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A major opportunity to change higher education

20 January 2016

To most people the deadline for submissions to the Government’s consultation on the future of higher education (HE) passed unnoticed. However, if some of the changes proposed in Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice are implemented then we could see major change in a sector not known for being welcoming to new initiatives. At the Association of Colleges, we passionately believe higher education should not only be about three-year degrees taken by 18-year-olds who are living in university accommodation or salubrious student houses. This is, of course, essential and important. But college-based higher education is too. Colleges provide affordable higher education at all levels, often in partnership with employers. College students are typically older than those at university, study in their local institution and fit their studies around work and/or family commitments. Why should this be seen as any less important or prestigious than a university? Rarely a day goes by without the CBI, a major employer or even a Government Minister, saying England’s skills gaps are holding our economy back. We won’t meet the skills gap of today or tomorrow by sending more and more 18-year-olds to learn academic subjects at university. So, the Green Paper offers a major opportunity for change. In Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Skills, we sense a Minister who is up for the challenge. Our submission covers the following: We support the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework, which will see the Government monitoring and assessing the quality of teaching in England’s universities (which they are worried about). The Framework should equally and fairly recognise all types of higher education including that provided by further education colleges. We do not support raising the fee cap above £9000 because we think there is no justification for doing so whilst universities refuse to consider changing teaching models. Higher fees will not encourage students from poorer backgrounds to go to university. We support the proposal that the Director of Fair Access should be able to set widening participation targets and for funding to be withdrawn if institutions fail to meet these targets. We support quicker and clearer routes for institutions to both foundation and teaching degree awarding powers. We also propose the establishment of a technical education accreditation council, which would support the development of technical education and work alongside colleges which have foundation degree awarding powers, but only for those institutions with a track record of providing high quality higher education. There is no substitute to assessing teaching and learning to actual reliable, recorded and published observations. Whenever a government wishes to reform higher education it must prepare itself for lengthy debates in the House of Lords led by current and former vice chancellors and chancellors. We hear that ministers are already nervous about bringing forward legislation. This follows problems the then Coalition Government had in appointing Les Ebdon as Director of the Office of Fair Access in 2012. Nobody can say reforming higher education is easy but it does need to happen, and soon. Chris Walden is the Director of Public Affairs and Communications for the Association of Colleges.