Students and staff speak out as the Lords prepare to challenge Jo Johnson over his Higher Education and Research Bill
Universities return to teaching this week, but lecturers, students and researchers face an uncertain future. The Government is pushing ahead with its Higher Education and Research Bill, currently in the House of Lords. A cross-bench alliance of Lords are organising a major revolt over the bill.
What is going on? Why does this matter?
Professor John Holmwood, a sociologist at the University of Nottingham who set up the Campaign for the Public University and is a founding member of the Convention for Higher Education, explained:
“The HE Bill is a deliberate attempt to remove all the checks and balances that protect university teaching standards – and thus the quality of student degrees – in the Higher Education sector.
“A student at a UK university knows that their degree programme is being carried out at a university that is strictly quality-controlled by subject experts among staff and by the Government, through their Quality Assurance Agency, the Higher Education Funding councils, and other bodies. When they graduate, their degree will be worth something.
“But if the Bill goes through unamended, this strict regulation will be scrapped, and we are likely to see quality of degrees in the UK go down. We know of the risks from the US and Australia, countries which have gone down this path before us. We don’t need a Trump University or a Corinthian Colleges [New Yorker report] scandal in the UK. With every such scandal, students suffer and proper universities are immensely damaged.”
In the autumn, across the UK, academics and students piled in to large meetings on university campuses, from Bristol to Liverpool and Oxford. Campaigners from the HE Convention and the University Colleges Union (UCU) and the National Union of Students (NUS) have organised meetings in Parliament as well as Stormont and the Scottish Parliament. Although this is an ‘English’ Bill, the joined-up nature of higher education in the UK means that it will inevitably affect the devolved nations.
Students and staff point out that the Bill has other negative consequences, many of which are also being challenged in the House of Lords.
The Government is not getting rid of university regulation entirely: they are scrapping the old system of accreditation and creating a new unproven scheme, called the Teaching Excellence Framework (‘TEF’), and a new quango, the ‘Office for Students‘. Sean Wallis, a computational linguist at University College London, a co-founder of the HE Convention and a National Executive member of the UCU, commented:
“In education, we assess course quality in terms of the academic standard the student is expected to reach, and the level of support the student should expect to receive in order to get there. But the Teaching Excellence Framework replaces this commonsense notion of quality with a student satisfaction survey (the National Student Survey, NSS), student retention statistics, and graduate earnings data.
“These measures are nothing to do with education quality. Indeed, the easiest way to make students ‘satisfied’ is to promise them a first class degree!
“Using graduate earnings as a ‘proxy for quality’ punishes universities for offering places to poorer students, who are less likely to get well-paid graduate jobs than well-connected, wealthier students. Professional scientists are less well paid than lawyers and accountants. Is a physics degree of ‘lower quality’ than a law degree? This is an absurd, socially regressive attack on young people – as well as on the universities.”
Universities who have agreed to participate in the TEF next year have carried out ‘dummy runs’ using the TEF data. Some top-flight UK universities with rigorous courses and high levels of support have found themselves with ‘bronze’ (third class) status. Measuring the wrong thing is not a mere inconvenience – university managements will try to increase their scores at the expense of the quality and reputation of UK universities in the process.
One of the pillars of the TEF is the National Student Survey, which is completed by final year undergraduates from the start of the year. The National Union of Students is calling on students to boycott the NSS in protest at the TEF, and the fact that the Government wants to link it to the right of universities to increase tuition fees in the future. The NUS action is feeding into a growing sense of anger on campuses at the ‘misguided and unnecessary upheaval’ of the HE Bill.
Paradoxically for a Bill that is meant to be about ‘deregulation’ (and removing government interference) the Bill introduces new ways central government can directly intervene for political purposes.
- It proposes to centralise research funding under a single organisation called the UKRI. Many academics fear this could make research funding decisions much more subject to political control in the future.
- The Secretary of State will have powers to remove rights universities hold under their Royal Charters, effectively shutting them down.
- At the last Conservative Party Conference, Home Secretary Amber Rudd declared her Government’s intention to use the TEF to cut the number of international students studying in the UK. Overseas students are a huge success story and earn billions for the UK economy, as well as contributing to an international culture on campus. The likely outcome of such a move would be a swathe of cuts across the sector affecting both home and overseas students.
Academics are also very concerned that the new market-driven regime will undermine academic freedom on campuses. Academic freedom means the freedom of academic staff to tell ‘inconvenient truths’: to report research results that may not be welcome in government or commerce circles, such as the Volkswagen emissions data published by US academics.
A scientist’s professional obligation is to report their science truthfully. So most universities have charters, statutes and regulations to protect lecturers from being dismissed when they blow the whistle. Currently, these regulations are difficult to change, and proposals for change must be referred to a Government body called the Privy Council. The HE Bill removes this requirement, reducing universities’ responsibilities to protect academic freedom.
Speaking from University College London, where staff and trade unions recently successfully campaigned against their university’s attempt to weaken its protections for academic freedom, Sean Wallis says this may turn out to be the biggest threat in the HE Bill – the danger that UK academics will censor themselves because they are scared of speaking out, to the wider detriment of society.
Staff and students all over the UK are urging the Lords to use this opportunity to make constructive amendments to the HE Bill. A UCU ‘Lobby a Lord’ online tool saw thousands of staff sending messages to Lords just before Christmas.
They are not campaigning for themselves, but for the future of Higher Education in the UK.
Contact details for more information
John Holmwood, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sean Wallis, email@example.com
Sorana Vieru (NUS Vice President (HE)), firstname.lastname@example.org
NUS press office, email@example.com