28 Jun 2011

University White Paper sets out competition plan

The Government has announced a major expansion of university places as part of reforms to encourage competition among universities and give students better value for money.

The long-awaited White Paper for Higher Education announced on Tuesday proposes to create 85,000 additional university places by 2012-13.

The plans are linked to the Government’s controversial plans allowing many universities to triple tuition fees for students to £9,000 per year.

Ministers say it will achieve the expansion in higher education by scrapping quotas on student numbers for universities which charge tuition fees of £7,500 a year or less, or for institutions which accept students with AAB A-level grades.

The White Paper also includes a plan to make it easier to set up private universities – a move that would be opposed by unions representing lecturers and students who warn market forces could lower academic standards.

Read more about the university funding debate

Student power

Announcing the White Paper in the House of Commons, the Universities Minister David Willetts, said the plans would “put students in the driving seat”, give them more power and choice, and create more funds for universities that attract more students.

“Prospective students need to know far more about the academic experience on offer,” Mr Willetts said. “We will therefore transform the information available to them about individual courses at individual institutions.”

Labour attacked the Government’s proposals, saying they would result in lower standards at universities and were an attempt to expand higher education “on the cheap”.

Prospective students need to know far more about the academic experience on offer. David Willetts, Universities Minister

Labour’s Shadow Business Minister, Gareth Thomas, said Government attempts to reform universities was farcical, likening the plans to “Carry On Up the Khyber in Whitehall”.

The Government’s plans for higher education, were broadly welcomed by business and universities, but came under fire from unions.

The Institute of Directors supported the plans to create more competition and give greater consumer power to students. “Providing better information for prospective students is just commonsense, as it underpins the effective exercise of choice. Overall, the proposals point in the right direction,” the business group said.

Paul Clark, director of policy for Universities UK, which represents UK universities, said he supported an expansion of student places, provided that the quality of courses can be maintained.

Read more: who's charging what for a university education?

University ‘chaos’

Unions representing lecturers and students have warned that the White Paper, which aims to encourage more private universities, could result in confusion and a lowering of standards.

Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students, said the proposals will create “chaos” for the majority of students entering university.

“Ministers are at risk of creating stability for the perceived best but complete chaos for the rest,” he said. “The vast majority of university entrants, who don’t get the very best grades, will be treated to complete market chaos and real uncertainty about their universities and courses.”

Ministers are at risk of creating stability for the perceived best but chaos for the rest. Aaron Porter, National Union of Students

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents university staff, warned that the Government was heading for an “NHS-style crash” with reforms that had little support from either staff or students, but carried serious health warnings from the United States.

The UCU said plans to increase competition amongst universities were an “untried experiment” that would damage UK universities’ international reputation for excellence.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “Trying to force down the cost of a degree after the Government got its sums wrong will not solve the funding crisis it created. The only thing the Government is likely to force down is quality.

A UCU survey of academics published earlier this month found that more than four in five professors (81 per cent) questioned said that the expansion of private, for-profit universities would lead to a decline in the global reputation of UK higher education.

More than three-quarters (79 per cent) thought employers would view qualifications offered by private universities as lower quality than those offered by other institutions.