The view from the DfE
For the first time since he was appointed, the Minster for Skills, further and Higher Education has written to the sector. The tone is more positive than we have become used to, it didn’t arrive on a Friday at 5pm, and it was fairly focussed. It is clear where the focus is, and no surprise either, given Halfon’s known views aired as chair of the Education Committee. Skills, technical education and social justice, including of course accepting T-levels in admissions, and please can we do more apprenticeships. Wonkhe have a view here.
Kier Starmer has stated “he wants to see change” on tuition fees that “he doesn’t think it works”. He qualified the statement making clear while he supports the original Labour policy of abolishing tuition fees in principle it would be too detrimental to the economy to carry it out: “ there are good Labour things that we would want to do but because of the damage the Tories have done we won’t be able to do”. He said instead his focus, if elected, would be on “stabilising the economy and growing it” and on restoring and reforming public services. He did not categorically say Labour would not maintain their free tuition fees pledge at the next election but it sounds like he is laying the ground.
There’s a Guardian article here. It’s estimated that abolishing tuition fees would cost around £6 billion per year.
- The PM spoke about plans to build an innovative economy and emphasised the increase in R&D funding to £20 billion to enhance our world leading strengths in AI, life sciences, quantum computing, financial services, and green technology.
- Science minister George Freeman gave a keynote address – Science Superpower: The UK’s Global Science Strategy beyond Horizon Europe. He has also spoken out on Horizon Europe stating that both prime minister Rishi Sunak and chancellor Jeremy Hunt agreed that two years’ exclusion from the EU’s Horizon Europe R&D programme was “long enough” (source: Politics podcast). He also stated that if Britain was permanently excluded from the EU science schemes it would need to focus on specific research challenges where it can lead multinational consortia – There is a “huge opportunity” for the U.K. in these areas because Brexit allows the country to become “a global testbed” and regulate in an “agile” and “responsive” way, the science minister said (Politico). Also the Minister stated: As part of its “Plan B” if excluded from EU science, the U.K. would also channel more funding toward fellowships for foreign researchers, “moonshots” on cutting-edge technology areas, and global collaborations. He continued: “There’s a possibility if we move with bold vision … the European Union will see that we are committed to doing this and I think it’s more likely that they will pick up the phone and say, ‘look, come back in and let’s do the ERC [European Research Council] together’ and learn from some of the things that we are doing.”
- Parliamentary question on medical innovation.
- The Treasury has opened a consultationseeking views on the design of a single, simplified research and development (R&D) tax relief scheme, merging the existing research and development expenditure credit (RDEC) and the small and medium enterprise (SME) R&D relief.
The Russell Group, MillionPlus, GuildHE, and University Alliance banded together and wrote a coordinated letter to the Education Select Committee asking them to consider a new inquiry reviewing the into the operation and performance of the Office for Students (OfS). They ask the Committee to assess whether the OfS has succeeded in the role parliament envisaged for it in HERA, whether it has the confidence of the sector in the way it carries out its regulatory duties, how it has supported students and how it performs relative to standards set out in the Regulators’ Code.
It acknowledges the DfE review of HERA but states the depth of scrutiny failed to reflect the significance of the legislation and highlights the Government’s research based reviews emphasising there has been no equivalent review of the OfS. The letter also emphasises the student voice. Of course, the OfS itself has often justified choices and aligned itself with its perceived view of students. So this seems a reasonable request to the Committee. The inquiry would also allow universities and other HE providers regulated by OfS to share their opinion of OfS effectiveness and operational decisions.
Concerns raised in the letter:
- The letter touches on technical issues and concerns that OfS may become the permanent Designated Quality Body. The need for an independent body to assess quality and standards was stressed by the Lords during the passage of HERA and ultimately resulted in the Government amendment to introduce the DQB function. The letter states: If the OfS were to take on DQB responsibilities permanently it would lead to a loss of independent oversight of quality assurance in England and go against international standards.
- The letter also raises concerns that the OfS is not implementing a fully risk-based approach, that it is not genuinely independent and that it is failing to meet standards we would expect from the Regulators’ Code. The letter states the regulatory burden continues to be unnecessary limiting the full funding that could be spent on a quality experience for students.
- Critique is levied because the OfS’ operation does not align with the [Regulators’] Code…the absence of mechanisms for the Regulator to gain structured feedback from providers on its own performance (as highlighted in a recent report by the National Audit Office).
- Finally the letter concludes that a review is timely as the OfS is about to take on additional responsibilities due to the HE (Freedom of Speech) Bill.
It’s a powerful letter but what will it achieve? Select committees are not obliged to respond to requests they investigate a matter through an inquiry, they may also have a full programme (6 open inquiries, 2 about to conclude), or think this is not a priority. Or they may dismiss it as the sector moaning about regulation, which is a sign that regulation is working. Also, while Parliament and Government are separate entities so the Committee can do thing the Government might not like, the Chair is a Tory and the Government are unlikely to be happy about a free for all picking holes in their regulator of choice, particularly during a pre-election period when Rishi is trying to maintain stability whilst building his party’s standing alongside governing the country.
However, to receive a joint letter from 4 mission groups is a significant occurrence and parliament is careful to understand the opinions of the populace. So, at the least, they will consider it.
What might happen?
If they choose to run an inquiry they may elect to hold oral evidence only. If they were to open for written evidence they might anticipate an unmanageable deluge of written as everyone piles in with their grumbles. Inviting limited speakers – perhaps one from each mission group and some from alternative HE providers under the regulation of the OfS and potentially student representatives – might help manage volume.
If the Committee did open for written evidence what form would the terms of reference take? Presumably the Committee wouldn’t draw them directly from the mission group letter but they need a narrow focus to avoid opening up a wider can of worms. The alternative is to keep an inquiry focussed on only one or two aspects. Or to not run an inquiry at all – they might to state that the DfE analysis is sufficient or find it isn’t their place due to a technicality in law or parliamentary procedure.
Even if an inquiry is run it might not achieve all the outcomes the mission group colleagues are hoping for. Particularly because even if the Committee find OfS is not performing well and make recommendations to Government the Government is free to ignore them and pursue their own course of action.
No matter what the outcome it is exciting to see the sector united and lobbying on their own behalf rather than passively accepting (and moaning) about the state of affairs. It has long been a criticism of the HE sector that we were not united in action nor coordinated in pushing back against HE decisions and regulation. Certainly the response to this call for an inquiry will be closely watched by the sector, Parliament and Government.
Parliamentary Question: DfE will not publish the impact assessment relating to OfS regulatory framework fees charged to providers.
Research Professional: a study has found that students’ risk of mental health problems differs depending on which subject they study. The study was undertaken in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and has a relatively limited sample.
Loans/Cost of Living
The Russell Group spoke out to warn that students in England could lose as much as £1,500 a year if maintenance loans do not keep up with inflation – highlighting students will drop out as they are unable to afford to stay in HE. The Russell Group laid the blame with the DfE stating they use out-of-date projections to calculate annual increases to maintenance loans – resulting in a significant real-term cut.
Russell Group chief executive, Dr Tim Bradshaw, said: Students are struggling with the rising cost of living and while our members are doing what they can to help, including investing millions of pounds in hardship support, we are concerned about the impact on students’ wellbeing and their studies. It’s particularly frustrating to see those challenges exacerbated by the use of a model that means students are set to be £1,500 worse off next year, especially when it can be so easily fixed and it relates to a loan that is paid back by the student.
Meanwhile the Government announced a change to the pre-2012 student loan interest rate. This plan 1 loan allows for interest rate changes as the bank Base Rate changes. The interest rate for these loans has increased to 4.5% (because the bank Base Rate changed to 3.5% in December 2022). Plan 2 and postgraduate loans remain at 6.5% until 28 Feb 2023.
However, on 11 January the Government announced the Cost of living boost for students: Financial package to help students with living costs and a further freeze on tuition fees. This includes freezing tuition fees for 2 years to reduce student debt levels (on top of the existing 6 year freeze on tuition fees) and providing additional financial support for students in need. The additional monies are £15 million distributed through hardship funding, on top of the £261 million that is distributed for hardship annually to providers. HE providers will decide how to distribute their share of the additional funds to best meet their students’ needs. The Government also confirmed that the maximum loans and grants supporting both undergraduate and postgraduate with living and other costs will be increased by 2.8% for 2023/24. Minister Halfon also confirmed that students starting Higher Technical Qualifications in 2023/24 would also qualify for fee and maintenance loans for the first time.
Millionplus responded to the 2.8% living cost increase: The Government’s 2.8% uplift in maintenance loans equates to a significant real-terms cut in student support. Universities will continue to support their students through the cost of living crisis, but with their budgets also stretched they can only do so much. While the £15m additional hardship funding will help to support this work, more action is needed to support students.
Last October our Learning With the Lights Off report highlighted that 300,000 students, disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds, are at risk of severe financial hardship because of the cost of living crisis. The choice between completing your studies or eating is no real choice at all, but that could be the situation many find themselves in. The funding arrangements announced today will do little to alleviate that stark choice.
The Russell Group were similarly unimpressed – Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said: It is disappointing that the DfE has failed to deliver a meaningful increase to maintenance loans or take the opportunity to address some of the flaws in the forecasting process to ensure they keep up with rising costs, despite warnings that students would be left £1500 worse off next year. Reversing the real terms cut in the value of the loan since 2020/21 would be a simple fix that would provide much needed immediate support for living costs and would be paid back by the student.
NUS: The NUS welcomes any additional money and the Government’s recognition that students are in a precarious position due to spiralling inflation and costs…But while any increase in loans and hardship funds is welcome, we believe it is too little, too late. The Government needs to put in place a proper funding package to secure student finances and ensure all students can meet their potential…The government must go further to protect students in the long term, by increasing the value of the maintenance package, implementing a rent freeze and further controls on spiralling student rent, reducing transport costs and increasing the minimum wage for apprentices and young people…The 2.8% increase in the maintenance loan for 2023/24 is woefully inadequate and will leave students over £1,500 worse off than they would have been if student support was tied to inflation. More than a quarter of students are living on less than £50 a month after rent and bills. If maintenance support continues to lag behind inflation, the number of students in poverty is only going to increase.
The regulatory context: the OfS have weighed in with some research and John Blake has pointed out the potential impact on equality of opportunity. Although they clearly have an interest, given the access and participation agenda it is not clear what they can do about it – but there are some hints at the end of the blog:
- We will be publishing an Insight briefin the next couple of months summarising our cost-of-living polling and roundtable discussions. By highlighting practical approaches taken within the sector, we hope it will be a useful contribution to the growing body of evidence on this subject.
- This evidence will also feed into our work on risks to equality of opportunity. Later this year, the OfS will be publishing an equality of opportunity risk register. The register, which is an important part of our access and participation reforms, will identify key sector-level risks to equality of opportunity in higher education and highlight student groups most affected by each risk. There’s a good chance cost of living will be on the register.
- We will also be publishing updated guidance for providers on preparing their access and participation plans. In the meantime, in line with the existing guidanceI would encourage providers to continue to engage with their students to ensure their voice on this, as on other issues, is heard. Listening to, partnering with and understanding the views of underrepresented students can lead to improved strategies and activities that support these students to succeed.
Not a level playing field: For 2023-24 the Welsh Government has announced it will uplift the value of maintenance support (9.4%) with an average award of £11,720. It will apply to students who are already on a degree course. The higher support will be awarded to all Welsh students wherever they study in the UK for both part and full time study. English students will only benefit from the 2.8% increase detailed above. Wonkhe have an informative blog with comparisons. The uplift for Welsh postgraduate students and disabled students is more modest at 1.4%. Wonkhe say: The discrepancy is grounded in the use of an Office for Budget Responsibility projection of inflation in 2024 – although Wales is using a lower figure to that used in England’s maintenance uplift announced last week. The full detail on these changes to Welsh student finance is here.
Graduate Outcomes: An Institute for Fiscal Studies report suggests that young people who graduated into the pandemic suffered no lasting effects on careers, but the next two waves of graduates face a double whammy. The research found that:
- The cohort that graduated in 2020, particularly those with university degrees, initially experienced worse outcomes. They struggled to find work immediately after graduation and were less likely to receive on-the-job training, and those with degrees started in lower-paid occupations than previous cohorts.
- However, the rapid economic recovery and boom in jobs vacancies allowed them to quickly recover lost ground. One to two years into their careers, they do not appear to have lower employment rates or worse job quality than previous cohorts.
- The cohorts that entered the labour market in 2019 and 2021 fared no worse than previous cohorts across a number of job quality measures. Up to one year after graduation (and up to two years for the 2019 cohort), they were no less likely to be in full-time, permanent jobs, to work in high-paid or professional occupations, to receive on-the-job training, or to work for a large firm.
- There were no significant differences by parental background on these measures of job quality – perhaps surprising given the lack of formal internships over the pandemic.
The report does note, however, that this doesn’t mean the pandemic cohorts earnings won’t stagnate and that some of the pandemic’s negative effects may not have materialised yet.
There are increased concerns for the vulnerability of the students about to graduate as the labour market cools and because the final years of education were disrupted by the pandemic and the predicted forthcoming prolonged recession makes for a difficult graduate job market.
NUS – antisemitism
The National Union of Students (NUS) published Independent investigation into allegations of antisemitism within NUS by Rebecca Tuck KC which was commissions after a series of allegations and parliamentary pressure during the latter half of 2022. It highlights poor relations and that Jewish students may not feel comfortable attending NUS events and that across the last 17 years Jewish students have perceived this culture as hostile. She also states that antisemitism was not limited to Israeli-related examples such as holding Jewish students responsible for the acts of the Israeli state or comparing Israeli policy to Nazism, but has also seen the employing of ancient antisemitic tropes, from blood libels to Rothschild conspiracies.
Tuck also did not concur with concerns over the IHRA definition of antisemitism (see page 109 for the detail). She concludes I do not consider that revisiting the definition of antisemitism is going to move the NUS towards more meaningful, and less harmful engagement between students on the topic of Israel/Palestine.
Recommendations (see page 112 onwards for the detail):
- Advisory panel
- Record keeping
- Due diligence for election candidates
- Review complaints process
- Antisemitism training
- Create materials to lead the way – exploring “example models of dialogue around Israel/Palestine and disseminate good practice”.
- Experienced facilitator to support discussion about Israel/Palestine for next 2 years
- Revive ARAF committee (Anti Racist Anti-Fascist)
- Surveying Jewish students
- Consider an external speaker policy
- Governance review
NUS responded that the report: is a detailed and shocking account of antisemitism within the student movement. It is a truly difficult read for all of us but we welcome the clarity it brings to enable us to act with confidence to tackle antisemitism head on. There is no place for antisemitism within NUS and we are committed to ensuring that Jewish students feel safe and welcome in every corner of our movement.
Our priority now is to take forward the recommendations from Rebecca Tuck KC’s independent report to tackle antisemitism in all its forms across the breadth and depth of NUS.
We have developed an action plan which will help us achieve this, but it is vital that we listen and learn from others, which is why we are setting up an Advisory Panel to scrutinise this plan and oversee its implementation.
Matt Western, Shadow HE Minister responded: Many of the findings in Rebecca Tuck KC’s independent Report are deeply worrying and should concern us all. Antisemitism has no place in society and must be stamped out wherever it is found. I am pleased to see the NUS accept the findings of the Report and recognise the need for change. Students deserve to feel safe, supported, and welcome on campus. I look forward to seeing the NUS implement their action plan over the coming weeks, working with the Jewish student community.
- Student Loans – impact of interest during deferral for medical reasons
- Adequate financial support for students in private rented accommodation
The DfE published apprenticeships statistics (England only). Degree and higher apprenticeships continue to make up substantial proportion of apprenticeships starts but figures are relatively stable between years.
- Advanced apprenticeships accounted for nearly a half of starts (43.3% or 151,300 starts).
- Higher apprenticeships accounted for nearly a third of starts (30.5% or 106,400 starts).
- Under 19s accounted for 22.2% of starts (77,500).
- Starts supported by Apprenticeship Service Account (ASA) levy funds accounted for 64.6% (225,600).
- Starts at Level 6 and 7 increased by 10.3% to 43,200 in 2021/22. This represents 12.4% of all starts reported for 2021/22. There were 39,200 Level 6 and 7 starts in the same period last year (12.2% of starts in the same period).
Value for money
The Education Select Committee quizzed Minister Robert Halfon. Halfon emphasised the importance of career training, and championing apprenticeships and skills and promoting lifelong learning. He stated the need to increase investment in skills and to explore data that looked for skills deficits as well as looking at deficits in specific regional areas. He also referenced investing in T-levels and specifically focussed on employer engagement.
Specifically on HE Committee member Miriam Cates MP compared the funding of FE and HE querying whether HE provided value for money. The minister stated he welcomed the impact and successes of both sectors and suggested that he wanted the sector to focus on social justice and bringing the most disadvantaged the opportunities to get enter higher or further education. However, Cates pressed on stating the need for a full review of joined up education post-16, not just 16 to 18, asserting that the investment in higher education did not result in the relative job prosperity after.
Minister Halfon provided an update statement on the rationalisation of pre-HE qualifications. He highlighted how qualifications which overlapped with T levels have been removed (excluding A levels which remain). However the alternative academic and technical qualification within scope of the Government’s review will need to demonstrate that they serve a clear and distinct purpose and meet new quality and funding criteria to continue to be publicly funded from 2025. This has an impact on HE because courses that include progression to HE will be under the microscope. The ministerial statement confirmed such courses must demonstrate evidence of demand and a clear statement of why the qualification is needed as well as meet regulatory requirements.
Finally the Minister states: Our reforms do not constitute a binary choice between T Levels and A levels. We have listened to feedback and recognise the need for additional qualifications, including alternative qualifications such as some BTECs designed to be taken as part of a mixed study programme including A levels. These alternative qualifications are an important part of how we will support diverse student needs and deliver skills that employers need for a productive future economy, in areas that A levels and T Levels do not cover. In addition, the T Level Transition Programme provides a high-quality route onto T Levels, for students who would benefit from the additional study time and preparation that it will give them before they start their T Level.
In a parliamentary question this week Minister Halfon highlighted that UCAS expect the number of UK and overseas HE applicants will reach one million by 2026/27 (see page 3).
Access and Participation
There was a good ding dong in the Lords as peers pushed the Minister over Social Mobility Commission issues on 12 January – read this short text for more details. Previously Katharine Birbalsingh then Chair of the Social Mobility Commission announced she was stepping down as Chair because her controversial opinions were doing more harm than good, and placed the commission in jeopardy. Catherine was informally called ‘Britain’s strictest headteacher’ and a right-wing culture warrior. She spoke about her decision to stand down is Schools Week stating she brought with her too much baggage. Deputy Commissioner Alun Francis again steps up as interim Chair. Research Professional covered the story in a short article. Katherine’s letters can be read here.
Social Mobility Commission (SMC) catch up:
In 2022 the SMC set out a fresh approach to social mobility, moving away from the notion that social mobility should just be about the “long” upward mobility from the bottom into the top.
In June the SMC published their State of the Nation annual report. The report showcased their new Social Mobility Index, a rigorous new framework for measuring social mobility over time. Each year, they will report on mobility outcomes, intermediate outcomes, and the drivers of social mobility (the background conditions that enable social mobility to happen).
2023 will see the publication of the next State of the Nation report, in which the SMC will also overlay these metrics by UK regions, and give additional breakdowns by other characteristics including sex, ethnicity and disability. These breakdowns will connect personal characteristics to a place, and can help to inform early thinking about policy solutions.
Appointment: Professor John McKendrick has been appointed as the new Commissioner for Fair Access to Higher Education in Scotland.
Parliamentary Question: Supporting foster care young people in university
Wonkhe: further signs that a crackdown on international students is coming,
HEPI published a new policy note which they state reveals a lack of understanding among employers of the post-study work rights of international students in the UK, despite the fact the Graduate Route visa could offer the answer to many current skills shortages.
Block teaching: THE article on block teaching – Brick by brick: Advocates of “block teaching” are teaming up in a new association in an attempt to hasten its adoption by universities worldwide.
Diversity: THE article: The term “BAME” hides the nuanced identities of academics of colour. EDI efforts must be intersectional if they’re to nurture all marginalised groups, write four female academics in the UK.
Funding boost for 16-19 providers: On 9 January the government announced increased funding rates worth an additional £125 million for providers delivering 16-19 education from 2023/24. Minister Halfon has long been a supporter of increased funding for FE and this funding decision may demonstrate his effective campaigning in this area, alongside a PM who states education is why he got into politics.
PMQs – Social Mobility: David Johnson MP raised about universities and employers playing their part in ensuring social mobility during week’s parliamentary questions. PM Sunak responded that the Social Mobility Commission was promoting social mobility in the UK and provided toolkits to employers.
Training investment: The CBI Education & Skills survey revealed that fewer employers are prepared to increase the investment in the training of their employee during the next year. Intention to support increased training has fallen from 53% in 2021 to 38% currently. The data also revealed that few employers are aware of the Government’s schemes for training such as the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, Local Skills Improvement Plans, or T levels. However, 75% of firms supported extending the Apprenticeship Levy to other forms of accredited/regulated training.
Free Speech keen to appoint: Research Professional state the Telegraph reports that a shortlist has been drawn up for the position of free speech tsar at the Office for Students—this is despite the government’s bill not yet having achieved royal assent. The paper reports that the shortlist for the £99,164-a-year job at the OfS includes Higher Education Policy Institute director Nick Hillman. However, The Telegraph describes University of Cambridge philosophy professor and Spiked Online columnist Arif Ahmed as the “frontrunner” to land the role.
And we have another OfS blog on free speech
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 The last change was in 2017 when the cap that applies to most courses was increased from £9000 to £9250