We should take pride in the academic achievements of our young people and in the research culture that is fostered and sustained by our higher education institutions. Yet on both counts there are worrying problems. We propose a reform programme to improve the learning experience of students and to enhance the research capacity of our universities.
Recent government pressure on universities to admit candidates of lower academic ability and the abolition of the distinction between universities and polytechnics has also triggered a decline in academic standards.
Our education system is turning out far too many people with generic qualifications and not nearly enough scientists, engineers and tradesmen. The apprenticeship system has all but collapsed with many now choosing to take better paid jobs in the service sector. This has caused critical shortages, from plumbers and electricians to engineers and research scientists. Some companies have already relocated overseas to overcome this problem. However, the ability to learn does not cease at 20 and we also have a great number of people who could easily retrain for a more useful and fulfilling career.
University funding exceeds £7 billion per year yet this falls well short of what universities require. The plan for top-up fees proposed by the government will eventually raise an extra £1.4 billion per year. This will be insufficient to retain high quality staff or fund the government’s hoped-for expansion. It is essential that our top universities are able to compete with the best in the world and are not hampered by a loss of expertise, poor staff morale and government interference in recruitment policies.
Set the universities free and give students real choices
The New Party proposes radical reforms to set universities free. We will allow higher education institutions to charge fees for each course and students will receive state funded scholarships, based on national quotas for each discipline. This targeted use of scholarships will promote, over time, greater student numbers learning scientific, technical and engineering skills.
In order to further the concentration on vocational skills and improve students’ experience, the New Party will also introduce a one-year sponsored work programme for all young people considering going to university. Students will be placed with employers and receive work experience and training, provided by employers but with government support. This will have the effect of enabling young people who go on to university to have a better appreciation of the work environment and the opportunities that may be open to them, while others may decide that they wish to pursue further training or a career outside of the university system. Participation in the work programme and continuing sponsorship by employers will be included in the criteria for allocating university scholarships.
Concentrate research expertise
Through targeted funding we will encourage universities to restructure their staffing in a way that will provide more resources for teaching and more concentrated research expertise. We will encourage universities to vary academic contracts and teaching patterns, allowing more staff to concentrate exclusively on teaching rather than being obliged to do research as well. This will reduce the present number of academic staff doing piecemeal research with no real support and little likelihood of success. It will also help with the introduction of two-year intensive degree programmes.
Scholarships would only be able to be used for courses where the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has confirmed that the course is relevant and the university has the competence. This would require changes to the methods used for appointing external examiners. Currently, external examiners are chosen by the departments being examined and the necessary academic rigour is not always present, leading to the danger of degrees being devalued.
Our proposals would mean higher quality research. A large amount of academic research is duplication of existing work or insufficiently resourced to be of any use. We will reform the funding mechanisms to encourage research departments from different universities to collaborate to develop viable high quality research programmes, with the intention over time that they would form larger merged departments at one or other of the institutions.