Does the quality of university teaching justify higher fees? (updated)

16 May

See update below (16 May 2016)
12 January 2016

Does the quality of university teaching justify higher fees?

By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research Services, Voice

The recent Green Paper from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice (pdf), proposes allowing high-performing universities to increase student fees.  Given that many students currently leave university owing in excess of £50,000, what is the likely impact of such proposals?

Under the proposals, each university (and individual courses within universities) would be graded by a panel of experts on teaching quality and a range of other factors in order to promote excellence in teaching.  Universities (and courses within those universities) would then be allocated to one of four bands according to performance. Top band universities would be allowed to charge the highest fees, whereas those in the lowest band would have fee thresholds set at the lowest level.

This would produce a new league table, with universities (and individual courses) potentially moving between the bands over time as the grading exercise would be repeated every three or five years.  The idea is to create a competitive ‘market-facing’ system, with student fees linked to quality of teaching.

Higher performing universities are likely to enjoy considerable kudos, enabling them to attract more students (and, perhaps, students with better prospects) although such students would have to pay more for the privilege of studying at such prestigious places.  Universities where teaching is not so good, however, face the prospect of becoming unviable.

The exercise is likely to be quite sophisticated, involving panels of academics, students and employers, and using a range of data, including a redesigned national survey of students, graduate tax records (to obtain data on employability and salary prospects) and detailed transcripts of degree outcomes. 

There would also be a new regulator, the Office for Students, which would oversee the process of teaching quality assessments, scrutinise bids to open new private universities and decide whether universities deemed to be failing should be shut down.

Value for money?

It is, perhaps, refreshing that the Government is beginning to focus on standards of university teaching, as the recent rise in student fees has undoubtedly caused students to question whether they are receiving value for money, especially when:

  • course hours have been cut;
  • there is often a lack of attention given to enabling university lecturers to receive high quality training in how to teach; and
  • many universities appear to emphasise their research profiles over teaching standards.

However, fee capping was originally introduced to secure equality of access, regardless of socio-economic status, so any change needs to be implemented with great care.  Students from more disadvantaged backgrounds may feel forced into choosing universities with lower ratings so as to avoid higher debts, and this would do damage to attempts to increase social mobility.

Why should financial incentives become the drivers of teaching quality? Should undergraduates not be entitled to expect that they will be taught by lecturers who are not only qualified in their respective subjects but who have also undertaken adequate teacher training and have a passion for teaching and engaging with students?

These proposals also have implications for lecturers’ contracts.  Many universities are already attempting to introduce separate contracts for lecturers and researchers.  Whilst this may suit some members of the profession, for the vast majority such attempts detract from the richness of the job, lower morale and impair career progression.

Do let us know your views…

[Article written for January 2016 issue of the members’ magazine, Your Voice.]

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