The Society for Research into Higher Education

Policy & Funding in England (July 2022)

Public Accounts Committee sounds the alarm on HE finance

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee issued its eighth report for Session 2022-2023 on 15 June 2022, recording its concerns about Financial Sustainability of the Higher Education Sector in England: “Higher education providers face long-term, systemic, pressures on their financial sustainability and viability. The proportion of providers with an in-year deficit has increased in every one of the past four years, from 5% in 2015/16 to 32% in 2019/20. Some providers are heavily reliant on income from overseas students’ fees to cross-subsidise research and other activities, leaving them potentially exposed to significant financial risks should assumptions about future growth in international student numbers prove over-optimistic. … Ongoing financial pressures … increase the risk of providers failing, closing campuses or courses, reducing the quality of teaching, or limiting access, any of which could adversely affect students. In that context, protections for students, in the event of providers facing financial distress, still need strengthening.”

David Kernohan blogged for Wonkhe on 11 April 2022 about the continuing conundrum of insolvent providers: “Market exit … has still not been normalised. As much as we might pretend that the invisible hand makes the decisions – provider monitoring, insolvency, and student support – the actuality of the process remains as messy and human as it ever was.”

Higher education is losing money … everywhere. Nick Hillman’s excellent HEPI blog on 7 June 2022 offered ‘ten killer facts’ about university finance, including: “Higher education institutions – like schools – tend to flex their educational offer in response to the funding available. So the challenge of underfunding is not just (or even mainly) institutions going to the wall; it is institutions not delivering for their students.” There is an alarming number of stories about major cutbacks at universities including Wolverhampton and Roehampton.

Free speech bill rises from the ashes of prorogation

Minister Michele Donelan gave a speech on 26 April 2022 in which she explained how wonderful universities will be when the government’s bill is enacted, with a Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom on the board of the Office for Students. She deplored cancel culture and spoke of how a narrow monoculture is so limiting in the marketplace of ideas. And the speech was given at … Policy Exchange, the right wing think tank, where no-one raised any of the awkward questions which the legislation poses. HEPI’s Nick Hillman’s reaction was to accept the inevitability of the legislation but to remain positive.

On 28 April 2022 Wonkhe’s Jim Dickinson wrote a superb blog about the legal judgment in a long-running case involving students at Bristol University, the implied limits on the powers of universities to regulate student behaviour, and the potential implications for the OfS in its publishing its ‘expectations’ about harassment, and the enforcement, or not, of the proposed Free Speech Act.

Nick Hillman’s HEPI blog of 23 June 2022 (summarising HEPI Policy Note 35 You can’t say that!’ What students really think of free speech on campus) reported a convincing survey showing students are significantly less supportive of free expression than they used to be.

Ministers should not politicise the work of the OfS: discuss

You couldn’t say that Susan Lapworth, interim head of the OfS, was trying to avoid big issues, with her HEPI blog on 13 June 2022. But she faithfully toed the party line: “ministers are not ‘politicising’ the work of the OfS when they make use of these lawful mechanisms to express their priorities and expectations.  Rather, they are making proper use of the powers Parliament gave to them and that feels entirely democratic to me.” Some called that ‘courageous’ but she was, rather, going out of her way not to upset the people who might make her interim appointment permanent. She noted that “ministers appoint the members of the OfS board: the OfS chair, independent members, the Chief Executive, the Director for Fair Access and Participation, and, subject to the passage of the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill, another future director. These are all subject to the normal processes for public appointments. It is, though, hardly a surprise that ministers would wish to appoint people broadly aligned with the policy preferences of the government of the day. And a democratically elected government gets to make those decisions.” So it’s OK to appoint the wife of your good friend and neighbour (and Conservative MP) to a seat on the board, if you’re the Chair who still takes the party whip in the House of Lords, because, “once appointed, we all ensure that OfS decisions are taken independently”.

Graduates face eye-watering increase in repayments

Ben Waltmann’s ‘Observation’ for the Institute of Fiscal Studies on 13 April 2022 noted the exorbitant implications of current policy for student loan repayments, with graduates facing an additional £3000 payment over six months as repayment rates fluctuate wildly in response to changes in inflation rates. In complete contrast, the US paused federal student loan repayments, as Annie Nova reported for CNBC – which puts a spoke in the cohort default rate, still a required indicator as far as government is concerned. The subsequent much-trumpeted capping by government of interest repayment rates at ‘just’ 7.3%, instead of the 12% or so indicated by the usual (iniquitous) formula, will only benefit the future rich, as Jim Dickinson explained in his 11 June 2022 Wonkhe blog.

Graduates are less authoritarian, less racially prejudiced, more right-wing on economics, according to Ralph Scott (Manchester) in his LSE Impact blog on 6 June 2022.

Challenging the skills fetish

An article in the British Journal of Sociology of Education (online 1 March 2022) by Leesa Wheelahan, Gavin Moodie (both Toronto) and James Doughney (Victoria University, Melbourne) “describes the process through which human capital theory came to dominate policy in post-compulsory education, to result in the fetishisation of skills. It relates skills policies to the contemporaneous development of policies on lifelong learning. The fetishisation of skills is related to methodological and normative individualism displacing an understanding that capacity and skill arise from and are developed by interdependent action. The current promotion of 21st century skills, genericism and trainability leads to the alienation of skills from the people who embody and exercise them and the social context which enables and gives value to peoples’ exercise of their skills. The article argues that this reification and fetishization of skills degrades education, work and social life.”

The Future of Higher Technical Education in England

The Lifelong Education Commission, chaired by former universities minister Chris Skidmore MP, is full of experienced and sensible people, some slightly right of centre, but well worth listening to. “The Commission will seek to recommend how the multiple and varied barriers to lifelong learning can be removed, what future investment is needed to support this, and what regulatory change is needed to ensure the maximum possible flexibility that will benefit learners and deliver on the promise of a whole system change for education post-18.” On 27 April 2022 it published a report which attracted widespread praise for its good sense. No chance under the present administration of making it into government policy, then. In a move with all the hallmarks of a co-ordinated campaign, HEPI on 28 April put out its own report ‘Holding Talent Back? What is next for the future of Level 3?’ No doubt the Minister’s commitment to free speech, reiterated only two days earlier, means she may hear and she may even read (a summary) of these proposals, before ignoring them.

The Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 became law with the prorogation of Parliament on 28 April 2022.

ITT Review shambles

The always reliable Freddie Whitaker reported for Schools Week on 31 May 2022 that “The first university [Nottingham] rated ‘outstanding’ under Ofsted’s new teacher training inspection framework is among those snubbed over re-accreditation in the first round of the controversial ITT review. Only 80 of the 216 providers – just over a third – that applied went through in the first round. Other rejected organisations spoke of being treated “disgracefully”, while even successful providers described a “challenging” and “stressful” process. Under the review, all providers have to apply for re-accreditation to continue training from 2024. But, while the government anticipated its reforms would disrupt the market, the low numbers threaten to exacerbate current recruitment woes.”

Government cuts links with NUS because of anti-semitism

Marie Jackson reported for the BBC on 14 May 2022 that: “The government is cutting ties with the National Union of Students because of concerns about anti-Semitism. Universities minister Michelle Donelan said it meant the NUS would not be eligible for government funding.”

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