Government announces university reforms

Sam Harrison 16 May 2016

Universities Minister Jo Johnson has announced a series of reforms to British universities which will allow high-performing universities to increase their tuition fees, make it easier to open new universities, and compel universities to publish specific details regarding their courses.

The proposals, laid out in a white paper entitled 'Success as a Knowledge Economy', originated in a consultation in November on a growing number of so-called ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’, which contribute little to their students’ employment prospects while costing the same amount as any other degree. The government says that their aim is to reduce the shortfall in skills currently afflicting areas of industry.

Universities which attain sufficiently high standards, measured by a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), will be permitted to raise their tuition fees in line with annual inflation from autumn 2017. The decision comes shortly after a study found that the average UK student faces £44,000 of debt, much higher than New Zealand (£23,300), Australia (£20,900), Canada (£15,000), and even the USA (£29,000 at a for-profit university, £20,500 at a non-profit). Sorana Vieru, NUS vice-president for higher education, predicted that students will be “outraged” by the new increases.

Under the proposals, a new watchdog, which will be called the Office of Students, will be created. Universities will also be obliged to release statistics detailing the number of contact hours afforded to each course, the family income, gender, and ethnicity of their students, and the occupations and earnings received by their graduates, in what the government has hailed as a “transparency revolution”. UCAS Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook welcomed these measures and added that “Transparency about access should mean that all applicants can be sure that they will be treated fairly in the admissions process, regardless of their ethnic or social background.”

‘Challenger institutions’ or ‘alternative providers’, private colleges which cannot award degrees and do not receive public funding, will be granted the right to award degrees provided they attain a certain standard of teaching. Vieru criticised this decision, warning that these institutions “might not have the proper support in place for students” and “could be short-lived”, to the detriment of students who “could end up in institutions that end up folding because they are a business enterprise – an experiment.” The Labour Party has also raised objections, asking, “Who would pick up the pieces if it all went wrong?” However, Martin Doel, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, defended the plans, arguing that they “mean more opportunities for people to access the most suitable and best value higher education courses.”