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The Higher Education White Paper: in bed with an elephant

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The Higher Education White Paper is a good illustration of the complexity of policy-making in a UK with powerful devolved administrations and with a central government that has roles both as England’s ‘devolved’ administration and as the UK government.

The White Paper may be seen principally as a piece of English administration, but in this complex constitutional dynamic there are inevitably major cross-border impacts.  So from a Scottish perspective, we’re experiencing some turbulence in the wake of England’s pursuit of a marketised model of higher education that has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of politicians in the Scottish Parliament.     

It will take some skill to navigate this successfully in a way that manages the interests of Universities UK (UUK) members in increasingly different jurisdictions. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is at the heart of this – without making any comments on the merits of the TEF proposal, it clearly stems from a perspective of the student as consumer that isn’t shared politically in Scotland, and one of its priorities is to allow for differentiated increases in undergraduate fees – which of course do not apply in Scotland.

It’s very different from the enhancement-led approach to quality that is well-embedded in Scotland, and the immediate policy challenge is to find a way in which Scottish and English systems can evolve in a way that enables them to be ‘different but equivalent’ in how they recognise a high-quality learning experience.

Other areas of concern for Scottish UUK members include the reputational risk  to the UK higher education brand if university title or degree-awarding powers are awarded to providers whose values and standards are sub-optimal; risks that the overall governance and priorities of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will only reflect the interests of one part of the UK; and the specific risk that the consolidation of English QR into UKRI will give the new body a disproportionate interest in the English part of its remit.

So, what does this level of complexity mean for those of us working to influence higher education policy in the different UK jurisdictions? I think it means two things.

First, each us has to be conscious that policy choices made in one jurisdiction will have impacts in others. This is felt most acutely in the devolved administrations where we often feel ‘in bed with an elephant’ since the different scale of the UK nations means that changes in England have much more effect on us than England ever feels from changes in the devolved administrations.

Second, while we manage policy divergence between the different administrations, we also need to maintain clear-sightedness about the enduring value of UK higher education. Different policies across the UK should not be allowed to obscure the values we hold in common that mean that universities across the UK are part of a shared academic community.  We are tied together by shared commitments to institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and by our openness to the mobility of people and ideas across borders.  We are deeply engaged in common research endeavours.

Democracy within what has effectively become a ‘federal’ UK means that there will be different policies in different parts of the UK.  We should support that, while also ensuring that we maintain the shared values and identity that mean we have a truly UK-wide higher education community.

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