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Higher Education Round-up

Higher Education Round-up

Higher Education policy seems to be ever-changing these days. As the year draws to a close, I thought I’d give a little update on what’s been happening over the last few months.

Teaching Excellence Framework

If you haven’t heard of the Teaching Excellence Framework (or TEF) yet - where have you been? -take a look at my previous blog to get quickly up to speed.

Last year, the NUS ran a national boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS) because of its use in the TEF which was linked to student fees. Whilst the link with fees has been suspended for now, an unhappy outcome of the boycott is that the weighting of the survey in the TEF has been halved.

The NSS, while not perfect, places a strong focus on the student voice. It is certainly one of the most effective ways that students can give their feedback, as universities take it incredibly seriously. It’s pretty worrying that the power of the student voice is being diminished. It’s probably also worth saying again that this is also the only metric contributing to TEF that has any remote relation to teaching.

Instead, the informatively and snappily named Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) metric was added as a supplementary metric. If you’d like to know the ins and outs of LEO, there’s a detailed article here. In short, it is more about where you end up and how much money you make after you graduate than your time at university. The article begins by saying “LEO does not help us identify the universities with the best or most effective teaching” – good to hear it’s in the ‘TEACHING Excellence Framework’ then, eh?

I’ll try to keep you updated on any more TEF-related developments next term, but if you’d like even more reading, have a look at what students think of the TEF.

Accelerated Courses

Throughout the term, there was talk of increasing the fees for “accelerated degrees”. These degrees, which aren’t offered here at Birmingham, take 2 years to complete rather than 3, with more teaching in a summer term. Last week there was an announcement of a consultation to increase the fee cap, so the maximum tuition fees would be £11,100 a year, saving you 20% over the whole degree.

The arguments in favour are that you’ll pay a little bit less overall, your debt will be smaller, and you’ll pay it off quicker. They may also be beneficial to certain groups of students; typically students on an accelerated course at the moment are mature learners who want to complete their course quickly.

What they’re not saying is that you’ll have less time to get a job on the side to actually afford to live, you won’t have the summer for placements or internships, your quality of experience as a student will be lower, you’ll have less time for societies and sports – plus it’ll be even more of struggle if you have parental or caring responsibilities.

The government seems so determined to make “good” degrees at “good” universities cost more than “bad” ones, that they’re willing to try anything. This seems like an attempt to dissuade people from doing alternatives to degrees, like apprenticeships. To me, universities should be focussing on making sure that degrees are available and accessible for everyone, but if prospective students don’t want to complete them, they shouldn’t be convinced to do some weird Frankenstein’s monster substitute.

I can’t actually see UoB suddenly deciding to offer these degrees – it would be a massive shift in what we currently do – but who knows?

Erasmus+

Brexit has dominated the news for the whole of term 1 (forever/eternity/will it ever end?) but there has been very little talk of how it will affect students, until very recently. Last week Theresa May announced that the UK will remain part of the scheme until at least the end of 2020. Hopefully that should give a little bit of reassurance to current students that are planning on going on the scheme, and means that we’ll still welcome European students on their years abroad for the next few years, though what will happen in the long term remains to be seen.

Vice Chancellor’s Pay

Back in September, Universities minister Jo Johnson announced that, to combat the “spiralling vice-chancellor pay”, universities will have to justify paying any member of staff over £150,000. This story seems to come and go every few weeks, and recently there was an article in the Guardian that said over 160 academics here at Birmingham are protesting over our Vice Chancellor’s high salary, which prompted a response from the University – you can read their response here.

Their statement has the chutzpah to talk of how “the University contributes more than £3.5billion to the economy” but let’s face it: he’s not doing that all by himself. Every single member of staff at the University has a part to play in that contribution – to suggest otherwise is laughable.

There is a lot of talk of how the money would be best spent elsewhere but I think it’s also worth remembering that VC pay is completely a moral issue – the University definitely has the resources to allocate money in other places, and if the Vice-Chancellor were to take a £300k pay cut, that money wouldn’t go very far. The latest annual accounts show the University had a total income of £641m. One can definitely argue that nobody is worth such a large amount of money and that it isn’t fair for such a big disparity to exist between the top and bottom, but let’s frame the debate around exactly that, rather than getting lost in the idea that the university is struggling to find that money. And if we do want money better spent elsewhere, let’s talk about that.

I understand why people feel so strongly about VC pay, but what I don’t want is for it to cover up for the real issues that actually affect students. This is a clear smokescreen, it’s completely calculated, and I don’t want students to fall into its trap and then miss all the other things that the government is doing that affect them.

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