SUSU’s Response to the White Paper on Higher Education
The White Paper, presented by David Willetts, Minister for Universities, was meant to outline how Higher Education will develop in the future; it does not do this. In particular, it does not provide students with sufficient advice or power in holding their University to account when they believe their University is not providing value for money.
First and foremost, the timing of this paper is highly suspect; providing a policy paper after the vote on tuition fees is a backward way of setting national policy. On top of this, the paper is being released at a particularly convenient time for the Coalition Government; not only are most students no longer on campus, having completed their year’s study, but also the Sabbatical Officers that represent these students across the country are currently in the middle of transferring to a new team. Both factors make physical campaigning and vocal opposition to these proposals very difficult.
Sam Ling, Union President, stated, “as a Union, we strongly oppose any increase in tuition fees, and believe that the increase in the cap to £9,000 is fundamentally wrong – especially in the light of the drastic cuts being made to Higher Education budgets. With that in mind, we are determined to ensure that students receive the best value for money under the new legislation. What is more, I believe we should fight for the level of fees to drop as and when the austerity measures are no longer seen as necessary.”
There are some positives to take from the paper; first, it confirms plans to give part-time students financial support. This has been greatly needed for some time, and it is good to see the problem has finally been addressed.
We also acknowledge that the paper attempts to be student focussed. Despite this, a lot of what is said within the paper is gloss rather than substance, and the paper is clearly more interested in ensuring that Higher Education becomes its own market. The Government has found itself in a hole by trying to create a market system and introducing austerity measures that reduced funding for Universities by £4bn. The result is that over half of Universities have submitted offers to the Office for Fair Access to charge the maximum £9,000 fee level. This has meant that in the short term, the Government in fact now has to find £5bn to fund the student loans that pay for fees. This paper is an attempt to recover this £1bn deficit, rather than truly putting students in the driving seat.
The final part of the paper we welcome is the requirement to expand the information made available to prospective students. Sasha Watson, Vice President Academic Affairs said “transparency is core to ensuring a good student experience – students should know what they are getting themselves into before they commit to paying for an education; knowing the amount of contact hours and other hidden information is a big part of that. However, transparency and accountability should continue to be available to students after they have arrived at the University, as well as before. The paper fails to outline how the student experience should be improved; there is no definition of what the quality of assessment and feedback must be, what being prepared for the world of work actually means, or how students can make the University address issues where they feel the institution is lacking.”
This paper has a lot of holes, but we as a Union will not sit idly and allow its deficiencies to prevent us from fighting to improve the student experience. At SUSU, we are very fortunate to have a strong and positive working relationship with the University. As a result, we will continue to work alongside them, in partnership, ensuring that they do their utmost to provide the best possible experience for our students.