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Good morning. Learning gain is back on the agenda, we model the bleak impact on the sector of the government using TEF scores to limit international student recruitment, there's yet another education-related Bill and a Tory MP must be regretting his random slight against academics on Twitter...

Have a great week.

Mark Leach, Editor

Are we academically adrift?

Are students in UK universities actually learning anything? This week, HEFCE is expected to launch the largest research project yet in the UK investigating that question, finally providing an evidence base for the long-running debate about learning gain. 

Interest in learning gain has been increasing in recent years, particularly in the US after ‘Academically Adrift’ was published in 2011, analysing the Collegiate Learning Assessment test. The study made waves when it argued that a third of US university students learn next to nothing in four years. Other studies, such as the Wabash National Study of learning in liberal arts colleges, have added to a growing anxiety that many universities are simply ineffective at educating their students.  

Even before Jo Johnson’s announcement of the TEF in June last year, the anxiety about limited learning spread to the UK, although there is currently no compelling evidence to back up the fears. In 2010, in the influential and widely cited ‘Dimensions of Quality’, Graham Gibbs argued that there is “sufficient evidence” to be concerned in the UK about the process indicators that predict educational gain. David Willetts promoted the issue in numerous speeches and policy initiatives and HEFCE began work on learning gain in late 2014, hosting an event with several US speakers in February 2015, and subsequently announcing £4 million of funding in the area.

Last September, HEFCE commissioned a report by RAND Europe, which evaluated different methods for measuring learning gain and what utility they might have for the sector. The report recommended robust piloting of the validity and feasibility of different approaches to measuring learning gain in a British context. After initially mooting the idea in the Green Paper, the government confirmed in the recent TEF technical paper that learning gain measures could become a part of the exercise in future years.

The mixed method project due to be announced this week will involve about 27,000 undergraduate students at about ten institutions. Students will be tested at various points throughout their undergraduate careers using three different measures: a problem solving and critical thinking test; a survey on attitudes and non-cognitive skills; and a survey of students’ engagement with their studies.

This will obviously take several years to be completed, but it is clear that interest in learning gain (perhaps coupled with a little bit of anxiety) is growing and will be an ongoing theme of policy discussions, particularly as the TEF is refined and developed. There will be significant challenges in systematically measuring learning gain across the sector without introducing standardised instruments similar to the US Collegiate Learning Assessment, something that universities are unlikely to support. 

Nonetheless, the political implications of learning gain are too large for it to be avoided. The TEF has evolved out of a deep suspicion that UK universities are indeed ‘academically adrift’, and however clumsy, is an attempt to correct course. It is hoped that the more precise our understanding of effective (or ineffective) learning in universities, the less damaging future government attempts to hold universities accountable for teaching quality will be. You can read more about HEFCE’s existing learning gain work here.    

Also this week, HEFCE will be releasing guidance for institutions for the upcoming TEF. After last week’s release by HEFCE of details about the new Annual Provider Review (APR) process, institutions will no doubt be asking exactly how HEFCE will organise the overlaps, as data submitted for both the TEF and APR appear increasingly similar. 

Universities and Schools: Selection, Sponsorship and Social Mobility

Friday 25th November, Coventry University London
Join us for a one-day conference to explore the government's new agenda for education. Confirmed speakers include Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access; Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI; Chris Millward, Director (Policy), HEFCE and many more. Book now.

BrHExit Watch

There were the first early warning signs of how Brexit might affect EU student recruitment last week as UCAS released the first round of data for the 2017 admissions cycle. Applications from the EU to Oxford, Cambridge, medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses have fallen by 9%, with a 16% fall in those who applied to medicine. This is in spite of the government’s recent confirmation of continued funding for EU students applying for 2017, though the announcement may have come too late for many applicants. It’s still early in the cycle though, and numbers could yet recover, but the numbers are not helping the jitters.

There's some good news in that international applications have grown by 1% on last year, despite the government's increasingly tough rhetoric. Yet there is still uncertainty about the Home Office’s plans for a reformed student visa scheme that may be linked to the quality of course or institution. Several Russell Group vice chancellors put their heads above the parapets last week to voice concerns, despite the mission group itself taking a relatively non-committal position when the Home Office’s plans were initially announced.

Concerns that the TEF will be used as the government’s preferred measure - and therefore influence universities’ ability to recruit international - run deep, as they should. New analysis on Wonkhe shows that four Russell Group universities are projected to receive a ‘low silver’ TEF rating which could potentially lead to restrictions on their ability to recruit international students if such a policy was enacted. For example, LSE is one that falls into that category, yet 49% of its student body are from outside the UK and EU. Other institutions with particularly high numbers of international students that look set to fall into the bronze or low silver categories include Westminster, Cardiff Metropolitan, South Wales, Bedfordshire, Salford, Strathclyde, SOAS, Stirling, and Goldsmiths.

Our analysis deliberately anticipates the worst case scenario that we can imagine, and it’s not clear that the Home Office has worked through the full implications of the policy. If anything, it makes it clearer (as if we did not already know) that tougher restrictions on international recruitment based on TEF scores would be dangerously counterproductive and incredibly damaging to several universities' viability.

In other BrHExit news, an attempted legal challenge to Brexit in Northern Ireland, based upon an interpretation of the province’s autonomy in the Good Friday Agreement, was rejected by the High Court in Belfast on Friday. Meanwhile, the House of Lords Library has published a briefing on the impact of Brexit for universities, science and research.

David Cameron’s immigration advisor has revealed that having been convinced by the evidence, the former Prime Minister had firmly decided to take students out of net migration figures and was going to announce the move after the EU referendum despite the battle he would have had with his Home Secretary. The sector got so much closer to victory on the issue than was known at the time.

Read more on Wonkhe: 

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More Bills

Since the publication of the Sainsbury Review of technical education in the summer, there was some uncertainty about whether legislation would be needed to implement its recommendations, however, speculation was put to rest as the government published a Technical and Further Education Bill on Friday.

The Bill renames the Institute of Apprenticeships to the ‘Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education’, and formalises how insolvent colleges will be brought under a “special administration regime”. The government’s interest in college insolvency has developed from the ongoing Area Reviews of general FE and sixth form colleges, as well as the continued financial pressures on the sector after years of massive cuts in public funding.

The special administration regimes will be empowered to ensure that “the interests of learners are given priority and the administrator is able to act accordingly”, and reflect measures in the Higher Education and Research Bill that require student protection plans if a higher education provider collapses. However, the new Bill only further underlines the increasing regulatory, policy and funding chasm between the further and higher education sectors in England. 

You can read the Technical and Further Education Bill here, and the government’s factsheet here. On Wonkhe, Julian Gravatt inspects the ever growing policy chasm between HE and FE and argues that college mergers matter more to universities than you might think.

Living in the real world?

Eyebrows were raised on Saturday as Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire Glyn Davies Tweeted: "Personally, never thought of academics as 'experts'. No experience of the real world." The seemingly random comment was offensive as it was disturbing. Coming after Michael Gove's now infamous "don't trust the experts" line in the run up to the EU referendum, it is dispiriting to see politicians continue to show how little they understand or value HE. Thousands of academics were quick to mobilise and respond to Davies' jibe with the hashtag #RealWorldAcademic - the Tweets are often hilarious and poignant and well worth checking out. 

Chair the Office for Students

The government has begun recruiting for a Chair to lead the Office for Students. The role will be a crucial link between ministers and the new regulator and the successful candidate will need subtle political skills to navigate Whitehall and the HE sector successfully. Find out more and apply, if you dare, here

Also on this week's higher education agenda

Monday 31st October

DEADLINE: Universities UK Review of Skills consultation.
DEADLINE: HEFCW’s consultation on the Prevent Strategy.
EVENT: Universities UK is hosting an event on ‘Transforming higher education for development: the potential of innovative partnerships’ with DFID and the British Council in London.
EVENT: The Higher Education Academy is holding an online training session entitled ‘New to Teaching in STEM: Biosciences’.
EVENT: Westminster Forum Projects is holding its event ‘Next steps for the Research Excellence Framework’ in London.
EVENT: King's College London - Future Opportunities and Challenges for Universities Series - What key trends will reshape UK higher education in the next decade? (with Charles Clarke and David Willetts).

Tuesday 1st November

PARLIAMENTARY: The Commons International Development Committee are holding an oral evidence session on DFID's work on education at 2pm.
EVENT: Jisc is holding its Security Conference 2016.
EVENT Jisc is holding an OpenAIRE workshop for UK universities.
EVENT: The Leadership Foundation is holding its Aurora Edinburgh event.

Wednesday 2nd November

MEETING: GuildHE HR Network.
EVENT: UCEA Webinar: Brexit - legal implications for employers.
EVENT: Jisc Research Data Alliance (RDA) workshop.
PARLIAMENTARY: Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy - Oral Evidence Session on apprenticeships. Robert Halfon, Minister of Apprenticeships, will be in attendance.

Thursday 3rd November

PARLIAMENTARY: The House of Lords will debate the potential impact of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU on funding for universities and scientific research.
PARLIAMENTARY: The House of Lords will discuss how to ensure exam boards offer a range of creative subjects at A-Level.
REPORT: HE Academy will launch its UK Engagement Survey 2016.
REPORT: OFFA will provisionally release its monitoring guidance for universities with access agreements.
EVENT: Universities UK is holding its event ‘Tackling violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students’ in London.
EVENT: The Centre for Global Higher Education is holding a seminar the ‘Growth of the global higher education estate: challenges ahead’ in London.
EVENT: Jisc is holding an event on ‘Beyond learning analytics: collaboration, interoperability and standards in higher education learning data’.
EVENT: The Leadership Foundation are hosting a workshop for chairs of governing bodies and vice chancellors and principals.
EVENT: IndependentHE is holding an event on ‘A Whole Campus Approach to Disability and Special Educational Needs’ in London.

Friday 4th November

EVENT: Access and Affordability in Higher Education: system-level and institutional responses in the early 21st century (HUMANE Seminar, University of London).

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