The Society for Research into Higher Education

Policy & Funding in England (October 2021)

The verdicts on Gavin Williamson and the prospects with Nadhim Zahawi

John Roberts of TES on 15 September 2021: “Gavin Williamson leaves Sanctuary Buildings as one of the most memorable but maligned education secretaries of recent times.” David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson of Wonkhe wrote on 16 September 2021: “the appointment of Nadhim Zahawi as Secretary of State for Education – a UCL science graduate who set up YouGov and a “wheeler-dealer” whose manner is “reminiscent of Arthur Daley” – is in some ways a bit of a return to the BIS days” of emphasis on skills, productivity and employability.

Will Bickford Smith, special adviser to Nick Gibb, is expected to become adviser on schools policy to the new Secretary of State, as Amy Gibbons reported for Times Education Supplement on 27 August 2021. The long-serving Gibb lost his ministerial job and his influence and schools responsibilities will not be replicated in the new ministerial team.

Secretary of State letter to OfS about funding

Gavin Williamson wrote to the OfS on 19 July 2021 about Strategic Priorities Grant (SPG) funding for 2021/2022. His letter barely varied the terms of his  initial 19 January guidance/instructions; the main exception was to include Archaeology in the list of subjects eligible for funding – probably too late for the universities like Sheffield which have already decided to close Archaeology. It repeated the ‘cut non-priority subject funding by 50%’ instruction, which OfS had followed while pointing out eventually in response to the recipients of the funding that the SPG was a top-up, so that 50% of SPG funding was sometimes more like 1% of total funding. Whether this was what the SoS actually wanted is unclear, but probably he mainly wanted the 50% in a headline. Paul Kirkham of the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance blogged for HEPI on 26 July 2021 about the implications for those institutions outside the chosen elite of conservatoires and others, calling for a ‘complete rethink’.

OfS published the annual sector summary and analysis by TRAC peer group for 2019-2020 on 29 July 2021, showing among other things the major effects of changes in the 2017 USS valuation.

Tuition fees in England

Matthew Andrews (Gloucestershire) had a valuable summary of the last 60 years’ history in Perspectives: Policy and Practice (online 13 August 2021).Research question: what should universities charge as tuition fees? Faced with a set of products of heterogeneous quality, sellers should let the customers decide, according to Yalçin Akçay (Melbourne) and Fikri Karaesmen (Koç University, Istanbul, Turkey) in their article in Decision Sciences (online 23 August 2021). Perhaps David Willetts was right in theory, but not in practice. However he popped up again after the Government reshuffle with a back-to-the-future argument for cutting the threshold for graduate repayments back to £21000, as Richard Adams and Sally Weale reported for The Guardian on 30 September 2021.

Should student loan repayment thresholds be changed? On 24 September 2021 London Economics published their analysis of proposals to vary student loan repayment arrangements for the 2020-2021 cohort. The modelling assessed a range of metrics, including: the RAB charge (ie proportion of loan written off), student loan debt on graduation, expected lifetime loan repayments, the proportion of graduates expected to never fully repay their loan, and the proportion expected to never make any repayments; the total Exchequer costs; and HEI funding, in terms of tuition fee income and Teaching Grant funding, minus the costs of any bursaries provided to students. One scenario modelled involved reducing the earnings repayment thresholds from £26,575 (and the associated maximum interest rate threshold of £47,835) to £23,000 and £44,260 respectively. The second scenario showed that achieving the same level of Exchequer saving would require an increase in the maximum real interest rate from 3% to 4.6% (remaining at 4.6% for earnings in excess of £47,835), and a freeze in student loan repayment thresholds for 5 years (at current levels).

Free Speech Bill

In the House of Commons on 12 July 2021 there were amendments proposing that the Bill on free speech should be refused a second reading. The Speaker selected the amendment proposed by the Leader of the Opposition, but to no avail, as the Bill comfortably survived to a second reading.

Dean Machin (Portsmouth) blogged for HEPI on 12 July proposing improvements to the draft Bill:

“The Bill covers both freedom of speech and academic freedom but you can be forgiven for thinking that, for some, there is no difference between the two and that academic freedom is just academics’ freedom of speech. This is nonsense. We all have freedom of speech rights but only a privileged few have academic freedom and this freedom only extends to academics’ area of expertise. There is no academic freedom defence for a physicist’s musings on race relations or a logician’s on Brexit … I have proposed two amendments to the Freedom of Speech Bill …

  1. Academics should receive legislative protection from threats to academic freedom whatever the source of the threat (not just university employers). All sources of threats to academic freedom should be sanctioned – whether they are governments, sponsors, donors or, indeed, other academics.
  2. Universities should be required to have their own reasonable criteria of the scope and limits of academic freedom, and so what falls within academics’ ‘fields of expertise’. These criteria should be published and well-understood by staff.

These two amendments would support public confidence in academics’ public contributions and weaken cynicism about the sector. They would also make attempts to threaten academic freedom far harder.”

Terrence Karran (Lincoln), a leading analyst of academic freedom, had a timely article in Higher Education Quarterly (‘Academic freedom in contemporary Britain: A cause for concern?’ online 20 July 2021) with co-authors Klaus D Beiter (North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa) and Lucy Mallinson (Lincoln): “this paper is a comparative assessment of the de jure protection for, and the de facto levels of, academic freedom enjoyed by academic staff in the UK, when compared to their EU counterparts. The paper examines the legal and constitutional protection for academic freedom and the current levels of, and changes to, the two substantive elements (freedom to teach and freedom to research) and three supportive components (autonomy, governance and tenure) of academic freedom … UK academic staff believe that there is a low level of protection for academic freedom and that it has declined, both in general, and with respect to the two substantive elements and three supportive components of academic freedom. Similar trends are evident in the EU states, but statistical tests reveal that for every measure utilised, the decline in academic freedom is significantly greater in the UK than in the EU states.”

A July 2021 report by right-leaning think tank Civitas went for the jugular on academic freedom in support of the government’s Free Speech Bill: “There is a strong connection between universities with inflated diversity bureaucracies and those that limit speech more generally on campus, researchers at Civitas find in a survey of academic freedom at universities.” The Civitas ‘researchers’ were Jim McConalogue, Jack Harris and Rachel Neal. In contrast, Christopher Newfield wrote for ‘self-published left wing journal’ Radical Philosophy about ‘Universities after neoliberalism’ also in July 2021: “… the current situation puts higher learning up against a conflicted neoliberalism that is being forced to cede ground to opposing tendencies on both left and right, … multiple paths are now possible for the Anglo-American university in the 2020s. … which paths universities follow depends not just on government policy but on the goals and actions of social movements outside but also inside of universities.“

Richard Adams reported for The Guardianon 19 September 2021 that: “Oxbridge student groups are to be exempt from the legal restrictions imposed by the government’s new free speech legislation, leading to accusations of “ridiculous” double standards by ministers from opposition MPs. Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, told MPs in a debate on the higher education (freedom of speech) bill that imposing the duties on Oxford and Cambridge student common rooms would be “unnecessary and overly bureaucratic”.”

ITT consultation

David Spendlove (Manchester) summarised the “overwhelming and united” opposition to the government consultation on ITT reform before identifying other pressing issues: finance; new Ofsted requirements; the government’s new Institute of Teaching; and the allocation of student numbers. He concluded, in his 25 August HEPI blog, that: “Unfortunately, we appear to have a government that is more committed to disrupting rather than developing Initial Teacher Education within universities and consequently the future looks challenging. The disruption to universities is, however entirely political – based on whims and anecdotes and risks the marginalisation of high quality provision unless the DfE pull back on some of the issues identified.”

Sensible politics

A rare thing, but not in the House of Lords on 15 July 2021, as David Kernohan of Wonkhe applauded the first Lords debate on Clause 17 of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, the one that lets OfS do what it likes on outcome measures.

OECD report: England HE fees still the highest

The annual OECD review of Education at a glance made some headlines in the UK with OECD Director of Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher pointing out that tuition fees for public HE in England are still the highest anywhere among OECD countries, and that £9000 for on-line only provision (which UK universities don’t do) is uncompetitive. But no doubt world-leading.

International students are worth £28.8 billion to the UK

That was the headline for Nick Hillman’s HEPI blog on 9 September 2021, reporting on work by UUK International and HEPI using research from London Economics.

From new public management to public value management

A new edited collection from Arno van der Zwet and John Connolly (both West of Scotland) argues it is high time to adopt a values-based approach to governance reform and modernising government. The authors wrote about it for the LSE Impact Blog on 6 August 2021.

Office for Students

OfS funding allocations 2021-2022

No surprises in the OfS ‘High cost funding’ allocations for 2021-2022, which mirror government instructions, as David Kernohan of Wonkhe reported on 30 July 2021. ‘Levelling up’ seems to mean taking funds away from London HEIs.

Quality and standards

After the preliminary OfS consultation on a range of quality and standards issues during the winter of 2020-21, the consultation published on 21 July 2021 made detailed proposals after suggesting that “providers and others do not understand our current requirements and approach, including the relationship between the current B conditions and the UK Quality Code for Higher Education(the Quality Code), and the different responsibilities of the OfS and the designated quality body.” The proposals are:

  • “New condition B1 which would mandate a high-quality academic experience, where courses are up-to-date, effectively delivered, provide educational challenge and equip students with the skills they need to succeed after they graduate
  • New condition B2 which would require that all students receive the resources and support they need to succeed during their course and beyond
  • New condition B4 which would require universities and colleges to ensure students are assessed effectively and receive credible qualifications that stand the test of time
  • New condition B5 which would ensure that the standards of courses are consistent with sector-recognised standards.”

OfS chair is director of a company which made £31,500 donations to 11 Conservative MPs in 20 days

Dan Sales for the Daily Mail, no less, reported the ‘murky’ goings-on in which “A controversial telecommunications firm with only one employee has paid 11 Conservative party MPs a total of £31,500 in just 20 days. Broadband company IX Wireless Ltd, which is based in Preston, Lancs, has donated money to politicians’ campaigns and groups linked to them.” IX Wireless Ltd is controlled by Cohiba Communications Ltd, which owns a 75% stake. OfS chair Lord Wharton is a Cohiba director.

The Times investigation team had a story about highly-paid Quango part-timers on 4 October 2021 by George Greenwood, Archie Earle and Paul Morgan-Bentley. They said of Lord Wharton: “… as the government’s favoured candidate to chair the Office for Students … Wharton had no professional or political experience in higher education. He told the MPs [on the Education Select Committee] this offered a “fresh perspective”.” When the Committee asked about his role in managing Boris Johnson’s Conservative leadership campaign he said “I have not discussed this [OfS] role in any way with the prime minister, and I do not see how that brings me into conflict”. The Labour Party wrote to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case demanding an investigation into potential cronyism; Case wrote back four months later to refuse.

OfS refuses registration to the British Institute of Technology and e-Commerce

The refusal of registration to the grandly-named British Institute of Technology and e-Commerce (BITE) by OfS came as no surprise to registration-watchers Mike Ratcliffe (Nottingham Trent) and Jim Dickinson of Wonkhe, who noted BITE’s previous incarnations and expansive advertising. BITE had even somehow persuaded Graeme Davies, previously VC at Liverpool, Glasgow and London, and chief executive of HEFCE, to join their board in March 2021, a decision he no doubt now regrets.

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