A busy week in politics, and for policy too. Not looking any quieter as we approach the end of the year, either. We will do a short update next week because the ONS report on student loan accounting is due and there are likely to be interesting reflections on that through the week.
Student loans and accounting
Ahead of the big ONS announcement on Monday about accounting for student loans, there is a House of Commons library report: Student loans and the Government’s deficit
Following concerns from parliamentary committees, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is re-examining how student loans are recorded in the Government’s deficit (which is the difference between the Government’s spending and its revenues from tax receipts and other sources). The ONS will announce its decision on 17 December 2018.
The committees say that the expected losses of the loans (the subsidy) should increase the deficit when they are issued, rather than 30 years down the line when they are written-off, as is the case now. They are also concerned that the current treatment of the loans allows the Government to sell them without the losses ever being reflected in the deficit.
Two illusions arise from student loans being treated as financial assets in the deficit:
- The deficit doesn’t recognise the subsidy elements of the loans until they are written off, in 30 years. This means that the expected losses from the loans do not come with an upfront cost to the Government’s deficit, even though the Government issues them fully expecting losses.
- The deficit is flattered in the 30 years leading up to the loans being written off by the payable interest theoretically accruing on them. This is despite the fact that little of the interest will actually be repaid. Any unpaid interest will be eventually written off, but significant time will pass between when the interest first starts accruing and it being written off.
These illusions relate to the timing of when the loans’ expected losses affect the deficit – they don’t mean that the true impact of the loans is never recorded in the deficit, just that the true cost isn’t recorded until much later. However, a real illusion is introduced to the deficit when the Government sells the loans to the private sector.
The sale of the loans has no direct impact on the deficit, but selling them means that future losses will never affect the deficit and the deficit will have benefited from the never-to-be-paid accrued interest on the loans. Over the past year the Government has raised around £3.6 billion from two sales of student loans. The Treasury Committee said this creates: “a huge incentive for the Government to finance higher education through loans that can be sold off.”
There is a HEPI blog by Nick Hillman saying that those who are opposed in principle to student loans should be careful about the implications of a move away from them with some mixed metaphors – egg on face, chickens coming home to roost and Christmas gifts with sharp insides.
“Assuming the ONS put the part of student loans expected never to be repaid on the books, then the policy debate is likely to shift to focusing on how this sum can be reduced.
- One option, currently underway in Australia, is to reduce the repayment threshold.
- Another would be to extend the repayment period, as in the past.
- A third would be to limit student places (just as the number of 18-year olds starts growing again).
- A fourth would be to lend students less money, meaning a less good education or less money to live on.
All four would hit students and / or graduates hard.”
What on earth next for Brexit?
An interesting week in national politics although you could argue that a lot of heat and light was expended with no net impact – there is still no possibility of the withdrawal agreement getting through Parliament and the only difference is that the PM knows the size of the challenge – at least 117 MPs (although actually more, because some said they would back her but not the deal). So likely outcomes now are:
- No deal – the most likely because it’s the default position, unless Parliament positively supports a deal or an extension/delay to article 50 that is agreed by the EU and amends the Withdrawal Act, the law says we’re leaving. Getting a Parliamentary majority for anything seems hard and of course the option has to be put to them first.
- So less likely, but possible: the PM believes that she can get more concessions from the EU or just possibly that they might move on to negotiating the final deal a bit more (which they have said so far they won’t do until after we leave in March) and so she allows Parliament to vote on an extension to Article 50 and change with Withdrawal Act. It’s not clear if this would pass, but it could with Labour support.
- Norway/Canada/2nd referendum – all still longer term possibilities but all depend on (a) a huge change of approach from the PM (or a change of PM, which now means a change of government) AND (b) delaying the Brexit date of 29th March as described above. There is no possibility of any of these being settled by 29th March even assuming the change of mind from the PM – which this week demonstrates is not going to happen.
- So, possibility of change of government? It could happen, but remember that the fixed term Parliament legislation requires a 2/3rds majority for an early election.
- It is very unlikely that the Conservative MPs will vote for that unless they think they would win a strong overall majority (and look what happened last time they tried).
- The PM could resign and Jeremy Corbyn could be invited to form a minority government. Labour have been threatening a no confidence motion “when the time is right”. Conservative turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas in a no confidence vote. So that possibility hangs on the DUP.
- So what does happen if Parliament pass a motion of no confidence in the Government? The Parliament website says:
A motion of no confidence, or censure motion, is a motion moved in the House of Commons with the wording: ‘That this House has no confidence in HM Government’. If such a motion is agreed to, and a new government with the support of a majority of MPs cannot be formed within a period of 14 calendar days, Parliament is dissolved and an early General Election is triggered. A motion of no confidence is one of only two ways in which an early General Election may be triggered under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011
- So the key is whether “a new government with the support of a majority of MPs” can be formed within a period of 14 calendar days.
- If push comes to shove, how will Conservative MPs and the DUP vote? The Conservative MPs who said they were voting against TM as leader were mainly pro-Brexit. If the vote passes and after 14 days no-one has formed a government, then Parliament will be dissolved. So then there would be no possibility of anyone passing legislation to delay Brexit – with no deal. Which may not be that unpalatable to the ERG group and hard Brexit supporters. Of course who knows who would win the election, but we would be out of the EU with no withdrawal deal/backstop etc.
- If you’re interested in no confidence motions, there is more from the House of Commons library here
- And the DUP? Well, who knows.
- Huffington Post (DUP in talks with Labour)
- Independent (Arlene Foster tells TM to stand up to the EU)
- Belfast Telegraph (DUP don’t need talks with Labour (because they’ll vote against the government if it doesn’t get concessions))
- BBC – How long can TM survive as PM
The BBC report the EU summit held on Friday as being very difficult with no concessions made.
The House of Commons library have published a useful paper on what happens next: The “meaningful vote” deferred: What now?
- If political agreement has lapsed, and no new statement of political agreement is reached, the Government must, within five calendar days of 21 January, make a statement setting out how it proposes to proceed. It must then move a motion for debate on its statement within five sitting days of 21 January.
- The Government could, legally, bring back a proposal to approve a deal any time before the UK formally leaves the EU. At the moment, that would mean any time before 29 March 2019. However, there are other requirements the Government must meet before it can ratify any deal. Most importantly it must also procure the passage through Parliament of the proposed EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill to implement the deal in domestic law. The Withdrawal Act 2018 requires this legislation to be passed before the Government can ratify the withdrawal agreement.
With the new Minister in post it has been a bumper week for questions within parliament and even more are tabled for answer next week such as the cost of living for students, more technical content on the net changes to student parents in the move from tax credits to universal credit, and even one on Free Speech (despite Sam Gyimah stepping down).
Q – Jo Swinson: To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, what proportion of his Department’s ODA-funded projects are listed on the Department for International Development’s Development Tracker website.
A – Chris Skidmore:
- BEIS is committed to meeting the Government’s target for transparency and to score ‘good’ or ‘very good’ on the Publish What You Fund aid transparency index.
- 29 of the Department’s 30 International Climate Finance programmes are listed on the Development Tracker website. This represents 96% of the Department’s International Climate Finance programmes, covering 99% of BEIS International Climate Finance expenditure from 2010/11 to the end of 2017/18.
- At present BEIS does not publish detail of its research and innovation (R&I) spend on the Development Tracker website. However, much of the detail is published on the Gateway to Research website, which is run by UK Research and Innovation. BEIS is currently implementing a technical solution to be able to fully publish details of its R&I expenditure to the International Aid Transparency Index, which can be automatically accessed by the Development Tracker.
Q – Andrew Lewer: To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, whether his Department has plans to participate in the forthcoming UK Research and Innovation review of open access policy.
A – Chris Skidmore:
- Plan S is a set of high-level principles which are in line with current UK Government policy and ambitions for Open Access (OA), and identify common ways to accelerate the implementation of OA to meet the European Competitiveness Councils target, set by ministers in 2016, of making all publicly funded research Open Access by 2020.
- The UKRI OA Review is working within the framework of Government policy, due to report in autumn 2019. The Review will examine the best way to implement and operationalise Government’s ambitions around Open Access. BEIS will be represented on the OA Review Steering Group. The UKRI OA Review is focused on the effectiveness of UKRI policies and should any change to Government policy be proposed, Ministers will be consulted.
Two questions on digital and the tech industry in relation to ongoing skills shortages
Q – Jim Cunningham: To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, what recent assessment his Department has made of levels of gender diversity within the UK tech industry; and if he will make a statement.
A – Margot James:
- The UK Digital Strategy set out our commitment to enabling a more diverse digital workforce. As the digital revolution progresses, many more jobs will require digital skills and many more tech roles will be created, both in technology companies and in the general economy. We cannot afford for women, who we know only make up 19% of the tech workforce (Tech Nation Report 2018), to be excluded from or unable to progress within these roles. While there is substantial progress that still needs to be made, there are also significant initiatives aiming to solve the issue.
- For example, over 270 companies, from international tech giants right through to start-ups, SMEs and charities, have already signed the Tech Talent Charter (TTC) – an industry led initiative, supported by Government. The TTC gives organisations tangible actions and principles they can adopt to change their hiring and retention practices to become more gender-diverse and commits signatories to measuring the diversity profile of their UK employees and to share this data for (anonymous) collective publication in an annual report.
- There are also other industry-led programmes, across the tech ecosystem, doing valuable and innovative work to help make tech more diverse. These include the #SheMeansBusiness initiative (by Facebook in collaboration with Enterprise Nation and FSB); PWC’s Tech She Can charter, focused on getting more school-age girls to choose STEM subject and see a career in tech as a viable option for them; and Backstage Capital, which is an investment fund committed to investing in start-ups with diverse founders.
- The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Local Digital Skills Partnership (LDSP), launched in Coventry this month, has increasing diversity built in from the start. The PWC-led Tech She Can project mentioned above has piloted their Tech We Can lesson plans in 4 schools in the Coventry area (all with very diverse and different pupil-bases), with a view to replicating and scaling the programme nationally after the pilot phase. In a similar vein, TTC has created regional ‘communities’ of tech employers to share best practice on regional diversity, with the WMCA LDSP a future regional focus for this work.
Q – Catherine McKinnell: To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what recent steps he has taken to support the development of digital skills among young people.
A – Nick Gibb:
- The Government has introduced a computing curriculum at all four Key Stages, which aims to ensure that all pupils understand the fundamental principles of computer science, including programming, coding and data representation. The Department has reformed the computer science GCSE and A level so they provide a stronger foundation for further academic and vocational study, and better prepare students for higher education.
- While entries to these qualifications have increased rapidly since their introduction, they are still too low. That is why a new National Centre for Computing Education has been launched, which is backed by £84 million of investment announced in the 2017 Autumn Budget. The programme will improve the teaching of computing and drive up participation in computer science at GCSE and A level, particularly amongst girls.
- There are a number of options available to young people for further study, including through digital apprenticeships or, from 2020, one of the digital T levels which are based on employer designed standards and content. In addition, the Government launched the Ada National College for Digital Skills, which opened in 2016 and specialises in higher level training for digital specialisms.
A question on HE student suicides confirmed there is currently no formal gathering of these statistics however the Office for National Statistics has produced an experimental estimate here.
Q – Gordon Marsden: To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what discussions he has had with university groups on whether they will accept T Levels as part of their admissions policies.
A – Anne Milton: Officials in my department are currently having discussions with UCAS, are visiting Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and meeting with representative groups to build awareness and recognition of T levels so that they are able to make informed decisions about the inclusion of T levels within their admission policies.
Residency / Student Finance status
Q – Steve McCabe: To ask the Secretary of State for Education, pursuant to the answer of 14 November 2018 to Question 191270 on Overseas Students: Immigration, what guidelines Student Finance England follows when making a decision on whether a student’s residence in the UK and Islands has been wholly or mainly for the purpose of receiving full time education.
A -Chris Skidmore:
- Generally, to meet the eligibility requirements for student support, a student should be resident in England, have ‘settled’ status or a recognised connection with the UK, and have been a resident of the UK and Islands (Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) for the three years prior to the start of the course.
- Any period of residence in the United Kingdom and Islands wholly or mainly for the purpose of receiving full-time education does not count towards the period of ordinary residence required to qualify for student support. Student Finance England considers applications on a case by case basis, taking into account all information and evidence available.
The requirement for a student to pay the first £200 contribution for DSA specialist equipment has been a topic that some MPs have grumbled at throughout 2018. There has been continued low level lobbying for a change in this policy by some MPs and parliamentary groups. Here is another parliamentary question on the topic:
Q -Steve McCabe: To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what assessment he has made of the effect on the level of uptake of disabled students’ allowance of the introduction of the requirement for students to contribute £200 towards the costs of specialist equipment.
A – Chris Skidmore: The Student Loans Company (SLC) data show the uptake of the disabled students’ equipment allowance by full time undergraduate students domiciled in England fell from 28,000 in 2014/15 to 23,400 in 2015/16, the year the £200 contribution was introduced, and to 21,600 in 2016/17. Provisional figures for 2017/18 show an increase of 17% in uptake compared to the provisional figures in 2016/17. The SLC National Statistics data are available at https://www.slc.co.uk/official-statistics/financial-support-awarded/england-higher-education.aspx .
The Higher Education Policy Institute has published a report on understanding and aiding commuter students. It explores the barriers commuter students face and how these effect the quality of their learning experience. As could be expected timetabling was a major issues for those travelling significant distances to their university, with sessions missed because a single taught session didn’t seem worth it.
The study finds that living in (halls/residences) has a positive relationship with overall student satisfaction. Whereas living at home has a slightly negative relationship with overall satisfaction.
Student residences drew media attention this week. First a press release from Arla Propertymark highlighted how rising student numbers has results in an increase of private sector provided student accommodation – resulting in higher rental costs (but higher quality accommodation as well). IN fact the private sector now provides 50% of student accommodation in 2018/19. The press released draws on the NUS Unipol Accommodation Costs Survey 2018 results. It states the high cost accommodation is unsustainable and discusses the rise in popularity of studio flats which are now the most common form of development (an increase by 123% between 2012/13 and 2018/19). NUS are urging developers to balance the high end build with more mid-cost ‘cluster flat’ developments priced reasonably to ensure some students aren’t put off from degree study due to the high living costs. Also studio flats can be a social inhibitor and create an insular living environment which is detrimental to student welfare and mental health.
The press release notes an average weekly rent is now £147, and most private sector lets are on average +£9 more per week (although also often newer and more frequently refurbished). The survey found that rents cost students around 73% of all their financial support in 2018/19 (it was 58% in 2011/12). Again direct comparison with previous years is misleading because more services are often included with the rental cost now, e.g. Wi-Fi and contents insurance.
The BBC ran a related article on student residences this week – University friends: By chance or by design? The article explores social engineering which is the placement of students within certain accommodations to achieve a social or cultural integration objective. The article looks at the universities which combine gender, nationality, cultural and religious beliefs to ensure diversity within the immediate residence that students share. Other universities place new students with similar characteristics or lifestyle preferences to ease their transition into university life. Bedford even use a commercial algorithm to combine personality and lifestyle to match students who would live together harmoniously. The article also touches on how the differing costs of residences creates an unintentional grouping by social class as students select the residence they feel is affordable for them.
BU steps away from a social engineering model as students are able to select and directly book where they wish to live. Students can even create a mini profile sharing their personal likes and dislikes which is visible to others booking into the same shared accommodation. Meanwhile the inclusivity of ResLife ensures students can meet others outside of their immediate flat and there are a myriad of activities to engage in. The ResLife and Welfare teams are also on hand with strategies and support if a student struggles. BU does ensure a gender balance within flats and reserves some housing for postgraduates and accommodations for certain programmes where students require longer leases or work unusual hours.
Finally there was a parliamentary question:
Q – Gordon Marsden: To ask the Secretary of State for Education, if he will make an assessment of the implications for his policies on affordable student accommodation of the 3 December 2018 Huffington Post article entitled Exclusive: Cost Of Accommodation At Top Universities Soars By Up To 77% During The Past Decade.
A – Chris Skidmore:
- Government does not control rents for student accommodation as higher education providers are autonomous bodies, independent from government.
- The student funding system makes loans for living costs available as a contribution towards a student’s living costs while attending university. Living costs support increased by 2.8% for 2017/18 and 3.2% for the current, 2018/19, academic year. We have announced a further 2.8% increase for loans for living costs for the 2019/20 academic year – to a record amount.
- All universities who wish to charge fees above the basic level are required to have an access and participation plan approved by the Office for Students. Through these plans, universities can fund bursaries for disadvantaged students, such as care leavers.
- The Unistats website provides information about all university courses and includes links to individual websites with details of the costs for student accommodation at a higher education provider.
The Home Office have released stats on Prevent. The HE sector accounted for the highest number of referrals in 2017/18 (2,462 referrals, 33% of all referrals), beating the Police (2,364, 32%). Across all sectors a total of 7,318 individuals were subject to a referral due to concerns that they were vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. Of these 42% required no further action, 40% were signposted to alternative services and 18% proceeded to a Channel panel following preliminary assessment. Those aged 20 or under were the majority of individuals referred (57%) and of those receiving Channel support (66% of all those receiving support). Males were referred more and received support more than females. Of the referrals 44% were related to Islamist extremism and 18% related to right wing extremism.
The Government issued a press release relaunching the Social Mobility Commission and publishing the 2018 social mobility barometer which they state shows a deep divide between rich and poor and pessimism amongst the young. The pessimism refers to only 1 in 7 young people who believe their generation will have the opportunity to move higher up the social ladder. The Government state:
- The survey revealed deep unease in Britain about the gap between the rich and the poor. It shows that people think the government, employers and schools are doing too little to help the less advantaged get a fair chance in life.
- The findings show just 15% of 18 to 24 year olds think their generation has the best chance of moving up in society. Just 13% say their generation will have the best standard of living, and 12% believe they will fare best in terms of personal finances, compared to older generations.
The young people also believed HE offered better opportunities to progress than apprenticeship.
Dame Martina Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission stated:
- “If we fail to act too many young people will continue to face challenges getting into colleges, universities and employment. We all need to do more to tackle these issues, but there needs to be renewed focus from government, educators and employers.
- 40% of people think it is getting harder for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to move up in society. Over half of the respondents think central government should be doing more to improve social mobility, followed by local government, (39%) schools (36%) and employers (36%).”
At the Social Mobility Commission relaunch Dame Martina announced the Government has allocated an extra £2 million to commission new research. She stated:
- “I am delighted the government is showing its commitment to the Social Mobility Commission by providing an initial £2 million for research and evidence in our first full year of operating as a new commission. This will enable us to start expanding our research base and deliver on our role to promote social mobility throughout the country.”
The relaunch introduced the 12 new social mobility commissioners (all members of the previous Commission resigned in protest over the Government’s perceived lack of commitment to and progress within social mobility. The Commissioners are: lead by Dame Martina Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission and Group Chief Executive of the Prince’s Trust. The 12 Social Mobility Commissioners are:
- Alastair da Costa, Chair of Capital City College Group
- Farrah Storr, Editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan
- Harvey Matthewson, volunteer, and part-time Sales Assistant at Marks & Spencer
- Jessica Oghenegweke, Project Co-ordinator at the Diana Award
- Jody Walker, Senior Vice President at TJX Europe (TK Maxx and Home Sense in the UK)
- Liz Williams, Group Director of Digital Society at BT
- Pippa Dunn, Founder of Broody, helping entrepreneurs and start ups
- Saeed Atcha, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Xplode magazine
- Sam Friedman, Associate Professor in Sociology at London School of Economics
- Sammy Wright, Vice Principal of Southmoor Academy, Sunderland
- Sandra Wallace, Managing Partner UK and Joint Managing Director Europe at DLA Piper
- Steven Cooper, most recently, Chief Executive Officer Barclaycard Business, moving to Chief Executive Officer C.Hoare & Co
The commissioners will start drawing up their priorities next week. For their first year, these are expected to include a focus on vocational education and skills. Early in 2019 the commission will be releasing a social mobility toolkit for employers and, in March, will set out their annual State of the Nation assessment of social mobility in Great Britain.
The DfE have published statistics showing that disadvantaged primary school pupils are closing the gap against their better off peers. The DfE report that the disadvantage gap index has fallen for the seventh year in a row. They report three key findings:
- The gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils is smaller in MATs [multi academy trusts] than the national average in each progress measure (reading, writing and maths);
- 88% of pupils who met the phonics standard in year 1 reached the expected standard in reading at the end of key stage 2; and
- The attainment gap between girls and boys has remained stable with 61% of boys meeting the expected standard compared to 68% of girls
Nick Gibb, School Standards Minister, stated: Every child, regardless of their background, deserves a high quality education and opportunity to fulfil their potential. Headteachers are using the freedoms afforded by academy and free school status to make this a reality, as illustrated by the progress disadvantaged pupils in multi-academy trusts are making in writing and maths.
Access and Participation
The OfS published the outcomes to their consultation on regulating access and participation this week. They will now expect universities to set their own individual plans and targets to work towards these during the next five years. The targets aim to eliminate the gaps in:
- entry rates at the most selective universities between the most and least represented groups
- drop-out rates between the most and least represented groups
- degree outcomes between white and black students
- degree outcomes between disabled and non-disabled students.
The new approach also means that:
- The OfS will publish an access and participation dataset which will show the make-up of student bodies across the sector as a whole and at each individual provider on the OfS Register.
- The OfS will challenge providers by focusing on the level of ambition they set, the credibility of their plans and the outcomes they achieve, rather than on their levels of investment and activity
- The frequency of written submissions that providers make to the OfS will now be based on how likely they are to make sufficient progress in improving equality of opportunity, with those at risk of making insufficient progress under greater scrutiny.
- There will be tougher requirements on evaluation and better support for this through a national ‘What Works’ Centre to ensure that providers are focusing on the most impactful work.
- The OfS will fund consortia of universities and colleges across all parts of the country to ensure that their work with schools is joined up and targeted to meet local needs.
Cynics might suggest there is little different in these stated aims than the aspirations of the previous Office for Fair Access. However, a new regular and a new Director for Fair Access and Participation may mean the devil is in the detail. Commenting on the new approach, Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation, stated:
- ‘We are committed to achieving transformational change, so our targets are ambitious. But they are realistic if universities make equality a priority and take the actions available to them.
- marking assessments – to provide additional guidance on factors an awarding organisation should consider when considering whether it is possible for it to mark an assessment itself in a way that is valid and manageable, or whether it might be necessary to permit centre-marking to secure this
- prior learning – to make it clearer how an awarding organisation should consider whether it is possible to recognise prior learning or prior attainment for the Core across different Technical Qualifications
- Total Qualification Time (TQT) – to clarify how TQT should be calculated and how to balance Ofqual’s TQT requirements with any figure or range set by the Institute
Hate crimes: A UUK guest blogger describes participation in the Lessons from Auschwitz project in her Tackling hate crime in HE blog. The Lessons from Auschwitz project is a special initiative to addressing recent increases in incidents of antisemitism at universities.
Grade Inflation: The Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) issued a press release focussed on strengthening vocational and technical qualifications this week. They have identified evidence of grade inflation within internal assessment in some ‘older style’ applied general qualifications which are out of odds with students’ prior attainment and subsequent degree/employment outcomes. Read more here. :
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