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Good morning, The Bell Review of sector agencies will finally be published tomorrow. UCAS are due to release their stats up to the January 15th application data and we've been looking at new data from the last cycle. There's a review of last week's government Industrial Strategy which had a mixed response. The Welsh government prepares to respond to the Hazelkorn Review (with big changes likely to be signalled). The House of Lords holds its last day of the HE Bill's Committee today. We round up everything else on the HE agenda and take a moment to mark Wonkhe's sixth birthday online. Have a great week. 

Mark Leach, Editor

Sector agencies brace for Bell

We previewed the Bell review before Christmas, but it is now finally due to be published tomorrow. Universities UK's review of sector agencies, led by David Bell, vice chancellor of the University of Reading, was charged with assessing the landscape of sector agencies and subscriptions to see where financial savings could be made the system could be simplified. It's been on quite a journey, but the finished report is expected to recommend a big merger of the Higher Education Academy, Leadership Foundation and Equality Challenge Unit into one single body that takes care of the UK's higher education workforce. There may be other recommendations too, but this is likely to be the most headline-grabbing - and controversial.

The three agencies have been negotiating with the review group and Universities UK for months over this proposal, with different agencies mounting varying levels of resistance to the plans. However, in the final analysis, they are unlikely to be able to block the move altogether. These bodies need University UK's consent to exist, as vice chancellors ultimately pay their subscription fees. A shadow merger board is due to meet next month led by Nigel Carrington, vice chancellor of the University of the Arts London, and the work of the merger process will begin in earnest shortly afterwards so that the new body can be up and running next year. There are many outstanding questions: who will lead the new organisation? Will the merger itself and operation of new body save the sector money or cost more? Who will 'own' it and what will be the broader governance arrangements behind the organisation? Which LFHE, ECU or HEA services might get lost in the move? Could other bodies or their services fall under the new mega-agency? What will be its relationship with government, with individual academics, with students? We'll return to these questions in detail in the coming days and weeks.

Read more:

Higher education agencies for whom the Bell tolls: Wonkhe's Mark Leach on the background to the review and what it means for the agencies affected. 

A tough recruitment cycle

On Thursday, UCAS will release data about the current application cycle up to to the January 15th deadline. There have been concerns since the start of this cycle that recruitment seemed down and our intel indeed suggests that the year on year number will be between -4% and -5% overall as of the January deadline. However, there has been steady recovery throughout the cycle - it was around -10% before Christmas - and so this number could yet improve. But it does point to some institutions seriously struggling, again. Last week, UCL’s Michael Arthur publicly told a House of Commons Committee that applications from the EU have dropped around 7% in this cycle, likely over Brexit fears. If that turns out to be right, expect many of the headlines to focus on the issue later this week after the data is released. 

Last Thursday, UCAS also released more data on the previous 2016 cycle showing offer rates and acceptances broken down by gender, ethnicity, and area background as well as by institution. 

The numbers point to some real volatility, with a wide gulf opening up between those doing better and worse. Some institutions suffered dramatic drops in accepted places by as much as -26% in one case. On the flip side, some of those faring better increased by just as much. Low tariff institutions have been the ones most consistently squeezed over the past years, with some now having faced cycle after cycle of very serious decline.

The data from the last cycle has also been broken down by different ethnic and socio-economic groups which showed (for instance) how much more likely to go to Cambridge an 18-year-old student from the most advantaged quintile of neighbourhoods is than one from the least advantaged quintile. The answer, in both the 2015 and 2016 recruitment cycles, is sixteen times more likely.

Read more:

Winners, losers and trends in the last recruitment cycle: Wonkhe’s David Morris on the institutions that have been doing better or worse over the last year. 

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.

Industrial Strategy 

The Industrial Strategy Green Paper and consultation was finally launched last week, having been promised since Theresa May’s arrival at 10 Downing Street. Announced in the shadow of the Brexit “Plan for Britain” speech, the strategy appears to be preparing for all EU exiting eventualities, i.e. whether the rest of Europe accept our offer of friendship (deals) or not. It identifies ten pillars that frame the government's new approach, including R&D, skills, infrastructure, business, procurement, trade, energy, sectors, regional growth and institutions.

Although some have noted the significant nod to previous policy attempts in this area, others have expressed disappointment in the lack of anything particularly new. It confirms the £4.7 billion extra in Research and Development announced in the Autumn statement last year, the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund announced last November and proposals to used R&D funding to regions outside the ‘golden triangle’ (46% of research funding is spent in London, Cambridge and Oxford) i.e. the Northern Powerhouse. However, with a lengthy three month consultation period, the Green Paper offers an opportunity for the sector to drive its policy agenda forwards and determine how this new money is used.

The predicted push on vocational education has been confirmed through the strategy's commitment to create a single clear framework of approved technical qualifications at Levels 4+ and the Institutes of Technology which will deliver higher level technical education in STEM subjects. Again, this not a new policy initiative (see The Sainsbury Review, July 2016); their aim is to provide vocational education a ‘parity of esteem’ with higher education. However, with depleting budgets in adult skills and technical education since 2010, this relatively small investment is unlikely to revolutionise vocational education.

The consultation runs until 17th April. 

Read more:

Hazelkorn Review

Tomorrow, the Welsh Government will finally publish its response to the Hazelkorn Review. The review was of post-compulsory education, led by Professor Ellen Hazelkorn and published its findings back in March 2016. The recommendations suggest the government should take a more overarching and joined-up approach to post-compulsory education in Wales by establishing a single new authority to manage oversight and regulation across education and skills. This will likely involve the winding up of HEFCW, as the funding council would likely end up as part of this bigger authority. The review also suggests a renewed focus on civic engagement and the clarifying of new flexible learning and career pathways. The Welsh Government is expected to largely accept the recommendations, which could collectively amount to quite a big shakeup of Welsh HE, adding to the major changes to funding that are being implemented after the Diamond Review. A broad direction of travel for policy and the new regulatory and funding landscape will be outlined tomorrow ahead of a full white paper to be published later in the Spring, which will set out the plans in more detail. 

What next for the Bill? (also BrHExit Watch)

Today is the last scheduled day of the Lords Committee on the Higher Education and Research Bill. With 121 amendments yet to be debated, and the weighty matter of UKRI the primary topic of discussion, this timetabling may be optimistic. The government’s HE spokesperson in the Lords Viscount Younger will allow the language of 'knowledge exchange' into the Bill, but, as previously, the government will not accept any further amendments - with many issues likely to re-emerge at the Report stage.

For bills that have been amended during the Lords Committee, it is usual for a few days to pass between the end of the Committee stage and the Report - this allows time for the government to prepare further amendments based on the committee discussions, and then for others to table amendments of their own. “Repeat” amendments mirroring those already discussed and withdrawn in Committee are not permitted, but amendments addressing the same issues are allowed where these differ substantially from those at Committee.

However, the timing has become a pressing issue: Parliament is scheduled to be in recess between 9th and 20th February. Though it is possible that the Report may begin before the 9th, it is unlikely (especially if a further day of Committee debate is needed) unless scheduling priority is given and the government decides to conclude before recess. Recall the numerous occasions where peers have withdrawn issues with a promise to return to them at Report?

The Report stage is the last serious chance that the House will have to amend the Bill - amendments at Third Reading are restricted to those where discussion of the issue in question has not happened at committee or report. For this reason, it is likely to be a much rockier stage for the government, and we could expect numerous votes if stonewalling tactics continue, or numerous concessions if the Bill is to avoid creating difficult headlines.

The pressure to clear House business by recess to allow the Brexit Bill to receive Royal Assent by the end of March - as per Theresa May’s timetable - adds further complication. It is possible - though unlikely at this stage - that the recess will be cancelled. It is very likely that more concessions will be offered to speed up bills already in the Lords - and as a particularly sticky example, the Higher Education and Research Bill would be examined very carefully in this context, possibly taking the Bill out of Jo Johnson’s hands and into those who favour speedy agreement.

Linked to this, the establishment of OfS and UKRI, changes to the granting of degree awarding powers and the linkage of TEF to fee levels, all depend on the Bill passing quickly - with the timetable providing for these to commence in the summer.

Beyond the Third Reading, the problem of parliamentary ‘ping-pong’ must be managed - if the Commons reject or replace Lords amendments, it could anger them into rejecting these rejections. The knowledge that time is on the side of opposition peers will embolden them in resistance as these continue, often into all-night sittings.

It's difficult not to think that if the Bill was better drafted to start with - or if better use had been made of the Commons and Lords Committee to improve it, it probably would have already passed. Johnson (as a committed Remainer) may reflect on this as he is forced to chose between the integrity of his Bill and the wider needs of the government which has committed to triggering Article 50 by the end of March.

Read more:


Happy birthday (to us)

happy birthday to usThis week marks Wonkhe's 6th birthday and it has been our biggest year yet. 2016 began with Wonkhe having just one employee. Team Wonkhe is now five and growing. We've also introduced a slew of new services over the past twelve months and moved into our very first office. The Wonkhe Daily started in Spring last year and has beaten all our expectations - we're thrilled that so many people read it every morning and depend on it to start their day. Our programme of events has been fun and added a whole new dimension to our work, the biggest so far being BrHExit - the first conference to explore the impact of Brexit on UK HE back in August. I've also been delighted that we've been able to introduce Wonkhe Professional - a programme of extremely high-quality training and development opportunities for the HE sector, and they've been really popular. And of course, we're also publishing more than ever before on the site, always looking for new ways to expand and improve the HE debate, find new ideas and analysis and bring more people into HE wonkery. That mission has never felt as important as it does today and we remain as committed to it as ever. 

With so many exciting plans in the pipeline, 2017 looks set to be even bigger for us. I hope you enjoy the next twelve months of Wonkhe. 

Mark Leach, Editor

Read more about the last year of Wonkhe on our Team Blog.

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 30th January

  • The House of Lords will have its seventh Committee stage session for the Higher Education and Research Bill.
  • The Leadership Foundation is hosting a roundtable on academic governance in London.

Tuesday 31st January

  • Policy UK is hosting an event in London on anchor institutions and the universities’ role in local economic growth and devolution.
  • The APPG University Group is meeting to discuss industrial strategy.
  • It’s the deadline for the consultation on the Institute for Apprenticeships’ draft strategic guidance.
  • The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee will have a private meeting.
  • The House of Commons will have its question time for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
  • Universities UK publishes its review of the higher education sector agencies (Bell Review).
  • Inside Government is hosting an event on HE Community Engagement in London.
  • The Welsh Government is expected to respond to the Hazelkorn Review.

Wednesday 1st February

  • It’s the first day of the HEA STEM Conference 2017: Achieving Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
  • The House of Lords will have its second reading of the Technical and Further Education Bill.
  • The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee will meet to discuss new inquiry proposals.
  • The House of Commons will have a debate on the implementation of the Prevent Strategy.
  • The House of Commons European Scrutiny Select Committee will discuss EU-UK relations in preparation for Brexit.
  • University Alliance has its Teaching and Learning Network meeting.

Thursday 2nd February

  • It’s the second and final day of the HEA STEM Conference 2017: Achieving Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
  • CGHE is hosting a seminar on higher education and the common good in London.
  • The Welsh Assembly’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee will meet.
  • HEPI will release a report on ‘Rebooting learning for the digital age – What next for technology-enhanced higher education?’.
  • UCAS will publish its applicant statistics as of 15 January deadline for all courses.
  • HESA will release data on widening participation.

Friday 3rd February

  • ECU is hosting a roundtable at Queen Mary University of London on transnational education.

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

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