HE white paper: pig in lipstick or positive reform?
Briefing: how universtities will have to up their game to attract students
The release of David Willett's long-awaited higher education white paper sets out details of the universtities minister's plan for the biggest shake up of the system in decades.
The underlying principle of the reforms is to create a market economy in higher education while simultaneously putting "students at the heart of the system". The plans have already been compared to "putting lipstick on a pig" by one student union president, but what do they involve?
CHANGING STUDENT QUOTAS TO INCREASE COMPETITIONThere are currently a fixed number of government-funded university places available for English students, and they are distributed more-or-less equally between universities. But under the new plans, universities can offer as many places as they want to students who get AAB or better at A-Level.
The idea is to encourage competition between universities as they try and attract the brightest students. That should improve teaching standards and allow more prospective students to get into their first choice of university.
Elsewhere, thousands of places will be reserved for universities charging £7,500 or less, they will be awarded to the institution that offer the best courses and value for money.
GIVING THE STUDENT CUSTOMER RIGHTSUniversities will be compelled to publish data covering 16 areas, including teaching hours, employment rates and graduate salaries relating to each course.
Students will be asked to give appraisals of their lectures and seminars, the results of which will be expected to be published online by the university.
When students believe that teaching is below standard, they will be able to complain and trigger an inspection by the admissions watchdog, the Office of Fair Access (Offa). Offa in turn will be strengthened to deal with its greater responsibilities.
ALLOWING PRIVATE-SECTOR ACCESS TO THE MARKEtFor the first time, other institutions - such as local higher education colleges and even private providers - will be given access to government-funded places. This should diversify the places students can apply for and increase competition.
Degree-giving powers will be "de-coupled" from teaching, and that will mean universities can offer degrees awarded by other bodies, and vice versa. The idea is similar to the exam board system at secondary schools.
More university places could be created that are privately funded by either employers or charities, as long as there is fair access for all.
WHAT ELSE DOES IT SAY?Students may be able to pay off their student loans earlier if they can afford it. This is a controversial suggestion, however, as richer students would get away with paying less than those who repay over several decades.
University places may also be offered on actual A-level grades achieved, rather than predictions.
HOW HAVE PEOPLE REACTED?Shadow universities minister Gareth Thomas called the paper "a desperate drive to cut fees no matter what the effect on quality" and said the plans could engender a "race to the bottom".
Dr Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, agreed with the quota changes, but warned that middle-range universities that provide excellent courses in less popular subjects, such as science and languages, could be forced to close them as they lose out on students.
But the Daily Telegraph firmly backed the proposals, arguing in an editorial that "these reforms should inject genuine competition into the system that will benefit students, weed out the weakest colleges and keep the best performers on their toes". ·
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