The Society for Research into Higher Education

Policy and Funding in England (October 2019)

Ministerial merry-go-round

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister he appointed his brother as England’s universities and science minister – the third time Jo Johnson had been given the job, by three different PMs. Gavin Williamson became the new education secretary. Andy Westwood (Manchester) was quoted in The Times on 2 August 2019 as saying: “If Williamson has any sense he’ll make sure that Jo’s brief is across all of higher education [including vocational education] rather than just universities”. But he didn’t: Williamson himself will lead on further education and skills, with no separate minister covering that portfolio. The need to prioritise vocational education is “likely to overtake Jo’s previous interest in competition, new providers, [and] consumers that characterised his previous term,” Westwood added. Rachel Wolf, an adviser to Boris Johnson in his time as shadow HE minister and a former education adviser in 10 Downing Street, said: “By appointing Jo he has … clearly made an implicit decision that Augar – or at least the most challenging bits to HE – won’t be implemented.” In an echo of David Willetts’ tenure, Jo Johnson was slated to attend his brother’s Cabinet. It may mean an end to (most of) Augar’s recommendations, but certainly not TEF, as Jim Dickinson noted for WonkHE on 25 July 2019.

But then Jo resigned in angst over Brexit; the puzzle was how he had managed to accept the job in the first place, given the stated requirements for ministerial loyalty to a possible no-deal Brexit outcome. Luckily there was another one they’d prepared earlier, Chris Skidmore, who returned from Health and Social Security almost before he’d had time to unpack. And luckily for HE, Skidmore has continued in the same positive vein that characterised his earlier brief tenure. So far.

 OfS knew GSM was in trouble but DfE still allowed it to continue accessing student loans

John Morgan posed the questions in Times Higher Education after reporting the facts of GSM’s demise on 31 July 2019. He then reported on 8 August 2019 that an OfS letter to GSM had said that GSM was technically insolvent on 30 September 2017 and 30 September 2018. Nevertheless the DfE still supported a rescue plan in 2018 which allowed GSM to recruit students in 2018-2019, until it went into administration on 31 July 2019.

 It was Neville a university

Amid much hype about the ‘football university’ established by Gary Neville and other former Manchester United stars, the so-called University Academy 92, it’s worth noting that it is not actually a university, but a branch campus of Lancaster in Trafford, as OfS registration-watcher Mike Ratcliffe (Exeter) pointed out on 18 August 2019. UA92 wanted to recruit 650 students, but attracted only 64 for its 2019 start, as Andy Jehring of The Sun gleefully reported on 27 September 2019. UA92 received significant government funding and was developed in partnership with Trafford Council in Manchester, and Lancaster University.

Student accommodation rents

Guardian money editor Patrick Collinson drew on his extensive higher education experience (as a student at York University in 1981) to criticise universities (17 August 2019) for charging rents which he said are too high. He reported “research by the National Union of Students and Unipol [which] has tracked rents at all the major universities for many years. The conclusion? “Rent rise rates have exceeded RPI throughout the timeline and become increasingly detached from the index.” “ Of course they have, as the subsidised elite student population gave way to a mass population where university rents now reflect commercial costs.

Variations in the unit of resource since 1994-95

Some interesting analysis from OfS published on 3 July 2019.

How the government lost £2billion selling off student loans

Andrew McGettigan (independent) explained all in his article on 12 September 2019 for the London Review of Books (41(17): 36-38).

South Koreans buy the DfE

A major South Korean financial group, Hana, bought the Sanctuary Buildings base of the Department for Education in Westminster for £285million in 2018, according to a report by property agents Savills in September 2019.

What Dominic Cummings thinks about education

A nice piece from the ever-readable David Kernohan of WonkHE on 1 August 2019.

For whom does “what works” work?

A nice article by Nick Cowen (Lincoln), online 21 June 2019, in Educational Research and Evaluation picked out the problems with evidence-based education: “Recent configurations of EBE are an imperfect solution to 2 imperatives where policymakers are at an informational disadvantage: (a) guiding professionals working in the field and (b) evaluating evidence from academic researchers. EBE … offers a way of filtering a complex range of research to produce a determinate result that is transparent to policymakers. However, this impression of research transparency is misleading as it omits theoretical background that is critical for successfully interpreting the results of particular interventions. This comes at a cost of relevance to the frontline professionals whom this research evidence is supposed to inform and help.”

In What Works Now? Evidence-informed Policy and Practice, Annette Boaz (Kingston), Huw Davies (St Andrews), Alec Fraser (King’s College London) and Sandra Nutley (St Andrews) offer “a synthesis and critique of the rapidly evolving field of evidence-informed policy and practice”. In his review for The Impact Blog William Solesbury (independent/King’s College London) praised the timeliness, breadth and clarity of the collection.

Who takes up student loans?

Ariana Gayardon (UCL), SRHE Fellow Clare Callender (UCL/Birkbeck) and Francis Green (UCL) had an article in Higher Education (online 3 April 2019) which analysed loan take-up, estimating “the strength of the association of loan take-up with each of students’ family income, indicators of family wealth (home ownership, private education, not living in a deprived area, social class), parental education, gender, ethnicity and debt aversion. Of these, only social class is found to have no independent effect. We find that these associations can differ according to the type of debt. We also find that, while students from some disadvantaged groups are less likely to take out maintenance loans, this association is accounted for by students living at home while studying, a prime mechanism for debt avoidance.”

How to change student finance to widen participation

After Augar’s recommendations disappeared in the Brexit fog, Norman Gower, former principal of Royal Holloway, blogged for CDBU on 6 October 2019 with his alternative suggestion – means-tested grants instead of institutional spend on widening access and the regulatory costs involved in producing and agreeing access and participation plans.

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