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What’s missing from the HE White Paper?

19 May 2016

Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge, takes a closer look at the Government’s higher education reforms.

With over 600 responses to the Green Paper consultation, Jo Johnson and his team have had plenty of advice to consider. And some of the White Paper content shows he clearly has listened. Whilst recognizing much that is encouraging in the document, I would like to highlight a few areas which have had little airing in other commentaries.

The bulk of the text concentrates on new providers, regulation and undergraduate teaching. For the latter, it is heartening to see that there is some rowing back from too simple a reliance on crude metrics to assess teaching ‘excellence’ in the TEF (the pace of change has also been reconsidered).

The creation of an appropriate panel of experts to tension the numbers and to read accompanying narrative descriptions is to be welcomed. Whether this is sufficient to give the “robust framework… to measure teaching in its broadest sense” that the document claims will be set up, whilst criteria for measuring teaching excellence remain so ill-defined, is unclear.

However I have a more specific concern regarding how students rate different kinds of lecturers. Jules Holroyd and Jenny Saul in a careful analysis of existing evidence, have suggested the TEF could (unintentionally) be sexist.

The evidence shows that white males score more highly in student assessments than do women or ethnic minorities, something likely to be reflected in the National Student Survey (one of the key metrics). I was alarmed to see there was no discussion of this issue in the White Paper but I understand the danger has indeed been recognized within BIS. I am told the narrative should allow institutions that have a high proportion of minority ethnic or women lecturers (for instance) to describe this and the probable consequences on the NSS scores for panels to take into account.

Secondly, my own institution of the University of Cambridge made very clear in its response to the Green Paper that divorcing undergraduate and research strands of the University would be extremely unhelpful, stating that such a separation would ‘irreparably damage the student and academic experience and the sector’s reputation’. Maybe I’ve missed something, but there seems only one sentence in the White Paper that links teaching and research and this specifically applies to funding. This does not amount to a recognition that the interplay between undergraduate teaching and research activity is important, despite the word holistic being used to describe the funding landscape.  From this it is hard to believe that the centrality of active researchers in providing a healthy learning environment has been appreciated.

I am sure that Ruth McKernan, CEO of Innovate UK is pleased to see that the overarching committee that Paul Nurse initially proposed should be called Research UK has now morphed before birth into UKRI  (UK Research and Innovation) so that the word innovation sits firmly in the title. It is also reassuring to see that, along with it and the seven Research Councils a ninth organisation to look after the dual support system for England now sits under this umbrella.

However whether the seven individual research councils (plus Innovate UK) are satisfied with the degree of autonomy accorded them in this new structure is less obvious since UKRI is charged, for instance with advising the Secretary of State on the funding balance between research disciplines. An additional key but unanswered question is exactly how cross-disciplinary research will be facilitated by this structure. Although this new organisation is intended to place a greater focus on cross-cutting issues that are outside the core remits of the current research councils, how this will be done and who will set the budget for such work is left unspecified. I worry that genuine inter-Research Council work may still, as now, be at a disadvantage.

Finally let me highlight one further cross-cutting issue that I hope UKRI will focus on. It is one which ties in with my first point: diversity but also career development. RCUK has only recently put out its action plan for diversity. It is a plan that might be viewed as a first dipping of the toe in the water rather than a definitive list of the issues that need to be addressed. For instance, no requirement is placed on institutions to consider what excellence looks like or how promotion criteria are defined, both of which typically remain steeped in an outdated view of academics. We need to see an expansion of such expectations from the new body.  

Additionally, there is no mention of the nurturing of early career researchers or the skills they need to acquire if they are successfully to address the current pressing societal challenges. The absence of any mention of such UKRI responsibilities must not be allowed to mean that such responsibilities are not shouldered.

Overall, I am left fretting about the absence of many details of issues which will affect the state of the UK’s avowed strength in higher education. Just as with the Brexiteers, I worry the drafters are simply hoping that everything will come out all right eventually and the details can be left to be resolved at some unspecified later date. I hope this is an unfair comparison.

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