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Good morning. The consultation on the next REF has given the sector much to chew on ahead of the holiday. There's mixed opinion about the impact of Brexit on universities. Debates at NUS are getting toxic ahead of a review of racism. UCAS publishes the End of Cycle report this week and a host of consultations come to an end. We round up everything you might have missed on Wonkhe and the rest of the week's HE agenda.

Have a great week,
Mark Leach, Editor

Merry REFmas

It's Christmas-come-early for the research wonks: on behalf of all the UK funding councils, HEFCE has published its consultation for the next Research Excellence Framework - REF2021. And so the mammoth task of designing and implementing the new framework, which matters so much to UK universities, has begun. The proposals follow the Stern Review of the REF, released in the summer, which has given HEFCE the starting point on which to build the next exercise. The consultation revolves around several key themes, including reducing the burden of the exercise, particularly on individual staff, broadening the definition of impact, recognising interdisciplinarity, and limiting the ability for universities to 'game' the REF. 

Stern recommended that all staff should be submitted to the REF, one of the more controversial proposals being taken forward. So HEFCE is seeking the sector’s views on the use of HESA data to classify all active researchers. There are big outstanding questions about the variable number of outputs to be submitted per staff member, and how staff numbers will be calculated over a period of time. HEFCE is also seeking views on how to mitigate the negative effects on early career researchers of one of Stern’s most contentious proposals: ending the ‘portability’ of outputs between institutions. There are also important issues to consider on diversifying the membership of assessment panels, open-access, and the continued balance of metrics and peer-review in the exercise.

It's clear that HEFCE will have its work cut out to balance the competing interests of academic disciplines and groups of universities while also creating a REF that is fair, equitable and representative of high-quality research in the UK. Particularly as the organisation would not be taking many aspects of the Stern proposals forward if left to their own devices: the risk of unintended consequences and practical difficulties in implementation is high. The consultation was therefore designed to be as open as possible in the hope that practical solutions can be found to making work the big changes that Stern proposed. 

But a fundamental question now hangs over the whole document: how serious is the HE community about overhauling the REF? To borrow from the Brexit lexicon, will we see 'Hard Stern': the full, interlocking package of measures that were recommended by Lord Stern back in July? These will undoubtedly solve some of the flaws of the last assessment exercise, but potentially at the cost of adding new problems to the mix. Or will the sector push back, and talk up technical difficulties and unanticipated effects as the basis for 'Soft Stern' - a 2021 exercise that is far closer to REF2014?

The consultation runs until 17th March and departments, universities and sector organisations will need to think deeply about their tactics over the coming weeks and so we'll know soon enough which interpretation of the Stern proposals we'll end up with for the next REF. In the meantime, James Wilsdon has talked to experts across the sector, and this morning offers the most comprehensive analysis yet of the promises, pitfalls and uncertainties on the road to REF2021. If you’re responding to the consultation, or simply worrying about what the next REF will mean for you, then you need to start here.

Also on Wonkhe:

BrHExit Watch: Mixed messages

The cat was set amongst the pigeons at the end of last week as the House of Commons Education Select Committee published the written responses to its inquiry on Brexit's impact on HE. The University of Cambridge's submission warned that its applications from EU students were already down 14% this year and that they overall anticipated EU recruitment to fall by two-thirds post-Brexit: an alarming prediction that was widely reported in the press. However, the coverage of the submissions was mixed, leading to a slightly muddled crop of headlines. Universities UK hoped to send a more resolute message to parliamentarians with its submission to avoid being tagged as ‘Remoaners’, and only some papers wrote up their claim that UK universities would "thrive" post-Brexit. 

The conflicting messaging reflects the challenge facing the sector heading towards Brexit. Countless Westminster insiders have advised the sector that merely catastrophising about Brexit will win few favours in stretched Whitehall departments looking for solutions to the problems that Brexit will cause. Yet it is hard to avoid Cambridge's warnings, which carry real weight in the debate.

By happenstance, David Davis was in Cambridge last Thursday and met academics, local businesses, and researchers from AstraZeneca and Cancer Research UK. The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) put a positive spin on the visit, but we can only assume (and hope) that there was a frank exchange of views behind closed doors on the challenges ahead.

On Wonkhe:

Universities are struggling to win the debate on international students because they are preaching to the choir. Sunder Katwala of British Future sets out a strategy for the sector to reach out beyond the usual suspects.

Students at war

Today sees the release of the long-awaited review into alleged institutional racism at the National Union of Students. The review began in summer 2015 after NUS President Malia Bouattia - at the time the union’s Black Students’ Officer - alleged that the organisation was rife with racism. Bouattia herself has been accused of anti-Semitism and the review was subsequently broadened to consider issues of anti-Semitism within NUS.

The review comes at a time of deep divisions in the student movement and an increasingly poisonous political culture, often centred around issues of race. Before a meeting of the National Executive Council last week, a Jewish member of the Council blogged about why she would not attend the meeting due to feeling “unsafe and unwelcome” in the presence of members who she argued have a history of anti-Semitism. During the meeting itself, black members of the Council walked out in protest at what they argued is “racism in NUS [that] plays out in a number of ways.” Bouattia herself was not present due to ill-health. The union is increasingly torn between politically moderate factions which accuse their opponents of anti-Semitism and more radical factions which respond with their own accusations of racism. Few if any players seem able to bridge the deeply-felt divide, probably the most fractured NUS has been in decades.

Meanwhile, the results of NUS’s national ballot on whether to “publish a risk assessment and equality impact assessment before finalising the NSS boycott/sabotage action” are understood to be imminent. The ballot was called by students’ unions concerned about the effect that a national boycott of NSS could have on their students, and it is clear that unions are increasingly divided on the issue, typically along moderate vs. radical lines. Voting closed last Thursday and, if accepted, the motion would effectively disrupt plans for a full national boycott. However, if the motion falls, it is still expected that many students’ unions will decline to participate in the boycott on their own campuses when the NSS opens in January. 

Learning to Wonk Before You Can Rant

Wonkhe is running a one-day workshop on policy analysis in Sheffield on 16th February 2017. To find out more, and to book your place, click here. 

Admission impossible 

Thursday is one of the big days in the HE calendar for data wonks, admissions geeks, WP practitioners and those in marketing, PR and recruitment comes as UCAS releases the End of Cycle Report for 2016 admissions. Though significant amounts of data have already been released about this year’s admissions cycle, including on applications, acceptances, and clearing, a picture of the whole cycle will show who has won, lost or stayed the same in the year gone by.

Since the abolition of student number controls the volatility in the admissions market means that making sense of each admissions cycle has become more and more important for institutions seeking to understand where they sit alongside their competitors. Universities are making more offers than ever, and also taking in far more students at Clearing in August and September. This is despite the number of ‘high performing’ applicants (those with ABB+ or equivalent) declining in both relative and absolute terms as the government combats supposed ‘grade inflation’ - competition for those applicants is now particularly fierce. As we reported in last week's briefing, there are increasing signs that the home student market is now beginning to flatline or decline, creating some very big institutional losers, and this week’s report will help us understand the extent to which that trend is already well underway and who is most vulnerable to further drops in recruitment.

Elsewhere, UCAS has had to defend the current admissions process after a report published by UCU last week highlighted disparities between predicted and actual A Levels received. It's another sign of the unpredictability in the recruitment market, as schools try to ‘play the game’ by over-predicting students’ attainment to secure offers, frustrated by their perception that universities' actual entry requirements are often less than those advertised. At the same time, universities are annoyed about the hit to applicants’ conversion rates if more fail to make their predicted grades, creating further confusion. However, post-qualification admissions, UCU’s proposed remedy to the situation, looks unlikely to be implemented in the near future. 

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 media coverage to parliamentary activity. Written by our team of HE wonks, we stay on top of every twist and turn with leading analysis to save you time and resources. 

What else is going on?

Consultation deadlines

Two important Westminster consultations close this week. Today, the DfE consultation on expanding selection in schools and requiring universities to set up or sponsor schools closes. The question of selection and grammar schools will no doubt occupy much of the department’s time, particularly when it releases the subsequent White Paper in the new year. If the requirement for universities to sponsor schools as part of their access agreements is taken forward, then expect this to take up a great deal of management time in the coming months and years. Our sense is that the sector is slowly coming around to the idea of universities having greater involvement in schools after initial scepticism, particularly from institutions without a history of such work. But there will no doubt be a diversity of views on exactly how this is best achieved.

On Friday, the consultations on part-time maintenance loans and doctoral student loans will also close. The proposal to introduce maintenance support have been generally welcomed across the sector and may be one step towards arresting the decline in part-time study. Proposals for doctoral maintenance loans are more curious, with little apparent demand within the sector to introduce them, reflected by the lack of debate about the issue. However, they may go some way to diversifying the pipeline of academic talent and opening it up to those unable to secure generous studentships.  

You might also have missed on Wonkhe

We held a conference in Cardiff last week on the Diamond Review which included speakers from across Welsh HE - you can catch up with the discussions on the live blog of the day. Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams also spoke at the conference and has written an accompanying article about the principles that underpin the delivery of the Diamond proposals. 

Ambitious Futures - the graduate training programme for people who want to work in the HE sector - is closing soon. Paul Greatrix has written about the scheme and why you should get involved.

Martin Vogel, a strategy consultant, has written about what universities can learn about public value from the experience of the BBC.

Sally Hunt, head of UCU, has argued that it's time to introduce a system of post-qualification admissions, on the back of a new report in to the issue.

Robert McLaren argues why the TEF could in fact be a positive thing for disabled students

Vicky Gunn of the Glasgow School of Art has written about the jurisdiction of the TEF and the complexities of devolution in English and Scottish higher education polucy. 
UUKi - Head of European Engagement
HEFCE - Senior Higher Education Policy Adviser (Institutions Team)

Also on this week's HE agenda

Monday 12th December

  • It's the deadline for the Department for Education consultation on ‘Schools that work for everyone’.
  • The House of Commons Treasury Select Committee is meeting to discuss the Autumn Statement 2016, with evidence from Chancellor Philip Hammond.
  • NUS will release its Institutional Racism Review.

Tuesday 13th December

  • The Bridge Group will host a debate and reception, in partnership with HEPI in London.
  • HEA is hosting a workshop on ‘Grow Your Skills: Embedding Employability in Arts and Humanities’ in Yorkshire.
  • Independent HE is hosting an event for its members to meet experts from UCAS in London.
  • Inside Government Forum is hosting an event on ‘The Future of Learning Gain in the Higher Education Landscape’, which will be chaired by Dave Phoenix, chair of Million Plus and vice chancellor of London South Bank University.
  • The House of Commons will have its 'question time' for the Department of Business, Energy and Strategy.

Wednesday 14th December

  • Wonkhe and Ranmore will be hosting the first day of ‘The Inside Track'.
  • The Institute for Government will be publishing a report on how Whitehall will handle Brexit.  
  • ECU is hosting its ‘BME Network of Networks: vision and impact’ event in London.
  • The House of Commons BEIS Select Committee will discuss industrial strategy. Lord Mandelson will be giving evidence.
  • The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee: Managing intellectual property and technology transfer
  • The House of Lords oral question: Amending the visa requirements for international students and removing them from the immigration figures

Thursday 15th December

  • It’s the second and final day of ‘The Inside Track’, hosted by Wonkhe and Ranmore.
  • CGHE is hosting a seminar on ‘Constructing the higher education student: comparisons across and within European nations’ in London.
  • House of Lords will hear an oral question on how to ensure the higher education sector is represented in all of the Brexit negotiations.
  • The Scottish Education and Skills Committee will meet.
  • UCAS will publish its end of cycle analysis report 2016.
  • Wonkhe will host its annual Christmas Quiz for HE sector organisations. 

Friday 16th December

  • The Department for Education’s consultations on part-time maintenance loans and postgraduate doctoral loans end today.
Keep up to date throughout the week on Wonkhe's HE calendar.
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