Willetts wants the private HE sector

David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, has just given a speech to the Universities UK Spring Conference. (UUK claims to be the representative organisation for universities in the UK.) It seems that this is as much clarity as we’ll get in the short term on the direction of HE policy, since he announced:

[W]e have decided to take more time on developing the White Paper – in part to test proposals more thoroughly among the sector, students and other experts; in part to learn from how price setting works this Spring.

I’ve not time to analyse it in depth, and there’s some real detail in the first part of the speech that will have some substantial implications.

There’s some substantial stuff in the long-term vision too.

There’s very clear and unequivocal setting out of an increased role for new providers of HE – what I’ve been calling the coming of the private HE sector). It is increasingly clear, if anyone ever seriously doubted it, that this Government is committed to having an increased role for new providers of higher education, and is doing whatever it can to make it happen.

The shift in funding from teaching grant to fees is explicitly intended to make this easier – and:

We will also allow alternative providers to access the generous system of student loans and grants, so their students will also be able to benefit from not having to pay upfront fees.

I look forward to new liberal arts colleges or specialist institutions. And the global higher education providers that operate in many countries from India to Spain to the USA need to know that we will be removing the barriers that stop them operating as universities here as part of our system – provided, of course, that they meet high standards which are a key feature of our higher education system.

There’s also a commitment to disaggregate accreditation/degree-awarding powers and teaching:

Another barrier to open access and contestability is the automatic link between degree awarding powers and teaching. Over the past 50 years, we have created a regulatory system which says that teaching students and awarding degrees must be done by the same institution. And that is certainly one way of doing it, as represented by the institutions in this room. But it is not the only way. Quality standards have to focus on quality alone. They must not protect one way of delivering higher education at the expense of others.

The OER world has long predicted this sort of change. You could describe this as an institution-driven pressure from outside the sector. There’s been some grassroots/bottom-up action here too, with teaching-and-learning activities decoupled from accreditation – think of MOOCs, P2PU, and so on. And now we have a Government producing top-down pressure. Institutions in the middle may well find themselves somewhat squeezed.

I certainly don’t agree with David Willetts on many things (or indeed most), but you can’t reasonably accuse him of not being on top of his brief and the history of the sector. He draws parallels with the HE system from 1850-1950, when the University of London awarded degrees for a wide range of teaching institutions. He also mentioned Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, which is an extraordinary bit of C19th melancholia to reference in a speech setting out plans for the future – ‘eternal note of sadness’ and ‘the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery’ leap out, as does the conclusion:

[…] for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Admittedly he was raising it in order to deny it, saying that Universities are not being left alone in this way. But I know many in the UK HE sector – and indeed many others in Britain – are feeling very much that way, and I’m mildly surprised that Her Britannic Majesty’s Minister of State for Universities and Science chose to cite this at this moment in time.


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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

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