The HE White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy looks to competition to improve quality in universities. BIS is to be commended for going through the Green/White paper process (as contrasted with, say, their colleagues in DfE) but that has left many wondering where the evidence is. Many of the propositions in the White Paper appear to arrive without any evidence, especially regarding lacklustre or lamentable teaching.
There is one area where this eschewing of the need for evidence is taken to a new level. The Green Paper posed a conundrum of how new ‘providers’ could have the freedom to offer their own higher education courses more quickly. Generally British Higher Education has adopted an apprenticeship model, and this is enshrined in the current process for acquiring degree awarding powers and university title. You need to show that you can do this; normally for at least several cohorts. As an example, the new University of Suffolk has been running since 2007 and got its degree awarding powers based on a long track record, having been supported by the universities of Essex and East Anglia.
However, this is not fast enough, it seems. Challengers are supposed to be distinctive – new places have to teach courses that lead to other universities’ degrees, who have all sorts of rules and regulations that the new places must follow. There is an expectation that degrees at partners will be equivalent.
So, the White Paper brings the notion of the probationary degree awarding powers:
It will be possible for high quality providers to enter the sector on the basis of their potential (subject to rigorous quality controls) and gain probationary foundation or taught DAPs as soon as the OfS is satisfied that the conditions of being an Approved provider have been provisionally met. They can then offer their own degrees while building up a 3 year track record for full DAPs. This is a significant improvement on the current system in which DAPs take at least 6 years to gain (p29)
Here we have the rigorous quality control of a new provider a priori – a judgement will be made before there is any experience of the provider to assess. The current rules are clearly far too stuck in the realms of the a posteriori – checking that a provider is doing what it says it will do, looking to see that it can maintain standards etc (not through metrics – but by looking at external examiners’ reports). A key concern about new ‘providers’ is that they expand too quickly – seeking ‘marginal’ students who might then struggle. Weirdly there’s a section of the White Paper later on where the normal government-speak slips:
For too long we have been overly tolerant of the fact that some providers have significantly and materially higher drop-out rates than others with very similar intakes in terms of demographics and prior attainment. This applies equally at both the high tariff and low tariff ends of the sector. Such variability is not simply a statistic, nor even simply a squandering of taxpayers’ money. It is worse: it represents thousands of life opportunities wasted, of young dreams unfulfilled, all because of teaching that was not as good as it should have been, or because students were recruited who were not capable of benefitting from higher education (p46)
How will the new OfS assess providers in advance? Clearly this is some way off, but it does seem a strange prospect. Given the strictures of the CMA guidance, surely no application could be accepted from a student before the OfS had approved the probationary degree awarding powers? The provider would need a fully worked-up proposal at least a year in advance of starting; it’s hard to see how this would help. It isn’t hard to obtain a set of procedures for running a university – there are QA consultants out there – but you can just as easily assemble a set from university webpages. What’s important is how they’ll actually run for you. BIS highlighted the project at Hereford as a potential beneficiary of these faster powers – but that is on a three year schedule to open as it is prepares a new type of curriculum and recruits staff (and Hereford has been given a substantial subsidy by the Treasury).
We don’t have a full analysis of the boom and bust of alternative providers in the period 2010-2015 in the public domain. What is clear is that the providers who appeared with off-the-shelf quality assurance systems and taught off-the-shelf HND/C courses are over-represented among the cause for concern reports and the removals of course designation. Surely the long-term future of the UK’s HE system, and in particular its ‘controlled reputational range’ is best served by an apprenticeship model – rather than a probation model? And if we are to launch challengers, why not assess them on what they do, rather than what they say they’ll do.