Everything going on in UK higher education
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Good morning, the government has announced its candidate for OfS chair, the next stage of the controversial sale of student loans has begun, Offa guidance brings the government's universities/schools policy into sharper focus, there's the latest optimistic round up of everything BrHExit, we break down what else is 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

Instructed to deliver

The government has announced that its preferred candidate for Chair of the Office for Students is Sir Michael Barber. This will be a hugely important role in the sector – and, thankfully, we know a great deal about the person now likely to take it on.

Sir Michael Barber first entered the public eye in 1995, as an independent expert (then a Professor of Education at Keele University) brought in to recommend the closure of Hackney Downs School. Before this, he served as the head of Education at Hackney Council, a teacher of history, and a press officer at the infamously militant NUT. He's best known for his work in Tony Blair’s administration – first on education strategy, and then with Blair himself in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. Target-driven Blairite initiatives, for example around hospital waiting times, bear the hallmarks of what began to be known – at first in jest, then in earnest – as Michael Barber’s ‘deliverology’.

Following this, Barber moved on to global education development with McKinsey and then Pearson as Chief Education Adviser. He was an instrumental member of the Browne Review, in which his focus on data, metrics and what can perhaps be called ‘co-payment’ is clearly visible. It is a strange quirk of political history that he will now chair the organisation created by the Browne reforms which effectively sealed HEFCE’s fate in the big switch from central grant funding to higher tuition fees. Others may try and trace the ideological threads from the Blair to Cameron/Johnson years more closely.

Readers may remember Barber's 'An Avalanche is Coming', the extremely poorly-received report, which caught the ‘disruptive edtech’ bubble perfectly and displayed both the ambition and lack of understanding that characterised that movement. We reviewed it on Wonkhe at the time. 

The appointment follows a recent trend of private sector educationalists being appointed to significant public roles by this and the last government. Barber follows Amanda Spielman at Ofsted (formerly of ARK schools), Roger Taylor at Ofqual (entrepreneur, also worked at Pearson), Anthony Jenkins at the Institute of Apprenticeships (formerly chairman of Barclays) and Rona Fairhead - head of the BBC Trust and another Pearson alum - to name just a few.

To OfS, Michael Barber will bring a focus on metrics, measurement and league tables. Work, for example, on Learning Gain will be music to his ears, as will the Teaching Excellence Framework, itself already carrying many echoes of the Barber approach.

All of this continues to point to the ‘buffer’ role that HEFCE plays falling away with the rise of OfS. The proposals for OfS and the new system outlined in the Higher Education and Research Bill already detail an organisation far more attuned to delivering government priorities in HE than the traditional approach of a funding council. This will suit him well: throughout his career, Barber has seen policy as something to be delivered rather than deliberated, and this change in attitude may wrong-foot many vice chancellors used policymaking during the HEFCE years.

The appointment is subject to Parliamentary approval - the Education Committee will interview Michael Barber in a public session on 21st February. The Committee doesn't pull its punches if it doesn't like a candidate: last year it rejected Amanda Spielman for the Ofsted job. However, ministers are able to overrule this, making Barber's appointment all but guaranteed. The deadline to apply for OfS's Chief Executive is today, so we can expect an announcement about that other crucial role in the coming months. 

Read More:

Trotter's Traders for securitised loans?

Just an hour after we sent out last Monday’s briefing, Jo Johnson confirmed in a written ministerial statement that a tranche of student loans belonging to about half a million graduates in England who entered repayment between 2002 and 2006 (about £4bn's worth) will be sold. This has been a long time coming: the Labour government passed the necessary legislation to allow the sale in 2008. 

However, unlike in previous sales of student loans (readers may remember the controversy over a sale in 2013), the government is selling securities tied to future repayments of the loans, rather than the full rights to the loans themselves. This means that the borrowers affected will notice no difference: they will still make their payments to the Student Loans Company as before, and the purchasers of the securities will not be able to change the repayment terms.

The real drive behind the sale is the politics of deficit reduction: the government hopes to make a quick buck today instead of waiting for the very slow trickle of future graduate repayments. The loan sale has been widely criticised as short-termist and a poor deal for taxpayers, including in authoritative critiques in the FT and the Economist last week. However, as student loans expert Andrew McGettigan has pointed out, the sale of these securities is so complex that it will be very easy for the government to claim that it has secured a “fair value” for the loans even if it has not. 

NUS has launched a campaign opposing the sale by comparing Theresa May and Philip Hammond to Del and Rodney Trotter, calling the move “financially illiterate”.

ALMOST FULL: UPP Foundation / Wonkhe Policy Forum: 
Does UK HE have a retention problem?

23rd March, London

UPP Foundation and Wonkhe continue our regular series of policy and networking evenings on the student journey. The panel includes: Ross Renton, Pro-Vice Chancellor Students at the University of Worcester Sorana Vieru, Vice President of HE at the National Union of Students and Alex Proudfoot, Chief Executive at Independent HE. The event, as always, is followed by lively drinks and networking.
Book your free place now.

School partnership policy gets real 

Offa has released its guidance for next year's access agreements and although the sector is still waiting on the outcomes of the recent government consultation on compulsory school sponsorship, the guidance has brought the issue forward substantially, making “a strong expectation that we will see greater numbers of higher education providers sponsoring schools (either as main sponsor or co-sponsor) or with advanced plans to do so”. 

The idea of compulsory school sponsorship was first announced by Theresa May back in September, and clearly the impetus for it continues to come from the very top of government. No.10 released a statement strongly welcoming the guidance last week - notable as it's unusual for the PM to comment on the usually more technocrat policy churn around university access initiatives. It is significant that one of May’s top advisors, Nick Timothy, was previously Director of the New Schools Network, and is determined to ensure the continued growth of free schools and academies by finding new secure sponsoring organisations and universities are ideal candidates. 

Since September, sector representatives have expressed unease about compulsory sponsorship, arguing that it will divert attention and funds from existing widening participation and fair access activity covered by access agreements. According to research by HEFCE, approximately sixty universities are already involved in sponsoring schools. Yet their experiences have not been universally positive: there are plenty examples of both success and failure in this endeavour.

Many more universities have well-established partnership programmes with schools and will continue to hope that these will cut the mustard for the new guidance which does state that “other significant partnerships, support and activity with schools” come within its scope. But political pressure from above may make Offa's job difficult when it comes to granting exemptions to full sponsorship arrangements.

Elsewhere in schools news, the Commons Education Select Committee is expected to release a report tomorrow which will strongly criticise the reintroduction of selection in secondary schools. The Times revealed last week that Downing Street plans for these new schools to be “super-selective”, and that ministers and officials believe critics of selection have “little or no evidence” to support their objections. Get ready for an ugly showdown on the issue.

BrHExit Watch

The sector may well wonder if their interests are being looked after by the government as we inch closer to the formal start of the Brexit process. On Friday, The Times revealed that a government paper in November had ranked British industries into high, medium and low priority areas for the Brexit negotiations. Good news: education is considered a "low priority", along with oil and gas, steel, medicine, and environmental services. High priority sectors listed include pharmaceuticals, financial services, and automotive industries.

It should be stressed that the list does not rank industries by how important the government thinks they are. Rather, it is a reflection of how intertwined with the EU the government believes each sector is, and how much attention will be needed over the coming two years. Yet universities leaders may beg to differ, with roughly £1 billion of annual research funding on the line, not to mention the £3.7 billion economic contributions of EU students or £17.5 billion of exports. That dependence is, of course, spread very unevenly across the country, with some institutions’ research income almost entirely reliant on European sources. The sector will also be massively affected by decisions made in negotiations on the movement of labour and movement of students. 

Elsewhere, Robin Walker, a minister in DExEU, confirmed that his department is considering appointing a Chief Scientific Adviser. Many in the research community hope that the role could be an important champion of the sector ‘on the inside’ of the Brexit negotiations. That said, Stephen Metcalfe MP, chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, complained in a letter to Sir Mark Walport last week about the length of time it has taken some departments to appoint new scientific advisors, suggesting officials are generally not in a hurry to take on scientific advice.

If all this isn’t enough to raise eyebrows, the Economist is reporting that the EU is hardening its negotiation stance ahead of March. The UK’s outstanding liabilities to the EU - estimated at somewhere between £20 billion and £60 billion - could dominate negotiations in such a way that the aforementioned £1 billion of research funding may not even be close to getting a hearing.

Shakespeare Martineau is looking for your opinion on what you think the impact of Brexit will be on the UK and education sector. Your views will be included in a report and those who share their opinions (which takes less than ten minutes) will be included in a prize draw to win an iPad Air. Click here to participate in the survey. Please ensure you select ‘Education’ as your sector.


Politics & Policy

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

Find out more

What else is going on

CMA ruling at UEA

A ruling by the Competition and Markets Authority in a case at the University of East Anglia has caused controversy about the rights of student consumers and possible infringements on academic freedom.

Students had complained that they had not been sufficiently notified that compulsory modules had been introduced onto their course after receiving an offer from the university. After having their complaint rejected by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which ruled that UEA had not breached its own rules, the CMA asked UEA to change its policy to consider the introduction of compulsory modules as a “substantial change” to any course being offered. This would require more “timely information” being provided to students when such changes are made in the future.

The CMA ruling concerns not just changes to the structure of the course itself, but rather the extent to which students and applicants should be notified and/or consulted on such changes. However, this perceived additional restriction on making adjustments to course content is viewed by some as an intrusion by a non-sector market regulator into the sensitive subject of course content. It is well known that many universities still have work to do to meet the CMA’s guidance on contract rules with students, and it would not be surprising to see similar interventions to come at other universities. 

On the site, UEA students' union chief exec Jim Dickinson argues why the ruling is good for students and the wider debate about what students should expect at university.

Diamond deadline

Welsh universities have been busy preparing their responses to the Welsh Government’s consultation on funding reforms recommended by the Diamond Review. Most of the content of the consultation focuses on practical implementation issues, but there are some interesting policy areas up for grabs, including the availability of student support for equivalent or lower qualifications studied part-time, support for student carers, and the consequences of moving to monthly maintenance payments. The consultation ends tomorrow and can be found here.

Meanwhile, Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams has confirmed that the Welsh Government will be introducing a system of postgraduate loans equivalent to the English system in time for the 2017-18 academic year. This is subject to the Welsh Assembly approving regulations in the Spring.

SFC Allocations

In Scotland, the SFC announced its indicative funding allocations for universities and colleges on Friday morning. The settlement is a flat cash allocation for universities, which will no doubt pose issues as universities deal with both general inflation and increased costs relating to the fall in the value of Sterling. You can find the breakdown on institutional allocations here

Independent HE acquires new members

Independent HE has announced today that BPP University, the London Institute of Banking and Finance, and Pearson College will be joining the group, further cementing the group's position as representing the 'respectable' end of the challenger sector.

Free speech 'rankings' 

Spiked has published its third Free Speech University Rankings. The politically-charged magazine surveys universities, examining the policies and actions of universities and students' unions, including anecdotes and press coverage, to rank them with a red, amber or green traffic-light award. The methodology may well be beyond proper scrutiny, but the rankings do have an ability to make a splash in sections of the press that are hungry to paint life on British campuses as chilling outposts of political correctness. Heaven forbid. 

You might have missed on Wonkhe

David Morris gives a provocative perspective on all the hand-wringing over the question of the teaching and research divide. 

Was the Bell Review lacking consideration of the devolved nations? Alastair Robertson argues that it is time for a rationalisation of Scotland’s distinctive sector agencies.

The UK sector should look to the US for tools to better understand the international student market and the social and economic benefits it brings to local communities and regions, argues Joe Avison.

From the mean streets of the University of Nottingham, Registrarism has part 2 of the best of True Crime on Campus. Also on Registrarism: students are getting paid to share their lecture notes, but is it a slippery slope towards selling essays?

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 13th February

  • The Leadership Foundation will launch its Executive Leaders programme.
  • HEA and Ranmore are hosting a week long residential, 'Global Insights', in Australia for vice chancellors and senior leaders.
  • CREST is holding a research communication workshop at the Design Museum, London.
  • Vince Cable will deliver the Roscoe Lecture at Liverpool John Moores University.

Tuesday 14th February

  • HEA is hosting its monthly virtual reading group on 'Missing: evidence of a scholarly approach to teaching and learning with technology in higher education'.
  • The House of Commons Education Select Committee will release report on grammar schools.
  • It’s the deadline for the Welsh Government’s consultation on proposals in response to the Diamond Review.
  • Policy UK is hosting an event on Promoting Excellent Research in London.
  • ESRC and LLAKES co-host a seminar on Lifelong Learning.

Wednesday 15th February

  • SRHE host an event on Pedagogy and Innovation in London.
  • Independent Higher Education will host two meetings: a Student Services Staff Network, and Quality Managers Staff Network at The London Institute of Banking & Finance.

Thursday 16th February

  • University Alliance Registrars & Chief Operating Officers’ Network will meet.
  • Education Secretary Justine Greening will visit the Open University in Milton Keynes.
  • The Welsh Assembly will release its monthly update on student support applications for higher education.

Friday 17th February

  • GuildHE is hosting its students' unions network in London.
  • UCU will hold its Equality Reps Conference in London.
  • It’s the AMOSSHE winter conference on Engaging Communities in Manchester.

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

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