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Win! Students will be at the heart of new university reforms

Students throwing hats in air

We’ve been campaigning to get students access to more information from universities before they sign up to a course. In a win for us and students alike, the Government has announced reforms to do just that.

A couple of weeks ago Heidi Allen MP’s Private Members’ Bill on higher education was debated in Parliament. With our support, the Bill called for more information on university courses to be released.

And now the Government has said it intends to do just that in a number of proposals announced today. The proposals aim to provide more information to students so that they can make well-informed choices on the course they want to study. Services like Which? University will also be able to provide even more and clearer information on the quality of the teaching and student experience.

The Office for Students

One significant reform is the sweeping away of the outdated system of regulation and replacing it with a new system that puts the interests’ of students first. A new regulator, called the Office for Students, is being set up to represent and protect the interests of students.

Students and graduates have told us of the many problems they’ve found with their degrees, such as inconsistent quality, too few contact hours with tutors and not enough support. The new regulator will be tasked with resolving these problems so that future students get better value from their education.

Are unis complying with the law?

We’ve also consistently raised concerns with universities about their lack of compliance with consumer protection law. The Competition and Markets Authority published advice to universities earlier this year after we found many failing to comply with their legal obligations. The Government now plans to make compliance with consumer protection law a precondition for unis to be recognised as ‘good quality’, which should help sort this out.

It’s about time that there was a strong body that stands up for students, and the Government’s right to recognise that students’ interests should be central to any higher education reform.

A consultation on the proposals will now run until 15 January next year. What do you think about the proposals? Do you agree that students should have more information about uni courses before they sign on the dotted line?


What is the role of the National Union of Students?

I have tried to find information about the new regulator. I’m not sure ‘Office for Students’ was a good choice since that name is used for discounted Microsoft software. 🙁

Thanks very much, Darren. There is plenty that will be found controversial, though I expect that most will support greater opportunity for students to make an input to their education.

I have read the announcement. It seems adequate and satisfactory but I hope prospective students will not be tempted to do even less preparatory investigation themselves into the most suitable course and university for their aspirations.

I don’t like the phrase Teaching Excellence Framework. It sounds like something to do with junior schools. I thought higher education was about learning, not being taught. Merging the HEFCE and OFFA into the OfS will make an unwieldy body but it ticks another box on the ‘cut the quangoes’ checklist. Millions of people are ‘students’, but not all of them are ‘undergraduates’; I should have thought that might have been a better word for the new regulatory body.

I know . . . I’m a little grumpy.

The Teaching Excellence Framework will become well known if the possibility of tuition fees being linked to performance is realised. We have certainly had centres for teaching excellence identified in the past.

I am surprised about your concern about the term ‘students’. It’s not a term that I’ve heard criticised and I’ve had dealings with a lot of postgraduates. I cannot think of an alternative.

I thought university students were generally described as undergraduates since pupils at every level of compulsory education are called students these days as well as people who embark on courses at all sorts of grades of commercial tuition. The Office for Students is not going to look after their interests as well surely.

It could have been worse. Despite the introduction of American usage like ‘academy’ and ‘high school’ into primary and secondary education, tertiary education in the UK has eschewed the term ‘sophomore’ for its second-years.

My concern over the TEF was only around the word ‘teaching’ which to my mind implies a purely didactic process, whereas the concept of learning at a university is more about an educative process where people are enabled to explore and discover. Just nit-picking really. Overall a good development.

Students are now also customers of course and I think the way in which the quality of the education will affect the rankings of the universities is likely to be controversial. Disputes over assessments will presumably arise.

The debasing of the term student and the proliferation of “universities” cannot be welcomed. I note in the Ministers introduction to the Green Paper he boasts of quality. With nearly 1000 uni’s in the UK to draw comfort from the fact we have 4 in the top ten in the world is rather like congratulating a country for having four of the wealthiest billionaires without mentioning the number of poor.

Undergraduates is certainly a more precise description than students – if unlikely to be used by the media. Good language should aim for conveying the most information in the fewest words and “student” is so widely [ab]used as to be require extra words to define what is now meant.

Incidentally I understand now there as many people in University as people who got 5 “O” Levels in the 1980’s. I await the time when we reach 100% at Universities as we enroll primary schools into the category. : )

Universities are already rated by students themselves, and websites, such as the complete university guide, the Telegraph, the Times and the Guardian. These sites, in addition to feedback to schools. through family and friends and from personal visits allow a plethora of choices, based on solid information.

Now, I’m not denying that teaching in universities varies as much as it does in schools, but the one thing that is perhaps lacking is a statistical analysis of degree to subsequent employment opportunities. However, I question whether the Government’s proposals will do more than cut costs. I’m always wary when I read ‘value for money’, because that has a worrying habit of translating into cost cutting, and I worry even more when the acronyms (SMAG, BME, TEF) start to fly, because they’ can all too often become euphemisms for doing as little as possible with the least cash.

It might be a lot better if the Government were to initiate a group studying why youngsters go to university in the first place; not everyone is either suited to or able to cope with a degree course, yet the over-provision of universities is ensuring a ranking order which is pretty well-known among prospective students.

There’s a huge amount that could be said about the proposals, but perhaps some questions need to be asked: why do we need to start tinkering with a system that produced Newton, Hawking, Faraday, Watson, Huxley and many more? Could it perhaps be that through political interference the University system has reached the state it has in some places? The most effective way of encouraging ‘youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds’ was through free tuition. Why, then, was that scrapped? Perhaps the Government needs to address the question of tuition fees before tinkering with the overall system.

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The Govt. must be congratulated on responding so swiftly to a Private Members Bill. In fact one wonders if there was something in the works already. But a quick win for sure.

However the surely like a war premature announcement of a result can be embarrassing. Let’s see how this pans out. I will be reading the green paper closely but perhaps not until after the Consumers’ Association AGM on the 18th inst.

Jo Johnson is of course part of the dynasty:
” Johnson is the youngest of four children born to former Conservative MEP Stanley Johnson and artist Charlotte Johnson Wahl (née Fawcett), the daughter of Sir James Fawcett, a prominent barrister and president of the European Commission of Human Rights.
He is the younger brother of Boris, the Mayor of London; Rachel, a writer and journalist; and Leo, an entrepreneur and film-maker.[3]
He began his schooling in Brussels, at the European School in Uccle, before attending The Hall School in Hampstead, London, Ashdown House School in East Sussex, and then Eton College. In 1991, he went to Balliol College, Oxford to read Modern History. He was a Scholar at Balliol, edited Isis, the Oxford University student magazine, and was awarded a First Class degree in both Honour Moderations (June 1992) and Finals (Honour School, June 1994). While at Oxford, he was a member of the Bullingdon Club together with Harry Mount, Nat Rothschild and George Osborne,[4] with whom he remains a close friend.[5][6][7]
A fluent French speaker, he did postgraduate study on the continent and has degrees from two further European universities, gaining an MBA from INSEAD in 2000 and a licence spéciale with distinction in 1995 from the Institut d’Etudes Européennes at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he was a Wiener-Anspach Fellow.”

I understand he is actually probably the most intelligent of the Johnson’s and wish him well.

Raising educational levels in schools, colleges and universities surely means having a better standard of teaching. Many of the available pool will be good, but many will be not so good. So just how do we increase the number of good ones? Presumably many of those not-so good lack the ability or the will to improve – we all have different levels of attainment. Where do we get them from? Like good doctors, scientists and engineers they don’t sit on a shelf waiting to be put in a job.

Perhaps we need a different attitude to education. Avoiding education, homework, not knuckling down to the discipline of learning, putting leisure, computer games first would need to change if we want to raise the country’s standards. Well-taught children will lead on to some becoming better teachers and the deficit begins to be filled. Maybe we don’t want to bother?

It’s not as simple as improving the standard of teaching, Malcolm. Many undergraduate students are effectively working part-time because they have jobs to help pay for their fees and living expenses. Some work at the weekend or in the evening, but there are some who miss classes because of working commitments. One of my supervises actually asked me to phone his employer to explain that it was vital that he attended my practical classes. Having said that, doing paid work during university courses is not all bad because it can result in considerable improvement in time management and interpersonal skills. The downside is that they have less time to focus on their studies and often little time to work with fellow students. The whole idea of going to university is directed learning, where you are expected to work with fellow students. Universities have moved on since we were students.

Students are now more demanding than they were in my day. They want ensuite rooms in student residences, fibre broadband and somewhere to park their car.

“there are some who miss classes because of working commitments.”
It sounds as though priorities are wrong from what you describe. Learning should be the priority, not a “working commitment” I, like many, spent 6 months to a year before going to university working to earn some money to help me through; I also worked during the long vacations. I certainly had no time during term to take on a “work commitment” if I was to keep up with my studies.

“somewhere to park their car”. Perhaps they would not need to work if they abandoned a car – they’ll cost £3000 or more a year to run. Maybe a scooter, motorcycle, push bike or the bus.
Like I said, some don’t seem to take their education as seriously as perhaps they should.

Unfortunately we have moved on, Malcolm. When I was at university I did not miss a single class, only worked during the vacations and rode an economical Honda 50. Of the thirty students on my degree course, thirty duly graduated and resit exams were unheard of. After lectures I would go for a coffee with a small group of fellow students and we would try to fill in the gaps in our hastily written lecture notes. I worked together with others on tutorial work, practical write-ups and so on. Students failing to work together has become a big problem, in my view. Most students are reasonably sensible about time allotted to paid work, sport, etc. but I am convinced that not enough studying is going on. Sometimes it is parents that provides students with cars and laptops. I’m not saying that every student has a car but they are not uncommon these days.

Perhaps dropping a feline amongst the avians, I should say that there is a lot of (hearsay) evidence that different disciplines require different lengths of time and degrees of application. It’s often acknowledged tacitly (in Oxbridge) that Arts students have an easy time, whereas Science and Engineering students have to keep their heads down.

I love your phrase “unfortunately we have moved on” Wavechange. Admittedly taken out of context, it sums up society today.

John – Although I have seen a decline in commitment of some students, I have experienced some very positive changes since I started teaching. A huge amount of effort goes into supporting students with all sorts of disabilities. Despite financial shortages, money is being spent in universities to provide excellent modern teaching and study facilities, managed to ensure a high level of usage throughout the semesters. The biggest problem is that we are pushing far too many school leavers straight into higher education, irrespective of whether they have the motivation and aptitude to make the best out of their chosen degree.

It’s sometimes said that students started to regard themselves as customers and become more demanding when the £9k tuition fees were introduced, but this change had begun years before. It’s no bad thing.

I agree with your concern about too many entering HE. I suspect Schools are overly mindful of their pending inspections and (informal) parental reviews and are acutely aware that the media have for many years concentrated solely on headline stats: how many they’ve got into which universities is the statistic many feel year 12/13 parents debate.

I’ve always thought that some ‘sixth-forms’ get it right with how they treat their students, and some make an unholy mess of it. Establishing expectations of year 12/13 students in terms of time management, study techniques and self-esteem (not calling them ‘pupils’ is a good start) and, above all, making a staff member who understands how to deal with that age group available in the common room or its equivalent as much as possible is essential.

Kids of that age are full of contradictions, outwardly confident yet inwardly remarkably insecure, and they need a lot of support delivered in ways that doesn’t devalue their own, sometimes fragile, self confidence.

There is certainly a significant difference in contact hours, Ian. Science degrees generally have practical classes and the biological sciences can involve field work. What is ‘easy’ might depend on the individual. At school I found science subjects very much easier than the others.

I loved Science at school but my maths (long story) wasn’t up to doing it at A level. Curiously, some tell me Music is Mathematical, but I’ve never seen it like that.

Students are invited to participate in the National Students Survey (NSS) and complete an anonymous questionnaire during their final year: http://www.thestudentsurvey.com/content/NSS2015_Questionnaire.pdf

The comments boxes are expandable and some students provide a lot of feedback. Universities see the feedback after graduation and generally criticism is constructive and useful. The comments are not published but the statistics are available on the Unistats website: http://unistats.direct.gov.uk Some universities draw attention to their performance in the NSS on their website pages describing their degree courses.

Students’ Unions are members of the National Union of Students. At the university where I worked until a few years ago, the union organised recruitment and training of ‘Course Reps’ who attended meetings with their lecturers and the Head of Department. From speaking to academics in other institutions the opportunities for students to pay a role in quality control was highly variable. Sometimes students don’t want to engage in this way but are happy to discuss problems face to face.