White Paper recommendations dissected

The White Paper has been so thoroughly trashed in the dead tree press as well as on the interwebby that there isn’t much left to demolish.

Here I’m looking at the 18 recommendations listed under ‘Improving the student experience’ in the Executive Summary (pp 9-11). There are actually a few sensible ideas…

1. “We will expect higher education institutions to provide a standard set of information about their courses, and we will make it easier for prospective students to find and compare this information”

Comment: This is the Key Information Set, over which a group chaired by Janet Beer has laboured assiduously for some time. It must be a good idea to provide prospective students with better information about what university will be like, but the KIS has problems. It doesn’t tell potential students much about the nature of the experience – it’s merely a set of numbers designed to enable comparisons, and some of the numbers are notoriously unreliable. Student-designed websites tell you more about the actual quality of the experience, and are more useful because they recognise explicitly that different things suit different people. The fact that the KIS combines individual items from the NSS to produce a single aggregate score is dodgy. The KIS also has unavoidable opportunity costs for universities (they could be using the resource required for producing this stuff to support students instead).

2. “We encourage higher education institutions to publish anonymised information for prospective and existing students about the teaching qualifications, fellowships and expertise of their teaching staff at all levels.”

Comment: Insipid and facile. This appears to be a watering-down of the Browne recommendation that access to funding should be conditional on academics getting qualified as teachers – a recommendation that never had legs. This recommendation is even worse: just short term pandering to some amateur notion of accountability. It takes no account of the differences between trained academics, experienced teachers, and those with teaching qualifications. The ‘encourage’ is a nice little excuse for HEIs not doing anything, however.

3. “We invite the Higher Education Public Information Steering Group (HEPISG) to consider whether a National Student Survey of taught postgraduates should be introduced, and whether to encourage institutions to provide a standard set of information for each of their taught postgraduate courses.”

Comment: A NSS for postgrads was recommended by the Smith Review and the 2010 review of the NSS that I led. This is old news indeed. The PGT NSS can be straightforwardly developed from the existing NSS at modest cost; what will probably happen instead will be a huge consultation exercise and an expensive ‘research’ project. The HEA’s old PTES is not suitable for a number of reasons articulated in my report to HEFCE – too long, not rigorously tested, and its results are confidential to HEIs.

4. “We are asking HEFCE to improve Unistats, so prospective students can make more useful comparisons between subjects at different institutions. From summer 2012, graduate salary information will be added onto Unistats.”

Comment: This has to be a good plan, though not for the implied reason given (that being able to make more useful comparisons will enhance quality). UniStats has got better, but much remains to be done.

5. “We will ask the main organisations that hold student data to make detailed data available publicly, including on employment and earnings outcomes, so it can be analysed and presented in a variety of formats to meet the needs of students, parents and advisors.”

Comment: It’s not clear how this would work in practice, or what costs it would imply.

6. “We are asking UCAS and higher education institutions to make available, course by course, new data showing the type and subjects of actual qualifications held by previously successful applicants. This should help young people choose which subjects and qualifications to study at school.”

Comment: A sensible idea in theory, but with potentially large costs.

7. “We have asked the Student Loans Company and UCAS to develop a single application portal for both higher education and student finance applications.”

Comment: So obvious. Like PQA, this has been an excessively long time coming.

8. “We consider the publication of a student charter to be best practice and we will review the extent to which they [sic] are adopted and in light of this consider whether they should be made mandatory in the future.”

Comment: An unoriginal notion. I was drafting one for the university I worked at back in 1994 and the concept wasn’t new then. Most places have them, or a version of them, nowadays. Why should government claim ownership of the initiative?

9. “We expect all universities to publish summary reports of their student evaluation surveys on their websites by 2013/14. Before this, we will work with HEFCE, National Union of Students (NUS) and others, to agree the information and format that will be most helpful to students. “

Comment: This appears to be the WP’s attempt at humour. No-one is laughing. Another example of ill thought out, evidence-free policy. Lots more work for the back office staff; no apparent benefit. Institutions’ student evaluations should be an input to internal quality processes – they don’t tell students much on their own. Nor, of course, do NSS scores (see 10 below).

10. “We will introduce a risk-based quality regime that focuses regulatory effort where it will have most impact and gives power to students to hold universities to account. All institutions will continue to be monitored through a single framework but the need for, and frequency of, scheduled institutional reviews will depend on an objective set of criteria and triggers, including student satisfaction, and the recent track record of each institution.”

Comment: In one sense this is a sop to older universities; certainly nothing to do with students holding universities to account. We used to argue for a risk-based approach to QA when I worked at a big research intensive – aka leave us alone and concentrate on the upstarts who pretend to be real universities. Unworkable in practice. Rather naïve to assert that low student satisfaction (NSS?) should trigger a review.

11. “We want the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) to help higher education institutions resolve student complaints at the earliest possible stage. We are therefore asking the OIA to consult the sector on ways to promote and deliver early resolution.”

Comment: Fair enough. But what is it doing here?

12. “We have asked Professor Sir Tim Wilson to undertake a review into how we make the UK the best place in the world for university-industry collaboration.”

Comment: Very much along the ‘more research is needed’ line. If past experience is anything to go by, the government will resolutely ignore the results.

13. “We will continue to support the Graduate Talent Pool in 2011 for another year, helping graduates to identify internship opportunities.”

Comment: Window-dressing. Motherhood and apple pie.

14. “We will work with the National Consortium of University Entrepreneurs, the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship and the Quality Assurance Agency to encourage higher education institutions to support students to develop enterprise skills.”

Comment: This is another old scheme recycled.

15. “We are committed to opening up the higher education market, including to further education colleges and alternative providers, to meet the changing needs of employers, individuals and their communities.”

Comment: Who could disagree (apart from the unions)? But I’m not sure the authors understand what kind of market higher education is.

16. “We will free around 85,000 student numbers from current controls in 2012/13 by allowing unrestrained recruitment of the roughly 65,000 high-achieving students, scoring the equivalent of AAB or above at A-Level and creating a flexible margin of 20,000 places to reward universities and colleges who combine good quality with value for money and whose average charge (including waivers) is at or below £7,500.”

Comment: Basically moving the deckchairs around. There is no increased supply to meet student demand, just an attempt to get some universities to compete more for a fixed quota. What sort of reward is it to take in more students at rock-bottom costs? An unintended effect will be felt in institutions that do not fit the conditions for the 85,000 or the 20,000.

17. “We will expand the flexibility for employers and charities to offer sponsorship for individual places outside of student number controls, provided they do not create a cost liability for Government.”

Comment: Seems a nice plan, but its effects are likely to be minimal.

18. “We will consult on removing barriers to entry to the higher education sector. This includes changes to the criteria and the process for the award and renewal of taught degree awarding powers, including allowing non-teaching institutions to award degrees, and changes to criteria and process for determining which organisations are allowed to call themselves a “university”. “

Comment: Potentially revolutionary, of course. However, the uptake will likely be modest if international experience is anything to go by.

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