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Good morning, with half term and parliamentary recess it's been a quiet news week and so we've been wading knee-deep in two major policy initiatives: the journey from TEF 1 to TEF 2 and the complex game of snakes of ladders providers and government have been playing and degree apprenticeships - so important yet clear as mud. We also ask if the NSS boycott is going to backfire. As usual, there's an update on the HE Bill, BrHExit, what you might have missed on Wonkhe, what else is going on and everything else on this week's HE agenda. Have a great week.

Mark Leach, Editor

TEF snakes and ladders

Why does it look like more than 30 eligible English institutions are not entering TEF 2? And why did six eligible institutions actively opt out of TEF 1? After all, it was a competition that required them merely to continue existing and would have allowed them to raise fees along with inflation. The short answer is: we don’t know. We aren’t even told which they are although we've been trying to get to the bottom of which providers moved in and out of the first year of TEF with some interesting results. During our investigation, we also found at least two significant alternative providers that are not taking part in TEF 2. 

We’ve been working to get to the bottom of what’s going on with TEF since it was first announced and as it has grown in complexity, so has the scope for oddities, exceptions and confusion around the whole exercise. On the site today we review the journey from TEF 1 to TEF 2, finding interesting cases of vanishing providers, rules bent and hampered by poor provision of data from government and sector agencies, lots of outstanding questions about who's in, out (or just shaking it all about). 

Read more:

Analysis: The journey from TEF 1 to TEF 2 and unpicking the complex game of snakes and ladders between providers and government. 

Data: On UKPRN and the poor provision of data that makes it so difficult to know what's going on. 

Double standards and the degree apprenticeships maze

At the end of last week, the Department for Education and Skills Funding Agency released a slew of data relating to qualifications and achievement at various levels which notably showed that a full one-third of apprentices fail to complete, including in higher-level apprenticeships where the most recent figure stands at a 58% completion rate. Meanwhile, the apprenticeship levy arrives in April and can be spent from May this year and so we’ve seen a lot of interest from universities in developing degree apprenticeships for delivery to take advantage of this expanding market.

And the market would need to expand to make a significant impact on universities; there were only 4,300 degree apprenticeships started in 2015-16, though there were many more higher apprenticeships (which can be offered at the same levels, but which don’t result in a degree for the apprentice).

As Wonkhe’s Catherine Boyd demonstrates this morning on Wonkhe, there are significant barriers to widespread adoption of degree apprenticeships. The regulatory and policy landscape seems to be as confusingly-designed as possible. There are complications over the use of the word ‘standards’, and the role of the regulatory agencies which will be responsible for oversight. There are further questions about whether universities are well placed to take advantage of the levy funds as they develop their ‘B2B’ sales strategies. And as if that weren’t enough, there’s also the question of the impact of expanding apprenticeships on social mobility. It's a bit of a maze, but we've done our best to get to the bottom of what's going on and the challenges and opportunities for the sector that the agenda brings.

Read more:

Policy Watch: Double standards, social mobility and the degree apprenticeship maze - from
Wonkhe's Catherine Boyd. 

NSS boycott backfire

We are a little under halfway through the annual badgering of final year undergraduates to complete the National Student Survey. However, this year, as has been widely reported, students in several universities are being encouraged to avoid filling in the survey, as a result of NUS’s campaign to reduce response rates and, subsequently, undermine the TEF.

Student boycotts of the NSS are nothing new. Oxford, Cambridge and Warwick unions all boycotted the survey in its early days, ensuring that data from Oxbridge did not meet the publication threshold. Back then, NUS’s moderate leadership criticised those unions for what it called their “elitism”. Yet times have changed in the national union, and after several years of pressure from the student left, a vote was finally won at last year’s National Conference to "sabotage" the TEF and its associated fee rise.

This has not been universally popular, with more moderate factions in the union - primarily from smaller students’ unions and post-92 universities - effectively attempting to pause the boycott through a national ballot. Approximately twenty-five students’ unions are actively taking part in the boycott. However, several students’ unions have issued strong statements against it, including Leicester, Middlesex and Staffordshire. 

Interestingly, there is now emerging evidence that the boycott is not succeeding, and may even be having the opposite of its intended effect. Wonkhe understands that student response rates to the survey are actually up on this time last year nationally, perhaps more than 10%, and some of the biggest increases may have come from the boycott unions. Perhaps for the NSS, bad publicity is better than no publicity, with news of the boycott having caught the attention of many national newspapers. Universities have also had time to prepare for the boycott and may have upped their promotion activity to compensate. Ipsos MORI promoted the survey earlier than usual in some institutions, and this may also have bumped the figures.

It should be remembered that, successful or not; the boycott will have no effect on this year’s iteration of TEF, which will use NSS data from 2014-16. We will have to wait until August when this year’s NSS results are released, and then beyond to next year’s TEF, to find out whether the boycott helped NUS's objectives or led to a spectacular own goal.

Read more:

Comment: the case against the boycott of the NSS - from Andrew McRae, head of the English department at the University of Exeter.

Lords prepare for HERB's Report stage  

We are a couple of weeks away from the Lords Report Stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill, and discussions between government and opposition representatives on possible compromise amendments are understood to be ongoing. The sector has high hopes that the government will give way on some key issues relating to autonomy and standards: the main flashpoints in the debate so far. However, that hasn’t stopped some opposition peers proposing their own amendments across a number of different issues. 

Lord Stevenson (Labour’s higher education spokesperson) has proposed new clauses giving the secretary of state power to restrict enrolments for providers breaching registration conditions and measures to protect students in the event of a provider facing de-registration or if it ceases to offer courses.

Perhaps influenced by the most recent round of hysteria about free speech on campuses, Stevenson has teamed up with Crossbench and Lib Dem peers to propose an amendment that would compel universities and students' unions to put measures in place to prevent unlawful speech and ensure that "students, staff and invited speakers are able to practise freedom of speech within the law in the provider’s premises, forums and events". 

Other proposed amendments so far include a clause to ensure an automatic review of degree awarding powers when providers change ownership, an attempt to protect the continued autonomy of the research councils, and a cross-party submission that will force a further debate on students net migration figures with a proposal which states that “no student… be treated for public policy purposes as a long-term migrant to the UK."

Many more amendments are likely to be proposed before the Report stage begins on 6th March and so we suspect that the legislative drama over the Bill is not yet over. 

BrHExit Watch

The Brexit Bill makes its way into the Lords this week for what the government hopes will be a quick dash through the upper house, attempting to evade the amendments of 'Remoaner' peers. As with the Higher Education and Research Bill, there is a chance that the passage will be much less smooth than it was through the Commons, but it is simply out of the question that the Lords could attempt to block a move agreed to by both a referendum and MPs. For those curious about what comes next (and just how ugly things could get), we recommend's Ian Dunt and his excellent ‘five minute’ summary of the issues involved in the negotiations and what might happen if it all goes wrong.

This morning, The Telegraph has the story on its front page that the University of Oxford is considering opening a satellite campus in Paris, "breaking 700 years of tradition" (in the paper's words) of not having any campuses abroad. Such a move could potentially allow the university access to EU research funding and allow for easier movement of students and staff to and from the university and across Europe. Oxford is not alone in considering such a scheme, we understand that many UK universities are currently looking to either extend existing EU partnerships or forge new ones for similar reasons. Expect many more UK universities to come out of the woodwork with comparable plans in the coming months. 

You might have missed on Wonkhe

Scottish universities’ recent record on widening access puts them a long way off the Scottish government’s ambitious targets. Lucy Hunter Blackburn has broken down the data

There were two new articles from Registrarism: Following the recent CMA ruling at the University of East Anglia, is the new regime is beginning to overreach in its quest to regulate universities? Also have the widely-publicised Free Speech University Rankings been subject to some subtle grade inflation?

What more have we learned about the alternative higher education sector? Joy Elliot Bowman has looked at the latest experimental data release from HESA.

The Bell Review may have been tight on efficiencies, but it is short of a vision for how a new sector development agency could function, argues Johnny Rich.

How are innovative alternative models of higher education being developed in the UK, and what are the barriers to further innovation? Joy Carter, Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester, introduces the latest inquiry from the Higher Education Commission.

And on Wonkhe's Team Blog, Mark Leach explains why we're trying to bring the HE policy community closer together with a series of policy and networking evenings in association with the UPP Foundation. 

What else is going on?

Visit for the Barber

Tomorrow the Commons Education Select Committee will hold a pre-appointment hearing with Sir Michael Barber, the government’s preferred candidate to be Chair of the Office for Students. Until recently such hearings for public figures were largely formalities, but only last year the very same committee rejected the government’s preferred candidate to be head of Ofsted. Although it's unlikely he will be rejected, it will be interesting to see how Barber responds to MPs’ questions to get a sense of his vision for the new regulator. 

Pay and perks

On Thursday, UCU will release its third annual report of senior pay and perks in UK universities. As well as updating us on the latest round of vice chancellor pay rises (which will no doubt outpace overall pay growth in the sector, or indeed anywhere else), the report will contain information about expenses including flights, hotels, and consultancy services.

Though likely fill column inches this week, serious political backlash against excessively generous pay packages for vice chancellors appears to have subsided recently. Back in 2014 Vince Cable and David Willetts took the unprecedented step of warning the sector on the issue in their HEFCE grant letter, to little avail. Wes Streeting MP took the issue up in the Committee Stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill, but Jo Johnson has pushed back against any mandated government interference in remuneration. 

HEFCE grant letter

This year's HEFCE grant letter - indeed, quite possibly the final HEFCE grant letter - is likely to be published during the coming week, although it has to be wrestled out of the hands of government communications and so could be delayed. 

The Wonkhe Daily

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Also on this week's HE agenda

Monday 20th February

  • It’s day one of the Second Reading of the Brexit Bill in the House of Lords.
  • It is the final day to submit papers for the HEA Surveys Conference: Understanding and enhancing the student experience.

Tuesday 21st February

  • It’s day two of the Second Reading of the Brexit Bill in the House of Lords.
  • The House of Lords EU Select Committee will meet for an evidence session on Brexit and devolution.
  • The House of Commons Education Select Committee will hold its pre-appointment hearing with the OfS Chair.
  • UUK is hosting an event on Developing your Access Agreement in London.
  • The Leadership Foundation is holding an event on governance in London.
  • ECU, HEGlobal and HEI Staff Working Abroad group are hosting a roundtable on transnational education in Edinburgh.
  • ECU is hosting an event on the Race Equality Charter in London.
  • JISC is holding a webinar, ‘Horizon scan - open by default?’
  • Policy Connect will host a panel discussion on ‘Britain's Future Workforce: Skills and the Industrial Strategy’ in Parliament.
  • SRHE is holding a training workshop on ‘Academic Writing Skills’ in London.
  • NUS-USI is hosting its FE Conference.
  • The Interface Scottish Knowledge Exchange Awards are announced in Edinburgh.

Wednesday 22nd February

  • University Alliance is launching its report 'Lifelong learning: Ladder and lifeline' in Parliament.
  • The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is holding an evidence session on industrial strategy.
  • HEPI and HEA are holding a parliamentary breakfast seminar on universities and their communities.
  • JISC is hosting its ninth UK learning analytics network meeting at the University of Exeter.

Thursday 23rd February

  • UCU is releasing its report on vice chancellor pay and perks. 
  • HESA will release statistics on staff in higher education.
  • HEPI is releasing its report: ‘Reforming BTECs: Applied General qualifications as a route to higher education’.
  • GuildHE is hosting its HR Managers Network in London.
  • QAA is holding a training workshop, ‘Making Good Use of Data’ in Birmingham.
  • NUS-USI will host its BAEM conference 2017.

Friday 24th February

  • Applications close for the LF and HEA’s Leading Transformation in Learning and Teaching.
  • UUK is holding its Members Meeting.

Saturday 25th February

  • NUS is holding its Student Housing Summit in Stirling.
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