The regulatory changes laid out in the white paper will:
- Make it easier for new and alternative providers to be granted degree awarding powers and pave the way for alternative providers to plug the gap if universities fail
- Establish a new regulatory watchdog, the Office for Students, that will replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access
- Reform university funding so that the majority of funding comes from tuition fees and not state grants, with fee increases tied to the TEF in England
- Mandate that all HE institutions put in place a student protection plan
The white paper makes it easier for new and alternative providers to be granted degree awarding powers (DAPs), removing what it describes as “significant and disproportionate challenges” to new institutions entering the market and setting the stage for younger and more nimble institutions to compete with established universities.
“Making it easier for [high quality, new] providers to enter and expand will help drive up teaching standards overall”
It proposes that “high quality” startup providers will be allowed to award degrees for a probationary period, subject to annual reviews, eliminating the currently mandated four years of provision before institutions can gain DAPs.
It also reduces the minimum student number requirement for DAPs, enabling smaller institutions to be classed as higher education providers.
“Making it easier for [high quality, new] providers to enter and expand will help drive up teaching standards overall; enhance the life chances of students; drive economic growth; and be a catalyst for social mobility,” the white paper states.
“They will allow us to improve the capacity and agility of the higher education sector, transforming its ability to respond to economic demands and the rapidly changing graduate employment landscape, offering flexible provision to different types of students.”
In his announcement of the white paper, Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson said the sector cannot stand still if it is to remain competitive and ensure high standards of quality. “Making it easier for high-quality challenger institutions to start offering their own degrees will help drive up teaching quality, boost the economy and extend aspiration and life chances for students from all backgrounds,” he said.
The paper also proposes that a new watchdog for higher education, the Office for Students, will replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access and oversee a single register of all higher education providers.
A new single route to entry will replace the current two-stream system for public and private institutions in order to “level the playing field”, overseen by the OfS, the white paper states.
The changes have been welcomed by Study UK, the peak body representing alternative providers, that said facilitating entrance for new and innovative providers will “override the present ability of incumbent institutions to block potential competition”.
“We need innovative, flexible, and industry-led provision that equips graduates with the knowledge and skills to succeed in a dynamic careers environment,” commented Alex Proudfoot, chief executive of the association.
A new watchdog for higher education, the Office for Students, will replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access
“The White Paper reforms will leave our HE sector better able to meet these needs by establishing a fair and competitive framework for new and existing providers.”
Study UK also welcomed a call for evidence out in the white paper to look at whether students should be able to switch courses more easily.
The white paper sets out a shift in funding for universities in England from state-awarded grants to funding through student tuition fees, tied to the Teaching Excellence Framework, which was announced last year and will be phased in over the next four years.
Universities that comply with the standards of the TEF will be allowed to increase their fees in line with inflation above the current £9,000 cap, ahead of the introduction of a differentiated cap dependent on institutions’ TEF ratings in 2019.
The white paper makes it clear that the government will not bail out universities that fail as a result of the funding changes, instead opening up the way for alternative providers to plug the gap.
However, critics of the proposals have raised doubts as to whether this will happen.
Writing in the Guardian, Mike Boxall, higher education expert at PA Consulting Group, questioned whether “private providers, and the investors behind them, will rush to fill any void left by failed traditional institutions”, given that many private providers’ focus on “courses in business and professional studies leading to high-paying careers for home and international students in London and other prosperous locations”.
New institutions must meet the “same, high standards” that have secured the UK’s worldwide reputation for high quality higher education
Meanwhile, Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, said new institutions must meet the “same, high standards” that have secured the UK’s worldwide reputation for high quality higher education.
However, the white paper outlines a number of measures it says can bolster the quality of higher education provision under the new regulations, including a shift towards employability as a metric of success.
Rates of graduate employment will be one of the criteria by which universities will be assessed, along with retention and student satisfaction, and information on graduate earnings by individual degree course will be published in summer 2016.
Higher education providers will for the first time be required to have and publicise a student protection plan, approved by the OfS, that will ensure students are protected if a provider is unable to fully deliver their course of study.
This means that students will be protected in the event of closure, exit or regulatory actions including the removal of an institution’s Tier 4 licence to recruit non-EU students.