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.
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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’.