Everything going on in UK higher education
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Good morning, It's the week of the presidential inauguration so you-know-who will be dominating the news this week. But back at home the debate over the Higher Education and Research Bill in the House of Lords continues after a dramatic and sometimes surprising week, there are signs of recovery as we pass the 15th January applications deadline and Theresa May finally sets out her Brexit stall. We round up today's blogs, everything else going on, what you might have missed on Wonkhe and the rest of the week's HE agenda. Have a great week. 

Mark Leach, Editor

That was the week that was

The first week of the Higher Education & Research Bill's Lords Committee stage has certainly been interesting - but also confusing for the casual observer. According to an initial Guardian headline, the Higher Education and Research Bill had been defeated by a Lords vote on Monday night. It wasn’t - after a vote, a symbolic opposition amendment on university autonomy was added to the Bill against the government's wishes. It was a significant moment, but there was much public confusion about what had happened and why and many on social media seemed to celebrate a total defeat of the Bill that never happened. 

Shortly after the vote, Jo Johnson described the move as evidence of a university "closed shop" and "cartel" and Toby Young suggested it was a “wrecking amendment” signifying a “tsunami of opposition” to sector reform. Meanwhile, Nick Hillman of HEPI felt the new clause represented “a boxer punching himself in the face in a vain attempt to hurt his opponent”, and Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Shadow Lords Education Spokesperson and notorious hotel curtain arsonist) thought that the government “spurned an opportunity to take away for consideration the definition of a university and the guarantee of institutional autonomy and academic freedom”.

The Committee Stage in the House of Lords is usually a more sedate affair. Peers read through the text, propose amendments and debate each of these proceeding through the Bill and schedules as marshalled. Generally either the debates themselves or issues raised regarding the Bill are reflected in government amendments. But there's also a political game played alongside the proper legislative scrutiny, where the passage of a bill with few or no opposition amendments is seen as evidence of a strong government or minister. It is through this lens we should see both Jo Johnson’s bitter response to the vote and the high-minded 'public good' commentary from Labour Peers: Johnson wants to be seen as strong and capable and the opposition want to disguise their arguments as being to the benefit of the final legislation.

But the addition of the New Clause One on university autonomy is purely political, and the whirlwind of rhetoric about the 'willingness of the sector to change' or the government to accept the need to 'safeguard the system' is all part of the phoney war: both sides just need to hammer each other as much as possible. It is difficult to imagine how the new clause would even be implemented - it is not clear that the definition puts a legal requirement on universities or constrains the actions of future universities and thus the ability of the sector to change. It simply acts as an explanatory preamble with little legal significance.

Yet the fact that the clause now sits within the Bill ensures that the text must be reconsidered by both MPs and Lords and so there will be a certain amount of 'ping pong' between the two Houses of Parliament before the Bill can pass into law. This could embolden Lords to suggest further changes that they feel could be won if taken to a vote. But don't hold your breath - votes at this point (never mind a government defeat) are very rare. And Thursday's session, where a passionate debate on the treatment of international students in immigration statistics could well have ended up with another defeat at vote but didn't, implies Peers are unlikely to use this tactic repeatedly. 

This week should see faster progress through the Bill, as many key debates have already happened alongside earlier clauses. Potential highlights for today's session would be Lady Royall and Lady Garden’s proposed addition to Clause 5 adding students to the Electoral Register, other amendments constraining the powers of the Office for Students and HE Minister, and on the information that providers should supply to prospective students.

Read more:

As a side note, wonk historians may be struck by the similarities between the debate on institutional autonomy that has been playing out in recent days and the tone of the 1985 Jarrett Review on University Efficiency. In the 80s it was recognised that universities did have significant autonomy, but that this was constrained by requirements around responsibility for public funds and often negated by short-term and reactive governance that failed to see the larger picture. In 2016 requirements around the use of funds have been replaced by requirements to return evidence of progress (in the form of data and metrics) against policy goals at a national level. So short-termism is arguably still built into decision-making at an institutional level by a need to react to changing governmental expectations. Do institutions now have more or less autonomy than in the Thatcher years? Discuss.

15th Jan Deadline

As we reported at the end of last year, applications in this recruitment cycle have been down around 10% on average which was making a lot of institutions very nervous heading into the Christmas break. However, our intel suggests that the year on year applications situation improved in time for yesterday's all-important January 15th applications deadline. Although still down, it’s likely that the overall figure heading into the deadline was more like 2% across the sector. It is still the case that the shortfall is not simply impacting one group of universities although lower tariff institutions are suffering more than most and among these, there will have been a small number of big losers in this cycle. It’s also clear that there has been a significant drop in applications for subjects allied to medicine, likely to have been influenced by the changes in the funding arrangements for those courses (switching grants to loans). And it seems the impact of the acknowledged UK-wide demographic drop in the number of 16-18-year-olds is also playing a part. UCAS will release the official figures up to the January 15th Deadline next month, and we’ll analyse them in detail on the site when they do.

New today on Wonkhe

Nick Petford, vice chancellor of the University of Northampton looks to the example of the natural world and asks why universities (and almost everyone else) are so rubbish at predicting the future?

Ant Bagshaw writes on our Team Blog about the lessons we've learned about what works for universities in their lobbying efforts. 

BrHExit Watch

Tomorrow, Theresa May is due to give a long-awaited speech on Brexit and the government's position beyond 'Brexit means Brexit'. From early lines briefed over the last few days, we can surmise that Brexit means a withdrawal from the customs union and single market. David Davis said yesterday that there may be some scope to have a transitional arrangement with the EU after we leave - but it's looking increasingly likely that we're heading for a very hard Brexit indeed. 

Last week, the House of Commons Education Committee went on the road to Oxford to hear from two panels on what Brexit would mean for UK higher education. Sector representatives queued up to explain why Brexit will be bad for UK universities; lines which were widely reported in the press. 

HEPI and Kaplan International have published a report which models the future of international student recruitment to the UK, based on the impact of Brexit and other global changes. It shows that universities could witness a fall of EU students as they move to pay the more expensive international fees post-Brexit. However, universities could stand to gain financially from those EU students who are willing to pay the higher fees, adding up to an extra £187m, even if their numbers fell by up to 57%. The depreciation of Sterling relative to other currencies could also increase international enrolments into UK HE by an additional 20,000 students. However, this will be at risk if the Home Office limits numbers of overall international students. Such a policy, according to the data, could ultimately lead to a loss of nearly £2bn annually - from direct tuition fee income, non-tuition fee expenditure and losses in university supply chains.

The Inside Track:

Understanding Politics & Policy

It’s more important than ever for UK universities to engage with Europe: Wonkhe and Ranmore have developed an engagement programme for university leaders to understand the workings of the EU and its institutions through an immersive two days in Brussels.

What else is going on?

IDP acquires Hotcourses 

Jeremy Hunt is in the spotlight today thanks to receiving a large payout from the sale of an 'education business' (as is being reported). The education business in question is Hotcourses which he co-founded and ran for many years and now runs sites like Whatuni, Postgraduate Search and The Complete University Guide. It was announced this morning that IDP Education, the well-known Australian based international student recruitment company, is buying Hotcourses for £30.1m: an interesting move for keen watchers of education businesses and thanks to the Hunt connection, is unusually all over the press this morning. 

HESA Stats

HESA has released data on student enrolments and qualifications across the UK: among the headlines was the fact that part-time education continues to decline and has seen a further 5% drop. Overall international (non-EU) numbers have declined by 1% from last year, although some parts of the UK have suffered more than others e.g. Wales which saw an 11% decrease in non-EU students from 2014/15 to 2015/16. 

The figures also point to changing trends in international recruitment over the last five years. From the EU, Italy has increased the most (+4,125 students), while numbers are dropping from Germany (-2,560) and Ireland (-4,125). Enrolment from Indian students has almost halved from 29,900 to 16,745 in five years. Enrolment from China was up to 91,215 (+12,500).

The number of students qualifying with first and upper second class degrees continues to steadily increase, from 66% in 2011/12 to 73% in 2015/16 fuelling fears about grade inflation; a story splashed across the papers last week in the wake of the stats release. The data also comes along with some rather pretty interactive charts to keep the wonks busy. 


Rows over the future of the Scottish Funding Council continue. The issue was debated in the Scottish Parliament last week with several MSPs criticising the move to merge the SFC into a much bigger body. The sector has used the opportunity to up the lobbying effort in an attempt to save the funding council. Further news expected in the Spring. 

Integrity Inquiry

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has launched an inquiry into research integrity. The inquiry follows a recently published report by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which finds that misconduct and mistakes remain on an upwards trend, and calls for a regulatory body to oversee publicly-funded research - something which could presumably come under the purview of UKRI. The deadline for submitting evidence to the inquiry is 10th March.

FE Area Reviews

The government has published ‘wave 3’ of the reports for its area reviews of further education which will force a major shakeup for colleges and will have implications for local relationships as well as HE-in-FE delivery, and pathways into universities. The reviews aim “to move towards fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers.” Releases from the last week included: Hampshire, Liverpool, Cumbria, Coventry and Warwickshire, and the Black Country. Wave 3 also includes London, though those reports have yet to be released. You can find the area review documents here

You might have missed on Wonkhe

Jim Dickinson has been on the road learning lessons from the A47 and the university bubble and has made some New Year's resolutions for the HE sector to think smarter about its engagement with its communities. 

Following debates in the House of Lords about essay mills and plagiarism, Registarism returns to the issue, arguing that we need to do more to tackle the issue.

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 all new media coverage to parliamentary activity. Written by our team of HE wonks, the Daily stays on top of every twist and turn so that you don't have to. 

Also on this week's HE agenda

Monday 16th January

  • HEFCE is holding a REF consultation event in London.
  • It's the third session of the Committee Stage in the House of Lords for the Higher Education and Research Bill.

Tuesday 17th January

  • GuildHE is holding its Widening Participation network meeting.
  • HEFCE is announcing the outcomes of funding applications for museums, galleries and collections.

Wednesday 18th January

  • The Welsh Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee will meet.
  • The Scottish Education and Skills committee will have a 'question time’ in parliament.
  • It's the fourth session of the Committee Stage in the House of Lords for the Higher Education and Research Bill.
  • HEFCE is launching its National Networks for Collaborative Outreach website’s resource pool.

Thursday 19th January

  • GuildHE is having its Executive and Council meetings.
  • HESA will publish its statistical first release on staff at higher education providers in the UK, for the academic year 2015/16.
  • The Welsh Assembly’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee will meet.
  • CGHE is hosting a seminar in London on ‘Charting equity: drawing the global higher education access map’.

Friday 20th January

  • GuildHE is hosting a Department for Education organised meeting for the Disabled Students' Sector Leadership Group.
  • HEFCE is hosting a REF consultation event in Glasgow.

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

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