OUSU responds to higher education reform

Proposed changes to higher education in England were presented to Parliament in November by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills in a green paper entitled, “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice.” 

The green paper sets out proposals to change the landscape of higher education, which include introducing a “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF), increasing access for disadvantaged groups and establishing a new “Office for students to promote the student interest”. 

At this week’s OUSU Council meeting, the council went through its official response to the green paper. 

OUSU expressed concerns about the green paper’s impact on students with disabilities and on gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, sexual orientation and religion policy. 

On the subject of the TEF, the statement read, ‘‘We remain sceptical of any metric, or limited set of metrics, that attempts to quantify the quality of an educative experience.” 

The response also questioned the validity of the planned framework on the grounds that it was “designed almost entirely as an undergraduate measure.” 

Becky Howe, OUSU President, told Cherwell, “We are completely against linking increased tuition fees to teaching quality, as this will result in a situation where ‘better’ institutions cost more money. We strongly suspect this will discourage students who are debt averse (research shows that those from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds are most debt averse) from applying to top institutions such as our own.” 

Another aspect of the government’s proposed changes to higher education, the scrapping of maintenance grants, was also criticised during this Wednesday’s OUSU council. Until now, the poorest students have been provided with up to £3,387 per year extra non-repayable support, with the aim of reducing financial barriers to university. This government’s proposed changes to student loans would see, from this autumn, means-tested grants being switched to loans repayable after graduation. It will end the decades-long process, which has seen student grants incrementally switched into loans. 

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Andrew Smith, Labour MP for Oxford East, commenting on the impact of the scrapping of maintenance grants on students in Oxford, told Cherwell, “Maintenance grants provide vital support for students from lower income backgrounds, both those from Oxford and those who come to study here. In 2014-15, these grants ensured that over 7,000 poorer students studying in Oxford did not leave further education with greater debts than their more privileged peers. In spite of Labour’s attempt to halt the Tories’ plans in the house of Commons, they have forced through sweeping changes, which will scrap these grants.’’ 

The Institute for Fiscal studies substantiate the regressive impact this change will have, calculating that, “The poorest 40% of students going to university in England will now graduate with debts of up to £53,000 from a three-year course, rather than up to £40,500.”

Cat Jones, OUSU Vice President for Access and Academic affairs, stated to Cherwell, “OUSU has been lobbying against the proposal to scrap maintenance grants since it was announced in the July emergency budget. We’re appalled that, despite making no mention of it in their manifesto, the government have taken away this vital support from the future applicants that need it the most. A larger loan for those with lower household in comes is in no way an adequate replacement for a non-repayable grant. Under the new system, students from less well-off backgrounds will owe thousands of pounds more to the government than their richer peers.’’ 

Jones added, ‘‘We would like to thank our local MP Andrew Smith and the team at the National Union of Students (NUS) for their support in challenging this regressive policy and are hugely disappointed to have lost the House of Commons debate by just 11 votes.’’ 

NUS has said it is “outraged” with the result of a vote to scrap maintenance grants for over half a million of England’s students hours after protesters blocked Westminster Bridge.

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The protests were organized by the national Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. A member, Hope Worsdale, said, “This is not only a direct attack on working class students, but it also shows the Government’s flagrant disregard for the most basic democratic processes.”

Nichola Blackwood, the Conservative MP for Oxford West, did not respond to requests for comment.