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Good morning. Is it possible to make admissions fair? That is the question we're asking this morning after recent data suggests the sector needs to up its game. Last week's tragic events in Westminster has changed the expected schedule for the HE Bill. Jo Johnson has called on universities again to take responsibility for free speech. We round up BrHExiteverything else going on, what you might have missed on Wonkhe and the rest of this week's HE agenda. Have a great week.

Mark Leach, Editor

Is it possible to make admissions fair?

After several years of progress, last year’s admissions cycle showed signs that positive trends in widening and equalising access to universities were beginning to slow. Data released by UCAS in January on the current admissions cycle suggests that this slowdown is set to continue, particularly as the 18-year-old undergraduate market is squeezed. And so this morning we launch a big new data-led series on university admissions to understand the problem and begin to start assessing options for the future.

As new analysis on Wonkhe this morning shows, policymakers and politicians are too often failing to face up to the scale of the challenge before us. Achieving ‘fair access’ across the board will either require a significant expansion of the sector or a radical ‘displacement’ of places from the most advantaged classes that have become used to high entry rates.

We have modelled a system, based on a wide range of assumptions, where all universities’ entry profiles match the national socio-economic distribution: a roughly even split of entrants across each POLAR quintile. The results are a startling reminder of the challenges before us in making higher education access truly equitable, whatever you believe the prime causes of inequality to be. There are roughly 15,000 students from POLAR Q1 areas (the most disadvantaged) ‘missing’ from university entry relative to their overall population. By contrast, there over 17,500 ‘too many’ students from POLAR Q5 (the most advantaged).

Unsurprisingly, the iniquities are greatest at the highest tariff institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge. Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, recently made the case for the endowment of more Oxbridge colleges as a means to expanding opportunities to access the elite institutions. But there’s a risk, as Mark Leach and Ant Bagshaw argue on Wonkhe this morning, that if this is the answer then we may be asking the wrong question. In fact, our analysis shows that any realistic expansion of these two universities exclusively for the lowest participation neighbourhoods would barely make a dent in the overall iniquity of entry rates.

Mary Curnock Cook, the outgoing chief executive of UCAS, makes a slightly different case for aligning further expansion with efforts to widen participation. She argues that widening access in an overall shrinking 18-year-old market presents the dual opportunity of opening a new domestic market and providing a social good.

Taking Curnock Cook’s initiative ad extremum, we have also modelled how equalising entry rates of all POLAR quintiles to the current entry rate of the most privileged quintile. This would massively increase the overall entry rate for the sector, and the numerical impact would be huge: over 100,000 extra 18-year-old entrants to the sector every year. Some universities would have to more than double their intake in order to equalise their entry rates across the board without reducing the entry rate of POLAR Q5.

Our model of the extreme scenario is unlikely to come about and comes with many caveats. But it does show that if further expansion of the sector is difficult - something already proving true in Scotland - then progress in widening participation will become more challenging both in policy and political terms. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities out there. As Curnock Cook points out for Wonkhe this morning, there are 3,000 students from POLAR Q1 who have applied but who won’t get an offer this year. Even just increasing the entry rate for POLAR Q1 and Q2 to the overall average would create an additional 30,000 entrants, and sustained efforts to improve attainment and develop outreach make this an achievable goal.

We hope today’s analysis will help inform a fresh debate in the sector about the way forward. 

Analysis: Looking fair and wide on university admissions - Wonkhe's David Morris offers a rough new model of a 'fair' system to uniquely illustrate some of the challenges for fairer and wider access to university.  

Comment: If Oxbridge is the only solution then we're asking the wrong questions - Wonkhe's Mark Leach and Ant Bagshaw respond to the recent suggestion that founding new colleges at Oxford or Cambridge might actually help anything. 

Comment: Widening access now has a business and social imperative - UCAS' Mary Curnock Cook on the strategies that will need to be adopted in the future. 

HERB gets thrown off course

An unexpected and comparatively insignificant effect of Wednesday’s tragic events in Westminster is that the legislative journey of the Higher Education and Research Bill may have been thrown off schedule. The suspension of both Houses on Wednesday afternoon happened just before the Lords Third Reading debate was due to begin. The Third Reading has now been scheduled for next Tuesday, April 4th.

The Commons will enter a recess at the end of this week and the Lords on April 6th. Both return on April 24th. The current Parliament will end in mid-May. There is still time for the Bill to be agreed and receive Royal Assent, but that window is narrowing, particularly if ping pong becomes a drawn out process. In the meantime, the government finds itself with additional time to ameliorate any possible Commons rebellion to uphold the Lords’ amendment on exempting international students from net migration statistics.

Jo Johnson will also have plenty of time to consider any further compromises with those Lords who have attached other amendments to the Bill on TEF, provider registration, and voter registration. However, MPs are expected to reject these amendments and so much wrangling over these is unlikely to be necessary. Nonetheless, last week’s events have meant that the political drama surrounding this Bill will be allowed to drag out a little bit longer than expected.

No platform for no platform?

Last Tuesday The Times reported that Jo Johnson has written to Universities UK, asking that new steps be taken by the sector to ensure that “free speech [is] at the heart of a higher education community” and that universities do more to promote it. The news quickly spread to other media outlets, lending weight to the ongoing media criticism of universities and students’ unions for ‘campus censorship’, ‘safe spaces’, and ‘generation snowflake’.

The letter may have come about as pressure mounted from peers who wanted to introduce new language in the Higher Education and Research Bill. Johnson’s letter, which has been seen by Wonkhe, notes that there will be a government consultation on the Bill’s “powers to impose public interest principles on higher education providers”, including the issue of free speech.

That Johnson has intervened in this way could also be read as indicative of the failure of the sector to defend itself from accusations that it is becoming censorious, politically homogenous, ‘ban happy’, and restrictive of free speech. The methodologically suspect Free Speech University Rankings produced by Spiked - including the absurd headline statistic that 94% of universities are censorious - is being uncritically cited in respectable media outlets as fact.  

There is plenty of alternative evidence to suggest that the number is phoney. Spiked’s rankings chose to take universities and students’ unions to task for such sinister moves as having anti-bullying, anti-harassment, and equal opportunities policies, many of which are simply legal requirements under the Equality Act 2010. Scrutiny of external speaker policies has largely been a result of regulatory requirements under the government’s Prevent strategy for counter-extremism. A survey of over fifty students’ unions last March found that none had banned an external speaker in the previous year.

The HE Bill will extend the provision of the 1986 Education Act to all providers registered with the Office for Students but makes no change to its impact on established universities. The 1986 Act requires universities to take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of a university and for visiting speakers. Whether this is considered to apply to students’ unions as independent legal entities, but operating on university premises, is where the law gets ambiguous. Johnson’s letter directly refers to ensuring that free speech obligations extend to students’ unions and thus might be a challenge to No Platform, but it is not clear whether this will be possible under existing legislation.

Regardless of the legal ambiguities, the bad press for universities continues to gain traction and influence, and will no doubt regularly cite this government intervention. At some point, the sector may want to consider making a more robust defence of its record in this area, rebut the incessant myths repeated in the press, and work to mitigate the impact of isolated controversies that crop up. Otherwise it seems the dominant narrative in the media and in policy is going to continue to shift further away from the sector. 

Read more on Wonkhe:

Comment: Jim Dickinson criticises the intervention in the free speech debacle by Jo Johnson, claiming it to be a purely political move with little to back it up in substance.

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BrHExit Watch

On Wednesday, or as The Observer called it yesterday 'Black Wednesday', we now know that Theresa May will formally notify the European Union of the UK’s intention to leave. We will be out of the EU on March 29th, 2019. The phoney war is over and the clock starts ticking this week.

Meanwhile, the Scottish government has announced that EU students enrolling at Scottish universities in the year immediately preceding Brexit (2018/19) will receive full funding, including free tuition, for the duration of their courses. Scottish universities are some of the most dependent on EU student numbers, particularly Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen. EU students are 8.9% of the total in Scotland, significantly higher than in the other UK nations. The news will no doubt be a relief to universities trying to forecast their recruitment.

What else is going on?

Russell Group

Anton Muscatelli, Principal of the University of Glasgow (and #21 on the Wonkhe HE Powerlist), has been appointed the next Chair of the Russell Group. He will replace Sir David Greenaway, Vice Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, who is stepping down in September. An economist by trade, Muscatelli has previously advised the Commons Treasury Select Committee, the World Bank, and the European Commission.

Muscatelli is a very influential figure in the Scottish sector and in Scottish public life more generally. He currently chairs the Scottish government’s Standing Council on Europe, a body of experts providing advice to Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers during Brexit.

Muscatelli’s first major challenge as Russell Group chair will be to arrange the appointment of a new Director General to lead the organisation on a day-to-day basis, after Wendy Piatt’s recent departure. 

Teacher training

UCAS has released end of cycle statistics for teacher training in 2016 which show that there has been a drop of 6.9% in acceptances on teacher training courses in England and Wales. Primary programmes at HE institutions saw a decrease in applications of 20.9% on 2015 - there were 24,600 applications compared to 31,100 the previous year. Acceptances also decreased by 23.4%, from 6,900 to 5,300.

Capital funding

HEFCE has published its circular letter to HE institutions on capital allocations for teaching and research 2017-18, granting £135 million to teaching capital, including £11 million for science and engineering teaching laboratories, and £189 million to be distributed through the research capital fund.

Financial health of the sector

HEFCE published its report on the publicly-funded sector’s 2015-16 financial results. The headlines are those well-known to followers of HEFCE’s recent statements on the health of the sector: pension deficits are large (and showing as larger in the new FRS 102 reporting format); ambitions for growth in income from overseas students are over-optimistic; there’s a need for sustained capital investment; there is an increasing gap between the healthiest and least healthy financial positions. And there’s Brexit to take into account. Read the full report here.

Learning To Wonk Before You Can Rant
Booking now open for two more courses on the 10th May in Bristol and the 11th May in Milton Keynes. The interactive one-day workshop gives participants practical approaches to engaging with HE policy and the ability to engage critically with higher education policy through a combination of individual and group exercises.
Click here for more information and to secure your place.

You might have missed on Wonkhe

American universities go beyond the UK in perks - Paul Greatrix outlines the increasing trend of the use of private planes to attract star athletes and reward senior staff. Dancing, writing, or rapping? Paul also looks at the more creative ways of presenting a PhD thesis.

If you weren’t at UUK’s International Higher Education Forum last week, you can catch up on the day by reading our Live Blog.

Also on this week's HE agenda

Monday 27th March

  • NUS UK is releasing a report on UK students’ relationships with International Students
  • UCEA has its Immigration HR Network Meeting.

Tuesday 28th March

  • The House of Lords will have a short debate on the maintenance of the UK’s position in medical research.
  • The House of Commons BEIS Select Committee will hold an oral evidence session on the future world of work.
  • There is an APPG Students event on part-time and mature learners in Parliament.
  • NUS UK will release a report on women, race and mental health in the UK.
  • It’s the first day of the NUS UK Women's Conference.
  • QAA is hosting its Alternative Providers' Enhancement Conference 2017 in Reading.
  • HEPI and the UPP Foundation are hosting a roundtable lunch on ‘Redesigning the HE system to make it fit for purpose’ at the British Academy in London.
  • The London Review Bookshop has an event on The Future of Our Universities.
  • The Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges launches its annual conference at Lancaster University.

Wednesday 29th March

  • UUK and HEA have a joint event on innovation and excellence in teaching and learning.
  • GuildHE is holding its Quality Managers' network.
  • The University Alliance Communications Network is meeting.
  • Jisc has its student experience experts group meeting in Birmingham.
  • HEFCW is releasing its report Innovation Nation and will host a reception at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay.
  • University Alliance Chief Executive Maddalaine Ansell and David Willetts will give a lecture on HE in Parliament.

Thursday 30th March

  • The House of Commons will rise for Easter Recess.
  • HEPI will release a report: Return on investment? How universities communicate with the outside world.
  • BUFDG’s Scottish Universities Finance Directors Group will meet in Stirling.
  • The Royal Society has its Lab to Riches dinner at the Royal Society in London.
  • THE will release its Japan University Rankings.

Friday 31st March

  • NUS Scotland has its sections conference.

Saturday 1st April

  • Michael Barber officially starts his role as Chair of the OfS.
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