Lifting student number controls – will it affect the quality of learning and teaching?

Image by Dave Herholz

Image by Dave Herholz

Earlier in the week I was part of a fascinating panel debate about the impact lifting the cap on student number controls next year might have on teaching and learning.

The starting point for me in any debate of this nature is to acknowledge the incredible diversity of excellent provision we have in the UK.  This excellence is in part due to the quality framework we have in place.

This is why we have a world-leading sector.

In preparing for the panel session I was asked to consider what my interest was in this topic. In my work I have a lot of conversations with MPs, officials and members of the press who have an issue with the current scale of higher education in the UK. A personal challenge I have, and that which we take very seriously at University Alliance, is to dispel the perceived link often constructed between the scale of higher education and the quality of its learning and teaching.

There are some extraordinary myths about higher education that somehow still exist and that have to be challenged: “there are too many degrees”, “too many graduates”, “degrees are worthless”, “quality and excellence only exists in a handful of universities”…

Unfortunately a lot of the debate about the quality of higher education is still framed by such myths. So first of all we need to challenge the idea that big is bad. Growth in the higher education sector does not automatically mean the lowering of quality in teaching and learning.

University Alliance has long been advocates for growth of the sector through the removal of the student numbers cap. At the core of our belief is that only by having a truly mass higher education market with no cap can we create opportunity for the many, not the few – the original Robbins’ vision.

As Nicolas Barr, Professor of Public Economics at London School of Economics, outlined in his presentation at the same event, evidence shows that poorer students will always be disadvantaged in a system that restricts places. Looking at participation at a national level hides the reality of access to opportunity across the country. The patchwork map of UK participation rates paints a very varied picture across the UK and demonstrates the extent of untapped potential in parts of the country. For example, the participation rate where I live in Winchester is 80%. Just down the road in parts of Portsmouth it is as low as 10%. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done. Lifting the cap is part of the solution as it will open up greater opportunity for more people.

Fortunately, we are currently in a policy landscape where this is about to happen but clearly the quality assurance system must also evolve alongside this. There is a tricky path to be negotiated here – keeping the best features of the current quality assurance system but also ensuring that it is able to cope with the changing world around us and encourage innovation and growth within the sector. Our member universities in University Alliance are pioneering much of the innovation around new models of teaching and learning, particularly through their strong links with employers and focus on entrepreneurship. So we need to balance two risks: the risk of stifling innovation in teaching and learning vs. the risk of the growth of poor quality provision.

In terms of teaching and learning there are a few areas that I wanted to highlight from our recent report on quality in an expanding system:

All students, wherever and whatever they study, should have access to the same protection. Collaborative models of provision, such as franchising and validating, need to be looked at when re-designing the regulatory system. These models can have great benefits for students, in terms of being able to access a degree close to home, for example. However, there are risks too. There is a possibility that some newer alternative providers will seek to grow rapidly through franchise arrangements with HEFCE-funded institutions.

It is not right that students have different access to complaints procedures depending on where they study. The majority of students studying at alternative providers do not have access to external complaints moderation. This needs sorting out.

Quality and effective student choice may be compromised because different providers are required to provide different information about their courses.

Just as the quality assurance system needs to take account of a phenomenally diverse sector, it also needs to take account of the very many facets of excellent teaching and learning. Some people, in a search for a single “quality indicator” stop at contact hours. Clearly the time spent in lectures, seminars and similar is important. But it is not the be-all and end-all. To imply this would reduce teaching and learning to its most basic and fail to grasp what is special and unique about a higher education experience.

All of this means the overarching regulatory framework is not fit-for-purpose. The failure to introduce legislation to deal with the proposals arising from the 2011 BIS consultation on regulating the sector has led to patchwork policy-making, inconsistencies in the treatment of students and providers and a good deal of difficulty in ensuring long-term planning.

Key sector bodies including QAA and HEFCE have done a huge amount to work flexibly in the absence of legislation. But to address these issues, University Alliance supports general calls for a HE Bill to be introduced as soon as possible. This should be a priority for whatever Government is in power after the 2015 General Election.

Further reading