The Society for Research into Higher Education

Policy and Funding in England (January 2019)

By Rob Cuthbert, Editor, SRHE News

Ministerial merry-go-round

In November Sam Gyimah became the fifth universities minister in five years to leave, but the first to leave of his own volition, as he resigned in protest at Theresa May’s Brexit deal. On 12 November 2018 the WonkHE team analysed his grilling by WonkHE chief Mark Leach at the WonkFest conference in the previous week.

WonkHE’s take on his resignation in its Monday morning briefing on 3 December 2018 was: “Gyimah’s move has made a lot of people in the sector extremely anxious. If we put aside some of his more dog-whistle but ultimately lightweight interventions into the HE debate (free speech, grade inflation, and the like), it has also become clear to many that Gyimah believed that the direction of travel of the Augar review was wrong and that cutting fees would only serve to harm universities and ultimately damage social mobility. This he also has in common with his predecessor, Jo Johnson, who took an ill-fated stand against the review’s initial formation for the same reason.”

Chris Skidmore was appointed as Sam Gyimah’s replacement. The new Minister, MP for Kingswood in Gloucestershire, is on the pro-free market wing of the Conservative Party and a member of the Free Enterprise Group. The five Ministers for Universities and Science since 2014 are David Willetts (Oxford, PPE), Greg Clark (Cambridge, Economics), Jo Johnson (Oxford, History), Sam Gyimah (Oxford, PPE) and Chris Skidmore (Oxford, History).

 The most influential reports of the last ten years

MediaFHE asked a group of experts to name the most influential reports of the last ten years: here’s what they said. The Browne Review came out top – as SRHE Fellow Claire Callender said, “for all the wrong reasons”.

Value for money

Parliament’s Education Select Committee published a report on Value for Money in Higher Education on 5 November 2018. Among many other things the Committee recommended a move away from the simple use of entry tariffs as a league table measure towards contextual admissions, foundation courses and other routes to entry. Peter Brant (Open University) unpicked (for WonkHE on 27 November 2018) some of the assumptions in the report, which highlighted ONS statistics that “show that 49% of recent graduates were working in non-graduate roles”. (See also Andrew McRae’s (Exeter) reflections on value for money)

Onward and downward

Onward, a think tank whose board is chaired by Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist and former adviser to David Cameron and George Osborne, issued a report in January 2018 provocatively entitled A question of degree: Why we should cut graduates’ taxes and pay for it by reducing the number of low value university courses. Onward describes itself as ‘a powerful ideas factory for centre-right thinkers and leaders’. The question, of course, is what you mean by ‘low value’; for Onward it seems to mean only the amount that graduates earn afterwards. Author Will Tanner, an adviser to Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, who also worked for a time at No 10, was perhaps ‘flying a kite’ for the Augar Review, as Jonathan Woodhead (Birkbeck) speculated in his blog for HEPI on 8 January 2018. However Woodhead went on to observe that “some of Will Tanner’s analysis is a little bit confused and like many not familiar with the complexity of the UK higher education sector makes a number of assumptions.” His were some of the kinder comments that the Onward report received.

It’s time for a single tertiary system

Stephen Parker and Mike Rowley, heads of Education at KPMG Australia and worldwide respectively, blogged for WonkHE on 13 November 2018 arguing that both Australia and the UK need to unify FE and HE.

 New universities for Peterborough, Wessex?

A shadow board has been appointed to lead the development of a new university for Peterborough, based on an existing joint venture between Anglia Ruskin University and Peterborough Regional College. The new university is planned to open in 2022, assuming degree awarding powers are granted and sufficient funds are forthcoming – more than £13million so far, mostly for a new campus. Sir Les Ebdon has been announced as the chair of the shadow body, as Joel Lamy reported for the Peterborough Telegraph  on 17 November 2018.


A bid by Wiltshire Council and the Swindon and Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership to establish a new university by 2028 was reported by Alison Phillips in the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald on 9 November 2018. The plan envisages a STEM-oriented institution with a £300milion campus in either Corsham, Swindon or Salisbury. Those of us involved in talks about a University of Swindon and/or Wiltshire more than 20 years ago think the timescale might be optimistic.

Decoupling: when people don’t do what policies say they should

Martin de Bree and Anniemeek Stoopendaal (both Erasmus) had an article in Organization Studies (online 7 November 2018): ‘De- and re-coupling and public regulation’. They explained that “decoupling refers to the gap between the formal and the actual world in organizations in which a policy is formally introduced but not actually implemented and effective. Although the phenomenon of decoupling in organizations has been studied widely since the late 1970s, little is known about the reverse process of recoupling. Little is also known about the abilities of public regulators to discover decoupling in regulated organizations and to promote the recoupling that is necessary to diminish the gap between the formal and the actual world.”

Government proposes more two-year degree courses (again and again)

At the height of Brexitmania in Whitehall on 18 November 2018, Universities minister Sam Gyimah floated plans to increase the number of two-year degrees, an often-tried but never successful ploy. HEPI pointed out that the plans depend among other things on Parliament agreeing to increase the fees for such courses to £13000 or more to remedy what would otherwise be a loss of institutional income – and the Augar review seems more likely to propose a reduction in fees. So it is hard to see this as more than an attempt to divert at least a little attention from the media obsession with Cabinet coups and backbench Brexiteers. Alternatively, another example of Gyimah wanting HE to be a market, except when he wants something that most students have repeatedly shown they don’t want.

 FE financial problems

Mick Fletcher (independent) blogged for NCFE about the iniquity and the incompetence of market solutions for this kind of problem, where super-profits and bankruptcy are both unacceptable.

Make employers pay for HE

Johnny Rich, of Push and the Engineering Professors’ Council, had an interesting idea for a levy on employers of graduates, on WonkHE on 29 November 2018.

Is the Migration Advisory Committee ‘independent’?

John Morgan’s story for Times Higher Education on 29 November 2018 suggested that the poorly-received Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report earlier in 2018 had been seen weeks before publication by a senior Home Office civil servant who said that it ‘looks good’. Nick Hillman of HEPI was scathing about the lack of independence of the MAC, drawing on his experience as special adviser to the then Minister David Willetts – when he was at odds with the Home Office over its refusal to exclude overseas students from immigration statistics. He described the MAC report as a “bad joke”.

The competition fetish in higher education: shamans, mind snares and consequences

The article by Rajani Naidoo (Bath) in the European Educational Research Journal (2018, Vol. 17(5) 605 –620) ticked all the boxes in terms of constructing an intriguing title, following her keynote for the European Conference for Educational Research in Copenhagen in August 2017: “Contemporary  education  reform  worldwide  appears  to  be  locked  in  a  competition  fetish. … Resisting  interpretations  of  competition  as  naturally  occurring,  it  presents  various  macro  and  micro  actors,  referred  to  as  ‘shamans’,  that  breathe  life  into  the  phenomenon and that are responsible for its generation, constitution and reproduction. These include structural drivers associated with political and regulatory regimes; and symbolic drivers constituted by normative and affective pressures.  The article … reveals how powerful policy and symbolic drivers interact to power competition, and how competition forecloses alternative means of educational reform.”

The Augar review

On 16 December 2018 the Sunday Times reported a leak from the Augar review, claiming that those with lower than three D grades would no longer be eligible for student loans. The idea was a central plank of 2010’s Browne Review – “to ensure that the system is responding to demand from those who are qualified to benefit from higher education”. The Sunday Times also repeated the earlier leak/suggestion that fees might be cut to between £6,500 and £7,500 a year. The idea was framed in the newspaper as a key way to crack down on “worthless degrees”. David Kernohan of WonkHE argued on 16 December 2018 that such a move would not pay off: instead it is “likely to save very little money whilst being hugely regressive”. Laura McInerney (Teacher TAPP) summed up the general feeling with her Guardian article on 18 December 2018 ‘Degrees for the rich, apprenticeships for the poor’. The leak prompted such widespread outrage that cynics suspected it might be a deliberate distraction from whatever else the review group might have in mind. Anna Fazackerley reported on 9 January 2018 in The Guardian on VCs’ opposition.

Student loans and national accounts

The treatment of student loans in the national accounts has been a bone of contention for years. Reports by the Treasury Select Committee and House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee recommended that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) should re-examine the classification of student loans as financial assets for government. The ONS review engaged with the international statistical community to ensure that the way these loans are treated reflects how the system works in practice and is in line with international statistical guidance. The long-awaited and much-trailed ONS announcement on 17 December 2018 explained their decision “to treat the issuance of the UK student loans as a combination of government expenditure and a financial transaction”.

John Morgan in Times Higher Education on 18 December 2018 wrote that the “decision by the Office for National Statistics to treat student loan write-offs as government spending, rather than lending, “will suddenly bring all the long-run costs of student loans to the very forefront of policymaking””, quoting Jack Britton, a senior research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Andy Westwood  (Manchester) was in a gloomy mood about the changes, writing for Researchresearch on 16 December 2018. Andrew McGettigan explained all on WonkHE on 17 December 2018. And Nick Barr (LSE) observed that the way student loans used to appear in the national accounts as ‘exactly wrong’ – “the frog is slightly dead” – in his conversation with WonkHE’s Arthi Nachiappan on 20 December 2018. London Economics had earlier explained the possible impact of the ONS review in their December 2018 report.

‘Britain’s university system is broken and in need of radical reform’ – or not, because it was only an article by David Davis in The Daily Telegraph on 20 December 2018, taking time out from his huge success in the Brexit negotiations to misunderstand the ONS statement on how student loans should be treated.

Leave a Reply