When Labour tripled university tuition fees in the 2004 Education Act, it was one of Tony Blair's bolder reforms. But, although he changed the funding structure of our universities, he missed the chance to make the sector more accountable to its students.
Too many students remain surprised by the limited contact hours, feedback and access to the top lecturers. Most are unclear how they can push for a better overall student experience.
Our university sector rightly has a world-class reputation. But the prestige of individual institutions is largely based on their research output. We believe high-quality teaching is just as important.
So the principal objective of today's higher education white paper, entitled Students at the heart of the system, is to avoid repeating Tony Blair's mistake.
Our reforms build on the changes to student support announced last year by putting students in the driving seat. We have three key priorities.
1. Better informed students and more accountable institutions: In future, there will be much more information available about different courses at different institutions. There will be a standard set of comparable data available for every course in the country, covering issues such as contact hours and feedback, accommodation costs and bursaries and employment rates and average graduate salaries.
New information will be available on the entry qualifications of students on each course, and universities will be asked to make greater use of student charters and student surveys. If a university is coasting and not delivering an education commensurate with their fees, then it will be exposed to the sunlight like never before. The end result will be the best possible match between students and institutions.
2. Funding following learners: Until now, the number of places at each university has been micro-managed from the centre. Just as with our schools policy, we need to shift to a system in which the flows of public finance reflect demand. So public support for the costs of higher education, such as grants and loans, will increasingly flow with the decisions of students.
From 2012/13, we will enable universities to recruit as many students with high-level qualifications – A-Level results of AAB or higher – as they can attract. In addition, we will reassign a proportion of existing student numbers on the basis of quality, demand and value-for-money. These places will go to institutions that can show quality and where the average tuition charge (after waivers) is £7,500 or less. In total, around a quarter of all new student places will become 'contestable' in 2012/13, with the proportion rising in the later years of this Parliament.
Popular and cost-effective institutions will be able to expand and we will encourage more diverse provision through real supply-side reform. Alternative providers, such as Further Education colleges that are rooted within their local economies and wholly new entrants will start playing on a level playing field for the first time. As a backstop, the Higher Education Funding Council will be given a new role as a consumer champion to make sure the system operates in the interests of students.
3. A world-class higher education sector: We will reduce the unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape that limit our universities, and free academics to focus on what they do best. So, in future, the universities' quality assurance regime will become less tick-box and more risk-based. We will tackle some of the tax barriers that unnecessarily weigh down institutions.
And we will launch a new review of university and business engagement under Professor Sir Tim Wilson, the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, which will consider how to make our nation the best place in the world for university-industry collaboration. That includes looking at how to reverse the decline in sandwich courses – we’re committed to vocational learning and sometimes apprenticeships want to study at a higher level, so we will enable this. In the longer-term, we are looking at ways to facilitate giving to universities so that they can strengthen their own financial base.
Our higher education reforms contribute to the Coalition’s vital deficit reduction plans by shifting public support from centralised teaching grants to tuition loans put in the hands of students – repaid by graduates, but only once they are earning reasonable salaries.
But they are not just – or even primarily – about saving money. Taken together, the proposals to improve information, to ensure funding follows the decisions of learners and to free institutions to focus on their strengths will make student choice and university accountability meaningful. This, in turn, will drive a new focus on the overall student experience, particularly on the quality of teaching in the interests of students, employers and taxpayers.
Our white paper also makes it clear we expect to see improved access at our most selective institutions. It is a reflection on the whole education system that so few children on free school meals reach Oxbridge. So, alongside the extra financial support on offer for those from lower-income households, we expect institutions charging more than £6,000 a year to outline clear outreach strategies in their access agreements. But we will not alter the current legal framework that gives universities full control over their own admissions policies, nor will we introduce quotas. The strengths of our university sector rely on a long tradition of institutional autonomy which we must cherish, protect and strengthen.