Academic Pro Vice Chancellor reflects on higher education reforms

The Coalition Government’s decision in 2010 to put up student tuition fees to £9,000 per year with effect from 2012/13 prompted riots on London’s streets.  The implications for individual students were clear.  They would now be bearing much more of the cost of their higher education, and would face much higher levels of indebtedness as they pay back their loans over their working lives.

Perhaps less well known and understood at the time, however, was what the reform meant for universities.  For the hike in student tuition fees was accompanied by dramatic cuts to government financial support for universities.  Subsidies for teaching students outside the more expensive laboratory-based subjects were withdrawn, and the level of capital grants provided for universities to maintain their buildings were radically pared back.  So although students now faced greater indebtedness, universities themselves did not see a corresponding uplift in resources themselves.  Higher tuition fees simply replaced the cuts and the amount of money available to universities pretty-much flat-lined.  In the age of austerity, and for the sake of getting the costs of higher education off the public accounts, in their own way both students and universities have suffered.

The reform that introduced the £9,000 tuition fee also made provision for the Government to permit universities to increase this fee by the rate of inflation each year.   Universities of course face inflation in their costs each year.  Total staff pay costs, which include both national pay award increases but also some staff getting promoted and progressing up pay scales, increase by 2 – 3% per year, and universities have also had to increase their contributions as employers to their staff pension schemes.  These cost increases are in addition to the general inflationary rises in the costs of purchases, utilities and so on.  However, the Government decided to stick with the £9,000 fee cap and not permit inflationary rises for several years. The effect has been that between 2012 and 2016, universities have been subject to an acute ‘cost-price squeeze’.  The price they could charge remained constant, but their costs were going up year-by-year.

After the 2015 election, the new Conservative Government has introduced a new mechanism – the Teaching Excellence Framework or (TEF) – in order to be able to permit some universities to make inflationary increases to their fee levels.

At one level, the TEF is a good thing.  It helps incentivise universities to pay closer attention to the quality of their teaching, the learning environment, and how well their students do.  The TEF uses metrics covering student satisfaction with their teaching, academic support, and assessment and feedback, and also student drop-out rates and the likelihood to gaining employment and graduate-level jobs.  Some of these things already count towards university league table rankings, and at UEA they are things we work hard on to improve each year.

However, linking the TEF to the ability for universities to raise their fees by inflation is unfortunate and something that UEA pressed the Government not to do.  We felt it might alienate students and undermine measures like the National Student Survey, which we have found very useful as UEA as a source of feedback and a means of improving our services and the student experience on campus.

We would rather the TEF was not linked to inflationary fee increases, but we have lost that argument and now we are where we are.  It was really pleasing that, after having debated this issue fully, UEA Student Union’s Union Council voted against the idea of boycotting or sabotaging the NSS because of its link to the TEF and to fees.

The NSS is a vitally important tool in helping the University to improve what it does in order to enhance the quality of the student experience at UEA.  A key example is last year’s significant improvements to coursework turnaround times, which was made possible because of the use of NSS data to drive change for the benefit of students.

The NSS is also of great use to the Students’ Union in its work with the University and helps underpin good quality partnership working.  Any campaign to disrupt the smooth running of the NSS would risk undermining this partnership work and damaging the University and SU’s ability to improve the student experience together.

So we find ourselves in a less than ideal world.  The university will need to make inflationary increases to fees in order for us to be able to protect the quality of the student experience and provide higher education of the highest quality.  It is important to remember that UEA is an education charity and not a private or commercial organisation.  It needs to make a surplus from its activities, but that is not private profit that goes to shareholders.  All surpluses are re-invested in the university to ensure that the campus is well maintained and the university can move forward sustainably in what is an increasingly uncertain economic and financial climate.


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