Governors are concerned about continuing uncertainty over key policy decisions in higher education following the government’s interim response to the Augar review and its response to the Pearce review of the Teaching Excellence Framework.
Some suggested longer term strategic planning has become “almost impossible” after the two response papers left important questions unresolved - such as future tuition fee levels and university entry requirements - and raised new ones on TEF ratings and metrics, modularisation and the relationship between higher and further education.
Governors who spoke to Advance HE were on the one hand underwhelmed by the 9-page Augar paper, but on the other nervous about some of the ideas it floated. One governor of a post-1992 university said the paper amounted to the government “biding its time” on HE policies.
“Reading between the lines, the government seemed embarrassed by the slowness of its response, so it cobbled together something last minute, which actually left more questions and hasn’t really taken us any further forward,” she said.
The governor of a Russell Group and an independent university said that while the role of governors has become even more important in recent times, the interim paper adds to uncertainty that is making their job extremely challenging.
“Most people become governors because they have an innate sense of public service, and they want to do the best they can, including to the people who hold them accountable. But it is quite hard to do when the fan of uncertainty is so incredibly wide,” he said.
Another Russell Group university governor felt that Augar was a fairly irrelevant distraction while institutions grapple with Covid-related issues, while a post-1992 university governor thought there would at least be relief that the lower fee cap proposed by Augar had not yet been accepted.
But most governors were united in opposing the idea, mentioned only briefly in the paper, of imposing minimum entry requirements. One said it was a “terrible idea” because the government should respect the autonomy of universities and let them decide who to admit. There are worries that this is part of an implicit deal between the DFE and the Treasury “so you end up with something like no cut in tuition fees, but minimum entry standards to provide a backdoor control of student numbers”, he said. Another was “disgusted” by the suggestion of minimum entry requirements, warning that such a move would penalise disadvantaged students. Two other governors felt the focus should be more on supporting contextualised admissions, with one arguing that imposing a minimum entry bar was “regressive” and “counterintuitive, when government has been talking about widening participation, social mobility, and building back”.
There were mixed feelings about elements in the Augar response which drew heavily on proposals in the further education white paper, published on the same day. These included measures aiming to achieve a “better balance” between academic and technical education and FE and HE, with plans to develop more higher level technical qualifications and provide support for students through a new lifelong learning loan entitlement. Governors at Russell Group universities felt their institutions were unlikely to become very involved in such initiatives. One thought there was merit in creating better defined pathways onto higher level technical courses as an alternative to a traditional degree, but saw little scope for more selective universities to be included. Another felt that the appeal of traditional degrees would remain strong, adding: “I’m not sure that the white paper has sufficiently attractive alternative options to change that.” A post-1992 university governor thought universities should be involved in proposed new local skills improvement plans, engaging with employers to help bring about social and economic transformation. But she admitted: “It’s potentially a big challenge to the model of the three year residential undergraduate degree, and to the financial systems and resource model for universities.” Governors felt there could also be resistance in the sector to plans in the Augar paper for full modularisation of HE. While many universities already offer modules, scope for credit accumulation is currently very limited.
Turning to the government’s response to the TEF review, there were again a variety of reactions to the proposal to scrap the current gold, silver and bronze awards and replace these with four new ratings. There was suspicion that the new system was inspired by Ofsted, which also has a four level grading scale. “When I saw that, shivers went down my spine: I thought somebody had been looking at the Ofsted reporting system,” one governor commented, adding that she feared “underneath it there may be some plans for more punitive action if universities are found wanting”. Another governor of a post-1992 university said institutions like his own that are currently rated Gold, would be annoyed to lose the marketing advantage of being able to compare themselves favourably against Russell Group universities. “I wonder whether it is precisely to stop some universities from promoting themselves as on the same level as others that they are getting rid of it,” he said. The governor of a Russell Group university admitted his own institution, currently rated Silver, would be pleased to see the change. “The TEF has been unpopular with us, mainly because we see the metrics being used as pretty inappropriate,” he said, adding that the metrics made Gold almost unachievable for his university.
Governors felt the question of which metrics will be used in the reformed TEF was extremely important. As one put it: “These systems only work as well as the information put into them.” Some were pleased to hear that the government plans to drop student satisfaction as a measure of quality. There was some enthusiasm for proposals to instead measure the student academic experience, and investigate scope for measuring learning gain, although details of how this will be done have yet to emerge.
Most governors were more concerned about the proposed focus on graduate outcomes, particularly earnings, which one suggested would penalise institutions specialising in art and design and those with high proportions of women and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Another key concern was how the new TEF metrics would affect university league table positions, and the key performance indicators used by governing bodies. One governor commented: “I think governors will want to know and understand much more how these changes will affect the metrics that they are using to inform their KPIs, and to what extent they might need to be changed, as well as what bearing they will have on the university’s reputation. Governors will need to keep watching this space and be more proactive in influencing it.”
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