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It's been a big week for higher education policy with fascinating new admissions data and an influential student experience survey dominating. There's disquiet about OFFA's fee guidance, HESA are to release first data on alternative providers and we get a glimpse at the future shape of OfS and UKRI.

Is there bias in university admissions?

Wonkhe has published the most in-depth analysis available of UCAS’s newly-released data about admissions which was broken down by sex, ethnicity and socio-economic background. Our analysis shows that a small number of institutions appear to have lower than expected offer rates for applicants from areas of greatest disadvantage and over 20% of universities in the release have lower offer rates than expected for black applicants.

While the sector is keen to stress that progress has been made in opening up higher education for greater socioeconomic and racial diversity overall, our findings show that a not insignificant number of institutions may want to look very carefully for risk of bias in their admissions decisions. Our findings also show the vast geographical diversity in the application preferences of many disadvantaged and black applicants, and the continued gulf in the likelihood of attending high and low tariff institutions for applicants from the top and bottom of the socio-economic ladder. 

You can read our full analysis here. We have updated the piece to incorporate analysis that shows further institutions with lower-than-expected offer rates for black students. The amount of data published by UCAS last week was unprecedented, and our work on it continues - we will continue to publish further analysis this week and beyond.

Did Offa jump the gun on fees and TEF?

There is some disquiet about a recent letter from the Office for Fair Access to vice chancellors and principals, asking them to adjust their access agreements for 2017-18 to account for the anticipated increase in fees that will follow the TEF. Although Jo Johnson announced that next year’s increase would be 2.8% in the Queen’s Speech debate, new fee regulations to allow it to happen have not yet been laid before Parliament which has the final say about any changes to fees.

Some institutions are unhappy that they are being asked to decide quickly about whether they will participate in TEF 1, particularly while the consultation on TEF 2 is still ongoing. However, the actual numbers involved are very small, with only a possible £25 extra per student going towards access agreements for institutions that will get the 2.8% increase. BIS told us last week that they agreed with Offa that they could “start negotiations on a provisional basis” with providers on fees, subject to Parliamentary agreement. But it appears that this is not how the letter has been interpreted by some.

Since access agreements will now be dependent on TEF judgements, expect this to be a continually tricky logistical and political issue, as the two processes are run independently of each other. Parliamentarians may want to take a closer look at the timing and mechanics of the various technical changes that they will need to approve. It's clear that the next battles over fees have barely begun.

You can read the Offa letter here, and Wonkhe’s analysis of upcoming fee changes here.

Challenging statistics

On Wednesday, HESA will make their first ever release of data on students at English alternative providers of higher education (remember them?) in the 2014-15 year. The data will cover student enrolments and qualifications obtained, and complement research recently released by BIS into the state of the alternative market in 2014. How data is collected on alternative providers is a matter of some political sensitivity. Many APs have a very different profile of students accepted and courses delivered compared to the established sector, and so counting both in the same way could be problematic.

Another important focus will be on completion and retention rates, with questions about whether these will be directly comparable between the old and new parts of the sector. Whatever the data shows there will be ample opportunity for advocates and opponents of private HE to spin it to their cause.

Less importantly, the language about this part of the sector continues to evolve. For these purposes, HESA are using the 'alternative provider' label, popularised by the last government after its 2011 reforms (and also happens to be deeply unpopular with the leaders of those institutions). The government has recently been using 'challenger institutions', although in a speech last week Jo Johnson talked about 'innovative and specialist providers' to describe this increasingly nebulous part of the landscape. There's also an 'independent university' association that meet and lobby for the respectable private providers. With the authoritative HESA laying down the 'AP' gauntlet again this week, it's an issue that looks set to run and run. Please send suggestions on a postcard for how the Wonkhe Style Guide should weigh in on the matter.

Degrees of satisfaction

Last week’s release of the influential student experience survey from HEPI and HEA received widespread media attention because of its finding that increasing numbers of students don’t believe their courses are value for money, continuing a trend since 2012. The report made a wide variety of conclusions on issues such as BME attainment, student wellbeing and contact hours. The results show that students’ anxiety levels are markedly higher than the rest of the population and that many students continue to be unhappy about their amounts of contact time, but also showed that most students believe that teaching staff are supportive, work hard, and explain things clearly.

David Morris was written on five key lessons that the sector can take from the survey including the thorny issue of contact hours and expectation management. And on Policy Watch, Louisa Darian has summarised the key findings and context for the report and its predecessors.

The business case for HE’s new overlords

Last week BIS released its business cases for setting up the Office for Students (OfS) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), as well as its impact assessment of the Higher Education and Research Bill.

In the business cases, we can learn a little bit more about how BIS expects OfS and UKRI to be run and funded - although much could change as the transition process has yet to get fully off the ground. OfS is estimated to have running costs of £30.9 million in its first year of operation. The assumptions here are interesting: it merges the relevant operating costs of HEFCE and Offa in 2014-15, adjusts for inflation, and deducts “an estimated 10% efficiency saving resulting from merging functions and the introduction of more efficient systems such as the risk based regulatory framework”. Although the government will provide 48% of OfS funding in 2018-19 to cover for transition costs, from 2019-20 registration fees from providers will cover 75% of OfS running costs. Continued government funding will be exclusively for covering the costs of new provider entry, and for ‘activities with wider economic benefit’. The latter will include the OfS responsibilities for overseeing Prevent, and also research and insight work into the sector.

Estimates for the future costs of UKRI has been based on the current costs of the research councils, Innovate UK, and the research functions of HEFCE. Added to this is an estimated “cost of delivering a greater focus on cross-cutting issues”, and deducted is an efficiency saving of 5%, bringing the total annual cost of UKRI to £103.5 million. Unlike the OfS case, the UKRI business case does not outline 10-years projections, and the contrasting tone of the two documents suggests that while OfS is predominantly viewed as a cost to BIS,  the government view spending on UKRI as an investment because of the economic returns from research funding.

As we’ve pointed out before, BIS’s overall impact assessments of reforms are curious for projecting that no established HEIs will exit the market between now and 2027/28, and also that no FE colleges providing HE will either, despite the government's current work to reduce the number of FECs through ‘area reviews’. So all forecasting must be viewed with a healthy level of scepticism.   

You can read the OfS business case here, the UKRI business case here, and the Higher Education and Research Bill impact assessment here.

You also have until the end of the day to enter our competition to design a logo for the OfS

What else is going on?

UCU have announced the next wave of campus-specific industrial action in the ongoing pay dispute. This week there will be action at Edinburgh (Tuesday); Kent and Sussex (Wednesday); Glasgow and UWS (Thursday); Bath and Bristol (Friday).

On Thursday, OIA released their annual report finding that the number of complaints to them has fallen to the lowest level since 2011.There were 1,850 new complaints in 2015, compared to 2,040 in 2014. OIA also said that the nature of complaints had remained roughly the same, with most of them concerning academic marking in exams, assignments or the final degree result. The new adjudicator, Judy Clements, said she was “particularly encouraged to see the substantial improvements in complaints handling times, which are continuing this year”. You can read the full report here.

Later today, The Convention for Higher Education, a campaign group of academics, will be launching their ‘alternative white paper’ entitled In Defence of Public Higher Education: Knowledge for a Successful Society. The launch event will be in Parliament with several MPs speaking including Labour’s HE spokesman Gordon Marsden MP. You can read the full paper here.

You might have missed on Wonkhe

Taking a Leave of our senses - Martin McQuillan continues his series on higher education politics and policy with a stark warning to the sector that we may be heading for a Brexit. 

Nona McDuff and Helen Barefoot argue that it's time to take real action on the BME attainment gap and include practical suggestions for universities to change policy and practice. 

Jacqueline Stevenson argues that religious students need a stronger voice in higher education. 

And finally, Registrarism continues the now-regular look at honorary degrees and the intrigue around their awarding and revocation. 

The rest of the week’s higher education agenda

Monday 13th June

EVENT: LFHE - Leadership Matters workshop 3, Bristol
EVENT: UCEA - Annual higher education pensions conference, London
EVENT: HEA - Learning and Teaching in cybersecurity, Birmingham
EVENT: The Alternative White Paper launch, House of Commons
EVENT: UCU - Parliamentary lobby on Initial Teacher Training reforms
PARLIAMENTARY: House of Lords -  Debate on Digital Skills Report, 2.30pm
PARLIAMENTARY: Northern Ireland Assembly - Plenary
REPORT: HEFCE - Outcomes of student opportunity funding
REPORT: HEFCE - National Scholarship Programme 2014-15 monitoring outcomes report

Tuesday 14th June

EVENT: Supporting Professionalism in Admissions National Conference, London
PARLIAMENTARY: House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee - Science communication inquiry
PARLIAMENTARY: House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee - The future of Innovate UK inquiry, Jo Johnson to give evidence

Wednesday 15th June

MEETING: QAA - Board
PARLIAMENTARY: House of Lords - Debate on Science and Technology committee report on EU membership and UK science (from 11am)
PARLIAMENTARY: Scottish Parliament - Questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, Holyrood
PARLIAMENTARY: Welsh Assembly - Plenary, 2.30pm
STATS: ONS - Public sector employment data for March 2016
STATS: HESA - Experimental Statistical First Release: Higher Education Student Enrolments and Qualifications Obtained on Designated Courses at Alternative Providers in England 2014/15
EVENT: UK HE International Unit - International student experience, London
EVENT: GuildHE - Policy and Planners network event
EVENT: LFHE - Demystifying finance for Aurorans, London

Thursday 16th June

EVENT: JISC - Connect More, Scotland

Friday 17th June

EVENT: HEA - Embedding employability into existing teaching, Leicester
EVENT: UHR - HR Directors' Day, London

Have a great week, 

Mark 

mark[at]wonkhe[dot]com

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