available (including in Welsh!) to help you talk to your students and institutions about these damaging reforms.

We need students and students’ unions around the country to continue the fight for a free, fair and accessible higher education system. Let’s get to work.

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