Monday 30-11-2015 - 11:04
A couple of weeks ago, the UK Government released their Higher Education Green Paper. This won't be news to you by now - you'll have seen the news stories, the horrified reactions on Twitter, read the reams of worried analysis from NUS UK and the university sector, and maybe even slogged through the whole 105 page document of recommendations. You'll have seen the proposals on higher tuition fees, competition-driven funding and market mechanisms for 'teaching excellence' at universities in England, and, if you're anything like me, have been glad to be part of a (hopefully!) separate, and distinct, system in Scotland!
Figuring out exactly what sort of impact this will all have in Scotland is a bit tricky. Because education is fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament, changes to the rUK sector don't have immediately obvious effects on Scottish universities, but that masks much deeper worries and unseen fears.
As we saw with the introduction of the National Student Survey, and later the rise in tuition fees to £9000 a year, changes to the system down south have huge knock-on effects for Scottish institutions. Ultimately, Scottish Universities themselves will have to decide how to react to the conditions in the sector - but it's up to the Scottish Government, funding bodies and sector agencies to provide our institutions with positive options and a strong vision for HE this side of the border. We have to be clear about what we value in Scottish HE, and how NUS Scotland and students' associations can work with the sector to defend those values against the marketisation agenda exemplified in the HE Green Paper.
NUS Scotland has long held concerns about the continued, and increasing, concentration of research funding, benefitting only a handful of (supposedly ‘elite’) institutions. Ultimately, improving parity between teaching and research is an important and welcome goal. However, the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework does nothing to actually address that imbalance, and is simply a tool to raise fees and hasten the development of a market in education. The proposed Teaching Excellence Framework - using blunt metrics to link a twisted notion of 'excellence' with ever-higher tuition fees - is but the most worrying example of the UK Government's desire to push marketisation on the HE sector.
NUS Scotland is concerned that the introduction of TEF will lead to higher fees in England, triggering a race to the top for RUK fees in Scotland. RUK students studying in Scotland already face higher fees, paying up to £9,000 a year over four years rather than the three years they’d be studying for elsewhere in the UK.
Combined with lowering the bar for 'alternative' (including for-profit) providers to enter the sector while allowing existing universities to fail, and exempting universities from the Freedom of Information Act, it smacks of a Government extinguishing the public good in our public universities.
But the UK Government's proposals are more than the sum of these parts. The HE Green Paper sets out a vision of education that doesn’t resonate north of the border, flying in the face of everything the Scottish education system celebrates. The Scottish system is on a positive trajectory: rejecting the marketisation of education we’ve seen elsewhere; achieving near unanimous cross-party consensus against re-introducing tuition fees; and embedding partnership between students and staff into governance and teaching practice.
We have a comprehensive vision for excellent HE in Scotland - due in no small part to the work of Students' Associations and NUS Scotland positioning students as powerful experts in their own learning. This year we have been working with sparqs and student officers across Scotland to strengthen our vision of excellent learning, reinforcing the evidence base for an enhancement-led approach.
To be perfectly honest, it’s disappointing that Scottish universities haven’t so far come out more strongly in defence of the distinct and strong approach to quality we have in Scotland, and they—in fairness—have done much to secure, in partnerships with sector bodies and students. And those same sector bodies, held in high esteem by all in our sector, now stand at very real risk from the potential scrapping of their English counterparts.
Our universities shouldn’t hide behind weak excuses of international comparison or—far worse—marketing. It would be far more damaging if Scottish universities went along with an inappropriate framework simply as a means to see ever increasing fees for RUK or international students.
Instead, we hope that the Scottish Government, Scottish universities, and the wider sector, will join us in rejecting the premise of the Green Paper and what it stands for. Now’s the time we all need to stand up for the distinct approach we’ve taken, and the even more distinctive approach that lies ahead of us, as a result of these damaging reforms in England.
The Scottish higher education system is world-leading, let’s keep it that way.