The Society for Research into Higher Education

Policy and Funding in England (July 2017)

By Rob Cuthbert, Editor, SRHE News

A few things happened since the last issue of SRHE News in April. The snap general election had everyone speculating about whether the HE and Research Bill would get through before the end of the Parliament. David Morris of WonkHE reviewed the possibilities on 18 April 2017. Diana Beech of HEPI asked the same question on 19 April 2017. They both agreed: it might or it might not. Catherine Haddon, a Fellow at the Institute for Government, explained on 19 April 2017 how many of the 15 major Bills before Parliament might have to be put on hold until a new government is formed. Some Bills fell, but the HE and Research Bill became an Act. Everything you want to know about the Act is here, comprising all of WonkHE’s blog posts. Oh, and Jo Johnson stays on as HE Minister. So now you’re up to speed.

Michael Barber’s speech to UUK

The speech by Sir Michael Barber to Universities UK on 23 June 2017 was his first as chair of the Office for Students; the full text was given on the UUK website. It was brilliantly annotated by WonkHE’s David Kernohan in his blog post, ‘How to read: Michael Barber’s speech to UUK’ on 23 June 2017.

WonkHE’s Monday morning briefing on 10 July 2017 pointed out some common ground between Barber and his new chief executive Nicola Dandridge: ‘Her boss, Michael Barber, chair of the OfS, shares with Dandridge an unlikely background in trade union equality campaigns. Barber was the National Union of Teachers’ lead on policy and equality in the early 1990s, while Dandridge’s first career was as a lawyer, most notably for Thompsons Solicitors working on equality law. In this capacity she literally wrote the book on the subject (the 2005 Equality Law for Trade Unions) … Dandridge went on to become the first chief executive of the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in 2006 and is widely credited for making equality issues more mainstream in the higher education sector. … Dandridge joins an OfS which is required by law to charge a subscription to universities, and is no stranger to the often highly political question of university subscriptions which looks set to run and run under the new landscape.’

Priorities for the Office for Students

Sarah Stevens, Head of Policy for the Russell Group, blogged for WonkHE on 16 May 2017 to suggest priorities for the OfS. It was a classic in self-interest, which is, after all, what the Russell Group pay her for. Among other things she suggested [with translation provided]:

‘a risk-based and proportionate approach to regulation through the OfS … shouldn’t mean ignoring the strong governance procedures and track-record of quality which many institutions have worked hard over the years to achieve.’ [no free passes for new providers, they have no chance of being proper elite universities like the Russell Group]

‘It will be crucial that students are protected from poor provision by maintaining a robust baseline of quality. It will also be important not to define the student interest too narrowly. This is not just about protection from provider failure. It is also in the student interest that teaching is properly funded and that students have access to rich and diverse learning environments.’ [only the Russell Group is rich enough, take no notice of TEF. ‘Diverse’ means lots of different kinds of research, not lots of women, ethnic minorities or socioeconomically disadvantaged people among the staff and students]

‘Maintaining the world-leading status of the UK higher education system should be a key priority for the new regulator.’ [protect the Russell Group at all costs]

‘Finally, the OfS will have an important role in ensuring the whole system functions well for the benefit of the UK. This will mean having an awareness of the broader regulatory requirements placed on universities by other bodies including UKRI, PSRBs, and charity law (amongst others).’ [we thought for a moment she meant the whole higher education system, but no, just the Russell Group]

On 11 May Eric Macfarlane, an experienced university academic who has also worked in secondary schools, argued in Times Higher Education that ‘The Russell Group’s power over English education must be wielded more wisely … Overemphasis of traditional academic silos is not preparing young people to address the environmental, political and biomedical abyss opening up before us.’ His critique addressed the (undue) influence which the Russell Group has over the school curriculum.

UK HE is an export industry

At a conference on 26 April 2017 Lord Willetts, former universities minister, criticised Prime Minister Theresa May’s rhetoric, which emphasised recruiting the ‘brightest and the best’ of overseas students, on the grounds that it failed to recognise the importance of selling an HE service to as many as possible. He also criticised the implication that overseas students should only attend the ‘best’ universities, arguing that it failed to recognise the diversity of the UK system. John Morgan had the story for Times Higher Education on 27 April 2017.

Is HE transformational or socially reproductive?

Co-editor of the SRHE books series Jenni Case has published Working Paper 23 for the Centre for Global HE. Higher education and social justice: engaging the normative with the analytical argues that HE in South Africa has a lot to do to to engage fully with issues of social justice: ‘recent student protests raise questions over the role of universities in building a just society’.

Whither teacher education and training?

John Cater (Edge Hill) wrote a well-informed report for HEPI (HEPI Report 95) tracing the history of teacher education and training over the last 50 years. John Cater has been a player in the saga for many of those years, as VC since 1993 of a major provider of teacher education, and is uniquely placed to give an authoritative account. In his typically understated way he catalogued the failures of successive governments to learn from past mistakes in falling short of their targets for teacher training. The bewildering succession of ‘reforms’, multiplying potential routes into teaching, coupled with the persistent distrust of universities by governments of almost every stripe, has comprehensively failed to deliver enough teachers in many shortage subjects. Cater’s polite but devastating critique simply let the facts speak for themselves, with only the Blair government exempt from the record of failure over five decades. Even so, Cater remained positive about possible futures, and suggested ten action points which offer hope for future improvement. Unfortunately his account of repeated government failure to learn from past mistakes in teacher training and supply does not inspire optimism; more likely we can add another chapter to The Blunders of Our Governments.

Part-time student numbers fall by more than half

The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that part-time student numbers in England have fallen 56% since 2010. Numbers have been declining for a decade, but fell from 243,355 in 2010-11 to just 107,325 in 2015-16.

Aggregating courses is JACSed in

Just beneath the surface of most policy discussion, but influencing everything that anyone says, lies the system for collecting data about subjects and student numbers. Marian Hilditch (Teesside) explained all in a blog for WonkHE on 27 April 2017, and Andy Youell of HESA also blogged for WonkHE on 27 April 2017 about how the Joint Academic Classification System (JACS) would now be replaced by a new Higher Education Classification of Subjects. Alan Paull, an independent consultant heavily involved in developing the new Common Aggregation Hierarchy, on 30 June added his explanation of how and why aggregating subject data will be much better under the new system.

HEFCE grants for 2017-2018

On 9 June 2017 HEFCE announced its overall grant for 2017-2018, totalling £3,536million, assuming that the indicative allocation from Government is confirmed: £1,595 million for recurrent research grant; £1,320 million for recurrent teaching grant; £160 million for knowledge exchange; £93 million for national facilities and initiatives; £353 million for capital funding; £14 million for other non-recurrent initiatives (Degree Apprenticeships Development Fund and the Institute of Coding).

National Audit Office study of the HE market

The NAO has scheduled a study for Autumn 2017 of ‘the higher education market’: ‘This study examines how the HE market is operating, with a particular focus on the extent to which students are currently empowered to act as effective consumers. It will also consider the potential impacts of ongoing reforms. The study will ask in particular:

  • Is the Department for Education maximising students’ ability to make informed and effective choices, both before and during their courses?
  •             Does the Department understand the financial or other incentives on higher education providers and how these support public policy objectives?
  • Do existing complaints and redress arrangements offer adequate protection for students?
  • Is the Department ensuring there are effective continuity arrangements in place to protect students when providers fail or exit the sector?’

LEO and star subjects

The Department for Education in England published the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data by subject on 13 June 2017. David Morris of WonkHE  did some instant analysis to identify winners and losers on 13 June 2017, and HEPI posted a balanced and sensible blog commentary from Diana Beech on 15 June 2017. Andrew McGettigan had a thoughtful and analytical piece about their implications for WonkHE, on 18 June 2017. In particular he argued that there seemed to be precious little justification for the investment and subsidy for creative arts graduates on the current scale.

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