Jonathan Gullis is a secondary school teacher, and stood as Conservative candidate in Washington and Sunderland West in the 2017 election.
We welcomed 2018 with one of the biggest shake-ups of university regulation for decades. The Office for Students (OfS), established by the Higher Education Act 2017, became operational on 1st January. This new body merges together the precursory Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access to form one regulatory and competition authority for English Higher Education.
As stated by Jo Johnson, the former Universities Minister, the aim of the OfS is to “champion choice and competition and put the interests at the heart of regulation”. Alongside a chief executive and chair, the OfS will consist of a board of 15 members with expertise ranging across the fields of education and business. The OfS will be responsible for upholding free speech on university campuses, tackling grade inflation, and monitoring the quality of teaching and ensuring it is consistent across HE institutions.
As someone who works in education, I am delighted to see the same rigour introduced to our primary and secondary schools now applied to our universities. In 1980, there were 68,000 university students. In September 2017, there were nearly 500,000. This overhaul of HE regulation could not, therefore, be more timely.
As Bright Blue found last year, education is an issue believed by many to be neglected by many senior politicians. This is compounded by the findings of NME’s exit poll at last year’s General Election which indicated that 25.6 per cent of 18-34-year-olds voted the way they did based on education policy. As Conservatives, we can respond to this by championing the OfS as a boost to university competitiveness, an improvement in regulation, and a means of empowering students. But, like all things, it must be given time to succeed.
In the meantime, and in the spirit of improving and reforming HE, here are four ideas to make the system better.
The first is addressing student debt. The House of Commons library estimates that this will reach £100 billion based on 2014/15 prices in 2018 and that this will then rise by a further £13 billion per year. Furthermore, a 2010 review by Which? University predicted that 60 per cent of graduates will not repay their loans in full before the 30-year limit elapses. Such figures do not make it surprising that many students question the purpose of going to university. A solution could be to scrap the six per cent compound interest rate on student loans, a rate that was even reported by The Times in October 2017 to have been described as ‘bonkers’ by sources in the Department for Education. Additionally, more focused education in schools about the fact that one must earn in excess of £25,000 before small monthly repayments are made would go a considerable way in countering much of the fear stoked up by Labour on the issue.
A second idea could be the use of a grading system for HE, just as Ofsted does in schools and colleges. In such a scenario, inspectors would produce formal reports on the performance of a university that would explain their findings and conclusions before recommending methods of improvement. We would, therefore, see greater parity across education tiers in terms of quality assessment, more clarity for the prospective student when choosing a university, and an invigoration of competition between universities as each one tries to achieve a better grading than the others.
Third, why not make registration to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) compulsory for all HE institutions rather than merely being a requisite condition for joining the OfS? If the TEF’s ratings for teaching standards of gold, silver and bronze were visible across all institutions this could give further insight to help students make the right decision and drive up competition between institutions even more. The idea could even lend itself to Johnson’s two-year degree initiative for undergraduates by incentivising universities to provide more contact time with students.
Lastly, an idea I heard at a Conservative Policy Forum event in November 2017 could be to have universities responsible for any unpaid student tuition debt if that student does not pay their full amount back within the 30-year limit. The Sutton Trust in October 2015 found those who do higher apprenticeships at Level 5 achieve greater lifetime earnings than someone who studies an undergraduate degree from a non-Russell Group university. The lifetime earnings for these students are in fact similar to that as someone who does a higher apprenticeship at Level 4. Non-Russell Group universities have pitched themselves as routes to help graduates earn high incomes, so there is an argument to say those institutions should cover the costs when a graduate does not earn as hoped. It would then incentivise these universities to promote apprenticeships or other non-academia alternatives in order for potential students to save money whilst still being able to be aspirational and become higher earners.
The Conservatives are the Party that are ensuring the UK maintains its global position for having some of the best HE institutions. As a party, our big challenge is to ensure students feel that the Government is working with them, not against them. By making universities more accountable to the students they serve through the OfS, and perhaps through some of the new ideas I have described, we can ensure young people get a real choice over the route of their higher education. Improving social mobility is at the heart of all of this and by continuing the education reforms we have brought in, at all levels, this will only go on to benefit society as a whole.