A fair future for students

Conor Ryan reflects on three key challenges for universities and colleges: quality, digitisation and access.

A group of six students comparing notes

The pandemic has brought into sharp relief three areas where universities and colleges will see important changes in the coming years. It is important that the higher education sector sees these changes as a real opportunity to improve not just for their students, but in public respect.

The three issues I want to focus on are quality, digitisation and access. While their salience has been heightened by coronavirus, quality and access are a core focus for us at the Office for Students (OfS) as the regulator too.

In the past, I have had a lot of experience of debates on quality and standards in education – mainly in schools. I worked with David Blunkett when he set targets for primary school attainment and floor standards in secondary school. One thing that both did was to drive up what was acceptable as a minimum standard, and the approach was adopted by successive governments.

Higher education has not had similar regulatory expectations – so the new thresholds on which the OfS is consulting are a significant change for the sector. They are accompanied by proposals for a sharpened Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which incentivises improvement above the baseline.

The proposed thresholds are focused on continuation, completion and postgraduate employment, with powers to intervene where these thresholds aren't met, and once context has been fully taken into account.

The changes should lead to a cultural shift in higher education, but they are the norm in other sectors with significant taxpayer funding: minimum standards have not only been introduced in schools, they are important in other sectors like health too, where waiting times targets have been important for two decades.

Thresholds can help drive out low quality courses. But they're a minimum expectation, not an ambitious goal; so, they are focused on the poorest performers. That's where the TEF is important, and there the proposal to add a ‘requires improvement’ category while maintaining the Gold, Silver and Bronze ratings will align our approach while incentivising improvement in teaching and outcomes.

Quality has come to the fore because of the pandemic. Despite the hard work of many universities and their staff, students had a variable experience in how their courses were delivered. And this has arguably led to greater focus on student expectations in a way that the increases in maximum fees in 2012 and 2006 didn't lead to as much as was expected. Those higher expectations will not diminish as we exit the worst of the pandemic.

The pandemic has highlighted how much students – rightly – expect good teaching and good results from their higher education experience – last year's National Student Survey showed significant dips in those who were positive about their teaching or resources, though those who were critical were still a minority. But the extra questions we asked found that only 48 per cent said they were content with the delivery of learning and teaching of their course during the pandemic.

And that helps explain why rather than the pandemic being seen as a spur to digital innovation it is now regarded by many students – and their parents and the wider public – as too often being synonymous with second rate course delivery and poor value for money.

Genuine digital innovation – such as that highlighted by the Barber review early last year – could complement face-to-face for those on campus and lead to more access for students of different backgrounds both here and abroad. But the poor experience of too many students over the last two years has made it harder to harness the potential in higher education. Harnessing the potential of digital must enhance rather than diminish the student experience if it is to be successful.

The third challenge is ensuring that improved access to higher education is accompanied by better outcomes for disadvantaged students – both at university and with the support of universities at school.

There has been a significant improvement in the numbers of disadvantaged students going into higher education over the last 20 years, and that's a tribute to the hard work of many schoolteachers and widening participation teams in higher education.

But there is also an assumption among some that there is an inevitable tension between quality and equality. I recall a similar argument in schools when minimum standards were first introduced – 20 per cent five A-Cs at GCSE is OK for us because we have a lot of disadvantaged students, the argument went. That argument would gain short shrift these days.

It is of course true that some students may need greater support in education because of the extra challenges they face as a result of their background, but that shouldn't mean lower expectations of what they can achieve with the right support because of that disadvantage.

We are hearing versions of that argument with the consultation on quality, and they are misplaced whether they come from those challenging ambitious access targets or those with wider access challenging stronger quality expectations.

As happened in schools, such poverty of expectations should gradually become a thing of the past in higher education too. And as John Blake, our new Director for Fair Access and Participation, outlined at our event on 8 February 2022, getting this right means universities and schools working together to raise attainment at an earlier stage and a sharper focus on what works in improving access, participation and outcomes, and garnering robust quantitative evidence for it.

If the sector meets these challenges effectively, the result should be a better student experience and renewed public respect for our universities and colleges.

Conor Ryan is Director of External Relations at the Office for Students. This blog is based on remarks he made at a seminar organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Advance HE on the future of higher education.


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Published 09 February 2022

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