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Monday Morning HE Briefing from Wonkhe
Good morning. The Higher Education and Research Bill reaches its final stage in the House of Commons after some unexpected changes. All other eyes are on the Autumn Statement due on Wednesday. A dispute about casual contracts used by universities has been running over the last week. We round up everything new on Wonkhe today, what else you might have missed in the last week as well as the rest of the agenda for the week ahead. Have a good one. 

Mark Leach, Editor

Bill reaches Commons endgame

This afternoon the House of Commons will debate the Higher Education and Research Bill, which has reached its Report and Third Reading stages. It is testament to the extent to which the Bill has been relegated down the political agenda that only an afternoon is being given up to debate it. The government evidently plans to whip it through the Commons in as short a time as possible, and it is therefore expected to pass comfortably, before being sent off to the House of Lords for further scrutiny.

Last Tuesday Jo Johnson surprised many in the sector by announcing a series of amendments to the Bill based on suggestions by Labour MPs and lobbying from the sector. These amendments included:

  • Restricting the powers of the Secretary of State to interfere with particular courses of study. The draft text of the Bill was a subtle yet critical change from previous rules on grant funding and ministerial power and was seen by some as a threat to academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The latest amendment attempts to address such concerns.

  • Requiring the OfS to ‘monitor’ the financial sustainability of the sector, though crucially, not necessarily assure it as HEFCE is currently required to do.

  • Making UKRI responsible for overseeing postgraduate training.

  • Requiring one board member of the OfS to have experience of representing or promoting students’ interests, though not necessarily an actual student or current student representative.

The minister has written for Wonkhe to explain the amendments, declaring that he has welcomed scrutiny of the Bill and that he wishes to listen to the sector’s concerns. He also argues that “we have no intention of telling universities how to do their jobs.” We’re sure that won’t go entirely uncontested.

There will still be pressure to further amend the Bill during its journey through the House of Lords. Lobbyists may now be emboldened to push for changes, and indeed there is nothing to say that the government doesn’t already have some further alterations of its own in the pipeline.

Other concerns that have gathered momentum include:

  • Fears about reorganisation and the disruption to the research councils once they are brought under UKRI’s wing, as at present there is no protection for the council’s being kept in their current combination.

  • An ongoing tussle between the representatives of the established sector and new providers over the breadth of requirements for degree awarding powers and university status and fears that the new rules make it too easy for new untested providers to set up shop in the HE sector. 

  • Labour MPs have made representations to more assuredly protect the independence of the Director of Fair Access once brought within the OfS.

Several Labour MPs are bringing back amendments that were rejected or withdrawn in Committee, including on preventing retrospective changes to student loan terms and conditions, making measures subject to Parliamentary approval, and tightening up the conferment of degree awarding powers. Liberal Democrat John Pugh has also got in on the action, with a series of amendments concerning international students. As in Committee, don’t expect any of these amendments to break the government whip, but it will be interesting to see how Justine Greening and Jo Johnson respond, and might give clues as to how the debate will play out when it reaches the Lords. 

The winds of Autumn 

All eyes turn to Philip Hammond this week who, in perhaps the most important moment for the government since the EU referendum, will set out the broad shape of the new government’s economic plans in Wednesday's Autumn Statement.

George Osborne had staked his economic credentials on achieving two targets: eliminating the structural deficit by the end of the current Parliament and reducing public borrowing every year. But since taking the reigns of power, both Theresa May and Philip Hammond have made it clear that following the referendum, those targets have been dropped and that there will be a change in focus of monetary policy, fiscal policy, and industrial strategy. We may also see a change in style from the Osborne years - Phillip Hammond is reportedly less keen on using these set piece moments for such drama and spectacle, and Theresa May also appears to be pre-announcing much of the 'meat' in her speech to the CBI today and in the media.

The industrial strategy will be of particular interest to universities. We were expecting a full Industrial Strategy Green Paper on Wednesday alongside the Autumn Statement, but this is now likely to be pushed back and possibly even downgraded in status. However, it's clear that we will be seeing more detail about this crucial strand this week.

Last night, the first bits of briefing began with the Prime Minister writing in the FT that the government "will invest an extra £2bn a year in R&D by the end of this parliament; set up an Industrial Strategy Challenge fund to back scientific research and development of technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and industrial biotechnology; and review our tax regime to encourage and support innovation." Much of this will be welcomed by the sector, although the detail will be crucial, particularly about whether this represents new money injected into the sector, or simply pieces moved around the chess board.

The big problem, as the new Chancellor is finding out is that he just doesn't have a lot of cash to play with. His room for manoeuvre, both politically and economically, is minimal at best. "We are highly constrained" said Hammond on Peston yesterday. Abandoning the surplus target has broadly given the government wiggle room to just about stand still. 

So it's likely that the '£2bn' offer for science, research and development will ultimately amount to measures on the demand side e.g. tax credits and incentives for firms to exploit science and technology rather than an injection of new funding. As Andy Westwood argues below, the diagnosis of market failure is not in the laboratories, buildings or university departments, but in the lack of economic growth that should follow them. The Treasury's need to deal with the economic situation in the short to medium term may trump most other concerns. That's why if Hammond takes anything from the recent Science & Technology audits, it will most likely be the things that deliver more applied research, skills, jobs and regional growth. Anything beyond that probably looks too abstract, long-term and unaffordable. 

Also accompanying the Autumn Statement will be the Office for Budget Responsibility’s biannual economic and fiscal outlook - the first since the referendum. The OBR’s forecasts were the foundations for Treasury decision making in the Osborne years, determining how the government would keep to its austerity plans. However, they were often proved incorrect, and government economic forecasts have become increasingly politicised.

This week's forecast will tell us what OBR thinks about our prospects for growth - its 2017 forecast is expected to go down to about 1.3 per cent, from a projection of 2.2 per cent in the budget. And away from the headlines but critically important for universities, the OBR will publish the RPI-X inflation forecast, the figure to which TEF-tied tuition fee increases will be based. Wednesday’s release will tell us whether 2.8% for next year (the figure suggested from its March forecast and used by the DfE in TEF policy) looks likely to fall short or beat the actual RPI-X rate. This will give us a clue about the rate of tuition fee increases into 2018-19 and beyond. Any serious fluctuations of RIP-X could have a big impact on the value of fees to universities over the coming years for better or for worse. But if most other indicators point to a bleak and uncertain period for the UK economy as a whole, universities are likely to feel the chill of the coming winds in many other ways. 

Read more on Wonkhe:

1. A time for governing in prose (and spreadsheets) - Previewing the Autumn Statement and the tough choices the government now faces, Andy Westwood takes us on the walk down Hammond's Passage. It's dark, narrow and full political and economic dangers of all kinds. 
2. Lessons from the front line of industrial strategy policy - Maddaliane Ansell of University Alliance used to lead the government's industrial strategy work as a civil servant, and here she discusses what works and what to look out for as the new government tries to square a great many circles

Delivering Diamond: The future of HE in Wales

Wednesday 7th December, Cardiff

Wonkhe and The Open Univeristy in Wales present a free conference to discuss the impact and implications of the Diamond Review of Welsh HE. Speakers include a keynote from Education Secretary Kirsty Williams. Space is limited so don't delay in booking. The agenda has been updated with new speakers - find out more and register here

New on Wonkhe

Independence and union(s): Universities, Brexit and the future of the Scottish Funding Council - Lucy Hunter Blackburn looks at the little-noticed move to abolish the Scottish Funding Council in the context of Brexit and a febrile political climate that could see a second independence referendum and asks how universities should best navigate the waters. 

The government must clarify its Brexit priorities for HE: Neil Carmichael MP, chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee explains why it is vital for the sector to support the Committee's inquiry into HE and Brexit so that the government is held to account.

Casual comparisons

Last week the Guardian published a series of articles on the use of casual and insecure contracts in UK higher education. The series was prompted by UCU’s analysis of HESA data that claimed to show that over half of all academic staff in UK universities are on an insecure contract, with the numbers highest in Russell Group universities. The paper compared the situation to the now notorious employment practices used at Sports Direct.

However, it appears that this is a misinterpretation or indeed a misrepresentation of the HESA data. In an unusual move for the statistics agency, HESA weighed in to the debate, releasing a statement clarifying that the Guardian had combined two columns from the data, 'atypical' and 'fixed-term', which are counted separately from each other. Combining the two means that many staff may be being double-counted, and so HESA say that “a sum of individuals with fixed-term and atypical contracts does not give a meaningful picture of staff resources.”

The picture of employment practices across the sector has been known to be murky for some years. A report published last year by the New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES), which comprises representatives of trade unions and employers, stated that it is “difficult to capture trends in the use of hourly-paid and casual staff in the sector”, particularly related to zero-hours contracts. The report shows that fixed-term contracts for academics are indeed very common, comprising 25% of full-time academics and 56% of part-time academics (36% total). However, ‘atypical’ contracts are much lower than the Guardian reported, at only 3.6% of academic staff.

It appears that the use of flexible and insecure contracts is a growing concern for many staff in the sector, and the trade unions have made it a significant complaint in their current round of industrial action. They argue that “the pendulum has swung too far in favour of flexibility at the expense of employment security and fairness”. However, it seems the comparison of early career researchers and PhD students to staff at Sports Direct may perhaps be stretching the analogy too far. Nonetheless, this is clearly an issue that will not go away, and universities will need to be increasingly wise to the bad feeling that using casual employment methods might create.

The Wonkhe Daily:
stay ahead of the HE agenda

Written by our team of HE wonks, the Wonkhe Daily is an email briefing sent every morning before work to thousands of HE professionals. The Daily sets the sector's agenda for the day ahead, analyses the latest policy developments, what's in the news, and everything going on in UK HE that you need to know about. 

Find out more here.

You might also have missed on Wonkhe

Alex Bols of GuildHE argues that a postgraduate TEF might not be necessary or welcome. In Revolution Stalled?, Richard Fisher reviews the past few years of Open Access policy and where it's all heading. And Paul Greatrix on Registrarism returned to the burgeoning world of international branch campuses in Branching Out.

The rest of this week's higher education agenda

Monday 21st November

  • It’s the Third Reading and Report Stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill in the House of Commons.
  • The House of Lords will hear a question on the impact of EU withdrawal on medical research and innovation.
  • It’s the penultimate day of the ARC Conference and Exhibition.
  • The Social Partnership Network and Action on Access are hosting a one-day event on Re-thinking the tertiary system in London.
  • HEFCW is releasing an updated version of the 2013 report on International Comparative Performance of the Welsh Research Base.
  • University Alliance is releasing its Lifelong Learning Manifesto.
  • It’s the first day of the UK NARIC Conference.

Tuesday 22nd November

  • It’s the final day of the ARC Conference and Exhibition.
  • Kirsty Williams, Welsh Education Secretary, will release a technical briefing on the Welsh Government’s consultation on the Diamond Review.
  • It’s the final day of the UK NARIC Conference.
  • The Scottish Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee is meeting.
  • There will be an Opposition Day Debate in the House of Commons on education and social mobility.
  • The House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is meeting to discuss industrial strategy.
  • OIA is hosting a webinar on Plagiarism and Academic Misconduct.
  • It’s the first day of the GuildHE Annual Conference & AGM 2016 and GuildHE will also publish Active Citizenship: Role of Higher Education
  • The economic value of creative focused universities and colleges (GuildHE, HEAD Trust and UKADIA)

Wednesday 23rd November

  • Universities UK is hosting an event on research in higher education alongside the launch of the research concordat.
  • It’s the second and final day of the GuildHE Annual Conference & AGM 2016.
  • The Leadership Foundation is hosting governor roundtable on the efficiency agenda London.
  • It’s the Athena SWAN Ireland Seminar and Awards Reception.
  • UCEA is hosting an event in London on Grievance and disciplinary investigations.
  • There will be a House of Commons debate about the effect of exiting the EU on higher education.
  • The Welsh government’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee is provisionally meeting.

Thursday 24th November

  • The Office for National Statistics will release numbers on young people not in education, employment or training.
  • There is a CGHE seminar on Responsible Metrics in London.
  • The Welsh government’s Children, Young People and Education Committee meets today.
  • Jisc is hosting an NHS-HE forum.
  • OIA is holding a webinar on The Good Practice Framework.
  • The Leadership Foundation is hosting an event on Making Governance Work in London.

Friday 25th November

  • UCU has its National Executive Committee meeting.
  • There is an ECU webinar on diversifying your recruitment process.
  • UCEA is hosting an event in London on Campus communications challenges - managing in the age of Brexit and social media.
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