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Good morning, opposition in the House of Lords to the Higher Education and Research Bill has substantially heated up. We pick over the Budget and run down what it means for universities. The consultation on the next REF closes this week, there's likely to be big Brexit news this week and the new DLHE model is taking shape. As usual, we round up what else is going on, what you might have missed on Wonkhe and everything else on this week's HE agenda. Have a great week.

Mark Leach, Editor

What the TEF is going on in the Lords?

Today the Higher Education and Research Bill enters the third day of its Report stage in the House of Lords, and it’s in very different shape to this time last week. Cross-party opposition peers, with a little help from a couple of Conservatives, have taken a legislative sledgehammer to some of Jo Johnson’s central policy initiatives, defeating the government on a number of key points, at least for now.

As we stand, against the government’s wishes, the amended version of the Bill now allows for the following:

  • Any government ‘rating’ of universities (i.e. TEF) may not be used to set variable rates of tuition fees or to restrict recruitment of students, including international students. Peers argued that the exercise was not yet ready to be tied to universities’ income.
  • Any such government rating may not be a “single composite ranking” of higher education providers, and instead “must evaluate and report on whether an institution meets expectations or fails to meet expectations on quality measures”. This was an explicit vote of dissatisfaction by peers against the TEF’s three-medal rating system, effectively giving OfS powers for a pass/fail threshold for institutions.
  • The methodology of teaching evaluation must be evaluated by the Office for National Statistics, and approved by a resolution of both Houses of Parliament. Peers argued that the TEF’s current methodology is not sufficiently robust and has not been sufficiently scrutinised.
  • A higher bar has been set for new providers to receive degree-awarding powers. A new clause requires either a track-record of four years operating under a validation agreements with an existing provider or satisfying the needs of the OfS’s Quality Assessment Committee. And, in addition to either of those, OfS must be satisfied that the provider operates “in the public interest and in the interest of students.” Peers argued that a four-year track record is essential to protect the quality and reputation of the sector. With the Quality Assessment Committee constituted of HE practitioners, this is a protectionist move designed to make it more difficult for new entrants to award degrees.
  • Students should be automatically placed on the electoral register, reversing the effects of Individual Electoral Registration introduced in 2014, which saw huge numbers of students drop off the register.
  • Appeals against a variation or revocation of a higher education providers’ authorisation by the OfS to grant degrees have been altered to replace a narrow list of options with, “the grounds that the decision was wrong”. This was a more technical point, aiming to increase providers’ scope for appeal if they find themselves in conflict with the OfS.

TEF, in particular, has taken a bit of a hammering. Peers have criticised, amongst other things, the use of a medal rating system, the metrics including NSS and DLHE, the lack of parliamentary oversight of the methodology, and the benchmarking which means only a relatively small portion of institutions would obtain Gold (not everyone can be above average).

None of the noble Lords expressed opposition to increasing tuition fees annually by inflation; their objection to this policy is that the link with TEF means not all universities would be entitled to such an increase. The government could still award universities (perhaps all of those that meet the baseline quality threshold) the increase through a statutory instrument, as it has done for 2017 entry. But it is by no means certain to do so in the future without the quid pro quo of the TEF, and so when the dust settles on the Bill, the fee rises could be shelved altogether. Whether the government has the stomach for the ensuing fight with the sector (which had been expecting and planning for the rises) remains to be seen.


As the Report stage continues this week, the following proposed amendments could be flashpoints for debate and possible government defeat:

Amendment 145 which would prevent retrospective changes to the terms and conditions of student loans.

Amendment 146 prevents students in unincorporated higher education providers from fully accessing publicly funded student support.

Amendment 150 which will stipulate that students not “be treated for public policy purposes as a long-term migrant to the UK”. The amendment also aims to secure employment and immigration rights for foreign nationals working at higher education providers. Universities UK is briefing peers in support of this amendment.

Passing these amendments would be a big problem for the government, and it’s probably at this point that the Bill and associated debate moves firmly up No.10’s risk register. The peers’ revolt was not widely reported in the mainstream press last week, which was more preoccupied with covering the Budget, Brexit Bill, and grammar schools.

Amendment 150 on international students could reverse this. It’s a bit of a wildcard - not related to the Bill text itself, but an issue on which the Prime Minister does not have a clear majority in the Lords, nor possibly in the Commons, and not even around the Cabinet table. Theresa May is unlikely to want to suffer an embarrassing and very public defeat on the issue in Parliament and so may have to offer some sort of compromise to stop both Houses defeating her government. Despite trying to call a truce last week over the Bill, Universities UK is now lobbying furiously to ensure that 150 gets a hearing and the vote goes its way.  

What’s next?

There appear to be three main ‘endgame’ scenarios that could now play out when it comes to the future of the Bill, and particularly TEF which has had some of the roughest treatment in the debate.

Remember, anything changed in the Bill by Lords needs to be sent back for MPs to vote on, before being sent back again to the Lords for approval or rejection. Colloquially, it’s known as ‘ping pong’, and it's notorious for its ability to ramp up the political drama and the pressure on proposed legislation. Jo Johnson and his team will probably want to avoid having to go through the process if possible as it can be bruising, torturous and raises the prospect of further defeats.   

Scenario 1: Compromise before ping pong. This is probably the most likely outcome and would see a quiet resolution to the political standoff. Under this scenario, the government would propose some further compromise amendments that opposition peers would accept, and the House of Lords would remove the latest changes from the text before sending the Bill back to the House of Commons. For example, a further delay in the link between TEF and fees - to 2020, well after the ‘lessons learned’ exercise - may be enough for peers to back down on that point. Other similar compromises could satisfy peers on some of the other issues up for debate.

Scenario 2: No compromise and the government gets its way. If Lords decide that they don’t want to/can’t sustain a fight with the Commons during ping pong, the Bill would probably lose the wrecking amendments and the trajectory of policy would largely proceed as expected before the peers’ intervention. Let’s remember that differentiated fees aren’t anticipated until 2019 entry that is after TEF3; the results from May’s TEF2 exercise entitle all participating institutions to the full uplift.

Scenario 3: No compromise and the Lords win at least on some issues. It's an unlikely scenario, given it would require a rebellion of Conservative MPs to agree to the Lords’ amendments. However, the government only has a very small majority in the Commons so it wouldn't take many MPs to rebel. Opposition peers may sense an opportunity to keep pushing the amendments that could be won - Amendment 150 on counting international students as migrants could be a contender if there is no prior compromise. But if the TEF-related amendments were to pass, it would bring a whole new level of complication and it's hard to see what a completely revised TEF - perhaps no longer linked to fees and no longer ranked Gold, Silver and Bronze (and so lacking any monetary or reputational incentive), and overseen by Parliament - could look like. 

Read More:

As last week passed along we chronicled the successive struggles over the Bill in the Lords:

Monday: Government defeated in the Lords over TEF and fees
Tuesday: What the TEF is going on in the Lords?
Wednesday: They came in like a wrecking ball? Government defeated again in Lords
Also: Independent HE’s Alex Proudfoot made a case for keeping Clause 48 of the Bill (approved by peers), which allows for the OfS to provide a validation service.

Few Budget surprises

Behind the growing scuffle over increasing national insurance contributions for the self-employed, there were few surprises for universities in last week’s Budget. Many of the major announcements on education were trailed in the press beforehand, including funding from new free schools and the introduction of T-levels (see last week’s briefing).

Nonetheless, there was some extra detail on a few already known policy initiatives. The Budget confirmed the introduction of part-time undergraduate (degree level) maintenance loans and doctoral student loans in 2018-19. The following year will see maintenance loans for levels 4 and 5, and also distance learners though the government consultation response declares the need for “a robust control regime” because of fears over abuse of the system. The Open University, the institution with the most the benefit from support for distance learners, has expressed “deep concern” over delays to the loans’ introduction, and also at the announcement that distance learners will receive a smaller loan than other students.

Postgraduate and doctoral study has been called the ‘new frontier of widening participation’, though the government’s consultation response on doctoral student loans makes remarkably little mention of widening access. The one-off loan package of £25,000 towards fees and living costs is unlikely to be particularly comprehensive for most students, though it’s hard to know. There is a shortage of hard evidence about socioeconomic, gender and racial barriers to doctoral study. A review by OFFA in 2014 found that PhD students were more likely to be graduates of Russell Group and other research intensive universities, increasing the likelihood of unequal socio-economic access.

The overall spend on both part-time and doctoral loans is likely to be very small for the government, and further underlines how income contingent loans appear to have become a default response to policy problems in post-compulsory education. Income contingent loans have not been universally successful, such as for further education tuition at levels 3 and 4, and the new maintenance loans in that sector will also be very limited in scope.

Elsewhere in the Budget, £300 million of the National Productivity Investment Fund will be directed towards 1,000 new PhD places and fellowships for STEM subjects. Finally, the Office for Budget Responsibility’s economic forecast give us the approximate top level of tuition fees (Bill politics aside...) for the 2018-19 year: £9,546 (perhaps rounded to £9,550). This is based on 3.2% increase on the £9,250 fees for the 2017-18 academic year.

Read More: 

Policy Watch: What the Budget means for universities - by Ant Bagshaw and Nona Buckley-Irvine

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REF deadline

The consultation into changes for the second iteration of the Research Excellence Framework (2021) closes this Friday. HEFCE is running the consultation following the publication of Nicholas Stern’s review into REF which proposed a series of changes to the exercise, many of them minor tweaks to the process. But since the Stern review landed, there has been consternation on a number of issues including the requirement to submit all ‘research active’ staff to the exercise, and non-portability of outputs.

The politics and practicalities of implementing Stern's proposals have started a wide debate in the sector over the past few months. How exactly will an individual be judged as ‘research active’? When precisely does a research output ‘crystallise’, and therefore become non-portable? It is hoped that the consultation responses will provide workable answers to knotty issues which have the potential to cause significant work for institutions, further increasing the costly burden of REF participation.

Stern’s proposals aim to diminish the transfer market in which institutions with the deepest pockets buy in research stars - and their outputs produced elsewhere - in order to boost the REF return. But without clarity on the exact rules of this iteration of the great research game, institutions are finding it hard to plan for their researcher recruitment. Should they bring forward investment, while there’s still time for publications before the census date? Might early career researchers be given some flexibility about portability? And, if so, what defines ‘early career’?

With so much money and prestige riding on the exercise, the consultation results will be watched closely. If you haven’t started your response, you need to get your skates on. Those 44 questions - covering all aspects of Stern - won’t answer themselves.

BrHExit Watch

Do not panic, but this is not a drill! Rumours are that Theresa May is set to notify Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, formally of Britain’s intention to withdraw from the European Union this week, perhaps as early as tomorrow if the Brexit Bill can complete its passage through Parliament in time. Once Article 50 is triggered, the two-year countdown begins. You have been warned.

Over the weekend, The Sunday Times revealed that in the final reckoning of the UK’s accounts with the EU, Britain is entitled to €9bn of its money back from the European Investment Bank (EIB). This would be a significant credit against the possible €60bn exit bill. However, the EIB’s borrowers include a large number of UK universities: hundreds of millions of Euros have been lent to fund major investments at UCL, Lincoln and Newcastle amongst others. While the UK withdrawing its shareholding from EIB would be unlikely to result in an immediate demand for early repayment, borrowers may be concerned about the way the bank will manage its covenants with the universities.

The FT reported in January that the EIB president had said that Britain might be able to remain as a shareholder after Brexit. As with so much of the Brexit debate, there’s confusion between absolute amounts and the net impact after the UK has benefited from its funding, in this case, a capital investment. If we weren’t in the EIB, infrastructure funding for many UK projects - including major university building projects - will need to come from elsewhere.

Today's Times has a front page splash about a letter from 35 heads of Oxford colleges who are calling on the government to let EU workers stay in the UK. The letter appears to have been timed to create maximum impact ahead of the triggering of Article 50. 

Read More:

Policy Watch: Euratom: the biggest Brexit science problem you've never heard of - by Nona Buckley-Irvine

Learning to Wonk Before You Can Rant 

10th May: Bristol 
11th May: Milton Keynes

Back by popular demand, Learning to Wonk is our new workshop exploring HE policy and blogging. Wonkhe has developed Learning to Wonk to help bridge the gap between the experience, knowledge and skills in the HE community and the blog-based commentariat and we are pleased to offer two new dates.


HESA has launched the second and final consultation for the New DLHE – fully equipped with a proposed new model for the survey based on a nearly year-long review. The big headlines are a move to open centralisation, meaning the administration of the survey will be delivered by the third party provider rather than institutions themselves; an almost inevitable move made to remove institutions ‘gaming’ their DLHE outcomes.

The new survey will also now link to existing student identifier data, and most interestingly, to DfE’s LEO data on salary outcomes. Although this may be a concern for critics of TEF who dislike the measure of salary outcomes as a proxy for teaching excellence, there will be the addition of ‘graduate voice’ questions. These have been designed to capture alternative measures of success such as how their skills are being used. However, we will have to wait to see if, or how, these will be used in league tables and/or the TEF.

Finally, the new survey will be conducted fifteen months after graduates have ended their studies which is good news for those in the sector who have felt 6 months was too soon as it didn’t allow for the transition into the job market, but bad news for those used to counting those on MA programmes as a win. This final consultation on this new model closes on 7th April. Following this, the first NewDLHE survey will run in December 2018, with the first results published in January 2020, with LEO data to follow in May 2020.

Read More:

Analysis: One-way ticket to New DLHE - by Andrew McRae
Policy Watch: New DLHE model takes shape - by
 Catherine Boyd

What else is going on?

OfS registration fees

Tomorrow is the deadline for the DfE consultation on registration fees (and other fees) that registered higher education providers will pay to the Office for Students. Open for three months, the consultation asks how these fees should be calculated, as well as asking for examples of where the OfS could use its powers to charge other fees, and how government funding to the OfS could work. You can access the consultation here.

Drop out rates

HESA data released last week showed another year of steadily increasing dropout rates for full-time young undergraduates in their first year, up to 6.2% across the sector. 27 higher education providers have a dropout rate of higher than 10%, and two of those run at over 18%. The rate for those in the POLAR3 quintile 1 group, the most disadvantaged students, increased at a faster rate to 8.8%. Significantly, OFFA has called the trend “very disappointing” and stated that they “expect to see [universities] working harder than ever to understand and address” student retention. You can read the latest data here.

Movers and shakers

Last week was full of sector comings and goings.  On Friday, UUK announced its elected board members for the 2017-18 academic year. David Bell (Reading), Paul Boyle (Leicester), Alistair Fitt (Oxford Brookes), Debra Humphris (Brighton), Max Lu (Surrey) and Steve Smith (Exeter) are the chosen vice chancellors. Elsewhere, HEFCE has appointed six new board members to serve out the Council’s final year or so, including David Palfreyman, Director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies; Steve West, Vice Chancellor at UWE; and Carl Lygo, former Vice Chancellor of BPP University.

Also last week, Lygo announced his departure from BPP following the sale of its US-based owner to a private equity consortium for $1.1bn. The government has announced that BPP’s university title and degree awarding powers will now be reviewed following the sale. Carl Lygo has been one of the more prominent representatives of the alternative sector in recent years.

Finally, Alexandra Jones, formerly Director of the Centre for Cities think tank, is to be the new Director of Industrial Strategy at BEIS. Jones has previously worked at the Department for Education and also sits on the HEFCE Catalyst Fund panel.

You might have missed on Wonkhe

Registrarism takes a look at Webometrics, a global ranking of universities based on their web presence. UUKi recently released a report on the positive impact outward student mobility, and Catriona Hanks explains why Brexit may jeopardise it. Richard Jones, a member of the Industrial Strategy Commission, considers whether the Industrial Strategy really will propel the country forward, or if it will make the mistakes of the past. 

And finally, Registrarism reminisces over the forgotten bands of HE. Think Hillman and the Hepi Cats – cerebral 80s flavoured art-rock with Mancunian stylings. Or Deferred Entry – lo-fi shambles. Note: these are not real band names.

Also on this week's HE agenda

Monday 13th March

  • The House of Lords will discuss the Higher Education and Research Bill at Report Stage.
  • HEFCE will release an independent report on Exploring equality and diversity using REF2014 environment statements.
  • GuildHE and NUS have a conference 'More than just a degree? Active Citizenship in HE' in London.
  • University of Reading/Reading Students' Union will hold an event on the future of HE.
  • SRHE has an event on using theory to understand HE student futures.

Tuesday 14th March

  • It’s the deadline for the DfE consultation on registration fees for the Office for Students.
  • CREST has its network meeting.
  • NUS Wales is hosting its annual conference.
  • HEA will host its Scotland Associate Fellows Network at the University of Glasgow.
  • JISC is holding its stakeholder forum at the ICC in Birmingham and the first day of Digifest.
  • The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee will hold an Oral Evidence Session as part of its Industrial Strategy Inquiry.
  • SRHE has an event on Research Approaches and Methods.

Wednesday 15th March

  • The House of Lords will discuss the Higher Education and Research Bill at Report Stage.
  • NUS UK will host a conference on tackling sexual violence in Manchester
  • JISC’s Digifest will continue for a second day in Birmingham. 
  • The Welsh Assembly Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee will meet.
  • HEFCE will release a circular letter - guidance on severance pay and the remuneration of senior staff.
  • The Royal Society of Biology has its annual event in Parliament.

Thursday 16th March

  • UUK will hold an event on student mental wellbeing at Woburn House.
  • HEFCE & The Leadership Foundation are hosting an event on Prevent.
  • HEA has an event - 'New to Teaching' at its HQ in York.
  • The Welsh Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee will meet.
  • SRHE has an event on Introduction to quantitative research methods.
  • SFC is hosting its North East Regional Access event.
  • The European Research Council is hosting an event to celebrate scientific excellence at QMUL, London.
  • THE will publish its Asia University Rankings 2017.

Friday 17th March

  • It’s the deadline for HEFCE’s REF consultation.
  • HEFCE will issue a circular letter - Board decision on funding for universities and colleges for 2017-18
  • GuildHE has its executive meeting.
  • BUFDG’s Welsh Higher Education Finance Directors Group is meeting.
  • AUA has an event on Developments in Transnational Education at the Centre for Commercial Law Studies, QMUL.
  • AGCAS will hold an event on Career Information Learning Theories at the University of Warwick.

Saturday 18th March

  • NUS has its Course Reps Conference at the University of Birmingham.
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