UEA confident about its future as government plans big changes to higher education

The government is planning to reform higher education.

The government is planning to reform higher education. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

New, smaller universities challenging their more established competitors; a brighter spotlight on how successful universities are at teaching their students; tuition fees rising for the first time in years.

The government's plans include a greater emphasis on the quality of teaching.

The government's plans include a greater emphasis on the quality of teaching. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The government's plans for higher education, as outlined in last month's White Paper 'Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice', are nothing if not radical.

For Professor Neil Ward, pro-vice-chancellor (academic) at the University of East Anglia, they have three or four main themes: introducing more competition into the sector, giving students more information about quality of teaching, the creation of a single regulator for the sector – the Office for Students, and plans to bring together the seven current research councils into one body – UK Research and Innovation.

For the government, higher education in the UK enjoys a world-class reputation, but, following fundamental changes to the landscape since the last big overhaul in 1992, it 'needs important reform to fulfil its potential and to sustain our global standing'.

A key tool the government seeks to use is competition between providers, which it says 'incentivises them to raise their game, offering consumers a greater choice of more innovative and better quality products and services at lower cost'.

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One of the most eye catching proposals is to make it quicker and easier for new 'challenger institutions' to enter the market and award their own degrees. Many will be small, private institutions, specialising in specific areas.

Prof Ward said he had not heard of any proposals for new universities like this in our region, and thought they were more likely to appear in bigger, urban centres.

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The White Paper also seeks to put more focus on students: after all, they are the consumers whose choices about where to study will fuel the competition ministers hope will drive up standards.

At the moment, there is a strong emphasis on research carried out by universities, measured by the Research Excellence Framework. The White Paper proposes a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which would 'provide clear, understandable information to students about where teaching quality is outstanding'.

Universities that score highly will be allowed to increase tuition fees in line with inflation.

Prof Ward said that, in the current low-inflation climate, the ability to raise tuition fees in this way was 'not a significant material financial issue in the immediate short term. More significant is the grading for teaching for the reputation of the institution. The reputational advantage for recruiting students will be more significant than raising fees by the level of inflation'.

The UEA already has traditionally performed very strongly in national surveys of student satisfaction, and Prof Ward said: 'We are looking forward to the TEF because we think it will provide a national framework in which we will do well.

'We do well for research as well, but we have always had strength in teaching and the student experience, but that has not been as well documented and recognised on an official basis. We think that classifying universities on quality of teaching will be to our advantage.'

The White Paper also highlights the fact that students from the most advantaged backgrounds are currently 6.3 times more likely to go to top performing universities than those from the least advantaged backgrounds.

Universities will now have to publish data on the backgrounds of their applicants, with the government hoping this will 'help make transparent individual institutions' admissions records and spur action by institutions in areas where it is needed'.

It is something Prof Ward said gives the UEA no cause to worry.

He said: 'From the UEA's point of view, when you look at the quality of our student intake, we perform very well on widening participation.

'UEA is not part of the problem of social exclusivity, and lack of access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I think that's because of the outreach work we do.

'We are not worried at all about reporting it. I think other universities will have more of a challenge there.'

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