HE White Paper – NIACE response

1st July 2011

NIACE welcomes plans in the government’s new higher education White Paper to give students more powers and reduce the cost of higher education, but remains concerned about the impact the reforms will have on adults’ demand for places and on the quality and breadth of the higher learning experience. Paul Stanistreet, NIACE’s lead on HE comments:

The White Paper published on Tuesday 28 June, Students at the Heart of the System, aims to introduce greater competition into the higher education sector, giving private providers and further education colleges an enhanced role, lifting the cap on the recruitment of students with grades AAB or higher and opening up a proportion of student places to competitive bidding from institutions charging fees below a threshold of £7,500.

Competition is welcome, provided it enhances the quality of courses and helps raise teaching standards. For this reason, we welcome the decision to empower further education colleges to compete with traditional higher institutions. Most FE colleges teaching HE will charge £6,000 or less and are therefore likely to be the main beneficiaries of the ‘flexible margin’ of 20,000 extra student places.

Colleges offer high-quality teaching, and flexible and innovative models of delivery, at a reduced cost. It’s critical that further education colleges have the opportunity to compete and this can only be good for the quality and flexibility of teaching and for the student experience in the sector as a whole.

The emphasis on teaching quality is a positive step, as is the move to give students more rights and information about courses and their benefits – in areas such as academic contact hours and employment prospects – and providers, therefore, more reason to listen to them. We also welcome the government’s undertaking to subject private providers to the same regulation as other ‘public’ providers. These are all good things to see.

However, there are clear risks involved in switching a large part of the burden of funding teaching from general taxation towards the individual beneficiaries, and in opening up the sector to private providers. Our concern is that this could have the unintended consequence of narrowing the curriculum offer and reducing opportunities to study certain subjects, particularly in the arts, humanities or social sciences.

NIACE shares HEFCE’s concerns – expressed in advice to David Willetts – that private providers could potentially cherry pick profitable courses, ignoring less profitable or higher-cost provision, which traditional institutions have offered as part of a broad, inclusive curriculum.

The government’s decision to give part-time students – who are predominantly older adults – access to loans on the same basis as full-timers was a significant step forward but, given the increased cost of higher education and the loss of public subsidy in some curriculum areas, there must be a big question mark over whether the reforms will trigger the intended upsurge in adults taking up tuition fee loans.

NIACE has argued for some time for the need for a ‘single learning ecology’ for adults. Today’s announcement once more underlines the need to think about higher education – and widening access, in particular – in the context of a complex set of factors that includes cuts to access courses and the impact of the introduction of government-backed loans for learners over the age of 24 undertaking qualifications at Level 3. We need a better understanding of how actions in one part of this ecology can have unconsidered knock-on effects on other parts.

There is a real danger that the government’s reforms, taken together, will have the unintended consequence that fewer adults, from a narrower range of backgrounds, will be able to afford, or have the desire, to study for higher-level qualifications. A reduction in the costs of study would be welcome but it is critical that any reduction in costs does not prove expensive in terms of the quality and breadth of the learning experience.

The government will need to ensure increased competition does not have a negative impact on access for part-time and adult students. NIACE has consistently argued that an ageing society requires flexibility and choice of opportunity to support adults in improving their skills. As Lord Browne argued in his review of higher education funding, economic growth will rely on people already in the workforce retraining and preparing themselves to work in new industries by studying part-time.

NIACE held a policy seminar on the implications for adult learners resulting from the publication of this HE White paper on 7 September in conjunction with UALL and SCUTREA.