The University of Leeds is proud of ‘The Partnership’ which was developed by students and staff some time ago to describe the mutual expectations of us all as members of the University community.
It is in this spirit that the University and Leeds University Union (LUU) have been considering the Government’s Higher Education and Research Bill, particularly in relation to the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and its link to student fees. Our shared position is set out below.
The Government’s reforms aim to give student education parity with research and, putting aside the detail of implementation, this is a principle which both the University and LUU support. Indeed it is a cornerstone of the Leeds approach and is reflected in recent successes, including our National Student Survey (NSS) results and the Times and Sunday Times University of the Year award for 2017.
The University broadly supports the TEF and will use its influence to help ensure that it is implemented carefully and that the methodology is refined in light of experience. Our opposition to the link between the TEF and fee setting is firmly on the record. Nonetheless, the Government appears to be proceeding with this approach.
At Leeds we have tried to implement the recent TEF-linked £250 fee increase as fairly as possible by exempting current and deferring students; a step that LUU agrees was necessary in light of its overall opposition to fees.
More broadly, in recent years we have seen the financial burden for higher education increasingly shift from the taxpayer on to graduates and their families. This represents a reduction in the permanent investment which society makes in future generations. Passage of the Government’s Bill should not be read as setting the pattern of university funding for all time.
We are very conscious of the financial pressures faced by students and we recognise that recent changes – including the ill-advised shift from grants to loans – only serve to make these pressures more acute. We also recognise that the available loans cannot fully cover the cost of study, creating challenges for students from families less able to contribute.
This puts an even greater onus on the University to provide students with the best possible educational experience and the best possible opportunities for personal development and growth. We are committed to preparing genuinely independent, critical thinkers who can make a real and telling contribution to the world around them.
These growing financial pressures also highlight why we must continue to invest in supporting access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds - we will spend nearly £18 million on this in 2016-17 – and why we must do what we can to drive down additional costs. We are taking steps on the latter, such as investing to reduce sports club membership fees, and the University and LUU will work together to explore what more can be done here.
Away from fees and costs, both the University and LUU are concerned that the Bill threatens the autonomy of universities. Specifically we believe that the new regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), should be an arms-length body that can speak truth to power, and not an organisation that slavishly implements the will of Ministers.
We are also concerned about the proposal that the OfS “may assess, or make arrangements for the assessment of ….the standards applied to higher education.” It is reasonable that the OfS should have an interest in the process of determining standards but the assessment of standards should be a matter for autonomous universities. We hope that this concern will be tackled during the passage of the Bill in the House of Lords.
Finally, we want to see very careful consideration of the proposal to allow the OfS to award degree awarding powers and university title to institutions and to close under-performing universities. Unless implemented very carefully, this could damage the lives and life chances of students and put the reputation of UK higher education at serious risk.
The University and LUU have a strong record of working together to deliver an excellent student education and experience. This applies to all home and EU students and to international students from about 150 countries around the world and ensures a vibrant, outward looking campus. We therefore ask the Home Secretary to abandon plans to reduce the number of international students coming to study in the UK.
‘The Partnership’ between the University and LUU is sector leading and, although we do not agree with a number of the recent policy and funding changes, we will continue to work closely together to protect students’ access to, and experience of, higher education.
Sir Alan Langlands, Vice-Chancellor, University of Leeds
Jack Palmer, Union Affairs Officer, Leeds University Union
Melissa Owusu, Education Officer, Leeds University Union