The Society for Research into Higher Education

Policy and Funding in England (July 2020)

Nick Timothy appointed as DfE non-executive director

Nick Timothy, former adviser to Theresa May, has been appointed as a non-executive director for the DfE. Timothy, a strong supporter of grammar schools, was director of the New Schools Network from 2015-2016 before becoming May’s adviser when she was Home Secretary and later when she was PM. Freddie Whittaker reported for School Weekon 17 April 2020.

New Labour leader completes ministerial appointments – twice

New Labour leader Keir Starmer appointed Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow Education Secretary, with Emma Hardy staying on as shadow minister for FE and universities. Slightly later, of course, Starmer sacked Long-Bailey for a tweet deemed to support anti-semitism, replacing her with Kate Green.

Temporary student number controls

Sniffing the wind, David Kernohan reviewed the options for Wonkhe on reinstating student number controls on 30 March 2020. Mark Corver of DataHE blogged for Wonkhe on 1 May 2020, making a compelling case that student number quotas would only reduce entry to HE and deny many students their preferred choice of university, without significantly helping universities lacking student numbers. When DfE published its definitive document on student number controls on 1 June 2020, Kernohan quickly identified ‘six massive gaping holes’ in the approach for Wonkhe on 1 June 2020. He continued in coruscating form as he unpicked the privilege behind the ‘rationale’ for eligibility to bid for additional student numbers in 2020-2021, for Wonkhe on 3 June 2020 – Million Plus universities need not apply, because the criteria were carefully chosen to exclude them all.

As part of the temporary student numbers cap in 2020-2021 the DfE announced it would also cap the number of English students applying to higher education outside England, with predictably furious responses from, well, almost everyone, but especially the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Wales education minister was first off the mark, saying the proposals were “regrettable” and cut across efforts to coordinate responses by all four nations, as Richard Adams reported for The Guardian on 30 May 2020. Universities Minister Michele Donelan refused to back down despite the heated objections, as Richard Adams reported for the Guardianon 1 June 2020. And no-one can yet work out how the proposals will actually be enforced, but we’re guessing it might involve the Russell Group launching lifeboats.

Guardian Education editor Richard Adams reported on 23 April 2020 that “Capping the number of students who can attend each British university will not stave off the financial catastrophe that institutions face following the coronavirus outbreak, a report from the University and College Union (UCU) warns. The report forecasts the sector could lose around £2.5bn next year in tuition fees alone, along with the loss of 30,000 university jobs … if Covid-19 continues unchecked … the report, commissioned by UCU from London Economics, says a cap could be ineffective if more students are prepared to sit out next year.”  But Adams reported on the same day that  “Discussions over extra support are said to have run into an impasse between the Treasury … and the Department for Education. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, is arguing for a stabilisation package … the Treasury is said to be resisting efforts to directly support universities, with the Financial Times reporting that the Treasury “was not receptive to what it sees as special pleading””. David Kernohan analysed the London Economics report for Wonkhe on 22 April 2020, after his 20 April piece asking if doubling QR would be enough.

Martine Garland (Gloucestershire) analysed the varying portfolios and hence varying financial vulnerability of universities in England for her article in Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education (24(2): 43-52). Pre-1992 universities had more diversified income streams and so in theory were less vulnerable to financial difficulties.

Bahram Bekhradnia’s first-ever blog for HEPI was a zinger: “The Government’s introduction of controls over the freedom of universities to recruit students ad lib brings to an end the short-lived experiment in a demand-led market-driven higher education system – and with it, it seems the raison d’être of the Office for Students and certainly its modus operandi. Now, the health of the sector is to be protected – and to rub the point in, it is notable that the Government has not asked the Office for Students to implement the new requirements but the Student Loans Company. The Office for Students is left watching from the sidelines and has been told it must require institutions to behave in ways which do not damage ‘the stability and/or integrity of the English HE sector’. Yes, its conditions of registration will include the requirement that universities must behave in a way that protects the interests of the sector, a concept that has hitherto been absent from its thoughts and actions. It dresses this up as a measure to protect students’ interests, but the Office for Students has never previously considered the health of the sector as a whole as important for the interests of the students that it is there to protect.

First, the nonsense. The 5% margin apparently includes EU students. … If EU student recruitment dries up, then this policy will enable institutions to recruit as many as 40 per cent more home entrants next year. Effectively this control provides no control at all.

Second, the policy is based on forecasts of intakes. … It would have been another thing to require institutions to remain within a margin of 2019 recruitment, but that is not what has been required.  

Third, the 5% margin is anyway extremely wide. If strong institutions were to increase their recruitment by 5% even over the 2019 levels that would still greatly jeopardise the recruitment of many other institutions. This is not the market at work, but it still allows better established institutions to take advantage of their strengths and exploit the weaknesses of others.

Whatever its intentions, the new controls – while abandoning the market-driven system and claiming to protect the higher education sector as a whole – nevertheless and as currently announced play only to the interests of the best established institutions while doing little to protect the English sector as a whole.” (emphasis added)

Leon Rocha (Lincoln) wrote USS Briefs 94 on 9 April 2020 about widely different rates of growth in universities over the last five years from 2014-2015 to 2018-2019; Russell Group university student numbers grew by 12%, more than double the overall growth rate of 5%. However, “the growth of student numbers within the 24 Russell Group universities has been uneven. From 2014–5 to 2018–9, Liverpool expanded by 31%, Queen Mary by 29%, Exeter by 22%, Bristol by 20%, Edinburgh by 19%. Oxford and Southampton contracted

Cross-border HE mobility in the UK

Susan Whitaker published two briefing papers on 9 May 2020 drawing on her PhD research at Moray House School of Education (Edinburgh), conducted in conjunction with the ESRC Senior Fellowship project “Higher Education in Scotland, the Devolution Settlement and the Referendum on Independence”:

Special offer for 2020 students: one year only

Mark Corver of DataHE blogged for HEPI on 6 June 2020, arguing that university/supplier logic and student/customer logic might struggle to meet, and that a better encouragement for students to enrol would be to offer 2020 entrants a free year of postgraduate study after their first degree. Eric Lybeck (Manchester), in the Guardian on 3 June 2020, suggested simply waiving fees for the year, with the government picking up the tab.

The bland leading the blind

DfE issued some remarkably pointless and largely empty ‘guidance’ on reopening HE buildings and campuses, on 10 June 2020. We suspect some civil servant somewhere had a box to tick.

FE colleges to be nationalised

FE Week, which has become a must-read, revealed in a report by Nick Linford on 7 May 2020 that “The government is working on a plan to bring colleges in England back into public ownership … Work has begun on a White Paper to be followed by legislation, after recent attempts to financially stabilise the sector with an area review programme and restructuring funds totalling around half a billion pounds were deemed to have failed. The number of colleges in formal intervention over their finances, currently more than 30, continues to rise and government bailouts have not stopped in recent months despite attempts to end them last March with the introduction of a new education administration regime. … Government powers became so limited under the 2011 Act that in May 2012 the Office for National Statistics took colleges in England out of the public sector classification. It is understood Williamson and the team around him are becoming increasingly frustrated by this inability to step in when they deem there to have been leadership failures.”

Augar abandoned, even by himself. But …

Philip Augar, he of the Review without a response, wrote a revisionist piece on 8 May 2020 behind the paywall in the Financial Times (where else? He is a banker, after all). Jo Johnson tweeted the same day: “In which Philip Augar finally abandons the hopeless central recommendation of the Augar Review – cutting tuition fees to £7.5K. Time to end the zero sum fight for resources between HE and FE.”, to which Sam Gyimah responded “Well said” – all these former Ministers weighing in! We may be even clearer about why the Augar Review lay untouched, but we still put Chris Skidmore well ahead of the field. However the latest Minister Michele Donelan said in a HEPI webinar on 17 June 2020 that Augar was not dead and the response was ‘always’ going to be given at the time of the spending review. Of course it was.

Jack Grove reported for Times Higher Education on 26 May 2020 that Philip Augar was now peddling other ideas after he had abandoned his Review’s proposed fees cut to £7500 as ‘too destabilising’. He suggested universities might be fined for providing ‘low-cost over-supplied’ courses, to redirect funds to ‘high-cost priority subjects’. To put it another way, student choice should no longer be a government priority.

Rachel Wolf of think tank Public First, who co-authored the Conservatives’ 2019 election manifesto, blogged for HEPI on 7 June 2020: “Most conservatives, most of the time, think that we don’t have a good enough vocational and technical system, and we don’t care enough about it. The public agree. That is one reason why Augar. Is. Not. Dead. … People like universities, they do see the value of them, they want their kids to go to them. But they still think more people need to do apprenticeships instead. … After twenty years of higher education reform, you haven’t persuaded the people the Conservative party needs to listen to. And this is a big problem. Occasionally, the reaction of HEIs in listening to this criticism is to explain – with a greater or lesser degree of patience – why the public are idiots (just as they do on Brexit). … this is a wholly ineffective approach.”

Recovering from the Covid19 recession

SRHE member Vincent Carpentier (UCL) had his own take on what Covid19 might mean, based on his research into long-term economic cycles (which might or might not exist). Another unusual scholarly take came from SRHE member John Taylor on the HEPI blog on 8 April 2020: “Crisis and change for higher education: some reflections from history and the first World War”.

Why should students pay university fees when they are not getting the real experience?

That was the question which Allison Pearson, a columnist much-hated by left-leaning Twitterati, posed in The Telegraph on 5 May 2020. Good question though.

Expanding higher education is unlikely to reduce poverty

An article by Philip Brown and REF 2021 subpanel chair David James (both Cardiff) in the International Journal of Educational Research (Vol 100, 2020) examined “the role of education in alleviating poverty in a context of high rates of income inequalities. It will argue that despite public attention on the incomes of top earners, education policy has been largely silent on the education of elites. Rather it has focused on extending opportunities to those at the other end of the income distribution. By improving school performance and widening access to higher education, it is claimed that poverty can be alleviated by increasing rates of social mobility from disadvantaged families. This article will highlight several problems with this analysis that amount to a fundamental contradiction at the heart of education policy as a route to poverty reduction.”

Postgraduate education in the UK

The Higher Education Policy Institute ( published on 15 May 2020 a landmark report, Postgraduate Education in the UK (HEPI Analytical Report 1) by Dr Ginevra House, of Ebor Editing and Indexing. Looking at how the UK postgraduate landscape has changed since the last similar report was published a decade ago, the new report uses previously unpublished data to reveal the state of UK postgraduate education in the years before the Covid-19 crisis struck. Compared to the past, a higher proportion of postgraduates are female, studying full-time and young.

Office for Students

OfS announced on 6 May how it would deploy the £1.25billion it still distributes across the sector in 2020-2021 and the OfS Report and Accounts for 2019-2020 were published on 4 June 2020.

After appearing before the Education Select Committee on 18 May the OfS Chair Michael Barber wrote to the Committee Chair Robert Halfon about what the OfS is doing “about the impact of the pandemic on the quality of teaching and learning for students, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

It was reported that Michael Barber would be stepping down as chair of OfS at the end of his first term, even though he was reported by some to be keen to continue. David Kernohan for Wonkhe on 25 June 2020 was as usual the most acute and among the more acerbic: “ … we’ve not really seen OfS do anything that HEFCE couldn’t have … there has been a world-leading increase in the number of OfS publications … The much vaunted Student Panel has not done much that has been visible to any but the most determined of regulator-watchers.”

OfS issued some sensible advice on 10 June 2020. But note this warning right at the end of the document: “In place of the previously planned consultation on new requirements for student protection plans, we intend to consult shortly on just one aspect of our planned proposals. This is because of the risks to students that may arise as a result of the pandemic and a need for the OfS to be able to intervene quickly and in a targeted way where there is a material risk that a provider will exit the English higher education sector or cease trading. The proposed consultation will relate specifically to providers that the OfS judges to be at material risk of market exit. Therefore the regulatory burden associated with these proposals would not apply to other providers. In the meantime, should we consider any provider to be at material risk of market exit, we will use our existing regulatory tools to ensure that appropriate student protection measures are in place. This may include requiring amendments to a provider’s existing student protection plan, but is more likely to involve other mechanisms such as requiring a provider to produce a detailed orderly exit plan.” OfS also put out a Briefing Note for prospective students on 10 June 2020.

When the OfS finally published its response to the consultation on the ‘integrity and stability of the English higher education system’ it had decided not to pursue many of the wilder and disproportionate ideas in its original document. The proposals had been widely criticised, for example in the 19 May 2020 blog for HEPI by Dean Machin (Portsmouth). OfS rowed back to focus only on banning ‘conditional unconditional’ offers via a new time-limited condition Z3, scheduled to expire on 30 September 2021, which will not be retrospective. The condition sets out:

“Conduct that is prohibited in all circumstances

  • Unconditional offers made to UK-domiciled applicants where the unconditional element is conditional on making the provider the first (or only) choice
  • Making false or misleading statements about other providers

Conduct that is permitted in all circumstances

  • Unconditional offers made to UK-domiciled applicants in certain circumstances
  • Adjusting entry requirements for certain groups of applicants for purposes relating to equality of opportunity.”

Even so, an unusual HEPI blog on 3 July 2020 by ‘an anonymous senior figure’ in an English university responded: ‘The end of unconditional offers, but what’s the pandemic got to do with the OfS’s new power?’

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