ECU responds to the higher education green paper
In November 2015, the government launched an open consultation on 'Fulfilling our potential: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice'. The green paper sets out proposals to change the higher education landscape. ECU's response to this consultation is set out below.
Equality Challenge Unit believes that advancing equality and diversity improves the staff and student experience for everyone working and learning in higher education institutions. We therefore welcome the particular focus of the green paper on social mobility and widening participation.
While we welcome the dual focus on both protected characteristic groups and socio-economic status, there must be a clear and distinct consideration of the potential impact of the proposals on the full range of different protected characteristics as defined by the Equality Act 2010. This includes consideration that for some protected groups, moving to a new provider can be an issue due to the need to study close to home and therefore there needs to be specific attention on supporting such groups affected by a provider exit.
Prospective students must have the best possible access to information, and the information itself, in order to make decisions about where to study, but student choice is complex and therefore the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in itself must be supplemented by other ways to progress equality and diversity in higher education. This includes consideration on retention and progression so that there are improved outcomes for different protected groups.
The focus on Black and minority ethnic (BME) students in the green paper is welcome, but we recognise that participation in higher education and ethnicity is complex. Differential degree outcomes by ethnicity is a long standing issue for the sector. We believe that this can be partially attributed to the compounded disadvantage due to ethnicity over time. The continued existence of racial inequalities in higher education limits both minority ethnic individuals and the sector as a whole in fulfilling its full potential.
We recommend further research into the issue of the participation of white males from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education building on existing work in this area. The wider societal issues that face BME communities must also be considered when looking at participation and outcome in higher education.
Teaching Excellence Framework
While we are aware that there will be a technical consultation on the TEF, we believe that for the TEF to be a success, it must be open to all disciplines and consider information on inclusive curriculum, inclusive forms of assessment, and the equality and diversity competencies of teaching staff. We recommend that the metrics consider the whole student life-cycle and the diversity of students. This would mean looking at participation rates, continuation rates, degree attainment and outcome, and employment outcomes by different protected characteristics.
The TEF will need to be evaluated over time to better understand its impact, ensure that the different needs of different groups are met, and also to ensure that it does not drive the concentration of different groups of students in certain universities.
Further thought is required on the approach to increasing the fee cap in line with TEF performance. This is because this may result in an unintended consequence whereby institutions which perform well in increasing the participation of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups will be allowed to raise their fee cap, and the raised fees may then become a disincentive for future students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.
In principle, we agree that the regulatory system for higher education needs to be updated and that the interest of the student is central to higher education. Alongside providing education for students, it must be recognised that HEIs are also employers and places of research and knowledge exchange. This is why we recommend the continued focus on equality and diversity in any future REF exercises because there continues to be issues of under-representation and disadvantage facing certain protected groups in research.
As the sector opens up to new providers, we continue to assert that provision of education is a public good. In order to level the playing field, when it comes to the public sector equality duty of the Equality Act 2010, we believe that this should be extended to new and alternative providers.
Download the full ECU response to the green paper.