The Society for Research into Higher Education

Policy & Funding in England (July 2021)

Freedom of Speech (Universities) Bill remained unspoken

The ending of the Parliamentary session confirmed that we would see no more of the Freedom of Speech (Universities) Bill introduced by David Davies MP; there was never even any draft wording. However …

The Queen’s Speech: the next Parliamentary session in the UK

The Queen’s Speech at the start of the new Parliamentary session on 11 May 2021 included long-expected government proposals to legislate for free speech in universities. The other implications for HE of the government’s legislative programme in the forthcoming period were quickly identified by David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson of Wonkhe on 11 May 2021. Notably: “tucked away in the proposed Skills and Post-16 Education Bill … the Office for Students will get strengthened powers to “take action to address low quality higher education provision”. As nobody has managed to identify a way to reliably identify such provision, this will be some legislative text to peruse with interest.” And “The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill looks largely identical to the previously published policy paper.”Kernohan and Dickinson blogged again on 12 May: “… if you were hoping for some sense out of the publication of legislation to enact proposals in the Westminster government’s command paper on Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, we have bad news.” Among other things they pointed out the duplication of almost identical complaints mechanisms, with the new Bill overlaying the established Office of the Independent Adjudicator procedure.

Independent HE consultant Hugh Jones immediately picked up on the new key phrase in what was otherwise almost boilerplate text on academic freedom – “within their field of expertise” – and speculated about the practical problems in store. That bastion of Policy Exchange’s academic freedom ‘research’, Eric Kaufmann (Birkbeck), was one of the few to welcome it in fulsome terms, as ‘a huge step towards saving the soul of university education’, in The Telegraph, of course, on 12 May 2021.

Index on Censorship wrote to the Education Secretary on 11 May: ”We are very concerned that additional legislation, including the imposition of a “Freedom of Speech Champion”, may have the inverse effect of further limiting what is deemed “acceptable” speech on campus and introducing a chilling effect both on the content of what is taught and the scope of academic research exploration.” It looks like the Russell Group might be attacking it from the perspective of ‘excessive regulatory burden’ rather than go for it head on, judging by its initial response on 12 May 2021. Susan Lapworth, Director of Regulation at OfS, wrote a measured and sensible blog on 17 May 2021 urging ‘Robust but civil debate’.

Richard Brabner of the UPP Foundation blogged for HEPI on 17 May 2021 about their survey of public opinion: “On a range of different contentious issues, the public – including 18-24 year olds and across political boundaries – support allowing controversial speakers on campus, even if they don’t agree with their views. But equally, those pushing for a blanket protection for free speech should be under no illusion. The public does not approve of a libertarian free for all. When it comes to racist speakers and Holocaust deniers the public do not want them anywhere near our universities.” The regular column from Conservative peer Danny Finkelstein in The Times on 18 May was damning: “Just because there is a problem doesn’t mean you need to legislate. One shouldn’t need to remind Conservatives of that. This proposed law is unnecessary, counter-productive and footling. If the government wants something to do in higher education it should work out how to compensate students for spending more than £9,000 each this year on an education they didn’t get.”

Jonathan Grant (King’s) once again objected to the misrepresentation of his 2019 report on the topic, as it was misused in partial justification of the proposed Bill, as Eleanor Langford reported for Politics Home on 15 May 2021. There was a useful reminder of some important distinctions from Keith E Whittington (Princeton) on the AAUP website from 2019.


“Tories want to end the university boom years”

That was the heading for the article by the well-connected James Forsyth, editor of The Spectator and husband of Allegra Stratton, appointed and then quickly disappointed as No 10 spokesperson, in The Times on 4 June 2021. Many might be forgiven for not noticing how these have actually been boom years for HE, but his article was a clear exposition of how government will be cherry-picking the evidence to justify a transfer of funds from HE to FE and, no doubt, an overall cut: “… it’s becoming clear just how many graduates will never pay back all that they borrow … government … will have to write off 53% of the value of student loans issued last year … Britain is an outlier in terms of how little it spends on vocational education … Then there’s the politics: graduates tend not to vote Tory … There is … more sympathy for raising entry requirements … the idea of requiring anyone who is under 25 who is accessing the student loan system to have a basic set of qualifications is gaining currency in Whitehall … While ministers won’t restore the [student numbers] cap, they could, as Augar discussed, limit the numbers on courses that offer poor value for money … When the economics and the politics are aligned, as they are in this shift of resources from higher to further education, it is very hard to see how it won’t happen.”

Anyone and everyone would have been incited by such a piece, but Peter Mandler (Cambridge) was quick of the mark to encapsulate the outrage in his HEPI blog on 7 June 2021 ‘Government and HE: the price of everything and the value of nothing’. “James Forsyth’s piece in the Times on Friday (‘Tories want to end the university boom years‘) does a good job of summing up government’s present intentions for higher education;  it should remind us too of how blinkered and under-examined are government’s (and much of public discourse’s) assumptions about what HE is for and how it works.  Those assumptions derive mostly from currently fashionable economists’ axioms (principally, every investment is a cash return) and on enduringly fashionable politicians’ axioms that what they do is all-important.”

Will government try to specify minimum entry requirements?

Speaking at the HEPI Annual Conference on 24 June 2021, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he found it hard to understand why applicants lacking Level 2 qualifications in English and mathematics should be admitted to HE, and questioned whether those without GCSEs in those subjects should be able to enter HE directly. John Morgan reported for Times Higher Education on 16 April 2021 that the government had already advertised for a new student finance director to deal with “minimum entry requirements” for higher education. DfE had been expected to consult imminently on a minimum entry requirement to obtain student loans to study at universities but a DfE job advertisement for a higher education student finance director had already said “key responsibilities” will include: “Overall responsibility for the government’s response to the higher education recommendations in the Augar review of post-18 funding and finance, including student finance terms and conditions, minimum entry requirements and the treatment of foundation years amongst other matters”. But who’s in charge of Education, Jobs and Skills – DfE or the Cabinet Office?

David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson observed on their 19 May 2021 Wonkhe blog that: “[The OfS Proceed initiative] very much feels like an attempt to answer the “poor quality course” conundrum. For those just getting up to speed, Gavin Williamson is very clear he doesn’t like such courses but defining them is different. I’ve had some fun having a try on Wonkhe.” Simon Baker’s report for Times Higher Education on 19 May 2021 had Alan Palmer of MillionPlus sounding alarms about the measure moving into the regulatory landscape. The new measure underlined the message that occupational coding is not just an issue for data nerds. Ben Cooper (Manchester Metropolitan) blogged for Wonkhe about problems with the Standard Occupational Classification, in decisions about both how to code jobs and how to deal with errors later. “Providers remain unassured”, he wrote, with good reason. These decisions have very real consequences for policy and institutions, as experienced HE planner Mike Picken’s long comment also made clear.

Are £7500 fees back on the table?

Williamson also warned at the HEPI Annual Conference there might be fee cuts for non-STEM courses as part of the government’s final response to the Augar report, as John Morgan reported on the same day for Times Higher Education. Simon Baker had already looked at likely losers from such fee cuts. His article for Times Higher Education on 22 June 2021 showed specialist institutions would suffer particularly badly, with a dozen institutions losing more than 10% of their income.  

David Kernohan of Wonkhe sounded the alarm and pointed out all the drawbacks on 16 May 2021. But being sensible doesn’t ‘cut through’. Richard Adams of The Guardian reported on 27 May 2021 that VCs feared ‘horrific cuts’ in the Comprehensive Spending Review scheduled for Autumn 2021. But “It’s a myth that government want to cut HE fees”, or so Universities Minister Michele Donelan said at the GuildHE conference, as reported by Chris Havergal for Times Higher Education on 27 May 2021. The Augar report had proposed a cut to £7500, but – as the Minister didn’t say – inflation has all but done the job for them, by reducing the real value of the £9250 fee closer to what £7500 would have been worth at the time the £9000 fee was introduced.

No easy answers to student finance

HEPI commissioned London Economics to cost some policy options for student finance, in particular: imposing new student number caps, either in general or indirectly by limits on specific courses or via the imposition of minimum entry standards; cutting teaching grants to institutions or lowering tuition fees / loans; and tweaking the parameters of student loans, such as raising interest rates, lowering the repayment threshold or lengthening the repayment period. “Different options have profoundly different outcomes but it is possible to discern some general rules of thumb. In particular, cuts to student places will make it harder for universities to deliver the transformation in widening participation expected of them by the Government and others, and less income for universities is likely to have a broad impact on the role that universities play in society. While the headline tuition fee tends to be the focus of considerable debate, with many calls for it to be reduced, students are more concerned about the day-to-day cost of living.” Meanwhile the latest OfS financial sustainability report, published on 25 June 2021, says HE finances are mostly in good order, despite a dip in 2020-2021.

Government bails out medicine and dentistry

Universities minister Michele Donelan wrote to OfS Chair Lord Wharton on 21 May 2021 to say that the ‘overhang’ from the expanded cohort of 2020 – those who deferred for a year or achieved their grades through Autumn resits too late to start – would be funded in addition to the normal intake targets. The one-off bailout covers 480 medicine students and 150 dentistry students.

Still waiting for skills reform

David Kernohan’s 19 May 2021 blog for Wonkhe did its best to analyse the new Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, but it turned out that the core of it, about the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, was yet to be written, and would, astonishingly, only be introduced as amendments at the Committee stage. Among many problematic proposals: “The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill is the means by which OfS gains a statutory right to look at raw, absolute, outcome measures in regulation. The arguments in favour are as familiar as they are facile – all students have the same right to quality education, and – even though OfS will use contextual data alongside the absolute numbers (not least in things like TEF) – the same measures should apply from the smallest alternative provider to the largest established public university. This is how the OfS regulates already …”. But as Kernohan noted, this approach had been seriously questioned, but left unresolved, in the OfS’s legal defeat in its regulation of the Bloomsbury Institute; the Bill now gives the OfS carte blanche.

Slipped in towards the end of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill are new powers for the OfS, which should let them stop worrying about the judicial overturning of decisions like Bloomsbury. The Bill gave the Office for Students:

“power to assess the quality of higher education by reference to student outcomes … In section 23 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (assessing the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education), at the end insert —

(4) The factors that may be taken into account for the purposes of an assessment, under subsection (2)(a) or (b), of the quality of higher education provided by an institution include the student outcomes of the institution.

(5) The student outcomes of an institution may be measured by any means (whether qualitative or quantitative) that the OfS considers appropriate, including by reference to the extent to which— (a) persons who undertake a higher education course with the institution continue to undertake that course, or another course at the same or a similar level, after a period of time, (b) persons who undertake a higher education course with the institution are granted an award of a particular description by that institution, (c) persons who are granted an award by the institution undertake further study of a particular description, or (d) persons who are granted an award by the institution find employment of a particular description by virtue of that award.

(6) The OfS may, from time to time, determine and publish a minimum 25 level in relation to a measure of student outcomes which all institutions to whom the measure is applicable are expected to meet.

(7) The OfS is not required to determine and publish different minimum levels in relation to a measure of student outcomes in order to reflect differences in— (a) particular student characteristics; 30 (b) the particular institution or type of institution which is providing higher education; (c) the particular higher education course or subject being studied; (d) any other such factor.

(8) 35 In taking into account the student outcomes of an institution as mentioned in subsection (4), account may be taken of whether the institution has met any minimum level determined and published under subsection (6) which is applicable to the institution.”

National Colleges’ demise shows Whitehall’s ‘goldfish memory’

Tom Richmond, Director of EDSK, wrote in FE Week on 31 May 2021 that the successive debacles of the National Skills Academies and the National Colleges revealed Whitehall’s chronic failures of memory, nowhere more obvious than in the initiative-laden territory of FE and skills.

Office for Students

Did Michael Barber deliver?

On 8 April 2021 John Morgan of THE interviewed the former chair of the Office for Students, Michael Barber, the author of ‘deliverology’ under Tony Blair, about his record at the OfS. Barber was keen to plug his new book. Morgan was unconvinced about Barber’s achievements, citing the reservations of many in the sector.

OfS chair’s first interview and first speech

David Kernohan read Lord Wharton’s first interview, in The Telegraph, naturally, on 9 April 2021: “ … what have we learned about the new chair? He knows the party line … However … he spent yesterday talking to the OfS Student Panel, a body that I imagine brought up none of the issues raised here and pressed the need for more immediate action on problems that are facing students right now. Stuff like the pandemic, accommodation, fee refunds, consumer guidance, sexual misconduct, support for care experienced students. None of which came up in the first public statement from the chair of the Office for Students.”

Wharton’s first public speech on 14 May 2021, to UUK, played some familiar tunes. He stated his priorities as: widening access; attacking ‘low quality’ courses; tackling harassment of students; and reducing the regulatory burden. He urged universities to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-semitism, just two days after Universities Minister Michelle Donelan had admitted on BBC Radio 4 that the proposed free speech legislation might force universities to give a platform to holocaust deniers. And one day after Number 10 had contradicted her and said holocaust denial was unacceptable, as Kate Plummer explained for Indy100 on 13 May 2021.

The OfS will decide what counts as decent assessment practice

On 23 June 2021 the OfS launched a review of “… the policies and practices of a number of universities to identify approaches that maintain rigour in assessment and those that do not. The findings of the review will be published, identifying where the OfS is likely to have future regulatory concerns as well as areas of good practice.” The target is ‘inclusive’ practices “that disregard poor spelling, punctuation and grammar”. We’re all in favour of good spelling, punctuation and grammar. But not at all in favour of the national regulator deciding what counts as a good piece of work ten levels away from the students doing it and the teachers assessing it.

The ‘50% cut’ in funding for some arts subjects is really 1%

An OfS media release on 7 May pointed out that reports of  a ’50% cut’ in funding for some courses was actually a cut in a small subsidy additional to the £9250 fee, which amounted to an average £243 – so the cut was actually £121.50.

OfS says it is reducing the regulatory burden

Nicola Dandridge, OfS chief executive, blogged on 18 May 2021 about the latest OfS data and how the burden of regulation had been reduced. For most providers the total fees for OfS, HESA and QAA were less than £20 per student. In her 10 June blog on ‘The road to more rigorous regulation’, OfS Director of Regulation Susan Lapworth picked her way through the policy and practice minefield of how OfS regulation will develop in future, skilfully sidestepping without ignoring most of the idiocies of the culture wars.

OfS Annual Report

The statutorily-required OfS ‘performance report’ and accounts for 2020-2021 were published by the House of Commons (HC 156) in June 2021.

The geography of graduate pay

“Graduates are most likely to enter well-paid jobs if they live in London or the South East.” was the hardly surprising headline finding of a report published by OfS on 2 June 2021, but there was much useful information in the full report.

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