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Choice, access and quality for higher education?

16 May 2016

Today the Government has published ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy’ – its Higher Education White Paper. It’s a grand title for an important document. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website has put forward the below summary of the document: new plans will make it easier to set-up high-quality new universities to give students more choice rigorous drive to raise teaching quality and ensure universities focus on getting students into graduate jobs plans deliver on key manifesto commitments to ensure universities deliver the best value for money for students and recognise the highest quality teaching Choice, access and quality are the welcome watchwords of these long-awaited plans. However, the summary is a bit misleading. It suggests, as always, that higher education is only taught in universities. This is not true – and is actually a key part of the report. It outlines the Government’s plan to make it easier for ‘challenger institutions’ (their phrase) to award their own degrees and give students more information about teaching standards and job prospects. This step change away from the country’s traditional university system will empower more people than ever before to access higher education in their local area through a college. It will also provide a wider choice of courses that are directly linked to employment. Students, colleges and employers will welcome these plans, which mean more opportunities for people to access the most suitable and best value higher education courses. This is a particular benefit for those who are employed and want to study part-time. Nearly 160,000 people already choose to study higher education at a college. In addition, 70% of college higher education students live within 25 miles of their institution, compared with less than 40% in universities. Creating more opportunities and making it easier for colleges to award degrees can only be a positive step. At the same time, the White Paper must address the catastrophic reduction in the number of people studying for a higher education qualification on a part time basis, reinforcing the diversity of the HE landscape and providing the higher level skills needed in the economy. What will be interesting is how these proposals fit in with the skills white paper and recommendations of the review into technical and professional education carried out by a panel led by Lord David Sainsbury. These are due out later in the summer. Only time will tell whether these plans are being co-ordinated effectively. John Widdowson is the President of the Association of Colleges and Principal of New College Durham