Everything going on in UK higher education
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Good morning.

It has been a shocking week for the sector as the government has begun to crack down harder on international students coming to the UK and a bitter row over academics' role in advising the government on the EU has exposed new unsavoury divisions in Brexit Britain. Just a taste of things to come perhaps? We can only hope it isn't or this is going to be a very rough few years indeed. 

Elsewhere, Parliament is back to work on the HE Bill this week and the SNP gather in Glasgow for their Annual Conference. 

Mark Leach, Editor

Picking winners (and losers)

Finally, we’re getting a sense of what Brexit means and it’s not pretty. Theresa May appears to believe that the vote to Leave has given the government the mandate to crack down much harder on immigration than was ever countenanced before.

The higher education sector, along with much of the business community and representatives from many political parties, was left aghast at Amber Rudd’s announcement last week that the Home Office would be “looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses” - explicitly linking judgements on quality to restrictions on international recruitment in order to lower the numbers of people coming to the UK.

Universities now face an uneasy wait for the Home Office to release its consultation on what exactly the government plans to do. Any formal proposals will need consent, either active or passive, from the Department for Education and its ministers. Although judging by his public remarks in the hours and days in the lead up to the announcement at Conservative Party Conference, it seemed that Jo Johnson was unaware that this was coming. And he has previously spoken in favour of removing international students from the government's ridiculous quest to bring down net migration. However, the minister's ability to resist the new Home Secretary and Prime Minister in these matters remains to be seen (and will be watched very closely).

Furthermore, Rudd has already been forced to backtrack on her proposal, announced at the same time, to force companies to publicly list the numbers of foreign workers, which would presumably include universities as over a quarter of the higher education workforce is from overseas. The proposal quickly became known as 'name and shame' and had been fiercely criticised by business and widely derided around the world. Steve Hilton, David Cameron's ex-adviser wrote yesterday in the Sunday Times that the proposals were "divisive, repugnant" and "insanely bureaucratic".

With 'name and shame' now dumped, it remains to be seen how the rest of the proposals on international students will be taken forward and there are numerous outstanding questions. The first obvious policy question is how will the “best” and “lower quality” providers (the Home Secretary’s words) be assessed and judged? The obvious conclusion is that the TEF will be the chosen method, though a number of problems spring up instantly. First, the supporters of this new hardline crackdown, including the PM’s co-Chief of Staff Nick Timothy, implicitly or explicitly substitute the Russell Group for “best” in their rhetoric. And there is no guarantee at all that the top TEF performers will all be from the self-appointed elite group. So how wide will the net of “best” be cast if it is not restricted (whether officially or unofficially) to the Russell Group?

The Home Office has been criticised in the past for trying to make its own judgements about quality in HE and has been more than willing to override the wishes of other less powerful departments which oversee higher education. The TEF is Jo Johnson’s creation, and we can't help but wonder how he would feel about the framework being used in this way.

There are plenty more: How will the government ensure that the ‘challenger institutions’ that Jo Johnson has been promoting are not disproportionately affected? Will restrictions take the form of outright bans or merely quotas? And will the government offer universities a carrot to compensate in the form of an increased research budget or new incentives for transnational HE delivery in international markets outside the UK?

The breadth of these outstanding questions, as well as Rudd’s quick U-turn on listing foreign workers, demonstrates that there may yet be an opportunity for damage limitation. But the sector will need to tread carefully. The Prime Minister has pledged to take on “vested interests” and “international elites” who dismiss public opinion on immigration, and universities may find themselves lumped into those categories unless they can find a way of fighting their corner without sounding out-of-touch or simply self-interested. The best hope appears to be presenting higher education as a trade export and an asset that Liam Fox can market as he sets off on his global tour for post-Brexit trade deals. But very real and lasting damage could be done in the meantime.

Keep reading on Wonkhe:

HE Brexit Watch

A furious row between LSE and the Foreign Office broke out on Friday afternoon after foreign academics who specialise in the EU and had been advising government, were told that their services are no longer required over fears that they would compromise Brexit negotiations. The dispute focussed on a meeting between the Foreign Office and LSE's Professor Kevin Featherstone in which LSE say they were informed that academics working with the FCO going forward would need to have a UK passport. 

An email to staff at LSE about the situation said “The FCO research department will have a commissioning fund to contract external work...They envisage approaching academics (including other universities) to contract staff on a daily rate and to invite others to be part of an expert advisory panel....A sign of the post-Brexit climate: those to be contracted must be UK passport-holders." Every national newspaper has reported the story, and a wave of condemnation of the government for xenophobia has been flowing on social media all weekend. However, for now, the government is saying that this is all a "misunderstanding", but whatever the outcome, the high-profile incident has potentially already done damage, and there are fears that there could be retaliatory moves by other EU governments against UK academics.

Elsewhere, with key government figures sabre-rattling over a ‘hard-Brexit’, and subsequently understandable negative reaction abroad, the pound has been plummeting further. However, despite Amber Rudd’s best efforts to put them off, this is good news for current international students, who will have seen the cost of their tuition fall by nearly 25% in real terms since the start of 2016. But it remains to be seen whether the inflated cost of imports will begin to pinch for universities, staff and students.  

Also on Wonkhe

On Wonkhe's new Team Blog, I introduce Wonkhe Professional and our new lineup of professional development opportunities this year. Ant Bagshaw argues that we shouldn't be scared of the TEF detail in the quest to improve it. Julian Gravatt of the Association of Colleges suggests that college mergers and the Area Reviews should matter a lot more to higher education. The Open University's Hannah Pudner writes supportively about the recent Diamond Review and how it should pave the way for a more progressive HE funding system in Wales. And Registrarism explores the world of wearable tech in HE: Power Dressing.

Forthcoming Wonkhe Events

Friday 25th November, Coventry University London:
Universities and Schools: Selection, Sponsorship and Social Mobility

Join us for a one-day conference to explore the government's new agenda for education. Confirmed speakers include Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access, Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, Chris Millward, Director (Policy), HEFCE. Booking now open.

Tuesday 8th November, King's College London:
UPP Foundation / Wonkhe Policy Forum

The first of in a series of free evening policy and networking evenings. Our first theme is The student journey: admissions, access and widening participation. These are an opportunity for HE wonks to debate the big issues of the day, always followed by drinks. Speakers include Wes Streeting MP, Anne-Marie Canning, Director of Widening Participation, King’s College London, Sonia Sodha, Chief Leader Writer, The Observer. Register your place

HERBie rides again

With party conference season nearly over, MPs will return to Westminster today. Members on the Higher Education and Research Public Bill Committee is back to work straight away with two sessions this week on Tuesday and Thursday.

Since the last meetings of the committee before the recess, Labour members of the Committee have expressed their frustration at the government’s unwillingness to take onboard what many perceive to be reasonable amendments, particularly regarding student representation, the composition of the OfS board, and stronger commitments on access and widening participation. The amendments that have been passed have so far been proposed by Jo Johnson and are primarily technical. Labour MPs have frequently declined to force a division on their own amendments, except where there has been a political imperative, such as on linking TEF to fee increases.

However, some of Jo Johnson’s upcoming amendments appear to show the influence the of the research lobby in recent weeks and months. Appointments to UKRI will now have to account for “experience of the development and exploitation of advancements in humanities (including the arts)”, as well as the already specified experience of science and technology. There will also be some refining of the Secretary of State’s powers in respect to allocating funding to UKRI. Johnson has also proposed new clauses requiring the OfS, UKRI and their counterparts in the devolved administrations to collaborate “if it appears to them to be more efficient or would allow any of the authorities to exercise their functions more effectively”.

Aside from the government’s amendments, none of the other ones proposed by Labour members and the SNP are expected to be accepted into the Bill. Proceedings will continue to be relatively dry until the Bill moves out of Committee on October 18th. Expect the real fun and games to begin in the Lords, after the Third Reading in the House of Commons.

Required: more social mobility wonkery

Today sees the release of Universities UK’s Social Mobility Advisory Group final report. The large group, which included a very wide range of sector stakeholders and representatives, was set up a year ago to work towards David Cameron’s goals on social mobility, particularly in relation to representation from BME communities and poorer backgrounds.

The report gives a good overview of the challenges facing the sector in driving social mobility, but the overall conclusion is that there is still much we do not know about the topic. The report concludes that “more effective evaluation of policies and interventions is needed across all parts of the student lifecycle, with an emphasis on interventions that maximise outcomes”, and that this can only be achieved if stakeholders “work together in a more collaborative way to provide greater coordination and coherence at a policy, regional and institutional level”.

This might not be groundbreaking, but the proposal to set up an “Evidence and Impact Exchange” will no doubt be useful for policymakers and practitioners interested in this topic. The report mentions the “developing, strengthening and expanding universities links with schools”, but stresses the importance of “evaluation of impact” of these initiatives. Overtures on working with government to improve careers information, advice and guidance in schools and universities are also encouraging.

However, certain sections of the media have this morning predictably picked up on the suggestion that universities should use contextual admissions to cast the whole agenda as "positive discrimination". But somewhat counter-culturally for the Theresa May era, the report proposes few headline-grabbing initiatives, instead emphasising the importance of evidence-based interventions, proper policy evaluation and greater collaboration. We can only salute such commitment to wonkery in these chaotic times. You can read the report in full here.

JOB: Director of External Affairs at the University of Bristol

SNP Conference 

Party conference season is not quite over yet, and though MPs in Westminster may be returning to work, 54 will be gathering in Glasgow for the Scottish National Party’s Conference from Thursday to Saturday. With the SNP in an increasing hegemonic position in Scotland, this is the place to be for Caledonia’s own wonky-industrial complex and HE wonks are expected to attend in much higher numbers than previous years.

The SNP has condemned the anti-immigrant tone of the Conservatives’ conference, and this will no doubt continue this week as Nicola Sturgeon aims to further accentuate Scottish difference from Westminster over how to handle Brexit. Pivotal to this is University of Glasgow Principal Anton Muscatelli, who is chairing Sturgeon’s advisory council on how to handle (or indeed prevent) Brexit. International and EU recruitment will be a particularly hot topic given that Scottish institutions are among the top recruiters of both groups.

But Brexit will not be the only topic up for discussion. Scottish universities’ record on widening access continues to be a controversial issue, and many are bracing for a squeeze on spending in the event of a Brexit downturn. The SNP and Scottish sector are also concerned about how UKRI will function across the devolved nations, and SNP members of the HE Bill Committee have proposed amendments to this effect. 

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Also on this week's higher education agenda

Monday 10th October

REPORT: Universities UK - Social Mobility Advisory Group Report
EVENT: QAA - International Quality Assurance Programme 2016 (all week)
PARLIAMENTARY: Education oral questions to DfE ministerial team

Tuesday 11th October

EVENT: The Higher Education Show, London
EVENT: UUK national conference on the White Paper, London
EVENT: QAA - Access to Higher Education Admissions Fair
PARLIAMENTARY: Business, Innovation and Skills Committee - Industrial Strategy. Witnesses include Vince Cable, Michael Heseltine, and George Osborne.
PARLIAMENTARY: Higher Education and Research Bill Committee

Wednesday 12th October

EVENT: Centre for Global HE - The dynamics of knowledge creation: academics' changing writing practices; international implications
EVENT: OCN - 'Access to HE' Conference
PARLIAMENTARY: Commons Science and Technology Committee - Evidence session with Sir John Kingman (UKRI)

Thursday 13th October

REPORT: HEPI - Universities and public interest by Bill Rammell
EVENT: Leadership Foundation's Strategic Leadership Programme
EVENT: Scottish National Party Conference begins 
PARLIAMENTARY: Higher Education and Research Bill Committee

Friday 14th October

MEETING: UCU - Higher Education Committee
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