Sunday, 20 September 2015

Parliamentary scrutiny

Post general election there’s been an ‘emergency’ budget, a new government, elections of new party leaders (has anyone noticed this?) and parliamentary business back in full swing. (Albeit now temporarily suspended for party conference season.)

One of the manifestations of parliament being back in action is the announcement by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee of an Inquiry into Assessing Quality in Higher Education.  This follows the policy proposals for a Teaching Excellence Framework and a forthcoming Green Paper on Higher Education.

In establishing the Inquiry, the Committee’s chair, Ian Wright, is quoted on the committee website as saying:
“Ministers say they want to develop new incentives to improve teaching quality, tackling what the Government sees as patchiness in provision. The Government faces a number of challenges in seeking to introduce a new Teaching Excellence Framework – not least the challenging timescale it has set – and the Committee will be involved in looking at how this policy area develops from an early stage. As a Committee, we want to scrutinise the Government’s plans for assessing quality in Higher Education, making sure that any new mechanism is effective and works to strengthen the UK’s world-leading university brand.”
All of this is positive – recognising the risks involved in the establishment of the TEF and stating an intention to work on accountability through the development process, not retrospectively.

This is also an area where the realities of the higher education sector work against the devolved nature of government. The sector shares values and habits which work across all of the UK nations, and, because of the dominance in scale of the English sector compared to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, decisions about managing the sector in England have a knock-on effect on the devolved nations.  But HE is a devolved matter, so although the proposals about linking TEF to funding look like they apply only to English universities, they’ll have consequences for the other nations, whatever their governments may want to think. Where England goes, then other nations will probably follow, albeit using a slightly different road (think about driving from London to Bath using the A4 instead of the M4 –it may take slightly longer, but it’s probably also a more pleasant drive, if you enjoy that sort of thing).

Parliamentary committees have no direct power – they can’t direct a change in government policy, or themselves amend a bill – but they are part of the mechanism that helps draft and improve proposed legislation. So the inquiry is timely and important for the sector, to make sure that detailed concerns are heard.

The scope of the inquiry is on the Committee’s website, and for convenience (I’m all about saving you a click or two) here they are too:
The BIS Committee is keen to hear views and welcomes written submissions which address the following questions:
1 What issues with quality assessment in Higher Education was HEFCE’s Quality Assurance review seeking to address? 
2 Will the proposed changes to the quality assurance process in universities, as outlined by HEFCE in its consultation, improve quality in Higher Education?   
3 What should be the objectives of a Teaching Excellence Framework (‘TEF’)?  
a. How should a TEF benefit students? Academics? Universities?
b. What are the institutional behaviours a TEF should drive? How can a system be designed to avoid unintended consequences?
c. How should the effectiveness of the TEF be judged? 
4 How should the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework and new quality assurance regime fit together?  
5 What do you think will be the main challenges in implementing a Teaching Excellence Framework?  
6 How should the proposed connection between fee level and teaching quality be managed?  
a. What should be the relationship between the Teaching Excellence Framework and fee level?
b. What are the benefits or risks of this approach to setting fees?
The Committee itself is made up of eleven MPs – six Conservative, four Labour (one of whom is chair), and one SNP:

Local universities
Iain Wright (Lab) – Chair
Durham, Teeside
Paul Blomfield (Lab)
Sheffield Central
Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam
Richard Fuller (Con)
Peter Kyle (Lab)
Brighton, Sussex
Amanda Milling (Con)
Cannock Chase
Staffordshire, Wolverhampton
Amanda Solloway (Con)
Derby North
Jo Stevens (Lab)
Cardiff Central
Cardiff, Cardiff Metropolitan, South Wales
Michelle Thomson (SNP)
Edinburgh West
Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier, Heriot-Watt, Queen Margaret
Kelly Tolhurst (Con)
Rochester and Strood
Greenwich, Medway Campus
Craig Tracey (Con)
North Warwickshire
Coventry, Warwick
Chris White (Con)
Warwick and Leamington
Coventry, Warwick

You’ll see that there is Scottish and Welsh representation as well as English, so an opportunity for some perspectives from the devolved nations to be heard. And also a fair spread of types of university in or near their constituencies, so there’s plenty of opportunities for lobbying by these universities.

The Inquiry is seeking responses by 30 October. These can come from individuals as well as groups, so this is a good chance to get involved in shaping something which will matter to higher education. Reformism in action.

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