White with green tinges

The Royal Academy of Engineering has welcomed the UK Government’s initiative in issuing a White Paper addressing Higher Education but says that the vision portrayed is confusing and suffers from contradictory ideas.

The Royal Academy of Engineering has welcomed the UK Government’s initiative in issuing a White Paper addressing the future provision of Higher Education.

However, there are reservations since the vision portrayed is confusing, the Academy says. The paper, it adds, suffers from often-contradictory ideas for improving the access to, uptake of, funding of, social relevance of, commercial value of, academic excellence of, and public accountability of the Higher Education sector.

The Academy feels that the majority of the proposals will not improve the current system, and it leaves the sector demoralised by continual changes in Governmental direction, whilst loading it with expectations that are quite inappropriate.

And, it says, there is nothing in the White Paper that will reverse the decline in the numbers of students studying for degrees in science, engineering and technology (SET). Increased student debt will deter students from undertaking courses in more expensive subjects, including, particularly, science, engineering, and technology.

Additionally, the number of students wishing to undertake postgraduate research will plummet due to their increased debts. This will have a ruinous effect on UK industry, and in turn, the UK economy.

The Academy does not believe that the increase in Government spending is enough to counteract years of under-investment in infrastructure, research, and teaching. Universities clearly need stronger financial support. The Academy would prefer the establishment of a fair and adequate grant system to support students, but given that the Government will not fully fund Higher Education within the UK, it reluctantly accepts the levying of increased student fees, as it is necessary to find financial support for the sector from somewhere. However, it is predicted that an increase in student debt will affect access, and student fees are viewed to be at odds with Government proposals to improve access.

The Academy isn’t too happy with the Government’s idea to appoint an ‘Access Regulator,’ calling the idea regrettable. Access to University should be on merit alone, it says, adding that an Access Regulator will be widely resented, will dilute standards, and will be seen as inimical to University freedom.

It appears that every Higher Education Institute must now be a ‘University’, and every course result in a ‘degree’. This will erode the value of the degree qualification and cause confusion in the employment sector. Likewise, the Academy is wary of the proposal to divorce research and teaching within universities, as the two are complementary and reinforcing. Re-branding institutions and qualifications in this manner will merely serve to devalue the University sector further.

The Government’s focus on the financial benefits of a university education and university-based research is a distraction, and is done at the expense of recognising the wider benefits universities bring to the nation. In the opinion of the Academy, making economic considerations a major, or even sole, criterion for the evaluation of research is risky. What’s more, it is likely to damage wealth creation in the long run, as the benefits of education and research cannot be measured in purely financial terms on a limited time horizon. Whilst it is desirable to promote close links between industry and academia, the Government is pushing the financial measurement of the benefits of research and education too strongly.

The Academy feels that many of the other proposals in the White Paper (the regulation of research, the establishment of qualifications for teachers and external examiners, the independent adjudicator to deal with student complaints, to name but a few) are viewed as a source of much bureaucracy to institutions, which will increase overheads, and take up the time of University staff which could be better used for teaching and research. None of these proposals will make the sector a more efficient place in which to teach, or learn.

Although Government officials have described the White Paper as ‘white with green tinges,’ it is widely held that there is very little scope for adjusting any of its recommendations. To use a pejorative term, argument about the direction of the White Paper is therefore ‘academic’. The Royal Academy of Engineering hopes that the Government will refocus its views on The Future of Higher Education before irretrievable damage is done to Science, Engineering, and Technology within the UK, and to the University Sector as a whole.