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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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English higher education policy: hope and pay

by Rob Cuthbert

The long-awaited Cabinet reshuffle offers a faint hope for some improvement in HE policymaking in England: there is of course plenty of room for it. Former Secretary of State Gavin Williamson never recovered from the A-levels debacle of 2020, having already been held in low esteem before then. His standing in the HE sector was at a record low after a series of increasingly frenetic measures which seemed more like attempts to curry favour with the Conservative Party and the right wing press than coherent policy initiatives. Those measures included T-levels in post-16 education, a consultation on initial teacher training reform, the Free Speech Bill working its way through Parliament, comments on post-Covid behaviour by universities, rumoured moves on HE tuition fees, and various initiatives taken by the Office for Students in response to the Secretary of State’s frequent ‘guidance’ letters.

Announcing his departure on Twitter, Williamson said it had been a pleasure to serve in the role and that he was proud of the “transformational reforms” he had led in post-16 education. FE and schools begged to differ. A coalition of influential education bodies had written to Gavin Williamson about his T-level proposals on 29 July 2021 saying: “It is impossible to square the government’s stated ambition to ‘level up’ opportunity with the proposal to scrap most BTECs, including all larger versions of the qualifications that are deemed to overlap with A levels or T levels (86% of respondents to the review disagreed with your proposal to remove funding for qualifications on this basis) … Many young people will be adversely affected by this proposal, but disadvantaged students have the most to lose, a conclusion that your Department’s own equalities impact assessment supports.” We can hope that the new DfE team will think again.

Similarly, the consultation on ITT has been universally criticised. Oxford and Cambridge suggested in response that they might pull out of ITT provision, and two senior former inspectors savaged the recent Ofsted inspections purporting to justify proposed reforms. Anna McKie reported for Times Higher Education on 3 August 2021, and Terry Russell and Julie Price Grimshaw blogged about ITT inspections in July 2021 for Teach Best: “The reports show that the evidence base for the judgements made are flimsy in the extreme, repetitive, poorly written, hyper-critical, demoralising and humiliating. It is totally unacceptable that programme leaders across the whole sector, who have turned themselves inside out for two years in order to ensure that trainees get the best possible deal, can be treated like this. We know that some course leaders have suffered illness and extreme anxiety as a direct result of these inspections. Already we are seeing providers taking the decision to close.” A strongly negative response from MillionPlus on 20 August 2021 called for the ‘reform’ to be ‘paused’: “If change is forced through in spite of a near-unanimous sector backlash, it is likely that numerous modern universities, currently the backbone of initial teacher training, will re-consider their provision in this area. This could critically damage the pipeline of new teachers into the profession, potentially hitting hardest the very regions and communities the government has pledged to level up.” Caroline Daly (UCL) blogged for UCL on 13 August 2021: “This is no time for a mass experiment on teacher education”. We might hope that the new DfE team will quietly let this one disappear.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill currently before Parliament embodies the culture wars so popular in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and is reported on more fully elsewhere in this issue of SRHE News. Whatever its supposed merits, we can but hope that the slavish desire to cater to right wing prejudice will be tempered somewhat in the new DfE team.

The installation of Lord Wharton as chair of the Office for Students, and his refusal to stop taking the Tory whip in the Lords, meant that OfS was never going to be the kind of independent regulator required by statute; recent OfS initiatives have reinforced those feelings. The preliminary OfS consultation on a range of quality and standards issues during the winter of 2020-21 was followed by a further consultation published on 21 July 2021. This made detailed proposals about new regulatory requirements, saying: “the UK Quality Code, including its common practices, advice and guidance, risks creating a homogeneous approach to quality and standards assurance that stifles innovation and overly focuses on policy and process rather than outcomes for students. By contrast, our intention is to establish an approach to regulation that protects all students through the articulation of a clear minimum baseline for quality and standards in the regulatory framework, while enabling competition, student choice, provider autonomy and innovation to develop freely above the baseline.”

Picking their way through the weasel words, David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson of WonkHE summed up (on 20 July 2021) its intention as being to sweep away the existing Quality Code, “a longstanding agreed sector standard developed by the Quality Assurance Agency … on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (kind of the sector’s representative body on quality assurance). The code is short, clear, comprehensible … Everybody knows where they are with it (from PSRBs to providers), it is popular, UK-wide, and internationally recognised. And it’s symbolic – insofar as it is a piece of co-regulation.” The first consultation spoke of “up-to-date” content and “effective” assessment. Perhaps this was, as Kernohan and Dickinson said, “meant to give providers flexibility to make their own decisions  … [but] in practice it made them concerned that their definitions of these terms may not match the regulator’s own impressions.”

The Teaching Excellence Framework was evaluated in unflattering terms by the independent review reluctantly accepted by DfE as part of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. That review, completed long ago but published much more recently, seemed to have put TEF in the deep freeze, but OfS now envisages a new-style TEF as an enforcement mechanism for its new ‘definitions’ of quality and standards. The WonkHE writers conclude: “As usual, there’s little on making students feel more powerful – but plenty for OfS.” The attempted reassurance in the OfS blog by Director of Regulation Susan Lapworth on 20 July 2021 failed to persuade, and the THE pronouncement on the same day by OfS chair Lord Wharton that “Good universities have nothing to fear from the OfS’ quality crackdown” smacked more of loyalty oaths than higher education standards.

Those suspicions were fuelled, to put it mildly, when OfS issued on 7 October 2021 probably its most fatuous review to date, about spelling, punctuation and grammar. This followed a series of media scare stories earlier in 2021 about universities supposedly being told that ‘cutting marks for bad spelling is elitist’, as the Mail on Sunday headline had it on 11 April 2021. Minister Michele Donelan duly deplored such alleged behaviour in the House of Commons, as Jim Dickinson noted in his WonkHE blog on 7 October 2021. OfS then conducted a review over Summer 2021 in “a small number of higher education providers … focused on spelling, punctuation and grammar in written assessment” identifying a “cause for regulatory concern”. There will always be stories and cases of daft behaviour by some universities, on issues like spelling, just as on issues like freedom of speech. They need to be dealt with proportionately and the regulator must decide whether there is a substantive case to answer for the whole sector. Here the OfS jumped to the remarkable conclusion that “The common features we have seen in the small number of cases in this review suggest that the practices and approaches we have set out in the case studies may be widespread across the sector.” This is not an independent regulator, this is a body in a hurry to do what it thinks the Minister wants. We can hope that the new DfE team might discourage such excessive compliance, led as it now is by someone who made a success of asking different people for their opinions.

Williamson’s last turn in HE was his speech at the Universities UK conference in Newcastle in September, when he urged universities to get back to in-person face to face teaching – speaking by videolink (!) as Times education editor Nicola Woolcock reported on 9 September 2021. Richard Adams, The Guardian’s education editor, described his speech as ‘combative’: Williamson “accused some universities of being more interested in “cancelling national heroes” and bureaucracy than improving the lives of students and staff, telling vice-chancellors they risk undermining public confidence in higher education.” He went on to attack universities with high drop-out rates and announced that “in the future institutions in England would not be able to count disadvantaged students enrolled on courses with high non-continuation rates towards meeting their access targets.” The Secretary of State’s willingness to take on the universities, albeit remotely, was not of course sufficient to save his job. We can hope that the faux outrage of the culture wars and the faux consultations on decisions already made might give way in future to something more approaching evidence-based policy and proper consultation.

The signs are that real politics might be re-emerging. The restructuring of the DfE entailed the abolition of the role of Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills. This seemed to run contrary to levelling up, as the FE News report on 15 September 2021 noted, with Toby Perkins, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Further Education and Skills, quoted as saying: “Skills shortages are holding our economy back. For all his warm words, the Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the dedicated skills minister shows he isn’t serious about reskilling our workforce for the future.” But the SoS has a track record in this area, so this at least sounds like a reasonable difference of opinion about how to achieve a policy objective.

More fundamentally, we are expecting what the media call an ‘overhaul’ of HE funding, as Richard Adams wrote in The Guardian on 9 July 2021. The options might include tuition-fee cuts, a cap on student numbers for some courses and minimum qualifications for HE entry, in a much-delayed response to the Augar review of tertiary funding. After Covid the government, of course, needs to find or save a great deal of money and the student loan system is a prime target. After long-running disagreements between No 10, DfE and the Treasury over how to achieve savings, there were straws in the wind as first Nick Hillman for HEPI on 10 June 2021 and then David Willetts (in HEPI Report 142) on 30 September 2021 spelt out the possibilities for savings, supposedly while ‘boosting HE spending’ according to Willetts. Consider these – however unpalatable – as the centrist Tory case for savings: it amounts to ‘make graduates pay more’. A different position would involve fee reductions, meaning funding cuts for institutions, student number caps and/or minimum entry qualifications, restricting access and HE numbers. The latter was more likely to have been adopted by the former DfE regime. We can hope there are higher chances now of the more ‘moderate’ course.

The new Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi arrives with a better reputation than his predecessor, and there have been significant ministerial changes at DfE, not least the departure after a very long tenure of Nick Gibb as schools minister. However Michele Donelan remains and has been promoted as Universities Minister, adding post-16 responsibilities to her brief, and she will in future attend Cabinet. She remains something of a blank canvas, having until now loyally followed her SoS’s lead. More worryingly, former Gavin Williamson special adviser Iain Mansfield tweeted on 2 October 2021: “Delighted to be able to confirm that I will be staying on in Government, as Special Adviser to Michelle Donelan, Minister for Higher and Further Education”, as ResearchProfessionalNews had divined some weeks earlier. Mansfield was formerly a DfE civil servant known principally as the architect of the first version of TEF, later as an evidence-defying supporter of grammar schools. And of course Lord Wharton remains as chair of the OfS.

We can only hope that there will at least be something of a return to more sensible politics as the new ministerial team settles in. We can be fairly sure that hard times are coming for HE funding in the government spending review, with institutions, staff, students and graduates paying the price. So there it is, the short term future for higher education policy in England: hope and pay.

SRHE News Editor Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com. Twitter @RobCuthbert


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Beyond TEF Cynicism: Towards a New Vocabulary of ‘Excellence’?

By Steven Jones

One might expect that asking a room full of diverse stakeholders to discuss ‘teaching excellence’ would result in all kinds of quarrels and disagreement. In fact, the SRHE’s September 2019 event (The impact of the TEF on our understanding, recording and measurement of teaching excellence: implications for policy and practice) was a refreshingly convivial and creative affair.

Everyone present agreed that the TEF’s proxies for excellence were wholly inappropriate. In fact, there was surprisingly little discussion of existing metrics. We all felt that the consumerist language of ‘value for money’ and the instrumental lens of ‘employability’ were inadequate to capture the nuanced and complex ways in which curiosity can be sparked and orthodoxy challenged in the HE classroom.

Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka spoke about the absence of the student voice in TEF policy, noting that conceptualisations of ‘excellence’ tend to overlook the very moral and critical components of transformative teaching that students value most highly. Michael Tomlinson drew attention to student-as-consumer framings within the ‘measured market’, noting the inevitability of institutional game-playing, status leveraging and brand promotion in such a relentlessly competitive environment. Both speakers suggested that students were misleadingly empowered, lacking the agency that policy discourses attribute to them.

I tried to push this idea further, beginning my talk by asking whether any lecturer had ever actually changed the way they teach because of government policy. There was broad agreement that while excellence frameworks influenced professional cultures and co-opted university managers, they barely touched academic practice. Lecturers know their own students – and know how to teach them – better than any White Paper.

But is the TEF actually about university teaching at all? Or do too many barriers sit between policy and practice for that to be a realistic aim? Policy enactment in HE is interrupted by institutional autonomy, by academic freedom and, increasingly, by lecturers’ professional identity. The TEF’s real purpose, I would argue, is more about manipulating the discourse. It manufactures a crisis, positioning intractable academics as the problem and students as the victim, thus allowing competition to come along and save the day.

Grade inflation is one area in which the contradictions of top-down policy discourse are laid bare. The market demands that lecturers mark students’ work generously (so that ‘value added’ columns in league tables don’t hold back institutional ranking). Then policymakers wade in, attacking institutions for artificial increases and threatening fines for those who persist. The logic is inconsistent and confused, but this matters little – the discourse persuades voters that their own hard-won education successes are being devalued by a sector overprotective of its ‘snowflake’ customer base.

TEF provider statements offer the opportunity for universities to fight back, but evidence suggests they’re bland and indistinct, tending towards formulaic language and offering little additional clarity to the applicant.

But despite such missed opportunities, 73 Collier Street was full of new ideas. Opposition to metrics wasn’t based on change-resistance and ideological stubbornness. Indeed, as respondent Sal Jarvis noted, we urgently need to measure, understand and close differential attainment gaps in many areas, such as ethnicity. But there was consensus that current proxies for ‘excellence’ were incomplete, and creative thoughts about how they could be complemented. What about capturing graduates’ long-term well-being instead of their short-term satisfaction? Or encouraging institutions to develop their own frameworks based on their specific mission and their students’ needs? How about structural incentives for collaboration rather than competition? And a focus on teaching processes, not teaching outcomes?

The argument that the TEF is less about changing pedagogies than manipulating wider discourses shouldn’t bring any comfort to the sector. I tried to show how the dominant logic of teaching excellence primes the sector for more fundamental policy shifts, such as for-profit providers receiving taxpayer subsidy on pedagogical grounds. One delegate spoke to me at the end of the event to offer another example, explaining how employability-minded managers within his institution were squeezing out critical engagement with cultural theory to allow for further skills-based, professional training. The TEF may not change practice directly, but it retains the power to nudge the sector away from its core public roles towards more privatised and instrumental practices.

The challenge for us is to articulate a confident and robust defence of all kinds of university teaching. We need to explain how our pedagogies bring lifelong gains both to our students and to wider society, even if initial encounters can be difficult and unsettling. Policy has taken us a long way down the market’s cul-de-sac, but what’s reassuring is that we’re now moving on from TEF-bashing towards a coherent counter-narrative. This event confirmed that universities have more meaningful things to crow about than their fleeting goldenness against a bunch of false proxies.

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at the Manchester Institute of Education. His research focuses on equity issues around students’ access, experiences and outcomes. Steven is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He teaches on the University of Manchester’s PGCert in Higher Education. The view expressed here are his own.

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Nonsense on stilts

By Rob Cuthbert

How does government think Britain’s higher education can be improved? The government legislated in 2017 to expand competition in a statutory higher education market. We may think this is a consistent policy narrative for public services, but consider the experience of transport. How does government think Britain’s transport system can be improved? After years of debate the government finally announced in October 2016 that it would expand Heathrow rather than Gatwick. And in recent months government has considered reopening some railway lines closed in the Beeching cuts 50 years ago. These policy choices in HE and transport differ considerably in how they have been framed.

50 years ago government set up the Roskill Commission to examine alternatives for London’s third airport; it relied heavily on an economic perspective. Peter Self’s (LSE) famous article in Political Quarterly in 1970 said: ‘Nonsense on stilts … Bentham’s unfair description of natural rights, is a phrase which might more fairly be used of the gigantic cost-benefit exercise which is currently being carried out by the Roskill Commission’ It was academic economists who helped to dismantle the primacy of economic arguments. In 2017-2018 the government is consulting on proposals for the third runway at Heathrow, with new legal objections coming from the local councils around the airport. Politicians losing the political argument are resorting to law. Economics no longer frames the argument.

50 years ago drastic cuts in the rail network followed the ‘notorious’ Beeching report: ‘ Continue reading


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Student voice in UK Higher Education politics: NSS, TEF and boycotts

by Camille Kandiko-Howson

Higher education policy is increasingly becoming metrics-oriented, with rafts of self-declared ‘wonks’ joining researchers, academics, policy officers and journalists. Although national quantitative datasets have been  running for over a decade, relatively little research has come from them, particularly compared with the thousands of publications using the US National Survey of Student Engagement. However, as metrics have risen in importance, the national datasets are gaining prominence in policy and research. The UK National Student Survey (NSS) dominates because of its use in national league tables, and from 2016, its inclusion in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). On the plus side, many institutions have used the data for improving the student experience, but it is also decried for driving a consumer-approach to higher education.

Boycotts Continue reading

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Post-Truth and the Higher Education and Research Bill

By Rob Cuthbert

The Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) has begun its Committee stage in the House of Lords. With 500 amendments tabled for line-by-line scrutiny, six days were set aside through to 25 January 2017, but on the first day, 9 January, only one amendment was considered. It was however a pivotal proposal, about the nature and purpose of universities, with the rarity of being taken to a vote – the first time since 2012 (on a health bill) that there had been a vote at this stage in the Lords. Debate is likely to be both heated and confused, because the Bill embodies two key contradictions – between centralised control and free market forces, and between two very different appeals to legitimacy: emotion and personal belief, or evidence.

In HE the neoliberal tendency often gets the blame, but, as Paul Temple points out in this issue of News, neoliberalism is not easily reconciled with the centralising and controlling inclinations which are a key part of the Bill. Times journalist Matt Ridley departed from his usual science and environment beat to devote a column on 9 January 2017 to the Bill, headlined ‘Universities are being nationalised by stealth’.  As a hereditary peer Viscount Ridley was no doubt heading for the House of Lords for the Bill’s first day. The Bill is indeed ‘a Whitehall power grab’, as he argued.

So far, so easy to understand. Whitehall’s civil servants always want more control. But why would politicians enamoured of the market choose to go along with it? Continue reading

Vicky Gunn


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The TEF and HERB cross the devolved border (Part 2): the paradoxes of jurisdictional pluralism

By Vicky Gunn

Higher Education teaching policy is a devolved matter in Scotland, yet the TEF has amplified the paradoxes created by the jurisdictional plurality that currently exists in the UK. Given the accountability role it plays for Whitehall, TEF’s UK-wide scope suggests an uncomfortable political geography. This is being accentuated as the Higher Education and Research Bill (at Westminster) establishes the new research funding contours across the UK.  To understand how jurisdictional plurality plays out, one needs to consider that Higher Education in Scotland is simultaneously subject to:

  • Scottish government higher educational policy, led by the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Shirley-Anne Somerville (SNP), and managed through the Scottish Funding Council (or whatever emerges out of the recent decisions from ScotGov regarding Enterprise and Innovation), which in turn aligns with Scottish domestic social, cultural, and economic policies. The main HE teaching policy steers, as suggested by recent legislation and commissions, have been to maintain the assurance and enhancement focus (established in the Further & Higher Education (Scotland) Act, 2005) and tighten links between social mobility (Commission for Widening Access 2015) and the relationships between the economic value of graduates and skills’ development (Enterprise and Skills Review 2016).
  • Non-devolved Westminster legislation (especially relating to Home Office and immigration matters). In addition to this is the rapidly moving legislative context that governs how higher education protects its students and staff for health and safety and social inclusion purposes as well as preventing illegal activity (Consumer Protection, Counter-terrorism etc.).

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Ian Kinchin


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Student evaluation of teaching: are we reaching for the wrong type of excellence?

By Ian Kinchin

Over twenty years ago Carr (1994: 49) wrote:

 ‘It is a shallow and false view of education and teaching which takes it to be a matter of the technical transmission of pre-packaged knowledge and skills in the context of efficient management’

However, it seems that this false view is still able obscure a more contemporary and research-informed views of teaching. The on-going drive for ‘teaching excellence’ still seems to focus on actions of the teacher that promote Carr’s ‘shallow view’. That is not to say that the student voice is not important, but we need to ensure that students are asked the right questions so that we do not promote student passivity as learners and do not subvert the student voice for purely political ends.

Fitzgerald et al (2002) wrote Continue reading

Vicky Gunn


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The latest TEF Assessment Framework, automated analysis of data, and some Scottish anxiety

By  Vicky Gunn

I had the good fortune to be in Rio for the Paralympics this September. My step-daughter was competing in an endurance road race. For her, the most important thing was improving on previous race times, but she’d hoped to get a medal as well (even though this was not predicted by her ‘metrics’). At the end of September, the Westminster Government through HEFCE, published the TEF2 Technical Specification[i] and I found, to my astonishment that the original differentiating phrases (meets expectations, excellent, outstanding) were to be replaced with medals: Bronze, Silver, Gold. All of this got me thinking about the Teaching Excellence Framework, built like British Cycling on the idea that we can differentiate excellence for competitive purposes and this is a good in itself. I find this comparison deeply troubling. I, like many involved in quality and teaching development in Scottish Higher Education, have invested several years of my professional life to fostering cultures of enhancement. Indeed, the distance travelled to improvement in teaching provision has been a mantra within the totality of Scottish higher education’s stakeholders (academic, government, student bodies alike). In the Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF), we have been more interested in seeing all Scottish institutions getting ‘personal bests’ (hence demonstrating continuous improvement from within their own context), rather than doing better than all the others (final outcome measure).

However, now that we have the first set of TEF indicative metrics, I (like a cycling coach) am assailed with a few doubts about the laudable concentration of raising the quality of the whole Scottish sector. This is an aim of the QEF. This resulted in engaged participants of a quality system which steadfastly refused the divisiveness associated with differentiated institutional quality review outcomes. Yet, if we individually enter it, the TEF will now demand this of us.  Should Scotland then change its QEF substantially with its aspirational collectivism to be consigned to being a phantasm of a previous era? How long can such a discourse last in the face of going for gold? Should I, as an institutional Head of Learning and Teaching, now focus on competing with HEIs, so my institution is seen as outstanding in comparison to all the others and place the sector’s aspirational culture in a box marked ‘soppy idealism’? To put it in British Cycling’s inelegant but superlatively economic phrasing: how will my small specialist institution medal when facing larger, wealthier institutions?  Continue reading

Vicky Gunn


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The TEF crosses the devolved border (Part 1)

By Vicky Gunn

It would not perhaps be an exaggeration to say that the last two months of higher education policy in the UK have been a little like an unimaginable soap opera in which the main protagonist was Jo Johnson and the main anti-hero, the higher education sector. Rapid change was ushered in south of the border through the English government’s commissioning of HEFCE to introduce the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).  This happened at the same time as a radical overhaul of and, in some quarters, cuts to the UK-wide Quality Assurance Agency. ‘Another periodic rupture in the continuum of university and college accountability systems?’  Scottish VPs Learning & Teaching asked from our comfortable devolved zone, in which we debate the relative merits of quality enhancement over audit. Not quite. The intensity, cunning, and speed of the TEF’s introduction and its explosive amplification of the paradoxes of devolved education caught us by surprise.

There was a quick move to understand what the bigger picture underneath the TEF was and Universities Scotland organized an initial group (chaired by me) to establish a brief that would enable the Scottish universities to come to some sort of opening position about how to move forward with the TEF, when our own teaching quality system was so different to the one being proposed in England. We started with a few acknowledgements about the emergence of the TEF and its accompanying architecture as outlined in the White Paper: Continue reading

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Where do we go from here?

By Rob Cuthbert

The Green Paper on HE issued in November 2015 suggests that the problem with English HE is its failure to embrace the market, red in tooth and claw; the Government proposals are designed to accelerate market forces and promote competition as the solution. Teaching in some places is ‘lamentable’: solution, a Teaching Excellence Framework which sorts out sheep, goats and others, and rewards them accordingly. It is still too difficult for new providers to enter the HE market: solution, levelling the playing field to make it much easier for entrants with no track record. The market isn’t working properly: solution, sweep up most of the key agencies into a new super-regulator, the Office for Students, which will put students’ interests ‘at the heart of the system’, to echo the previous White Paper – on which there was much ado, but almost nothing to show. And much more, but with a consistent theme in which students are the key customers and what they pay for is simply economic advantage in the workplace. In 50 years we have come a long way from Robbins and ‘the general powers of the mind’, let alone the ‘transmission of a common culture’. Continue reading