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Good morning and Happy New Year! In this first Monday Morning HE Briefing of 2017, we look ahead to the one of the key landmarks of the next few months of higher education: the HE and Research Bill which begins its next round of scrutiny in the House of Lords today. We also wrap up some of the stories from the tail end of 2016, including the confirmation of the tuition fee increase, New Year’s Honours and Wendy Piatt’s departure from the Russell Group. We also have our regular update on the impact of Brexit and there's good news for Switzerland. 

Mark Leach, Editor

Jo Johnson's Magna Carta moment?

Today the Barons (and Baronesses, Bishops and residual hereditaries) amass for the next stage of their showdown with the government. This time there might not be the atmosphere of Runnymede in 1215, but the challenge to authority remains. The Lords now move to the line-by-line scrutiny of the Higher Education and Research Bill, and as they have been gearing up for the debate, the Bill has finally cut through into mainstream consciousness with dozens of related articles and opinion printed in the mainstream press since the new year.

Most notably, it is the forces seeking the statutory protection of university autonomy who are bringing out the big beasts to fight to Bill in the upper house and in the public debate. New Year’s Day saw a stinging attack from Chris Patten (Baron Patten of Barnes, Conservative), Oxford’s Chancellor and a former Tory minister, in The Observer, throwing accusations of “arrogance” and decrying “ham-fisted” policy. These are no ramblings of a peer in his dotage but a full blue-on-blue attack on Johnson’s legislation.

With support from Labour, Liberal Democrat and Crossbench peers, proposals to add definitions of the nature and functions of universities at the top of the Bill seek to enshrine academic freedom and the public good in statute. There are also indications that the Bill will be pushed to a vote - a tactic that could, theoretically at least, derail the Bill entirely given the lack of a government majority in the Lords, and will certainly slow progress.

The final viscount-down

The proposed amendments tabled on 3rd January by the Conservatives’ higher education spokesperson in the Lords, Viscount Younger of Leckie, suggest that the government is resigned to seeing the Bill return at least once to the Commons before reaching Royal Assent and passing into law. Comparatively slight though they may be, there is enthusiasm from some quarters for the government’s proposals, including strengthening the role of the Director of Fair Access and on making knowledge exchange explicit within UKRI’s remit.

Labour Lords HE spokesperson Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (formerly Secretary of Edinburgh Napier University’s forerunner institution) has, with colleagues, tabled a number of amendments concerning the structure and function of the Office for Students which would answer some of the criticisms around student representation. Lord Lipsey’s (Lab) suggestion that it be renamed the Office for Higher Education (OfHE), making the quango highly likely to be known as ‘the offie’, seems unlikely to pass.

An amendment from Lord Stevenson (Lab) would require OfS and UKRI to produce an annual joint report on the state of the sector, which could allay some fears about the separation of teaching and research policy. And Stevenson also sets out the scope of a proposed Quality Assurance Office (QAO) in a revised clause 23, effectively stripping the power of the OfS to assess quality (or designate another organisation to do so) by placing this function in an explicitly independent body.

Clause 25, on the Teaching Excellence Framework, is subject to numerous proposed amendments and as such is likely to form a major sticking point between the Lords and Commons. It is clear that several peers are concerned about the nature of the ratings, the sources of data, and the potential use of TEF judgements to restrict international recruitment. If the proposed amendments were accepted, that would effectively force a debate on TEF which hitherto has been created without parliamentary scrutiny. However, TEF’s genesis began in the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 general election; the Lords by convention don’t obstruct measures contained in the winning party’s manifesto.

As one would expect, measures to ensure that new entrants to the sector meet required standards are bolstered in several opposition and crossbench amendments. Similarly, the allocation of numerous and far-reaching powers to the Secretary of State and OfS are mitigated by amendments that should give greater parliamentary scrutiny over decisions. One amendment, by Lord Storey (Lib Dem) and others, would make running ‘essay mills’ and similar services a criminal offence bearing a fine of up to £5,000, as proposed by QAA last summer. An amendment around international student recruitment, introduced by Lord Patten and others, would remove international students from migration figures.

By comparison, amendments to the research aspects of the Bill are less numerous, though there are several attempts to enshrine the principle of international cooperation including involvement in EU research programmes, and the autonomy of the Research Councils including the explicit separation (ring-fencing) of funding allocations.

What next?

By convention, every amendment may be discussed on the floor of the House (there are no provisions to curtail debate as there are in the Commons, and the session takes place in the main chamber which is open to all peers). The sheer number of amendments - and the strong interest among the many peers who may be active or former academics, hold university chancellorships or other formal roles, or simply have a long-standing interest in this area - suggest that a long session may be on the cards, and accordingly six days (through to the 25th January) have been scheduled.

Even after this, peers may further modify the text of the Bill at the Report Stage and at third reading before it returns with amendments to the Commons. It is possible - though unlikely - that the government could choose to withdraw the Bill if the aggregation of amendments are deemed too great or the divide between the Lords and Commons too intractable to be resolved during the parliamentary ‘ping-pong’. A further option would be passage under the terms of the Parliament Act, effectively overruling the Lords, though this is rarely used and unlikely to be an attractive option for the government.

Read more:

  • On Wonkhe today, we explore the current regulation of academic freedom and how the Bill will likely change the status quo: Free Rein?
  • Jonathan Woodhead makes the case for part-time education returning to the debate over the Bill in the Lords. 
  • The latest Bill documents, including the amendments, can be found here.
  • Chris Patten attacks the Bill in The Observer, from 1st January.

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Challengers out in the cold?

While the fight on the text of the Bill continues, others are setting their sights further ahead. The Bill, in its current form, provides for a regulator - the Office for Students - with a wide range of powers. How it exercises those powers, and who leads the organisation, are key questions for the coming months. One important area of contention is the regulation of challenger institutions (or alternative providers in the old parlance).

HEPI’s latest report finds that under the Bill’s proposals more than 500 challengers would be left outside the regulatory regime. This challenges (ahem) the expectations, and the rhetoric, that the Bill would bring all providers within a single regulatory framework - the famed ‘level playing field’. Expect to see this issue, and others, gain more traction as commentators turn their attention to what OfS will be and how it will operate - assuming the Lords don’t scupper the plans completely.

Read more:

  • HEPI’s report, Alternative providers of higher education: issues for policymakers, from Professor Robin Middlehurst and John Fielden, can be found here.
  • Independent HE’s chief executive, Alex Proudfoot, responded to the HEPI report arguing that it misses the point about the Bill’s impact on AP regulation.

Learning to Wonk Before You Can Rant

Wonkhe is running a one-day workshop on policy analysis in Sheffield on 16th February 2017. To find out more, and to book your place, click here. 

BrHExit Watch

UCU today publishes the results of a survey into academics’ perceptions of Brexit and the HE Bill. Not surprisingly, there are serious fears of a Brexit brain drain with 42% of respondents (and 76% of EU nationals surveyed) stating that they’re more likely to think about heading overseas for work. Of the 29% who reported that they know someone leaving UK HE two-thirds said that the reason was Brexit. 44% reported that they knew of colleagues losing access to EU research partnerships or funding.

Elsewhere, in an eleventh-hour turnaround, Switzerland has been allowed full membership of the EU Horizon 2020 funding scheme. The non-EU country had only limited access following a national referendum which voted in favour of limiting freedom of movement; Swiss politicians have found a compromise which keeps the country within the EU’s rules. While news of the participation of non-EU countries in cross-Europe research funding will be a relief for UK researchers, the fact that it remains contingent on free movement - which seems a highly unlikely outcome of the Brexit negotiations - will dampen any glee. Read the announcement here.

Tuition fee increases

In July 2016 you may recall that Jo Johnson gave a written ministerial statement to parliament about the proposed inflation-based increase in the fee cap to £9,250 for institutions meeting the threshold for ‘year one’ of TEF, essentially all providers with a clean bill of health from QAA. The statement concluded that “I expect to lay regulations implementing changes to student finance for undergraduates and postgraduates for 2017/18 later this year which will be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny. More details of the 2017/18 fees and student support package will be published by my Department in due course.”

Come December 2016, and with a bit of searching on, you can find the relevant statutory instruments - numbers 1206 (the higher amount) and 1205 (the basic amount). However, at Christmas, there was a minor furore in the press as the government was accused of trying to slip the fee increases out unnoticed, as reported by the BBC. The criticism wasn’t unfair given the lack of any announcement confirming the change from DfE, and the fact that there was no parliamentary scrutiny. But the issue hasn't gone away and thanks to the relative silence by the government, public confusion about tuition fees only appears to be increasing. 

Read more:

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What else is going on?

Apprenticeships consultation

The Department for Education has launched a consultation on the guidance it should give to the Institute of Apprenticeships. The deadline for responses is 31 January, and you can find the consultation here.

Go Compare with caution

Comparison site Go Compare launched its Degree of Value website to much headline fanfare as the relative cost of being an undergraduate at universities across the country was reported in the press. A cursory look at the table shows up some fairly major flaws: do clothes for students at Oxford really cost six times those at the Royal Academy of Music? Will food at the University of Birmingham always cost two and a half times as much as St. George’s, University of London? Students at Anglia Ruskin spend, apparently, only £480 on social activities per year compared with £2,340 at the University of Kent. And so on.

The most interesting finding is that not every university is shown in the table as having updated its 2017-18 fees to the higher £9,250. It’s perhaps a less noteworthy fact that producing league tables generates headlines.

No selfie fakie

The Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD) service has identified 220 websites selling fake degree certificates. In well-meaning, if somewhat impractical advice for graduates, students have been asked not to post online photos of themselves with their certificates on show. HEDD claims that doing so enables fraudsters to make more accurate copies.

Funding news

The next tranche of funding from the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRPIF) was announced last week with a big slice for Imperial’s Biomedical Engineering Hub and LSE’s International Inequalities Institute. Read the government’s announcement here.

All change please, all change

The Russell Group confirmed a long-circulating rumour that its Director General Dr Wendy Piatt will step down at the beginning of February. Though Piatt has alienated many in the higher education community, and has a reputation for a ruthless management style that contributed to an exceptionally high staff turnover in the organisation, she has made major contributions to establishing the Russell Group as a significant lobbying force in the sector.

There will be much speculation about the runners and riders for the high-profile, and well-remunerated position; Piatt was said to be earning as much as £250k a year. On the news of her departure, The Times reported an insider source who said that her resignation soon after a widely publicised (by the tabloid press) affair with Lloyds Bank chief António Horta-Osório was “not entirely coincidental” timing.


There was a healthy crop of New Year's honours for higher education this year. Claire Callender, Professor of Higher Education at Birkbeck and UCL received an OBE while UWE’s vice-chancellor Steve West received a CBE. Oxford Brookes’ Chancellor and Olympic rower, Katherine Grainger, was made a Dame, and Barry Ife, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Principal, was made a Knight. Janice Kay, Exeter’s Provost and Senior DVC received a CBE, as did the University of the West of Scotland’s Depute Principal Paul Martin and A.C. Grayling, Master of the New College of the Humanities.

Among recognition for many academics and professional staff in universities, there were awards for widening participation. The Open Book project, an initiative established at Goldsmiths, University of London, was recognised by an OBE for its founder Joe Baden. Kathleen Hood, formerly head of WP at the University of Edinburgh received an MBE. The full honours list can be found here, and the education list here.

VC Pay

The regular row about vice chancellor’s pay has been playing out in the press over the past several days, with figures from Russell Group universities in particular making headlines. Of note this year is the outgoing Southampton VC’s £252k “loss of office” payment, quite the golden goodbye.

You might have missed on Wonkhe

Martin McQuillan is in pessimistic mood, looking ahead to what faces universities in 2017. And on Registrarism, we have a review of the blog in 2016 and a look at an international ranking of the greenest universities.

Also on this week's HE agenda

Monday 9th January

  • The Higher Education and Research Bill enters the first session of the Committee Stage in the House of Lords.
  • The House of Commons will see the Technical and Further Education Bill enter Report Stage and have its third reading.

Tuesday 10th January

  • The Royal Society is hosting a roundtable event on the research elements of the Higher Education and Research Bill.
  • GuildHE, CREST, the Leadership Foundation and MASHEIN are hosting a event on ‘Responding to the REF for small and specialist institutions’ in London.
  • It’s the first day of the International Partners’ Conference 2017, hosted at Regent’s University, London. It will run until Friday.

Wednesday 11th January

  • The Higher Education and Research Bill continues in the Committee Stage in the House of Lords.
  • The House of Commons Education Committee will debate the impact of exiting the European Union on higher education at the University of Oxford.
  • The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee is to discuss Brexit’s impact on regulation and standards.
  • SRHE is hosting a workshop in London on ‘Translating’ higher education research for media outlets’. Wonkhe’s Ant Bagshaw will be speaking.

Thursday 12th January

  • HESA will publish a Statistical First Release on higher education student enrolments and qualifications obtained at higher education providers in the UK for the academic year 2015/16.
  • HEPI will release a report on ‘The determinants of international demand for UK higher education’.
  • The Scottish Education and Skills Committee Debate will debate the performance and role of the SQA, Education Scotland, SFC and SDS.
  • The Welsh Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee will meet.
  • CGHE will host an event in London on ‘Critical thinking, university autonomy, and societal evolution: thoughts on a research agenda’.
  • The Association of Colleges and The Open University is hosting an event on ‘Personal learning accounts and how to persuade government to introduce them’ at Birkbeck, University of London.

Friday 13th January

  • The Leadership Foundation is hosting its Aurora Cardiff event. It is also hosting another on ‘Prevent: The Board's Role in Providing Assurance for Alternative Providers’ in London.
  • ICAEW is hosting its HEI Conference 2017 in London.

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

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Clarification: In the last Monday Morning HE Briefing we previewed the headlines of the forthcoming Bell review of HE sector agencies. In this we reported that HECSU would be wound up as an agency, however this was based on an earlier iteration of the report we saw. The final report of the Bell review due later this month is now expected to recommend that HECSU is not closed.
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