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Lunchtime Reading: Investing in Quality

  • 21 March 2024
  • By Vicki Stott
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Vicki Stott, CEO of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), which yesterday published the latest paper in its Policy Series examining the future of quality in England. This new paper looks at the impact of the current funding landscape on the – quality of taught provision in higher education.

The urgent need for long-term funding solutions for higher education across the UK has been the topic of much discussion in recent months between providers and policymakers and in the press.

It is a matter which has achieved particular prominence in England, where a number of institutions have announced significant savings plans and anxious voices have been raised in some quarters about the long-term sustainability of the sector at its current size.

Today’s £9,250 domestic student tuition fee is in real terms worth less than three-quarters of the value of the £9,000 fee when it was introduced in 2012. As a result, English universities last academic year subsidised the costs of educating domestic undergraduates to the tune of an average of £2,500 per student.

This situation has grown so serious that Universities UK has gone so far as to call upon the next government to implement a rise in tuition fees that takes into account the effects of inflation, but this policy does not appear to have widespread public support.

For more than a decade, English universities have consistently made efforts to maintain the quality of the learner experience, despite rising costs resulting from inflationary pressures, evolving expectations from students, employers and funders, and an ongoing series of global crises.

It seems inevitable, however, that there will come a point at which the quality of higher education – a currency valued across the world and one crucial to the nation’s scientific, cultural, technological, industrial, societal and economic prospects – will become compromised.

This was signalled by a recent analysis conducted by PwC, which showed that it has become increasingly difficult for universities to stretch their finite resources to maintain the world-renowned quality of their provision.

Other reports have observed that the closure of less popular subjects by institutions in order to cut costs may result in regional “discipline deserts”, where local economies may be starved, for example, of arts or Maths graduates.

In order to focus and future-proof its strategic efforts, the sector needs the stability offered by a sustainable funding solution, rather than finding itself repeatedly obliged to return the emphasis of its core activities to budgetary firefighting.

It also needs support for institutional, collaborative and sectoral initiatives designed to maintain and further enhance HE UK’s world-leading position and its contribution to the country’s economic future.

This would embrace a wide range of areas for development, from artificial intelligence in the workplace, through the greening of professional, industrial and educational practices, to lifelong learning devised to support growth and transition for those seeking to improve their value to, or to return to, the workforce.

Provision should also be made to ensure that research funding is appropriately protected to avoid the counterproductive blurring of budgets without discouraging the strategic alignment of institutional and national priorities.

This approach would also, of course, need to ensure the sector-wide implementation of recognised, regularised and harmonised methods for monitoring, evaluating and reporting the impacts of such solutions and initiatives on the quality of the learning experience and the value of learner outcomes. These metrics should align with a broad scope of agreed measures of such value.

This will require that policymakers and representative sector bodies work together to develop, agree and introduce sustainable solutions, and to promote the positive impacts of the sector.

This will doubtless involve both political and financial commitment, and in the current economic and fiscal climate that might be considered a pretty big ask.

But to fail to do so would be to invoke a far greater risk, and to ignore the prospect of rich rewards offered by such a concrete investment in the country’s future.

Recent debates on the value of franchised courses and various popular degree subjects have demonstrated policymakers’ acute interest in the quality of our academic provision. It seems reasonable to ask them to take meaningful and urgent action to secure the future of this priceless and irreplaceable national resource.

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1 comment

  1. Ros lucas says:

    As Degree Apprenticeships develop and as COVID demonstrated, universities must now change the way they operate by utilising Digital and on-line learning more.
    Every education and training organisation has to embrace new ways of working for the 21st Century.
    However, when such changes ignore well being and neurodiversity of their learners and fail to treat them as individuals, with individual needs, resources and time for reflection, relaxation and take responsibility for proper support, success will be difficult to ensure… leading to too many dissatisfied learners and drop-outs… numbers already escalating since COVID.

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