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Why the UK’s planned higher education reforms are misguided

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
January 23, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 4

The UK continues to be in turmoil after the country voted to leave the European Union in a referendum last June. A few months later, as the dust settled on the decision—also known as Brexit—I asked Fraser Stoddart to comment on what it would mean for the scientific community (C&EN, Sept. 12, 2016, page 3).

His views—“Better in than out,” as the article was titled—are representative of how a large number of scientists in the UK feel about Brexit. The results of a recent survey by the University & College Union polling more than 1,000 lecturers and professors in the UK show that he is not alone: An overwhelming majority of respondents (90%) said they think Brexit will have a negative impact on higher education in the UK. One of the consequences of the decision is the loss of intellectual capital as the UK limits the free movement of researchers across its borders. Worringly, 42% of respondents said they were more likely to consider leaving UK higher education, with a third (29%) of the total confirming that they already know of academics leaving the country. In terms of limiting the ability of scientists to cooperate internationally and access European funding, more than two-fifths (44%) said they know of academics who have lost access to research funding as a direct result of the Brexit vote.

What is most alarming is that while all of this is happening, the government is also planning a complete overhaul of the educational system—also known as the Higher Education & Research Bill.

This overhaul calls for the creation of TEF, which stands for Teaching Excellence Framework and it is modeled after the Research Excellence Framework (REF), an impact evaluation assessing the research of British higher education institutions. TEF would link tuition fees to quality of teaching and use metrics such as student satisfaction and dropout rates. Both seem ineffectual ways of measuring teaching quality and it further reinforces a trend that we have seen in recent decades: that of students as consumers, with universities operating more like for-profit entities.

If that wasn’t bad enough, if fees are linked to quality of teaching this will result in fewer numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing education at top universities, which is a great concern from the point of view of social mobility and diversity. Overall, 75% of respondents to the University & College Union’s survey oppose the proposal to link teaching quality to tuition fees.

The bill also calls for the creation of an Office of Students, a regulatory body that would be financially supported by higher education providers via subscriptions. It would have the power to decide teaching standards, validate new providers, approve fee hikes, and administer the TEF. Another body would be created to control both academic research funding and the UK’s research councils. The government claims its reforms will put students at the heart of higher education. But both proposals have negative consequences for students: Funding the Office of Students is likely to result in a raise in tuition fees, and students’ education will suffer because the bill will further split the teaching and research functions of universities.

Amid brain-drain fears and other issues associated with Brexit, it doesn’t seem wise for the UK government to push forward such a controversial bill. At this crucial point in UK modern history, there is no need for distractions.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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