The government today set out plans for a big shake-up of UK universities in a white paper on higher education. They claim the plans will force universities to compete for students and places, giving control and consumer power to students applying under the new £9000 tuition fees regime. But opposition politicians dismissed the white paper as “a shambles”, claiming that most of the measures were really designed to claw back lower prices after the government vastly miscalculated the number of universities who would choose to charge the highest possible fees.

So who’s right, and what’s really going on in UK higher education? We’ve put together this simple guide to explain the key points and outline the main arguments being made by both sides.

Forced Competition

The main idea set out by the white paper is that the introduction of higher tuition fees means students will be much keener as consumers to compare the relative merits of the different degrees on offer. The government has tried to magnify this sense of a marketplace atmosphere in higher education by announcing that universities must compete to attract student numbers. Universities Minister David Willetts announced that “money will go with students”, suggesting that more popular universities which manage to attract the most applicants will be able to expand, whilst less popular institutions may be forced out of business.

Continuing the spirit of competition, it is also proposed that some extra places will be available for higher-achieving students, but that universities will have to “bid” against one another to be allowed any extra places above the initial “core” allocation.

The government says

The government claims that this “will give a real incentive for universities to focus on the quality of the teaching experience”, as market competition forces academic standards to rise.

The opposition says

Protesters including the National Union of Students President Aaron Porter and Oxford University Student Union President David Barclay claim that these plans will create a chaotic marketplace in which students will be bombarded with conflicting information and face “real uncertainty about their choices”. They angrily attacked the competitive spirit of the plans, claiming that “education is not a commodity to be bought and sold”.

Student Charter

In a further move towards a consumerist attitude towards degrees, a “student charter” will be introduced to set out the rights of students who dispute the quality or value of their university teaching. This seems strongly to foresee a new culture of student demands and complaints as universities are cast in the role of commodity providers rather than educators.

The plans will also see detailed information demanded from each university to provide students with a sort of “consumer table” of statistics and figures to help them make informed choices about where to spend their money. The information required will include figures on contact teaching hours, graduate employment rates and student satisfaction ratings.

The government says

They claim these new measures will force increased transparency from universities, turning the funding council into a “consumer champion” to fight for the rights of those paying sky-high tuition fees and putting “students in the driving seat”.

The opposition says

The new power for students to call for inspections if their universities are not providing adequate value for money could lead to witch hunts and a move away from focussing on real quality of teaching. It will be difficult for universities to magically increase contact hours when their budgets have recently been slashed by the government. In addition, it is feared that statistics such as graduate employment rates will not necessarily represent a fair reflection on the quality of teaching, especially at universities in different geographical areas or for less vocational arts courses.

Lower Prices

The white paper also controversially suggests that those universities willing to charge lower fees of around £6000 will be rewarded with opportunities for expansion. This is clearly a move on the part of the government to try to redress the balance after they hugely under-estimated the number of universities who would choose to charge maximum fees. But will it work?

The government says

This opportunity for expansion will create a real incentive for universities to charge lower fees in a competitive environment where they will be bidding against one another for extra places.

The opposition says

This is a desperate attempt on the part of the government to try to claw back some of the money they will have to pay in student loans if all UK universities charge the high fees they have announced. John Denham, Shadow Business Secretary, described it as an effort by the coalition government to “get itself off the hook”, which he claimed would be at the “cost of the quality of education”. Universities agreed, claiming that the government cannot expect them to provide the same standard of teaching at only two-thirds of the price – Sally Hunt, leader of the University and College Union said that “trying to force down the cost of a degree after the government got its sums wrong will not solve the funding crisis it created”.

Private Universities

In a further effort to drive down prices, the white paper will smooth the way for an increase in private degree providers in the UK, including private universities like the controversial “New College of the Humanities” set up by Richard Dawkins. It also sets out options for financial collaboration between universities and businesses.

The government says

This will create more options for students, giving them a greater choice in a “liberalised” higher education market. Forcing universities to compete with private providers will also increase pressure on them to focus on student satisfaction and teaching quality.

The opposition says

Relaxing rules to allow more private education providers will inevitably lead to a decrease in quality of education and a more uncertain choice for students. Allowing private sector businesses to form partnerships with universities could derail equal access to education and shift the universities towards a more commercial focus. It is also feared that these plans could lead to one major company holding a monopoly of places at a certain leading university for their own candidates.

What do you think of the proposals? Let us know below!