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Good morning, it's the week of NUS National Conference and elections for its leadership are going down to the wire. James Wilsdon has analysed responses to the Stern review of the REF with fascinating results and we continue to get our collective heads around last week's critical report in to graduate earnings.

Student politics

The National Union of Students is holding its National Conference this week in Brighton. Around 1000 delegates from both the further and higher education sectors, and from all corners of the UK, will attend. We know that NUS affairs can be rather mystifying for the uninitiated, so here’s what to look out for.

Poetry in motions

There are a few education motions that may be of particular interest to HE sector, though not all will be discussed as there is a time limit on debate. It is likely that at least one motion calling for NUS to “boycott or sabotage” surveys such as NSS and DLHE will be debated, and may well pass (although without the support of the NUS leadership). Counterintuitively, another motion early enough on the order paper to make its consideration likely is Employability Isn’t Working, which amongst other things calls for “better data on employment destinations of both FE and HE learners”. Another early motion, Liberate My Degree, calls for action on attainment gaps (particularly in relation to ethnicity). Other motions oppose releasing universities from Freedom of Information Act duties, support abolition of mandatory English and Maths GCSE retakes, and urge support for Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for a National Education Service. 

A priority motion introduced by the president focuses on defending students’ unions in the context of both area reviews in further education (which could cut resources for FE student representation) and the spectre of some new measures specific to SUs implied by the green paper (but have yet to be clarified).

One crucial election

Elections will be held for NUS's leadership and notably, president Megan Dunn is to be challenged by Malia Bouattia (NUS’s Black Students’ Officer for the last two years). Ms. Bouattia has been a big personality at previous conferences, is a compelling orator, and will be well organised, but has also recently been the subject of much negative reporting in the media in relation to allegations of anti-Semitism, which may damage her ability to attract broad support from delegates. Insiders suggest that Ms. Dunn will narrowly win re-election, but nerves are running high - a victory for Ms. Bouattia would thrust NUS in the most strongly left-wing direction in almost its entire history. The union would channel its resources towards sustained, large-scale direct action and NUS' government and sector relations behind the scenes would be put in the deep freeze.

Other key elections, including for vice president for higher education, currently held by Sorana Vieru, are highly likely to run with incumbency.

However, whatever the outcome of the presidential election, the wider picture matters. It is worth remembering that when Ms. Dunn was first elected as a vice president two years ago, she was considered to be the left-wing candidate for the post. But old calculations about student politics no longer seem to apply and the sitting president is now regarded as a moderate. Just two years later, she is resoundingly outflanked by a resurgent left: last year’s conference delivered a majority of left-wingers on the National Executive Committee for the first time, which has been problematic for Ms. Dunn in the year since. There is clearly a trend of motion towards the left in NUS, but the big question to be answered this week is whether that trend has – ahem – momentum.

Most of the conference can be watched via the NUS Conference website. We recommend tuning in for the opening keynotes (from around 12.15pm on Tuesday) and the Presidential election (10.30am on Wednesday). We will of course report on the key election results, and any other highlights, during the week.

Reviewing the REF (so you don't have to)

Getting ahead of Lord Stern's review of the REF, James Wilsdon has conducted an analysis of as many consultation responses we could find. Without a team of civil servants to process the responses, the analysis took longer than anticipated but is worth the wait. The findings are fascinating and worth the longer-than-usual read this morning. What's clear is that the sector agrees on four key themes: the centrality of peer review, the limited scope for metrics, role of impact and balance of units of assessment. But there is clearly wider disagreement on more fundamental questions of the purpose of the REF and the scale of reform needed as well as the inclusion of staff and the appropriate levels of assessment.

Read the analysis in full here.

We are also still collecting and publishing consultation responses here. If you'd like yours to feature in the list, please send us an email

Digesting the human capital report

Unless you were living under a rock last week, you probably noticed that the Institute for Fiscal Studies published its much-anticipated study of graduate earnings. Although heavily caveated, and only focussing on Russell Group universities who gave their consent to be included, the experimental report is certainly making ripples, if not waves already. One of the more eye-catching headlines is that parental income before entering HE is still so significant for graduates' future earnings and there's bad news for a number of different courses and institutions whose graduates get little or no earnings benefit for their time in HE compared to those who didn't go at all. We've been busy getting our collective heads around the report and the debate around it which will likely last for some time: 

On Policy Watch, Louisa Darian digests the report, the unusual methodology it used as well as its potential implications for policy. 

Andrew McGettigan conducted an interview with one of the report's authors - Jack Britton of IFS who explains some of the decisions the researchers took. Britton also urges caution in interpreting the report.

Charlie Ball reviews the report's findings and argues that HESA's forthcoming review of the DLHE provides the sector with a serious opportunity to take forward the debate started by IFS and last week's report. 

The rest of the week's HE agenda

Monday 18th April

DEADLINE: Commons Science & Technology Committee Graphene Inquiry

EVENT: Westminster Forum on Teaching Excellence Framework

EVENT: CASE Spring Institute in Educational Fundraising, Loughborough


Tuesday 19th April

PARLIAMENTARY: Commons Science & Technology Committee session: Impact of European regulation on UK life sciences

EVENT: UUK - Tackling violence against women seminar, London

EVENT: NUS National Conference, Brighton (til Thursday)


Wednesday 20th April

EVENT: JISC Student experience experts group meeting, Birmingham


Thursday 21st April

REPORT: HEPI report on employer sponsored degrees

EVENT: LFHE workshop: Diversifying Academic Leadership, London

EVENT: UCEA - Immigration: Key considerations when recruiting from overseas

EVENT: SRHE Publishing Academic Articles: A way through the maze, London


Friday 22nd April

EVENT: LFHE East and West Midlands event on Leading Change in HE, Coventry
 

Have a great week,
Mark
mark@wonkhe.com

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