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Everything going on in UK higher education
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Good morning. We have a new government, new PM, new departments, new ministers. The Bill is back. The TEF debate continues. And we try to get under the skin of the ongoing industrial disputes in HE. Oh, and we're still leaving the European Union. As you were. 

Key changes in government at a glance:

  • Higher education is now with the Department for Education (DfE).
  • Research and science is in BIS successor - Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)
.
  • Jo Johnson remains as Universities and Science Minister - splitting his time between the two departments.
  • Justine Greening is the new Secretary of State at DfE and Greg Clark is now the boss at BEIS.

Back to DfuturE

Since we last met, the country has a new Prime Minister and a new government. And once again, higher education has been caught up in macro-political manoeuvrings and internal party politics far beyond its control. On forming a new cabinet, Theresa May was faced with the problems caused by the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975, which limits the “payroll vote” in Parliament and consequently the number of full cabinet ministers that a prime minister is allowed to appoint to 21. Since May had decided to appoint a cabinet minister for Brexit, as well as one for international trade, cuts to secretaries of state had to be made elsewhere.

So the Department for Energy and Climate Change was closed, and its responsibilities moved to BIS, leaving the latter department looking large, unwieldy and unfocused. It was thus decided to move BIS’s higher and further education responsibilities over to the Department for Education, but science, research and innovation would remain within the newly constituted Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This was not likely to be a decision made to maximise administrative effectiveness or efficiency, but a late night cut-and-paste job during the hectic transfer of power last week and made necessary by the priority that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

Responsibility for higher education was originally taken out of DfE in 2007 and given to the then Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which ultimately became BIS in 2009. Some felt uncomfortable with the symbolic separation of universities from the rest of education and the subsequent alignment with business. However, universities did quite well out of that settlement, with few other large budgets within BIS with which to compete during austerity. Many in the sector also felt grateful that they fell under the wing of Vince Cable and not Michael Gove during the Coalition years.  

Most of BIS’s civil servants with responsibility for higher education are expected to move directly over to DfE. If the Bill is passed, the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation will likely be reporting to two different secretaries of state. The sector will have to direct its lobbying and policy activities at two separate groups of civil servants (that's before you factor in the Home Office and others). Whitehall is notoriously poor at ensuring effective mid-level collaboration between its distinct monoliths, so this is not a prospect relished by the now much busier public affairs profession in HE. It also adds greater complexity to Jo Johnson’s brief as his time and resources are split across two Whitehall departments.

Research and science policy will now be expected to be a cornerstone of Britain’s newly resurrected ‘industrial strategy’, perhaps something more likely to have happened under a Labour government in a different age. Former civil servants have remarked that the term was banned in the more laissez-faire days of New Labour and under Cameron, and Sajid Javid had a visible distaste for the term. The new department bears some resemblance to Michael Heseltine's DTI c.1992 or Harold Wilson’s short-lived Department for Economic Affairs. The DEA was modelled on economic ministries of many European countries which are kept separate to the finance ministries to prevent either becoming dominant. However, it is unlikely that the rise of BEIS will herald the end of HM Treasury's dominance of policy for now, especially in these uncertain and volatile times.

The new Chancellor has said the Autumn Statement will set out the government’s plans for the economy. All of the Osborne-era orthodoxies will need to be changed or updated. There will be new fiscal rules for completely different priorities based on predictions for a very different and uncertain future. We’ll know more in the Autumn, but for now, we know austerity is effectively finished and the plan to eliminate the deficit by 2020 is defunct. The government may need to borrow to invest in infrastructure and take a much more proactive role in driving growth. Partly to counteract the expected recession and partly to take advantage of record-low borrowing costs as investors move their money to the safest place of all: Treasury gilts. It is perhaps encouraging for researchers and scientists that they are seen as a vital part of a more activist government economic strategy, but many will only believe it if it is backed up with funding and real measures to make up for the heavy losses expected to follow from leaving the European Union.

Meanwhile, there are several reasons for higher education to be concerned about the integration of HE policy into DfE. The department has been poorly managed in recent years and is not looked upon kindly by either Downing Street or the Treasury for regularly overspending and misallocating funds for academies. There have also been high-profile failures such as the leaking of SATS exams and the u-turn on converting all schools to academies. The department will now be responsible for three very substantial White Papers simultaneously: schools, skills, and higher education.

Keep reading:

  • David Morris weighs up the pros and the cons of the move of HE from BIS to DfE.
  • Andy Westwood picks over the peculiar new status of HE policy under May - not dead but stunned?
  • Jonathan Simons of Policy Exchange argues why moving HE to DfE shouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for universities.

Meet the new BEIS, same as the old BEIS

Higher education must contend with two new secretaries of state. One is very new, and the other rather familiar.

Justine Greening is the new boss at DfE and is seen as a close ally of Theresa May. She is the first openly LGBT woman to serve in the cabinet. Incidentally, her partner is a lecturer in teacher training at UCL's Institute of Education (wither, the Blob?). Greening herself was comprehensively educated and is a graduate of the University of Southampton and London Business School and is a former accountant. She will have a great deal to master in her new brief across all of education and skills policy, and depending on the government’s next financial settlement, might find herself the arbiter of fights for funding between the different education sectors now under her department.

That said, thanks to most of the cost of teaching in HE having been moved to fee loans, government funding for HE that will be administered through DfE, such as what remains of the teaching grant for STEM subjects and widening participation funds, is quite small. The bulk of direct government funding for the sector will be with BEIS in the guise of research.

Over at BEIS, the Secretary of State is Greg Clark, who held the universities brief for about a year before the last election. Clark once admitted to being an ‘accidental’ universities minister who was much more interested in local communities and economic development. He is a devoted disciple of Michael Heseltine and has written extensively on issues ranging from devolution to banking reform. Clark did not appear to have a great amount of interest in the sector when universities minister but now might have to take a much more active interest in promoting research and development in economic and industrial growth. He is considered to be a very conciliatory and thoughtful figure.

One crucial outstanding issue remains: how should BEIS be pronounced? The last thing higher education needs at a time of such uncertainty is a divide similar to that between ‘HEF-key’ and ‘HEF-see’. Wonkhe’s initial call for evidence has suggested that the predominant pronunciation for BEIS so far is ‘bees’, though others have suggested the appropriately Germanic-sounding ‘bice’. But for now, we’re sticking with ‘bees’ (‘dee-bees’ also acceptable).

Keep reading:

HERB goes to Parliament

With a new Secretary of State in charge and two new departmental owners, the Higher Education and Research Bill will have its just-in-time second reading tomorrow. Parliament finishes for the summer on Thursday. The second reading is usually where the real Parliamentary debate begins and tomorrow, Justine Greening and Jo Johnson will outline the case for introducing the Bill and what it hopes to achieve. After the government and opposition speeches, other MPs will make contributions to the debate. No amendments can be proposed at this stage; rather, the debate and subsequent vote will be about the top-line principles of the Bill. Barring anything unexpected, the Bill will then be approved to go to committee stage when Parliament returns in the Autumn. UCU, NUS and other organisations are organising a protest outside Parliament to coincide with the debate and have called for the Bill to be scrapped in light of the political events of the last few weeks. 

However, the strength of opposition is not as a great as the last time an HE Bill had its second reading in Parliament. The vote after the second reading of the Higher Education Bill in 2004, which introduced 'top up fees', nearly toppled the Blair government, reducing the government's majority of more than 170 to just 5. The 2016 Bill hasn't yet inspired anything like the same level of opposition on either side of the house. 

The government’s rationale for introducing the Bill has already been extensively outlined in the White Paper and the Queen’s Speech debate, so we expect little new here. So tomorrow’s debate should theoretically give us a clearer idea of the official opposition’s response to the Bill, and more perhaps importantly, which backbenchers from both sides of the House will be taking an interest in the Bill - possibly with a view to amending it at a later stage.

But reports on recent Parliamentary business have suggested that Labour’s official machinery for opposing legislation has all but collapsed due to the party’s ongoing crisis. Gordon Marsden, the shadow HE and skills minister, was notable for not resigning along with most of his colleagues a couple of weeks ago - we understand solely for the purpose of providing scrutiny for the HE Bill and the new Skills Plan. However, it is unclear to what extent his work will be coordinated with Jeremy Corbyn’s office, who before the EU referendum appeared to be gearing up for a fight on fees with a view to enshrining their complete abolition in party policy - at odds with the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. With a clear gulf between the leader and most of his MPs on higher education (amongst many other things), Labour appears in a weak position to mount and effective opposition to the legislation. 

You can follow the debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill here from around midday on Tuesday.

Keep reading:

Booking is open for the first major event in higher education looking at the impact of Brexit on universities.

Join higher education leaders, planners, wonks, communicators and others from across the UK to hear from the experts and join the debate.
More info and booking here.

Eyes on the prize - should the TEF be delayed?

The deadline for the technical consultation on year two of the TEF passed last week and we’ve seen numerous submissions. Universities UK’s contained a number of interesting points, including that future TEF iterations should be delayed until after a full evaluation of year two - partly because of the uncertainty caused by the referendum result. They also propose ‘sector ownership’ of the categorisations. UUK wants the rating of ‘meets expectations’ changed to ‘good quality’ and in a masterful demonstration of tact, suggests that there should be further consideration of the understanding of the difference between ‘excellent’ and ‘outstanding’. The Royal Statistical Society’s response was notable for being particularly damning about the proposed use of metrics in the TEF. The government’s TEF team, in addition to packing its bags and heading from BIS to DfE, will have the pleasure of digesting the responses over the summer and has promised to report its findings in September.

Keep reading:

Wonkhe’s Ant Bagshaw argues that the TEF should proceed and learn along the way, as it isn’t until the later years that the real benefits can be realised. 

Beyond the picket lines

The past term has seen the latest phase of ongoing industrial action carried out by UCU in protest at the latest pay offer by UCEA. A couple of weeks ago, Unison announced that they would be balloting its higher education members over the summer to join UCU’s expected continuation of action in the autumn term. The unions claim that the sector is not doing enough to tackle pay and conditions inequalities in the sector related to gender, casual contracts and the continued upward trend in vice chancellor salaries.

Behind the present dispute are some longer-term trends that are affecting industrial relations in HE, including pressures to improve the sector’s relative productivity, and political dissatisfaction with the overall direction of the sector that is drawing support for more ardent left-wing factions within the unions.

Keep reading:

David Morris has written a detailed analysis to help get beyond the picket lines and towards understanding the complex policy challenges presented by the ongoing labour disputes in universities.

Higher Education Policy Adviser 
HEFCE Student Opportunity Team
£28,341–£29,758

Further details and apply here.

What else is going on?

- This afternoon there will be a Westminster Hall debate on the decision to retrospectively change the terms of student loans. The debate is the result of a petition that has obtained over 132,000 signatures, partly due to the high profile campaigning of Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert.com, and also a viral Facebook post by a Newcastle graduate complaining about the rate of interest on loans and the decision to freeze the repayment earnings threshold at £21,000. There is little prospect of securing a government u-turn on the issue, but the debate can be followed here from about 4.30pm.
- Tomorrow is the deadline to respond to the government's call for evidence on credit transfer systems and accelerated degrees. More information can be found here and if you're looking for some inspiration, we set out some possible models for credit transfer on Wonkhe a couple of months ago. 
- HESA will be releasing the full set of 2015 DLHE data on Thursday.
- The Fabian Society has proposed a new model of funding higher education which is billed as making "practical" Jeremy Corbyn's pledge to abolish tuition fees altogether. The plans propose a new system of education accounts based on a hybrid loans and grants scheme which "would work like state pensions in reverse" and see the government writing off the debt slowly on the basis of the graduate's contribution to National Insurance. You can read the proposals here.
- The Scottish Government has issued a call for evidence for its Enterprise and Skills review. The call is open until 15th August. 

You might also have missed on Wonkhe

Jim Dickinson is not optimistic about the future post-Brexit and argues that universities need a complete change of mindset to batten down the hatches brave the storm. Stephanie Marshall of the Higher Education Academy outlines the transformational projects that can drive educational change. Phil Richards of Jisc sets out the data analytics that can make the TEF more efficient. And Registrarism has some suggestions for vice chancellor Desert Island Discs

Also on the week’s higher education agenda

Monday 18th July

PARLIAMENTARY: HoC - Westminster Hall debate on changes to the student loans agreement, 4.30pm
REPORT: HEFCE - Outcomes of consultation on changes to the National Student Survey, Unistats and information provided by institutions

Tuesday 19th July

PARLIAMENTARY: HoC - Higher Education and Research Bill, second reading, 11.30am
PARLIAMENTARY: HoL - Science and Technology Select Committee, EU membership and UK science - follow-up, 10.30am
PARLIAMENTARY: HoC - Science and Technology Select Committee, Regenerative medicine, 2.15pm
REPORT: IPPR - Beyond the Plateau: the case for an Institute of Advanced Teaching
EVENT: The Brilliant Club - Annual Conference, Stoke-on-Trent
EVENT: UUK - Degree apprenticeships: understanding the opportunities, London
DEADLINE: BIS - Call for evidence on credit transfer

Wednesday 20th July

PARLIAMENTARY: HoC - Business Innovation and Skills Select Committee, Work of the Department, 3pm
PARLIAMENTARY: HoL - oral question on Interests of UK universities and their students and staff from EU member states
REPORT: OFFA - Annual accounts and report
REPORT: UUK - University funding explained (tbc)
STATS: ONS - UK labour market statistics: July 2016
EVENT: Bridge Group - seminar Student employability: questioning assumptions and challenging narratives, London

Thursday 21st July

REPORT: UCAS - Through the lens of students: how perceptions of higher education influence applicants’ choices
STATS: HESA - Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education 2014/15

Friday 22nd July

DEADLINE: HEFCE - Consultation on WP funding

Have a great week,
mark[at]wonkhe[dot]com

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