HE Policy update for the w/e 23rd November 2018

Considering we were late and included much of Monday’s news in the last update, this is a bumper update for you.  Lots of data and lots of speculation about fees etc.  We have managed to avoid the B word this week – as you will have had enough of it from all the other news sources.


Sophie Bradfield, the Policy & Campaigns Coordinator for SUBU, returns with another guest piece for us this week

Sutton Trust has published research today on graduate internships detailing that “39% of graduates in their twenties have done an internship, including almost half (46%) of young graduates under 24.” These statistics have a direct correspondence with research published in a Lancaster University HECSU-funded Graduate Resilience Project in 2016, looking at how students transition after graduating, where “45% of respondents identified a concern that they lacked relevant experience.” Pairing this with the competition for graduate jobs, it’s of no surprise that so many students seek to undertake internships. At BU gaining placements and real-world experience is a unique selling point and as BU proudly states on the placement information page “90% of our graduates have relevant work experience and this can give you a real head start in the competitive jobs market.” The Students’ Union at Bournemouth University (SUBU) is in absolute agreement that offering opportunities to gain experience can really help students to stand out from the crowd; learn transferable skills for employment; and increase employability and so we have a lot of extra-curricular opportunities on offer for students and collaborate with BU on a number of joint projects including recruiting paid students to be on programme review panels.

However there is a gloomier side to this discussion and that is the issue of unpaid placements and internships and the implication this causes for social mobility, which the Sutton Trust research raises a spotlight on. The report finds that “of the employers who offer internships, almost half report offering unpaid placements (48%). 27% offer expenses-only internships and 12% no pay or expenses whatsoever”. Further, the Sutton Trust report ‘Unpaid, Unadvertised, Unfair’ published earlier this year identifies that the minimum cost of carrying out an internship in London is £1,019 per month (or £827 in Manchester) partly due to rising rents and inflation and that “over 40% of young people who have carried out an internship have done so unpaid.” With these sorts of costs involved, unpaid placements are restricted to those with adequate savings or those from wealthier backgrounds who have family that can financially support them, thus excluding those who cannot afford to work for nothing, further decreasing graduate outcomes for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. (Page 132: https://www.hecsu.ac.uk/assets/assets/documents/Futuretrack_Stage_4_Final_report_6th_Nov_2012.pdf).

The law is unclear on internships and payment, for example “students required to do an internship for less than one year as part of a UK-based further or higher education course aren’t entitled to the National Minimum Wage.” The issue of unpaid placements has been championed by elected officers in the Students’ Union at Bournemouth University for a number of years because of the inequity for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain experience to put them on an equal footing to gain graduate employment. We know experience is essential in ascertaining jobs related to degrees after graduation. The High Fliers study of more than 18,000 university leavers indicates that graduates who have had internships are three times as likely to land jobs. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22875717) This highlights the need for fair access to placement opportunities; otherwise industries are restricting those from certain backgrounds and businesses promoting unpaid placements are missing out on the talent of those from different backgrounds.

According to the Government’s Social Mobility Commission, “unpaid internships are damaging to social mobility” and a poll revealed that the majority of the UK public would support a legal ban on unpaid internships and unpaid work experience lasting more than 4 weeks. The Unpaid Work Experience (Prohibition) Bill is due for its second reading in the House of Commons today and calls for a ban on unpaid internships over four weeks. However, when Sam Gyimah, Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation visited BU as part of his ‘Sam on Campus’ tour last year, a question was asked about his stance on unpaid internships and he expressed the view that he didn’t support a blanket ban on unpaid internships as it would close the door to a lot of really good opportunities for experience for students such as shadowing MP’s. We know there are certain industries such as the media industry and charities and non-profits that often only advertise unpaid placements but it’s essential that there is some kind of policy in place to stop students from being exploited when an organisation has the means to pay for the valuable work being undertaken.

The Sutton Trust report today makes recommendations including some for Universities to set up internship programmes, further saying “Only internships that are paid the minimum wage should be advertised and young people should be signposted to information about their rights. Those from less well-off backgrounds in particular should be prioritised.” From SUBU research we know that a number of institutions including BU are ethically against advertising unpaid placements but they also recognise that in some industries the only way students can get the experience is through unpaid placements. So the debate continues…

Thank you Sophie

Widening participation

The Department for Education have released annual data on widening participation in HE.

  • The progression rate of free school means (FSM) pupils has increased but the gap between FSM and non-FSM remains stable
  • An estimated 64.0% of those who studied A level and equivalent qualifications in state schools and colleges at age 17 in 2014/15 progressed to Higher Education by age 19 by 2016/17. This is up from 63.0% for the 2015/16 cohort but remains below the progression rates for the 2008/09 to 2012/13 cohorts. For independent school and college pupils the estimated progression rate was 80.7%. The gap between these progression rates fell from 17.7 to 16.7 percentage points between 2015/16 and 2016/17. However, the gap remains higher than in the period 2008/09 to 2012/13
  • An estimated 81.4% of those from the most advantaged backgrounds before higher education were in
  • High-skilled jobs six months after graduating in 2016/17. This is up 2.7 percentage point from 2015/16 . 76.1% of those from less advantaged backgrounds were in the high-skilled jobs, up 3.1 percentage point on the previous year

The DfE also published education and training statistics

  • From 2011/12 to 2016/17, participation in part-time study fell for all subjects except Engineering, where numbers rose by 11.2%. The decline was sharpest in subjects related to Languages (44.9%) and Historical and Philosophical Studies (45.4%)
  • The most popular subject for full-time HE study in the UK in 2016/17 was Business & Administrative Studies, with 293,000 full-time participants.
  • 81.7% of full-time participants in Engineering & Technology, and 77.4% in Mathematical and Computing Sciences, were male; and 80.2% in Education and 79.4% in Subjects Allied to Medicine were female.
  • The most popular subjects for part-time HE study in the UK in 2016/17 were Subjects Allied to Medicine, Education, and Business & Administrative Studies.
  • For part-time study, 79.1% of participants in Subjects Allied to Medicine were female and 71.7% of participants in Education were female; 89.5% of participants in Engineering & Technology and 76.8% in Mathematical and Computing Sciences were male.
  • Overall, 59.1% of part-time students were female, compared to 55.6% of full-time students. .
  • For students in the UK, the most popular subjects for both full-time and part-time students have remained the same for the past 5 years.

Accelerated Degrees Part 2

We noted in last week’s update the announcements (again) from the government about accelerated degrees, which were timed to align with the very delayed government response to the consultation which closed in February this year (a long time ago, given everything else that has happened since then). The Government’s response was published on 19th November.

So what does the response actually say?

  • Implementation of a 20% uplift on annual fee caps for accelerated degrees.
    • For students, this will result in a total fees saving per degree of 20%. (students pay more per year, but only for two years, resulting in a saving, plus of course a saving on living costs)
    • For providers it will mean 13% more total income per accelerated degree (i.e. compared to charging £9250 for two years – of course it is still less than three years of income)
    • Despite the fuss about this announcement, it is hardly surprising. The Higher Education and Research Act passed in May 2017 enabled the secretary of state to make provision for different fee levels for courses defined as ‘accelerated’. An ‘accelerated course’ is currently defined as a higher education course at least one year shorter than usual for that course, or a course of equivalent content leading to the same or an equivalent academic award (Schedule 2 (4))”.  In fact, Jo Johnson when he launched the consultation in December 2017 told the House of Commons “Many universities are concerned about changing existing models and the costs associated with doing that. This includes extra teaching hours, capacity to research, or not being able to rent out rooms over the holidays. A three-year course condensed into two is more expensive to run. That is why I am proposing a balanced package that ensures universities are able to cover these additional costs but must charge at least 20% less in tuition for an accelerated two year degree than they can for its three year equivalent.”
    • So basically, the government have consulted and have pressed ahead with the original proposal. It is worth noting that “2/3rds of respondents who answered this question disagreed that a 20% annual fee uplift would incentivise wider provision” – but apparently for widely diverging reasons.
  • The Government’s view is that “Accelerated degrees” will include any first undergraduate degree delivered in a timespan at least one year shorter than the equivalent standard degree, including standard degrees with (for example) work placements or overseas placement years. (so that means an accelerated degree might mean 2 years of study and one year of placement, contrasted to the more usual 3 years of study and one year of placement – the higher fees would apply to the two study years) (nb it is made clear later that you cannot do an accelerated degree on a part-time basis)
  • DfE will continue to work with OfS and SLC to establish mechanisms and produce guidance helping providers to identify courses as ‘accelerated’ for higher fee cap purposes, or to seek our help where they are uncertain.
  • SLC payment mechanisms will enable students to transfer once between an accelerated and a standard degree course (or vice versa) for their first degree. (that’s interesting, if students want to switch from existing programmes to accelerated programmes SLC will facilitate it – interesting to think how that would work in terms of curriculum)
  • Access, quality assurance and financial safeguard measures for accelerated degrees will remain the same as for standard degrees.
  • The Government will review the impact of these changes three years after implementation

The main point is that this is something the government want to encourage, but it is not compulsory.

  • “Providers who believe accelerated degrees are not suitable for their universities, their curricula or their potential students are not required to offer them. Current and potential students who do not believe accelerated degrees are right for them are not required to enrol on them”

Fees and funding

Lots of fees related stories again this week as we build up to the ONS report on how to account for the student loan book – due on 17th December. The announcement will potentially have a greater ripple effect than expected. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) may decide to reclassify the student loan income status because they are different from other loans. The normal loan rule book doesn’t fit student loans because of the likelihood that some of the outstanding balance will be written off and never repaid. There are four approaches currently under consideration within the ONS which vary in their fiscal impacts and the influence on the time profiles for Government revenue and expenditure (detail here).

The top level policy considerations are twofold (1) the accounting method may affect the attractiveness of student loans to future buyers should the Government continue selling off the student loan book – less attractive means a worse deal and less return to the public purse. Furthermore, given the current turbulent political times and regular calls for another early general election, the Government will be mindful of Labour’s past manifesto calls to cancel existing student debt. (2) The ONS may advocate the loans be treated in a particular way which creates a shift in the Government’s accounts that increases the national debt figure (therefore running contrary to the Conservatives long term policy to reduce the fiscal deficit). Combine this with the Government’s criticism of the HE sector over the last 18 months, the almost sour-grapes that the loan system left HE less affected by austerity, the removal of the fee caps meaning more and more people are attending university (and accessing costly loans to do so), the TEF related regular higher fee cap increases that stalled, the review of post-18 education and associated media ‘leaks’ that HE fees will be cut, the unpopularity of student loans and continued claims that it is preventing the debt-adverse from attending university (hindering social mobility and detracting from the skills and revenue that Britain’s economy needs) all points towards Government feeling less willing to shell out such a volume of cash which increases the national debt to fund so many students at such a high level to attend university…particularly when some courses and institutions don’t churn out graduates reaching the earnings outcomes the Government wants to see. Fasten your seatbelts – the simple statistical reclassification of loans could mean HE is in for a rough ride.

Review of the SLC

Sam Gyimah announced a Tailored Review of the Student Loans Company (SLC). The SLC has also been the subject of bad press in the last few years with claims of employment bullying, the Chief Executive stepping down under a cloud, and the recent controversy over social  media spying to determine the validity of student estrangement claims. However, Sam was quick to highlight the SLCis required to undergo a Tailored Review at least once in every parliament. The principal aims of Tailored Reviews are to ensure public bodies remain fit for purpose, are well governed and properly accountable for what they do

The written ministerial statement goes on:The Review will provide a robust scrutiny of, and assurance on, the continuing need for the Student Loans Company – both its function and its form. It will assess the governance and control arrangements in place to ensure they are compliant with the recognised principles of good corporate governance and delivering good value for money. The structure, efficiency and effectiveness of the Student Loans Company will be considered throughout the Review.

Funding for nursing

In 2017/18 the NHS bursary for student nurses and other allied health professions was removed placing them on the same fee loan basis as other students. Recruitment to nursing courses dropped and continues to decline. The Government cannot fill current nursing vacancies and there is a crisis predicted as Brexit will reduce the number of EU nursing staff that currently prop up the NHS. It’s a thorny issue.

Nursing (and other allied health professions) were incredibly popular degrees meaning applications outstripped the places available. Applications continue to outstrip supply (but now by significantly less than previously – down by a third) and institutions are hampered and cannot take more students because the placements available within NHS institutions are limited. The Government cannot train enough students to make up the workforce shortfall (42,000 posts) and the removal of the bursary has had an impact on applications.

The bursary removal is also noted as affecting the diversity of the future workforce and having a negative effect on raising social mobility. This is because students work full hours in placement and cannot retain a part time job to support their living costs. Moreover, the workforce crisis suggests some student nurses are not properly supervised and ‘were being unsafely used to plug the gaps’.

Nursing sector bodies have been vocal and campaigned relentlessly for the return of the bursary (and at a more generous level) or for a viable alternative. This week Nursing Times reports success as Stephen Hammond, Health Minister, pledges to consider new measures to tackle the nursing crisis. The article states:

  • In his first debate in the role, Mr Hammond said the government would consult on plans put forward by the Royal College of Nursing to reinvest £1bn a year into higher education for nurses as part of the extra cash promised for the NHS.

This could be reintroducing bursaries or, perhaps more likely, introducing loan forgiveness meaning students who complete a specified amount of time within the profession would have their loan debt wiped.

The article suggests the Minister stated:

  • “The government and certainly I, as the new minster, recognise there is much more that we need to do to continue to encourage people to apply for nursing courses particularly the more mature students…We will be consulting on the detailed proposals that the RCN has put forward today on future finding for high education – we regard those as serious proposals and we will write to the royal college to engage on those proposals and we will be starting that work straight away.” The article continues: Mr Hammond said the government recognised concerns about the drop in mature student nurses and was working to see what could be done to address this including whether specific funding through the “learning support fund” could be targeted more effectively to those students.

While these seem encouraging words the profession would be wise to remember that earlier in October there was a petition to the Government to reinstate nurse bursaries – to which the Government responded that it wasn’t an option. Also when one reads Hansard which verbatim recorded the recent nursing HE debate Hammond is far less conciliatory than the nursing article states.

It is hard to imagine the Government backing down and reversing their policy decision within just two years. However, considering this in the wider context of the Post 18 funding Review and the media speculation that the Government is considering lowering tuition fees (perhaps only in certain areas) there are signs that there may be ameliorative movement in some form. The nursing sector bodies are running successful campaigns to get these issues back on the agenda. One concern though is for the other allied health professions. If changes are afoot have they been vocal enough to ensure concessions are made within their profession too, or will only student nurses benefit?

Impact of fee changes on access and participation

Sky News ran a story on how “cutting tuition fees would penalise poor students by reducing access grants”.  In a joint statement The Access Project, Brightside, Causeway Education, Impetus-PEF, IntoUniversity, and upReach said: “Higher education (HE) should be a route open to all young people, irrespective of background. But we have a big and persistent social mobility problem in the UK – young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are half as likely to progress to HE as their peers. Widening participation funding exists to help close this gap and is vital to the work that we do to support young people from under-represented groups to progress and succeed in HE. That progress is now in doubt.”

You can read the statement here.

  • Irrespective of what fee regime the review opts for, we call on the government to protect widening participation funding, while building on momentum around spending it effectively
  • We urge the government to avoid adding complexity to the higher education funding landscape and to ensure that all students have the information, advice and guidance they need to make good choices in HE
  • We urge the government to increase the amount of maintenance support available to young people, for instance by restoring maintenance grants, so that university is affordable for everyone
  • We urge the government not to impose a cap on student numbers

The Minister responded in a tweet: “Access to university for disadvantaged students is a top priority. I’m reaching out to these charities today for an urgent meeting to discuss their concerns.”

Where do student fees go?

The recent select committee report Value for Money in HE called for the Government to ensure all HE providers published an informative breakdown of how tuition fee money was spent by the end of December 2018. While Sam Gyimah is known to support transparency and openness for HE institutions  to share information to ensure students are fully informed this week his answer to a parliamentary question confirmed the Government would not require this and it was up to OfS to set requirements for the sector as they see fit.

Q – Dan Jarvis: To ask the Secretary of State for Education, with reference to page 8 of the report of the Education Committee, Value for money in higher education, published on 5 November 2018, it will take steps to require universities to publish a breakdown of how tuition fees are spent.

A – Sam Gyimah:

  • Students’ ability to make informed choices is at the heart of our recent reforms to higher education (HE). This government recognises the importance of this area and is increasing the information available to students to ensure that they can make informed choices about what and where to study.
  • As set out in the department’s strategic guidance to the Office for Students (OfS), we expect them to play a key role in delivering our objectives to improve and support informed choice through the provision of effective information, advice and guidance to all students. In February, we asked the OfS to work with the HE sector to improve transparency so that students know what they should expect and can effectively challenge providers who do not deliver on their commitments.
  • In addition, we asked the OfS to consider how to increase the transparency and visibility of what students can expect to receive for their investment at different HE providers, by making Longitudinal Education Outcomes data more widely available such as through publication on Unistats, thereby enabling students to make the right choices for them.
  • Although we provide guidance for the OfS, we cannot instruct it to undertake any specific course of action as it is an independent arm’s length body.
  • The government will respond directly to the Education Select Committee on its HE value for money report recommendations in due course.

The Higher Education Policy Institute have published a report arguing for greater transparency on the uses of student fees.

Key Findings:

  • Only around 45% of each student’s fee goes on the direct cost of teaching- such as staff salaries
  • Three quarters of students want to know where their fees go (The education select committee recently recommended universities publish full details of this on their website by the end of 2018, calling on the OfS to intervene)
  • If fees are cut, as rumoured, without a commensurate increase in public investment, universities with be forced to reduce their activities

The HEPI headline is “New report calls on universities to tell students where their fees go, as new figures reveal under half of fee income goes on teaching but most of the rest also benefits students”

But some of the press have focussed only on the first part of this, e.g.: “‘Less than half’ of tuition fees spent on teaching at English universities” (Guardian) (although they do add “large proportion of students’ £9k fees used to fund libraries and support services”).

The OfS have responded:Ensuring transparency and accountability for how student fees are spent is important and we will work with students to determine what information they would find most meaningful. Part of providing value for money for students is ensuring that they know how their fees are spent. But this is just one piece in a bigger puzzle. Creating value for students and taxpayers also means widening access to higher education, promoting a high quality academic experience and ensuring that the skills students develop lead to graduate employment”

This is an interesting thread by Johnny Rich on twitter:

  • When fees were raised to £9k, the intention was that 1/3 of the income over £6k would be spent on access measures (bursaries, outreach, etc). This was never required, but would amount to 11.7% of a £9,250 fee.”…
  • ” From an initial quick read of the report, it seems there’s a significant underspend. That’s bad news for access but good news for current students who get more of the direct value of the fee paid on their behalf.”..
  • ” ‘Paid on their behalf’ is important here. In the debate about whether students get value for money, we should remember that whatever graduates end up paying, it’s very unlikely to be £9,250.”.

It’s a long thread and worth reading to the end.

The report says that the following changes should be considered.

  • When discussing student finance, people with a direct interest in the higher education sector should, wherever possible, refer to ‘student fees’ rather than ‘tuition fees’.
  • Higher education providers should discuss the information requirements of students with their students’ unions and strive to match their demands.
  • Unless it conflicts with students’ demands, institutions should publish information on the uses of fees that show cash figures that are relatable to the actual fees paid, as well as percentages, to explain where fees go.
  • Institutions should strive to ensure any information on the uses of student fees splits them into easily-understandable categories. Providers should put information on the uses of fees in places that are easy to find and consider sending the information to all of their students.
  • Arms-length bodies that monitor the higher education sector should consider doing more to promote best practice on transparency when presenting the uses of student fees.
  • Where feasible, financial reporting requirements for institutions should be harmonised with the sort of financial information that is of value to students and prospective students.
  • Regulators should continue monitoring students’ perceptions of the information available.
  • Policymakers should work to ensure an understanding across all parts of Whitehall of the broad range of higher education institutions’ spending.
  • Ministers should consider new income streams for higher education institutions to cover the costs of valuable work that proves difficult to justify funding from student fees.
  • It is clear that any reduction in the amount of funding that institutions receive for each student is likely to lead to cuts in areas that directly benefit students and / or activities that help to define our world-class higher education sector.

The report also looks at PG fees (“the one conclusion we can make is that universities could be significantly more transparent”)

What will be interesting to follow is how this feeds into the wider debate about fees and funding and the HE review over the next few months.  Remember that regardless of the debates about money and value for money, this separate question of transparency is one that the sector has been warned about over a long period of time, with threats being made that if the sector does not get its house in order and address transparency concerns, it will be made to by the OfS.  That could mean standardising reporting – at the moment there is no standard as the report highlights.  At BU, in line with much of the sector, we currently show a breakdown of all our expenditure, the finance team having worked with SUBU to agree how to show it.

There are some case studies in the report

  • Kings, which breaks down total income
  • Essex, which does break down fee spending
  • Manchester Met, which shows just fee income and gives absolute amounts as well as proportions
  • Falmouth, which has more categories
  • Nottingham Trent – which is really granular

2019/20 Maintenance and PG loan uplift

The DfE published a Written Ministerial Statement on HE Student Finance on Thursday which proposed 2019/20 maximum tuition fee level would be retained at £9,250 and that the maximum maintenance loan would increase by 2.8% in line with forecast inflation. The same inflationary increases were announced for students with disabilities and those with child or adult dependants.

2019/20 PG courses will also receive the 2.8% uplift and PG students with DSA demonstrating high support needs will be boosted to £20,000 allowance (currently £10,993).

The statement goes on to cover special cases:The Government has created a new form of leave for children under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 (the Dubs amendment). This will ensure that those children who do not qualify for refugee or humanitarian protection leave will still be able to remain in the UK long term. Those who qualify for this new form of leave will be able to study, work, access public funds and healthcare and apply for settlement after 5 years, without paying a fee. In line with this change, I can announce today that ‘Dubs Children’ starting higher education courses from 1 August 2019 onwards will be subject to home fee status and will be able to apply for student support.

The proposals will be examined by Parliament early in 2019.

Student Loan sale

The Commons Public Accounts Committee have published a report on the student loan sale here (you can read a summary of it here). It highlights that the loans were sold at a loss of 52p for every £1. The committee believes the Government did not get the ‘best possible deal on behalf of the taxpayer’ and expressed concerns about how low the Government would have been willing to go to make the sale. The Government has also refused to name the buyer. Wonkhe report that the Government could have recouped the £1.7 billion sale price within 8 years with additional income over the next 25 years. The report has come under criticism from sector experts who say the Committee’s calculations use the wrong methodology.

The publication of the report is timely because (a) the Government intends to sell off another tranche of the student loan book – potentially at a greater loss because the student repayment is more volatile; and (b) an announcement on how loans should be accounted for within the public purse is due on 17 December as mentioned above. All very difficult – After all a large part of the reason for selling the student loan book was to cut public debt in the first place.

The media widely reported on the loan sale loss report: HuffPost, The Times, Independent, the Telegraph and there is a good Wonkhe blog by MP Lee Rowley who is a member of the Public Affairs Committee and talks about the lessons to be learnt for the inevitable next sale. Sky news tackles the HE fee cut that may be under consideration highlighting the proportion universities’ higher fee income which currently must be spent on access and reducing the impact of disadvantage.

Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) – all systems go?

As we reported last week, there has been movement (finally) on the KEF  The responses to this, together with other technical work have informed the development of the metrics framework.  A total of 106 responses were received and an overview of responses is available here.  You can read BU’s own response here.

So a bit more detail on this:

  • All coders recorded their impression of the overall sentiment expressed by the responses in broad categories of ‘strongly positive’ to ‘strongly negative’. The majority of responses expressed a cautiously positive tone, essentially ‘this could be useful if done well’.
  • The most negative sentiments were because responders believed benchmarking was unhelpful, there was already sufficient existing data, or that their perception was that our definition of KE was too narrow.
  • The most common positive sentiment was around the potential of the KEF to raise the profile of the value of KE within institutions, to support the case for funding, and to demonstrate the large volume of good work going on in this area.
  • There was almost universal support for supplementation of metrics by additional narrative or contextual information. This ranged from Research England providing some narrative on the wider KE landscape and economic conditions, to the inclusion of peer-reviewed narrative statements or case studies at a ‘Unit of Assessment’ (not institutional) level. Although the most common response was for institutions to be able to provide detailed contextual information such as that found in their institutional KE strategies
  • Many respondents suggested some type of normalisation, most commonly to normalise for size in terms of staff and student FTE or research income. Some responses suggested clustering, or creating peer groups of institutions for benchmarking purposes.
  • Several responses comments on the need to measure the outcomes/impacts, not the ‘inputs’, and questioned income as a proxy for impact. Several also mentioned the need to take into account whether an institution received HEIF funding, as this could give them an advantage.
  • There were multiple suggestions to attempt to measure impacts through increased employment, GVA, company turnover, or effect on the public (e.g. health). Another common suggestion was to broaden or revise HE-BCI to include more detail on partnerships not resulting in income, public and community engagement and contribution to other cultural activities.

So what are they going to do?  A key objective of the KEF is to enable fair comparison of institutions across a diverse sector. Research England have commissioned work to produce statistical clusters of institutions, based on their underlying assets and capabilities that drive their potential KE performance. The technical report of the cluster analysis is available here.

What next?  Another consultation is expected in later November 2018 on the next steps

Unconditional Offers

The Government is concerned about the recent rise of unconditional offers and OfS have been tasked to address this within the sector. UCAS data quoted here outlines a huge increase in unconditional offers from 2,985 to 67,915 in the last 5 years (between 2013 and 2018). With 23% of applicants receiving at least one unconditional offer in 2018 cycle.

Bath Spa have taken a bold stance and moved to a policy where they only offer unconditional offers to students. Reported in the Telegraph Bath Spa states it is departing from standard admissions which offers places based on a student’s predicted grades with all students instead offered an interview or audition and if successful they are offered an unconditional place. Bath Spa’s VC states the approach will reduce the anxiety and stress some students experience from exams. Sam Gymiah believes unconditional offers will lead students to complacency and poorer exam outcomes, and handcuff WP students into lower tariff institutions when they should be aiming higher. Bath Spa’s response to the complacency argument is a golden hello – a £750 bursary for each student that exceeds their predicted grades. The VC states: “A cynic might say you are only doing this to get people through the door – I say I am doing this to get the right people through the door.” Bath Spa piloted this method of admissions last year and will now roll it out across the university, with a review of its effectiveness after three years of implementation.

Taking the opposite approach, St Mary’s University, Twickenham have also changed their approach and will no longer issue any unconditional offers to ‘maintain standards’. This policy is favoured by a group of school, college and a small number of university leaders and The Times ran the article University chiefs want overhaul of unconditional offers system which opens by stating

  • unconditional offers are “reducing the motivation and quality” of sixth-form education and lead too many students to the wrong university or degree stating that Sixth-formers who fear they may not perform well at A level will accept an unconditional offer from their fourth or fifth choice of university so that they can be sure of a place, rather than risk holding out for something better suited to them.

The article states data suggests Sam’s belief that the pupils relax and then underperform at A level. While it doesn’t call for unconditional offers to be banned it calls for the sector to voluntarily restrict the growth of unconditional offers – to play fair in the competition for students – before the OfS is forced to regulate to resolve the issue. The article make the intriguing suggestion that students should have the option of accepting an unconditional offer as their insurance place.

With Bath Spa and St Mary’s in the extreme positions this leaves the rest of the HE sector somewhere in between. There have been calls for long term evidence on the performance effects for students accepting and attending an institution with an unconditional offer as much appears to be based on anecdotal opinion currently. Alongside evidence on how A level grades impact employment outcomes whilst controlling for degree classification and the university status or ranking. Here’s a summary of for and against unconditional offers.

Arguments against unconditional offers

  • Pupils relax or become complacent resulting in lower performance than expected (predicted). Schools and Colleges are affected by this because it affects their overall results and league table standing.
    Underperforming at A level may have adverse effects on later employment.
  • Students taking their foot off the gas before A level exams may be less well prepared to enter university.
  • Pupils will accept an unconditional offer from a less prestigious institution because it is a guaranteed place
  • Unconditional offers accompanied by an acceptance deadline force a pupil to choose before they have received responses from the other institutions they applied to.

Some institutions informally report losing students to other institutions because the reassurance and lure of the unconditional offer is greater than a “higher status” conditional offer.

  • Unconditional offers are made when there isn’t a genuine reason (benefit to the student) to do so in order to help universities meet their recruitment targets.
    • Unconditional offers are a natural sector response to the marketization of higher education – although not in the direction the Government hoped for (competitive fee levels).
    • Population decline means fewer young students are in the application pool (although this is partially reduced by the increase in numbers of students from backgrounds that didn’t traditionally attend university)
    • The removal of the student numbers cap means universities can attract as many students as they can hold – with some institutions expanding exponentially – to the detriment of others.
    • This has led to a buyer’s market and students trading up to higher tariff institutions that previously would have been out of their reach. Partly because some of these higher tariff institutions have been lowering their entry requirements, and also because many are widening access to welcome a pool of students from recognised backgrounds who due to disadvantage criteria would previously not have been able to access more selective institutions. The sector is being squeezed and students are expecting more, including costly state of the art facilities, as standard in return for the high tuition fees that they pay.

Arguments for unconditional offers

  • Anecdotally some universities state very few numbers of students who are offered unconditional offers underperform against their predicted grades. Some universities also have a policy of accompanying an unconditional offer with firm words encouraging the student to continue to fulfil their potential.
    However, UCAS state that 8-10% of students are likely to drop by two or more grades if they receive an unconditional offer – although the offer is only one of seven factors that lead to higher likelihood of a student missing their grade (see more here) – so the question is chicken and egg. Is a genuine student-focussed unconditional offer more likely to be offered to students who are more likely to miss their grades due to a range of influencing factors?
    The UCAS report also notes that switching the type of firm offer held from a conditional firm to an unconditional firm increases the chances of missing by two or more grades by 6.4 percentage points (13 per cent proportionally).
  • Relieving the pressure for students with genuine mental health and other anxiety issues is beneficial for the individual student and may even lead them to over perform against predicted grades.
  • Unconditional offers are important for a range of disadvantaged students to access university. This includes those who require more than one month lead in time – for example e.g. students within the care system who may need longer to give notice and secure accommodation or negotiate their exit from the care system. Students who are parents may need longer to secure childcare within a new area to access their studies. And ‘flighty’ groups such as students who care for a family member or close friend and are unwilling to commit to HE unless they are sure the arrangements allow them to further their education and retain a level of caring responsibility. All are student groups within the Government’s priorities to encourage into HE to improve their social mobility prospects.
  • Grades are not an appropriate basis to recruit to some courses. For example, portfolio or performance subjects or those where interview aptitude or work experience is a strong determinant of suitability. Plus mature students (and some other disadvantaged groups) may bring other strengths and life experience which override test aptitude and adequately prepare them for the rigours of HE study.

And it is all tied up with status and league tables.  A university may be reluctant to make unconditional offers because students entering with lower grades may reduce their league table position. Schools may not like the risk of students achieving lower A level grades because of school league table results.  Universities are likely to be reluctant to make offers to students who they do not believe are capable of achieving at HE because non-continuation rates would rise (and there is a knock on effect because this is one of the TEF metrics).

The key factor running throughout the ‘for’ and ‘against’ is appropriateness to individual circumstances. The Government is likely trying to stem the surge of unconditional offers because they believe it is about competition and income – ironically not the outcome they wanted when they envisaged the marketization of the HE sector.

The OfS is expected to publish a ‘name and shame’ league table of the institutions that make the highest number of unconditional offers early in 2019. Side issues that shouldn’t be forgotten within the unconditional offer debate are the relative accuracy of predicted grades (and the influence that socio-economic status within the geographic school area has on what is predicted) and the role that Clearing plays in taking students with unexpected grades. For 2018/19 entry Clearing was reported at record levels with some courses such as medicine and pharmacy having to enter clearing either for the first time or at unprecedented levels – criticism was levied at the sector for this.

Controversially Lord Robert Winston (Imperial College London) spoke out this week to suggest that universities shouldn’t offer lower grades to disadvantaged students suggesting they will only underperform at university. The Telegraph report he said: It’s obviously wrong to expect universities to pick up where schools are not doing well. For example, for us to modify our entry requirements to bring in more black or disadvantaged children is not the right way to do it. What you’ve got to do is up their grade at 16 or 17.” He continued to describe a visit to a London school where he met four students who wished to study medicine: “It was absolutely obvious that not one of those girls would get into any medical school because they couldn’t begin to answer the sorts of questions that you need to be able to answer as a potential medical student. They may have got the grades. But the grades aren’t really the answer. Because the school doesn’t have time or staff or money to do the rest. These kids couldn’t debate.”

Winston’s argument is that schools need to do more so that disadvantaged pupils perform to their maximum ability. He runs an outreach programme for disadvantaged students to engage in practice science at Imperial. The Telegraph states he continued: the education system isn’t solely to blame for students’ lack of preparation for higher education. “You can have the best teachers in the world but these kids are going home to a desert where there isn’t a single book”. While recognising the challenges disadvantaged pupil’s face – poorer quality schooling, lower parental expectations and push, and lack of stimulating home environment, he didn’t seem to offer a solution – and seems to be out of line with the government who support social mobility and would expect the sector to recognise potential amongst those who are not from privileged backgrounds but would make wonderful doctors.

Sector Pay: Interaction of gender and ethnicity

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association has published Caught At The Crossroads? Which examines the interaction of gender and ethnicity in contributing to pay gaps within HE. They state their main findings as:

  • Pay penalties for ethnic minorities are significant in the sector with Black men and Black women earning the least on average.
  • There is no significant gender pay gap between Black men and Black women either among all staff or in each of the main workforce segments (academic and professional services) indicating no compound intersectional effect for these groups.
  • Asian men earn significantly less on average than White men but marginally more than White females. Asian women earn significantly less than White women.
  • The gender pay gap between Asian men and Asian women is significant indicating the presence of an intersectional effect for these groups.
  • Pay penalties for ethnic minorities are significant in the sector with Black men and Black women earning the least on average.
  • There is no significant gender pay gap between Black men and Black women either among all staff or in each of the main workforce segments (academic and professional services) indicating no compound intersectional effect for these groups.
  • Asian men earn significantly less on average than White men but marginally more than White females. Asian women earn significantly less than White women.
  • The gender pay gap between Asian men and Asian women is significant indicating the presence of an intersectional effect for these groups.

The report confirms that the results hold even when education levels and some demographic and institutional variables are accounted for.

Wonkhe summarise the report here.

Student Engagement & Commuter Students

Advance HE have published the 2018 UK Engagement Survey  stating that overall engagement levels continue to increase. Comparing the data against the previous three years of this study they notice an increase in students partnering and interacting with staff, particularly within the area of skills development. They also note a clear and consistent decline in hours spent in both taught study and independent study. This is matched by a continued drop in participation in sports and societies. By contrast, time spent working for pay continues to increase, as does volunteering and caring, and there is evidence from the data that time spent on these activities can impact directly on the time available for study.

Later the report concludes there is a clear need for institutions to help provide support to those with high time commitments outside their studies to ensure they have every opportunity to devote the required amount of time to their studies.

Within HE there is growing recognition of the increasing numbers of commuter students (those that live in the family home and attend a regional university rather than moving away) and their different needs and challenges. It is good to see the survey has paid particular attention to this student group. They state the data highlights how commuter students, despite the time spent travelling, are more likely than other students to spend longer hours in both taught and independent study, and to take part in extra-curricular activities. Linked to this, levels of engagement and skills development also tend to be higher among commuter students, underlining the high levels of commitment that many of these students often display.

And on WP students: Another cohort with high levels of participation, and engagement, are students from low-participation neighbourhoods. As with commuter students, there is evidence that many students in this cohort display high levels of motivation and organisation in order to make the most out of their time at university.

The report uses the POLAR data (how likely a young person is to attend HE based on their home postcode) to judge WP status. Polar 1 and 2 indicates disadvantage. The data suggests disadvantaged students spend less time in sports and societies and more time in caring and commuting commitments.

On this lower engagement with sports and societies the report concludes: In order to ensure that all students have the opportunity to benefit from a fully rounded experience, institutions may need to consider how best to communicate the variety of opportunity offered, particularly to students who are the first in their family to go to university and/or may be juggling a range of other commitments.

Back to commuter students – the survey shows that most students spend up to 5 hours commuting to their place of study, although 10% commute over 11 hours per week – it is this 10% who are considered the commuters. Some types of students are more likely to choose to commute than others. Student carers and mature students are a well-known stay at home group and ethnicity also has an influence with 16-19% commuting compared to the student population average of 10%.

Due to the amount of time lost commuting Advance HE felt these students would engage less. However, the data showed that commuter students are likely to engage more and access staff more. Advance HE cannot explain this phenomenon but states it is consistent with one of the themes that we see each year…that if students put more in then they get more out. In this case there is more effort made to get to campus but this implies that the students who do commute are often motivated to take the opportunities available to them when they get there. The report goes on to explain that commuter students are successful balancing their time – spending more time in taught and independent study,  highly motivated and committed to their own development. The differences between the commuter students and the other students below are all statistically significantly different.

Charity advice

The Charity Commission for England and Wales have updated guidance on protecting charities from abuse for extremist purposes with section 10 on charity events and speakers and section 13 what risks and legal issues do debating societies and students’ unions need to be aware of,  of particular relevance for universities. In summary:

How can trustees manage potential risks when inviting speakers to participate in charity events and meetings? Trustees should however be mindful of the risk of giving a platform to speakers who break the law by glorifying or supporting terrorism, inciting violence or hatred on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation or other illegal activity….If you and your co-trustees, or those in the charity organising the event, invite and allow speakers who you might have reasonably suspected would use the platform to break the law – for example because they have done so previously – they may find themselves in breach of criminal law and/or charity law.

In relation to extremism, what risks and legal issues do debating societies and students’ unions need to be aware of? The right to freedom of expression is an important element in furthering educational charitable purposes and many of these charities are leaders in promoting democracy, human rights and civil liberties. But this must be balanced with ensuring that activities aimed at promoting these rights do not interfere with or deprive other people of their rights. For example, speech or literature that aims to make the lives of a particular group intolerable would not be protected under the right to freedom of expression.

Director of Legal Services at the Charity Commission, Aarti Thakor, has written a blog, arguing that, whilst “education and learning cannot move forward unless ideas are open to rigorous challenge”, freedom of speech is not an absolute right. The Equality and Human Rights Commission are shortly expected to publish new guidance aiming to provide clarity of the free speech rules for students and universities.


The Science and Technology Committee held a session for the Balance and effectiveness of research and innovation spending inquiry.  The committee heard that the Government’s aims to hit 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027 were proceeding in the right direction. However, the importance of the structures and policies sitting behind R&D should be examined to create long-term sustainable plans. It was stated that simply increasing expenditure was not deep enough to ensure continued progress in the field. It was noted that once the UK hits 2.4% it will still be behind because the OECD average would likely have risen once more. Calls for the UK to learn lessons from other nations were heard but it was felt we needed to implement a method that suited the UK economy, rather than adopting another countries model. UK universities were mentioned stating that they were leading in many fields but that more support was needed to build up regions outside of the golden triangle (London, Oxford, Cambridge).

A parliamentary question tackled the same topic:

Q – Chi Onwurah: To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, how much additional public funding is required to reach the Government’s target of spending 2.4 per cent of GDP on R&D across the economy by 2027.

 A – Sam Gyimah:

  •  The Government is working with UK Research and Innovation and other key partners to develop a roadmap that sets out how government and industry will work together to reach the 2.4% target by 2027.
  • The roadmap, including an assessment of the measures required to put us on a trajectory to the 2.4% target, will be published in 2019.

 Research stats: The Office for National Statistics has published statistics on spending and the numbers employed on research.

  • Expenditure on research and development (R&D) performed by UK businesses continued to grow, expanding by £1.1 billion to £23.7 billion in 2017, an increase of 4.9%.
  • Software development was the product group that had the largest growth in expenditure on R&D performed by UK businesses, of £358 million (34.7%).
  • London had the largest growth in regional business R&D expenditure, increasing by £448 million (19.1%) to £2.8 billion in 2017.
  • UK government funding of civil R&D has overtaken that of defence for the first time, with funding of £978 million and £820 million respectively in 2017.
  • In 2017, total UK business employment in R&D grew by 7.4% to 231,000 full-time equivalents.

Other news

Sustainable travel: Colleagues travelling sustainably to BU will be pleased to hear of changes the Government have planned to make cycling and walking safer.

Male educational underachievement: A fascinating blog from Mary Curnock Cook (previous UCAS Chief Exec) on a meeting of the Men and Boys’ Coalition which captured reasons for male education underachievement – it touches on the importance of relationships, SEN, parental aspirations, redistributing funding, masculine identity and the presence of educational discouragement, and the structure within the classroom.

It was International Men’s Day on Monday. Minister for Women and Equalities Penny Mordaunt spoke out for men to launch new research to examine the effect of gender norms on men and boys:

  • “On International Men’s Day we should remember that equality is for everyone. In many areas men get a raw deal, and often issues affecting them such as domestic violence or health or child care aren’t discussed. I want to challenge rigid stereotypes, champion flexible working practices and encourage shared parental leave. These harmful stereotypes can contribute to an environment within which violence and sexual harassment against women can take place. As part of the commitment to ending violence against women and girls this work will also focus on developing ways to change negative attitudes towards women.”

Science and Language A level grading: While HE grade inflation has been a recent media storm the Government slipped out a press release on Wednesday tackling A level grading. There is recognition that the it may be harder to achieve the top grades in some subjects –  Physics, Chemistry, Biology, French, German and Spanish are all mentioned – compared to others and that perceived grading severity undermines confidence and reduces uptake of these key A levels. Ofqual has confirmed it will not adjust the grading concluding

  • that there is not a uniformly compelling case to adjust grading standards. However, in light of stakeholder concern they will: consider with exam boards how we should act to avoid the potential for these subjects to become statistically more difficult in the future. We will implement and review this as part of our normal approach to awarding. Qfqual intend to undertake the same investigation with GCSE languages now.

International Students: Sam Gyimah responded to a parliamentary question on increasing levels of international students.

Q – Barry Sheerman: To ask the Secretary of State for Education, whether he plans to set a growth target for international student numbers studying at UK universities; and if he will make a statement.

A – Sam Gyimah:

  • The target of increasing the value of education exports to £30 billion by 2020 was set in 2015 under the coalition government. The target is rightly ambitious and the department remains committed to working with the rest of government and the sector to drive progress towards it.
  • The latest statistics, which were published by the department earlier this year, estimated that the total value of UK education exports and transnational education activity was £19.3 billion in 2015, marking an increase of 22% since 2010.
  • Growing education exports is an important priority, and the government supports this through the work of the Department for International Trade (DIT)’s team dedicated to education exports. In addition, DIT’s Education Sector Advisory Group, which was chaired by my hon. Friend, the Member for Beverley and Holderness, and which I attended, supports the international aspirations and activity of the UK education sector and explores the ways in which growth can be increased.
  • The department’s international team supports this work and leads on a number of formal bilateral agreements, underpinned by memorandums of understanding and ministerial dialogues and visits. The team is also a key partner in a number of regular high-level international events, such as the Education World Forum, which is held annually in the UK.
  • Accounting for approximately 60% of all education exports, international students are of course an important part of this work.
  • The UK continues to be very successful in attracting international students. There is no cap on the number who can study here and we are second only to the USA in terms of our market share. Numbers remain at record high levels, with over 170,000 non-EU entrants to UK higher education institutions for the seventh year running.
  • India is an important partner in education, and the UK’s fourth largest source country for international students. The government actively promotes study in the UK through the GREAT Campaign and through the British Council, which promotes the UK in over 100 countries, including India. I am pleased to say that we have seen recent increases in student numbers from India and, since 2011, student visas granted to Indian nationals have increased by 28%.
  • To help inform decisions on the future migration system, the government commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to provide an objective assessment of the impact of EU and non-EU international students at all levels of education. The MAC has now published its report, and the government is carefully considering its conclusions and recommendations. We intend to publish a white paper on the UK’s future immigration system later this year.


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