The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay

Post election, Post budget: The shifting landscape of Higher Education in the UK

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By Ian McNay

It says something about the Guardian and its reader profile when it builds a crossword round knowing the names of the chancellors of Russell Group universities, as it did on 27 June. I also liked its headline the previous day: ‘New dinosaur found in university store cupboard’. It has now been re-united with older colleagues in the department of economics.

My serious considerations here concern the post-election agenda – what I called Jo-Jo’s in-tray issues in a recent workshop at Coventry (to where/whom, congratulations on their Guardian league table ranking on student views on teaching quality: second only to Cambridge, and, more importantly, above Warwick). That system level policy focus will be balanced by treatment of emergent concerns at institutional level in a later piece.

The most immediate issue is a cut of £450m in the DBIS budget, which may be followed by further longer-term cuts as the failed austerity project continues. Nick Hillman at Coventry suggested an easy step was to convert grants to loans, which reduces the deficit but still increases the debt. I am writing before the budget, but I expect a loosening of fee limits, not ruled out during the election and possibly linked to teaching excellence, with high scorers being allowed to increase fees, as UUK want. Then there will be the sale of further tranches of the loan book, possibly to universities for their own alumni. Research Fortnight expects science to be protected because George Osborne likes photo opportunities with impressive equipment and protective gear. Pushing companies to stop the slow decline in R+D spend would be brave, but desperately needed if the agenda about international competitiveness is serious. Linked to that, Jo-Jo’s previous writing favoured taking international students out of the immigration stats, so a fight with Theresa May looks on the cards. He may win that since it would reduce the headline figure. The alternative is to let them go elsewhere, or to set up more partnerships and off-shore campuses. There have been some catastrophic failures in the latter, as well as Nottingham’s success. The private sector can’t be trusted in this area, and further granting of the right to recruit or of university designation seems unlikely in the next few years. The student demand is not there, anyway, given the reduction in the 18+ age cohort and tighter exam standards at 16 and 18 – in England, at least. That was why the numbers cap could be lifted – places have been left empty, though it will need review in 5 years’ time when the dramatic rise in the birth rate works through.  Employers also need pushing on funding CPD for their staff, which may slow, if not stop the decline in part-time and postgraduate study.

The two major issues, though, are likely to be on a teaching excellence framework and a new Higher Education Act. The Act will need to re-frame governance of the system in England – Scotland and Wales are ahead on this, and not without disputes. If HEFCE has lost control at the point of allocating funds, there needs to be other measures in place at the output end, and in regulating processes. So, HEFCE residual functions, QAA (now with added student input), OFFA (seen as toothless) and OIA (seen as a more rigorous monitor of probity and competence) may be merged in to a super state agency to pursue compliance. The Competition and Marketing Authority may also be in the mix.

It may be that teaching excellence goes in to that mix, too, with a branch of the megamonitor being an Ofsted clone – Ofcourse? Offcourse? So, back to rooms lined with documents, and training in visit management, again? There is a timely warning from the authors of a recent HE Academy report, including SRHE activists Jacqueline Stevenson and Penny-Jane Burke, on Pedagogic Stratification and the Shifting Landscape of HE. It warns that their review of HEI documentation gives evidence of ‘a performative approach to excellence, which views teaching excellence as something that can be quantified, codified and thus rewarded’. Their interviews indicated that ‘for senior academics…excellence in teaching focuses on being competitive in the market of HE, which involves branding the institution in some way that marks it out as distinctive’. By contrast in lecturers’ accounts ‘excellence is frequently related to the micro-practices of enabling individual students, through critical pedagogies, to achieve their potential’. Many staff resisted the label since ‘teaching excellence had become synonymous with student satisfaction in ways which rendered both terms vague and ambiguous’.

Europe will also be on the agenda – and I write on the day after the Greek referendum ‘No’ vote. Jo-Jo will be on the ‘Yes’ camp for the UK referendum, and will be strongly supported by UUK, the research councils and other HE interest groups. I expect that to go his way as well, though the HE element will not be a strong feature of the campaign.

The press has featured other ‘e-factors, too’ from the serious extremism fear and the spy role expected of staff, through excessive drinking and the laddish culture to elocution lessons to improve employment prospects – though too late to affect your parentage and schooling.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich. 

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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