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More roadworks on Quality Street

by Paul Temple

Trust is the magic ingredient that allows social life to exist, from the smallest informal group to entire nations. High-trust societies tend to be more efficient, as it can be assumed that people will, by and large, do what they’ve agreed without the need for constant checking. Ipsos-MORI carries out an annual “veracity index” survey in Britain to discover which occupational groups are most trusted: “professors”, which I think we can take to mean university academic staff, score highly (trusted by 83% of the population), just below top-scoring doctors and judges, way above civil servants (60%) – and with government ministers playing in a different league on 16%. So most people, then, seem to trust university staff to do a decent job – much more than they trust ministers. It’s therefore a little strange that over the last 35 years the bitterest struggles between universities and governments have been fought in the “quality wars”, with governments claiming repeatedly that university teachers can’t be trusted to do their jobs without state oversight. Disputes about university expansion and funding come and go, but the quality wars just rumble on. Why?

From the mid-1980s (when “quality” was invented) up to the appearance of the 2011 White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, quality in higher education was (after a series of changes to structures and methods) regulated by the Quality Assurance Agency, which required universities to show that they operated effective quality management processes. This did not involve the inspection of actual teaching: universities were instead trusted to give an honest, verifiable, account of their own quality processes. Without becoming too dewy-eyed about it, the process came down to one group of professionals asking another group of professionals how they did their jobs. Trust was the basis of it all.

The 2011 White Paper intended to sweep this away, replacing woolly notions of trust-based processes with a bracing market-driven discipline. The government promised to “[put] financial power into the hands of learners [to make] student choice meaningful…[it will] remove regulatory barriers [to new entrants to the sector to] improve student choice…[leading to] higher education institutions concentrating on high-quality teaching” (Executive Summary, paras 6-9). On this model, decisions by individual students would largely determine institutional income from teaching, so producing better-quality courses: trust didn’t matter. Market forces can be seen to drive forward quality in other fields through competition, why not in universities?

Well, of course, for lots of reasons, as critics of the White Paper were quick to point out, naturally to no avail. But having been told that they were to operate in a marketised environment where the usual market mechanisms would deal with quality (good courses expanding, others shrinking or failing), exactly a decade later universities find themselves being subjected to a bureaucratic (I intend the word in its social scientific sense, not as a lazy insult) quality regime, the very antithesis of a market system.

We see this in the latest offensive in the quality wars, just opened by the OFS with its July 2021 “Consultation on Quality and Standards”. This 110-page second-round consultation document sets out a highly-detailed process for assessing quality and standards: you can almost feel the pain of the drafter of section B1 on providing “a high quality academic experience”. What does that mean? It means, for example, ensuring that each course is “coherent”. So what does “coherent” mean? Well, it means, for example, providing “an appropriate balance between breadth and depth”. So what does…? And so on. This illustrates the difficulty of considering academic quality as an ISO 9001 (remember that?) process with check-lists, when probably every member of a course team will – actually, in a university, should – have different, equally valid, views on what (say) “appropriate breadth and depth” means.

Government approaches to quality and standards in university teaching have, then, over the last 30 or so years, moved from a largely trust-based system, to one supposedly driven by market forces, to a bureaucratic, box-ticking one. In all this time, ministers have failed to give convincing examples of the problems that the ever-changing quality regimes were supposed to deal with. (Degree mills and similar essentially fraudulent operations can be dealt with through normal consumer legislation, given the will to do so. I once interviewed an applicant for one of our courses who had worked in a college I hadn’t heard of: had there been any problems about its academic standards, I asked. “Not really”, she replied brightly, “it was a genuine bogus college”.)

Why, then, do the quality wars continue? – and we can be confident that the current OFS proposals do not signal the end of hostilities. It is hard to see this as anything other than ministerial displacement activity. Sorting out the social care crisis, or knife crime, will take real understanding and the redirection of resources: easier by far to make a fuss about a non-problem and then be seen to act decisively to solve it. And to erode trust in higher education a little more.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, London. His latest paper, ‘The University Couloir: exploring physical and intellectual connectivity’, will appear shortly in Higher Education Policy.

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SRHE News on academic freedom and freedom of speech

by Rob Cuthbert

One of the benefits of SRHE membership is exclusive access to the quarterly newsletter, SRHE News, www.srhe.ac.uk/publications/srhe-newsletter

SRHE News typically contains a round-up of recent academic events and conferences, policy developments and new publications, written by editor Rob Cuthbert. To illustrate the contents, here is part of the April 2021 issue which covers Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech.

A global academic freedom index

The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), an independent non-profit think tank based in Berlin, has published a report on academic freedom globally, arguing for it to be used to moderate global university rankings. Authors Katrin Kinzelbach, Ilyas Saliba, Janika Spannagel and Robert Quinn have shown all their working and include this map:

“The AFi 2020 includes scores for 175 countries and territories. In this map, the states’ AFi scores are grouped in ranges, with A representing those countries with the highest levels of academic freedom (green on the map) and E representing those with the lowest academic freedom scores (red on the map).”

Free speech in the US

A free speech case on campus reached the US Supreme Court on 8 March 2020, which decided in favour of the student. Chike Uzuegbunam, a former student at Georgia Gwinnett College, had tried while a student to hand out pamphlets sharing his religious views with fellow students. He was stopped twice by campus police, first to be told he could only do that in a designated ‘free speech zone’. When he tried with official permission to do so, he was prevented because other students had objected. The College eventually rescinded its policy on ‘free speech zones’ but the case went to the Supreme Court to prevent it becoming moot, that is not cited as a precedent, since Uzuegbunam had graduated. The Court ruled that he was nevertheless entitled to nominal damages of $1, which was what he had sought. Elizabeth Redden told the story for insidehighered.com on 9 March 2021.

Is debate under threat on UK campuses?

Jim Dickinson asked the question in his Wonkhe blog on 20 January 2021. Unlike the culture warriors, he referred to a lot of evidence suggesting the answer is not what most people are encouraged to think. He pointed out that outgoing OfS chair Michael Barber, about to give a speech on this, was actually sitting on a lot of relevant evidence, held but not published by the OfS, which would give the lie to the current narrative. MP David Davis introduced a private member’s Bill in the House of Commons on 21 January 2021 because, according to David Williamson in the Daily Express on 17 January 2021, he “wants to stop “cancel culture” taking root in centres of higher education and is alarmed at resistance to hearing “uncomfortable opinions”.” Well, no doubt no-one had thought to legislate on that since the 1980s, but there is quite a lot of advice and guidance about.

Our radical student-led proposals will secure and champion campus free speech

There was a well-argued blog from three SU Presidents – Patrick O’Donnell (York), Lizzie Rodulson (Surrey) and Kwame Asamoah Kwarteng (Manchester) –  for Wonkhe on 1 February 2021: “our new report recommends the creation of a code for students’ unions which establishes and reinforces important principles on campus of political diversity and freedom of expression. We propose to substantially adopt widely used principles within the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago to send a clear signal – that our campuses and unions are open for debate.” The NUS VP for HE, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, and two more SU presidents –  Sunday Blake (Exeter) and Meg Price (Worcester) – followed up on WonkHE on the same day with an equally persuasive piece saying that the real free speech problem was the imbalance between the proportion of high-profile speakers visiting Russell Group universities rather than others: “we’d like to see a new focus – where universities, sector agencies and the government work together with students’ unions, guilds and associations in all types of university to attract speakers, put on events, generate debate and expose students to new ideas, thinking, policy and people.”

How should the OfS regulate the exercise of academic freedom?

Gavin Williamson announced his free speech initiative with a column in The Telegraph, where else, on 16 February 2021: ‘Turning the tide on cancel culture will start with universities respecting free thought’. Williamson wrote to all universities on 16 February 2021: “The current legal framework imposes on those concerned in the governance of providers a legal duty to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure free speech within the law is secured … A growing number of reports of concerns in relation to freedom of speech on campus, however, suggest that this duty is not being fully complied with …”. The White Paper, running to no less than 42 pages, was published on 17 February 2021.

Evan Smith (Flinders) blogged for HEPI on 16 February 2021 about the history of previous such initiatives. The popular opinion was probably that articulated by Mick Fletcher (independent) in West Country Bylines on 15 February 2021: “You could hardly make it up.  At the same time as government plans to appoint a ‘free speech tsar’ to stop students cancelling controversial speakers it also intends to summon heritage groups to be told by a minister what they can and cannot say about British history. It’s ludicrous but at the same time deeply sinister.” Andrew Whiting (Birmingham City) reported on his research into the Prevent Duty placed on universities, on the LSE Impact Blog on 16 February 2021, which raises “serious questions about necessity and proportionality”.

Smita Jamdar, Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau, offered guidance on the Secretary of State’s guidance to OfS on 11 February 2021: “this is in our view bad guidance: bad because of the very great problems entailed in implementing it and bad because producing guidance that cannot really be implemented and so must ultimately be withdrawn or modified undermines public trust and confidence in the authority of the office of Secretary of State. … upholding academic freedom is already part of the public interest governance principles and so where there is evidence of a provider’s governing body failing to take appropriate steps, the OfS could treat that as a breach of the registration conditions relating to management and governance. However, that is very different to adjudicating on individual cases and disputes in the way that the Secretary of State appears to want. Finally, it is notable and alarming to recall that when the institutional autonomy provisions were introduced by way of amendment into HERA, they were designed to protect institutions from excessive interference by politicians and regulators. Interestingly they are being used here, on the curious and questionable basis that the government believes institutions need protection from their own autonomy, to justify a potentially significant erosion of autonomy by those very politicians and regulators.”

Hugo Rifkind of The Times was also unconvinced, in his 16 February 2021 tweets: “Williamson’s free speech thing is a mess … if you’re saying unis must preserve challenging speech while also being against re-examining history while ALSO having insisted only 3m ago that all unis adopt the IHRA definition on antisemitism, then I think you need to be quite deft on your feet in explaining wtf is going on and what exactly you think about everything, with reference to what everybody else does, too.” Political commentator Ian Dunt blogged for politics.co.uk on 17 February 2021 that the proposals were ‘a Trojan horse for authoritarianism’: “The problems with the plans are as follows: They are cynical, nonsensical, internally contradictory, functionally implausible and work to perpetuate the exact phenomenon which they claim to undermine.” LSE student Jason S Reed wrote in The Independent on 16 February 2021 ‘The government’s obsession with provoking culture wars is embarrassing – and I say that as a Tory student’. However Arif Ahmed (Cambridge), blogging for HEPI on 17 February 2021, gave a measured welcome: “So these proposals give valuable support to principles that everyone ought to defend. Of course in practice everything will depend on whether the regulator will use these powers impartially and with vigour. But that is true when the state gives any powers to an independent regulator of anything. Still, it is clear to me that in this case doing so addresses a real problem, and does it in more or less the right way.”  

There were constructive comments from Alison Scott-Baumann (SoAS) in The Guardian on 17 February 2021: “In Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter-Terrorism, my book with Simon Perfect, I recommend two simple principles for building what we call a “community of inquiry” – a space where difficult issues can be discussed. First it’s necessary to accept bravely the need to debate and disagree upon matters of urgent importance to young people. Difficult, even intractable, issues such as climate change, environmental disasters, migration, race, gender and identity and a failed economic model need to be discussed. But they are dynamite. So, secondly, in order to defuse potential flash points, we recommend adoption of “procedural values” – by which I mean an etiquette of argument that we all say we adhere to but rarely do: active listening, distinguishing between the person and their arguments, and settling upon some sort of outcome that can be achieved in the real world. These need to be agreed upon, with the backing of university authorities and union representatives, and closely monitored. There needs to be a general compact that, in any forum designated as a “community of inquiry”, these procedures apply – and that people will not be targeted outside them for what they say inside, so long as they have also observed the same principles.”

Jack Harvey (Coventry University SU) had perhaps the most thoughtful piece of all, for WonkHE on 19 February 2021, analysing the nuances of respect and tolerance for other people’s views. Bahram Bekhradnia, HEPI President, made a welcome return to the fray with his HEPI blog on 18 March, in coruscating form: “This is a rushed and unnecessary White Paper, intellectually flimsy, badly thought out and poorly argued with little evidence to support its conclusions. It is full of typos … its inconsistent – Anglo-American – spelling betrays the influence on its thinking, if not its drafting, of the American far right. … if indeed there is a nut to be cracked, it certainly does not need this sledgehammer with which to crack it.”

After Michele Donelan’s article in The Sunday Telegraph on 28 February 2021, Jim Dickinson of WonkHE was at the end of his tether on 28 February 2021, and SRHE member Julian Crockford had clearly lost all patience in his WonkHE blog on 1 March 2021. Jonathan Simons of Public First tweeted: “Front page of the Tel: universities are censoring history by only telling a partial story. Later in the Tel: the National Trust should be investigated because it wants to tell the whole story of history. Pick a ******** lane, guys”. Anna Fazackerley in The Guardian on 27 February gave chapter and verse on the ‘research’ that Gavin Williamson had relied on for his policy paper, and Policy Exchange suffered further damage when its retrospective and would-be secret corrections were exposed. The Policy Exchange paper had conducted a survey based on the alleged ‘no-platforming’ of Germaine Greer – who had in fact spoken at an event organised at Cardiff University, a fact ignored in the original but retrospectively corrected by a new footnote after the original had been cited in the government policy paper. Adam Bychawski wrote for OpenDemocracy on 19 February 2021 that: “British government proposals for strengthening free speech at universities cite an American anti-LGBT ‘hate group’ and a British ‘dark money’-funded think tank that has recommended no-platforming Extinction Rebellion.”

David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson interpreted the policy paper as a complete breakdown of trust and confidence by politicians in the HE sector, in their 16 February 2021 blog for WonkHE.

Rob Cuthbert is the editor of SRHE News and Blog, emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China. He is current chair of the SRHE Publications Committee.

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Quality and standards in higher education

By Rob Cuthbert

What are the key issues in HE quality and standards, right now? Maintaining quality and standards with the massive transition to remote learning? Dealing with the consequences of the 2020 A-levels shambles? The student experience, now that most learning for most students is remote and off-campus? Student mental health and engagement with their studies and their peers? One or more of these, surely, ought to be our ‘new normal’ concerns.

But not for the government. Minister Michele Donelan assured us that quality and standards were being constantly monitored – by other people – as in her letter of 2 November to vice-chancellors:

“We have been clear throughout this pandemic that higher education providers must at all times maintain the quality of their tuition. If more teaching is moved online, providers must continue to comply with registration conditions relating to quality and standards. This means ensuring that courses provide a high-quality academic experience, students are supported and achieve good outcomes, and standards are protected. We have worked with the Office for Students who are regularly reviewing online tuition. We also expect students to continue to be supported and achieve good outcomes, and I would like to reiterate that standards must be maintained.”

So student health and the student experience are for the institutions to worry about, and get right, with the Office for Students watching. And higher education won’t need a bailout, unlike most other sectors of the market economy, because with standards being maintained there’s no reason for students not to enrol and pay fees exactly as usual. Institutional autonomy is vital, especially when it comes to apportioning the blame.

For government, the new normal was just the same as the old normal. It wasn’t difficult to read the signs. Ever since David Willetts, ministers had been complaining about low quality courses in universities. But with each successive minister the narrative became increasingly threadbare. David, now Lord, Willetts, at least had a superficially coherent argument: greater competition and informed student choice would drive up quality through competition between institutions for students. It was never convincing, but at least it had an answer to why and how quality and standards might be connected with competition in the HE market. Promoting competition by lowering barriers to entry for new HE providers was not a conspicuous success: some of the new providers proved to be a big problem for quality. Information, advice and guidance were key for improving student choice, so it seemed that the National Student Survey would play a significant part, along with university rankings and league tables. As successive ministers took up the charge the eggs were mostly transferred to the Teaching Excellence Framework basket, with TEF being championed by Jo, now Lord, Johnson. TEF began in 2016 and became a statutory requirement in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which also required TEF to be subject to an independent review. From the start TEF had been criticised as not actually being about teaching, or excellence, and the review by Dame Shirley Pearce, previously VC at Loughborough, began in 2018. Her review was completed before the end of 2019, but at the time of writing had still not been published.

However the ‘low quality courses’ narrative has just picked up speed. Admittedly it stuttered a little during the tenure of Chris Skidmore, who was twice briefly the universities minister, before and after Jo Johnson’s equally brief second tenure. The ‘Skidmore test’ suggested that any argument about low quality courses should specify at least one of the culprits, if it was not to be a low quality argument. However this was naturally unpopular with the narrative’s protagonists and Skidmore, having briefly been reinstalled as minister after Jo Johnson’s decision to step down, was replaced by Michele Donelan, who has remained resolutely on-message, even as any actual evidence of low quality receded even further from view. She announced in a speech to Universities UK at their September 2020 meeting that the once-praised NSS was now in the firing line: “There is a valid concern from some in the sector that good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards and embedding the subject knowledge and intellectual skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace. These concerns have been driven by both the survey’s current structure and its usage in developing sector league tables and rankings.”

UUK decided that they had to do something, so they ‘launched a crackdown’ (if you believe Camilla Turner in The Telegraph on 15 November 2020) by proposing, um, “a new charter aimed at ensuring institutions take a “consistent and transparent approach to identifying and improving potentially low value or low quality courses.” It’s doubtful if even UUK believed that would do the trick, and no-one else gave it much credence. But with the National Student Survey and even university league tables now deemed unreliable, and the TEF in deep freeze, the government urgently needed some policy-based evidence. It was time for this endlessly tricky problem to be dumped in the OfS in-tray. Thus it was that the OfS announced on 17 November 2020 that: “The Office for Students is consulting on its approach to regulating quality and standards in higher education. Since 2018, our focus has been on assessing providers seeking registration and we are considering whether and how we should develop our approach now that most providers are registered. This consultation is taking place at an early stage of policy development and we would like to hear your views on our proposals.”

Instant commentators were unimpressed. Were the OfS proposals on quality and standards good for the sector? Johnny Rich thought not, in his well-argued blog for the Engineering Professors’ Council on 23 November 2020, and David Kernohan provided some illustrative but comprehensive number-crunching in his Wonkhe blog on 30 November 2020: “Really, the courses ministers want to get rid of are the ones that make them cross. There’s no metric that is going to be able to find them – if you want to arbitrarily carve up the higher education sector you can’t use “following the science” as a justification.” Liz Morrish nailed it on her Academic Irregularities blog on 1 December 2020.

In the time-honoured way established by HEFCE, the OfS consultation was structured in a way which made it easy to summarise responses numerically, but much less easy to interpret their significance and their arguments. The core of the approach was a matrix of criteria, most of which all universities would expect to meet, but it included some ‘numerical baselines’, especially on something beyond the universities’ control – graduate progression to professional and managerial jobs. It also included a proposed baseline for drop-out rates. The danger of this was that it would point the finger at universities which do the most for disadvantaged groups, but here too government and OfS had a cunning plan. Nick Holland, the OfS Competition and Registration Manager, blogged on 2 December 2020 that the OfS would tackle “pockets of low quality higher education provision”, with the statement that “it is not acceptable for providers to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they have as an excuse for poor outcomes.” At a stroke universities with large proportions of disadvantaged students could either be blamed for high drop-out rates, or, if they reduced drop-out rates, they could be blamed for dropping standards. Lose-lose for the universities concerned, but win-win for the low quality courses narrative. The outrider to the low quality courses narrative was an attack on the 50% participation rate (in which Skidmore was equally culpable), which seemed hard to reconcile with a ‘levelling up’ narrative, but Michele Donelan did her best with her speech to NEON, of all audiences, calling for a new approach to social mobility, which seemed to add up to levelling up by keeping more people in FE. The shape of the baselines became clearer as OfS published Developing an understanding of projected rates of progression from entry to professional employment: methodology and results on 18 December 2020. After proper caveats about the experimental nature of the statistics, here came the indicator (and prospective baseline measure): “To derive the projected entry to professional employment measure presented here, the proportion of students projected to obtain a first degree at their original provider (also referred to as the ‘projected completion rate’) is multiplied by the proportion of Graduate Outcomes respondents in professional employment or any type of further study 15 months after completing their course (also referred to as the ‘professional employment or further study rate’).” This presumably met the government’s expectations by baking in all the non-quality-related advantages of selective universities in one number. Wonkhe’s David Kernohan despaired, on 18 December 2020, as the proposals deviated even further from anything that made sense: “Deep within the heart of the OfS data cube, a new plan is born. Trouble is, it isn’t very good.”

Is it too much to hope that OfS and government might actually look at the academic research on quality and standards in HE? Well, yes, but there is rather a lot of it. Quality in Higher Education is into its 26th year, and of course there is so much more. Even further back, in 1986 the SRHE Annual Conference theme was Standards and criteria in higher education, with an associated book edited by one of the founders of SRHE, Graeme Moodie (York). (This was the ‘Precedings’ – at that time the Society’s practice was to commission an edited volume in advance of the annual conference.) SRHE and the Carnegie Foundation subsequently sponsored a series of Anglo-American seminars on ‘Questions of Quality’. One of the seminar participants was SRHE member Tessa, now Baroness, Blackstone, who would later become the Minister for Further and Higher Education, and one of the visiting speakers for the Princeton seminar was Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Baker. At that time the Council for National Academic Awards was still functioning as the validating agency, assuring quality, for about half of the HE sector, with staff including such SRHE notables as Ron Barnett, John Brennan and Heather Eggins. When it was founded SRHE aimed to bring research and policy together; they have now drifted further apart. Less attention to peer review, but more ministers becoming peers.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics

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On not wasting a good crisis

by Rob Cuthbert

Editorial from SRHE News Issue 41 (July 2020)

It seems that in English higher education, some people have been determined not to waste the Covid19 crisis, either as an opportunity or as a threat. How well have they done? Consider the efforts of the Office for Students, Universities UK, and the government in England.

The Office for Students

The OfS were quick off the mark with their ‘Consultation on the integrity and stability of the English HE system’. They had not hitherto seemed too concerned about integrity and stability, given the government’s advertised willingness to let universities close as a consequence of the market established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA). Nevertheless the OfS drafted proposals to prevent “any form of conduct which, in the view of the OfS, could reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector.”

The proposals, aimed at controlling the behaviour of HE institutions, brought an instant storm of criticism. They were condemned as draconian, excessively broad, vague and retrospective. OfS Chair Michael Barber claimed to the House of Commons Select Committee that they were an appeal to universities’ ‘generosity of spirit’, but no-one was convinced. Indeed, in terms of the original proposals there did seem to be breaches of good conduct, but they were mostly by Government, the media and the OfS itself, not by HE institutions.

As governments of different parties introduced progressively higher fees, students taking out loans for fees and living expenses began to graduate and begin their careers with large debts. Did this “have a material negative effect on the interests of students”? Quality assurance shows that the overwhelming majority of HE provision has been and remains satisfactory or better; government has encouraged new ‘alternative providers’, but a significant number of these new entrants provided inappropriate courses of dubious quality. Did these market initiatives destabilise the HE system and jeopardise its integrity and quality?

Recent HE ministers have repeatedly referred to ‘low quality courses’. Jo Johnson called for: “… the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.” (The honourable exception to this ministerial failure is Chris Skidmore, who tweeted on 16 April 2020: “Might invent Skidmore’s law- anyone who mentions low quality/value in HE without specific reference to a real institution/course are themselves creating low quality/value arguments which should therefore be discounted.”) Most mainstream media reinforced the ‘low quality courses’ narrative, with The Times prominent: an egregious example by Ross Bryant, ‘Underperforming universities should be allowed to fail’, on 27 April 2020;  Alice Thomson on 31 March 2020: “Institutions panicking about finances have to shift their focus away from expansion and back to gold-standard teaching”. Camilla Turner in The Daily Telegraph on 10 May 2020 fuelled the narrative: ‘’Mickey Mouse’ degrees could be weeded out as universities face financial crisis”. Some would say the narrative has “a material negative effect on the interests of students”, whose academic credentials are called into question, and jeopardises the “stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector”.  It might even involve “Making false or misleading statements (including comparative claims) about one or more higher education providers with a view to discouraging students (whether or not successfully) to accept offers from, or register with, those higher education providers.”

The Office for Students itself has still not completed its Register of Providers. OfS said in February 2020 the 2019-2020 Register was still incomplete “so if a provider is not registered at the moment, no conclusions should be drawn about it based upon that fact.” Could that “reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector”? At government insistence the OfS has promoted the Teaching Excellence Framework and its advantages for students, presumably on the grounds that it helped their interests. More recently it postponed the next TEF indefinitely, even though there are dramatic changes to the quality of the student experience everywhere – up-to-date information about Teaching Excellence matters as never before. Dropping the TEF at this stage “could reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector” – unless TEF never had anything to do with teaching quality in the first place, in which case pursuing it had already damaged the stability and integrity of the system.

The OfS proposals said it was inappropriate for anyone to be “Reacting to a major crisis or emergency affecting the UK in ways which may take advantage of behavioural biases”. However it reacted to the crisis by proposing obligations on individual behaviour, obligations to predict or anticipate the behaviour of others, and sanctions if even in retrospect a pattern of behaviour by others emerges which could not have been predicted. This was indeed to “take advantage of behavioural biases” which might induce people to tolerate, in an emergency, measures which would be unthinkable under normal circumstances. In the event the OfS withdrew and confined itself to outlawing ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, and perhaps unconditional offers more widely. By overreaching itself, OfS seemed to have wasted the crisis.

Universities UK

Universities UK also moved early, in April 2020 making proposals to government for a £2billion crisis package to support universities through the pandemic and beyond. UUK said: “Without government support some universities would face financial failure, others would come close to financial failure and be forced to reduce provision. Some will be in places where they are the only local higher education provider with damaging impact on the local community and economy. Many of those institutions most affected have higher levels of external borrowing, lower levels of cash reserves, and higher proportions of BAME students.” Former UCAS head Mary Curnock Cook blogged for HEPI on 15 April 2020 about ‘A student-centric bailout for the universities’, with a piercing critique of the soft spots and gaps in the UUK proposals. David Kernohan crunched numbers on the UUK proposals in his blog for Wonkheon 10 April 2020. He noted that doubling research funding would do little for many universities, and that the student number proposals would still enable selective universities to create major problems for those lower down the pecking order.

The DfE website reported on 4 May 2020 that “Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced a package of measures to protect students and universities, including temporary student number controls, £2.6bn of forecast tuition fee payments for universities being bought forward and an enhanced Clearing system. … to stabilise admissions, support students and allow universities to access financial support from the Government where it is necessary.” The DfE headline was ‘Universities need our help – we must maintain education’s jewel in the crown’, echoing a 2012 Russell Group publication, but the measures fell well short of the UUK proposals. This made clear the potentially devastating effects on many universities outside the Russell Group, with a probable shortfall in student numbers. It was hard to credit that UUK had suggested student number controls in its own proposals, and even harder to believe that all universities had agreed to the UUK’s skewed package in the first place. Chris Cook wrote a long and careful analysis of the perilous situation facing UK universities for TortoiseMedia  on 26 May 2020.

Here was Wonkhe’s immediate assessment. David Kernohan of Wonkhe  took a look at ‘Clearing Plus’, which was being presented as (but was not) a way for applicants to trade up to a ‘better class of university’. Nick Hillman of HEPI said: ” While we need time to digest the finer details, this seems like a carefully-calibrated package that delivers much of what the higher education sector called for without over-exposing taxpayers.” Well, he probably would, wouldn’t he, as a former special adviser to David Willetts. Former minister Jo Johnson, popping up as President’s Professorial Fellow at King’s College London, said that after the pandemic: “The Office for Students will need to design and put in place a multi-billion pound stabilisation fund to prevent the collapse of scores of vulnerable English universities. Access to this fund should be subject to strict non-negotiable conditions, including the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.” Shadow Minister Emma Hardy’s open letter to HE on ResearchProfessional News on 6 May 2020 didn’t add much beyond her disappointment that the government package didn’t accept UUK’s proposals.

A second round of support simply shored up the bail-out of the Russell Group. The support package announced by government on 27 June 2020 provided extra research funding: a mixture of grants and loans for up to 80% of income lost because of a shortfall of international students in 2020-2021, and £280million for stated research priorities. That will be little consolation to the many vulnerable universities less blessed with research funding and less dependent on overseas student fees.

Judged by the effects on all of its members, UUK not only wasted the crisis, they may well have made it worse. 

Government

The long-running ‘low quality courses’ narrative and the almost-forgotten Augar report proved to be groundwork for a series of government initiatives still unfolding, beginning with a blunt Ministerial statement abandoning the 50% HE participation target and proposing to expand technical and vocational provision elsewhere. Jim Dickinson had blogged for Wonkhe on 11 May 2020 that: “… the headlines in the DfE package were all about treating the issues facing the higher education sector as a liquidity crisis rather than a solvency crisis. Optimists figure this is because it’s only Part One of any plan, and Numbers 10/11 of Downing Street prefer to sort things in terms of impacts of immediate problems than assessing the size and scope of modelled/potential problems which they assume a) might not be as bad as they look, and b) discourage efficiencies and sacrifices if “cushioned” too early, or for too long. … And then, as if by magic, David “somewheres or anywheres” Goodhart appears – with a Policy Exchange report that’s officially on “skills”, but is really on reorganising tertiary. … Research funding for the “best”; mergers, shorter strings and localism for the “rest”.”

Jack Grove in THE on 11 May 2020 wrote: “English universities at risk of financial collapse will receive significant government assistance only if they agree to merge or to accept a “further education future”, vice-chancellors have predicted. … some university leaders … fear that the reintroduction of student number controls − which allow universities to recruit 5 per cent more this autumn than they did last year − signals the Treasury’s intention to intervene far more in higher education, which might include denying some institutions access to research funding.”

The doomsayers were vindicated when Minister Michelle Donelan made a speech on 1 July 2020, in the grossly inappropriate context of an online conference about improving HE opportunities for disadvantaged students. Richard Adams reported for The Guardianon 1 July 2020 on her speech: “Since 2004, there has been too much focus on getting students through the door, and not enough focus on how many drop out, or how many go on to graduate jobs. Too many have been misled by the expansion of popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market,” Donelan said. “Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of, particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense. … And too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses. We have seen this with grade inflation and it has to stop.”

The government is poised to offer new policies on skills and qualifications for school-leavers in England, rebalancing away from universities and emphasising social mobility through skilled, well-paid jobs secured through further education and apprenticeships. A white paper on further education is promised, along with a green paper on higher education that will limit courses where a high percentage of students drop out or where few go on to graduate-level employment. Donelan’s comments appeared to repudiate her own government’s guidance to the Office for Students. Asked about the use of contextual admissions by universities to help under-represented groups gain entry, Donelan said: “To be frank, we don’t help disadvantaged students by levelling down, we help by levelling up.”

Chris Husbands (VC, Sheffield Hallam) spoke for many in a powerful rejoinder in The Guardian on 2 July 2020: ‘University changed my family’s life. So why do ministers want fewer people to go?’ As Alison Wolf, now once again a government adviser, pointed out long ago, the oft-mooted expansion of non-university technical education is always regarded as a good thing – ‘for other people’s children’. We must wait and see whether this time the government initiative will be any different from the many other times similar things have been attempted. This time her daughter Rachel Wolf, another long-term adviser to the Prime Minister who co-wrote the 2019 Conservative manifesto, is also making the running. Whether the government has wasted the crisis remains to be seen.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics


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The Office for Students and ‘successful outcomes’

by GR Evans

In March the Office for Students press release welcomed a ‘landmark victory’ which ‘sets an important precedent’ in the  recent judicial review of the Office for Students’ decision not to register Bloomsbury Institute Ltd. The OfS warns that:

The OfS will not hesitate to defend its decisions robustly where they are in the interests of students and will seek to recover its costs in doing so …

Nevertheless, it is likely that this will not be the end of the matter, with other challenges from disappointed providers in the pipeline.

What exactly has been decided and what demands further clarification? The question answered by the judgment was not  whether the decision was right. It was whether the Office for Students had acted ‘lawfully’. That depended on whether the OfS Conditions of Registration were themselves lawful and whether they had been properly applied.

The main hurdle at which Bloomsbury’s application for registration fell was its failure to satisfy OfS Condition B3, which includes the requirement to secure ‘successful outcomes for all of its students’ (‘continuation rates’). This includes an expectation that the ‘successful’ student will be one who enters into well-paid employment on graduation (‘progression rates’) and thus  arguably gets ‘value for money’ for the student fee. These were the two criteria on which Bloomsbury was deemed to have failed.

The judgment considered how OfS had actually applied condition B3. It did not attempt to explore the boundaries of the grey area in which the definition of ‘continuation’ and ‘progression’  continue to sit. It simply concentrated on what the OfS had done to set detailed rules to be applied case by case. It just asked whether they were ‘lawful’.

The problem OfS faces is that providers do not all have the same or similar ranges of students forming a typical body. Bloomsbury had made that point very energetically, explaining that 85%, of Bloomsbury’s students were mature students; 66% were BAME; 16% were disabled; 90% came  from families earning less than £25,000 per annum;  and 88% began with a Foundation year because 80% did not not have A Levels. The OfS explained that it had dealt with this problem pragmatically and that:

this had already been taken into account in the selection of the baselines, ie the baselines were lower than they might have been to take this into account.

In other words, the expectations had been set low so as to accommodate these outliers. That was potentially perfectly reasonable and unlikely to be unlawful.

But Bloomsbury argued that that the OfS erred in law because it had created secret ‘thresholds’ in ‘confidential Decision-Making Guidance’. It said these should have been  published in advance and the attention of applicants for registration should have been drawn to them. It added that they were contrary to the OfS’s published Regulatory Framework and the guidance provided by the Secretary of State for Education. Bloomsbury also pointed to the fact that these ‘thresholds’ had been ‘drawn up by the OfS’s Director of Competition and Registration’,who did not have the necessary authority under the  OfS’s scheme of delegation.

The judgment considered all this and held that the Director for Competition and Regulation had been ‘entitled to take responsibility for the drafting and circulation of the Decision-Making Guidance’, because it counted as an ‘operational decision-making function’. That leaves these ‘thresholds’ not only deemed to be lawful but open to further amendment ‘operationally’. And it does nothing to address the question whether they are satisfactory or fair, and the bigger question whether there can be accurate quantification of degrees of compliance so that setting ‘thresholds’ is appropriate.

It is not the first time quantifications of higher education performance – of students or providers – have been attempted. Under the previous rules, Bloomsbury had been ‘designated’ for Student Loan Company purposes since 2009. In 2015 it had been one of only two alternative providers commended by the QAA and the QAA had been ‘complimentary’ in 2016 and 2017. However, its failure to perform to the standard expected on the numbers of its students who ‘continued’ beyond their first year had brought it an ‘improvement notice’ in February 2106 and again in August 2018. In March 2019 the Department for Education had ‘noted’ the failure to mend Bloomsbury’s performance on continuation rates but this was merely a warning that action might be taken in future if things did not improve.

Bloomsbury argued that the OfS should not have relied on these thresholds without consulting the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher or taking into account the outcomes of reviews and investigations by the QAA in its previous incarnation before it became the OfS Designated Body under Higher Education and Research Act 2017 s.27. It said that it had been unreasonable of the OfS to refuse to grant registraton when it ‘had been granted on previous occasions on the basis of essentially the same data’.

Here the court relied on an important OfS paper which had considered whether the OfS ought to rely on previous QAA assessments.  This had drawn a key distinction. The OfS’s ‘primary aim is to ensure providers are delivering positive outcomes for students’. The task of the OfS  was to form a ‘regulatory judgment’ about that. By contrast, ‘previous QAA review activity’ was considered ‘not relevant to the assessment of student outcomes for condition B3’ because it  had a different purpose. It did not ask about ‘outcomes achieved by the provider’s students’ but ‘focused on the design and operation of a provider’s systems and processes.

The court thought that was clearly correct from the point of view of ‘lawfulness’ in being faithful to the OfS conditions in the decision-making, providing the thresholds were themselves lawful.  In any case, Condition B3 is excluded from the list of conditions on which the OfS is to consult its Designated Quality Body. The Regulatory Framework makes it clear that the OfS itself is alone responsible for assessing Condition B3.

In this connection the judgment makes a clear separation of responsibility for ‘quality’ and for ‘standards’:

The effect of [HERA] section 27 is that when a body is designated as the DQB, only that body can be responsible for assessment of standards. The OfS is, therefore, not responsible for standards. However, section 27(3)(b) makes clear that the OfS is still responsible for the exercise of assessment functions which do not relate to standards. Condition B3 is concerned with quality of education, not with standards, and so the effect of section 27 is not that only the QAA can assess compliance with Condition B3. There was no requirement in section 27, or anywhere else in HERA, for the QAA to play a part in the OfS’s assessment of quality criteria.

Here too there seem to be points which need to be returned to, not in litigation, which cannot easily address them, but in policy-discussion and wider consultation. If there is to be a ladder of quantification of provider performance in setting which the QAA can have no say its existence and the placing of its rungs demand as much. Otherwise how can those ‘successful outcomes’ ultimately be defined?

SRHE member GR Evans is Emerita Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE (www.idras.ac.uk).

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The Toby Young saga and what it tells us about the blunders of our governments

By Rob Cuthbert

Once upon a time some politicians used to take the blame for their departments, even when civil servants were perhaps more at fault (famously, in the Crichel Down affair). And once upon a time the integrity of the civil service could be relied on, even or especially amid government mistakes. Continue reading