Jo Johnson’s Speech to UUK

For the second time, our Minister with responsibility for universities makes a speech on HE, this time to Universities UK and an assembled throng of Vice Chancellors. Our own VC’s impressions will be in his blog next week.

The full text of the speech is here, Higher education: fulfilling our potential, but are there any hints of what is to come?

there is considerable unfinished business and the green paper will seek views on the changes the government believes will be necessary to ensure that higher education continues to be a great national success story in the years to come

We can expect to see the Green Paper that will address this unfinished business in the current session of parliament.

The next section of the speech is about “teaching at the heart of the system”, which is different from the previous mantra of “students at the heart of the system” which has subsequently become a strapline in many a university mission statement.

At the centre of this vision are the young people contemplating their futures in a world where no one owes them a living, where they must depend on their wits and drive to survive.

Well-equipped students ready to contribute to society and to businesses keen to employ increasing numbers of skilled graduates

So once again is higher education being seen as a transactional good, rather than a transformational experience, just for young people to enter the employment market, red in tooth and claw? Even though a majority of students may be young, we need to remind ourselves that HE is not just for young people, and not just to deliver training for employment.

Moving on to talk about the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (however with no proposals or suggestions at this stage), Johnson refers to teaching staff who go the extra mile providing feedback and email replies at weekends, as well as those who think:

we’ll award you the degree as the hoped-for job ticket in return for compliance with minimal academic requirements and due receipt of fees’

I’m sure plenty will take issue with this – although in a sector that employs over 194,000  academic staff (HESA data 2013-14), there must be a few individuals in this category although we wouldn’t expect an institution to behave overall in this way. The speech goes on to talk about the variability of student experience and:

There is extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition. And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system. It damages the reputation of UK higher education and I am determined to address it.

Is the comment on lamentable teaching about individuals or about entire institutions? The TEF is  to  assess an institution, not individual performances. The answer to that might provide an answer of whether solutions are to be centrally driven or can be dealt with through internal management processes and enhancement activities.

Johnson suggests that more information will be provided in future about kind of teaching that students will receive. Having been to a number of open days in other institutions recently I’v e been struck by the willingness to brag about high contact hours, with little reference to what they actually involve.

The new framework will “reward universities that do most to stretch young – and also not so young – minds”. At last a recognition that not all students are 18 years old – but the devil will be in the detail of this: how will the framework actually measure the amount of stretch? This may lead us to look at ideas of learning gain and value-added, but can this be put in place quickly enough for TEF to be ready for 2017?

Johnson asks for there to be  a shift in how we think about teaching – and in an institution that is focused more on teaching than research, then this should be good news.

Widening Participation appears as a major part of the speech – and at a time when cuts to the BIS budget are due, and many commentators suggesting that the Student Opportunity Fund which supports WP activities is likely to be under threat, then we have a series of laudable ideas but which will need money to support.

There is a clear commitment to the use of HE as a driver of social mobility with particular emphasis given to participation rates of working class white boys, and students from BME backgrounds.

Plenty of reference is made to the data provided by UCAS, which will provide the necessary information on recruitment into universities, and a comment is made about linking this to other datasets. If we are serious about being able to understand how well WP activities are working, then we need to look not just at UCAS and recruitment data, but also at information on retention, progression and achievement – only when we can see significant reductions in the differences between different groups in all of the relevant factors would we be able to say that we are making steps to increase social mobility. Much of this information is already held within universities, and plenty of them provide analysis of this to explain their outcomes.

On alternative providers, Johnson recognises that not everyone wants to study a 3 year degree, and praises the alternative provider sector in being able to offer other provision, through validation arrangements with existing universities, but suggests that the current process “stifles competition, innovation and student choice, which is why we will consult on alternative options for new providers if they do not want to go down the current validation route.”

On regulation, Johnson states that this a a deregulatory government, and the recent consultation on QA from HEFCE seemed to push towards a system of no central agency, but with increased role of governance (similar to the rise in the school sector of  Academies and removal of Local Authority control?).

So we need a simpler, less bureaucratic and less expensive system of regulation. A system that explicitly champions the student, employer and taxpayer interest in ensuring value for their investment in education and requires transparency from providers so that they can be held accountable for it. One that protects institutional autonomy and academic freedom and maintains the highest quality of higher education, safeguarding the strong international reputation of English universities

And this is clealry talking about the role of HEFCE rather than universities in countries with devolved administrations.

Overall – will this please the sector?

  • A commitment to great teaching won’t be argued with – the mechanisms of assessing it will be.
  • The change in regulation for alternative providers might be seen as a threat to some institutions (probably only those in the bottom quartile of league tables, or current FE providers of HE)
  • The focus on widening participation should be welcomed – provided that funding and full data analysis is part of the deal.

As ever, the details have yet to merge and plenty of other commentators will have more to say on this speech than I, and we will all eagerly await the Green Paper, and in particular the plans for a Teaching Excellence Framework and a renewed focus on widening participation.