Everything going on in UK higher education
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Good morning, the full scale of the problem in this application cycle is now becoming apparent following the publication of the latest UCAS data. The UKRI CEO has been appointed, alternative providers are on the agenda this week, we round up the latest relevant Brexit machinations, 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

End of the party?

UCAS has released data up to the January 15th deadline, and it's not great news: universities received 30,000 fewer applicants than the same time in 2016, a decline of 5%. The lifting of number controls on full-time undergraduate places in England has arguably had a far more significant impact on universities and the sector than increases in tuition fees. Since numbers became partly uncapped in 2012, and subsequently fully uncapped in 2015, universities have been aggressively competing to expand their share of the applicant pool.

For the past few years, the sharp edge of this competitive market has been blunted by a growing demand for higher education and an increasing applicant pool. Yet as data released by UCAS last Thursday on applications for this year’s recruitment cycle shows, that safety net has gone. A combination of variables has come together to squeeze demand for university places for the first time since 2012. The fall has entirely fallen on middle and lower tariff institutions, who have suffered hits of 5% and 10% respectively. Applications to high tariff institutions have actually increased by 1%, although this is still a deceleration of growth.

Unsurprisingly, Brexit has hurt interest in UK higher education from EU applicants which are down 7% on last year. This is despite government assurances that students starting next year will be guaranteed full funding arrangements to the end of their course. Applications from outside the EU have not fallen yet, but after several years of slowing growth, numbers have flatlined, and if the trend continues they will decline next year.  

The most significant cause of the overall decline is the concurrent hit to nursing courses and applications from the over-25s, two groups which overlap considerably. Nursing applicants are down by an astonishing 23%, while over-25 applicants have fallen by 18%. The first source of investigation is obviously the government’s controversial reforms to NHS student financial support, with the scrapping of the NHS bursary and its conversion into a maintenance loan. Other have also cited the conversion of all maintenance grants into income-contingent loans, as evidence from recent years suggest that adult students are most sensitive to funding reforms.

Whatever the exact causes, the augurs do not look good in the short to medium term. Even a bounce-back in nursing applications in 2018 would do little to reverse the overall trend. The 18-year-old population is declining, and the growth in applications from 18-year-olds has slowed. Adult demand for higher education has been in freefall for some years now, and if the job market remains relatively buoyant, it will be difficult to revive without radical policy interventions in England.

And then, of course, there is Brexit, which we can only forecast will get worse before it gets better. Applicants in 2018 will be without the funding guarantees enjoyed by applicants this year and will be making their applications during the heat of negotiations triggered by Article 50. The UCAS data does not capture the scope of demand for postgraduate courses from the EU and elsewhere, but it is perhaps a warning that these lucrative markets are also under threat without corrective action.

It would not be surprising to see some significant increase in offer rates made to applicants this year, as institutions - particularly those at the bottom end of the tariff ladder - desperately spread their net as wide as possible. Marketing incentives will likely become even more lavish and newsworthy, particular if institutions have large amounts of empty places to fill at clearing. An increase in offer rates will certainly be necessary for nursing, where the effect of fewer applicants will be softened by a historically low offer rate and a high degree of selectivity. For prospective students who already have applied, the work of converting them - or ensuring they show up as registered students in September - is likely to intensify. 

Read More:

  • David Morris has looked at the detail of the decline in applications in this cycle and the different hypotheses behind the drops.
  • Fleur Nielsen of the Council of Deans of Health defends universities’ support for NHS student funding reforms and says that health schools are not too worried about the drop in applications, at least for now.
  • David Malcolm responds to the Council of Deans and suggests that there's a great deal to be concerned about in this first year of falling numbers.

New on Wonkhe

La La Land: Not a normal by-election, or a university town.
Ahead of next week's by-election in Stoke on Trent, Martin McQuillan returns to the town he worked in to make a plea to its people not to send Paul Nuttall to Parliament.

The six billion pound man

The government’s Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Sir Mark Walport has been appointed the chief executive of UK Research and Innovation. The appointment came as something of a surprise in the research community - it was widely assumed that the job was going to Adrian Smith after other likely contenders fell by the wayside. Although he’s a very familiar face, Walport’s hiring has created unease amongst some. He’s been a government insider for many years, and some scientists are concerned his appointment signals a further erosion of the independence of the research community. It was not long ago that Walport found himself in a tussle with the research councils over the content of the government’s 2014 science and innovation strategy and it was he that instigated the Nurse review which ultimately led to the demise of the councils and the rise of UKRI, which he will now lead.

However, others believe he will bring a welcome shake-up to the administration of British science, and his connections will certainly be valuable. Whatever happens, he will be an extraordinarily powerful figure - Science last week called him the “£6 billion pound man” after the vast sum of money he will ultimately oversee. But even sooner than that, as Walport remains the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor for now and the CEO of UKRI before the new infrastructure of the research landscape is in place - a lot of research and science policy power now resides on the desk of just one person. 

All this could stiffen opposition in the Lords to the Higher Education and Research Bill at the upcoming Report stage, which is due in the first week of March. Former Royal Society President Lord Rees is leading the charge against a bringing together of the research councils, and has said he “hopes that [Walport] will be mindful of the concerns about how this unwieldy conglomerate will operate, and the widespread view that the individual research councils should not be downgraded.”

Elsewhere, the chair of the Office for Students is due to be announced imminently, with an expectation that it will come from outside the sector, quite possibly from the world of business. Recruitment for the CEO position is ongoing. 

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.

Alternative provision

Despite the hype over the expansion of alternative or private higher education providers, there is a dearth of data or information available about their size, scope and activity.

On Wednesday HESA will release new experimental data on students enrolments and qualifications at alternative providers. This follows a first experimental release last July, which covered 63 of the largest alternative providers (out of an estimated total of 732). This week's release will tell us more about the student profile of a larger number of smaller providers and likely confirm that the vast majority of new higher education providers are very small institutions, often with fewer than one hundred students, primarily teaching HND and HNC courses in business and related subjects. Even in the previous HESA release, just four institutions accounted for 30% of the students accounted for. A BIS survey in 2014 found only nine new providers with more than 5,000 students and that over half had fewer than 100.   

As a recent HEPI report by Robin Middlehurst and John Fielden has shown, new providers are also overwhelmingly based in London and the south east of England. Middlehurst and Fielden have argued that the new providers are so diverse, disparate and niche that many will not be affected at all by the changes to regulation proposed in the Higher Education and Research Bill. This week’s statistical release is expected to confirm their conclusion that, outside London, most new providers are not true market competitors with the established sector, filling areas of the market that universities are unable or uninterested in covering.

Also this week, the Higher Education Commission has launched a call for evidence in its inquiry into innovation in alternative models of higher education provision. The Commission, originally formed by Labour MP Barry Sheerman but now chaired by Conservative Lord Norton, will seek to investigate the most effective alternative models of delivery within both new and established higher education providers. You can find out more about the inquiry here.

BrHExit Watch

The seemingly interminable 'Phoney Brexit' became that bit more terminable last Wednesday when MPs backed the Second Reading of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. Yet the journey is not over, with the Bill still to go through Committee Stage and a Third Reading this week, and then onwards to the House of Lords later this month. 

Rumours are bouncing around about the possibilities of amendments being attached to the Bill in Committee. Doing so will require a rebellion from pro-Remain Conservatives, with the most likely flashpoint concerning the continued right of EU citizens to live and work in the UK post-Brexit, a matter that affects roughly 17% of the academic workforce.

There are other proposed amendments that aim to safeguard the interests of universities and science in the Bill. Though these amendments will probably not be passed, it will be interesting to see ministers pressed in the debate on the UK’s membership of programmes such as Horizon 2020, membership of the European Research Area, and ongoing funding arrangements for EU students following last week’s revelation about falling applications.

Meanwhile, the government’s Brexit White Paper released last Thursday is decidedly light on details concerning higher education, and indeed in many other areas. Though this is a deliberate ploy so that the government can avoid committing itself before negotiations, many are concerned that no clear objectives have been set for continued membership of the European Research Area, Erasmus+, the Bologna Accords, or the post-Brexit status of EU students.

The White Paper does confirm the existence of a “High Level Stakeholder Working Group on EU Exit, Universities, Research and Innovation” through which the sector can make its representations to DfE and DExEU.


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

Lords HE Bill Committee wraps up

Last week was the final session of the House of Lords Committee on the Higher Education Research Bill. The debate broke up amidst frustration amongst opposition peers at the government's unwillingness to address their concerns - concerns which are likely to be repeated in the Report Stage. This next stage has been delayed to make time to debate the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill and is currently scheduled for the 6th and 8th of March, with a Third Reading expected shortly after. The Bill as amended in Committee can be viewed in full here [pdf], which includes government amendments and the now infamous new Part One, Clause One, “UK universities: functions”.

Student loan sale

The long-awaited sale of part of the student loan book is likely to be going ahead. Intel suggests that a sale of a tranche of pre-2012 loans appears to be going ahead as soon as today, with an announcement to follow shortly afterwards. 

You might have missed on Wonkhe

Janet Beer and Dinah Birch of the University of Liverpool wrote about the government's amendment to the HE Bill that included knowledge exchange - and the opportunity this presents to the sector.

David Bell, Chair of the Bell Review,  wrote a blog calling for the sector agencies to pull in the same direction.

Mike Kerrigan argues that differential outcomes do not necessarily indicate bias in admissions.

Registrarism has written on the university that promises jobs - or your money back and on the latest trend for students to co-design their courses.

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 6th February

  • University Alliance will publish a report on the Global Challenges Research Fund.
  • House of Commons will send the Brexit Bill to Committee Stage.
  • House of Commons will hold its question time for the Department for Education.

Tuesday 7th February

  • OFFA will publish its Access Agreement Guidance 2018-19.
  • The Bridge Group is hosting a seminar on ‘the Role of Universities in Raising School-level Attainment’ in London.
  • The University of Salford will be holding a higher education conference on innovation, growth and skills.
  • The House of Commons has its second Committee Stage session for the Brexit Bill.
  • House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee will have a private meeting.
  • HEA will host an event on ‘New to programme Leadership: The Teaching Excellence Framework and me’ in York.

Wednesday 8th February

  • The Leadership Foundation will host its Governor Development Day in Scotland.
  • The Welsh Government is hosting an event for the university health boards.
  • HESPA has its Executive Committee Meeting.
  • The Welsh Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee will meet.
  • The House of Commons Brexit Select Committee will meet to discuss UK’s negotiating objectives for its withdrawal from the EU.
  • The Brexit Bill have its Committee Stage, Report Stage and Third Reading in the House of Commons.
  • The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee will meet to discuss genomics and genome-editing.
  • HESA will release statistics on higher education undergraduate student enrolments and qualifications obtained at alternative providers in England 2015/16.

Thursday 9th February

  • It’s the first day of the HESPA Conference at the University of Strathclyde.
  • CGHE is hosting an event in London on ‘Determining PhD holders’ salaries in social sciences and humanities: ‘impact’ counts’
  • IPPR will be holding an event, in partnership with J.P. Morgan, titled ‘Skills 2030: Building an adult skills system that works’.
  • HESA will release a report on Students in Higher Education 2015/16.
  • HESA will release student and qualifiers data 2015/16.

Friday 10th February

  • SRHE will host an event in London on ‘Lifelong Learning inside and outside the walls of the academy'.
  • It’s the second and final day of the HESPA Conference at the University of Strathclyde.

Saturday 11th February

  • UCU hosts its ‘From Cradle to Grave’ conference on FE and HE in London.

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

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