On 6th November the Government released a policy document which proposes some important changes to Higher Education (HE) in England. Members of the Students’ Union’s Executive Committee believe the document, known as the HE Green Paper, could lead to several important and worrying changes to the way universities are run.
The policies outlined in the paper suggest that over the next few years we will see rapid marketisation of our education system. Marketisation will see the public education system behave like the private business sector.
The Students’ Union Executive Committee, comprised of all ten Elected Officers, believe that education is a public good that should not be profited from.
The HE green paper is heavily focused on full-time students coming straight out of full-time school or college education and into Higher Education. We are extremely concerned that there is very little mention of part-time or mature students - groups which are extremely important parts of the Sussex community. This omission is exacerbated by the national picture, which shows a sharp decrease in part-time and mature students, who we feel are failing to be supported. The green paper uses the phrase ’what employers want’ 35 times, revealing that whilst the paper claims to be focused on improving quality for students it appears to actually be most concerned with employers.
Similarly, we have concerns that the paper primarily focuses on degree outcomes and graduate employment after six months, rather than how enriching the university experience is and how supported students feel whilst at university. The focus on graduate employment worries us, as this data is collected only six months after students have graduated. We know that due to the current employment market, it can be difficult to be in a graduate level job six months after graduation. We are also aware that some students prefer to take time for reflection immediately after graduating and should not be penalised for this.
Similarly, the focus on the salaries of graduates will impact those students who want to work in the charity, third sector or public sector profession, which may incorrectly be viewed as being of a lower status as they are generally paid less than other roles. We openly challenge this ranking of professions and are aware that this statistically impacts women to a greater extent.
Some key areas of the paper which the Students’ Union Executive Committee strongly oppose include:
The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) - This will allow Universities to raise their tuition fees by inflation if they can demonstrate “excellent teaching”. This is a vague and subjective term but is likely to be measured by NSS scores and graduate employment data, which we believe can be too easily manipulated by universities to bump themselves up in league tables.
As stated in the ‘Education is not for Sale’ policy voted for by students, the Students’ Union believes in ‘free, popular, democratic and publicly funded education’. The Full Time and Part Time Officers are therefore wholeheartedly against the TEF and the notion that students should be expected to pay more money for ‘quality teaching’, which will be poorly and inaccurately measured. This could create a two-tier system with the higher ranking, and more expensive, universities being seen as ‘trusted providers’ by employers. This could mean that degrees from universities with lower tuition fees could be seen as less valuable by employers.
Exemption from Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests - The paper has put forward plans for publicly funded institutions to be exempt from requests under the Freedom of Information Act due to the fact that these can cost universities around £10m per year. The government feel there is a need to create a ‘level playing field’ with private providers, who are not subject to these requests.
However, we have concerns as FOI requests are an invaluable mechanism for holding universities to account and scrutinising spending decisions. Student media organisations and individual students have used FOI requests appropriately in the past to challenge decisions which have been made at the University of Sussex.
Students’ Unions - The government wants to increase the accountability and transparency of Students’ Unions, which in principle sounds like a good thing. However, this is linked to government reforms designed to restrict trade unions. This is therefore a clear attack on the autonomy and influence of Students’ Unions.
Private providers - The proposals could make it easier for private providers to enter the Higher Education (HE) ‘market’; they could obtain degree awarding powers within four years and university status in less than five. This means that private providers potentially wanting to make a profit will be given public money to run as a HE institution. The quality and importance of current universities could also be undermined as there will be less scrutiny on institutions entering the HE ‘market’. The Students’ Union does not believe that private companies should financially profit from education.
The Higher Education green paper clearly emphasises education as a privilege that only some can afford and sees a move away from true quality education and teaching, as universities will be forced to focus on potentially manipulated statistics and outcomes, rather than actual valuable student experience.
The Students’ Union Officers will work with students to challenge these changes as we believe that education should be a public good that everyone has equal access to.
We will be sending out information soon about how all Sussex students can contribute to the Union’s response to the Green Paper.
We also want to hear from students who are wanting to mobilise around these issues. Please contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.