UK productivity plan analysis and commentary: part three

This is the third in a series of posts which explore the recent budget, focusing on how this will effect employability and the higher education sector. See the first post here: and the second post:

World-leading universities, open to all who can benefit
The second major topic discussed was the higher education sector, more specifically the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework. The TEF hopes to open up the market to new and alternative providers, as well as increase support for postgraduate study and research. I will discuss each of those points separately, but let me first summarize the more general reform proposals presented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make higher education more accessible to prospective students.

According to Mr Osborne, the UK performs well above the OECD average in terms of higher level skills, but further reform is required to ensure the long-term sustainability of investment in universities. The government is committed to maintaining the UK’s world class higher education system and making it accessible to all who are qualified and wish to study, particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It was pointed out that since 2010, student participation has increased, with a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to and entering higher education than ever before. The government now wants to push this accessibility further, by completely removing the cap on student numbers, thereby widening access to those who have the grades and will benefit from university education.

Image credit: altogetherfool

Image credit: altogetherfool

The government also proposes to do more to help students with the cost of living while studying, by increasing the amount available to English students from low and middle income backgrounds. This will come in the form of maintenance loan of up to £8,200 a year for those studying away from home and outside of London. However, to make this funding sustainable in the long term, graduates will be expected to meet more of the costs of their degrees once they are earning. As a result, maintenance grants will be replaced by maintenance loans for new students, to be paid back when their earnings rise above £21,000 a year.

While the government’s argument for this change in funding aid is that students are much more concerned about the amount of available support than about long-term repayment conditions of their loan, I still find it difficult to reconcile this additional student debt increase with the growing financial support for apprenticeships, discussed earlier. Government and employers would certainly do well to openly support university students in the same way as they are suggesting for apprentices. Furthermore, the proposed loan repayment threshold does not work equally well across all UK regions, begging the question whether a flexible, region-specific threshold would be a better solution.

Excellence in teaching
A new Teaching Excellence Framework will be introduced later this year to sharpen incentives for institutions to provide excellent teaching. This is seen by the government as a good way to improve the value for money and return on investment for both students and the government, while also helping to align graduate skills with the needs of employers. This framework is intended to inform student decision-making, support a high average wage premium for graduates and ensure that students’ hard-won qualifications keep their value over time.

While the idea itself is not bad, there is currently too little information about how it will work and what criteria will be used to measure performance. We think it is important to provide an objective overview of an institution’s teaching practice. That objectivity is especially important when taking into account that government will allow institutions offering high quality teaching to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18.

Opening the market to new and alternative providers
In addition to proposed reforms to accessibility, affordability and teaching excellence that will affect all existing higher education institutions, the government is also planning to expand the sector by opening the market to new and alternative providers.

To help these new market entrants thrive, the government is looking into clearer and faster routes to degree awarding powers for institutions which offer the best quality education. It is exploring options to allow the best providers to offer degrees independently of existing institutions before they obtain degree awarding powers.

The government will also free up student number controls for the best alternative providers by introducing a performance pool of places from 2016-17, which will allocate additional student places to the best providers. The quality of courses offered by providers will be closely monitored and government will impose sanctions on those where quality is not high enough.

These measures can stimulate competition and innovation across the sector, increase choice for students, and deliver better value for money, so Gradintel is naturally very supportive of any actions leading in that direction. However, whether this initiative will deliver the expected results depends on what criteria will be used to measure the quality of the new institutions so that the best ones are reliably identified and supported, while those lagging behind get appropriate support to improve.

Expanding opportunities for postgraduate study and research
The productivity proposal also looked at how to incentivise advanced skills development and progression to postgraduate level. To help candidates from lower income groups aspiring to study for a postgraduate qualification, the government has announced an intention to introduce income contingent loans for postgraduate taught Masters courses and PhDs.

Details of how these loans will be delivered will not be known until later this year, so it is difficult to predict how much difference this will make to the uptake of postgraduate study. Gradintel welcomes any initiatives to improve access to postgraduate qualifications and we would be glad to hear from institutions interested in connecting prospective students to Masters and PhD courses in a time-efficient and targeted way.

The productivity plan set forward by the Conservative government is a very ambitious and forward looking project that could really set the UK on track to achieve prosperity.

It is not perfect and we have pointed out a number of potential issues when it comes to measuring quality in order to prioritize funding and support, but it is a good first step on a long journey towards the ultimate goal of bringing the UK to the forefront of the productivity ladder.


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