srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education

Image of Rob Cuthbert


Leave a comment

HE Finance after Hurricane Adonis

By Rob Cuthbert

So there is to be a review of higher education finance. Probably. But it is still unclear whether it will be a ‘major’ review, whatever that means. It might only mean ‘major enough to see off the threat from Jeremy Corbyn’, but we await most of the detail.

After the June general election the apparent appeal to young people of the Labour Party pledge to abolish fees, and perhaps even write off student debt, sent the Conservative Party into panic mode. Of course it might not have been a pledge, nor even a promise, more an aspiration or a direction of travel. Students have heard that kind of thing before.

Storms were brewing, but no-one expected Hurricane Adonis. Continue reading

Vicky Gunn


Leave a comment

Notes from North of the Tweed: Do we need a new way of designing Scottish higher education policy?

By Vicky Gunn

The Brexit vote seems to have somewhat taken the wind out of the sails of higher education policy in Scotland. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF2) crossed the border in a small foray. Five institutions (St Andrews, Dundee, Abertay, Heriot Watt and RGU)[i] popped themselves into the Whitehall metrics melee and the SFC sent an encyclical reminding the sector that the Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF) was still the Scottish Government’s preferred (and legally required) approach to quality. Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO)[ii] emerged as the new dataset to appraise and the Vice Principals Learning & Teaching had to turn their minds to what it means for Scottish sector to have one, three, and five year details of income, tax, pensions, and type of work, at a disciplinary level. Thus, after a little lion rampant, Universities Scotland TEF working group settled back into business as usual, facing the Department of Education with the now normalised questions regarding devolved metrics’ divergences. We have yet to discuss the grade inflation metric[iii], but planners everywhere will be running analytics to see what increases in the top levels of degrees Scotland has seen since 2010.

The same sense of ‘new normal’ becalm cannot be said of Scotland’s approach to its cultural policy, however, and it is to this that I briefly reach. The current round of cultural policy creation Continue reading

Image of Rob Cuthbert


Leave a comment

The Future of Global HE: more (than) research is needed

By Rob Cuthbert

A high-level Symposium on the Future of Global HE in London on 7 September offered much food for thought, but only those with elitist tastes would have come away completely satisfied. The Symposium assembled a stellar cast, but the narrow HE perspective of most contributors made for a well-meaning dialogue contained within and between some of the world’s self-styled elite universities, which account for only a small proportion of the rapidly expanding global student population.

There were many fine words about the need to respect teaching as well as research, the need to ensure service to society at all levels from local to global, to promote universities’ key role in protecting freedom of expression and the integrity of ideas, and to rethink higher education’s core business as digital technologies continue to transform possibilities for learning. So far, so good. Continue reading


Leave a comment

Student voice in UK Higher Education politics: NSS, TEF and boycotts

by Camille Kandiko-Howson

Higher education policy is increasingly becoming metrics-oriented, with rafts of self-declared ‘wonks’ joining researchers, academics, policy officers and journalists. Although national quantitative datasets have been  running for over a decade, relatively little research has come from them, particularly compared with the thousands of publications using the US National Survey of Student Engagement. However, as metrics have risen in importance, the national datasets are gaining prominence in policy and research. The UK National Student Survey (NSS) dominates because of its use in national league tables, and from 2016, its inclusion in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). On the plus side, many institutions have used the data for improving the student experience, but it is also decried for driving a consumer-approach to higher education.

Boycotts Continue reading


Leave a comment

Exploring a ‘Sense of Belonging’ and Why It Matters in Higher Education

By Gill Mills and Caroline Jones

This was the first time we had attended an SRHE Event: we were optimistic and excited to experience and develop new knowledge aligned to the subject area of, ‘A sense of belonging within Higher Education’ and we were not disappointed. The SRHE venue provided an intimate but not intimidating environment where we were exposed to speakers covering a range of different elements that linked into the common theme. There was initial insight into the issues of admissions; clearing and contextual data from research delivered by Mansor Rezaian, from the Queen Mary University, then a qualitative exploration of non-traditional students’ journey into an elite university from Debbi Stanistreet of the University of Liverpool. Following these opening speakers there were opportunities for participant questions and answers and whilst we did not pose questions we found great value in listening to the elaborate and interesting discussions that took place. This part of the event created an academic community feel with professionals from across institutions, faculties and disciplines debating contextual dilemmas and experiences.

The latter part of the day Continue reading

Paul Temple


Leave a comment

Mind the Knowledge Gap

By Paul Temple

I teach an MA session at the Institute of Education called “The University in the Knowledge Economy”. We canter through the history, starting with a few reflections on the medieval university, going on to consider the development of science in nineteenth-century Germany, noting Bush’s 1945 Science – the Endless Frontier report, examining Bell’s seminal 1973 The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, and coming up to date with references to theorists such as Stehr and the policy statements to be found in any British White Paper on higher education in recent decades, or in any comparable European Commission report. My no doubt predictable thesis is that the university has steadily assumed an increasingly dominant place in knowledge production and transfer in modern societies; and that this has certain implications for the ways in which universities should be planned and managed.

But I’m now beginning to think that this rather Whig approach is looking painfully complacent. Continue reading

Image of Rob Cuthbert


Leave a comment

What’s wrong with politicians in HE?

By Rob Cuthbert

The June general election disrupted normal business at Westminster in almost every sense: the summer silly season may be suspended altogether, despite the annual three-month holiday for Parliament. The unexpected election result had something to do with the mobilisation of the student and young persons’ vote by the Labour Party, probably connected to their promise to abolish tuition fees and even cancel all student debt. The storm brewing since the election was sparked into life by the intervention of Lord Adonis, self-styled architect of the fees policy and director of the No 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair. It captured all the worst features of politicians in HE in one episode: selective attention to issues; pursuing personal interests in the guise of caring about the issue; selective memory; rewriting history; not taking advice from people who actually know how a policy might work; and – worst of all to academics – contempt for evidence.

Andrew Adonis, returning to comment on HE after some years away, wrote a scathing but completely misguided piece about fees for The Times on 28 June 2017. ‘Goodbye tuition fees. They were a sensible idea wrecked by David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s decision to treble them overnight, and by the greed and complacency of vice-chancellors who thought they were a licence to print money’. His motive was apparently to protect his ‘legacy’ as ‘the moving force behind Tony Blair’s decision in 2004 to introduce … top-up fees … The intention was that fees would vary between £1000 and £3000 depending on the cost and benefit of each course. But the VCs formed a cartel and almost universally charged £3000.’

Adonis and most other politicians in the Westminster bubble have conveniently forgotten that it was always obvious, well before the vote on £3000 fees back in 2004, that virtually all universities would be charging the maximum £3000, as a Guardian report from 13 January 2004 makes clear: ‘Today’s survey of 53 of the 89 university vice-chancellors in England, carried out by EducationGuardian.co.uk, reveals that, in practice, variability will be minimal while the fee ceiling remains at £3,000, though elite universities are already lobbying for that cap to be swiftly lifted.’ But Adonis is clearly a man who harbours grudges over the long term, predicting that fees would soon be abolished and ‘VCs need to start planning for real austerity. The flow of money from £9000 fees will soon dry up. They could set an example and halve their salaries.

Adonis had stamped his foot and ‘thcreamed and thcreamed until he made himthelf thick’, in the style of Violet-Elizabeth Bott. Despite knowledgeable HE commentators pointing out how wrong he was about almost everything, his ideas ‘gained traction’, as they say in the Westminster bubble. Pretty soon Damian Green, the Deputy Prime Minister, was having to backtrack from an ill-advised response in a wide-ranging interview when he suggested that the whole fees policy needed review.

Conservative commentator George Trefgarne on 26 June 2017 blogged for Reaction, asking ‘Why is nobody in the Conservative Party talking about the broken student loan system?’ Then on 5 July the Institute for Fiscal Studies put out their Briefing Note (BN211), Higher Education funding in England: past, present and options for the future, seized on by the media with front page headlines blaring that three-quarters of graduates will never repay their debt. Steve Jones (Manchester) blogged for WonkHE on 6 July 2017 ‘Are headline writers getting it wrong on fees?’. The answer was mostly yes, but his argument was much too sensible to ‘gain traction’ when Westminster was already in full-blown panic mode.

Mark Leach of WonkHE had offered a primer on 22 May 2017: ‘The Pros and Cons of Abolishing Tuition fees’ after Andrew McGettigan gave his own version on 12 May 2017, in the run-up to the general election, ‘The cost of abolishing tuition fees’. McGettigan got back on the case with his Critical Education blog on 5 July 2017, ‘IFS on tuition fees’, pointing out that the IFS arguments were sound, but inconvenient for Minister Jo Johnson, who had spent most of the previous few days arguing that the HE finance system was not broke and therefore he shouldn’t fix it. SRHE Vice-President Peter Scott wrote in The Guardian on 4 July 2017: ‘why are we not taking seriously a key message that came out of the campaign? Labour’s manifesto promise to abolish tuition fees in England, initially seen as off-the-wall, gained enormous traction. This is hardly surprising given the prospects faced by graduates – escalating debt, doubtful job prospects in a declining post-Brexit economy and decent homes out of reach.’ His piece was titled ‘The end of tuition fees is on the horizon – universities must get ready’.

Adonis wasn’t finished – indeed, he was hardly getting started. He wrote in The Guardian on 7 July 2017 under the headline ‘I put up tuition fees. It’s now clear they have to be scrapped’, saying ‘Debts of £50,000 are far more than I envisaged, and make the system unworkable’. Martin Harris (former director of the Office for Fair Access) weighed in, writing to The Guardian on 9 July 2017:

‘Andrew Adonis is right that the current fee regime cannot survive, but he understates the success of the £3k fee which he devised and which Charles Clarke introduced after the 2003 election … Adonis is unfair in attributing to vice-chancellors the decision to raise fees to £9k. This was a political diktat …  Ministers were clearly told how universities would behave when presented with a fee regime which would in effect label their courses first, second or third class by price. … Since then, a series of decisions by Conservative ministers have made matters worse, especially the abandonment of the categorical promise that tuition fee debt would never increase in real terms. The current regime certainly has to go. But we need to revisit something like the Adonis/Clarke scheme rather than totally abolishing fees. Abolition will inevitably lead to a cap on student numbers and thus to fewer poorer students entering universities.’

Nick Hillman of HEPI added his three penn’orth in a blog on 13 July 2017: ‘Lord Adonis now says the whole system of funding teaching in universities via tuition fees is wrong and should be junked altogether. More than that, he has taken to lashing out at Vice-Chancellors, called for an investigation of tuition fees by the Competition and Markets Authority and is now battling away with academics on how they spend the summer on Twitter.’ Hillman said Adonis was ‘intellectually incoherent … intellectually weak. … [and making] false linkages: ‘it is silly to draw a direct line between higher tuition fees and the current levels of remuneration.’ However Jo Johnson was ready to endorse part of the Adonis rant, saying, “There are legitimate concerns about the rate at which vice chancellor pay has been growing. I think it is hard for students at a time when they have concerns over value for money and want to see real evidence of value for money from their tuition fees”.

Undaunted, Adonis made multiple media appearances, no doubt delighted to be once again in the political spotlight and feeling that his political bandwagon was gathering speed. As John Elledge of CityMetric wrote for the New Statesman on 4 July 2017: ‘Maybe scrapping tuition fees would be regressive. Perhaps we should do it anyway’, arguing that ‘Supporters of fees may be right on the policy – but they’re way off on the politics.’ Adonis even attacked the Times Higher Education for allegedly not exposing the issue of VCs’ salaries, a ludicrous comment revealing his ignorance of years of evidence in THE to the contrary.

The evidence-based debate on the pros and cons of tuition fees continued, but in a different universe. The 11 May blog for WonkHE by Gavan Conlon of London Economics, a longstanding expert commentator in this territory, argued that abolishing fees is fundamentally regressive. Christopher Newfield (University of California at Santa Barbara) blogged for WonkHE on 15 May 2017 about why abolishing tuition fees is a good idea. It was a scholarly values-based argument which built on his recent book The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, October 2016). The common argument in the US is that if public funding goes down, tuition fees go up, but Jason Delisle of the American Enterprise Institute argued for the ‘Bennett hypothesis’ – former US Secretary for Education Bill Bennett said that tuition fees increase until they exhaust the availability of public funds for student support. The long-term trend in the US shows a strong correlation of declining public support with rising tuition, but Delisle argued, in a report released on 1 June 2017, that colleges’ natural explanation should not be taken for granted. Becky Supiano interviewed Delisle for the Chronicle of Higher Education on 1 June 2017.

WonkHE’s weekly briefing on 5 June noted ‘New research from Claire Callender and Geoff Mason … at the UCL Institute of Education … The paper argues that tuition fees debt deters poorer and ethnic minority students from applying to university … The findings challenge the argument that the recent (post-fee increase) growth in full-time HE participation by 18-year-olds from all social classes proves that fees are not a deterrent. UUK chief executive Nicola Dandridge has responded to the paper with a blog criticising the methodology of the report. Dandridge argues that the study’s conclusions do not follow from its survey results and that the survey implies “that student loans are just like other domestic forms of debt such as credit card loans. This is far from the truth”.’

This was conveniently close to the arguments that Minister Jo Johnson had been making, since Dandridge was then unveiled by Johnson as the first chief executive of the Office for Students. It was however somewhat removed from the view of a significant number of her own current employers: later surveys would reveal a third of VCs wished to see substantial change to the fees regime.  Andrew Adonis described Dandridge’s appointment as ‘producer capture’, which exercised OfS Chair Michael Barber enough to write to The Guardian on 10 July 2017 saying ‘Don’t dismiss the Office for Students’ – a clash between two former heads of Tony Blair’s No 10 Policy Unit. At least Barber, the author of ‘deliverology’, is showing early signs of realising the limitations of target-setting in his approach as OfS Chair. Adonis, on the other hand, is showing much of what seems to be wrong with politicians in HE. His memory of events and version of history is selective, his evidence is flawed, his arguments are intellectually weak and incoherent, he seems to be too concerned to ‘protect his legacy’, and he has struck an almost Trumpian note in attacking rather than listening to anyone who disagrees with him.

The fee abolitionists are an unlikely combination of more-means-worse elitism and leftist utopian economics, and as Jo Johnson continues to promote market solutions he remains onside with the for-profit providers scenting new opportunities. Abolishing loan-backed fees would be devastating for those private sector providers, and that alone makes abolition unlikely for the present government, even before we get to the economic cost. If Adonis gets his wish for reform, the messy politics might lead to closures of public sector institutions, with less diversity, fewer opportunities for disadvantaged students, new lowest-common-denominator for-profit providers offering courses with less gainful employment for graduates, continuing student debt, and growing dissatisfaction among disenfranchised would-be students. But you can be sure that when the next crisis arrives, the politicians will be blaming HE, the opposition, the media, or anyone – except themselves.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com