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Tunnel vision: higher education policy and the Office for Students

by Rob Cuthbert

In January 2022 the Office for Students published three sets of consultations, 699 pages of proposals for the regulation of student outcomes, the determination of teaching excellence, and the construction of indicators to measure student experience and outcomes. These were not separate initiatives, but part of a co-ordinated programme which needs to be seen in the context of the long-awaited government response to the 2019 Augar report, finally published in March 2022[1].

The OfS consultation announced that numerical thresholds will underpin requirements for minimum acceptable student outcomes at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Universities and colleges not meeting these could face investigation, with fines and restrictions on their access to student loan funding available as potential sanctions. For full-time students studying a first degree, the thresholds require: 80% of students to continue into a second year of study; 75% of students to complete their qualification; 60% of students to go into professional employment or further study.

Not just numbers? OfS say: “we recognise that using our indicators to measure the outcomes a provider delivers for its students cannot reflect all aspects of the provider’s context … If a provider delivers outcomes for its students that are below a numerical threshold, we will make decisions about whether those outcomes are justified by looking at its context. This approach would result in a rounded judgement about a provider’s performance.”

But then: “… such an approach may present a challenge for some providers. This is because they must only recruit students where they have understood the commitment they are making to support their students to succeed, irrespective of their backgrounds. … Most universities and colleges relish this challenge and already deliver on it. However, some do not. While some may offer opportunities for students to enter higher education, we also see low continuation and completion rates and disappointing levels of progression to relevant employment or further study.” A warning, then, for “some”, but not “most”, providers.

The OfS approach will be fine-grained: “We would consider whether a provider has complied with condition B3 in relation to each separate indicator or split indicator. This enables us to identify ‘pockets of provision’ where performance in a specific subject, for students with specific characteristics, or in relation to partnership arrangements, falls below a numerical threshold”.

‘Selecting’ universities might think that ‘contextual judgment’ will rescue them, but may still decide to play safe in subjects where the numbers don’t look so good. ‘Recruiting’ universities, especially in ‘levelling up’ areas, might be looking at the numbers across many programmes and considering their strategy. Everyone will be incentivised to play safe and eliminate what are numerically the most marginal candidates, subjects and courses. And everyone thinks this will discriminate against disadvantaged students. For example, the University Alliance response published on 16 March 2022 said: “The University Alliance is gravely concerned that the proposals outlined by government could have unintended consequences for the least privileged students in society.”

Sally Burtonshaw (London Higher) blogged for HEPI on 26 January 2022: “As the dust begins to settle on the 699 pages of Office for Students’ (OfS) consultations and accompanying documents published on Thursday and providers across the sector begin to draft responses (deadline March 17th), it feels like there is a gaping chasm between the sector and its regulator. Language in the accompanying press release with references to ‘crack downs’, ‘tough regulatory action’ and ‘protecting students from being let down’, jars with a sector which has contributed so much throughout the pandemic.”

Diana Beech (London Higher) blogged for HEPI on 7 March 2022 about the government response to Augar and the OfS consultations: “… what we are facing now is not a series of seemingly independent consultations concerned with the minutiae of regulation, but a multi-pronged and coordinated assault on the values our higher education sector holds dear.” Diana Beech was a policy adviser to the last three ministers for universities.

SRHE Fellow Peter Scott summed it up like this: “This … ‘direction of travel’ is … based on the assumption that we should continue to distinguish between FE and HE, vocational and academic tracks, in terms of their social bases and costs. Of course, that is the current reality. Universities, especially Russell Group ones, draw a disproportionate number of their students from socially-privileged backgrounds, while FE is badly under-funded. This is why it makes (economic) sense for the Government to try to divert more students there. But is that sustainable in a country that aspires to being both democratic and dynamic? Most other countries have moved on and now think in terms of tertiary systems embracing HE, FE, on-the-job training, adult and community learning, the virtual stuff … bound together by flexible pathways and equitable funding – and, above all, by fair access. In the UK, Wales is setting the pace, while Scotland has had its ‘Learner Journey 15-24’ initiative. In England, sadly, there is no echo of such positive thinking.”

Status hierarchies must, it seems, be maintained, and not just between HE and FE, but also between universities. Contrary to expectations the Teaching Excellence Framework will rise from the ashes of the Pearce Review via the OfS’s second consultation. Earlier versions of TEF did not reliably reproduce the existing status hierarchies; some Russell Group institutions even suffered the indignity of a bronze rating. Clearly this could not be allowed to continue. So now: “The proposed TEF process is a desk-based, expert review exercise with decisions made by a panel of experts to be established by the OfS. The panel would consider providers’ submissions alongside other evidence. … TEF assessment should result in an overall rating for each provider. The overall rating would be underpinned by two aspect ratings, one for student experience and one for student outcomes but there would be no rating of individual subjects within a provider.” Such undifferentiated provider-level arrangements will surely be enough to ensure no further embarrassment for those with the highest reputations.

There will still be gold, silver and bronze awards, but not for all. The OfS script is worthy of Yes Minister: “… our minimum baseline quality requirements establish a high quality minimum for all providers. Therefore, quality identified that is materially above the relevant baseline quality requirements should be considered as ‘very high quality’ or ‘outstanding quality’ … ‘Outstanding quality’ signifies a feature of the student experience or outcomes that is among the very highest quality found in the sector for the mix of students and courses taught by a provider. … ‘Very high quality’ signifies a feature of the student experience or outcomes that is materially above the relevant minimum baseline quality requirements for the mix of students and courses taught by a provider.” Is the difference clear? If not, don’t worry, because the TEF Panel will decide.

As Sir Humphrey might have put it: it’s like the Olympics – not everyone will get on the podium. And it’s like ice dancing: judges hand out the marks based on how they rate the performance. The table of “features of excellence” spells out the criteria, for example: “The provider uses research in relevant disciplines, innovation, scholarship, professional practice and/or employer engagement to contribute to an outstanding academic experience for its students.” Whereas for high quality: “The provider uses research in relevant disciplines, innovation, scholarship, professional practice and/or employer engagement to contribute to a very high quality academic experience for its students.” Is the difference clear? If not, don’t worry, because the TEF Panel will decide.

Nick Hillman blogged for HEPI on 21 January 2022 about the OfS initiatives, reflecting on the limited success of previous attempts to shift evaluation towards metricisation, and Debbie Mcvitty blogged for Wonkhe on 24 January 2022 with a helpful potted history.There will be no surprises in the outcomes of the consultations. Whether or not the Titanic is sinking, we are consulted only on how to arrange the deckchairs. As HEPI’s Nick Hillman said: “I vividly recall what Les Ebdon, the former Director for Fair Access, said a few years ago when he was asked, “What will the Office for Students do?” His answer was, “It’s very simple. I can tell you exactly what the OfS will do. It will do whatever the government of the day wants it to do.” And so it has proved.”

Let us, then, look not at the entirely predictable outcomes, but at the style the OfS has adopted to reach them. The consultation on regulation of outcomes is telling. It takes 100 pages to assemble a rational-bureaucratic edifice in rational-bureaucratic language, with chapter headings including: “… making judgments about compliance with condition B3 … Addressing statistical uncertainty in the assessment of condition B3 … Taking regulatory action when a breach is identified …”. There could have been headings like: “How do we know how good the performance is?” or “What if something goes wrong?”. But that would have exposed the deeper questions, for which answers have already been decided. Instead we are drowned with bureaucratic detail. Details are always necessary, but we should be reminded of why they are needed. Instead these documents do their best to obscure the fait accompli which is their starting point, with a grinding remorseless pseudo-rationality which encourages you to lose sight of purposes and values.

In 699 pages of consultation the OfS has done its bureaucratic best to profess transparency, openness and rigour, while diverting our energies and attention from what an experienced ministerial adviser called the ‘assault on the values which our HE sector holds dear’. The consultations amount to a detailed enquiry about how exactly these values should be assaulted. We are in a consultation tunnel with only one track. What we can see is probably not the light at the end of the tunnel, it may be the lights from an oncoming train.

Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.


[1] Covered elsewhere in this issue of SRHE News. SRHE members can read this and previous editions of SRHE News via https://srhe.ac.uk/my-account/

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Sir Gavalad, the Knight of the Wholly Failed

by Rob Cuthbert

There was a time when knighthood meant something. It started out as a career path for the elite, for those headed for the cavalry, but: “As knighthood evolved, a Christian ideal of knightly behaviour came to be accepted, involving respect for the church, protection of the poor and the weak, loyalty to one’s feudal or military superiors, and preservation of personal honour.” The concept may have peaked in medieval times, but myths and legends continue to frame the knight as someone whose exemplary conduct has won them distinction. The “most perfect of all knights” was Sir Galahad, one of the three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table who achieved the Holy Grail.

Knighthood continues as a reward bestowed by the monarch for supposedly meritorious service. The British Honours system has many faults and some would like to abolish it completely. Its structure and nomenclature still embodies class privilege and explicit echoes of empire, even in HE, where VCs and professors of ‘elite’ universities aspire to knighthoods while the best of the rest will usually go no higher than CBE. But with the announcement of a knighthood for Gavin Williamson the government has once again plumbed depths which would not long ago have seemed unimaginable.

There might be some embarrassment involved, even for this apparently shameless government, given that the announcement was sneaked out as the war in Ukraine was dominating newspapers and airwaves. For years Williamson had been by a country mile the least respected, least popular and least successful member of the Cabinet – and that was the view of the Conservative Party. He finally lost his ministerial post in the reshuffle in September 2021. For reasons known only to himself, the Prime Minister decided at the time to soften the blow of Williamson’s dismissal by giving him a knighthood, as Camilla Tominey’s column in The Telegraph on 5 March 2022 made clear. Presumably he could not be given a peerage, either because he did not have enough roubles, or because, against all reasonable expectation, the 46-year-old harboured ambitions of yet another political comeback. So a knighthood was the sweetener of choice. But what did he do to ‘merit’ it?

Gavin Williamson had risen without trace to become Chief Whip in Theresa May’s Cabinet. When Sir Michael Fallon resigned as Secretary of State for Defence in November 2017 the Prime Minister followed standard practice and turned to the Chief Whip for suggestions about his replacement. Williamson, to widespread astonishment, proposed himself and May, weakened after the 2017 general election, agreed. He was not successful, not respected by senior service personnel, and attracted widespread ridicule for telling Russia to “go away and shut up” in 2018. Vladimir Putin obviously took careful note. He was fired as defence secretary in 2019 for allegedly leaking details from a National Security Council meeting about Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G network, which he denied.

He then supported Boris Johnson’s campaign for leadership of the Conservative Party and was rewarded by a return to Cabinet as Secretary of State for Education. It was, then, the education sector that bore the brunt of his incompetence at a time in the pandemic when effective leadership was desperately needed. Williamson stumbled from one disaster to the next, issuing vague or ambiguous advice to schools, or clear instructions just hours before they were meant to take effect, making school staff scramble to work out their implications. He announced that schools must stay open and then reversed his decision just days later. And, worst of all, he made the difficult problem of handling national examinations in 2020 far worse than it needed to be, with profound effects on schools, HE, individual students and their future careers. Policymaking in a pandemic needed to be decisive, transparent and inclusive. Instead it was indecisive, obscure and included only those outside the DfE who would be later blamed for getting it wrong. Higher education institutions did the best they could to cope with the flood of proportionately much better-qualified applicants, with no thanks to the flipflopping by the Secretary of State for Education and Ofqual which repeatedly changed the admissions arithmetic, right up to the last minute. Even so tens of thousands of young people were dissatisfied or destroyed by the results that finally emerged from the abandoned algorithm and centre-assessed grades, and denied any realistic chance of appeal. The surge in numbers in unexpected places changed institutional strategies for several years and immediately jeopardised the prospects of the next cohort of applicants.

The gratuitous damage to so many students brought to mind the last time a senior Cabinet minister had made a major promise affecting higher education and then completely reversed his decision. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg pledged before the general election in 2010 to abolish student fees, then went into coalition with the Conservatives, He did not simply abandon his pledge – as Deputy Prime Minister he was party to the decision to treble student fees instead. A ‘National Scholarships Scheme’ was supposed to be some compensation but was, unsurprisingly, an insignificant damp squib; it had to be quietly abandoned. Mealy-mouthed protestations about the ‘compromises’ necessary in coalition did not dissuade the electorate from destroying the Liberal Democrats at the next general election. Clegg’s complete failure led, naturally, to a knighthood; he became Sir Nick and departed to make his fortune in the Metaverse.

It was perhaps the most egregious example of a complete failure in HE policy leading to ennoblement – until now, as Sir Gavalad becomes the second Knight of the Wholly Failed. This is not just failure, it is Massive and Shameful (M&S) Failure. But some politicians have no shame.

Such knighthoods deserve a special ceremony. Perhaps Prince Andrew could be persuaded to do the honours.

Rob Cuthbert is the editor of SRHE News and Blog, emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.

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English higher education policy: hope and pay

by Rob Cuthbert

The long-awaited Cabinet reshuffle offers a faint hope for some improvement in HE policymaking in England: there is of course plenty of room for it. Former Secretary of State Gavin Williamson never recovered from the A-levels debacle of 2020, having already been held in low esteem before then. His standing in the HE sector was at a record low after a series of increasingly frenetic measures which seemed more like attempts to curry favour with the Conservative Party and the right wing press than coherent policy initiatives. Those measures included T-levels in post-16 education, a consultation on initial teacher training reform, the Free Speech Bill working its way through Parliament, comments on post-Covid behaviour by universities, rumoured moves on HE tuition fees, and various initiatives taken by the Office for Students in response to the Secretary of State’s frequent ‘guidance’ letters.

Announcing his departure on Twitter, Williamson said it had been a pleasure to serve in the role and that he was proud of the “transformational reforms” he had led in post-16 education. FE and schools begged to differ. A coalition of influential education bodies had written to Gavin Williamson about his T-level proposals on 29 July 2021 saying: “It is impossible to square the government’s stated ambition to ‘level up’ opportunity with the proposal to scrap most BTECs, including all larger versions of the qualifications that are deemed to overlap with A levels or T levels (86% of respondents to the review disagreed with your proposal to remove funding for qualifications on this basis) … Many young people will be adversely affected by this proposal, but disadvantaged students have the most to lose, a conclusion that your Department’s own equalities impact assessment supports.” We can hope that the new DfE team will think again.

Similarly, the consultation on ITT has been universally criticised. Oxford and Cambridge suggested in response that they might pull out of ITT provision, and two senior former inspectors savaged the recent Ofsted inspections purporting to justify proposed reforms. Anna McKie reported for Times Higher Education on 3 August 2021, and Terry Russell and Julie Price Grimshaw blogged about ITT inspections in July 2021 for Teach Best: “The reports show that the evidence base for the judgements made are flimsy in the extreme, repetitive, poorly written, hyper-critical, demoralising and humiliating. It is totally unacceptable that programme leaders across the whole sector, who have turned themselves inside out for two years in order to ensure that trainees get the best possible deal, can be treated like this. We know that some course leaders have suffered illness and extreme anxiety as a direct result of these inspections. Already we are seeing providers taking the decision to close.” A strongly negative response from MillionPlus on 20 August 2021 called for the ‘reform’ to be ‘paused’: “If change is forced through in spite of a near-unanimous sector backlash, it is likely that numerous modern universities, currently the backbone of initial teacher training, will re-consider their provision in this area. This could critically damage the pipeline of new teachers into the profession, potentially hitting hardest the very regions and communities the government has pledged to level up.” Caroline Daly (UCL) blogged for UCL on 13 August 2021: “This is no time for a mass experiment on teacher education”. We might hope that the new DfE team will quietly let this one disappear.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill currently before Parliament embodies the culture wars so popular in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and is reported on more fully elsewhere in this issue of SRHE News. Whatever its supposed merits, we can but hope that the slavish desire to cater to right wing prejudice will be tempered somewhat in the new DfE team.

The installation of Lord Wharton as chair of the Office for Students, and his refusal to stop taking the Tory whip in the Lords, meant that OfS was never going to be the kind of independent regulator required by statute; recent OfS initiatives have reinforced those feelings. The preliminary OfS consultation on a range of quality and standards issues during the winter of 2020-21 was followed by a further consultation published on 21 July 2021. This made detailed proposals about new regulatory requirements, saying: “the UK Quality Code, including its common practices, advice and guidance, risks creating a homogeneous approach to quality and standards assurance that stifles innovation and overly focuses on policy and process rather than outcomes for students. By contrast, our intention is to establish an approach to regulation that protects all students through the articulation of a clear minimum baseline for quality and standards in the regulatory framework, while enabling competition, student choice, provider autonomy and innovation to develop freely above the baseline.”

Picking their way through the weasel words, David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson of WonkHE summed up (on 20 July 2021) its intention as being to sweep away the existing Quality Code, “a longstanding agreed sector standard developed by the Quality Assurance Agency … on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (kind of the sector’s representative body on quality assurance). The code is short, clear, comprehensible … Everybody knows where they are with it (from PSRBs to providers), it is popular, UK-wide, and internationally recognised. And it’s symbolic – insofar as it is a piece of co-regulation.” The first consultation spoke of “up-to-date” content and “effective” assessment. Perhaps this was, as Kernohan and Dickinson said, “meant to give providers flexibility to make their own decisions  … [but] in practice it made them concerned that their definitions of these terms may not match the regulator’s own impressions.”

The Teaching Excellence Framework was evaluated in unflattering terms by the independent review reluctantly accepted by DfE as part of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. That review, completed long ago but published much more recently, seemed to have put TEF in the deep freeze, but OfS now envisages a new-style TEF as an enforcement mechanism for its new ‘definitions’ of quality and standards. The WonkHE writers conclude: “As usual, there’s little on making students feel more powerful – but plenty for OfS.” The attempted reassurance in the OfS blog by Director of Regulation Susan Lapworth on 20 July 2021 failed to persuade, and the THE pronouncement on the same day by OfS chair Lord Wharton that “Good universities have nothing to fear from the OfS’ quality crackdown” smacked more of loyalty oaths than higher education standards.

Those suspicions were fuelled, to put it mildly, when OfS issued on 7 October 2021 probably its most fatuous review to date, about spelling, punctuation and grammar. This followed a series of media scare stories earlier in 2021 about universities supposedly being told that ‘cutting marks for bad spelling is elitist’, as the Mail on Sunday headline had it on 11 April 2021. Minister Michele Donelan duly deplored such alleged behaviour in the House of Commons, as Jim Dickinson noted in his WonkHE blog on 7 October 2021. OfS then conducted a review over Summer 2021 in “a small number of higher education providers … focused on spelling, punctuation and grammar in written assessment” identifying a “cause for regulatory concern”. There will always be stories and cases of daft behaviour by some universities, on issues like spelling, just as on issues like freedom of speech. They need to be dealt with proportionately and the regulator must decide whether there is a substantive case to answer for the whole sector. Here the OfS jumped to the remarkable conclusion that “The common features we have seen in the small number of cases in this review suggest that the practices and approaches we have set out in the case studies may be widespread across the sector.” This is not an independent regulator, this is a body in a hurry to do what it thinks the Minister wants. We can hope that the new DfE team might discourage such excessive compliance, led as it now is by someone who made a success of asking different people for their opinions.

Williamson’s last turn in HE was his speech at the Universities UK conference in Newcastle in September, when he urged universities to get back to in-person face to face teaching – speaking by videolink (!) as Times education editor Nicola Woolcock reported on 9 September 2021. Richard Adams, The Guardian’s education editor, described his speech as ‘combative’: Williamson “accused some universities of being more interested in “cancelling national heroes” and bureaucracy than improving the lives of students and staff, telling vice-chancellors they risk undermining public confidence in higher education.” He went on to attack universities with high drop-out rates and announced that “in the future institutions in England would not be able to count disadvantaged students enrolled on courses with high non-continuation rates towards meeting their access targets.” The Secretary of State’s willingness to take on the universities, albeit remotely, was not of course sufficient to save his job. We can hope that the faux outrage of the culture wars and the faux consultations on decisions already made might give way in future to something more approaching evidence-based policy and proper consultation.

The signs are that real politics might be re-emerging. The restructuring of the DfE entailed the abolition of the role of Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills. This seemed to run contrary to levelling up, as the FE News report on 15 September 2021 noted, with Toby Perkins, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Further Education and Skills, quoted as saying: “Skills shortages are holding our economy back. For all his warm words, the Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the dedicated skills minister shows he isn’t serious about reskilling our workforce for the future.” But the SoS has a track record in this area, so this at least sounds like a reasonable difference of opinion about how to achieve a policy objective.

More fundamentally, we are expecting what the media call an ‘overhaul’ of HE funding, as Richard Adams wrote in The Guardian on 9 July 2021. The options might include tuition-fee cuts, a cap on student numbers for some courses and minimum qualifications for HE entry, in a much-delayed response to the Augar review of tertiary funding. After Covid the government, of course, needs to find or save a great deal of money and the student loan system is a prime target. After long-running disagreements between No 10, DfE and the Treasury over how to achieve savings, there were straws in the wind as first Nick Hillman for HEPI on 10 June 2021 and then David Willetts (in HEPI Report 142) on 30 September 2021 spelt out the possibilities for savings, supposedly while ‘boosting HE spending’ according to Willetts. Consider these – however unpalatable – as the centrist Tory case for savings: it amounts to ‘make graduates pay more’. A different position would involve fee reductions, meaning funding cuts for institutions, student number caps and/or minimum entry qualifications, restricting access and HE numbers. The latter was more likely to have been adopted by the former DfE regime. We can hope there are higher chances now of the more ‘moderate’ course.

The new Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi arrives with a better reputation than his predecessor, and there have been significant ministerial changes at DfE, not least the departure after a very long tenure of Nick Gibb as schools minister. However Michele Donelan remains and has been promoted as Universities Minister, adding post-16 responsibilities to her brief, and she will in future attend Cabinet. She remains something of a blank canvas, having until now loyally followed her SoS’s lead. More worryingly, former Gavin Williamson special adviser Iain Mansfield tweeted on 2 October 2021: “Delighted to be able to confirm that I will be staying on in Government, as Special Adviser to Michelle Donelan, Minister for Higher and Further Education”, as ResearchProfessionalNews had divined some weeks earlier. Mansfield was formerly a DfE civil servant known principally as the architect of the first version of TEF, later as an evidence-defying supporter of grammar schools. And of course Lord Wharton remains as chair of the OfS.

We can only hope that there will at least be something of a return to more sensible politics as the new ministerial team settles in. We can be fairly sure that hard times are coming for HE funding in the government spending review, with institutions, staff, students and graduates paying the price. So there it is, the short term future for higher education policy in England: hope and pay.

SRHE News Editor 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. Twitter @RobCuthbert

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Another fine mess

by Rob Cuthbert

The overweight man in charge had an unprepossessing thin sidekick doing his bidding, but constantly making things worse, prompting Laurel and Hardy’s famous catchphrase[1][2].

In unrelated news, if English HE was a movie, what is the story so far? It features the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Education, government and HE policy. English HE continues to enjoy a very high reputation worldwide, not least with potential future students. Numbers of home applicants continue to exceed expectations, promising a student population which outstrips even the boost given by the demographic upswing in numbers of 18-25 year olds. After the pandemic all public services face questions about financing acceptable levels of service, but HE might seem partly insulated from the problem because of the continuing demand by fee-paying students. However the real cost to government of subsidised student loans has been made apparent by watchdog-driven changes to government accounting; those changes make costs obvious and applicable now, rather than in 20 or 30 years’ time. The Willetts reforms to HE and student finance, by their lights well-intentioned as redistributive, might have worked in theory, but they have failed in practice as the cost to government of subsidising partial loan repayment has steadily risen.

Despite the rising demand for places, students are not happy with the level of service they get in the current ‘market’. Student campaigns like the one at the University of Manchester for fee reductions are misconceived unless they deliver cash in hand for the students, because fee reductions make no difference for most graduates. Otherwise they help only the highest-paid graduates, the small minority who would actually fully repay their loans, but – crucially – lower fees would reduce the costs to government. Next year, students want a return to the teaching-in-person experience they expect, and are already bridling at the prospect of on-line-only lectures. Too many institutions seem to have a tin ear in responding to such opinion. Meanwhile students are reporting mental health problems, discrimination and harassment at unprecedented levels. UUK has issued guidance on avoiding sex and race harassment, and the inequalities in admissions and student achievement based on socioeconomic, racial or other disadvantage are a central institutional concern.

Most HE staff have gone many extra miles to adapt their practice to the pandemic restrictions, problems made worse because there are cohorts of students lacking preparation for HE because of their interrupted school experience. At the same time many are enduring worsening staff levels, the threat of redundancies, reductions in pension benefits and more, because the supposed ‘boom years’ for HE (as labelled by James Forsyth in The Times on 4 June 2021) have brought worsening financial problems for many institutions. The continuing trend to deterioration in management-staff relations is not helped by too many examples of excessive VC salaries and insensitive managerial actions. It is the staff who have made it possible for government ministers and institutional leaders to maintain their challengeable position that the quality of the HE experience has not diminished, a position built on the need to keep tuition fee levels at their very high level.

This, then, is the context. How did the government’s proposals address these key problems? Consider the Queen’s Speech for the new Parliamentary session, recent ministerial speeches and consequent initiatives from the Office for Students – the ‘independent’ regulator chaired by the campaign manager for the Prime Minister, who still takes the government whip in the House of Lords.

The government response to fast-rising demand is to propose a reduction in HE places, with a supposed shift of resources to FE and training. Governments of all kinds have often proposed spending more on FE; FE is still waiting. Not only would reducing the size of HE be a world first, reversing the global trend to HE expansion, it would no doubt do much to ensure that FE is ‘for other people’s children’, as government adviser Alison Wolf once said. Alternatively, and if it were ever achieved, more likely, it would convert the balance of payments surplus on HE to a deficit, by driving many well-qualified home applicants abroad and choking off international recruitment. It might become an electoral and economic mess.

Ofqual, having shared culpability for the 2020 A-level and GCSE examinations shambles with DfE and the Secretary of State, has a new chief regulator and a new chair. The newly-confirmed head is Jo Saxton, most recently an adviser to Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. Before that she was the much-criticised head of a chain of academy schools in Kent, embodying the continuing patronage which delivers government supporters into key unelected roles, via the ‘strict’ public appointment procedures which have already seen Lord Wharton appointed as chair of the OfS. This will not inspire hope or confidence among school heads and staff, after the resignation of the widely-respected Sir Kevan Collins, the Education Recovery Commissioner – tsar of catch-up for schoolchildren who missed learning in the pandemic – because the government fell woefully short of the investment he deemed necessary. It might become an educational mess.

Government, while continuing to assert that the quality of HE has been maintained, at the same time asserts that there is a problem with ‘low quality courses’, a continuing theme of almost all recent Conservative ministers for HE, which Jo Johnson used to justify his 2017 legislation for the HE market. None have yet passed the ‘Skidmore test’, calling on anyone discussing ‘low quality courses’ to name and shame them, or else succumb to ‘low quality argument’ (Chris Skidmore being the honourable exception in that list of recent ministers). Serious attempts to identify ‘low quality courses’ through data analysis invariably collapse, as Wonkhe’s David Kernohan has shown. But the OfS has pressed ahead with its ‘Proceed’ initiative, which simply multiplies completion rate by the rate of progression to graduate employment, and the odds are that these ‘experimental’ data will become the measure of ‘course quality’. The Skills Bill now published gives the OfS carte blanche to decide which measures it might use to identify ‘low quality’. The many other issues affecting both of the flawed component measures mean that using such a metric will probably work directly against the government’s ‘levelling up’ mantra by targeting universities which take many disadvantaged students, not least in the ‘Northern wall’ and those with high proportions of BAME and socioeconomically disadvantaged students in London and the South East. It might become a political mess.

Government also envisages changes to HE financing, which might involve reducing fees for some (non-STEM) courses. This is being strongly urged by the Treasury, which is more worried about the fast-growing burden of subsidy for student loans than the prospect of financial collapse for the most precarious HE institutions – many of which would actually be prime candidates for support if ‘levelling up’ were taken seriously. A different group of institutions, for the most part, are also facing the long-running and growing threat of a potentially unaffordable revaluation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. The prospect of significant diminution of pension benefits has already led to widespread strikes and other industrial action in recent years. With no solution in sight, staff morale and commitment will be even more challenged. It might become a managerial mess.

However, none of this was the HE headline in the Queen’s Speech, which was reserved for the long-awaited legislation on free speech, the latest twist in the so-called ‘culture wars’ and the ‘war on woke’. The summary of informed commentary, beyond the hard core government supporters, seems to be that at best such legislation would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Even Conservatives like Danny Finkelstein argue that this kind of legislation will cause many more problems than it might solve. So the headline act of government in the near future will be to focus on a problem which, if it exists at all, is well down the priority list for any well-managed university. It is bound to become a mess at every level.

In sum, government HE policy is in something of a hole, pursuing internally contradictory policies which might play to a wider ‘anti-woke’ agenda but in economic and political terms seem likely to run counter to any thoughts of levelling up. But the Secretary of State keeps digging, even after the great A-level disaster of 2020. It may not be too long before this becomes another fine mess.


SRHE News Editor 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. Twitter @RobCuthbert

[1] They never actually said ‘Another fine mess’, despite making a movie with that title. The phrase Oliver Hardy often uttered was ‘Another nice mess you’ve gotten us into’.

[2] As well as Another Fine Mess, their movies included A Chump at Oxford and Chickens Come Home.

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Cronyism, academic values and the degradation of debate

by Rob Cuthbert

The pandemic has accelerated many trends which were already apparent, such as the switch away from the high street to online purchasing, and in HE the move to on-line, remote and asynchronous learning. The influence of social media has also accelerated, partly or wholly replacing the normal policy business of face-to-face discussion and debate. But perhaps the most significant change of all for HE has been the accelerating decline in the quality of regulation, governance and policy debate.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 may come to be seen as the high water mark of a particular kind of policymaking which has been ebbing rapidly ever since: the tide has gone out on deliberative and measured debate. A majority in HE strongly opposed marketisation, but the Act was the culmination of a long period of debate which at least gave credence to opposing views and saw them represented in discussion inside and outside Parliament. The market ‘reforms’ were promoted by ministers – David Willetts and Jo Johnson in particular – who had at least grudging respect from many in the system, because of their own respect for academe, however partial it sometimes seemed. And much though we might regret the marketisation changes and seek their reversal, we might also accept that they were enacted by a government which had a mandate for change explicitly endorsed by the electorate. But that was then.

In 2019 the government was returned with a sufficient majority to ‘get Brexit done’, which it did, much to the dismay of most in higher education. HE’s dominant Remainer sentiment no doubt helped to fuel disregard in Whitehall for HE opinion. What is often wrongly still called ‘debate’ has been polarised, accentuated by social media’s echo chambers during the lockdown. In the ‘culture war’ both sides have dug their trenches and hoisted the ‘no surrender’ flags. In HE this has diverted attention away from the real and massive problems of the student experience in the pandemic, and towards the misrepresented and overstated issue of free speech, academic freedom and diversity of opinion. The supposed justification for recent free speech initiatives in HE has been amply covered elsewhere, and is summarised in SRHE News 44 (April 2021).

In this culture war academics and academic institutions have their share of blame. The Policy Exchange ‘research’, cited in support for the Secretary of State’s recent announcements, shoddy though it was, nevertheless pointed to the issue of Remainer conformism in much British academic culture, in which some staff have self-censored their support for Brexit. I tried much earlier to parody this conformism, arguing that “perhaps the best thing to do was to accept the will of the people, freely expressed”. But democracy depends on the willing consent of the governed, and the governed in HE are increasingly unwilling to consent to changes in which their views are simply ignored. There is no shortage of comment on new policy initiatives; the HE sector is comparatively well-served by think tanks such as HEPI and WonkHE, as the recent CGHE seminar on ‘Universities in Medialand’ suggested. But there is little sign that government takes note of policy commentary which contradicts its current narrative, even when obvious contradictions are pointed out. Thus, for example, market forces must rule, except when students choose the ‘wrong’ universities. The student experience is paramount, except  when students report high levels of satisfaction – so the National Student Survey, until yesterday a crucial element for teaching excellence, must today be rubbished.

Nowhere has the contempt for opposing views been more obvious than in the appointment of a new Chair for the Board of the Office for Students. The notes to the 2017 Act establishing the OfS explained that: “This Act creates a new non-departmental public body, the Office for Students (OfS), as the main regulatory body, operating at arm’s length from Government, and with statutory powers to regulate providers of higher education in England.” (emphasis added). The first OfS chair was Sir Michael Barber. It was rumoured that Barber sought a second term but was denied. Who might be appropriate to take on the role? Another respected figure with experience of HE and of working with government, able to sustain that arm’s length role for the Office? Former UUK chair Sir Ivor Crewe (former VC, Essex) was interviewed, as Sonia Sodha and James Tapper reported for The Observer on 14 February 2021: “Perhaps it was the long passage in Professor Sir Ivor Crewe’s book The Blunders of Our Governments about the way ministers’ mistakes never catch up with them that led Gavin Williamson to reject the expert as the new head of the Office for Students. Or maybe the education secretary was put off by the section of the 2013 book, written with the late Anthony King, dealing with how ministers put underqualified, inexperienced people in charge of public bodies. The job of independent regulator of higher education in England was instead handed to James Wharton, a 36-year-old former Tory MP with no experience in higher education who ran Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign.” The selection panel had been criticised for its dominant reliance on government supporters rather than HE expertise, but the chair-designate was nevertheless still to have his appointment endorsed by the Parliamentary Education Select Committee.

The Committee’s approval was very likely but could not be taken for granted, and Nick Hillman made some sensible proposals in his HEPI blog on 12 January 2021 on ‘How to grill the prospective chair of OfS’. We’d have suggested grilling on both sides, but presumably Boris Johnson’s campaign manager only has one side. The Education Select Committee duly questioned Lord Wharton of Yarm on 5 February 2021 and endorsed his appointment, which was announced by OfS on 8 February 2021. Rob Merrick reported for The Independent on 2 February 2021 that Lord Wharton had been subject to ‘hard questioning’, in the course of which he said he didn’t see why he could not retain the whip, nor why his role as Boris Johnson’s campaign manager should raise any conflict of interest issues.

So the ‘independent’ regulator was to have a partisan chair who proposed to retain the government whip. Conflict-of-interest issues raised themselves almost immediately, with wider ripples than expected. Lord Wharton had just been installed as Chair when he was revealed to be a paid adviser to a company seeking to build a cable connection through land at the University of Portsmouth. The company, Aquind, has a £1.2billion project to connect the electricity grids of the UK and France. It wants to put a cable across University of Portsmouth land, which the University opposes because of the disruption it would cause. Portsmouth Council and local Conservative and Labour MPs all oppose the project. Aquind director Alexander Temerko is a Conservative Party donor, whose website has several pictures of him with Lord Wharton, and also pictures him with the Prime Minister and Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. The planning dispute, involving possible compulsory purchase, has reached the Secretary of State for Business, but the previous incumbent Alok Sharma had to recuse himself from the case because his constituency party had received £10,000 from Temerko. Sean Coughlan told the story for the BBC on 19 February 2021, noting also that: “Conservative MP David Morris, another recipient of a donation, had to apologise to the House of Commons for a breach of paid advocacy rules after asking a question in support of the Aquind cable project.”

Lord Wharton’s appointment was greeted with incredulity in HE, but attracted little interest more broadly; in macropolitical terms the chair of OfS is a small bauble. And there were of course already many higher-profile reports of cronyism in government. The difficulty for HE is that the regulator may now be driven further and faster to unrealistic extremes. OfS, obediently pursuing its statutory responsibilities and ‘having regard to ministers’, is already in danger of leaving HE realities behind:

  • On 14 January 2021 the OfS wrote to universities and other HE providers, hard on the heels of a DfE letter to OfS, saying that the regulator expected institutions “to maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of their provision and to inform students about their options for refunds or other forms of redress where it has not been possible to provide what was promised.” Universities are losing tens of millions every week during the lockdown, without the kind of support provided for many other sectors, and on student hardship “the government can never quite resist overselling the multiple purposes to which the money might meaningfully be put”, as David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson argued in their WonkHE blog on 2 February 2021.
  • The OfS consultation document issued on 26 March 2021 put into practice the ‘instructions’ received earlier from Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. It proposed to steer more funds to STEM subjects and, among other things, halve additional funding for performing arts, media studies and archaeology courses. WonkHE’s David Kernohan was quick off the mark with his critical analysis on 26 March 2021.
  • OfS announced on 30 March 2021 that after the first phase of a review of the NSS, commissioned by Universities Minister Michele Donelan, there would be ‘major changes’ including dropping all references to ‘student satisfaction’. Of course, consistent reports that 85% or more of students in most universities are satisfied with their experience would be embarrassing for a government determined to prove otherwise.
  • OfS Director Regulation Susan Lapworth blogged for WonkHE on 31 March 2021 about a new condition of registration which would allow OfS to step in where a provider was at risk of failure, not to rescue the provider but to prevent a ‘disorderly’ closure. OfS had consulted on the proposal, which was not supported by most respondents, but went ahead anyway. The condition affects only the failing provider. Two obvious problems: (1) failing providers might not be inclined or well-placed to take the protective measures which OfS deems necessary; (2) previous experience shows that students need help from other institutions to facilitate transfers, but the Condition is silent on other institutions. They will often be willing, but might be unable to help without further support.

In the past funding councils were statutorily responsible for in effect providing a buffer between HE and government, to regulate excesses on either side. There is no danger of ‘provider capture’ in the new framework, the risk now is that the arm’s-length relationship with government has very short arms. Recent US experience shows the danger of such closeness. The Obama administration’s tighter regulation of for-profit HE after well-publicised shortcomings were swiftly reversed by Donald Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but Joe Biden is now progressively restoring Obama’s closer regulation. Such to-ing and fro-ing simply creates a more disorderly system for students to navigate.

We can learn a better lesson from the US: Michelle Obama’s dictum “when they go low, we go high”. We need to reinforce our support for academic values across the sector by continuing to show respect for opposing views, and to win cases by argument rather than by seeing who can shout loudest on social media. We have examples in the way that, for example, Eric Lybeck (Manchester) has offered to debate free speech with the authors of the Policy Exchange report. We also need to broaden the base of explicit opposition, and not leave it to the usual suspects: in particular, we need university leaders to step up and speak out more than they do.

It is often true that leaders can be more persuasive in private conversations than public speeches, but in current circumstances leaders, especially vice-chancellors, need to be more concerned that they will lose the confidence of staff and students if they fail to speak out publicly. There are honourable exceptions, but too many vice-chancellors seem to be more interested in avoiding blame than speaking out about real problems. It is certainly not easy, operating in the space between government, staff or student disapproval and social media pile-ons from the left or right; just one past or present remark or action, if uncovered or reinterpreted, could be career-ending. But that is why our leaders are well paid – to pursue the best interests of the institution and the people in it, not to be silenced just because the  problems are very difficult, nor out of fear or self-interest. We have recently seen research leaders not hesitating to speak out about proposed cuts in research funding – and those cuts have now been reversed. We need more people, leaders and staff on all sides, to speak truth to power – not just playing-to-the-gallery ‘our truth’, but a truth people inside and outside HE will find persuasive.

Rob Cuthbert is an independent academic consultant, editor of SRHE News and Blog and emeritus professor of higher education management. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and of SRHE. His previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

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Quality and standards in higher education

By Rob Cuthbert

What are the key issues in HE quality and standards, right now? Maintaining quality and standards with the massive transition to remote learning? Dealing with the consequences of the 2020 A-levels shambles? The student experience, now that most learning for most students is remote and off-campus? Student mental health and engagement with their studies and their peers? One or more of these, surely, ought to be our ‘new normal’ concerns.

But not for the government. Minister Michele Donelan assured us that quality and standards were being constantly monitored – by other people – as in her letter of 2 November to vice-chancellors:

“We have been clear throughout this pandemic that higher education providers must at all times maintain the quality of their tuition. If more teaching is moved online, providers must continue to comply with registration conditions relating to quality and standards. This means ensuring that courses provide a high-quality academic experience, students are supported and achieve good outcomes, and standards are protected. We have worked with the Office for Students who are regularly reviewing online tuition. We also expect students to continue to be supported and achieve good outcomes, and I would like to reiterate that standards must be maintained.”

So student health and the student experience are for the institutions to worry about, and get right, with the Office for Students watching. And higher education won’t need a bailout, unlike most other sectors of the market economy, because with standards being maintained there’s no reason for students not to enrol and pay fees exactly as usual. Institutional autonomy is vital, especially when it comes to apportioning the blame.

For government, the new normal was just the same as the old normal. It wasn’t difficult to read the signs. Ever since David Willetts, ministers had been complaining about low quality courses in universities. But with each successive minister the narrative became increasingly threadbare. David, now Lord, Willetts, at least had a superficially coherent argument: greater competition and informed student choice would drive up quality through competition between institutions for students. It was never convincing, but at least it had an answer to why and how quality and standards might be connected with competition in the HE market. Promoting competition by lowering barriers to entry for new HE providers was not a conspicuous success: some of the new providers proved to be a big problem for quality. Information, advice and guidance were key for improving student choice, so it seemed that the National Student Survey would play a significant part, along with university rankings and league tables. As successive ministers took up the charge the eggs were mostly transferred to the Teaching Excellence Framework basket, with TEF being championed by Jo, now Lord, Johnson. TEF began in 2016 and became a statutory requirement in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which also required TEF to be subject to an independent review. From the start TEF had been criticised as not actually being about teaching, or excellence, and the review by Dame Shirley Pearce, previously VC at Loughborough, began in 2018. Her review was completed before the end of 2019, but at the time of writing had still not been published.

However the ‘low quality courses’ narrative has just picked up speed. Admittedly it stuttered a little during the tenure of Chris Skidmore, who was twice briefly the universities minister, before and after Jo Johnson’s equally brief second tenure. The ‘Skidmore test’ suggested that any argument about low quality courses should specify at least one of the culprits, if it was not to be a low quality argument. However this was naturally unpopular with the narrative’s protagonists and Skidmore, having briefly been reinstalled as minister after Jo Johnson’s decision to step down, was replaced by Michele Donelan, who has remained resolutely on-message, even as any actual evidence of low quality receded even further from view. She announced in a speech to Universities UK at their September 2020 meeting that the once-praised NSS was now in the firing line: “There is a valid concern from some in the sector that good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards and embedding the subject knowledge and intellectual skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace. These concerns have been driven by both the survey’s current structure and its usage in developing sector league tables and rankings.”

UUK decided that they had to do something, so they ‘launched a crackdown’ (if you believe Camilla Turner in The Telegraph on 15 November 2020) by proposing, um, “a new charter aimed at ensuring institutions take a “consistent and transparent approach to identifying and improving potentially low value or low quality courses.” It’s doubtful if even UUK believed that would do the trick, and no-one else gave it much credence. But with the National Student Survey and even university league tables now deemed unreliable, and the TEF in deep freeze, the government urgently needed some policy-based evidence. It was time for this endlessly tricky problem to be dumped in the OfS in-tray. Thus it was that the OfS announced on 17 November 2020 that: “The Office for Students is consulting on its approach to regulating quality and standards in higher education. Since 2018, our focus has been on assessing providers seeking registration and we are considering whether and how we should develop our approach now that most providers are registered. This consultation is taking place at an early stage of policy development and we would like to hear your views on our proposals.”

Instant commentators were unimpressed. Were the OfS proposals on quality and standards good for the sector? Johnny Rich thought not, in his well-argued blog for the Engineering Professors’ Council on 23 November 2020, and David Kernohan provided some illustrative but comprehensive number-crunching in his Wonkhe blog on 30 November 2020: “Really, the courses ministers want to get rid of are the ones that make them cross. There’s no metric that is going to be able to find them – if you want to arbitrarily carve up the higher education sector you can’t use “following the science” as a justification.” Liz Morrish nailed it on her Academic Irregularities blog on 1 December 2020.

In the time-honoured way established by HEFCE, the OfS consultation was structured in a way which made it easy to summarise responses numerically, but much less easy to interpret their significance and their arguments. The core of the approach was a matrix of criteria, most of which all universities would expect to meet, but it included some ‘numerical baselines’, especially on something beyond the universities’ control – graduate progression to professional and managerial jobs. It also included a proposed baseline for drop-out rates. The danger of this was that it would point the finger at universities which do the most for disadvantaged groups, but here too government and OfS had a cunning plan. Nick Holland, the OfS Competition and Registration Manager, blogged on 2 December 2020 that the OfS would tackle “pockets of low quality higher education provision”, with the statement that “it is not acceptable for providers to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they have as an excuse for poor outcomes.” At a stroke universities with large proportions of disadvantaged students could either be blamed for high drop-out rates, or, if they reduced drop-out rates, they could be blamed for dropping standards. Lose-lose for the universities concerned, but win-win for the low quality courses narrative. The outrider to the low quality courses narrative was an attack on the 50% participation rate (in which Skidmore was equally culpable), which seemed hard to reconcile with a ‘levelling up’ narrative, but Michele Donelan did her best with her speech to NEON, of all audiences, calling for a new approach to social mobility, which seemed to add up to levelling up by keeping more people in FE. The shape of the baselines became clearer as OfS published Developing an understanding of projected rates of progression from entry to professional employment: methodology and results on 18 December 2020. After proper caveats about the experimental nature of the statistics, here came the indicator (and prospective baseline measure): “To derive the projected entry to professional employment measure presented here, the proportion of students projected to obtain a first degree at their original provider (also referred to as the ‘projected completion rate’) is multiplied by the proportion of Graduate Outcomes respondents in professional employment or any type of further study 15 months after completing their course (also referred to as the ‘professional employment or further study rate’).” This presumably met the government’s expectations by baking in all the non-quality-related advantages of selective universities in one number. Wonkhe’s David Kernohan despaired, on 18 December 2020, as the proposals deviated even further from anything that made sense: “Deep within the heart of the OfS data cube, a new plan is born. Trouble is, it isn’t very good.”

Is it too much to hope that OfS and government might actually look at the academic research on quality and standards in HE? Well, yes, but there is rather a lot of it. Quality in Higher Education is into its 26th year, and of course there is so much more. Even further back, in 1986 the SRHE Annual Conference theme was Standards and criteria in higher education, with an associated book edited by one of the founders of SRHE, Graeme Moodie (York). (This was the ‘Precedings’ – at that time the Society’s practice was to commission an edited volume in advance of the annual conference.) SRHE and the Carnegie Foundation subsequently sponsored a series of Anglo-American seminars on ‘Questions of Quality’. One of the seminar participants was SRHE member Tessa, now Baroness, Blackstone, who would later become the Minister for Further and Higher Education, and one of the visiting speakers for the Princeton seminar was Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Baker. At that time the Council for National Academic Awards was still functioning as the validating agency, assuring quality, for about half of the HE sector, with staff including such SRHE notables as Ron Barnett, John Brennan and Heather Eggins. When it was founded SRHE aimed to bring research and policy together; they have now drifted further apart. Less attention to peer review, but more ministers becoming peers.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics

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Policymaking in a pandemic

By Rob Cuthbert

Policymaking in a pandemic must be decisive, transparent and inclusive (1)

After Secretary of State Gavin Williamson announced in March that there would be no GCSE or A-level examinations in Summer 2020, higher education focused at first on whether it would be desirable or even possible for students to begin the new year in Autumn 2020, with particular doubts over international students’ ability and willingness to travel. With the number of UK 18-year-olds in a demographic trough we expected extreme pressure on universities at the exposed end of the market, and there was much talk about the ten or 12 or 14 institutions said to be already especially financially vulnerable. The response of a number of institutions was to make tens of thousands of conditional offers unconditional, reducing uncertainty for themselves and also for their potential students. But ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, even in the market decreed by the government, never seemed to respect the integrity of student choice; it seemed reasonable that they should be outlawed, but government and the OfS went much further.

OfS published its regulation on unconditional offers on 4 May (updated on 17 August 2020, after A-level results by algorithm were announced), enabling OfS to take “… action against higher education providers that use offer-making practices which would not be in the interests of students and the wider higher education sector in these exceptional circumstances.” These included: “Other unconditional offers to UK students that could materially affect the stability and integrity of the English higher education sector …”, which in theory might have threatened selective institutions aiming to hoover up home students to compensate for a possible shortfall of international students, regardless of the effects on universities less well-placed in the market. But after the government imposed temporary student number controls no-one was in much doubt that the target was precisely those less well-placed, in case students dared to choose them rather than those higher up the league tables. Government policy is that student choice is paramount, but only if students choose the institutions which the government think they should choose.

On 16 July the DfE announced a ‘restructuring regime’ in response to Covid19, a mixture of University Strategic Planning 101 and oddly selective messages about the specific requirements to be satisfied by the minority of universities expected to need ‘support’. The Secretary of State’s foreword said: “Public funding for courses that do not deliver for students will be reassessed. … all universities must, of course, demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy. … The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns. Vice-chancellor pay has for years faced widespread public criticism … equally concerning is the rapid growth over recent decades of spending on administration more broadly, which should be reversed.”

The announcement was much criticised but it receded from view as the threat of ‘restructuring’ diminished. Demand for HE with a 2020 start remained strong, with UCAS numbers higher than expected. The intentions of international students were still in doubt, but attention shifted to the slow-motion shambles of A-levels, and the hardly less shambolic, though less remarked, handling of International Baccalaureate and technical and vocational qualifications. Ofqual and DfE remained committed to their A-levels algorithm, doubling down on the assertion that it was the fairest way to determine grades in this unprecedented situation. This was despite the growing clamour of expert opinion pointing out the many faults and unfairnesses in the approach determined by Ofqual. The DfE/Ofqual response might have seemed resolutely decisive, but was neither transparent nor inclusive. A series of blogs from HEPI and many others provided more transparency than the government and Ofqual statements which had led most people to believe wrongly that ‘teachers are determining grades’ and ‘there is a robust appeal system’.

Scottish Higher assessments followed a similar approach to the English but were announced on 6 August, a week ahead of A-levels. Facing mass public protest, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted on 10 August they had got it wrong; education minister John Swinney the next day announced they would abandon their algorithm and use only Centre-Assessed Grades (CAGs), a reaction which ticked the decisive/transparent/inclusive boxes, albeit after the last minute. The Scots decision sent the English DfE into panic mode. Gavin Williamson had repeatedly nailed his colours to the this-algorithm-is-robust-and-fair mast; he would not follow Scotland’s lead, and there was no sensible alternative. So he went for something that wasn’t sensible – the announcement late on Tuesday night (11 August, just 36 hours before students would get their grades) that students could use mock grades under certain circumstances instead of the algorithm’s grades. It was a decision made without consultation with anyone, so not at all inclusive, and certainly less than decisive, but at least it seemed transparent.

For thousands of students who had taken mocks, it sounded like blessed relief. Not only could they apparently now make an individual appeal (something previously ruled out), they knew it would succeed. But that was late Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning Ofqual, Schools Minister Nick Gibb and Universities Minister Michelle Donelan were doing their best to dilute and obscure the message, saying only that mocks might form part of the grounds for an appeal and even suggesting that not many appeals were expected. Schools and colleges, who had only that day received their students’ grades with shock and horror, pointed out the huge variability and complete lack of standardisation of mocks even within one school, let alone across the whole sector. Williamson stood firm on his ‘triple lock’ – mocks or algorithm grades or Autumn exams. It was presented as a solution for all, when it was nothing of the sort. He had announced that Ofqual (who had not been consulted in advance) would issue guidance on how the new appeals system would work; Ofqual understandably said they would need a few days to work out how to operationalise the process. They issued advice on the amended appeals process by early afternoon on Saturday, suggesting (correctly) that CAGs were a more reliable basis for judgment than mock exams. Then very late on Saturday evening Ofqual withdrew its advice, saying that the Ofqual board would review it and another statement would follow ‘in due course’. Speculation centred on the suspicion that it was the mention of CAGs that might have caused the Department for Education to tell Ofqual to change tack, mostly because of a report in The Sunday Telegraph by the well-briefed Camilla Turner. This was the position at midday on Sunday.

The next day (Monday 17 August) came the final climbdown, as Williamson confirmed that England would follow Scotland in using CAGs rather than the grades determined by the algorithm. Universities were left scrambling to cope with the U-turn, and many students were left wondering whether they still had the place they originally wanted, as many in-demand courses had naturally been filled as usual very soon on the day of the announcement of results, 13 August. Former NUS President and chair of BPP University Aaron Porter wrote for Schoolsweek on 18 August 2020 about the consequences of government ‘passing the buck’ to universities to sort out the A-levels fiasco, and Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon called for the abolition of Ofqual.

Universities minister Michele Donelan wrote to universities on 20 August 2020 confirming the lifting of all student number controls and the establishment of a task force to oversee clearing and admissions for 2020. She said: “The interests of students were at the heart of the change in awarding results … we all agree that providers should: (1) Honour all offers accepted to date. (2) Honour all offers made and met through the new arrangements for both firm and insurance offers where students would like to take them, wherever this is possible.” That ‘wherever this is possible’ gave everyone a get-out clause, while doing its best to shift the blame away from government and onto the universities, but the blame game picked up speed. A VC’s diary in The Guardian on 21 August 2020 accused government ministers of incompetence and lack of compassion, and it was clear that universities could hardly be blamed for the A-levels mess. Ofqual’s attempts to shift the blame onto schools and colleges were equally unconvincing. It had emerged that the Royal Statistical Society had much earlier offered Ofqual the services of the redoubtable Guy Nason (Imperial) and the statistically legendary Sharon Witherspoon, but the RSS had declined to sign the non-disclosure agreement which Ofqual had proposed. Roger Taylor, chair of Ofqual, wrote to the RSS on 21 August 2020 saying “nothing to see here, you were being much too picky” (we paraphrase), but the next morning Stian Westlake of the RSS was on Radio 4 Today saying the NDA was far too broad and vague to be acceptable.

The first head rolled: Ofqual chief executive Sally Collier stepped down on 25 August with immediate effect; Collier’s predecessor Glenys Stacey was drafted as an interim replacement. Ofqual were summoned to an Education Select Committee hearing on 3 September, and Roger Taylor released a statement just hours before the hearing, memorably summed up by Committee chair Robert Halfon as saying “Not me, guv”. Taylor, it emerges, is also chair of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which advises the government on artificial intelligence – presumably not including what the Prime Minister called Ofqual’s ‘mutant algorithm’. Taylor made various promises to the Committee of transparency, of which some remain unfulfilled. It was reported that Taylor had kept his chair’s role because he threatened to publish all the correspondence between DfE and Ofqual, showing how much DfE had known all along about the algorithm and its effects.

Samantha Booth reported for SchoolsWeek on 21 August 2020 that Susan Acland-Smith, “has been appointed as second permanent secretary at the DfE for six weeks, temporarily leaving her role as chief executive of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service. The government said she will work “closely” with permanent secretary Jonathan Slater and “support” the department’s response to this year’s exam results.” Slater’s position was said to be under threat, and sure enough, Slater’s departure was confirmed on 26 August, with Acland-Smith becoming his permanent successor.

Taylor, against the odds, remains as Ofqual chair. In an unusual step, the respected Institute for Government Director Bronwen Maddox called for Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson to resign, in her 27 August 2020 blog. “The misjudgements in education have been some of the worst the government has made since the start of the pandemic. They were avoidable, given the time available to plan … they are serious in their impact on children’s education, the gap in achievement between social groups and the ability of the nation to get back to work. At the heart of these misjudgements are decisions that could only be made by politicians, not civil servants.” Senior Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin said Williamson had “lost the trust of his officials to such an extent that he can no longer serve effectively in the cabinet”, according to a report by Toby Helm and Michael Savage in The Observer on 23 August 2020. My HEPI blog on 16 August 2020 about the A-levels debacle said: “for five months the Government and Ofqual have been too secretive, made bad choices, refused to listen to constructive criticism, tried to tough it out and then made the wrong concessions too late.” Not decisive, not transparent, not inclusive, and not how to make policy in a pandemic.

  1. That was the view of Ramathi Bandaranayake and Merl Chandana (both at LIRNEasia, a regional digital policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka) on the LSE Impact Blog on 1 October 2020.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics

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On not wasting a good crisis

by Rob Cuthbert

Editorial from SRHE News Issue 41 (July 2020)

It seems that in English higher education, some people have been determined not to waste the Covid19 crisis, either as an opportunity or as a threat. How well have they done? Consider the efforts of the Office for Students, Universities UK, and the government in England.

The Office for Students

The OfS were quick off the mark with their ‘Consultation on the integrity and stability of the English HE system’. They had not hitherto seemed too concerned about integrity and stability, given the government’s advertised willingness to let universities close as a consequence of the market established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA). Nevertheless the OfS drafted proposals to prevent “any form of conduct which, in the view of the OfS, could reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector.”

The proposals, aimed at controlling the behaviour of HE institutions, brought an instant storm of criticism. They were condemned as draconian, excessively broad, vague and retrospective. OfS Chair Michael Barber claimed to the House of Commons Select Committee that they were an appeal to universities’ ‘generosity of spirit’, but no-one was convinced. Indeed, in terms of the original proposals there did seem to be breaches of good conduct, but they were mostly by Government, the media and the OfS itself, not by HE institutions.

As governments of different parties introduced progressively higher fees, students taking out loans for fees and living expenses began to graduate and begin their careers with large debts. Did this “have a material negative effect on the interests of students”? Quality assurance shows that the overwhelming majority of HE provision has been and remains satisfactory or better; government has encouraged new ‘alternative providers’, but a significant number of these new entrants provided inappropriate courses of dubious quality. Did these market initiatives destabilise the HE system and jeopardise its integrity and quality?

Recent HE ministers have repeatedly referred to ‘low quality courses’. Jo Johnson called for: “… the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.” (The honourable exception to this ministerial failure is Chris Skidmore, who tweeted on 16 April 2020: “Might invent Skidmore’s law- anyone who mentions low quality/value in HE without specific reference to a real institution/course are themselves creating low quality/value arguments which should therefore be discounted.”) Most mainstream media reinforced the ‘low quality courses’ narrative, with The Times prominent: an egregious example by Ross Bryant, ‘Underperforming universities should be allowed to fail’, on 27 April 2020;  Alice Thomson on 31 March 2020: “Institutions panicking about finances have to shift their focus away from expansion and back to gold-standard teaching”. Camilla Turner in The Daily Telegraph on 10 May 2020 fuelled the narrative: ‘’Mickey Mouse’ degrees could be weeded out as universities face financial crisis”. Some would say the narrative has “a material negative effect on the interests of students”, whose academic credentials are called into question, and jeopardises the “stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector”.  It might even involve “Making false or misleading statements (including comparative claims) about one or more higher education providers with a view to discouraging students (whether or not successfully) to accept offers from, or register with, those higher education providers.”

The Office for Students itself has still not completed its Register of Providers. OfS said in February 2020 the 2019-2020 Register was still incomplete “so if a provider is not registered at the moment, no conclusions should be drawn about it based upon that fact.” Could that “reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector”? At government insistence the OfS has promoted the Teaching Excellence Framework and its advantages for students, presumably on the grounds that it helped their interests. More recently it postponed the next TEF indefinitely, even though there are dramatic changes to the quality of the student experience everywhere – up-to-date information about Teaching Excellence matters as never before. Dropping the TEF at this stage “could reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector” – unless TEF never had anything to do with teaching quality in the first place, in which case pursuing it had already damaged the stability and integrity of the system.

The OfS proposals said it was inappropriate for anyone to be “Reacting to a major crisis or emergency affecting the UK in ways which may take advantage of behavioural biases”. However it reacted to the crisis by proposing obligations on individual behaviour, obligations to predict or anticipate the behaviour of others, and sanctions if even in retrospect a pattern of behaviour by others emerges which could not have been predicted. This was indeed to “take advantage of behavioural biases” which might induce people to tolerate, in an emergency, measures which would be unthinkable under normal circumstances. In the event the OfS withdrew and confined itself to outlawing ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, and perhaps unconditional offers more widely. By overreaching itself, OfS seemed to have wasted the crisis.

Universities UK

Universities UK also moved early, in April 2020 making proposals to government for a £2billion crisis package to support universities through the pandemic and beyond. UUK said: “Without government support some universities would face financial failure, others would come close to financial failure and be forced to reduce provision. Some will be in places where they are the only local higher education provider with damaging impact on the local community and economy. Many of those institutions most affected have higher levels of external borrowing, lower levels of cash reserves, and higher proportions of BAME students.” Former UCAS head Mary Curnock Cook blogged for HEPI on 15 April 2020 about ‘A student-centric bailout for the universities’, with a piercing critique of the soft spots and gaps in the UUK proposals. David Kernohan crunched numbers on the UUK proposals in his blog for Wonkheon 10 April 2020. He noted that doubling research funding would do little for many universities, and that the student number proposals would still enable selective universities to create major problems for those lower down the pecking order.

The DfE website reported on 4 May 2020 that “Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced a package of measures to protect students and universities, including temporary student number controls, £2.6bn of forecast tuition fee payments for universities being bought forward and an enhanced Clearing system. … to stabilise admissions, support students and allow universities to access financial support from the Government where it is necessary.” The DfE headline was ‘Universities need our help – we must maintain education’s jewel in the crown’, echoing a 2012 Russell Group publication, but the measures fell well short of the UUK proposals. This made clear the potentially devastating effects on many universities outside the Russell Group, with a probable shortfall in student numbers. It was hard to credit that UUK had suggested student number controls in its own proposals, and even harder to believe that all universities had agreed to the UUK’s skewed package in the first place. Chris Cook wrote a long and careful analysis of the perilous situation facing UK universities for TortoiseMedia  on 26 May 2020.

Here was Wonkhe’s immediate assessment. David Kernohan of Wonkhe  took a look at ‘Clearing Plus’, which was being presented as (but was not) a way for applicants to trade up to a ‘better class of university’. Nick Hillman of HEPI said: ” While we need time to digest the finer details, this seems like a carefully-calibrated package that delivers much of what the higher education sector called for without over-exposing taxpayers.” Well, he probably would, wouldn’t he, as a former special adviser to David Willetts. Former minister Jo Johnson, popping up as President’s Professorial Fellow at King’s College London, said that after the pandemic: “The Office for Students will need to design and put in place a multi-billion pound stabilisation fund to prevent the collapse of scores of vulnerable English universities. Access to this fund should be subject to strict non-negotiable conditions, including the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.” Shadow Minister Emma Hardy’s open letter to HE on ResearchProfessional News on 6 May 2020 didn’t add much beyond her disappointment that the government package didn’t accept UUK’s proposals.

A second round of support simply shored up the bail-out of the Russell Group. The support package announced by government on 27 June 2020 provided extra research funding: a mixture of grants and loans for up to 80% of income lost because of a shortfall of international students in 2020-2021, and £280million for stated research priorities. That will be little consolation to the many vulnerable universities less blessed with research funding and less dependent on overseas student fees.

Judged by the effects on all of its members, UUK not only wasted the crisis, they may well have made it worse. 

Government

The long-running ‘low quality courses’ narrative and the almost-forgotten Augar report proved to be groundwork for a series of government initiatives still unfolding, beginning with a blunt Ministerial statement abandoning the 50% HE participation target and proposing to expand technical and vocational provision elsewhere. Jim Dickinson had blogged for Wonkhe on 11 May 2020 that: “… the headlines in the DfE package were all about treating the issues facing the higher education sector as a liquidity crisis rather than a solvency crisis. Optimists figure this is because it’s only Part One of any plan, and Numbers 10/11 of Downing Street prefer to sort things in terms of impacts of immediate problems than assessing the size and scope of modelled/potential problems which they assume a) might not be as bad as they look, and b) discourage efficiencies and sacrifices if “cushioned” too early, or for too long. … And then, as if by magic, David “somewheres or anywheres” Goodhart appears – with a Policy Exchange report that’s officially on “skills”, but is really on reorganising tertiary. … Research funding for the “best”; mergers, shorter strings and localism for the “rest”.”

Jack Grove in THE on 11 May 2020 wrote: “English universities at risk of financial collapse will receive significant government assistance only if they agree to merge or to accept a “further education future”, vice-chancellors have predicted. … some university leaders … fear that the reintroduction of student number controls − which allow universities to recruit 5 per cent more this autumn than they did last year − signals the Treasury’s intention to intervene far more in higher education, which might include denying some institutions access to research funding.”

The doomsayers were vindicated when Minister Michelle Donelan made a speech on 1 July 2020, in the grossly inappropriate context of an online conference about improving HE opportunities for disadvantaged students. Richard Adams reported for The Guardianon 1 July 2020 on her speech: “Since 2004, there has been too much focus on getting students through the door, and not enough focus on how many drop out, or how many go on to graduate jobs. Too many have been misled by the expansion of popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market,” Donelan said. “Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of, particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense. … And too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses. We have seen this with grade inflation and it has to stop.”

The government is poised to offer new policies on skills and qualifications for school-leavers in England, rebalancing away from universities and emphasising social mobility through skilled, well-paid jobs secured through further education and apprenticeships. A white paper on further education is promised, along with a green paper on higher education that will limit courses where a high percentage of students drop out or where few go on to graduate-level employment. Donelan’s comments appeared to repudiate her own government’s guidance to the Office for Students. Asked about the use of contextual admissions by universities to help under-represented groups gain entry, Donelan said: “To be frank, we don’t help disadvantaged students by levelling down, we help by levelling up.”

Chris Husbands (VC, Sheffield Hallam) spoke for many in a powerful rejoinder in The Guardian on 2 July 2020: ‘University changed my family’s life. So why do ministers want fewer people to go?’ As Alison Wolf, now once again a government adviser, pointed out long ago, the oft-mooted expansion of non-university technical education is always regarded as a good thing – ‘for other people’s children’. We must wait and see whether this time the government initiative will be any different from the many other times similar things have been attempted. This time her daughter Rachel Wolf, another long-term adviser to the Prime Minister who co-wrote the 2019 Conservative manifesto, is also making the running. Whether the government has wasted the crisis remains to be seen.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics

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Surely not another cryptic crossword

by Rob Cuthbert

The SRHE cryptic crossword returns despite lack of popular demand. This is No 2. As usual, familiarity with SRHE staff, members, journals, SRHE News and Blog will be a big advantage, perhaps even essential. There are some proper names; other words are in any good dictionary (Chambers, of course, is recommended).

Professor Rob Cuthbert is editor of SRHE News and Blog and chairs the SRHE Publications Committee.

Email your solution to Rob.Cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk. There were no correct solutions for Crossword No 1, so the meagre prize rolls over and becomes almost respectable for the first correct solution submitted by an SRHE member and drawn after 1 August 2020. The solution will appear in the next issue of SRHE News, October 2020. If you can’t wait that long, email Rob.Cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk after 1 August for solution and explanations.

To download this crossword as a word document, click here.

Across

1. Kind of VLE where learning at first is missing, leaving something behind (9)

6.    Finance officer is back in the rat race (5)

9.    A traveller, one detected in the air, always 3 (5)

10.  One on both sides takes in former wife, a princess (9)

11.  Heir to the throne making a fist of university (4,2,9)

13.  Go back in – die – not entirely nice, to be cynical (8)

14.  One academic, first class, was called God (6)

16.  Fabricate inferior hide (3,3)

18.  Make out with good girl, that’s one thing that’s looking up (8)

21.  Regular feature of SRHE Conference – Perkins gives it a shaking (8,7)

23.  Learner with Cert Ed (FE) lost in thought (9)

25.  Members of SRHE lend their authority on everything that goes on in society (5)

26.  Did well to live after 11’s mother left (5)

27.  At the end of the year I’m to be in Paris. It’s not far (9)

Down

1. Perhaps be a way to get an academic on TV (5)

2. High time to be seen here, in universities like Birmingham and Queen Mary (5,6)

3. Possibility of Bayes on win margin requiring expert judgment (2,1,4)

4. An American cop here in ancient Rome? That means no law at all (8)

5. Manuscript read back to front at first, with hopes rather than expectations (6)

6. Professor and editor took charge of Publications Committee, for example (7)

7. Seeing this, anything could happen – it’s partly unpredictable (3)

8. People not lacking discipline but with freedom to disagree (9)

12.  Demand a little academic work – there’s plenty to follow (4,3,1,3)

13.  Removed organ? Room was needed for 21 to have done this (9)

15.  Initially every programme in soap operas demands interesting characters, appearing at intervals (8)

17.  Nothing for dinner? Just gruel (7)

19.  Our Rob’s a law unto himself (7)

20.  Brought together teams in Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle (6)

22.  Anger management in the kitchen (5)

24.  You can get a loan for this, or run away with no start in life (3)

Solutions to Cryptic Crossword No 1:

Across

1 Campfire 5 Profit 10 Tonal 11 Sandstorm 12 Boy wonder 13 Annul 14 Rumpole 16 Escape 18 Instil 20 Dominie 22 Rifle 23 Not on show 25 Abstracts 26 Goner 27 Slowey 28 Starlets

Down

1 Cuthbert 2 McNay 3 Fellow of the SRHE 4 Residue 6 Research manager 7 Frown upon 8 Temple 9 Untrue 15 Manifesto 17 Networks 19 Lunacy 20 Data set 21 Greats 24 Hinge

For an explanation of the solutions email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk.

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Happy New Year? If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here

By Rob Cuthbert

As the new year begins there is news of balloting for more industrial action by university staff. The continuing dispute between university staff and their employers is deep-rooted and deeply worrying. It may not be like previous disputes, and the employers may not be well-equipped to resolve it, for two reasons. First, because the roots of the dispute are in the marketisation of HE, the result of political initiatives which university employers cannot easily remedy. And second, because too many university employers have done too little to ameliorate the precarity and increased workload which quasi-markets encourage.

Staff at 60 universities across the UK announced in early November their intention to stage an eight-day strike at the end of November over pensions, pay and conditions. Universities UK and UCEA, the employers’ association, wrote an open letter to all staff on 19 November 2019 setting out their arguments, headed ‘letter to staff impacted by the UCU pensions and pay disputes’. The heading blaming UCU (begging the question: ‘who started it?’) may be a misjudgment, but is perhaps only what one side of the disputants would say. Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, wrote for The Guardian on 7 November 2019 that “University staff don’t want to strike for fair pensions and pay, but we’re being forced to”, a statement which the employers objected to. Both sides accuse the other of refusing to come to the table to negotiate. So far, so completely normal in any employment dispute. But then …

“Universities accused of using ‘strong-arm tactics’ to undermine strike action”, wrote Sally Weale and David Batty for The Guardian on 24 November 2019. Cheche Spencer, Students’ Union Women’s Officer at Liverpool University, on 22 November 2019 tweeted her disgust at the University’s message to students, which said it was ‘unlawful’ for students to join pickets. The message said the university would make no allowances for non-attendance when it comes to assessment, and warned international students that failure to attend might jeopardise their visa status. This went well beyond the more measured USS employers’ advice to students during the strike.

Sheffield Hallam University invited students to complete a form stating which of their classes had been disrupted and naming the member of staff concerned. After a student backlash the university removed the section asking for staff names. Students condemned the move as ‘a surveillance tool’ – perhaps a misunderstanding, since the identities of the strikers are hardly a secret, but symptomatic of a misguided managerial mindset. It is also reported that universities have warned staff not to speak to students about the dispute.

These things tend to happen in any dispute: excesses of local zeal going beyond a difficult-to-maintain national party line. But Liverpool and Sheffield Hallam have VCs whom some might regard as members of the sensible tendency, in Janet Beer and Chris Husbands. Beer, as a former chair of UUK, might  be expected to be impeccable in holding the line. Husbands is a leading figure in the hardly popular TEF, but has nevertheless seemed able to sustain reasoned debate and argue the case for improvement from within the TEF regime. If these are the zealots, what is going on? It seems as if the employers are deliberately taking a hard line.

The current dispute brings together two arguments, one about pensions and one about pay and conditions. But there is really only one grievance, and that is the growing alienation of staff, increasingly fixed-term, part-time and precarious, in an excessively marketised and too often managerialist higher education regime. As Liz Morrish observed in her blog after the Spring 2018 dispute on 8 June 2018: “The pensions issue seemed to be a conductor for a whole host of other grievances about marketization, financialization, audit culture, management by metrics and the distortions of league tables and concern with university ‘reputation’.” The UCEA/UUK letter said: “While the collective employers’ view is that a fair and realistic outcome has been reached on pay, they acknowledge however that UCU pursued its campaign on three other themes around workload, gender pay/equality and casual employment arrangements, and that these are important matters that their members, and indeed other colleagues, feel strongly about.”

The earlier dispute over USS benefits saw increased militancy and unionisation among many staff who had previously eschewed industrial action; the action succeeded in overturning the threat to move away from a defined-benefits scheme. (Meanwhile a change to TPS employers’ contributions raised the rate to 23.68% from September 2019, which was said to be enough to give UCU what they are asking for from USS employers.) Since the first dispute the UCU-nominated USS trustee Jane Hutton (Warwick) has been dismissed by the USS Board for “breaches of her duties as a director under company law and contract”. An independent investigation led to a report which USS relied on for her removal, but this has not been published in full despite Hutton’s request that it should be. Hutton, a professor of medical statistics and long-term critic of mistakes in USS calculations, had become a whistleblower writing to the Pensions Regulator. She had been denied data by USS executives and could not persuade the USS board to budge from what the Pensions Regulator called a mistake in its earlier controversial valuation. Clearly not everyone is convinced that USS does what it claims:

As the UCEA/UUK letter said, there has been some movement and learning by the employers since the earlier dispute. But not enough for UCU, and in particular nothing offering hope of enough change in the regime which exploits the goodwill of too many committed staff. Some universities (eg the University of Reading) are planning to withhold up to 100% of pay for ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS), which involves working for contracted hours without the normal unpaid overtime – the irony of which seems to be lost on the universities concerned.

In normal times everyone might regard the hours stated in contracts as an acceptable fiction, knowing that professionally committed staff will do what is needed for a proper job, and professional leaders will not exploit their commitment. But these are not normal times. Marketisation in HE goes hand in hand with attempts at deprofessionalisation and growing workloads. In HE, just as in schools and in the health service, employers are discovering that contractualisation of what was once seen as professional obligation means that less of it gets done, and/or it ends up costing more. UCEA/UUK may complain that “The focus of the negotiations was almost entirely on the pay uplift”, but this is common in disputes, and market regimes drive that focus. What makes it much worse for UCEA is that in any pay dispute the employers’ position is fatally undermined. That UCEA/UUK letter might in different times have been more persuasive, but the credibility of vice-chancellors themselves has vanished as for too many years their own pay rises outstripped those of their staff, and universities relied increasingly on lower-paid, part-time, fixed term staff .

The employers are between a rock they did not create and a hard place which they have brought on themselves. The hard place is the deep concerns of many staff about their workload and working conditions, the precarity of their employment, their pay and pensions. (The results of a UCU survey on ‘Counting the costs of casualisation in higher education’ were published by UCU in June 2019.) The rock is the certainty that students collectively will begin to seek compensation from universities for disruption to their studies, even though many, perhaps most, students will at the same time sympathise with and support staff in their campaign. That compensation might turn out to be ruinously expensive and trigger a downward spiral for all concerned.

The UCEA/UUK letter no doubt aimed to win the hearts and minds of staff, perhaps encouraged by the failure of strike ballots in some institutions to cross the threshold needed for authorised action, but the signs are not good and the tactics seem misjudged. Universities need also to win the hearts and minds of students, but using threats about students’ assessment and international students’ visa status is an odd way to go about it. Some university employers in a hole are still digging: Liverpool UCU tweeted on 5 December 2019: “Here we go. @livuni have today asked staff to “recover” (‘make good’!) missed teaching asap. We will not “recover” work we’re not being paid for and our refusal is lawful under ASOS. With yet another intimidating email, the Uni has withdrawn its goodwill. We have withdrawn ours.” It may be that a few overzealous or overexposed institutions are undermining the employers’ argument, but in any dispute the employers’ side will be a coalition reflecting a wide range of opinion: now is the time for the moderates to assert themselves. Anna McKie for Times Higher Education reported on 25 November 2019 that: “At the University of Bristol … the vice-chancellor Hugh Brady … was seen on the picket line. It could be a further sign of university leaders starting to break ranks, after Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, said last week that his institution would be willing to pay more into pensions.”

After the long-running press furore over VCs’ pay the Office for Students has begun to survey and report on pay levels, although the Times Higher Education has gathered and published such data for many years. The OfS said on 19 February 2019: “where pay is out of kilter, or salary increases at the top outstrip pay awards to other staff, vice-chancellors should be prepared to answer tough questions from their staff, student bodies and the public. It is good to see signs of pay restraint at some universities, with some vice-chancellors refusing a salary increase. A number of governing bodies have reduced the basic pay of their vice-chancellor, though we acknowledge that it can be difficult to revisit contractual obligations while a vice-chancellor is in post. We expect to see further progress next year.”

Perhaps it is time for a different kind of leadership, and a different kind of leadership pay. The Committee for University Chairs (CUC) published The Higher Education Staff Remuneration Code in June 2018, full of worthy sentiment and careful drafting, but the only potential limit on pay was this: “Institutions must publish the multiple of the remuneration of the Head of Institution and the median earnings of the institution’s whole workforce annually. This should be accompanied by sufficient explanation and context to enable useful comparison.” Salaries are decided by Remuneration Committees, too often full of people whose yardsticks are drawn from the private sector. In the current dispute, as always, UUK has trotted out the line about needing to pay the best to attract the best talent in a global market, an argument that seems to apply in every case to the field marshals, but much less frequently to the poor bloody infantry. And the VC population is not noticeably more global than the staff themselves. We need a different kind of leadership from governors too. A national formula to guide VCs’ pay may be impracticable, even though it has been achieved for other groups of staff. But putting a staff member of the governing body on the Search/Remuneration Committee for VC appointments would be more straightforward. Such staff governors would naturally be obliged to maintain strict confidentiality, as with so many other issues for all governors. Advertise an explicit salary range for every vacancy of VCs and perhaps others in the senior management team, and apply the same annual uplift as the weighted mean of the uplift for all staff in the university. Allow those presently overpaid to continue to the end of their hopefully fixed terms, then reboot. Then institutional leaders might be able to restore some credibility as leaders in discussions about pay and conditions. The UCU has its own difficulties in seeking to swing its diverse set of members behind any effective collective action. In the present dispute the employers are making it easy for UCU, by appearing to ignore or deny the realities that their highly committed, intelligent, articulate and analytical staff confront every day.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics