Why the Higher Education Bill must be defeated

Tuesday 19-07-2016 - 12:47

The Higher Education and Research Bill - which is receiving its second reading in parliament today - has one main objective: to turn higher education into a for-profit business.

The HE Bill, based on the White Paper ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy’, will change the face of the sector as we know it, and not for the better.

Our government wants to open up the ‘market’ in higher education institutions to private companies, and to create one regulatory structure to oversee all colleges and universities, the Office for Students (OfS).

There is an explicit focus on making access to the higher education market easier for private companies by getting rid of many of the current rules and regulations. While Russell Group universities will continue to provide elite education, private providers will aim to profit from disadvantaged students pushed into shorter, technical courses.

The HE Bill also anticipates that those institutions that fail will need to ‘exit’ the market - i.e. close down, jeopardising jobs and student education.

The HE Bill claims to put students at the centre of its policies, but in practice it will result in higher fees, less resources, and less security for students. It claims to empower students through providing greater choice, but reduces student involvement to ‘student satisfaction’ surveys and simple numerical scores. Worryingly, high student satisfaction can be used as a rationale to raise tuition fees!

A key mechanism through which this new market regime will be implemented is Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). TEF is allegedly designed to improve teaching quality. Its actual purpose is to provide the government with data that will allow it to financially discipline institutions that fail to ‘perform’ according to very limited criteria.

TEF scores will in part be determined by employment data for students. This is not the product of teaching quality but of social inequality and the government’s austerity policy. Universities with high proportions of students from liberation or working class backgrounds, who are discriminated against in the job market, are therefore likely to receive worse scores on the TEF and face being penalised.

Student feedback via the NSS will also be used to regulate the new system and decide who gets to charge higher fees and who doesn’t. It will not improve teaching, but only punish already under-resourced institutions or increase fees (and student debt) in universities that achieve a high score.

It will trap students and staff in a lose-lose situation; either your university does well and it gets to raise fees or it does badly, receives less funding and risks being closed.

The White Paper claims that the new OfS and the TEF will allow government regulation of universities to widen participation and make sure that students from liberation and disadvantaged backgrounds gain access to high-quality university teaching. But the increase in tuition fees has already made university education less accessible for Black, disabled, women, LGBT+ and working class students.

Some of the universities with the highest numbers of Black students in the UK (London Metropolitan University has more than all the Russell Group institutions put together) have been hardest hit by the government’s austerity policies.

This will only be made worse by implementing the policies of the HE Bill. So far, all the universities which have been pushed towards so-called ‘market exit’ have been universities with high intakes of international students, leaving them facing deportation and no degree.

The OfS is the single regulatory body designed to oversee the TEF and the regulation of fee levels and degree-awarding powers. The OfS’ three guiding principles are ‘competition’, ‘choice’, and ‘student interest.’

But we have to ask: how is it in the student interest to allow universities to continue to raise fees, when we know that 70 per cent of current students will not be able fully to repay their debts? In what ways does crowding higher education with predatory private providers, under less scrutiny, count as better choice? Why is competition positive when massive corporations can undercut universities that have been around for decades, forcing them to shut, with dire consequences on their graduates, lecturers and staff - let alone local communities?

Defeating the HE Bill, making its metrics unworkable and refusing to be part of the very process that aims to sell off our HE sector to the highest bidder while staff and students pay the price need to be key priorities for all those who are involved in - or care about - higher education.

In unity,

Malia Bouattia
NUS President



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