CALLS for a snap election produced a flurry of unexpected activity before Parliament was dissolved and the Civil Service went into purdah. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 was still trundling through the argument-and-amendment stage when the date of the General Election was announced. Compromises were quickly reached; so the Act met its deadline. Now enacted, it is likely to be the legal basis for all higher education for at least several years to come.
The Act’s most influential development is the creation of the Office for Students. Its wide-ranging powers include responsibility for quality and standards, and deciding whether to grant university titles and degree-awarding powers to potential new entrants. Central to judging quality will be the Teaching Excellence Framework.
One member of the panel devising the assessment outcomes, Professor Joy Carter, who is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winchester, is clear that this current focus on teaching is long overdue. She is confident that the framework metrics will come as close as is possible to the effective measurement of teaching quality.
It is likely that universities will be awarded Gold, Silver, or Bronze status: a move that after 2020 is likely to affect a university’s ability to set its fees. In contrast with the Olympics, gaining Bronze status could ultimately put a university at risk. All will strive for Gold, with its obvious financial and reputational advantages.
An increased Conservative majority will allow the original intentions of the Act to be driven with greater force. And much will depend on personalities; so, will current ministers remain, or be replaced by new faces? Moreover, how much individual flexibility will they be alIowed in their negotiations with the university sector?
UNIVERSITIES are also going to be caught up in the slipstream of Brexit. EU-funded collaborative research has been a central feature, as has the employment of EU research staff, and the enrolment of EU students, especially for postgraduate degrees. It is uncertain how much of this will be sustained, or, where losses occur, how far they might be counterbalanced by Brexit benefits.
Although EU students’ fees are not big money-spinners for universities, the much higher fees for students from the rest of the world certainly are. At the moment, it has not been decided whether these students will be included in the immigration figures that the Conservatives are hoping to reduce to below 100,000. The position of international academic and research staff is also uncertain: if they are included, the risk to the international reputation of our universities, as well as certain financial damage, could be significant.
HOW might the church universities react to the changing scenarios? It will be more important than ever that they play to their strengths, especially as value-driven universities. Through their predecessor institutions, the church colleges of education, most have been involved in higher education for 175 years. During this time, they have had an enormous effect on widening participation in higher education among women and working-class men. This contribution to equality and diversity continues.
Recent research from the University of Winchester also testifies to their long-term impact on students and staff. One survey of former students concluded: “Many described the lasting effect of the values they gained from the institution, and how they had taken those values with them into their subsequent professional lives, one aim of which had been to share the values with peers and future generations, helping them to similarly grow and develop.”
When so much importance is attributed to that which can be measured, evidence for long-term impact, as well as immediate outcomes, will be necessary.
The church universities can and should contribute to the general debate about the nature and purpose of higher education. This is the subject of The Universities We Need: Theological perspectives, by the Revd Dr Stephen Heap. Once higher-education officer for the Church of England, now a professor of theology at the University of Winchester, Dr Heap has included chapters from a number of key thinkers in theology and higher-education policy, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, Professor Suzy Harris, Professor David Ford, Professor Mike Higton, and a former editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement, Sir Peter Scott.
The book argues from theological perspectives that, for the sake of the common and individual good, a primary purpose of higher education must be forming citizens and societies, besides being an economic resource. Such a counterbalance to the economic driver behind much of the Government’s thinking on universities is certainly needed.
IN THEIR General Election pastoral letter, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York point out that if Parliament is to take religious freedom seriously, an essential task must be the improvement of religious literacy (News, 5 May). This echoes last summer’s parliamentary report on the subject. Here is a further opportunity for the church universities to play to their strengths — starting, perhaps, with their own students.
Opportunities for the church universities also include collaboration with similar institutions overseas. More than 130 colleges and universities worldwide are associated with the Anglican Communion. In addition, there are international groupings of Roman Catholic universities, and, in North America, many Methodist, Lutheran, and other Protestant universities.
The immediate aftermath of a General Election is always a good time to take stock and look at new opportunities. If the next government is Conservative, led by the child of a vicarage, then church universities have good reasons to play to their strengths. But the mood is likely to be hard-headed, and they will need to be convincing about their distinctive contribution.
The Revd Dr John Gay is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of Education, in the University of Oxford.