Everything going on in UK higher education
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Good morning, the government has announced some major amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill. Debates over student migration stats ramp up following new information from ONS. HEFCE has been given its (possibly) final ever grant letter. And debate has been raging over the past 24 hours over an Observer piece on universities. As usual, there's what you might have missed on Wonkhe, what else is going on and everything else on this week's HE agenda. Have a great week.

Mark Leach, Editor

Path clears for the HE Bill

On Friday, Jo Johnson addressed a Universities UK meeting to set out a wide-ranging package of amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill. Conceding on a number of issues that had been agitating the sector and opposition peers in the House of Lords, the revised plans look likely to ensure that the Bill receives a smooth passage as it enters its final stages of scrutiny in Parliament.

After months of hardly moving an inch on any of the issues, in the manner of the magician’s ‘big reveal’, Jo Johnson demonstrated, with glamorous assistant Viscount Younger, that his team could hold its nerve in Parliament - waiting for the last minute before pulling multiple rabbits from ministerial hats. Although they are still planning for a robust set of sessions, Labour peers told Wonkhe that the package has "taken the heat out the debates". In further good news for Jo Johnson, HE sector leaders were quick to praise the move to amend the Bill on Friday, claiming a victory for their lobbying efforts particularly on clauses relating to autonomy and standards. The firm consensus seems to be that the proposed legislation has been much improved, but what are the changes and do they go far enough? 

Accelerated degrees and credit transfer

Although the package was far wider, the announcement of a new drive for shorter accelerated degrees and credit transfer garnered the most attention in the media on Friday. But all this was widely misreported, with several headline-grabbing suggestions that the fees could be as high as £14,000 per year (which assumes there’s an inflationary increase on top). Johnson stressed in his speech that universities should not expect to be able to charge the equivalent even of the current £27,750 all-in maximum fee for a three-year programme. He said that while the proposals would give the option of a higher fee level, somewhere above the £9,250 cap, the government wouldn’t set the cap so that an accelerated degree could cost students more than a traditional three-year course. 

With a lower total fee for two-year options over their three-year counterparts, there would also be a saving on maintenance for students where they are eligible for support. The higher fee cap should stimulate the number of offers of fast-track degrees but how many universities will take up the opportunity to offer these courses remains to be seen. The Russell Group’s lukewarm statement on the plans suggested many of their members wouldn't bother, while other groups were more positive. Fundamentally, this looks more like a policy for the 'challenger' providers who are the most likely group to offer accelerated degrees.

While Johnson is aiming to use the ‘hard’ tools of funding to stimulate the accelerated degree market, he’s chosen to deploy some ‘soft’ (and likely useless) ones to stimulate a credit transfer system to help student switch provider. The proposed amendment will give OfS a gentle encouragement to work on credit transfer systems but avoids making full use of its extensive powers to stimulate this policy.

Some of the other big changes announced on Friday include:

  • An explicit definition of universities’ autonomy that will be incorporated into the Bill - the move already has cross-party support: the amendment is being jointly proposed by the government and Labour opposition. This change also covers the freedom of academic staff to “to question and test received wisdom… without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges”.
  • Ensuring that standards against which providers are assessed are explicitly made the responsibility of the so-called “designated quality body” rather than the OfS. This would currently be, to all intents and purposes, QAA. The definition of standards outlined in the Bill has been deleted, so as to affirm the sector’s right to define standards.
  • The full rollout of the subject-level TEF has been postponed to year 5 of the exercise (2019-20). Pilots will still begin next year, but this is effectively a recognition that implementing TEF at such a granular level will be a significant policy and administrative challenge and so an extra year is given to iron out issues.
  • Confirmation that this year's TEF will be subject to a “genuine lessons-learned exercise".
  • The power of the OfS to grant or revoke degree awarding powers will be subject to more specific criteria to be outlined in the legislation. Furthermore, the powers of the Bill will be explicitly unable to revoke a higher education provider’s Royal Charter - a key ask of sector lobbyists.
  • A new amendment will specify the OfS’s duty to promote 'collaboration' as well as 'competition' amongst providers.
  • All registered providers, regardless of where on the OfS register they sit, will be subject to the freedom of speech duty as set out in the Education (No 2) Act 1986.
  • The Haldane Principle will be specifically outlined in legislation for the first time.
  • New protections are outlined for the independence of the respective Research Councils. The Councils’ budgets, as well as that of Innovate UK, will have to be specifically outlined in grants to UKRI, and consultation, as well as parliamentary assent, will be required to change the activities or names of the Councils.
  • In contrast to Johnson’s previously announced wish not to be ‘prescriptive’ when it comes to the organisation, further regulations for the governance of UKRI are to be specified in the legislation, including the Executive Committee and size of each Research Council.
  • New amendments will specify that OfS and UKRI must collaborate with each other and with their devolved nations’ counterparts.
Although there's been substantial change, the government's reforms are still largely in tact - and so many will still disagree with its overall aims. And although there's now a greater chance to improve future iterations of TEF, it's still very much pushing on. Having said that, Friday's package has softened some of the harder edges of the proposals, and it's clear that the Bill now more closely resembles something that the sector can live with. 

Read more: 

Policy Watch: Mark Leach on the overall package: path clears for HE Bill as government announces significant changes.
Policy Watch: Catherine Boyd on the plans for fast-track degrees.
Policy Watch: Ant Bagshaw on the credit transfer proposals.

Migration stats kerfuffle

Last Thursday the Office for National Statistics released the latest quarterly migration figures. The data showed a 23% fall (41,000) in long-term immigration to the UK to study from September 2015 to 2016, though the number of visas issued over the same period to non-EU students for 12 months or more was up by 2%. The ONS states that there could be a number of statistical quirks that explain this discrepancy, including seasonal variances and sampling errors. Nonetheless, the recorded fall in student immigration was by far the largest contributor to an overall decrease in net migration.  

Intriguingly, ONS concurrently released a document outlining its plans to improve the quality of migration statistics, identifying data on student migration as a high priority issue for it to address. The report admits that there are “significant current challenges to understand what former international student immigrants do when they complete their studies”, and that the methodology of the International Passenger Survey (IPS) needs further refinement to improve its reliability.

The ONS proposes linking Home Office immigration data more closely to HESA’s data on students, to give a more accurate picture of international student immigration. Wonkhe understands that IPS and the border ‘exit check’ system each lead to a significantly different picture of how many international students are shown to ‘overstay’ beyond their studies and that many in government are acknowledging the current systemic flaws with reliance on IPS. This would confirm the report of one Whitehall source who told The Times last October that a secret Home Office analysis showed barely 1% of international students - equivalent to about 1,500 per year -  were ‘overstayers’. A report in September by IPPR also questioned the reliability of the IPS.

For the government to have based its recent hardline policies on faulty data would be quite an embarrassment. The long-promised Home Office consultation on a new system, promised by Amber Rudd in September, is still to arrive. The department is said to be preoccupied with the massive challenge of redesigning the UK visa system for post-Brexit.

Read more:

Data: David Morris unpacks the questionable data and immigration policy.

Letters of note

On Thursday the government published its annual grant letter to HEFCE for 2017-18 - perhaps the penultimate or even final ever such event. As expected there is little movement in funding allocations, and the priorities outlined by the minister largely follow from recent years.

The letter confirms that subject level TEF pilots are to run alongside TEF year three (next year), and we know from Jo Johnson's speech on Friday that these pilots will also run in year four, but there is no mention yet of a taught postgraduate TEF. There will be a consultation and more detailed plans for the distribution of the extra £4.7 billion for research and development announced in the Autumn Statement.

Other priorities set out for HEFCE include following up UUK’s recent report on safeguarding students on campus, particularly in relation to anti-Semitism, as well as tackling plagiarism, supporting credit transfer, the degree apprenticeships allocation fund, and advising on the impact of Brexit on universities.

Tackling anti-Semitism appears to be a particular focus for Johnson, who has written to UUK Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge asking the organisation to ensure that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism is fully disseminated and understood in the sector. Johnson’s letter in particular singled out “Israel Apartheid” events on campuses as an area which might need attending to.

Read more:

Registrarism: dissecting the 2017 Grant Letter, including the length fully benchmarked, signatures inspected and other cutting-edge analysis

What else is going on?

An article of blame?

The Observer's Sonia Sodha ignited furious debate yesterday with her article in yesterday's paper: Our arrogant universities must embrace innovation. The article hit something of a nerve, sparking a massive backlash from the HE community who felt affronted by Sodha's depiction of universities as complacent and the sector as offering poor value for money. On the site this morning, Andy Westwood offers a response in which he suggests that debates about value and diversity in the system are getting out of balance:
Comment: An article of blame or an article of faith? Responding to Sonia Sodha.

Barber confirmed for OfS 

Sir Michael Barber was confirmed as Chair of the Office for Students after his appearance before the Education Select Committee last Tuesday. Despite some confusion over the ‘quota’ of Gold awards available in the TEF, the hearing went by largely without much note, which of itself is interesting given Barber’s propensity for (in his own words) “provocation”. Barber will formally start the role on April 1st.

Policy Watch: Mark Leach gives his evaluation of Barber’s performance before MPs

Some further info on SFC governance

The Scottish Government has published a report by Professor Lorne Crerar outlining proposals for the governance of the new Strategic Board for Enterprise and Skills that will oversee several non-departmental public bodies including - controversially - the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). The report outlines proposals for how the new Board could operate to ensure better collaboration between the SFC and Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The paper acknowledges “the need for independence in decision making as provided by SFC for the HE sector”, and appears to suggest ensuring some distance between ministers and the SFC. A ‘Delivery Board’ would replace the current SFC Board but be answerable to the new overall Strategic Board, which would, in turn, oversee collaborative strategic aims between the various aforementioned public bodies.

As yet, Professor Crerar’s proposals are simply recommendations, and we must await the Scottish Government to set out its firm plans.

IFS report on education funding

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has today released a report tracing the spending patterns on education by governments over the past two decades, and it may come as no surprise that FE is the big loser in the education funding race. Spending per student for FE has fallen by 13% between 2010-11 and 2019-20. Back in 1990, spending per student in FE was 45% higher than in secondary schools, whereas now it is 10% lower.

While overall, since the 90s there has been a 55% increase in upfront government spending on teaching full-time undergraduates in England, the report highlights that this is a rather strange pattern of growth, with the amount of upfront spending per student available to universities themselves having fallen in 18 of the last 26 years.

Northern Ireland elections

The ins and outs of higher education policy are hardly a headline issue in Thursday’s Stormont elections. Indeed the very future of the current power-sharing arrangements may be at stake, and the divisions over the profound impacts of Brexit on the province loom large.

The DUP is expected to lose some ground as a result of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and its support for Brexit in a province that voted Remain, but it is unclear whether this might translate into new ministerial responsibility for universities, which are currently overseen by the Department for the Economy. Of the major parties, only the SDLP and Alliance make extensive references to higher education in their manifestos.

Fancy being the Government Chief Scientific Advisor?

If you happen to have a “first class reputation in science or engineering demonstrated by international recognition and a strong research and publication record” and “the ability to assimilate, evaluate and interpret scientific findings and advice across the full spectrum of disciplines”, then this might be the opportunity for you!

There’s a healthy compensation of at least £160,000 per year available as well, as well as the opportunity of working alongside such luminaries as Jo Johnson, Theresa May, Philip Hammond, and many more of your favourite government ministers. Applications close on 30th March, and there’s more information available here.

College area reviews  

Since late November, the final reports of the area reviews of post-16 education and training in England have begun to emerge. The reports include detailed plans for significant mergers, consolidations and cut-backs to estates in the further education sector, including a significant number of higher education providers. Many of the reviews also recommend further strategic collaboration between colleges and universities.

A selection of the reviews’ proposals gives a picture of the extent of the consolidation taking place. The reviews for the London area released last week include a proposal for Lambeth College to “form a partnership with London South Bank University” as an appealing alternative to merging with another college. Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College will develop its curriculum through partnership with the University of Middlesex, while Croydon College is developing a ‘university campus’ in partnership with the University of Sussex. Outside the capital, the Merseyside area review announced that Wirral Metropolitan College would be further collaborating with the University of Chester, while Bury College and the University of Bolton will be entering a full merger.

These deeper partnerships, in some cases manifesting as full mergers, reflect the degree of consolidation taking place in both the college sector and some parts of the university sector in response to funding constraints. In colleges, these have largely been due to public funding cuts, while in universities, market pressures have been the catalyst. The area reviews appear to be another step towards blurring the lines between what has traditionally been recognised as ‘HE’ and ‘FE’.  

The Wonkhe Daily

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Coventry University: Director of the Centre for Global Engagement.
Further details.

Also on this week's HE agenda

Monday 27th February

  • The House of Lords will discuss the Brexit Bill at Committee Stage.
  • It’s the deadline for DfE’s consultation on its draft operational plan for the Institute for Apprenticeships.
  • Ukadia is holding its board meeting.
  • Institute for Fiscal Studies will publish its report on education spending across the life cycle in England.
  • JISC has a webinar: Data and disadvantaged students - using learning analytics for inclusion’.
  • AGCAS will hold an event on Developing an Employer Engagement Strategy in London.

Tuesday 28th February

  • (Provisional) HEFCE will release an independent report on interdisciplinary research policy and practice output,
  • (Provisional) HEFCE will issue a circular letter to universities: Guidance to institutions on the provision of information to prospective undergraduate students.
  • (Provisional) HEFCE will issue a circular letter to universities: Unistats and the KIS: Site updates and the data collection timetable 2017.
  • UUK will hold a conference on degree apprenticeships in London.
  • The Scottish Parliament Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee will debate the report on the Economic Impact of Leaving the European Union.
  • LFHE has a course, Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership, which starts in Dublin.
  • The NUS National Executive Council will meet in London.
  • It’s the deadline for Athena SWAN intention to submit in April 2017 and for registration to be an Athena SWAN panellist.
  • AGCAS is hosting an event on Introduction to Employer Engagement in London.
  • The Royal Society has an even on STEM in London.
  • BUFDG will host its Midlands Finance Directors Group Meeting.

Wednesday 1st March

  • UCU will hold its academic-related, professional staff annual meeting.
  • NUS has a conference on tackling sexual violence in Manchester.
  • QAA Scotland and the University of Strathclyde have an event on welcoming and supporting international students.
  • The HEA Teaching Excellence Programme (TEP) begins.
  • The House of Lords will discuss the Brexit Bill for the second day of Committee Stage.
  • The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party will have a debate on education in the Scottish Parliament.
  • The Welsh Assembly Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee will meet.
  • CGHE is hosting its annual conference in London.  

Thursday 2nd March

  • It’s the day of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
  • UUKi is releasing a report on UK HE outward mobility and effects on WP student success.
  • LFHE will hold its Aurora Power and Politics day in Leeds.
  • HESA will publish statistics on HE Finance Plus 2015/16, SLC data 2015/16, Finance data 2015/16 and OECD data 2015/16.
  • JISC is hosting a webinar: Think tank - open by default?
  • The Welsh Assembly has its Children, Young People and Education Committee meeting.

Friday 3rd March

  • ECU has a lunchtime webinar on learning and unlearning whiteness.

Saturday 4th March

  • UCU Wales is hosting its Congress.
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