Page last updated at 00:05 GMT, Saturday, 24 October 2009 01:05 UK

Road map for universities awaited

By Mike Baker

graduates
The whole future direction of higher education is to be debated

Has the government's long-awaited vision for universities been lost in the post?

When is Lord Mandelson going to launch the review of student fees?

And are these two related?

This is the riddle that is causing much head-scratching in the university world, as it waits anxiously to hear what the future holds.

The New Framework for universities was due to be published this week.

It follows the "big debate" launched by Lord Mandelson's predecessor, John Denham, in February 2008.

Mr Denham commissioned a wide range of reports into the university system, saying these would be a precursor to the fees review.

Those reports were all completed some time ago. But still there is no sign of the promised New Framework for Higher Education.

It was expected that the new framework would be published on 19 October. But it was not.

Then some thought Lord Mandelson would use his speech to the CBI the following day to launch it. But still there was no sign of it.

Could it be that Lord Mandelson is preoccupied with the postal dispute? Or are universities getting buried in his vast in-tray, being swamped by his many other ministerial responsibilities?

Or, perhaps more likely, is it because Lord Mandelson wants to publish the new framework at the same time as he announces the fees review?

Hints

Some suspect that the real cause of the delay is that Lord Mandelson cannot find anyone to head the fees review, a role that may well be seen as a poisoned chalice by most potential candidates.

So we are left to read the tea leaves for signs of where the new framework and the fees review are likely to take universities.

In recent weeks, Lord Mandelson has been dropping some helpful hints.

The first is that students will have to foot more of the bill for the costs of university. In part this will be needed to make up for a relative decline in government spending.

As Lord Mandelson put it this week, universities are going to be operating within "increasingly tight fiscal constraint". In plain English, that means cuts.

So, with a number of contributions from different quarters, there is a sense that the ground is being prepared for an increase in the current fees cap of £3,225 a year.

Bigger loans

But raising the cap on fees does not help with the most pressing problem: the state of government finances.

STUDENT FEES (2009-10)
England: £3,225 p.a.
N. Ireland: £3,225 p.a.
Scotland: free to Scots, £1,775 to other UK
Wales: £1,285 to the Welsh, £3,225 to other UK
Students from elsewhere in the EU pay the same as those locally
Those from outside the EU pay whatever the university charges

That is because if fees do rise to £7,000 a year, the most immediate impact would be on the Treasury because under the current system it would have to offer bigger loans to students.

So will the fees review go for the system advocated by some experts of charging students a real rate of interest on their loans?

However, there will be much more to the review than raising the cap on fees. Another clear hint dropped by Lord Mandelson is his commitment to opening access to universities to a much wider range of students.

So part of any increase in tuition fees paid by students is likely to have to go on more financial support for students from poorer homes.

A commitment to widening participation also requires continuing expansion of student numbers. For if the university system were to contract, the first group to lose out would be those from families that do not traditionally go to university.

And if there is to be substantial progress on widening participation, Lord Mandelson will need to go further than increasing the bursaries available to full-time students.

The review must also deal with the anomalous position of part-time students who do not qualify for the loans to cover the costs of fees that are available to full-timers and are not eligible for most of the bursaries either.

This is not a minor issue. Some 40% of all students on accredited university courses are studying part-time. Among postgraduates, part-timers are in a majority.

Moreover, if the government's other targets for improving the skills of the workforce and for widening participation are to be met, then financial support for part-time students must improve.

Flexible learning

Lord Mandelson has also hinted that boosting the number of skilled people in the economy will be central to the new framework for universities.

This is likely to be mean more short courses, at both undergraduate and post-graduate level, delivered in a variety of ways: part-time, in shorter, more flexible modules, through distance learning and in the workplace.

Yet the worrying reality is that in the past few years the number of part-time students has started to fall. This is at a time when total student numbers are rising.

No-one quite knows what has caused this reversal of the previous growth trend. However a student support system that discriminates against part-time study may be part of the explanation.

After all, is it logical to treat a student with a full-time job who studies part-time differently from a student who studies full-time but has a part-time job?

Benchmarks for part-timers?

The other half of this equation is the way universities are funded for part-time students, which tends to discriminate against those institutions that are trying hard to widen participation by offering more flexible learning.

Some universities have pushed ahead with encouraging part-time students - on short courses, via distance learning and at undergraduate level - but this is a risky strategy, as these students often require greater support, need teaching outside standard office hours and are more likely to drop out.

We already have benchmarks to measure universities' achievement in widening participation, should we have benchmarks for the proportion of part-time students enrolled?

There are many other puzzles for the fees review to tackle. The government wanted to see a market in fees but it failed to develop, with almost every university charging the maximum permitted.

If the fees ceiling rises to £5,000 or £7,000, will there be any incentive for some universities to keep their fees below this level?

Whoever gets the daunting task of conducting the review will have to deal with numerous conflicting lobby groups.

They will have to walk a tightrope between the political parties, not knowing which will be taking the decision to implement the recommendations.

It sounds like a job for Lord Dearing. But sadly he is no longer with us.

Who will be brave enough to step forward and accept Lord Mandelson's challenge?

Mike Baker is an education writer and broadcaster.



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