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Good morning. It's the final briefing of 2016 and what a year it's been. From Bills to Brexit, TEF to REF, 2016 has been a rollercoaster for UK HE. And 2017 is unlikely to be much quieter. Word has reached us of a big shake-up of the sector agencies beginning next month. We've been working to understand the 2016 application cycle and we highlight some things to watch out for next year. We round up what you might have missed on Wonkhe and the rest of the week's (thin) HE agenda

Happy holidays from all at Team Wonkhe. 
Mark Leach, Editor

For Whom The Bell Tolls

A big change to the higher education landscape is coming. UUK’s review of sector agencies led by Reading VC Sir David Bell is going to report in January and propose, amongst other things, a merger of the Higher Education Academy, the Equality Challenge Unit and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education to create one big new HE workforce development agency. Wonkhe has not seen the finalised proposals, but they have been briefed to us by multiple senior sources from the sector. This is no blue skies exercise either: work on the merger is already advancing behind the scenes. 

In many ways, this feels like a decision that has been a long-time coming: ever since HEFCE lost the substantial part of its teaching budget as funding moved to fees in 2011, all HEFCE-funded agencies were cut and asked to rely on ‘other sources’ of funding. They all got by for a few years, cutting back activity and increasing their charge to universities, but the lack of a coherent overarching strategy for how these agencies and their work would fit together led to fragmentation of activity and disaffection in the sector: universities were asked to pay more for something they didn’t fully understand or value, and the result was inevitable. UUK was tasked by its board earlier this year to review all of the agencies with a view of streamlining the sector and creating better value for money: the writing was on the wall.

And so it has come to pass, the ‘headcount’ of agencies is going to be cut. And very soon. It’s expected that following the announcement, the change could come into effect as soon as the 2017-18 academic year. Bets are already being taken for the super agency’s new name with Higher Education Development Agency, or the Higher Education Foundation said to be possible options. Alongside the creation of this new agency, it’s expected that the Higher Education Careers Service Unit will be effectively wound up as an agency, with some view to ‘unbundling’ its services, and there will be further recommendations for other agencies to collaborate more closely.

Most sensitive of all on that front has been the dance between HESA and UCAS in the Cheltenham-based big HE data industrial-complex. UCAS hasn’t made much of a secret that it would like to own HESA and there are some obvious advantages to such a move, but the Bell review is expected to recommend that HESA maintains its independence, although work more closely with UCAS and other bodies like Jisc where there are helpful overlaps.

The big merger will have lots of implications, not least for the staff involved in the agencies who have been informed about the changes in recent weeks. Resistance has been largely futile, and any boardroom hope of blocking the merger fell away months ago, with negotiation over some of the finer detail the only path available now for the three agencies. The new organisation will need to cost the sector much less than the three combined existing agencies: sites are going to close jobs are certainly going to be lost. It's going to be an anxious holiday season for many in the sector. 

On Wonkhe

The 2016 applications cycle

The UCAS End of Cycle report for 2016 - all 140 pages of it - was not short of stories and headlines that could be found to fit a narrative. Reading the papers last Thursday showed just how much that was the case. Headlines ranged from ‘Surge in Eastern European students awarded UK university places ahead of Brexit vote, figures show’  (Telegraph), to ‘Number of foreign undergrads at UK universities decreases’ (Guardian), to ‘Record gap between rich and poor students winning university places’ (Independent).

Despite the many different takes, what is clear is that there are significant reasons to be concerned about the future buoyancy of the undergraduate recruitment market. International and domestic over 25-year-old student numbers are down, and although EU and domestic 18-year-old students are up, neither look particularly likely to keep rising in future years. The overall market has flatlined.

The biggest losers are lower tariff institutions, whose numbers are now being squeezed by medium tariff institutions increasing the number of recruits they take at the lower grade levels (between BBC and DDD at A level). Lower tariff institutions actually took fewer students on free school meals in 2016 than in 2015, and the entry rate of the most disadvantaged students into lower tariff institutions has also declined. UCAS has introduced a new measure of multiple disadvantage called the ‘multiple equality measure’, which combines data on geography, income, school type, sex, and ethnicity to better pinpoint educational disadvantage.

The new measure shows that the overall entry rate of the most disadvantaged students barely grew this year and that the ratio of the entry rates of the most and least likely to enter higher education has stopped declining in the past two years. This ends a decade-long trend of gradually more equitable access to higher education and should be cause for concern in both schools and universities.

UCAS has also broken down participation rates by parliamentary constituency, enabling analysis of the uneven geographic spread of progress in widening access. Though there is generally improvement across the country, the data shows relatively slower progress in some poorer areas of Merseyside, the East Midlands, the North East, and coastal towns such as Great Yarmouth, Hastings, Dover, Torbay, and Skegness. Unsurprisingly, there is a conclusive relationship between low higher education participation and the strength of the Brexit vote.  

Picking apart the reasons for the slowdown in widening access progress will take some significant analysis, particularly after the institutional-specific data for 2016 is released next month. That will show us which universities in the lower tariff group have been most squeezed by changes in the market, and might also give us a hint as to the impact on the overall widening participation figures.

On Wonkhe

  • From the headlines to Brexit to trends in the market, David Morris has picked out eight main lessons from UCAS’s End of Cycle data.
  • UCAS Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook explains the new metric for educational disadvantage - the multiple equality measure - and reflects on the challenges for schools, universities and third parties in raising attainment.

Learning to Wonk Before You Can Rant

Wonkhe is running a one-day workshop on policy analysis in Sheffield on 16th February 2017. To find out more, and to book your place, click here. 

What to look out for next year

It’s been a year of change, some expected, some less so. But 2017 doesn’t seem likely to be any less interesting, and that’s just based on the things we can predict. There’s lots in the headlines, but beyond Brexit, President Trump and other headlines, what can we expect to be on the sector’s agenda?

As discussed above, it’s all change for sector agencies. But we may see some change on the mission group scene as well. There’s talk of a new mission group: The Wesley Group (named after the Wesley Hotel in Euston because of the unwritten rule that all mission groups must be named after hotels where vice chancellors stay when they visit London), which closely mirrors the membership of the now defunct 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities. They’ve been actively meeting already, but the question for them this year is whether they will go public and make the group a real lobbying force? Elsewhere, Manchester VC Dame Nancy Rothwell has been conducting a review into the circumstances around the Russell Group's Director General's private life being splashed all over the tabloid papers earlier this year. The outcomes are said to be unflattering and could result in a change made at the top. Million Plus is also currently recruiting for a new Chief Executive which could signal a fresh approach for that group as well and so the cumulative change on the mission group scene will no doubt be interesting for observers of sector politics.

The policy agenda is unlikely to slow down. Expect an amended (and probably improved) Higher Education & Research Bill to pass some time in the Spring. The government has indicated to Peers that they would like as few delays as possible, which means there is likely to be extensive scope for concessions and amendments in the coming weeks and months. After that's done and dusted, expect DfE to look for new measures to integrate universities with the rest of the education brief and to find more tertiary policy solutions. We had a glimpse of this with the recent universities-schools consultation, but work is said to be underway on other policies that bring the HE sector closer to other parts of the education system. In other parts of the UK, ‘tertiary solutions’ was code for abolishing/merging funding councils, but with HEFCE already departing, there’s no funding council left to merge. But there are lots of other measures that can happen in between. We can expect more LEO data in the spring breaking down graduate earnings by subject and institution. It will be a massive release that could have wide consequences for the debate about the value of certain types of courses and institutions.

The Home Office will release its consultation early in the year which will give options to further crack down on international student recruitment. From tougher compliance measures, to a brand new Home Office measure of university ‘quality’, none of the choices are likely to look very attractive, and so the long war with the government on this issue will heat up. 

Could it finally be so long and farewell to the first tranche of the student loan book which the government has been trying to sell for a number of years? The Office for Budget Responsibility was sanguine in the Autumn Statement about the chances of an imminent sale given wider economic conditions, but it's still possible that sale could be made in the first part of next year which would give the government some extra cash, but substantially re-ignite debates about privatisation and protecting graduate repayment terms. 

Credit accumulation and transfer has been around for a long time as a concept thanks in large part to the late great David Watson (missed more than ever this year). But it could be an idea who’s time has come as the government is expected to respond to its call for evidence on credit transfer and accelerated degrees from the White Paper, possibly this week. This could point to some further government-backed additions to the Bill in the Lords next year aimed at making a credit transfer system work, and although this has been long-resisted by the sector, could force the wheels to turn in the name of further empowering students in the marketplace.

We’ll be hearing a lot more about Industrial Strategy, with a government strategy document expected shortly. Universities sniff a moment, and there is going to doubtlessly be lots of ways to input HE to this agenda next year.

Further change in Welsh HE is expected following the work on implementing the Diamond recommendations on student finance. Kirsty Williams has promised a government response to the Hazelkorn Review recommendations to merge HEFCW into a Tertiary Education Authority overseeing higher and further education. This is expected in late January.

In Scotland, a review of student support chaired by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, will report in the Autumn. Meanwhile, Scottish universities will either fight back or come to terms with the government’s proposal to abolish the independent board of the Scottish Funding Council, which will be merged into a new enterprise ‘super-quango’.

The first results of the TEF will be out in May - the release date will loom large over many universities’ communications calendars. A small number of Russell Group universities are expected to be rated Bronze unless they chose to opt-out of the exercise altogether, and this will no doubt capture many of the headlines. By contrast, there will be some surprise Gold winners, and that category is likely to feature several Wesley Group (see above) members as well as representatives from other mission groups. All this is unlikely to truly overturn the decades-established hierarchies of UK higher education, but it could cause some market turbulence in the short-to-medium term is students use TEF (and how it is reported) as a way of making choices. Much may depend on the TEF assessment panel’s weighting given to provider statements, which will be submitted in January. 

The Wonkhe Daily

Subscribe to the Wonkhe Daily for a daily digest of everything going on in and around UK HE that you need to know about. From the latest policy developments, reports and media coverage to parliamentary activity. Written by our team of HE wonks, we stay on top of every twist and turn with leading analysis to save you time and resources. 

What else is going on?

Transfer deadline
The Department for Education promised a report on its call for evidence on credit transfer and accelerated degrees by the end of the year and is swiftly running out of time to deliver. The call received 4,500 responses, most of those from the Open University’s students. Expect some headlines this side of January followed by more substantive reports in 2017 as the sector gets to grip with the proposals and the House of Lords picks up any related changes that need to be made to the Higher Education and Research Bill. 

Arise Sir Peter
The Scottish Government has announced the appointment of Professor Peter Scott as its Commissioner for Fair Access after a long much-criticised delay in the process. Sir Peter is well-known on the UK HE circuit as a former vice chancellor, professor of education and prolific commentator on policy. 

Too little, too late?
George Osborne slammed Theresa May's policy on international students yesterday on Andrew Marr's sofa saying it was “not sensible” to include students in immigration numbers. Although senior figures applying pressure can't be a bad thing, it's hard not to see his intervention as a bit past time. Out of power and with little influence in the May camp, Osborne has probably missed his chance to direct government policy. Remember, he was one of the most powerful people in the country just six months ago and ran a government with David Cameron that allowed Theresa May to pursue her ridiculous policy on international students. Thanks a lot, George. 

You might also have missed on Wonkhe

The Higher Education and Research Bill has been heralded by Jo Johnson as a game changer for the fortunes of alternative providers, but there are still many barriers to sector entry, as Wonkhe’s Catherine Boyd has found out.

Numbers are always contestable, and no more so than with TEF. Salford’s Head of Strategic Planning Jackie Njoroge has three questions for TEF’s designers about refining the metrics.

As the Higher Education and Research Bill moves through the Lords, Paul Greatrix looks at what amendments might need to be make on assuring academic standards and autonomy.

Outgoing UCEA chair Sir Paul Curran reflects on his time leading the sector’s relations with its trade unions.

UCU’s Jonathan White gets behind the numbers on casual and precarious employment in universities.

Also on this week's HE agenda

It's the end of term and the run-in to Christmas, so there's less going on than usual. 

Monday 19th December

  • HESA will release a report on results of its Open Data consultation.
  • It’s the Department for Education’s 'question time' in the House of Commons.
  • The House of Commons will debate exiting the EU and science and research.

Tuesday 20th December

  • The Scottish Parliament will discuss a Legislative Consent Motion on the Higher Education and Research Bill.

Friday 23rd December

  • QAA consultation on the revised Transnational Education Review ends.

Keep up to date: entries added throughout the week on Wonkhe's HE calendar.

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