Everything going on in UK higher education
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Good morning, It's Budget day on Wednesday coming during a time of wider debates over universities finances. The House of Lords picks up the Higher Education and Research Bill once again this week. International students and Brexit are still high on the agenda. There's good news for postgraduate numbers in England. As usual, we round up what else is going on, what you might have missed on Wonkhe and everything else on this week's HE agenda. Have a great week.

Mark Leach, Editor

Budget Day

It’s the last Spring Budget for the foreseeable future on Wednesday: from now on, Philip Hammond has declared that he and his successors will announce the annual Budget in the Autumn. The Chancellor has made it clear that he intends for it to be a lower-key occasion than in the past. But as is customary, a few major announcements have been trailed so far including measures to protect consumers from confusing contract small print, broadband vouchers for small businesses and a continued freeze on fuel duty.

Writing in The Sunday Times yesterday, the Chancellor notably revealed a plan to invest in technical education. There’s a supplement of £500m a year to support ‘T-level’ technical routes for 16-19-year-olds and the inclusion of work placements in vocational courses. There will also be a paring down of the 13,000 qualifications to 15 employer-approved “world class” qualifications. It’s also been reported that there will be an extension of maintenance loans to students at National Colleges and Institutes of Technology on higher-level vocational programmes (those at the same levels as undergraduates).

Though the devaluation of the pound post-Brexit has led, via strong export performance, to an unexpectedly bumper tax take, headlines about Hammond’s ‘war chest’ are probably wide of the mark - the UK economy looks healthier than was predicted in November, true, but it is less healthy than was predicted a year ago. Short of some welcome central investment in the creaking social care system, and this £500m attempt to restart the debate around vocational education (again), this money is likely to stay firmly in the chancellor’s current account. It is a hedge against the great unknown that is the cost of Brexit in both the short and long term. Hammond himself has cautioned against any expectation of a "spending sprees" on Wednesday.

The research side of higher education spending has done fairly well recently, with substantial money allocated in the Autumn (£2bn a year by 2020 for research and development funding) and further commitments in the Industrial Strategy. With the HE Bill hopefully making its way out of the Lords this month, we can expect little to no news on the teaching side of HE in the Budget, particularly with the major focus around student support looking likely to focus on vocational education.

Awash with cash?

The Chancellor's focus will also likely be directed towards fixing recent political hiccups, including the growing grumbles over business rates. As was reported by The Times a few weeks ago, universities look set to be some of the biggest losers in the coming changes, with a collective £623m increase in the sector’s tax bill looming. Other big losers include pubs, shops, and hospitals. However, the Chancellor told disgruntled Tory MPs last week that he is prepared to soften the blow and perhaps revise the business rates system altogether. Whether this will provide relief for universities remains to be seen.

Last week the Treasury reaffirmed its commitment to an ‘efficiency drive’ of £3.5 billion spread across all departments by 2019-20. All departments will have to present two new plans, one of 3% reductions, and another of 6%. Given that the schools budget is one of only two protected areas specified in this announcement, alongside the NHS, DfE (which is responsible for universities as well as schools) will face a particular challenge in finding the savings. The risk of HE budgets being squeezed when moved back to DfE was raised at the time of the machinery of government changes - perhaps it is only surprising how quickly things might have come round to bite.  

As it happens, the debate about whether universities are fairly or sustainably funded was revived last week with the publication of an Institute for Fiscal Studies report on comparative education funding (covered in last Monday’s briefing), and the release of new HESA data on universities’ finances. The IFS report showed universities receiving significantly more, in real terms, per student compared to 1990, as well as compared to schools and colleges, while the HESA release underlined the IFS’s conclusion that the sector is more reliant than ever on state-subsidised tuition fee income.

The HESA stats also highlighted the sector’s heavy dependence on EU income: 14.7% of all research funding in England, and slightly smaller in the devolved nations. This year is also the first to use the new FRS 102 reporting methodology, helpfully explained by the experts at BUFDG on Wonkhe.

Both of these contrast with the HEFCE report last November on universities’ forecasts to 2018-19, which painted a rather bleak portrait of the sector’s financial health, and also stressed the diversity of financial position in which universities find themselves. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that in a diverse, market-driven environment, it is no longer appropriate to talk about whether ‘universities’ are fairly or sustainably funded as one homogenous bloc.

Some institutions are thriving, with growing intakes of domestic and international students, and look set to securely weather the Brexistential threats. On the other hand, there are plenty of universities that look ever more exposed to shrinking domestic and international recruitment. In some cases, these are also crucial anchor institutions on which a successful industrial strategy that promotes economic growth outside South East England will need.

Unfortunately, vulnerable institutions far from London are not typically at the forefront of the minds of Treasury officials when considering funding for universities, many of whom consider the relative financial success of the most prestigious universities to be representative of a sector “awash with cash”. Compare this to recent reports of dilapidated school buildings and growing recognition of long-term underinvestment in 16-19 and vocational education. Let's hope that the Exchequer is taking a more nuanced look at the sector when considering ongoing spending and support for higher education. How much of that we'll see on Wednesday remains an open question. 

Read More:

Policy Watch: Sainsbury's Delivery: Technical education, employer leadership and careers guidance -
Wonkhe's Ant Bagshaw on the policy context of the Chancellor's new skills drive.

Lords pick up Bill debate

The Higher Education and Research Bill's Report stage begins this week and after the drama of last week's policy concessions by the government, Universities UK and GuildHE have collectively signalled that their war is over. The two representative bodies wrote to peers last week to say that the sector's "major concerns about the bill have been addressed with welcome, sensible and workable safeguards....We believe that the amended bill represents a good outcome, and one to which we are happy to give our support." Not everyone is satisfied though, UCU said at the same time that the government's changes "did not address the most significant concerns raised by higher education staff." And although many opposition peers are now more comfortable with the Bill as it stands, the fight over the detail is by no means over.

There are numerous outstanding amendments to be debated, most notably over the TEF and quality. There's a big move by a group of peers to give Parliament scrutiny over the TEF through the linking of TEF to fees each year, as well as regular input into the validity and suitability of the metrics involved. Another amendment is targeted at de-linking TEF from tuition fees altogether. Other amendments return to familiar issues from the Committee: links between OfS and UKRI, sector entry and exit, Sharia-compliant finance, and the key wonk issue of the publication of open data (thank you, Lord Willis).  

A mere(!) four Report sittings are scheduled this month, followed by a Third Reading on the 22nd March, just before the Easter recess begins. If it is green lights all the way there will be one round of ping pong between the Lords and Commons before the Higher Education and Research Bill receives Royal Assent some time before the Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament in May.

Read More: 

Policy Watch: Devil in the detail as the Bill enters its final parliamentary stages -
Wonkhe's Mark Leach looks at the amendments on the table in more depth and what looks likely to pass or fall as the Bill hurtles towards its endgame. 

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BrHExit Watch

Theresa May’s government is standing firm in its attempt to pass the Brexit Bill unamended, despite losing a vote last week in the Lords which seeks to guarantee protections for EU nationals living in the UK.

The practice of appointing peers to chancellorships in HE worked its charm as major interventions were made by former and current players in the HE world. This included Lord Bilimoria, Birmingham’s Chancellor, who made a major defence of universities in the chamber, describing them as the “jewel in the crown of Britain” and highlighting concerns over loss of collaboration post-Brexit, and of course the decline of EU students and academics in the UK.

While EU nationals were in the headlines, there was a lengthy discussion about membership of the Euratom Treaty, which established the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) at the same time as the EEC in 1957. Euratom is a pan-European atomic energy regulator which the government has proposed to leave in a footnote of the Brexit Bill.

MPs contended that Euratom is separate to the EU, and therefore the government would not be in a position to negotiate its membership alongside Brexit negotiations, highlighting the importance of Euratom to nuclear research. However, the amendment did not come to a vote.

Universities UK today launches a report on the economic impact of international students and as you might expect, it shows the significant positive contribution that students make, a net annual contribution of £25 billion to the economy. Analysis by Oxford Economics on behalf of UUK, shows that international student spending supported over 200,000 jobs across the country in 2014/15. While tuition fees constitute a significant amount of expenditure - £4.8 billion in 2014/15 - there is a much wider impact of spending off-campus, with an estimated £5.4 billion being spent on goods and services.

The prospect of a Commons revolt on international students was reported last week in The Times. A letter to the prime minister, supported by thirty Conservative MPs (we don't know which), was described as a threatening rebellion against the government’s insistence on treating students as long-term migrants. Elsewhere, an amendment to the HE Bill has been proposed by a cross-party group in the House of Lords including Oxford’s Chancellor Chris Patten, which aims to make it difficult for the government to count students in the much-debated immigration statistics. This is expected to be debated in the next few weeks and, if passed, would need to be debated again by the Commons in the parliamentary ping pong over the Bill which could give rebels a fresh opportunity to defeat the government on the issue.

Tomorrow, the House of Commons Education Committee goes on tour to Northumbria University in Newcastle, to hold a public session on the potentially negative impact of Brexit on the ability of universities outside the Golden Triangle to attract students from abroad.

Learning to Wonk Before You Can Rant 

10th May: Bristol 
11th May: Milton Keynes

Back by popular demand, Learning to Wonk is our new workshop exploring HE policy and blogging. Wonkhe has developed Learning to Wonk to help bridge the gap between the experience, knowledge and skills in the HE community and the blog-based commentariat and we are pleased to offer two new dates. Also: on the team blog, Ant Bagshaw has written about developing and running Learning to Wonk.​

PGs boom

There has been a large increase in postgraduate taught student numbers in England during 2016/17 following the introduction of postgraduate loans which were announced when George Osborne was Chancellor. The number of full-time postgraduate students has increased by 22% (16,100) and part time by 8.6% (5,900). Compared to the 0.8% decline seen the previous year, this huge jump in numbers will be welcomed by those still reeling from the 5% drop in undergraduate applications announced by UCAS last month.

Jo Johnson was quick to claim this as a win, the government has been pushing loans as an affordable way to increase access to higher education. Particularly because in the original Autumn Statement of 2014 which announced the scheme, the government predicted that it would help an additional 10,000 students a year enter postgraduate study. It appears the target has been overshot.

What else is going on?

Enemies at the gates

An astonishing report by the Adam Smith Institute on apparent ‘left wing bias’ in universities caused a stir last week in the press and on social media. While the usual critics of universities from the right (including one Michael Gove) were quick to jump on the report as ‘proof’ of the repression of right wing opinions, others were quick to point out the gaping flaws in the so-called methodology behind the sensationalist piece. 

On the site this morning, Aidan Byrne (aka Plashing Vole) dares to read beyond the report's executive summary on a journey through the author's twisted ideology, in an attempt to thoroughly debunk this sinister new addition to the debate.

Sexual harassment in HE

The front page of the Guardian this morning leads with "Sexual harassment at 'epidemic levels' in UK universities". The story is based on data from FOI requests to 120 universities which found at least 169 such allegations against academic and non-academic staff from 2011-12 to 2016-17 and that at least another 127 allegations about staff were made by colleagues. The Guardian has spoken to alleged victims who told the paper that fearful of the impact on their courses or careers, that "they were dissuaded from making official complaints, and either withdrew their allegations or settled for an informal resolution". The investigation and story is likely to re-ignite debate about sexual harassment on campus which has been gaining prominence in recent months. 

SFC merger

Plans to merge the boards of Scotland’s enterprise agencies which were announced last November, suffered a blow last week after a cross-party effort by MSPs voted down proposals to abolish the Scottish Funding Council, although the vote was not binding. The Scottish government was accused of undermining the independence of Scottish universities by Labour MSP Daniel Johnson. Ministers said they are now in “listening mode” and plan to bring back a new version of the proposals for consideration.

Credit and accelerated degrees: yay or nay?

Independent research conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies was published by DfE last week that cast serious doubts over the government’s proposals to introduce a credit transfer system and accelerated degrees. While it gave polite acknowledgement to the merits of these already outlined by the government, the lack of research into market demand underpinned the criticisms of both proposals. In particular, the literature review on accelerated degrees highlighted the perception of the degrees as cost saving as one of the key benefits - however, living costs per annum would be higher for two-year degree programmes as students living away from home would be paying rent for longer, with longer academic terms and shorter holidays than the typical three year degree.

Another benefit - perhaps overemphasised - was the ability for students to ‘stand out from the crowd’ having succeeded to complete a degree in a condensed timeframe. However, there was no convincing case made for the new scheme, with concerns of limitations being placed on the ‘student experience’ by heavier, more intense work loads.

Movers and shakers

Bath Spa became the latest addition to GuildHE’s membership last week, the seventh new member this academic year. Elsewhere, HEFCE is expected to announce several new appointments to its board later today. 

Vote for inspiring leader

Speaking of movers and shakers, the Guardian is asking readers to vote for the inspiring leader in the HE sector as part of its university awards. You can choose from: Janet Beer, vice chancellor of the University of Liverpool; Leszek Borysiewicz, vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge; Martin Eve, professor of literature, Birkbeck; Chris Husbands, vice chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University; and Karma Nabulsi, professor of politics, University of Oxford. The ballot closes on 12th March, and you can cast your vote here.

You might have missed on Wonkhe

Hessa or hee-sa. Hef-see vs. hef-key. These debates substantially ramped up on Friday thanks to Registrarism’s helpful new guide to HE sector pronunciations following some egregious recent mispronunciations in the parliamentary debate over the HE Bill. Never get lost again with the helpful new A - Z. MPs and peers: please take note. 

More seriously, Registrarism also revisited the issue of essay mills and plagiarism which has been brought back to the House of Lords as peers begin to debate the Higher Education and Research Bill once again this week.

Also on this week's HE agenda

Monday 6th March

  • The House of Lords will discuss the Higher Education and Research Bill at Report stage.
  • HESA will publish the outcomes of the NewDLHE consultation. 
  • HEA is hosting a symposium on ‘Illuminating the learning and teaching promotional pathway’ at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
  • The House of Lords EU Select Committee will hold an oral evidence session as part of its Brexit: Devolution Inquiry.
  • The Welsh Assembly are hosting the Open University Council dinner.
  • The Industrial Strategy Commission has its official launch at the Royal Society, London.
  • BUFDG will hold its Counter-Fraud in HE Conference 2017.
  • HEFCE is expected to announce several new board members.
  • HEFCE is issuing guidance to institutions on the provision of information to prospective undergraduate students and the data collection timetable for Unistats and the KIS.

Tuesday 7th March

  • The House of Commons Education Committee will hold a public session at Northumbria University on the impact of Brexit on universities in the North and Scotland.
  • The APPG University Group is holding a session on social mobility.
  • GuildHE & CREST are holding a Cloud Chamber funding workshop.
  • University Alliance has its Board meeting in Windsor.
  • NUS UK will hold its Trans conference in Sheffield.
  • The Leadership Foundation will hold a governance roundtable on ‘Recruiting a vice-chancellor, recruiting a chair’ in Manchester.
  • The House of Lords will discuss the Brexit Bill at Report and Third Reading.
  • BUFDG is hosting an event on an introduction to EU.
  • SRHE has an event on demystifying and preparing for the doctoral viva in London.
  • HEFCE will hold a conference on IT and Prevent in Birmingham.
  • JNCHES has a conference on HE Employee Relations: Strategic Issues in HE.
  • HEFCE will publish guidance on severance pay and the remuneration of senior staff.

Wednesday 8th March

  • It’s the day of the Spring Budget 2017 in Westminster.
  • NUS UK will hold the first day of its LGBT+ conference.
  • HEA will hold a symposium on Transforming Assessment in Higher Education: Assessment literacy.
  • The House of Lords is discussing the Higher Education and Research Bill at Report Stage.
  • The Scottish Labour Party will debate education in Scottish Parliament.
  • The Welsh Assembly Children, Young People and Education Committee is meeting.
  • BUFDG is having its Midlands Tax Group Meeting.
  • SRHE has an event on ‘Gendering Academic Mobility: International Perspectives’ at the University of Warwick.
  • There will be an announcement on the Chair of the REF Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel.
  • UCISA begins its annual IT conference in Newport ending on Friday. 

Thursday 9th March

  • HEFCE's board will meet.
  • NUS UK holds its second day of its LGBT+ conference.
  • The Leadership Foundation will host its governance day: a toolkit for governors
  • HESA will release stats on Performance Indicators (PIs) on non-continuation rates 2015/16.
  • The Welsh Assembly Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee will meet.
  • SRHE has an event on investigating inequalities in graduate outcomes.

Friday 10th March

  • GuildHE & CREST have an event on media training.
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