UCU initial comment on higher education white paper

16 May 2016

UCU has warned that the rapid expansion of private university provision which gives new providers the power to award degrees from day one will endanger the UK's hard won global reputation for excellence.

The union was commenting on the higher education white paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, published today by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

UCU also said it was 'hard to see' how the proposed teaching excellence framework (TEF) would improve teaching quality, suggesting that the government should focus instead on tackling job insecurity amongst teaching staff and ensuring that academic careers are attractive to the brightest talent.

The union added that tougher measures on access are required, with better support for part-time and mature study and a national inquiry on admissions reform.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said:

'Despite repeated warnings from UCU about the danger of opening up UK higher education to private, for-profit providers, the government is setting out on a clear course to privatise higher education. We have already seen too many scandals involving alternative providers in the UK and the USA, so if we are to protect the global reputation enjoyed by our universities, lessons must be learnt and rigorous quality measures applied before any new provider is allowed to access either degree awarding powers or state funding.

'Everyone knows the importance of teaching, but it is hard to see how many of the measures which have been proposed for the teaching excellence framework (TEF) will either measure quality or improve it. UCU believes a critical weakness of our current system is the precarious employment of university teachers, 49% of whom are on insecure contracts. The best way to raise teaching quality is to ensure that academic careers in the UK are attractive to the brightest talent at home and abroad, but this needs an investment in the workforce that has been lacking for many years. 

'We remain deeply concerned by any proposed link between quality as defined in the TEF and additional income, and will oppose any move to further increase the lifetime cost of higher education, which already sits at over £50,000 for the poorest undergraduates.

'On access, while increased reporting requirements on universities are to be welcomed, the government must do more to address the persistent barriers to higher education for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We need tougher action on universities who are missing access targets, better support for part-time and mature study, and a national inquiry on our broken admissions system to ensure fair access for all.'

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