The Society for Research into Higher Education

Policy & Funding in England (Jan 2021)

The magic money tree, DfE style

On 20 October 2020 Jim Dickinson of Wonkhe identified 43 times to that date that DfE ministers or officials had said universities should use the £256million identified for costs universities face in supporting students to succeed. The sum was cut from £277million during the pandemic. Doing more with less takes on a whole new meaning.

Day of reckoning for HE finance?

Andrew McGettigan made a welcome return to the policy fray with his blog on 26 November 2020, the day after the Chancellor’s Spending Review announcement – which said nothing about HE. McGettigan had been digging into the DfE accounts and feared the worst: “the Spending Review’s focus on Further Education reinforces the idea that HE will be the required to balance the increased spending on the former.”

OfS update on HEI financial sustainability

An OfS update published on 11 December 2020 said that overall, things are OK, but there are still some providers at the vulnerable end of the spectrum: “The aggregate financial position of OfS registered universities, colleges and other higher education providers is sound … with strong cash balances, despite the challenges faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. … The higher education sector in England has, in general, responded well to the pandemic with sensible financial management including good control of costs. In part, this reflects stronger overall student recruitment in 2020-21 than many were predicting. Although fee income from international students in 2020-21 is forecast to fall compared to 2019-20, it is still greater than in 2018-19. …To support financial resilience, borrowing has increased by around 5 per cent … there is still very significant uncertainty as the pandemic continues, so the situation could change quickly. Issues that could impact on income include higher numbers of students dropping out, reduced income from accommodation and conference facilities or impact of COVID-19 restrictions. … there continues to be significant variability between the financial performance of individual providers. Despite this, the likelihood of multiple providers exiting the sector in a disorderly way due to financial failure is low at this time.”

The biggest risk for university finances may be the pension scheme, according to Nick Hillman, who analysed the prospects for the USS in his HEPI blog on 24 November 2020.

Membership of the Higher Education Restructuring Regime board

DfE announced on 30 October 2020 that the Secretary of State for Education had appointed Sir Simon Burns as the HERR chair, along with Richard Atkins, currently Further Education Commissioner for England and member of the Council at the University of Exeter, John Cunningham, former finance director in a range of HE providers, Amanda Blackhall O’Sullivan, partner at Ernst & Young, and Colin Haig, president of R3, a restructuring and insolvency trade body. The HERR board was appointed on 12 October 2020 for a fixed 2-year period. Burns has no known previous HE involvement apart from his university experience at Worcester College, Oxford, which led to his nickname ‘Third Degree Burns’. As a minister in the Transport department he attracted some controversy for using a  ministerial car rather than public transport for the 35-mile trip from his constituency. He was also the prime mover of an initiative which allowed MPs to jump the queue in bars and restaurants at the palace of Westminster. 

Government intends to resuscitate its review of ITT

The admirable Freddie Whittaker reported for Schoolsweek on 30 November 2020 that the DfE was planning to “reboot its review of the initial teacher training market, which aims to tackle the “overly complex” nature of the sector”. An overly complex sector – I wonder whose idea that was? Of all education policy initiatives, surely ITT has been the most ‘reformed’, but now DfE wants to reduce duplication, weed out poor-quality providers and create a “more efficient and effective system”. The news was greeted with varying levels of barely-concealed distaste by the main groups of providers.

From bad to worse in DfE student guidance

Martin Blakey, Chief Executive of Unipol Student Homes, was deeply unimpressed with the latest student ‘guidance’ from the DfE about returning to university in 2021, in his HEPI blog on 4 December 2020.

International student numbers in 2020-2021 are still very uncertain

That was the message of the HEPI blog by the British Council’s Matt Durnin on 19 October 2020.

Who’s making the running on HE policy?

Nick Hillman pointed out the jostling for position between DfE, UUK, OfS and UCAS in recent debates about issues such as post-qualification admissions, in a talk to GuildHE on 19 November 2011. On 13 November 2020 Wonkhe  reviewed and summarised the confusion of admissions reviews and reviewers.

Hillman speculated about ‘HE after Covid-19’ in a talk at St Mary’s University, Twickenham (then as a blog for HEPI on 16 October 2020), with six headings: financially vulnerable institutions will be even worse off; there will be less money per student; students will want more; the residential model won’t break down anytime soon; the assumption of continuing growth in research spending will come under pressure; and there will be an increase in postgraduate education.

Richard Brabner blogged for HEPI on 18 November 2020 with proposals on ‘How government should reset its relationship with universities’, which we fear are far too sensible and constructive to be adopted.

Lifetime Skills Guarantee

The Prime Minister made a speech on 29 September 2020 in Exeter College about “how this government will offer a Lifetime Skills Guarantee to help people train and retrain – at any stage in their lives”. In the light of that, and after FE budgets and FE college autonomy have been savaged by government for the last twenty years, you’d think that “strengthening efficiency and value for money” would not be high on the DfE list. But no, Billy Camden reported for FE Week on 13 November 2020 that “According to a job advert posted last month, the Department for Education is recruiting an individual to “scope and design a brand new programme of work” aimed at “strengthening efficiency and value for money in further education”.” Yes, exactly what FE needs – a few private sector management consultant twenty-somethings to tell experienced FE college survivors how to do their job.

In early October, the TUC received a letter from the Department for Education saying that ministers have decided to end the Union Learning Fund from March 2021. Last year more than 200,000 learners got new skills through union learning, meaning that hundreds of thousands of workers will miss out on an education in the workplace. Think of it as ‘levelling down’.

A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution

The Commons Education Committee published a report into its inquiry on adult skills and lifelong learning on 19 December 2020. Jim Dickinson at Wonkhe helpfully picked out the key points on 21 December 2020: The report calls for “an end to the model of education funding overwhelmingly focused on learning before the age of 25, and a move towards a system and culture of lifelong learning that encourages education at any age. … the section specifically about higher education calls on policy makers to “nurse part-time back to health”. The number of PT undergraduates in England fell by 53 per cent between 2008-09 and 2017-18, which most attribute to student funding reforms. So recommendations include means-tested fee grants for part-time students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who study courses in priority skill areas, maintenance support for all part-time students whether face-to-face or distance. … all higher education institutions should offer degree apprenticeships, and [the report] calls on the Department for Education and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to set out a plan for speeding up the expansion of degree apprenticeship provision in priority skill sectors. It also calls on DfE to identify courses at levels 4, 5 and 6 which meet the skills needs of the UK economy – and Equivalent or Lower Qualification funding restrictions would then be removed for those courses. In the wider tertiary sector, there has been a 32 per cent decline in participation in community learning between 2008–9 and 2018–19, so the report calls for a community learning centre in every town. It also calls for the return of Individual Learning Accounts, tax credits for employers who invest in training for their low-skilled workers, childcare for adult learners and better information, advice and guidance.”

DfE Perm Sec now permanent

Susan Acland-Hood, drafted in to work temprarily alongside incumbent Jonathan Slater after the A-level results debacle in Summer 2020, has been confirmed as the permanent Permanent Secretary. Slater was not scheduled to leave until Spring 2021, having stepped aside on 1 September 2020. Freddie Whittaker had the story for Schools Week on 7 December 2020.

The politics of HE fee ‘reforms’ (ie increases)

Aaron Porter blogged for HEPI on 7 December 2020, ten years on from the decision by the then new Coalition government to increase undergraduate student fees from £3000 to £9000, following the general election in which all Lib Dem MPs pledged to abolish fees altogether. In 2010 Aaron Porter was NUS President, following Wes Streeting, now Labour Shadow Minister for Schools. The policy was implemented by Lib Dem Secretary of State Vince Cable, described by Porter as ‘difficult’ to deal with.

Bahram Bekhradnia was also in retrospective mood as he blogged about 18 years of HEPI on 16 November 2020.

Office for Students

Rules-based, principles-based and risk-based regulation

OfS is aiming to return post-Covid19 to something more like normal business, but not on quite the same basis. It explained the likely fairly subtle changes in its 6 October 2020 statement. Mike Ratcliffe on 15 December 2020 on his More means better blog wrote a typically thoughtful piece, ‘What is the OfS Register supposed to tell us?’, outlining the Register’s limitations and how it might be improved.

Fee information for HE entrants in 2021-22

On 17 December 2020 OfS published details of prescribed fee caps for each programme and provider, a document required each year to be laid before Parliament. Just short of 200 pages. It doesn’t tell you what the fees actually are, it tells you what the maximum fee might be. It’s admirable how marketisation reduces bureaucracy and simplifies things.

OfS communicates with universities about communicating with students

The OfS wrote to HE providers on 4 November 2020 saying nothing in particular about how important it is to tell students how they are being taught. The ‘update’ was no doubt triggered by Minister Michele Donnelan’s lockdown assurances about how OfS keeps all universities’ teaching and learning under regular review. David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson of Wonkhe blogged about the DfE’s most recent guidance on 3 November 2020 with a weary cynicism we can all share.

Value for money and the Office for Students

The OfS published its annual report on value for money in the OfS in 2019-2020. Sir Humphrey would have been proud. It has a lot of policies and plans, and they are all being aligned with its value for money strategy, helped by new metrics and a new value for money dashboard. The OfS was allocated £9.394 million by DfE in 2019-2020 (in addition to its registration fee income) and it underspent by £100,000. But the report tells you absolutely nothing about what they spent it on. Is this what passes for accountability in central government?

In December the OfS issued its Annual Report: English Higher Education 2020 with five chapter headings: Fair Admissions and Recruitment; Regulating in Uncertain Times; Ensuring High-Quality Teaching and Learning; Supporting All Students to Succeed; and, Graduate Skills and Prospects in the Pandemic.

The next OfS chair

Lord Wharton of Yarm, Boris Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign manager, has been named as the government’s preferred candidate to take the chair of the OfS Board, after Michael Barber steps down. He was MP for Stockton South from 2010-2017 and for a time Northern Powerhouse Minister, but has no known interest in HE since he graduated from Durham in politics and law. “Before being confirmed in post, the DfE’s preferred candidate will appear before the House of Commons Education Committee in a pre-appointment hearing early in the new year. Subject to this, the Education Secretary will consider the Committee’s recommendations before deciding whether to finalise the appointment.”  Chris Havergal reported for Times Higher Education on 18 December 2020 that, as John Morgan had previously revealed, “the interview panel included three Conservatives and a former Tory parliamentary candidate … Nick Timothy, who was an adviser to Ms May and is now a non-executive director at the Department for Education, sat on the panel alongside former Conservative MP Eric Ollerenshaw, Conservative peer Baroness Wyld and Dame Patricia Hodgson, the former Ofcom chairman and former Conservative parliamentary candidate, whose position as a former principal of Newnham College, Cambridge made her the sole panel member with higher education leadership experience.”

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