HE policy update w/e17th March 2017

Brexit:

  • Research Professional illustrates the Brexit threats to research positioning and job losses by highlighting the difficulties facing an EU astronomy consortium. The consortium represents seven countries, led by the UK, but will move headquarters to an EU member state from January 2021. The move means the UK will lose the project’s leadership and the 12 UK universities may not continue post-Brexit. Research Professional notes that while access to research infrastructures is available to non-EU states, the EU membership plays a significant role in decisions on where to locate facilities. Gerry Gilmore (the consortium leader, from University of Cambridge) stated:
    The UK will lose substantial scientific leadership and influence in the EU. There is going to be bad news all around. I don’t think people realise how many new jobs and new opportunities have just been destroyed.”
  • The EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill has survived the parliamentary process and received Royal Assent on 16th March (BBC). This bill allows the Prime Minister to notify the EU of the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU. The Lords made two amendments to the Bill – one relating to Parliament having a “meaningful vote” on the final arrangements and one requiring a guarantee for EU citizens to remain in the UK. The bill was approved by the House of Commons, which rejected the Lords bill and then went back to the Lords under what is called “ping-pong”. The Lords voted again on both issues but the House of Lords majority backed down and the bill was passed. The PM is expected to trigger article 50 later in March.
  • 2018/19 EU student and staff guarantees: During oral questions in the Lords Baroness Royall of Blaisdon pressed the government spokesperson (Viscount Younger of Leckie) when announcements would be made regarding fees and access to loans for 2018/19 EU student starters. Leckie gave a side stepping response: “The noble Baroness makes the important point that there are uncertainties arising from Brexit, but the Government have moved rapidly to give assurances to this sector… “We have also provided similar assurances that EU nationals starting courses in 2016-17 and 2017-18 remain eligible for Research Council postgraduate support. As I have said, we will ensure that students starting in 2018-19 have the information well in advance

International students:

  • The debate over the inclusion of international students in the long-term migrant numbers continues. Even senior ministers are rebelling – Boris Johnson, Phillip Hammond and Liam Fox have all protested, although Jo Johnson continues to toe the party line backing the PM’s stance to include international students within the original immigration statistics. Liam Fox spoke out this week about the value of overseas campuses.
  • On Monday the House of Lords defeated the government on the Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB), approving an amendment to prevent international students being counted as long-term migrants. The government have responded that “the proposed amendment would create a situation where we were potentially unable to apply basic visa checks, or impose conditions on a student visa. It would also mean that fresh primary legislation were needed just to make minor, technical changes to immigration rules.” (Wonkhe)
  • HERB is scheduled to have its third reading in the Lords on 22 March 2017 and then will go back to the Commons. The PM’s stance on international students seems rock solid (Financial Times) and Theresa May is not expected to waiver – the parliamentary ping pong regarding international students will surely make headlines over the coming weeks.
  • Meanwhile there are worries about student recruitment. Politics Home quotes an Office for National Statistics release stating the number of students coming to the UK dropped by 41,000 in 2016.

Higher Education and Research Bill:

  • The HE and Research Bill has finished its third reading in the House of Lords (although it will have to go back if the House of Commons makes any changes, as seems likely).  The report stage in the Lords is on 22nd March – usually only technical or minor amendments are made at this stage.  The current version of the bill as amended by the Lords is here.
  • The surprise amendment on international students is referred to above.
  • The government won the final vote on the proposed amendment that would have required UKRI and OfS to jointly revoke research degree awarding powers, the amendment was defeated. Wonkhe report that Lord Mackay made an impassioned speech noting that it was “extraordinary” that the OfS was not required to have any expertise or experience regarding research, and yet had the unilateral power to revoke research degree awarding powers, but to no avail. The Bill continues to say that research degree-awarding powers should be made by the OfS with advice from UKRI.

With long debates, late nights and a large number of amendments, it is fair to say that HERB has received an excellent level of scrutiny within the Lords. Lord Prior of Brampton notes: “Everyone who has contributed [to the Bill debates] can take some credit for having improved it considerably. For me, it is a good example of the value this House can bring to a Bill of this kind.”

HEFCE 2017/18 funding to universities: The grant letter details the overall funding to the sector for 2017/18. It includes doubled funding for the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (£60m pa), an additional £17m increase for mainstream quality-related research, a reduction of £40m for teaching (including a reduction in PGT FTE funding rate), maintaining the disabled students premium at the 2016/17 level, the inclusion of nursing, midwifery and allied health professions (£32m), cuts to the student premium budget for full time UG of £20m (part time UG funding remains static). Institutions will receive individual allocations in April although with a publication embargo in force until May. Capital allocations will be announced in March.

Student Loans Sale: A parliamentary question tabled by Steve McCabe requested publication of the ‘in-depth market testing exercise associated with the same of the student loan book. Jo Johnson has responded: “The Government ran a market testing process with a cross-section of potential investors in the student loan book from the end of September into November 2016. This sought feedback on potential sale structures and key features of the transaction and informed the design of the sale. This was a commercial rather than a public process and was conducted under non-disclosure agreements. We do not intend to publish a report of the details. Protecting the details of the conclusions of market testing will help the ongoing sale process achieve value for money for taxpayers.

Student Fees: On Thursday 16th the Petitions Committee released its latest decisions regarding recent petitions with a high number of signatures. This included a petition to government to change the University fees from £9250 back to the £3000 fee. The Committee agreed to wait for the Higher Education and Research Bill to complete its passage through Parliament before deciding whether to schedule a debate – effectively this was a dismissal of the petition.

Research Excellence Framework  The responses to the REF2021 consultation were due in by midday on 17th March.

  • There has been a lot of focus on one area, the definition of “research active staff” for the returns – there are some interesting views:
  • HEFCE blog (and BU’s reply) – HEFCE are proposing a negotiated definition for each university, BU is proposing all staff should be returned, including teaching only
  • Royal Society blog on Research Professional – they say staff shouldn’t be returned at all, it should be institutional
  • The PVC (Research and Enterprise) from Hertfordshire says on Times Higher Education that the solution is flawed and that clarity is needed

There are many other issues in the REF consultation, including the portability of outputs, which will have important consequences for institutions and their staff. The HEFCE REF consultation on the implementation of the REF 2021 closed on 17 March 2017.  You can read BU’s response here.

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