Everything going on in UK higher education
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Good morning. As the new Office for Students takes shape, we take the opportunity to look at the changing face of HE regulation across the UK. HERB is back before Lords this week as the government attempts to see off rebel amendments. The apprenticeship levy begins on Thursday. We round up the shape of BrHExit and the sector's current approach, everything 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

Office politics and the future of HE regulation

In modern times, universities’ relationship with the British state has been managed by a non-departmental ‘funding’ body: the University Grants Committee, later the Universities Funding Council, and latterly HEFCE, HEFCW and the SFC. By the end of next year, all three of the current funding councils look set to have largely disappeared or changed beyond all recognition. The implications are still more a source of speculation than known in detail but could be profound for universities’ relationship with the UK’s governments.

In England, the Office for Students, the replacement (alongside Research England within UKRI) for HEFCE, is beginning to take shape. The OfS’s foundation is more than a simple re-branding exercise. The shift from a ‘funding council’ to a ‘regulator’, a body found in many public and private sectors from energy, telecoms, to financial services and beyond, is a fundamental change in philosophy. OfS owes its foundation to the inability of HEFCE to sit easily in funding system for university teaching that had already begun to circumvent it through higher tuition fees and a growing suspicion in Whitehall that it was at least attempting to act more in the interests of providers rather than users (or indeed ministers).

The appointment of Sir Michael Barber, who begins his tenure as Chair of the OfS this week, has in some ways served to confirm this change. A shadow OfS Board is also already in place, quietly appointed last month ostensibly as new HEFCE Board members, where they will sit until OfS opens for business. Their number include the usual regulatory mix of lawyers, bankers, financiers, and sector expertise. The announcement of the organisation’s first chief executive is also believed to be imminent, and the sector is braced for the position to be given to an outside figure with more experience of regulation than universities. There was previously an unwritten convention that the job of HEFCE CEO would be given to a former vice chancellor. Upending that convention, if that is what the government is about to do, would be consistent with their moves so far to establish OfS as further removed from the sector than HEFCE has been in the past. If a sector figure does take on the job, then they will find themselves in the ultimate 'poacher turned gamekeeper' situation, likely to be responsible for delivering unpopular government policies on HE, using new regulatory tools that have been opposed by universities since they were first suggested.  

The new Chair, Michael Barber, father of ‘deliverology’, gave little away in his recent appearance before the Education Select Committee about what he might wish to achieve in his new role. But in some ways, the creation of the OfS itself, the TEF, the expansion of private providers, and the embedding of the current student loan system in England already bare the hallmarks of his approach to policymaking and government. Reviewing his recent work on policymaking, as David Morris has done for Wonkhe today, is highly illuminating. 

Jonathan Nicholls also argues on Wonkhe this morning that the shift from ‘critical friend’ and ‘steward’ (HEFCE) to government regulator (OfS) will take some serious adjustment for the sector. There are lessons to be learned in this regard from other sectors, and Nicholls suggests that universities would do well seek “cordial engagement with the regulator” rather than an early confrontation.

Scottish regulation in flux

It’s not only in England where universities’ intermediating relationship with government is in a state of flux: the future of the Scottish Funding Council has been in limbo for several months. Last Thursday, the Scottish government announced that it was significantly rolling back plans to merge the SFC into a single board along with Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and Skills Development Scotland. Rumours that the new single entity would be led by a Scottish government minister had led to fears in the sector about universities’ diminishing levels of autonomy from government. The individual sector boards are now to remain intact, reporting into a super board led by an independent chair although a minister said that there is still “an expectation that the agencies will work to align their delivery to maximise their positive impact on the economy.” The sector now waits for the detail about exactly how the reformed agency landscape will work.

Critics of the original proposals, including the Scottish Conservative Party, had framed the mooted demise of the SFC and other funding agencies as typical of the SNP’s tendency to centralise power in Holyrood and increase direct government control over quasi-public bodies such as universities. Though thwarted in their efforts here, it goes to show that changing philosophies of higher education regulation can take many varied forms and be overseen by political parties from across the political spectrum.

Wales waiting on new system

In Wales, universities are still awaiting full proposals following last year’s Hazelkorn Review, following which Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams confirmed that HEFCW would be merged into a new post-compulsory education authority. The Welsh government intends this new body to continue to operate at 'arm's length' from government, similar to the funding bodies that we have become used to. But yet again, there are hints that the new body will need to meet more proactive regulatory expectations to satisfy government priorities. Williams a Liberal Democrat minister in an otherwise Labour government, has made clear her intention for Welsh universities to take a more active social role, to collaborate more closely with further education colleges, and to make the post-compulsory sector more coherent. 

Read more:

Analysis: Higher education must learn from other sectors on living with a regulator. Johnathan Nicholls looks at HEFCE's imminent shit to OfS and what it means for universities' relationship with the new regulatory body.

Analysis: Deliverology in, out and around the university. David Morris on Michael Barber's most recent approach to regulation and public services.

HERB gets its Third Reading

After nearly a fortnight’s delay, the Higher Education and Research Bill will finally get its Third Reading in the House of Lords tomorrow. The debate is expected to be largely uneventful, with only minor and technical amendments being tabled. The Bill as it currently stands, including all the rebel text unless new compromises are reached, will be sent back to the House of Commons for consideration after Recess.

Also this week, the Lords will debate a motion to ‘regret’ the recent changes to student finance regulations and the increase of tuition fees by the rate of inflation. The regret motion has been proposed by Labour’s Lord Stevenson. Although there will be no practical effects of passing the motion, it may add momentum to the peers’ campaign against linking future fee rises to TEF. The House of Commons is provisionally scheduled to debate a similar motion on April 19th.

Meanwhile, Jo Johnson appears hard at work finding fixes and compromises over some of the issues he was defeated on during the Bill’s Report Stage. On Friday, HEFCE published a letter from Johnson seeking “assistance from the Council in encouraging Higher Education providers to adopt the good practice… for students to register to vote”. This may be an attempt to shore up Commons votes against a Lords amendment that would have reintroduced automatic electoral registration for students. The letter follows a similar one on free speech addressed to Universities UK the week before which also appeared to be part of the tactic to head off opposition peers' legislative agendas.

Apprenticeship levy begins

On Thursday employers (including universities) in the UK with a pay bill of over £3 million per year will start paying the 0.5% apprenticeship levy, bringing in approximately £3 billion in hypothecated funding for training and skills development. English HE providers paying the levy will have been able to create digital accounts in recent weeks from which they access funds to pay for apprenticeship training.

The apprenticeship levy is possibly one of the most ambitious and radical education policy developments of recent times. However, uncertainty remains about apprenticeships policy in England. The Department for Education announced last week that the Education Funding Agency and Skills Funding Agency would merge and the current chief executive of both, Peter Lauener, is to retire. Lauener will also step down as shadow chief executive of the Institute of Apprenticeships once a permanent replacement has been found. This is an extraordinary upheaval to come at the same time as the logistical challenges of implementing the new funding a regulatory system for apprenticeships. Perhaps Peter Lauener knows something we don’t?

Last Friday, the House of Commons Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy published a brutal report criticising the direction of travel in apprenticeships policy. The report criticises the three million apprenticeships target as a blunt instrument that fails to provide sectoral and regional focus and calls for the government to better identify and target skills shortages. The Committee argues there should be a great focus on outcomes and that the focus on participation distracts from delivering quality training.

The Committee also called for Ofqual to have responsibility for the external quality assurance of all End Point Assessments (EPAs) of apprenticeships. There are concerns about different EPA organisations applying different regulatory structures across different levels of training. It is unclear how this will apply to degree apprenticeships, particularly in integrated models of delivery where higher education providers deliver their own EPA (with the assurance of external examiners).

The Department for Education also updated the apprenticeship funding rules for higher education institutions last week, and the Register of Apprenticeship Assessment Providers (RoAAP) was also published. Only two universities (Exeter and Bradford) feature on the register out of sixty providers. 

BrHExit Watch

We’re five days, or 0.7%, into the two-year exit negotiation period mandated by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. After the ‘phoney Brexit’ of the last nine months, we’re finally into Brexit proper. It’s a good time to step back and reflect on the general trend of events, over and above the conjecture, speculation and confusion of everyday news, of which there will be an even greater quantity of over the next 725 days.

It’s been a mix of ups and downs for universities as we’ve collectively tried to arrest ourselves out of the depression and despair that many felt on that Friday morning last June. Theresa May has included research and innovation at tenth place in her twelve negotiating priorities, while Philip Hammond has promised an extra £4.7 billion of research funding and guaranteed funding for EU students and EU research projects in the short term. 

But there’s been further bleak news concerning the future policy direction of international students, and a government memo leaked to The Times a few weeks ago showed education rated as a ‘low priority’ sector for the negotiations. It’s not immediately clear how much of an influence universities and DfE have at the Department for Exiting the European Union, though a higher education specialist has recently been recruited at the Department for International Trade. 

Universities’ public statements on Article 50 Day itself were perhaps a little underwhelming. “Universities are international institutions with a global reputation for the quality of our teaching, research and collaborative relationships. Leaving the EU will not change this”, said the Russell Group. “Our future relationship with the EU has clear implications for universities in the UK”, we were told by UUK. 

The sector is clearly intending to project the message that it will be a constructive partner to government, and not act as obstructive ‘Remoaners’. Ambiguous statements such as those quoted above are probably the price to pay for this, given the larger ambiguities outstanding over the government’s overall negotiating strategy and preferred outcomes. Last week, MillionPlus was explicit in voicing this concern: “Universities, research, science facilities and students all have an interest in what happens next, but 10 months on from the referendum there is still no agreement about key objectives and how they might be achieved”. 

Beneath the challenges of headline messaging, when it comes to policy the sector’s priorities are broadly consistent:

  • Guaranteeing citizens’ rights for EU staff currently working in universities.
  • Continued ease of collaboration between British and EU researchers, ideally enabled by a relatively liberal system of movement for high-skilled or ‘knowledge’ workers.
  • Intertwined with the above, continued access to European Research Council funding and participation in research and innovation projects.
  • Arrangements for movements of students and staff, including the ability to continue to participate in the Erasmus+ program. 

Securing these outcomes will at times feel well out of the sector’s control. The web of personal relationships and messy compromises between a select number of politicians and officials in Whitehall and Brussels will ultimately influence the outcomes of ‘meta-issues’ which in turn will impact the above policy areas: immigration, UK payments to Brussels, the integrity of the single market, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. 

As David Morris has outlined on Wonkhe, the negotiations will in turn be influenced by the national interests of the EU27 and sectional interests within each of those countries. These will be negotiating the next EU budget in parallel to the Brexit talks, and spillover from those could influence the extent to which the 27 are willing to acquiesce to British requests for concessions. It’s quite easy to see how the needs of British universities could simply be forgotten about amidst the vast array of matters at stake. The challenge for the sector may simply be to stay interesting so as not to be forgotten at the negotiating table. 

Read more:

Comment: Universities must be clear on their own articles of faith.

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.

What else is going on?

NewDLHE consultation

The consultation on HESA’s proposed framework for the next iteration of the DLHE will close this Friday. The proposals to include new questions on graduate life satisfaction, skills usage, and aspirations seem to have been welcomed by most interested parties, and could counterbalance the looming introduction of public longitudinal salary data for institutions and courses.

National Audit Office investigation

On Friday the National Audit Office announced that it has opened an inquiry into the higher education market, specifically “on the extent to which students are currently empowered to act as effective consumers”, the effects of “ongoing reforms”, the efficacy of student complaints and redress procedures, and the protections available for students whose providers exit the sector.  

NAO reports are often not ones to pull their punches if they identify flaws or examples of waste in government policy, and so this will be one to watch closely in the Autumn, which is the planned publication time. In the meantime, universities will no doubt be keen to submit evidence to the inquiry. You can find full details about how to do that here.  

Recess research publications

The Department for Education published a series of research reports last week on regional variation in HE participation, the effect of career planning on graduates’ employment outcomes and ways of encourage high-performing school pupils to aim for the most selective universities.

The regional participation report looked at understanding the changing gaps in participation in the UK in HE, in an in-depth study of rural and city areas. Recommendations, which don’t come as much of a surprise, include increasing the availability of good quality information, advice and guidance, setting up ways to engage parents, and improving access to HE in regional ‘cold spots’.

Similarly unsurprising are the findings from research on graduate career planning which identified the biggest determinants of obtaining a job were: undertaking paid work while studying or immediately after graduation, having a focused approach to job searches and having a ‘career plan’. Students with the most targeted approaches to job seeking were most likely to be in higher-level jobs. Female graduates were found to do better (higher rates of employment) at six months after graduation but were then overtaken by their male counterparts on salary and progression in the workplace.

DfE also published a report based on randomised control trials conducted by the Behavioural Insights Team (otherwise known as the ‘nudge unit’). It claims that over the course of the study 322 pupils received places at Russell Group universities who wouldn’t otherwise have done so, thanks to them receiving two ‘nudge’ letters (one to their home and one to their school). While the authors acknowledge that there are selective universities outside the Russell Group, they deemed using the mission group a “good proxy” for selective institutions, something which may further reinforce concerns in the sector about lack of appropriate nuance when promoting applications from high-performing pupils to the full breadth of selective universities.

You might have missed on Wonkhe

BTECs, T-Levels, and A-Levels. Wonkhe’s Nona Buckley-Irvine questions whether BTECs will be squeezed out as a more binary track emerges with the latest government policy on T-Levels. And David Phoenix also takes a look at T-levels and whether they will play a meaningful role in addressing neglected professional and technical skills shortages in the UK.

Will retention worsen as a result of dropout rates being a core metric in the Teaching Excellence Framework? NUS' VP HE Sorana Vieru explores retention issues in the current landscape.

Could VR play a role in educating students? Regsitrarism considers whether wearable technology has a place in HE. Paul also reflects on his experiences with HUMANE - the Heads of University Management and Administration Network in Europe. 

REF submissions may be hard, but guessing the outcomes of REF panels is even harder - Peter Tymms writes on the high levels of variation in judgements between academics.

Following last year’s April Fools elaborate hoax, Team Wonkhe was sad to see that the day would fall on a Saturday. To make up for it, we produced a list of what our April 1st headlines might have been.

Also on this week's HE agenda

Monday 3rd April

  • Former Children’s Minister Baroness Hughes of Stretford is speaking at a reception event hosted by the University of Salford in the House of Lords.

Tuesday 4th April

  • The House of Lords has its Third Reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill.
  • NUS-USI has its annual conference.
  • It’s the second round of joint pay talks between UCU and UCEA.
  • HEFCE is hosting a workshop on Prevent in Leeds
  • The British Council will host an event on the future of modern foreign languages in higher education.
  • The Royal Society is holding its prize lecture on the curious history of curiosity-driven research.
  • The Resolution Foundation will host an event on the apprenticeship levy in London.

Wednesday 5th April

  • The House of Lords will vote on a motion to regret the Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 and Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 proposed by Lord Stevenson.

Thursday 6th April

  • Apprenticeship levy starts, and the Institute of Apprenticeships formally commences work.
  • HESA will release the results of its HE Business and Community Interaction Survey 2015/16.
  • UCAS is releasing applicant statistics as of 24th March deadline for all courses.
  • NUS Scotland is hosting its LGBT+ Conference in Edinburgh.
  • The Leadership Foundation has an event on enterprise education in London.
  • HEFCE has a workshop on Prevent in London.
  • The Welsh Assembly Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee is meeting.
  • QAA has its Quality Enhancement Network on Entrepreneurship and Enterprise.
  • THE will publish its Young Universities rankings.
  • ECU has the first day of its course on achieving race equality in HE, in Manchester.
  • WhatUni host its university awards ceremony in London.

Friday 7th April

  • The House of Lords will rise for recess.
  • It’s the deadline for the consultation on NewDLHE.
  • NUS Scotland is hosting its Black Students' Conference in Edinburgh.
  • It’s the Standing Conference for University Drama Departments in Huddersfield.
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