The Higher Education and Research Act, brought in to realise the government’s ambitions of a diverse and competitive higher education sector, will impact on choices for students. Will these changes give students the education they need to ensure the UK - in the words of Jo Johnson - succeeds as a knowledge economy?

Today in Parliament, think tank Policy Connect and the Higher Education Commission present the findings of their fifth inquiry; an examination of alternative provision in HE.

The report from Policy Connect, titled One Size Won’t Fit All: the Challenges Facing the Office for Students, calls on the newly-founded Office for Students to recognise that the funding structures in higher education are fundamentally flawed. They force alternative providers to move towards standard campus-based, three year degrees. Therefore, not providing better student choice or flexible courses. These factors reduce diversity in options for study and therefore limit opportunity for social mobility for those who most need flexible higher education.

Lord NortonKeynote speaker at today’s launch, Conservative Peer Lord Norton, said: “Over the process of this inquiry the Commission heard from many providers delivering innovative and alternative models of higher education. With increasing global competition in the sector and changing social and business trends the question of how higher education is delivered will only become more poignant. The Government’s decision to task the OfS to promote choice for students and value for money showed great foresight in this regard but promoting innovation and balancing risk against the public interest will require careful handling.”

Paul Feldman, CEO of Jisc, the edtech provider to education and research, and member of the Commission noted: "There is an amazing vibrancy and diversity in UK higher education. This report highlights that there is more that can be done to make sure all students have access to learn anywhere, anytime and in a way that suits them. The Higher Education and Research Act also provides an opportunity for high quality alternatives to the traditional degree to prosper.

“While I expect the typical three year university experience will continue to dominate, students should have confidence that they can use reputable alternative provision if it’s the best way to meet their career choices, whether they are training to be an engineer, lawyer, musician, artist, cook or football management professional."

Stephen Wright, Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, the trade association for professional and technical awarding organisations, said “The Federation of Awarding Bodies is delighted to see the Higher Education Commission call for Government to review its funding practices in light of social mobility, the industrial strategy and widening access. With these recommendations, the Office for Students can provide a resilient higher education structure to ensure HEIs offer flexible provision for an agile economy. It is important for the government to ensure that students are able to access the variety of courses they need to further themselves. Many students are now moving into higher education through further education and technical courses – they will therefore need a different kind of course in order to succeed based on their skills.”

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Jon Wakeford, Director of Strategy at UPP and member of the HE Commission said: “In order to thrive, the HE sector must boost ways of learning to help respond to the different needs of students. Everyone with the potential and ambition to participate in HE should have the ability to do so, as well as benefit from the social capital and skills development integral to helping them become employable.

“We’re pleased to support the report’s call for diversity in HE so that students from all backgrounds can excel and engage in both meaningful education and employment.”

Policy Connect’s Chief Executive, Jonathan Shaw, said that the Commission’s findings highlighted the great potential laid out before the Office for Students: “The new regulator should examine funding and evaluation structures in HE to ensure that potential students have the opportunity to study as they need - this is especially important for those wanting to study specialist subjects or in a flexible way due to their circumstances - so that the British economy can benefit from a highly educated, diverse workforce contributing to the economy.”

Joy Carter 100x100Chairs’ Foreword by Inquiry Co-Chairs Professor Joy Carter, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winchester and the Rt Hon. Lord Norton of Louth, Chair of the Higher Education Commission:

Higher education in England is coming under intense scrutiny. There is much pride in the diversity of English higher education; pride which the Higher Education Commission believes is fully justified. Our higher education sector is world class and the diversity of the sector contributes to the health and wealth of our nation. This report considers how the greatest public benefit for students and the economy can be ensured through diversity of provision and high-quality choice for students.

This inquiry was initiated to help understand the implications for higher education of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. As the Act will transform the regulatory architecture of higher education in England and as we move into a new regulatory landscape and policy climate, the Higher Education Commission believes it is important to take stock of the breadth of the sector’s offer to students.

The Commission particularly wished to examine higher education taking place outside of the traditional on-campus, three-year undergraduate degree, to examine alternative models of provision, wherever they are found. Given the role higher education plays in driving social mobility and preparing the future workforce, the Commission believed that it was important to examine the non-standard ways that students can and are participating in higher education.

Using the Universities Minister, Rt Hon. Jo Johnson’s words, if we want to succeed as a knowledge economy it is vital that the sector, the new regulator, and policymakers, take active steps to protect and support the diversity of provision offered to students.

The Commission believes that the changes in the funding regime and subsequent policy decisions present serious risks to the diversity of our world class higher education system. The report sets out strategic challenges that will be faced by the new regulator, the Office for Students:

1. The Commission thinks that the sector can do more to deliver the industrial strategy

Throughout this inquiry, the Commission heard from providers that offer highly personalised and industry-orientated courses; however their offerings tended to be small and niche, with witnesses often claiming that they do not wish to scale up such provision. The Commission is concerned about the long term sustainability of this approach, particularly in delivering the Government’s Industrial Strategy. In line with this, the Commission believes that universities need to work more flexibly with small and medium-sized enterprises in their provision of sandwich degrees and degree apprenticeships.

2. The Commission is concerned about the potential for higher education to act as an engine for social mobility

Through our discussions with providers offering flexible provision, the Commission heard about the use of retention as the only valid marker for success, particularly as a key metric in the Teaching Excellence Framework. For provision seeking to widen participation, this can be misleading and could lead to discouraging institutions from taking ‘risky’ students. In addition, further education colleges have played an important role in widening participation. Given the impact the lifting of the student number controls has had on higher education in further education college provision, the Commission is very worried about the negative impact of tuition fee increases on higher education delivered in further education provision, not least in relation to opening up the sector to part-time and mature students.

3. The Commission strongly believes that the funding regime poses a serious challenge to the diversity of the sector   Higher delivery costs are associated with intensive teaching and innovation, particularly in the provision of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and part-time and accelerated study. Without changes to the funding model, the Government cannot expect diverse provision to flourish in the sector.

To ensure the higher education sector’s continued success, the Commission strongly believes that the Office for Students must give greater attention to the provision of the non-standard offer wherever it is found.

About Policy Connect: The go-to cross-party think tank, successfully delivering new policy ideas through research, evidence, political meetings and sector engagement. With no set ideology, we recommend the best approach from facts and data, and help influence policy decisions and law- making. We find the common ground and build consensus to improve public policy. We do this by running forums, commissions and All-Party Parliamentary Groups. We have overseen the research and delivery of more than 50 key publications.

About Jisc: The UK higher, further education and skills sectors’ not-for-profit organisation for digital services and solutions. We:

  • Operate shared digital infrastructure and services
  • Negotiate sector-wide deals with IT vendors and commercial publishers, and
  • Provide trusted advice and practical assistance for universities, colleges and learning providers.

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