srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education

Image of Rob Cuthbert


1 Comment

Another fine mess

by Rob Cuthbert

The overweight man in charge had an unprepossessing thin sidekick doing his bidding, but constantly making things worse, prompting Laurel and Hardy’s famous catchphrase[1][2].

In unrelated news, if English HE was a movie, what is the story so far? It features the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Education, government and HE policy. English HE continues to enjoy a very high reputation worldwide, not least with potential future students. Numbers of home applicants continue to exceed expectations, promising a student population which outstrips even the boost given by the demographic upswing in numbers of 18-25 year olds. After the pandemic all public services face questions about financing acceptable levels of service, but HE might seem partly insulated from the problem because of the continuing demand by fee-paying students. However the real cost to government of subsidised student loans has been made apparent by watchdog-driven changes to government accounting; those changes make costs obvious and applicable now, rather than in 20 or 30 years’ time. The Willetts reforms to HE and student finance, by their lights well-intentioned as redistributive, might have worked in theory, but they have failed in practice as the cost to government of subsidising partial loan repayment has steadily risen.

Despite the rising demand for places, students are not happy with the level of service they get in the current ‘market’. Student campaigns like the one at the University of Manchester for fee reductions are misconceived unless they deliver cash in hand for the students, because fee reductions make no difference for most graduates. Otherwise they help only the highest-paid graduates, the small minority who would actually fully repay their loans, but – crucially – lower fees would reduce the costs to government. Next year, students want a return to the teaching-in-person experience they expect, and are already bridling at the prospect of on-line-only lectures. Too many institutions seem to have a tin ear in responding to such opinion. Meanwhile students are reporting mental health problems, discrimination and harassment at unprecedented levels. UUK has issued guidance on avoiding sex and race harassment, and the inequalities in admissions and student achievement based on socioeconomic, racial or other disadvantage are a central institutional concern.

Most HE staff have gone many extra miles to adapt their practice to the pandemic restrictions, problems made worse because there are cohorts of students lacking preparation for HE because of their interrupted school experience. At the same time many are enduring worsening staff levels, the threat of redundancies, reductions in pension benefits and more, because the supposed ‘boom years’ for HE (as labelled by James Forsyth in The Times on 4 June 2021) have brought worsening financial problems for many institutions. The continuing trend to deterioration in management-staff relations is not helped by too many examples of excessive VC salaries and insensitive managerial actions. It is the staff who have made it possible for government ministers and institutional leaders to maintain their challengeable position that the quality of the HE experience has not diminished, a position built on the need to keep tuition fee levels at their very high level.

This, then, is the context. How did the government’s proposals address these key problems? Consider the Queen’s Speech for the new Parliamentary session, recent ministerial speeches and consequent initiatives from the Office for Students – the ‘independent’ regulator chaired by the campaign manager for the Prime Minister, who still takes the government whip in the House of Lords.

The government response to fast-rising demand is to propose a reduction in HE places, with a supposed shift of resources to FE and training. Governments of all kinds have often proposed spending more on FE; FE is still waiting. Not only would reducing the size of HE be a world first, reversing the global trend to HE expansion, it would no doubt do much to ensure that FE is ‘for other people’s children’, as government adviser Alison Wolf once said. Alternatively, and if it were ever achieved, more likely, it would convert the balance of payments surplus on HE to a deficit, by driving many well-qualified home applicants abroad and choking off international recruitment. It might become an electoral and economic mess.

Ofqual, having shared culpability for the 2020 A-level and GCSE examinations shambles with DfE and the Secretary of State, has a new chief regulator and a new chair. The newly-confirmed head is Jo Saxton, most recently an adviser to Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. Before that she was the much-criticised head of a chain of academy schools in Kent, embodying the continuing patronage which delivers government supporters into key unelected roles, via the ‘strict’ public appointment procedures which have already seen Lord Wharton appointed as chair of the OfS. This will not inspire hope or confidence among school heads and staff, after the resignation of the widely-respected Sir Kevan Collins, the Education Recovery Commissioner – tsar of catch-up for schoolchildren who missed learning in the pandemic – because the government fell woefully short of the investment he deemed necessary. It might become an educational mess.

Government, while continuing to assert that the quality of HE has been maintained, at the same time asserts that there is a problem with ‘low quality courses’, a continuing theme of almost all recent Conservative ministers for HE, which Jo Johnson used to justify his 2017 legislation for the HE market. None have yet passed the ‘Skidmore test’, calling on anyone discussing ‘low quality courses’ to name and shame them, or else succumb to ‘low quality argument’ (Chris Skidmore being the honourable exception in that list of recent ministers). Serious attempts to identify ‘low quality courses’ through data analysis invariably collapse, as Wonkhe’s David Kernohan has shown. But the OfS has pressed ahead with its ‘Proceed’ initiative, which simply multiplies completion rate by the rate of progression to graduate employment, and the odds are that these ‘experimental’ data will become the measure of ‘course quality’. The Skills Bill now published gives the OfS carte blanche to decide which measures it might use to identify ‘low quality’. The many other issues affecting both of the flawed component measures mean that using such a metric will probably work directly against the government’s ‘levelling up’ mantra by targeting universities which take many disadvantaged students, not least in the ‘Northern wall’ and those with high proportions of BAME and socioeconomically disadvantaged students in London and the South East. It might become a political mess.

Government also envisages changes to HE financing, which might involve reducing fees for some (non-STEM) courses. This is being strongly urged by the Treasury, which is more worried about the fast-growing burden of subsidy for student loans than the prospect of financial collapse for the most precarious HE institutions – many of which would actually be prime candidates for support if ‘levelling up’ were taken seriously. A different group of institutions, for the most part, are also facing the long-running and growing threat of a potentially unaffordable revaluation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. The prospect of significant diminution of pension benefits has already led to widespread strikes and other industrial action in recent years. With no solution in sight, staff morale and commitment will be even more challenged. It might become a managerial mess.

However, none of this was the HE headline in the Queen’s Speech, which was reserved for the long-awaited legislation on free speech, the latest twist in the so-called ‘culture wars’ and the ‘war on woke’. The summary of informed commentary, beyond the hard core government supporters, seems to be that at best such legislation would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Even Conservatives like Danny Finkelstein argue that this kind of legislation will cause many more problems than it might solve. So the headline act of government in the near future will be to focus on a problem which, if it exists at all, is well down the priority list for any well-managed university. It is bound to become a mess at every level.

In sum, government HE policy is in something of a hole, pursuing internally contradictory policies which might play to a wider ‘anti-woke’ agenda but in economic and political terms seem likely to run counter to any thoughts of levelling up. But the Secretary of State keeps digging, even after the great A-level disaster of 2020. It may not be too long before this becomes another fine mess.


SRHE News Editor Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com. Twitter @RobCuthbert

[1] They never actually said ‘Another fine mess’, despite making a movie with that title. The phrase Oliver Hardy often uttered was ‘Another nice mess you’ve gotten us into’.

[2] As well as Another Fine Mess, their movies included A Chump at Oxford and Chickens Come Home.


Leave a comment

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).

Image of Rob Cuthbert


Leave a comment

The Thirty Years Quality War

By Rob Cuthbert

Ten years ago David Watson[1] (2006 p2) said that in England since the 1980s: “the audit society and the accountability culture have collided (apparently) with academic freedom and institutional autonomy”. He called this clash between accountability and autonomy the ‘Quality Wars’ and identified five major casualties: the shrinking of higher education’s sectoral responsibilities; truth – managers mistaking criticism for resistance, staff mistaking resistance for criticism; solidarity – because of the rise of the ‘gangs’ – the Russell Group and others; students, as quality assurance became ever less effective at delivering enhancement; and the reputation of UK HE abroad, as our determination to label things unsatisfactory advertised the few deficiencies of our sector and obscured our strengths.

Ten years on, the hostilities continue and the casualties mount. Continue reading