Richard Bingley is the Managing Director of a private Higher Education Institution and former Director of a public sector UK University Business School.
What makes a good Higher Education Institution?
For almost a decade, I’ve read numerous policy documents and op-ed pieces about the supposed dire state of UK higher education. Despite the fact that the UK founded three of the world’s top ten universities and checks in at number two on the QS World Ranking of higher education systems.
Often such pontifications are by left-leaning societal advisers or consultants who – no matter how bright and passionate – perhaps have never taught within a university, nor gained the appropriate postgraduate qualification to do so. Their solutions are often to strangle our sector with yet more regulation or formal reviews. They usually involve cutting the tuition fees and/or not trusting the tutor to deliver in class.
Paradoxically, the longer I’ve worked in higher education – in both the public and private sector side – the more straightforward I’ve found it to understand the fee-paying customer. Most rightly want, and deserve, connectivity with experienced, industry-facing tutors, practical curricula relevant to the world of work, and the opportunity to realistically apply for decent job opportunities at the end.
So, let’s be clear: British higher education is at a far stronger place than perhaps it has ever been. The most recent Conservative government innovations have been refreshing both for providers (well, those who are ambitious for their learners) and also for consumers. They have introduced market realism and real-world innovation.
Higher Degree Apprenticeships (HDAs) stand to transform vast sections of the sector, with a major shift away from an outdated textbook approach toward teaching practicalities and underpinning theory hand-in-glove with employers. Graduates with HDAs will get jobs, quite simply because most already are employed by their sponsor.
The downside for higher education is that apprenticeships are too cumbersome to manage and the margin for the teaching institution is far too thin to incentivise widespread engagement or to build in student protection contingencies if something goes wrong.
The newly established Office for Students (OfS), which has already taken a robust intervention to ‘rescue’ a failing provider, has geared itself towards widening access and thinning down the frequency of intensive regulatory reviews, whilst the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has empowered learners to understand the roles and responsibilities of higher education providers.
Quite simply, if marketing is incorrect, then service providers will be held to account (often by publishing corrections and repaying a portion of money to the consumer.) After all, if a learner is paying almost £30,000 for course fees over three years, they surely should have the rights of any comparable consumer.
Most practical academics will tell you that there are common characteristics that drive forward higher-performing education institutions (note, that I didn’t use the word ‘ranking’). Aligned to most reforms described above, my five pillars for success are:
1) Effective, broad-based, governance. Independent-minded, qualified experts, key stakeholders, industry networks and paying customers (student reps) are at the heart of oversight and formal strategic advice. The institution and its staff intuitively know and subscribe to its core mission, inherent strengths and collective sense of purpose.
2) Focus on what matters. The institution’s senior management does not chase ever-changing shadows of market behaviour driven by today’s preposterous levels of media hype. Too many higher education Institutions mimic poor restaurants by offering a vast array of half-baked course products, unrelated to their unique origins and specialisms.
3) Discipline. Learners… turn up on time and be prepared. Turn off the phone. Tutors… informal and formal assessment promptly marked with personal, constructive feed-back. Non-attendees removed and Student Finance informed. The demoralisation of good performers, because bad performers are tolerated, should never be permitted
4) Quality of teaching. Tutors must exude authority. Authority is usually only earned from learners if a) the tutor can point to pre-existing high-achievement in both academia and the ‘real world’, and b) the tutor can apply their career achievement into the classroom in an engaging, structured manner. All tutors must be credible ‘captains of ship’. If you can’t command an audience, don’t apply to a profession which is all about working one!
5) Intensive academic support. If ministers want to widen access and ensure that learners can excel, intensive support of student engagement must be invested in. Academic support is costly and plans outlined in the recent Augar Review to significantly reduce student fees raises a problem in this regard.
Further sector concerns around finance are magnified by Jeremy Corbyn’s policy to scrap tuition fees altogether, and directly fund higher education by £9.5bn (funded by increasing income tax for those above £80,000). This is an unrealistic throwback, and would prove totally unworkable and destructive.
Firstly, the funding pot is too small for the modern-day global business that is British higher education provision.
Second, removing consumer power is likely to make degree programmes less job-market focused, and reverse employability progress made during the past decade. If universities and colleges struggle to gain income from teaching, the top-end will revert principally to research. (Most research that is not ‘world class’ is money down an endless drain: it earns, and pays for, nothing.)
Meanwhile other teaching-intensive institutions, usually the more accessible former-polytechnics and private providers, often sited within Labour’s own heartlands (if any exist these days) will collapse.
In the real world of higher education, cash flow generated by tuition fees matter. It provides more institutional stability and also drives up internationalisation and diversity, both within the teaching curriculum and among the audiences that an institution can reach out to and attract.
If providers struggle further to attract or retain decent lecturers (particularly those with industry experience and contacts – remember, this is a global employment market!), and academic staff development budgets are trimmed further, how can this ultimately help the learner?
For a ‘real world’ example in how a student fee cut might impact upon the coal-face, consider as follows: a Grade 9 ‘Lecturer with little or no classroom teaching experience, nor industry work experience, nor post-grad teaching certificate, is appointed to an undergraduate teaching post at £30,000 per annum. This is likely to occur because a Grade 10 ‘Senior Lecturer’ (circa £50,000 per annum), with much stronger career and academic credentials, including industry experience and contacts, had, in effect, made themselves too expensive for the sector.
This is where we are heading back to under Corbyn’s existing proposal. Lower fees and more regulation aren’t always the best fix.
Strong governance, strong institutional identity, strong discipline, strong teaching and strong academic support, always are.