By Rob Cuthbert, Editor, SRHE News
New faces in the Department for Education
Damien Hinds, appointed Secretary of State for Education in the January 2018 reshuffle, was once chair of the all-party group on social mobility. Its first report (in May 2012), Seven Key Truths about Social Mobility, tells you what he thinks, or at least used to think, about the subject. Sam Gyimah is the new Minister for Higher Education: David Kernohan of WonkHE listed the items in his in-tray on 9 January 2018. Gyimah was reported as saying universities were in loco parentis, an apparent throwback to the 1960s and 1970s which David Malcolm (NUS) analysed for WonkHE. There were mixed responses to the end of Jo Johnson’s era. Nick Hillman was quick to write effusively about his tenure, but he would, wouldn’t he? Andy Westwood (Manchester) was more balanced, but Dorothy Bishop (Oxford) was probably much nearer the most common opinion in the sector with her highly critical ‘end of term report’, on the website of the Campaign for Defence of British Universities. SRHE member Steve Jones (Manchester) called on Research HE* for the link between HE policy and party politics to be ‘defused’. Good luck with that one, Steve.
T-levels a ‘meaningless political lie’
Times Education Supplement editor Ann Mroz pulled no punches in her 9 February 2018 article, pointing out that some elite universities were already signalling that they would not recognise T-levels, the latest in a long line of government initiatives to achieve ‘parity of esteem’ for vocational courses.
Government getting more worried about teacher recruitment
Jess Staufenberg’s story in Schools Week on 28 February 2018 said the government is increasingly anxious about teacher recruitment. DfE confirmed that ‘suitability to train to teach’ is the criterion for selection for teacher training, rather than ‘suitability to teach’, and applicants would no longer be locked out from applying to teach if they fail the entry skills test in maths and English three times in a row. The change will make about 9,000 people eligible to retake the test.
What academics think often doesn’t matter, and what matters is often not what academics think
Paul Burstein (Washington) argued in his article in the Policy Studies Journal (online 28 January 2018) that: “Researchers pay much attention to hypothetical determinants of policy unlikely to matter very much, and little attention to those likely to be the most important. “
The perils of big data
Hamish Robertson and Joanne Travaglia (both University of Technology, Sydney) wrote for The Impact Blog on 7 February 2018 about the risks of using big data applications in social policy: “The genuine risk is that the evidence produced through the lens, even more than the mechanisms, of big data … will be elevated ipso facto to the status of “science” … the social policy field will risk not just replicating but magnifying the inherent assumptions and inequalities rather than addressing them.”
Sounds like the kind of place I’d like to work. Trevor Dale (Cardiff) wrote this manifesto after a meeting of like-minded individuals in Manchester a few months earlier. Mark Leach of WonkHE on 9 March 2018 gave a brilliant lecture on ‘The Enemy Within’, following up with an agenda of change.
A group of Oxford academics have launched the world’s first ‘blockchain university’, Woolf University, which they describe as ‘Uber for students, Airbnb for academics’, as Rachael Pells reported for Times Higher Education on 22 March 2018.
Cambridge VC Stephen Toope blogged, and wrote to The Times on 16 March 2018, about the “damaging idea that students are only “consumers” … for a generation now, politicians of all stripes have talked as if UK universities are broken, and hence in need of “market discipline” … We are just beginning yet another review covering higher education that fails to get to the heart of concerns around the role of universities. The focus should be on what values our society expects to see reflected in our universities, not just value for money. We need a broader debate about the role of universities in the UK .. Universities are not the problem. We are part of the solution.”
Plans for a new ‘21st century university’ in Milton Keynes have been confirmed as the local council selected Cranfield University as the lead university for the new facility, to be called ‘MK:U’, as reported on the BBC website on 21 March 2018.
Don’t miss Ian McNay’s blog for SRHE on 14 February 2018: ‘English university education: inside one ex-minister’s mind set’, prompted by David Willetts’ seminar in January for the Centre for Global Higher Education, promoting his new book A university education. Ian and others were obviously in their usual forensic form but: “The poor man had been brave enough to enter the lions’ den and a light mauling was enough.”
HEFCE’s annual survey for 2016-2017 said: “… financial results for the sector as a whole in 2016-17 are sound overall, and are more favourable than projected in July 2017. However there continues to be a wide variation in the financial performance and position of individual HEIs.” Aaron Porter (Leadership Foundation), former NUS President, made ‘The case for a major review of higher education’ on WonkHE on 15 January 2018, but a Times leader on 20 January 2018 argued that the proposed Greening/Johnson tweaks of current policy (maintenance grants, not loans, for poorer students, lower interest rates for repayment) would be better than a root-and-branch review. Finally the Prime Minister announced the review. Here’s how the government spun the speech, and here is the Prime Minister’s speech in full. The DfE/No 10 news release said: “The wide-ranging review will be informed by independent advice from an expert panel … chaired by Philip Augar, a leading author and former non-executive director of the Department for Education [no mention of his past merchant banking experience]. It will focus on …
- Choice: identifying ways to help people make more effective choices between the different options available after 18, so they can make more informed decisions about their futures. This could include more information about the earning potential of different jobs and what different qualifications are needed to get them, as well as ensuring they have access to a genuine range of high quality academic, technical or vocational routes.
- Value for money: looking at how students and graduates contribute to the cost of their studies, to ensure funding arrangements across post-18 education in the future are transparent and do not stop people from accessing higher education or training.
- Access: enabling people from all backgrounds to progress and succeed in post-18 education, while also examining how disadvantaged students receive additional financial support from the government, universities and colleges.
- Skills provision: future-proofing the economy by making sure we have a post-18 education system that is providing the skills that employers need. This is crucial in boosting the UK economy and delivering on the government’s Industrial Strategy.
Philip Augar will be supported by five panel members from across the post–18 education landscape …
Bev Robinson – Principal of Blackpool and The Fylde College … Edward Peck – Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University … Alison Wolf – (Baroness Wolf of Dulwich) a cross-bench peer … Sir Ivor Martin Crewe – Master of University College, Oxford and President of the Academy of Social Sciences … former Chair of the 1994 Group and President of Universities UK; Jacqueline De Rojas – President of techUK and the chair of the Digital Leaders board … on the government’s Digital Economy Council”.
The Guardian’s editorial on 19 February said it was ‘the making of a market mess’. The Times leader on 19 February was similarly unequivocal – ‘Not another one’ – “Only minor reforms are needed, and it is already clear what they are”. The Campaign for the Defence of British Universities said: “… education … serves the public good as much as it serves personal interests … should be funded accordingly … the main guarantor of educational quality is the sense of responsibility within institutions that are mindful of their academic reputation rather than their market share.”
Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies rehearsed his irrefutable arguments for The Times on 19 February: ‘The murky world of student loans, the national debt and a fiscal illusion’. There was invaluable explanation of the relative merits of graduate taxes and loans from Andrew McGettigan. The Treasury Select Committee issued a report on 18 February 2018 after its own investigation, arguing in particular for a reduction in the very high interest rates charged on student loans.
Peter Mandelson was quick to join the ‘plague on both your houses’ tendency, in the tendency’s house journal, George Osborne’s Evening Standard on 19 February: “I have been part of three university finance reviews under two prime ministers: the third I initiated myself … If there were any radical solutions to sustaining a lower-cost, world-standard higher education on offer that could charge students substantially less, they would have been found by now.”
Speaking at an Education Policy Institute conference in London on 21 March 2018, Lord Willetts said that many of the changes to student funding suggested by ministers as Theresa May launched the review of post-18 education funding in February were either politically naive, confused or unworkable. David Kernohan of WonkHE provided a potted history of HE reviews on 18 February; his colleague Arthi Nachiappan voxpopped a range of commentators and experts on 19 February. Best of all, channelling the late great David Watson, Mark Leach gave us ‘Eight category mistakes in the debate around the funding review’ on 18 February.
Have universities become ‘bloated’ under higher tuition fees? Channel 4 News FactCheck asked the question posed by Andrew Adonis, and answered ‘No’, on 23 February 2018. Times Higher Education as always has published all the salary details.
Andrew McGettigan is doing his best to keep rubbish about student loans and repayments out of the mainstream media, but with limited success, as the BBC and even Times Higher Education succumbed to some nonsense ‘analysis’ from the Intergenerational Foundation in February 2018. McGettigan had turned his attention back to the government’s sale of student loans in early January 2017, with a series of blog posts on his Critical Education site. Was it really a sale? He thinks quite possibly not, since the vehicle used to securitise the asset (the loans, ie the right to future repayment streams) seemed not to be sufficiently independent of government. Did they make a loss? The government obviously wants to say no, but McGettigan’s analysis suggests the answer is yes. How will this show up in the government accounts? Making a loss suggests there should be an immediate hit on the capital account, but, somehow, there probably won’t be.
A HEPI survey showed that two-thirds of students reject the idea of different fees for different undergraduate courses.
In a written Parliamentary answer, new HE Minister Sam Gyimah responded to MP Kevin Brennan’s question about appointments to the OfS Board. 221 people applied for the position given to Toby Young, 11 were shortlisted, 10 were interviewed after one withdrew, all 10 were deemed appointable but Toby Young was appointed. In a parallel process 133 applied to be the student experience representative. Six were shortlisted, three were deemed appointable, but ‘ministers chose not to appoint any of the three appointable candidates. Ministers then chose to make an interim appointment of one of the successful candidates appointed to the OfS Student Panel onto the OfS Board and will re-run a campaign for a permanent student representative on the OfS Board later in the year.’ Jack Grove reported for Times Higher Education on 16 January 2018. Andrew Adonis had another rant in The Guardian on 23 January 2018 about the OfS, which he called the ‘Office against Students’. This time he majored on Toby Young, supposedly a cunning plan by Jo Johnson to divert attention from the important financial issues to the non-issue of academic freedom and free speech on campus. There was an Urgent Question in Parliament from Shadow Secretary of State for Education Angela Rayner: Sam Gyimah drew the short straw, trying to defend the behavior of his predecessor Jo Johnson, now sailing serenely on as Minister for Transport despite allegedly misleading Parliament about the ‘open, fair and transparent’ process of appointment to the OfS Board. Gyimah settled for just defending the OfS in Jack Grove’s piece for Times Higher Education on 28 February 2018.
The 13-member OfS student panel ‘will have a key role in advising the Board and senior team of the OfS’. It includes the elected President of NUS, who should of course be on the board.
Catherine Boyd (WonkHE) explained how the OfS is supposed to work on 8 January 2018, and Paul Greatrix (Nottingham) summarised the new regulatory regime for WonkHE on 9 January 2018. Gill Evans (Cambridge) sounded a warning about the rhetoric and approach of the OfS, in her article for Times Higher Education on 7 February 2018, and a few days earlier in The Guardian ‘Struggling universities will be shut down not saved – it’s not fair for students’. Andy Westwood (Manchester) argued in Times Higher Education on 26 February 2018 that the OfS might find itself sidelined or reshaped as a consequence of the Prime Minister’s HE Finance Review.
Chris Havergal reported for Times Higher Education on 2 January 2018 on universities’ concern that high annual OfS fees (up to £120,000) for low-risk low-regulation established universities might cross-subsidise regulation for high-risk high-regulation new entrants to the HE ‘market’ paying token annual fees of £1000. When the OfS published the final version of its Regulatory Framework it dropped the idea of a Registered (Basic) category, which means that on the OfS’ own estimates about 120 providers will not be within the scope of OfS. The initially-proposed draconian requirements on senior staff pay have been dropped in favour of controls including an ‘accounts direction’ – which OfS say will be just as robust in checking senior pay and ensuring institutions justify its level. Lawyers Eversheds Sutherland gave their take on the Framework on 28 February 2018.
As the OfS washed its hands of 120 ‘alternative providers’, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) laid into the DfE for failing to act sufficiently on malpractice. Eleanor Busby reported for The Independent on 7 March 2018 that the PAC had concluded that “The alternative higher education provider sector presents ‘too many opportunities to fraudsters’” and was a “chancer’s charter”. The PAC report also put down some serious markers for OfS: “As the Office for Students develops, we will be looking to see it demonstrate that protecting student interests is indeed central to its approach … As one of its first tasks, the Office for Students should set out how it will investigate and clamp down on recruitment malpractice, faking attendance records and coursework, and opaque arrangements for validating degrees, and produce a robust plan for remedying these problems across the sector.”
Paul Greatrix, a long-time student of ministerial directions to funding bodies and regulators, anticipated, with tongue fully in cheek, ‘a bright new future of looking beyond the register and appendices stuffed full of deliverables’ when he read the letter from the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation to the Office for Students, setting out the government’s expectations. SRHE Vice-President Peter Scott was decidedly gloomy in The Guardian on 6 March 2018 about the prospects of the OfS actually being an Office for anything except what ministers don’t like: ‘Don’t let this university wrecking government masquerade as reformers’. Gill Evans (Cambridge) ruminated for WonkHE on 12 March 2018 about what the transition from HEFCE to OfS would mean and how it would work. She wasn’t optimistic, and asked how independent is the Office for Students?
in the Times Higher Education on 18 March 2018, raising unresolved issues about OfS powers, independence and accountability. David Melville, previously VC at Middlesex and Kent and chief executive of FEFC, said we would miss HEFCE more than we realise, in his blog for WonkHE on 19 March 2018.
As UCAS published details of the 2017 admissions cycle (visualised here by WonkHE), Anna Fazackerley reported for The Guardian on 30 January 2018 that universities were at risk of closure now that the OfS had no remit to save struggling universities. Fazackerley wrote more or less the same story a year earlier. She was previously at the Times Higher Education, then became a speechwriter for David Willetts while he was minister for universities, and head of education for think tank Policy Exchange.
Minister announces FE Funding Review
George Ryan reported for Times Education Supplement on 19 March 2018 that skills minister Anne Milton had said during education questions in Parliament that day that the government was undertaking a post-16 education and funding review. The announcement was immediately welcomed by the Association of Colleges and the Sixth Form Colleges Association. However Secretary of State Damien Hinds seemed to contradict his own minister just two days later in the Education Select Committee by playing down the idea: Paul Offord reported for FE Week on 21 March 2018.