MPs call for higher education overhaul

By Liz Stephens

Universities stand accused of being “complacent” and “defensive” by MPs in a report out today.

The innovation, universities, science and skills committee has called into question the standard of higher education in the UK and the value for money offered to students.

Its report called for urgent reform of the higher education sector and found that the current system for safeguarding standards in higher education was no longer fit for purpose.

The committee accused universities of being unwilling to answer “simple questions” such as whether a first class honours degree achieved at one institution had equal merit to one achieved at another.

Phil Willis, the chair of the committee, said: “We are extremely concerned that inconsistency in standards is rife and there is a reluctance to address this issue.”

A report by the committee called for accountability and the establishment of an independent quality and standards agency to regulate the universities.

The National Union of Students (NUS) welcomed the committee’s findings and their president Wes Streeting said: “The select committee raises an important question about value for money.

“We find it astonishing that universities continue to demand ever higher fees without showing how they make a difference to the people who pay them.”

However, the universities’ representative body, Universities UK (UUK), launched a robust defence against the committee’s findings, which they said had misrepresented their members.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said: “We are disappointed that so much of the work that universities are doing to improve the student experience has been ignored, and that the picture being painted of the HE sector in many areas is so negative.

“Maintaining standards is absolutely vital but we reject the suggestion that the way to improve the system that protects standards is to create some super-quango.

“The raft of centralising recommendations appear to us ill thought-through, disproportionate to the scale of any problem identified, and made without supporting evidence.”

The committee also highlighted the lack of standardisation in student funding and bursaries and called for the government to end the postcode lottery for academic assistance for poorer students.

The current bursary arrangements “fail both the student and the taxpayer,” said Mr Willis.

Mr Streeting agreed with the committee, warning: “Britain is in danger of sleep walking into an American-style market free-for-all that would see the poorest students priced out of the best universities while other universities are consigned to the bargain basement.”

“There has to be equal treatment for all students,” Mr Willis said.

Calling in particular for improved support for and treatment of part-time and mature students, he added: “The current system amounts to a form of discrimination”.

The committee has called on the government to take their findings into account in its much-publicised review of higher education fees this autumn.