srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Let them eat data: education, widening participation and the digital divide

by Alex Blower and Nik Marsdin

The quest for an answer

As an education sector we like answers, answers for everything, right or wrong. Sometimes we’re more concerned with arriving at an answer, than we are with ensuring it tackles the issue addressed by the question.

Widening HE participation is led by policy that dictates which answers we provide to what questions and to whom. All too often this leads to practitioners scrambling for answers to questions which are ill fitting to the issue at hand, or looking for a quick solution in such haste that we forget to read the question properly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again laid bare the stark inequality faced by children and young people in our education system. With it has been an influx of new questions from policy makers, and answers from across the political and educational spectrum.

A magic ‘thing’

More often than not, answers to these questions will comprise a ‘thing’. Governments like tangible objects like mentoring, tutoring, longer days, boot camps and shiny new academies. All of which align to the good old fashioned ‘fake it till you make it’ meritocratic ideal. For the last 40 years the Government has shied away from recognising, let alone addressing, embedded structural inequality from birth. It’s difficult, it’s complicated, and it can’t readily be answered in a tweet or a soundbite from a 6pm press conference.

The undesirable implications of a search for an ‘oven ready’ answer can be seen in the digital divide. A stark example of what access to the internet means for the haves and have-nots of the technological age.

‘So, the reason young people are experiencing extreme inequality and not becoming educationally successful, is because they don’t have enough access to technological things?’

‘What we need is a nice solid technological thing we can pin our hopes on…’

‘Laptops for everyone!’

Well, (and I suspect some voices in the back know what’s coming) access to technology alone isn’t the answer, in the same way that a pencil isn’t the answer to teaching a child to write.

Technology is a thing, a conduit, a piece of equipment that, if used right, can facilitate a learning gain. As professionals working to widen HE participation, we need to challenge these ‘oven ready answers’. Especially if they seem misguided or, dare I say it woefully ignorant of the challenges working-class communities face.

After distribution of the devices, online engagement didn’t change

Lancaster University developed the ‘Connecting Kids’ project during the first wave of COVID-19, as a direct response to calls for help by local secondary schools. The project achieved what it set out to in that it procured over 500 brand new laptops or Chromebooks, and free internet access for all recipients. Every child who fell outside of the Department for Education scheme who was without a suitable device in the home would now have one. Problem solved, right?

Not quite. Engagement in online learning environments prior to the DfE scheme and Connecting Kids initiative in years 8 and 9 was hovering at about 30% of students engaging daily, and 45% weekly. After the distribution of devices, engagement remained at nearly exactly the same level. Further inspection of the data from the telecom’s provider demonstrated that of the 500 mobile connections distributed, only 123 had been activated. Of those 123 only half were being regularly used. Of the 377 ‘unused’ sim and mi-fi packages around 200 showed ‘user error’ in connection status.

Again, this may come as no surprise to the seasoned professionals working with children and young people at the sharp end of structural inequality, but it turned out the ‘thing’ wasn’t the answer. Who would have thought it?

Understanding communities and providing resources

Fast forward 6 months and monthly interviews with participating school staff (part of the project evaluation, not yet complete) show that online engagement in one school is up to 92%. The laptops have played a valuable role in that. They have enabled access. What they haven’t done however, is understand and make allowances for the circumstances of children, young people and families. That has taken a commitment by the schools to provide holistic wrap around services in partnership with other organisations. It has included short courses on connecting to the internet, and provision of basic learning equipment such as pencils, paper, and pens. It has included the school day and timetable being replicated online, live feedback sessions with teachers and learning assistants, and drop-in sessions for parents and carers. Most importantly, it has included a recognition of the difference between home and school, and the impact it has on the education working-class of young people.

Back to policy and widening participation. If we are to make our work truly meaningful for young people, we must critically engage with a policy narrative which is built around a desire for quick fixes, soundbites and ‘oven ready things’. We owe it to the young people who are being hit hardest by this pandemic to take a step back and look at the wider barriers they face.

To do this we may need to reconceptualise what it means to support them into higher education. This starts with challenging much of the policy that is designed to improve access to higher education built upon a premise of individual deficit. The repetitive waving of magical policy wands to conjure up laptops, mentors and days out on campus will only serve to leave us with ever increasing numbers of students and families who are left out and disengaged. Numbers that will continue to rise unless we take the time to engage critically with the complex, numerous and damaging inequalities that working-class young people face.

Reshaping university outreach

This leaves us with something of a conundrum. As HE professionals, what on earth can we do about all of that? Is it our place to address an issue so vast, and so intimately tied to the turning cogs of government policy and societal inequality?

Well, if recent conversations pertaining to higher education’s civic purpose are anything to go by, the answer is undoubtedly yes. And we need to do it better. Within our mad scramble to do something to support young learners during the first, second, and now third national lockdown, our ‘thing’ has become online workshops.

For many of us the ramifications of the digital divide have been acknowledged, but we have shied away from them in work to widen HE participation. We’ve kept doing what we’ve always done, but switched to a model of online delivery which restricts who has the ability to access the content. Can we honestly say, given the disparity in digital participation amongst the most and least affluent groups, that this is the right answer to the question?

Rather than an online workshop series on ‘choosing universities’, would our time and resource be better spent by organising student ambassadors from computing subjects to staff a freephone helpline supporting young people in the community to get online? Could we distribute workbooks with local newspapers? Could we, as they did at Lancaster, work in partnership with other local and national organisations to offer more holistic support, support which ensures that as many students are able to participate in education digitally as possible?

For us, the answer is yes. Yes we should. And we can start by meaningfully engaging with the communities our universities serve. By taking the time to properly listen and understand the questions before working with those communities to provide an answer.

Currently based at the University of Portsmouth, Dr Alex Blower has worked as a professional in widening access to Higher Education for the last decade. Having completed his doctoral research in education and inequality last year, Alex’s research interests focus around class, masculinity and higher education participation. Follow Alex via @EduDetective on twitter.

Nik Marsdin is currently lead for the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (part of the Eden North Project) at Lancaster University. Nik worked in children’s social care, youth justice and community provision for 12 years prior to moving into HE.  Research interests are widening participation, school exclusion, transitions in education and alternative provision. Follow Nik via @MarsdinNik on Twitter.


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Blue-skies thinking

by Paul Temple

A few years ago, a recently-retired Permanent Secretary talked to our MBA group at the Institute of Education, on a Chatham House rule basis, about policy-making in government. One of his remarks which stayed with me was about the increased speed of policy change during his professional lifetime. The key word here was “change” – as an end in itself. A newly-appointed Secretary of State, he explained, after a week or so in the job, would be invited to pop in to Number 10 for a cup of tea. “How’s it going, then?” he or she would be asked. If the answer was, “Oh, fine, thanks, everything seems to be running smoothly”, then they were toast. The correct answer was, “Well, I expected a few problems in taking over from X, but, really, I was shocked to discover how bad things are. But I’ve got a grip on it, and I’ll be making big changes.” Status around the Cabinet table depended on the boldness and scope of the policy changes your Department was pursuing. Effectiveness was a secondary matter.

The March 2020 budget included the commitment for the Government to “invest at least £800m” in a “blue-skies” funding agency, to support “high risk, high reward science”[1]. This seems to be the one possibly lasting legacy of Dominic Cummings’ reign in Downing Street: as I noted in my blog here on 6 February 2020, one of his stated goals was to create a UK version of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), famous for initiating the internet. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee reported on the Government’s plans on 12 February 2021[2], expressing puzzlement about the lack of detail on the proposed Agency’s remit since the proposal was unveiled in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech: “a brand in search of a product” was the Committee’s acid summing-up of the position. (Perhaps Cummings is being missed more than was predicted.) The Committee recommended that the “Haldane principle should not apply to how UK ARPA’s overall focus is determined. Ministers should play a role in shaping ARPA’s initial focus” but after that, it should be able “to pursue ‘novel and contentious’ research without case-by-case Ministerial approval” (p45). Which Minister(s) will have this focus-shaping responsibility is not yet clear.

The Committee obviously struggled to see what precisely an ARPA could do that UKRI, with perhaps some amended terms of reference, could not do. But of course the big difference is that an ARPA will be change – a shiny new initiative – and so much better for the Minister involved than tinkering with existing bits of governmental machinery. I expect they’ll find a way to launch the ARPA involving the Minister standing next to some fancy scientific kit wearing a hi-vis jacket and a hard hat.

As David Edgerton has pointed out[3], the so-called Haldane principle – that government should decide on overall research funding but that decisions on individual projects should be made by researchers – was never actually formulated by Haldane himself (Viscount Haldane, 1856-1928) and has a somewhat chequered history in science policy. Nevertheless, for much of the twentieth century, what was considered to be the Haldane principle underpinned the funding of UK research, with the idea of academic freedom so central to research funding that, as Edgerton says, it was “a principle that didn’t need to be written down”. That was then.

This began to change with the 1971 report by Lord Rothschild on The Organisation and Management of Government R&D[4], which, controversially, introduced the client/contractor relationship into public funding of research. This began the long and winding journey, via the Research Assessment Exercises, starting in in 1986, which led to the “impact statements” of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework in order to demonstrate proposals’ value for money. As Susan Greenfield once remarked[5], this was like saying that you’re only going to back winning horses.

Lyn Grove, whose PhD research[6] cast a fascinating light on why and how researchers approached their topics, quoted one of her respondents as saying, “the main thing is that you should try to do research that answers a question that is troubling you, even if it’s not yet troubling the rest of the world”: a pretty good summary of what blue-skies research should do. Is the ARPA blue-skies proposal going to take us, at least in part, back to a lost world, where researchers could pursue troubling ideas without considering their possible “impact” and where failure was accepted as an unavoidable aspect of research work? Has research policy, almost inadvertently, really run full-circle, driven by the incessant demand for novelty in policy-making? In the context of increasingly intrusive interventions by government into everyday university life (the idea of a university “woke warden”[7] would until recently have been a good joke), it somehow seems implausible. But we can always hope.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546


[1] House of Commons Science and Technology Committee website, visited 13 February 2021

[2] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmsctech/778/77803.htm

[3] Research Fortnight 12 December 2018

[4] Published with other material as HMSO (1971) A Framework for Government Research and Development Cmnd 4814. London: HMSO

[5] Greenfield, S (2011) ‘Research – the current situation and the next steps’ in The future of research in the UK – value, funding and the practicalities of rebalancing the UK economy London: Westminster Education Forum

[6] Grove, L (2017) The effects of funding policies on academic research Unpublished PhD thesis London: UCL Institute of Education

[7] briefing@wonkhe.com, 15 February 2021

Ian Mc Nay


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Ian McNay writes…

An interesting follow-up to the item last time on research into not doing something. The German government put out a TV message featuring two couch potatoes…doing nothing, and advocating staying on the couch as a contribution to not spreading the Covid-19 infection. Somebody has a sense of humour.

On the pandemic, one group that has emerged with credit is the research community, the speed of decision making and the extent of international co-operation in sequencing the genetic code of the virus, using the code to design a vaccine and then developing it in record time. I suggest that by the end of 2021 the number of lives saved by the actions of researchers will be greater than the number lost through the actions and inactions of politicians. Experts have gained in respect. On the other hand, in this country…

On a (perhaps) less contentious issue, closer to members’ interests, I recommend the book edited by Stephen Gorard and published by Routledge: Getting Evidence into Education. Evaluating the routes to policy and practice. He has a salutary listing in the final chapter of barriers to the widespread use of high quality evidence. First is the regrettable lack of quality in research, with the growth of work he identifies as ‘small-scale, uninventive, journalistic or [only] purportedly theoretical work’ lacking scientific replicability. Second is the low ability or willingness to communicate findings to users, which is now improving, possibly because of the impact factor in REF funding. On the other side, he questions whether users really appreciate and want to use good evidence, particularly when it runs counter to values that underpin ideology. Finally, ‘teachers are still largely unaware of the availability of good evidence’ or lack the authority or resources to make changes in practice, and ‘school leaders often appear content to plan school improvement without referring to robust evidence. In my experience, much of that is also true in higher education, as well as in government policy making for the sector.

The latest data on membership of REF panels, issued in December, show that, despite government commitment to diversity and levelling up, the academic capitalists among the elite universities still control the commanding heights of the research economy. On the main panels, pre-92 universities have 46 full members, post-92 institutions have one – Kingston on Panel D. International universities have 15, which shows where competition in Lisa Lucas’s research game is focussed. On the sub-panels the figures are 636 to 87, with assessor members at 112 and 24. This affects grading. I make no accusation of crony capitalism, but there may be an unconscious bias of common cultural identity, as in the Eurovision Song Contest, where votes go to ‘people like us’, so the same old same old may be rewarded ahead of new approaches and findings challenging the established corpus of work done by members. That in turn affects funding. A parliamentary reply on 17 November listed overall government research funding (much of it QR funding from REF) to the 13 universities in the West Midlands. Between 2015 and 2019, Birmingham and Warwick (33 members) got an increase of 21% to £256m, mainly attributable to Warwick gaining an immediate £16 after the 2014 REF and a similar amount over the period; Aston and Keele (8 members) had no increase on £30m – Aston gained £1m, Keele had a matching reduction; Coventry gained £3m to £9m after a good REF. The other 8 institutions had £12 m among them. So two universities, dominating regional representation, got 83% of the funds distributed in 2018/9.

Amanda Solloway, Minister for HE in England, at a recent HEPI webinar, committed to reviewing the nature of excellence in research, acknowledged the need for diversity on interpretations and a need to link to ‘levelling up’. There may be a lesson from the Covid pandemic, where approaches by elite western countries failed; under-regarded countries did better. In 2019 the Johns Hopkins Global Health Security Index ranking capacity to deal with outbreaks of infectious disease ranked the USA first and the UK second; New Zealand came in at 35th and South Korea at 9th. The article in the Guardian from which I took those figures (Laura Spinney on 30 December) quotes Sarah Dalglies in the Lancet – ‘The pandemic has given the lie to the notion that expertise is concentrated in, or at least best channelled by, legacy powers and historically rich states’. Maybe that applies to research, too. REF panels, and Amanda Solloway, please note.

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

For answers to Ian’s SRHE News Quiz 2020, they are now online here.


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When can we get back to “normal”? Long term predictions of the impact of Covid-19 on teaching in UK universities

by Katherine Deane

Probable Timelines

January – July 2021 – Expect to need to maintain non-pharmaceutical interventions – including social distancing, face masks, cleaning, and rapid tests. Exact interventions may vary with government guidance.

January 2021 – Rising levels of Covid-19 in the community after Christmas mixing may lead to further lockdown conditions.

February-April 2021 – End of Phase One vaccination program. Levels of Covid-19 in the community expected to be initially high, likely requiring some social restrictions to continue in the first few months.

April-July 2021 – End of vaccination of remainder of population. Covid-19 levels dropping across these months. Social restrictions likely to be reduced as the months progress.

Summer 2021 – End of pandemic in UK. Able to stop all non-pharmacological interventions.  Staff recover and take holiday.

Autumn 2021 – Start of term with normal teaching program.

The current situation in UK universities

Most universities are providing limited face-to-face teaching using non-pharmaceutical interventions to prevent transmission such as social distancing and additional cleaning protocols. Some universities have implemented higher quality interventions such as the use of face masks indoors, and the availability of asymptomatic swab testing on campus. A few universities have gone to completely online provision. All of these interventions have helped reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in UK universities.

The initial exponential growth of Covid-19 cases at the start of term in many universities has slowed down. Some of this reduction has been due to non-pharmacological interventions and university specific restrictions on student activities. However the level of Covid-19 in the community has had significant impact on the levels in universities. So, claims for the efficacy of the Covid-19 safe workplace interventions are yet to be proven, particularly in the context of higher levels of community Covid-19 (Manchester University, 2020).

It is expected that the levels of Covid-19 in the community will continue to be high during winter months as the virus spreads more easily in indoor unventilated environments, and survives for longer in cooler temperatures (Huang, 2020).

Medical risks from Covid-19 are not equitably distributed. People at increased risk from Covid-19 are older, male, have other illnesses, or are from Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic populations (Williamson, 2020; ONS, 2020). It is recognised that young students are at low risk of having a poor acute reaction to being infected from Covid-19. But their risk of infection may be higher as students often live in overcrowded accommodation which substantially increases the risk of Covid-19 transmission (Williamson, 2020). Whilst a severe reaction to Covid-19 is rare, it’s not impossible, with a number of infected Manchester University students ending up in Intensive Care (Parker, 2020). Finally students are in contact with lecturers and support staff who represent a much wider range of ages and medical risks. They are also in contact with the local community and some students (e.g. those in health faculties) are in contact with patients, all of whom could be at higher risk from Covid-19 infection (SAGE, 2020).

A survey of staff at the University of East Anglia identified that about half of respondents were at greater risk from Covid-19 themselves, and/or were in households with people at greater risk or had caring responsibilities for people at greater risk (Figure 1: UCU UEA, 2020). This highlights how complex and interconnected modern society is. It is impossible to segregate those at greater risk from Covid-19 (SAGE, 2020; Griffin 2020).

Figure 1: Would you class yourself or those in your household as moderate or high risk from Covid-19? (UCU UEA 2020)

We now have a better understanding of Long Covid (ie symptoms for more than eight weeks) (Sudre et al, 2020). Long-COVID is characterised by symptoms of fatigue, headache, breathlessness and loss of sense of smell; but also evidence of organ damage (Dennis et al, 2020) and increased risk of neuropsychiatric complications as well (Butler et al, 2020). Long Covid occurs in one in 20 people infected with COVID-19 (Sudre et al, 2020). However it appears to be more common in younger age groups, and affects around 10% of 18-49 year olds who become unwell with COVID-19. It can be severe enough to prevent patients from returning to work or study, and can last for many months.

What happens next?

There is excellent news about a number of vaccines which have been shown to create good levels of immunity (Gallagher, 2020a; Gallagher, 2020b; Bosely 2020; Roth 2020). All the vaccines need two injections to be effective. The government plans a massive roll-out of vaccinations with GP practices (Kanani, 2020) supplemented with vaccination centres set up in conference centres, sports halls, community centres. The immunisation plans start in care home residents and staff at the start of December, with all high risk people and health and care staff immunised by the end of February 2021 (JCVI, 2020; Rapson, 2020). The vaccines would then be rolled out to everyone else with the aim to have the whole adult population of the UK vaccinated by April 2021. This would have massive impact as it would deliver herd immunity (estimated at 60-70% immunity) and stop the pandemic in its tracks. However a number of issues could lead to delays: vaccines need to be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA); some stocks of vaccines are already manufactured but more need to be created; vaccines need to be transported to the UK (which may be affected by Brexit); the -80oC cold storage of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during the transport process is challenging and failures will lead to the vaccine being unusable; finding sufficient staff to deliver the vaccines will be hard when the NHS has 100,000 job vacancies; and concerns about vaccine safety may lead to hesitancy and lower than needed uptake. Overall, the estimate of a successful vaccination program being completed by April is the very best case scenario.

Other factors such as greater availability of rapid Covid-19 tests will reduce the frequency of people having to isolate for extended periods of time, so social restrictions are likely to be reduced as the year goes on. However the risk of being infected with Covid-19 will remain relatively high during the first quarter of 2021. Until the population have been fully vaccinated, the proposal of allowing Covid-19 to circulate unchecked in order for the population to develop herd immunity from infections has been refuted as impractical and unethical (Griffin, 2020) and could actually increase the infectivity and lethality of the virus (Spinney, 2020; Bonneaud, 2019). Therefore universities need to be cautious and pragmatic and understand that both the spring and summer terms will almost certainly still need non-pharmacological interventions in place in order to ensure the safety of students, staff and the surrounding communities.

Impact on teaching practice

The University and College Union’s national position is that all university courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they involve practical training or lab work (UCU, 2020), for both the spring and summer terms in all universities. However, few universities have adopted this position. If face-to-face teaching is to continue it should remain at current levels with social distancing, with inevitable consequences in terms of room capacity and the need for repetition of teaching sessions in order to reach entire student cohorts.

As vaccinations start to be rolled out, individual risk levels may reduce, but overall the university community remains at high risk from infection, and of transmitting that to the community they live in (SAGE, 2020; McIntyre, 2020). So whilst it is expected that Covid-19 levels will reduce substantially as we head towards the summer, care should still be taken to reduce transmission on campus.

In addition university management should recognise how tired and burnt out their staff are, with the substantial effort of keeping universities running mostly virtually, and trying to maintain the quality of teaching alongside their own concerns about their health and the health of their friends and families. Many will have suffered losses; many will have supported students dealing with losses. Staff will need time to recover, to take holidays that were not taken during the pandemic, and to decompress from this stressful period of over-work. Then they will be able to return to campus in the autumn of 2021 able to teach effectively.

Don’t just return to ‘normal’

Not all of the pandemic lessons have been negative. I am a disabled lecturer who uses a wheelchair and has an energy limiting disability. I have found virtual working a huge advantage. Other staff with disabilities, caring responsibilities, or just long journeys to work may find the greater flexibility to work more from home also helpful. This flexibility will allow easier management of responsibilities in work and the rest of life. Students with similar issues may find accessing a university level education easier if some or all of their course was delivered virtually. It will be a challenge for university finances, but the opportunity for greater equity of access to university level education is undeniable.

SRHE member Dr Katherine Deane is a wheelchair using Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences and Access Ambassador at the University of East Anglia. She is working to remove barriers to accessing life so people can express their brilliance. Post Covid-19 re-opening guidance with a focus on disabled visitors available here https://embed.org.uk/covid-19-reopening

Reference UCU UEA. 2020. A survey of UCU members’ opinions on the impact of Covid-19 on teaching and workload at UEA. University and College Union, University of East Anglia Branch. November 2020. Available from k.deane@uea.ac.uk on request


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From money to the market: the transformation of the Strategic Plan

by GR Evans

Speaking on a Topic for Discussion, a draft of Oxford’s Strategic Plan for 2013-8, Shearer West, then Head of Humanities, spoke as a woman with experience of strategic plans. She had “been involved” with their “development” in other places. She wanted to see the new Strategy “regularly revisited and subject to adjustment as times change”. As to its content, she spoke as a pragmatist. “Oxford academics rightly pride themselves on elegant and incisive writing”, she said, but “a strategic plan will certainly never win a prize for inspiring prose, because it is an operational document”.

The Strategic Plans of Britain’s universities may have begun on that practical and unpretentious assumption, but they have evolved into glamorous presentations designed to market their universities to prospective students and benefactors as well as to offer assurance that they are well run and not in financial difficulties. As headlines announce that a dozen universities may now be at risk of financial collapse it is a topical question whether this is a desirable trend. The Institute of Fiscal Studies’ Briefing Note provides a table. Yet universities which may fall into the category of the financially vulnerable have Strategic Plans as confident and optimistic as those far higher in the league-tables. The University of Sunderland, reported by THE in January as facing a ‘challenging financial environment’ and closing courses, has a Plan for 2020-2025 presenting it in visually exciting terms and glowing wording as ‘a twenty-first century global university’.

The principal reason at first for requiring universities to have Strategic Plans was ‘operational’. They began as a device to ensure they took long term financial planning seriously and to facilitate monitoring of their use of the public funding of higher education. They became a requirement for universities when the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 created the Higher Education Funding Councils, replacing the short-lived single Universities Funding Council. For nearly a century until it was abolished in 1989 public money for university higher education been distributed through the University Grants Committee.

Although the new Councils were intended to act as buffers betwee Government control and the allocaton of block grants of public funding, the Government nevertheless gained closer control of the spending, for each year the Minister send a letter of guidance and instruction. The Councils’ Financial Memoranda required universities to give an accurate account of their finances as a condition of funding.

In 1997 the Dearing Report took it for granted that:

institutions share their strategic plans, including an estates strategy, with the three Higher Education Funding Councils; and the financial memoranda require institutions to secure value for money in the use of their assets and to follow a maintenance plan for their estates.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England was by now duly receiving and analysing these plans. In 2000 it published a guide for heads of institutions, senior managers and members of governing bodies, Strategic planning in higher education.

The call for such plans was reinforced in 2003 the White Paper, The future of higher education. The intention was to ask HEFCE to

look at how funding for departments with lower ratings under the existing system can be related to potential to progress further, and linked to good planning for future improvement.

HEFCE felt it had to set an example. Introducing its own internal Strategic Plan 2003-8 its then CEO, Howard Newby, said:

We hope that our colleagues in universities and colleges, for their part, will find in our plan a secure and practical framework for their own planning and activities throughout and beyond the planning period. We look forward to working with them to ensure that national policies and our strategy are put fully into effect, and to support and maintain a national HE system working consistently to international standards of excellence.

However, in 2017 the Higher Education and Research Act replaced HEFCE with the Office for Students and the Financial Memorandum requirement disappeared. The other parts of the UK have made their own arrangements under devolved powers. The Scottish Funding Council funds further as well as higher education and in 2020 it requires each college and university to have an Outcome Agreement in line with both ‘ministerial priorities and the SFC’s own ‘strategic framework’. It explains their purpose:

Outcome Agreements articulate how institutions provide an education that best meets the changing social and economic needs of their regions, reflecting a changing and increasingly diverse profile of students. They are an important part of the framework in which we ensure that institutions make best use of public funds and exercise good governance.

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales published a Corporate Strategy (2017-20) setting out its strategy for ‘delivery of the Welsh Government’s priorities for higher education’, as ‘informed by our annual remit letter’. It promised to: Monitor the financial sustainability of HE providers, and the organisation and management of their financial affairs, with particular reference to the requirements of our Financial Management Code. Northern Ireland’s Government funds its universities directly through the Department for the Economy without the intervention of a Funding Council.

On 9 September 2020 the Office for Students published its Guidance for providers for the financial monitory returns. It requires an Annual Financial Return with ‘workbook’ and commentary’, and in the case of relative newcomers to higher education provision, a Business Plan. It has a Strategy (2018-21) of its own but it does not seem to see it as a regulatory essential for a university to have one.

Nevertheless, it has become a continuing custom for universities to publish their Strategy or Strategic Plan. Such Plans have broadened far beyond the endeavour to assure funding councils and government that they had their finances in good order and are spending public money appropriately and to good effect. They are unlikely to mention their finances except to invite donations. They now tend to include Visions and Missions, often dividing their content into small pieces for easy consumption. They offer photographic and even video illustrations . In its interim ‘refresh’ of its current Plan Delivering Impact for Society, our Strategic Plan 2016, Edinburgh points to developments so far and a video to watch for ‘a short summary of the values, strategic priorities and aspirations of the new draft plan’.

The transformation of a vehicle for reporting financial soundness to a public relations and marketing opportunity in which the plain truth is edited for frankly presentational purposes should surely sit uncomfortably with the purposes of a university.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and served as CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE.

Image of Rob Cuthbert


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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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Higher Education and Desistance from Offending

by Debbie Jones and Mark Jones

It is often the case that those entrenched in patterns of offending find it difficult to stop due to stigma, discrimination and other structural issues limiting opportunities to bolster aspiration (Ministry of Justice, 2010; Shapland and Bottoms, 2011). Several studies have concluded that studying within Higher Education (HE) can be a significant ‘hook for change’ offering development of personal agency and widening positive social networks, key factors towards desistance (Lockwood et al, 2012; Runell, 2017).

Yet, despite widening access to HE being a global endeavour (Evans et al, 2017), the Prison Education Trust (2017) highlight that HE can feel unwelcoming for those with a criminal record. Evans et al (2017) found that, despite a drive to widen participation and access to HE in Wales, the internal culture and narrative can become ‘entangled, reinforcing the status quo at the expense of developing non-traditional student participation such as adult learners.

This blog shares our research carried out in Swansea, Wales which was funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education. The project explored the aspirations, barriers, and challenges for those at risk of offending to study in HE and considered what might be needed to support the desire to desist from offending within the context of a HE setting. The data collection phase consisted of two engagement events: one for those that had offended or were at risk of offending and were members of our partner and host organisation ‘The Hub’ (n = 16), and the other with practitioners who worked with people at risk including two participants who were also studying at Higher Education and had offended (n = 10).

We adopted a Pictorial Narrative Approach as a data collection tool and community engagement activity (Glaw et al, 2017). We will talk more about the Pictorial Approach and share some of the visual data in a forthcoming blog but for now, we want to share some of the key findings from the project.

It was clear from the data that aspirations, short and long term, varied but there was a common desire to ‘get back on track’. This was articulated as achieving better mental health and well-being which was seen as a ‘daily struggle’, securing employment, with some of the group wanting to use their own experiences to help others, and the development of positive family ties and relationships.  Such aspirations have been identified as key drivers to desistance (McNeill 2019) and might be the necessary pre-requisites before any consideration can be given to embarking on higher education.

However, one of the more concerning factors from the data was the impact of previous education. 12 participants reported negative educational experiences, feeling like a ‘lost soul swimming in a fish bowl’. Many recounted negative learning experiences within the classroom such as, ‘getting the answers wrong’ and being ‘told off’ leading to feelings of embarrassment and intimidation. A majority of participants identified other forms of educational exclusion such as learning difficulties and bullying. Such experiences left the participants with feelings of alienation and resentment of the whole education sector. For participants who had been to prison it was often ‘the beginning of their education’ where they found hope and aspiration. Prison education was viewed as offering opportunity to develop basic skills such as reading and writing and for one participant it offered the chance to pursue a higher level of education at university on release from prison.

In terms of barriers and challenges to accessing HE, most of the participants were sceptical of HE and identified university as marketing itself as a vehicle for gaining employment but really ‘just wanted the money.’ Three of the participants in the first group had attended university and felt the level of debt acquired in the pursuit of a degree was excessive with no guarantees that it would lead to a job. Indeed, funding of a degree was a perceived as an insurmountable barrier for the group. All participants from the first group were claiming benefits and felt university was out of reach because of the trade-off between state support and the notion of ‘degree debts’. Even something as simple as paying for public transport to get to university was seen as problematic.

There was recognition however that university could help people gain confidence and improve their well-being if the issue of exclusion/rejection for previous offending could be addressed. One participant reported, ‘I applied for university but they rejected me because of my conviction, only drink related offences mind you, but they rejected me anyway but even when I walk across the campus now I feel proud and it makes me walk with my head held high – the university has a good vibe about it’.

Indeed, there was a strong sense of despondency amongst the group who felt their convictions would prevent them from going to university. One participant reported that he had been told that he needed to be ‘clean from drugs for two years before I can start doing courses, it’s really fucking hard’. Another participant articulated the views of the group when he said, ‘if you have the money they’ll take you but not if you have a conviction’.

The findings from this pilot study suggest that HE can offer people who have offended, or are at risk of offending, the opportunity to develop positive personal agency. However, for that to happen universities need to reconfigure how HE is delivered in the truest sense of widening access. This might include: the delivery of HE in partnership with prisons and existing community rehabilitation programmes to overcome issue of stigma and increase confidence; training for student services to meet needs of those students with a criminal record or at risk of offending; and, better outreach and marketing of HE and student loan systems to those at risk of offending. You can read the full report on the project at http://www.srhe.ac.uk/downloads/reports-2018/JONESdebbiemarkReport.pdf

Debbie Jones is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Director for Undergraduate Studies, Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University. Deborah.a.jones@swansea.ac.uk, Twitter @debjonesccjc.

Mark Jones was an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University at the time of the research and is now Director at Higher Plain Research and Education. HigherPlainResearchEducation@gmail.com Twitter @A_HigherPlain. Our lead partner in this research is The hub in Swansea. Debbie and Mark are grateful to SRHE for funding the project.

References

Evans, C, Rees, G, Taylor, C, and Wright, C (2017) ‘Widening Access to Higher Education: The Reproduction of University Hierarchies Through Policy Enactment’ Journal of Education Policy, 34(1): 101-116

Glaw, X, Inder, K, Kable, A, and Hazelton, M (2017) ‘Visual Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Autophotography and Photo Elicitation Applied to Mental Health Research’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 16: 1-8

Lockwood, S, Nally, J, Ho, T, and Knutson, K (2012) ‘The Effect of Correctional Education on Postrelease Employment and Recidivism: A 5-Year Follow-Up Study in the State of Indiana’ Crime and Delinquency, 58(3): 380-396

McNeill, F (2019) Rehabilitation, Corrections and Society Retrieved July 01, 2019, from http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/159625/7/159625.pdf

Ministry of Justice (2010) Understanding Desistance from Crime. Available at: http://www.safeground.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Desistance-Fact-Sheet.pdf

Prison Education Trust (2017) To be Truly Inclusive, Universities Must Help Prisoners Feel They Belong. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/aug/16/to-be-truly-inclusive-universities-must-help-prisoners-feel-they-belong

Runell, LL (2017) ‘Identifying Desistance Pathways in a Higher Education Program for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals’ International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 61(8): 894-918

Shapland, J, and Bottoms, A (2011) ‘Reflections on social values, offending and desistance among young adult recidivists’ Punishment & Society 13(3): 256–282 https://doi.org/10.1177/1462474511404334


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The Office for Students and ‘successful outcomes’

by GR Evans

In March the Office for Students press release welcomed a ‘landmark victory’ which ‘sets an important precedent’ in the  recent judicial review of the Office for Students’ decision not to register Bloomsbury Institute Ltd. The OfS warns that:

The OfS will not hesitate to defend its decisions robustly where they are in the interests of students and will seek to recover its costs in doing so …

Nevertheless, it is likely that this will not be the end of the matter, with other challenges from disappointed providers in the pipeline.

What exactly has been decided and what demands further clarification? The question answered by the judgment was not  whether the decision was right. It was whether the Office for Students had acted ‘lawfully’. That depended on whether the OfS Conditions of Registration were themselves lawful and whether they had been properly applied.

The main hurdle at which Bloomsbury’s application for registration fell was its failure to satisfy OfS Condition B3, which includes the requirement to secure ‘successful outcomes for all of its students’ (‘continuation rates’). This includes an expectation that the ‘successful’ student will be one who enters into well-paid employment on graduation (‘progression rates’) and thus  arguably gets ‘value for money’ for the student fee. These were the two criteria on which Bloomsbury was deemed to have failed.

The judgment considered how OfS had actually applied condition B3. It did not attempt to explore the boundaries of the grey area in which the definition of ‘continuation’ and ‘progression’  continue to sit. It simply concentrated on what the OfS had done to set detailed rules to be applied case by case. It just asked whether they were ‘lawful’.

The problem OfS faces is that providers do not all have the same or similar ranges of students forming a typical body. Bloomsbury had made that point very energetically, explaining that 85%, of Bloomsbury’s students were mature students; 66% were BAME; 16% were disabled; 90% came  from families earning less than £25,000 per annum;  and 88% began with a Foundation year because 80% did not not have A Levels. The OfS explained that it had dealt with this problem pragmatically and that:

this had already been taken into account in the selection of the baselines, ie the baselines were lower than they might have been to take this into account.

In other words, the expectations had been set low so as to accommodate these outliers. That was potentially perfectly reasonable and unlikely to be unlawful.

But Bloomsbury argued that that the OfS erred in law because it had created secret ‘thresholds’ in ‘confidential Decision-Making Guidance’. It said these should have been  published in advance and the attention of applicants for registration should have been drawn to them. It added that they were contrary to the OfS’s published Regulatory Framework and the guidance provided by the Secretary of State for Education. Bloomsbury also pointed to the fact that these ‘thresholds’ had been ‘drawn up by the OfS’s Director of Competition and Registration’,who did not have the necessary authority under the  OfS’s scheme of delegation.

The judgment considered all this and held that the Director for Competition and Regulation had been ‘entitled to take responsibility for the drafting and circulation of the Decision-Making Guidance’, because it counted as an ‘operational decision-making function’. That leaves these ‘thresholds’ not only deemed to be lawful but open to further amendment ‘operationally’. And it does nothing to address the question whether they are satisfactory or fair, and the bigger question whether there can be accurate quantification of degrees of compliance so that setting ‘thresholds’ is appropriate.

It is not the first time quantifications of higher education performance – of students or providers – have been attempted. Under the previous rules, Bloomsbury had been ‘designated’ for Student Loan Company purposes since 2009. In 2015 it had been one of only two alternative providers commended by the QAA and the QAA had been ‘complimentary’ in 2016 and 2017. However, its failure to perform to the standard expected on the numbers of its students who ‘continued’ beyond their first year had brought it an ‘improvement notice’ in February 2106 and again in August 2018. In March 2019 the Department for Education had ‘noted’ the failure to mend Bloomsbury’s performance on continuation rates but this was merely a warning that action might be taken in future if things did not improve.

Bloomsbury argued that the OfS should not have relied on these thresholds without consulting the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher or taking into account the outcomes of reviews and investigations by the QAA in its previous incarnation before it became the OfS Designated Body under Higher Education and Research Act 2017 s.27. It said that it had been unreasonable of the OfS to refuse to grant registraton when it ‘had been granted on previous occasions on the basis of essentially the same data’.

Here the court relied on an important OfS paper which had considered whether the OfS ought to rely on previous QAA assessments.  This had drawn a key distinction. The OfS’s ‘primary aim is to ensure providers are delivering positive outcomes for students’. The task of the OfS  was to form a ‘regulatory judgment’ about that. By contrast, ‘previous QAA review activity’ was considered ‘not relevant to the assessment of student outcomes for condition B3’ because it  had a different purpose. It did not ask about ‘outcomes achieved by the provider’s students’ but ‘focused on the design and operation of a provider’s systems and processes.

The court thought that was clearly correct from the point of view of ‘lawfulness’ in being faithful to the OfS conditions in the decision-making, providing the thresholds were themselves lawful.  In any case, Condition B3 is excluded from the list of conditions on which the OfS is to consult its Designated Quality Body. The Regulatory Framework makes it clear that the OfS itself is alone responsible for assessing Condition B3.

In this connection the judgment makes a clear separation of responsibility for ‘quality’ and for ‘standards’:

The effect of [HERA] section 27 is that when a body is designated as the DQB, only that body can be responsible for assessment of standards. The OfS is, therefore, not responsible for standards. However, section 27(3)(b) makes clear that the OfS is still responsible for the exercise of assessment functions which do not relate to standards. Condition B3 is concerned with quality of education, not with standards, and so the effect of section 27 is not that only the QAA can assess compliance with Condition B3. There was no requirement in section 27, or anywhere else in HERA, for the QAA to play a part in the OfS’s assessment of quality criteria.

Here too there seem to be points which need to be returned to, not in litigation, which cannot easily address them, but in policy-discussion and wider consultation. If there is to be a ladder of quantification of provider performance in setting which the QAA can have no say its existence and the placing of its rungs demand as much. Otherwise how can those ‘successful outcomes’ ultimately be defined?

SRHE member GR Evans is Emerita Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE (www.idras.ac.uk).


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Guidance or interference? OfS under pressure

by GR Evans

The Office for Students received yet another ‘strategic guidance’ letter from the Secretary of State for Education, then Gavin Williamson, dated 1 January 2020.  This is the fourth in a year.  HEFCE used to receive just one, to go with the  annual statement of the ‘block grant’ figures covering both teaching and research.  This energetic approach recalls concerns about potential for future ministerial interference repeatedly expressed in the House of Lords during the debates before the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. The new legislation protects ‘the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers’ at s.2(1)(a) and s.2 (8) (b) and (c), and specified instances of institutional ‘academic freedom’ in ‘performing’ a provider’s ‘access and participations functions’ at s.36.  It defines the Haldane Principle at s.103 but in a curiously lop-sided way, in connection only in research and for UKRI not OfS.  So both the tone and the content of this series of letters of ‘guidance’ bear looking at closely for their implications.

OfS now receives only a Teaching Grant, because infrastructure funding for research now goes to Research England within UKRI. The same Minister was in charge of both – Chris Skidmore, one of the three who have gone in and out of that office since 2016. UKRI is in the Department of Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. So for research funding purposes the Minister of State operated in another Department of State altogether. Research England has taken over the infrastructure funding of research, the ‘R’ element of the old ‘block grant’.  Skidmore did not sign the latest letter to OfS,  though HEFCE often used to get its letters signed by both the Secretary of State and the Minister for Higher Education.

The ‘teaching funding’ element of the old block grant has now shrunk to a fraction of its earlier size.  In the latest OfS letter Gavin Williamson provides ‘some specific steers on funding priorities given the need to ensure we are spending public money in the most efficient and effective way’. There is to be a continuation of policy preferences tersely described, such as ‘allocations for high cost subjects’, ‘world leading small and specialist institutions’ and ‘supporting successful participation for underrepresented students’.  There is also to be a requirement to work ‘closely’ with  the DFE to ‘identify’ areas where the need is greatest, while ensuring ‘value for money’. A proposed review of ‘the funding method’ is strongly approved as a ‘move to evaluate value for money’.  ‘I know that  the OfS have been working closely with my officials on funding policy and I hope to see this continue’, Williamson concludes.

The tone is directive. Skidmore had been writing to Research England too, but in a rather different tone. On 2 October 2019 he wrote to David Sweeney, who had moved from HEFCE to head Research England to become its Executive Chair, to thank him for his outline of his ‘proposals’ for the development of the new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), to be added to the TEF and the REF.  He also took the ‘opportunity’ to ‘share’ his ‘priorities’ for ‘the future of research and knowledge exchange’.

Among them was Open Access,  ‘a key feature of REF2021’.  Skidmore pressed this urgently, merely noting briskly ‘the implications for Learned Societies of this implementation’ and encouraging  ‘Research England to develop mechanisms which will support them in the transition’ and to engage in ‘dialogue with publishers’, for open access monographs (free books) are on their way. There is no mention of the consequences of the huge upheaval for institutions and academic authors, caused by authors having to pay for publication themselves and institutions having to fund those they choose to support. The heat of anxiety on all that has been growing.

The overriding purpose of research as described in Skidmore’s letter to Research England is to be ‘the creation, transmission and exploitation of knowledge for economic and social benefit’ with KEF in a prominent place and a Knowledge Exchange Concordat being framed, ‘ensuring that it effectively supports our shared priorities around research commercialisation and impact’.

It could of course be understandable that as a new entity the Office for Students  and Research England should both need a specially vigilant ministerial eye on the way they were shaping themselves and their work.  But the artificial separation of Government control of the T and R elements in the old block grant is creating new problems. A controversial Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (the Augur Review), was published in May 2019, proposing a reduction in undergraduate tuition fees from the level of £9,250 a year at which they then stood.  In the summer of 2019 the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee questioned Philip Augar and members of the Committee about the implications for the future of the ‘dual support’ system with its established division between infrastructure and project funding. The Committee was concerned that though ‘traditionally’ the dual-funding system had ‘supported the research community well’, the failure to increase the infrastructure component –  Quality Related (QR)  funding – since 2010, had ‘led to a deficit in funding which universities have had to plug through cross-subsidies’. In other words teaching and research cannot in practice be supported by quite separate funding streams within universities. For example, libraries serve both students and researchers.

Skidmore’s letter to Research England is not insensitive to this problem:

University partnerships with business will be a significant contributor to reaching the 2.4% target by leveraging additional private investment in research through schemes such as UK Research Partnership lnvestment Fund (UKRPIF).

He links that with the ‘impact agenda’, which will increase the benefits and effects from excellent university research for the economy and society, and in addressing key societal challenges such as climate change and ageing’.

The OfS has so far been noisier than UKRI in publishing policy objectives, many of them more ‘social and economic’ than academic or educational. That is unavoidable because the former Office for Fair Access created under the Higher Education Act 2004 ss.22-41, has been absorbed into the OfS. This has encouraged the OfS to launch many objectives which seem to belong in that area rather than in the purely academic. However, the Government’s locus in social and economic affairs is clearly of a different kind from its long-controversial place in controlling the way public funding for higher education is spent.  Those letters from Secretary of State and Minister to OfS and UKRI are beginning to form a corpus worth close study.

Meanwhile it looks as though teaching and research are to be prised even more decisively apart. The Government reshuffle removed Chris Skidmore but replaced him  with Michelle Donelan, who is to be a Minister only in the DfE.  Announcement of a Minister to take charge of research in BEIS was slow to emerge, but the eventual announcement led Nature’s news reporters to ask “Has the UK’s science minister been demoted? Amanda Solloway comes to the job with no ministerial experience, amid concern that the Prime Minister’s office is controlling the science agenda.” Clearly we must continue to watch this space …

SRHE member GR Evans is Emerita Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE (www.idras.ac.uk).

Paul Temple


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Weirdos and misfits? I’ve met a few…

By Paul Temple

Perhaps, like me, you’ve had some harmless fun recently in drawing up a mental list of the “weirdos and misfits…with odd skills” you know in university life who might work with Dominic Cummings at Number 10. (In a few cases, I couldn’t decide who I’d feel sorriest for.) Now that Brexit has been “done”, it seems that Cummings plans to “turn the UK into a leading centre for science, putting it at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, robotics and climate change” and needs some hired help. (This and other quotes come from a Financial Times profile of Cummings of 18/19 January 2020, said to have been fact-checked by its subject.)

The irony here, presumably unintended, would be almost funny if it wasn’t completely maddening. I’d be surprised if you could find a single working research scientist in the country who doesn’t view Brexit, so far as science is concerned, somewhere on a spectrum from “unfortunate” to “utter disaster”. Certainly, if there are any Brexiteer scientists working at UCL they’ve kept a very low profile indeed over the past few years. And now the man who has done as much as anyone to damage UK academic work by destroying our links with European partners calmly tells us that his “new agenda” – sensibly distancing himself from the tedious details of working out a new trade deal with the EU – is to achieve a scientific renaissance.

But Cummings, it seems, is thinking beyond the UK merely becoming better at science than it has so far managed when working collaboratively with European science networks. Cummings, an Oxford ancient and modern history graduate, clearly considers that he possesses the skills to apply science “to understanding and solving public policy problems”. This is probably what most social scientists, if pressed, would say they are trying to do, but I don’t think that the humdrum problems that most of us work on are what Cummings has in mind. Instead, “his inspiration is the US government’s Manhattan Project…[and how] the failing NASA bureaucracy [became] an organisation that could put a man on the moon…[he also plans] to set up a civilian version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency”. Big, shiny projects are what he wants.

I’ve used the Manhattan Project as a case study in my teaching, and I’ve no doubt that much can be learned from it. It helped that J Robert Oppenheimer was both a world-class physicist and, as it turned out, a world-class project director, who was able to work with a multi-national group of scientific egoists in a collection of army huts in the New Mexico desert and produce the world’s first atomic explosion within 28 months of starting work. But Oppenheimer knew what he had to do, had a fair idea about how to go about it, and could call on all the resources of the world’s scientific and engineering superpower. It doesn’t at all detract from his achievements to say that the Manhattan Project was in a certain sense straightforward compared to, say, improving health care or reducing crime for a large population. Leaving aside resource limitations, knowing “what works” in these and other areas of social policy has a different meaning to knowing “what works” in nuclear engineering or rocket design. Habermas described this difference in terms of “the ideology of technique”. Even defining what “improved health care” might look like will be contested, as will its measures of success. Nobody doubted that they’d know a nuclear explosion when it happened. (Actually, Oppenheimer might have agreed that quantum mechanics and problems in social policy do have something in common: if you think you understand what it is you’re observing, you’ve got it wrong.)

So my guess is that the clever Oxford humanities graduate, with no formal training in either natural or social science, is going to become very frustrated in attempting to apply methods from the former to try to solve complex problems in the domain of the latter. Paradoxically (or maybe not), this puts me in mind of the education research that I had some acquaintance with in the afterlife of the old Soviet Union. There, the necessary assumption was that if enough data were collected, and the precepts of scientific Marxism-Leninism were correctly applied to them, then a definitive solution to whatever the problem was would be found. There had to be a “scientific” answer to every question, if only you did enough work on it. To suggest otherwise would be, literally, unthinkable in a Marxist worldview.

Still, perhaps Cummings will show that answers to problems in big science do in fact read across to social policy: after all, compared to making Brexit the tremendous national success story that we’ve been assured it will be, it should be quite easy.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17(2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546