By Rob Cuthbert, Editor, SRHE News
Two year degrees
Government in England has resurrected proposals for two-year degrees. Catherine Boyd of WonkHE pointed out a year ago that: ‘On the face of it, the policy provides more student choice and potential efficiencies … [but] plans for accelerated degrees aren’t compliant with the European harmonisation project stemming from the Bologna Declaration, threaten the quality of students’ experience and will result in unpalatable burdens for teaching staff. … the one-year Master’s degree, widely offered in UK universities in contrast to the two-year options in other systems, is also outside the Bologna expectations for a second-cycle qualification. And there is still a lack of reconciliation of the difference between the UK’s approach to assessing outcomes of learning, and other systems’ focus on the input of learning hours. The issue is less of compliance and more about what the implications of non-compliance are for students and the portability of their awards.’ SRHE member Steven Jones (Manchester) added more sound observations on The Impact Blog: ‘The main objection to accelerated degrees is that some students will continue to enjoy an all-round university experience, as their parents did, while others will be fast-tracked towards premature entry into a precarious graduate labour market. Mathematically, three years of learning could indeed be compressed into two. But what complicates the calculation is that the option to accelerate would be viewed very differently across social classes.’
HEFCE’s latest financial forecasts
HEFCE Report 2017/28 has the latest forecasts for English HE, based on projections from early 2017. HE is currently financially sound overall, but forecasts to 2019-20 portend inadequate financial performance, declining liquidity levels and increased borrowing, which could threaten investment plans. Projected rapid growth in student numbers may be difficult to achieve. On 26 October 2017 Universities UK issued Higher education in facts and figures 2017, an overview of universities’ research activity, student employability, and information on international students and staff.
Back to the future?
Danny Dorling (Oxford) speculated in a lecture at Anglia Ruskin University on 19 October that some universities might be taken back into local authority control if they fail to survive in the HE market of the future. Back to about 1988, then, when the HE Reform Act removed polytechnics from the local authorities that had developed them over centuries. Perhaps Management for a purpose was right after all. Ellie Bothwell had the story for Times Higher Education on 23 October 2017.
David Eastwood, VC at Birmingham, wrote a retrospective piece on 3 December 2017 for *Research about the 2009 Browne review of HE funding, of which he was a member. He said the bipartisan agreement to implement Browne’s recommendations fell apart after the election: he should not have been surprised after the earlier Dearing Review, when exactly the same thing happened. His high praise for the Review Group’s members and civil service supporting team presumably ‘justifies’ Browne’s lack of research, in stark contrast to Dearing’s meticulous research and evidence-based approach. History may not be as kind as Eastwood would have us believe. In SRHE News 4, just after Browne and the 2010 SRHE Conference, we said:
‘Two issues came through strongly at Conference … first, that this might be the end of the idea of higher education as a public/social good; and second, that the Government has chosen to deconstruct one of the UK’s greatest achievements – a higher education system which until now is still the envy of many other nations and a highly successful export brand. This is a high stakes gamble with the life chances of a whole generation. ‘
We still think the gamble isn’t working, but there was some contrary evidence in Working Paper 30 published in November 2017 by the Centre for Global HE, The end of free college in England: implications for quality, enrolments, and equity. Richard Murphy (Texas at Austin), Judith Scott-Clayton (Columbia) and Gill Wyness (UCL) argue that England’s move to a high tuition fee system has led to increased quality, enrolments and equity in higher education.
Low marks for A University Education
David Willetts’ new book, A University Education, was launched at an event on 22 November 2017 hosted by HEPI, whose Director Nick Hillman was David Willetts’ special adviser during his time as Minister responsible for HE. An instant positive review by Andy Westwood (Manchester) on HEPI’s blog on 23 November 2017 was contradicted by David Morris (Greenwich, formerly of Wonkhe) whose review said that Willetts the academic and wonk can’t shake off Willetts the politician. Andrew McGettigan’s review for ResearchProfessional on 13 December 2017 was even less impressed: ‘Not only is attention to detail lacking, but Willetts’s attempt to cover subjects ranging from the history of universities to the econometrics of graduate returns, while throwing in an account of his time as minister, has resulted in oversights, misunderstandings and odd omissions. … Willetts’s good ideas and insights would have benefited from being presented in a book of half the length, with more memoir and less pretence to scholarship.’
Russell Group lobbies for cuts in the rest of the sector
As tension mounted in early October over HE financing, with rumours of Cabinet splits over policy alternatives, Anna Fazackerley reported for The Guardian on 17 October 2017 that ‘a small civil war seems to be looming among the institutions themselves.’ She quoted an unnamed Russell Group VC as saying: ‘There are some stark surpluses in post-1992 universities, as their costs are much lower.’
Much Adonis about nothing
Andrew Adonis rode his empty bandwagon on 10 October 2017 into a House of Lords committee hearing where he called for ‘lower-performing former polytechnics’ to be turned back to polytechnic status. Richard Adams gave him more space than he deserved for this spectacularly bad idea, in The Guardian on 10 October 2017.
For reassurance that there is still intelligent debate going on in Westminster about HE finance, look at evidence to the Treasury Select Committee’s session on 18 October 2017 about Student Loans. Andrew McGettigan (independent) and SRHE vice-chair Helen Carasso (Oxford) gave a master class in how the very complex system of student loans and graduate repayments works, and what they mean for students, institutions, and government.
Student Loans Company sacks its chief executive
Richard Adams reported in The Guardian on 8 November 2017 that “Following investigations into allegations about aspects of his management and leadership, the SLC has decided to terminate Steve Lamey’s contract as chief executive officer of the Student Loans Company (SLC),” the company said in a statement.” His replacement on an interim basis will be Peter Lauener, the current chief executive of the Education and Skills Funding Agency and the Institute for Apprenticeship.
KEF, TEF and REF
Universities Minister Jo Johnson announced a new metric at the HEFCE Conference on 16 October 2017 – the Knowledge Exchange Framework: Louis Coiffait explained for WonkHE on 12 October 2017.
OfS Consultation on a new Regulatory Framework
Universities Minister Jo Johnson called for the Office for Students to champion free speech as the OfS launched consultation on how it should deliver its remit. An uncontroversial suggestion, since free speech been a statutory requirement for universities for many years. . The OfS Regulatory Framework documents are all available here. David Kernohan and Catherine Boyd of WonkHE crunched some numbers (in a blog on 13 December 2017) to suggest that institutional fees for registration (ie annual subscriptions) might be 50% higher than the indicative illustrations in the OfS consultation documents.
Snowflakes at Christmas: Johnson on free speech
Minister for Universities Jo Johnson decided his Christmas message would be about free speech, trotting out a few familiar anecdotes; the NUS accused him of exaggerating the issue and failing to listen to student concerns in their instant response.
VAT and universities
Amanda Darley, the tax specialist for the British Universities Finance Directors Group, blogged for Wonkhe on 1 December 2017 about the VAT status of universities. It’s complicated. She concluded: ‘will it ever make VAT in HE the simple tax that was promised in 1973? While I’d like to answer with the usual ‘it depends’, I think the answer in this case is a clear ‘no’.’
Sutton Trust argues for means-tested fees and the restoration of maintenance grants
In a report published on 16 November 2017, Carl Cullinane and Rebecca Montacute of the Sutton Trust argue the case for means-tested tuition fees and maintenance grants, saying it would cut student debt in half, and by three-quarters for the poorest students. The report, Fairer fees, says that these changes would cost no more than the reforms announced by the government in October 2016.