Category / innovation

Student numbers in the next decade

In contrast to recent student numbers intake across the country FT has published an article stating that, undergraduate numbers will see a rise in England in the next decade. [APRIL 7 2024. Looming rise in student numbers sparks calls for skills reform in England. Peter Foster and Anna Gross. © The Financial Times Limited 2013. All Rights Reserved].

Total numbers have a direct relation to several factors including but not limited to overseas students, and both financial and planning challenges faced by international students. Various geographical regions for example South and Southeast Asia are conventionally more leaning towards traditional degrees for example engineering and medicine. Particular interest in these degrees is stemmed by primary and secondary education systems, national skill gaps and more widely societal impacts. Despite, a brief decline in the numbers of international students a pattern in terms of various disciplines varies according to available data. In order to attract and sustain international student numbers core engineering and medical/ medicine degrees will remain significant centripetal force.

FT also reported that, this year universities will make a loss on each domestic student unless there is a change in fees policy [APRIL 7 2024. Looming rise in student numbers sparks calls for skills reform in England. Peter Foster and Anna Gross. © The Financial Times Limited 2013. All Rights Reserved]. In addition, a more diverse repositioning in terms of educational provisions is needed, such as strategic priorities for engineering & technology degrees, innovation in delivery models and methods of gradually but completely decoupling from textbooks taught system to a more flexible intuitive, research informed and practice-based education in partnership with industry which is fit for solving real world impact bearing problems. In turn safeguarding graduates’ future, placing their learning experience at the heart of education-research interface to guarantee higher levels of employability and job satisfaction.

HEIs are also facing a challenge in terms of financial sustainability as reported, the sector is struggling to recruit the higher-paying foreign students it relies on to subsidise lossmaking domestic places [FT 07 April 24]. A two-pronged approach would be needed to address these challenges. Firstly, repositioning in terms of facilities and resources to introduce, apply and integrate more state-of-the-art modelling and simulation techniques for practice, practical and experimental elements of teaching in engineering and technology degrees and initiating a phased transition from dependency on conventional hardware tools e.g. expensive machines to realise releasing economies of scale. Secondly, more robust, simpler and well understood parallels and transitioning pathways between HEIs and primary to higher secondary education are needed.

FT added that, “At the same time, government spending on skills will be 23 per cent below 2009—10 levels, according to analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank.” [APRIL 7 2024. Looming rise in student numbers sparks calls for skills reform in England. Peter Foster and Anna Gross. © The Financial Times Limited 2013. All Rights Reserved]. Collaborating closely with industrial partners and stakeholders’ skills gaps can be strategically prioritised for medium to long term needs, and educational provisions would need reshaping to integrate with research portfolio, UNSDGs, socio-economic, environmental impacts and relevant REF Unit of Assessment (UoA).

FT reported that, “The apprenticeship levy introduced in 2017 has also failed to deliver the expected boost to training, according to London Economics.” [APRIL 7 2024. Looming rise in student numbers sparks calls for skills reform in England. Peter Foster and Anna Gross. © The Financial Times Limited 2013. All Rights Reserved]. This is an important pathway for filling the skill shortages and also bridging the gap between theory and practice. A steady rise in flexible learning engineering degree students’ numbers, have been observed. These students are industry professionals who join these degrees at L5/6 level for a BEng/MEng flexible learning program. In addition to academic benefits these professionals achieve academic benchmark qualifications for professional registrations with professional institutions. This is one of the best available models to address skill shortages with a flexible high-quality delivery and academic provisions underpinned by research.

A stronger and broader engineering sector in collaboration with industry partners and professional institutions to develop futuristic engineering degrees to contribute to economic growth and its sustainability with an upward trajectory to address real concerns that, “tackling (of) the UK’s entrenched skills shortages and low economic productivity.” [APRIL 7 2024. Looming rise in student numbers sparks calls for skills reform in England. Peter Foster and Anna Gross. © The Financial Times Limited 2013. All Rights Reserved] is important.

Telescopic Electrochemical Cell (TEC) for Non-Destructive Corrosion Testing of Coated Substrate. Patent number GB2018/053368

FT also mentioned in its latest article that, “Policymakers should also remove the cap on FE college places in order to “level up” education, (Lord Jo Johnson), added, providing more opportunities.” [APRIL 7 2024. Looming rise in student numbers sparks calls for skills reform in England. Peter Foster and Anna Gross. © The Financial Times Limited 2013. All Rights Reserved]. This can be looked into within the context of above-mentioned points in terms of establishing more defined parallels between HEIs and from primary to higher secondary education. A rethink to consider schools’ post code model for HEIs entry will help in levelling up.

Keywords: education, numbers, overseas students, engineering, skills, industry, professions.

 

Zulfiqar A Khan

Professor of Design, Engineering & Computing

NanoCorr, Energy & Modelling Research Group Lead

Email: zkhan@bournemouth.ac.uk

 

HE policy update no 8 25th March 2024

Some more optimistic takes on what might be in the party manifestos for HE: the sort of commitments being asked for seem somewhat optimistic: later in this update I look at some detailed proposals on maintenance finance, a call to scrap the REF (which might have more take-up in the manifestos), the KEF via a HE- BCI survey (might someone suggest scrapping the KEP?), apprenticeship results are out and numbers on international education.  Amongst all that I also look at a speech from Susan Lapworth.

Manifesto for HE

You’ve seen the UUK one, here is the one from MillionPlus. (Policy update from February: The UUK manifesto sets out a wish list for the sector.  It all looks very expensive and so while ambitious, unlikely to be replicated in anyone’s actual manifesto.  We can expect to see more of these over the next few months. Research Professional have the story here.)

Scrap REF and save money

Iain Mansfield says that Labour should ‘scrap REF and save half a billion’, Research Professional reports.  Not because there is any problem with a metric for research: just a strong feeling that it shouldn’t include a metric for environment and culture. RP add: Speaking at Research Professional News live last week, Labour’s shadow science minister, Chi Onwurah, said she was “concerned about some of the bureaucracy associated with the REF” and stopped short of committing to retaining it in its current form. I don’t think that means stopping the culture and environment part, but it is hard to know.  These debates will run for a while.

HE-BCI review

The HE-BCI survey is used in the Knowledge Exchange Framework.  Just how much difference the KEF makes to anything and how interested anyone except the sector really is in it, is still, for me, an open question that I have asked since KEF was just a glint in Jo Johnson’s eye (the third leg of the HE stool etc…).  Of course if they started using KEF to allocate HEIF it would matter a lot more, but the KEF data doesn’t really lend itself to that.  As a reminder, it uses a different comparison group (clusters) to everything else, three of its “perspectives” are self-assessed and all it tells you is whether engagement with the perspective is deemed to be low, medium or high.  In a highly technical presentation format.

But as the (only real) metrics behind the (incomprehensible) KEF wheels (just take a look here and see what you learn), HE-BCI data does have some influence.  And HESA did a survey on some bits of it which closed in January.  There will be another consultation at some point.

The regulator speaks

It is always interesting to hear or read a speech by the head of the OfS, so here is one.

After a friendly introduction telling the Association of Colleges what good work their members do, it is straight in on quality:

  • Although, of course, not every college higher education student is in that position, the college sector should collectively be very proud that so many who are get the guidance and support they need in further education settings.
  • But, sadly, we know that in too many parts of the system, students’ interests are not always being well-served
  • …[Students] have serious questions about:
    • the amount of teaching they receive,
    • the frequency and usefulness of feedback provided to them, and
    • the level of support, both academic and pastoral, they can access.

Talking about the ongoing quality assessments, there are some changes coming:

  • Updating some of the language we use. So we might talk more about assessments or compliance assessments, rather than investigations.
  • We think there’s scope for additional training for assessment teams, for example, focusing on welfare to ensure staff are appropriately supported during visits and the wider process.
  • And we know the sector would like us to publish more information about how institutions are selected for assessment and how the process unfolds from there

A defensive approach to the big effort on freedom of speech?  You decide

  • Defining more clearly and coherently the student interest will also support another area where our regulation is developing: freedom of speech and academic freedom.
  • As that work has progressed, we have sometimes been told, including by some students, that students do not consider this a priority. But we know that the National Student Survey found that one in seven students in England felt unable to freely express their views.
  • … the collective act of debate and dissection of ideas, old and new, is what allows us to be confident that what and how students are learning represents the best knowledge we currently have. If students don’t recognise this, we need to understand why. Is it an artefact of who speaks loudest in our current systems? Or that cost-of-living worries and the associated challenges have reduced the scope for considering these broader issues? Or that students today have a fundamentally different conception of what freedom of speech and academic freedom ought to entail?

And some new areas of focus:

  • For example, although access to accommodation appears in our Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, we’ve been cautious about stepping into that arena in regulatory terms. But it is clear that students are increasingly concerned about the cost, quality and uneven availability of accommodation for their studies. It’s the most frequently mentioned issue in discussions with students in my visits to institutions.
  • Likewise, while we’ve taken steps to encourage stronger working links between those we regulate and the organisations that provide health services to students, particularly to support their mental health, we’re not the regulator of those services, and much of the most critical care can’t be provided by universities and colleges directly…. we are open to the view that, as a regulator framed and formed in relation to the interests of students, it may fall to us to take action, or to seek to better co-ordinate the activity of others, or to just talk about them because they matter to students.

And there is a new strategy consultation coming for the OfS.

Apprenticeships

Achievements rate update: a update published by the DfE. The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Robert Halfon has written an open letter to the apprenticeship sector celebrating the latest achievement rates and setting out some developments.

While the government are very keen to encourage more apprenticeships, there is a stern approach to providers here: not dissimilar to the rhetoric on HE, there will be student number controls linked to quality as defined by outcomes.  While “training not being as good as hoped” is a factor in the list above, as is “poor organisation” of the programme, that is in the context of all the other reasons linked to employers and jobs.  However, the government can’t do much about those, and is not in the business of discouraging employers from participating.  But this will put more pressure on providers who are already finding apprenticeships bureaucratic and hard and expensive to deliver.

It’s not putting them off just yet, though.  This update from the OfS on the second wave of funding for apprenticeships highlights how many providers are really going for it.  Degree apprenticeships funding competition: Funding allocated to wave 2 projects (officeforstudents.org.uk)

Anyway, the ideas for future development in the Minister’s letter are:

  • Apprenticeship Standards. IfATE will be looking closely at apprenticeship standards that are not producing good outcomes for employers or the economy – especially where they are underused or too many learners are dropping out without completing – and speed up action to either improve them or remove them where it is clear the apprenticeship standard is not working.
  • Quality of Training. We know that the quality of training is a major factor in whether apprentices complete. Through the apprenticeship accountability framework, we have assessed provider performance against a range of measures to give an overall picture of their quality of delivery. ….. In future performance assessments, we will not hesitate to robustly challenge providers showing insufficient improvement. We will deploy appropriate support, where providers demonstrate a capacity to improve in a timely manner, and we will continue to consider factors outside of providers’ control, where these can be evidenced. However, we will also use contractual measures including potential limitations on growth, stopping delivery of standards with low apprenticeship achievement rates and removal from the market where this is necessary to protect apprentices and employers and ensure they have access to high quality training. Concurrently we will also seek to enrich the market by making it easier to enter for providers that can deliver to our priorities – for example to increase participation from SMEs and young people.
  • Employer improvement. We now want to give employers better access to information and data to help manage their own apprenticeship programme and benchmark against others to help drive up improvements across the programme. We will test options for the information we could use to support this and work with Top 100 employers to identify how to make the information available. This will be in addition to the support offered to employers through resources, best practice sharing, and events to support self-improvement.
  • End-Point Assessment. We continually review the assessment process for apprenticeships to make sure it is proportionate, supports achievement and is fit for the future. Working with IfATE, the providers engaged with the Expert Provider pilot and the FE Funding Simplification pilot, we will identify further options to improve the assessment model, making it more efficient for the whole sector…
  • Expert Provider Pilot and SME engagement. … As a result of the pilot we are developing a new, simple one step approval for SMEs engaging with apprenticeships for the first time. This new flexibility is being developed with colleges and training providers and will be available later this year. …

Student finance

Oh dear, another negative story about student debt that will discourage potential applicants (and as always, their parents).  This time it is the BBC who revealed that the UK’s highest student debt was £231k.  Quite how they managed to rack up that much is unclear: by doing lots of courses, it seems (although surely there are limits on that – apparently there are exceptions to those rules).  The highest level of interest accumulated was around £54,050.  The student interviewed is a doctor: the length of medical programmes means that, along with vets and dentists, doctors tend to accumulate the highest student loans.

The Sutton Trust have published a report on reforming student maintenance ahead of the general election.

There are suggestions about how to address the challenges.

  • The analysis covers three potential systems, all of which would increase the amount of maintenance students would have available to them day to day, rising from the current level of £9,978 to £11,400. This is the level that recent Sutton Trust research has found is the median spending on essentials for students living away from home outside of London for 9 months of the year,… This would also set maintenance support at a similar level to what they would receive if paid the National Living Wage while studying, a method the Diamond Review in Wales used to set maintenance levels.

Scenarios include

  • Scenario 1 – Increasing overall maintenance levels, with equal loans for all students and maintenance grants making up the difference.
  • Scenario 2 – Increasing overall maintenance levels, with variable loans and with maintenance grants focused on the poorest students.
  • Scenario 3 – Increasing overall maintenance levels by means-tested loans only.

The value of international education

The government has issued 2021 data on UK revenue from education related exports and transnational education activity.

David Kernohan from Wonkhe has some analysis, always worth checking out for the nuances, including:

  • 2021 was a long time ago
  • It’s also notable that all these figures are based on exports only – there is no adjustment at all for costs incurred in delivering a service overseas.
  • pathway provider income (programmes that help to prepare overseas students for study at a UK university) is estimated based on a survey of six large providers (CEG, INTO, Kaplan, Navitas, Oxford International, Study Group) conducted by one of the participants (Kaplan)

Research Professional also has an article.

 

BU Policy update 2024: no 6, 6th March 2024

Politics and Parliament

Budget

All the budget papers will be here as they are released.

BBC stories:

Politics Home has a summary

And what does the budget paper actually say about education and research?

  • Committing £14 million for public sector research and innovation infrastructure. This includes funding to develop the next generation of health and security technologies, unlocking productivity improvements in the public and private sector alike. (page 36). Otherwise the section on science and innovation on page 55 only refers to things already announced.
  • Something on life sciences (page 60): £45 million of additional funding for medical charities doing life-saving research

News story from the Treasury on an investment package in life sciences and R&D

Ahead of the Spring Budget this week, the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has today (Monday 4 March) announced a significant investment package in the UK’s life sciences and manufacturing sectors, as part of the government’s plan to grow the economy, boost health resilience and support jobs across the UK. The funding will go towards several companies and projects who are making cutting edge technology in sectors key to economic growth and part of wider government support to ensure the UK is the best place to start, grow and invest in manufacturing.

  • Chancellor to announce significant funding package for R&D and manufacturing projects across the life sciences, automotive and aerospace sectors.
  • £92 million joint government and industry investment to expand facilities to manufacture life-saving medicines and diagnostics products.
  • £200 million joint investment in zero-carbon aircraft technology to develop a more sustainable aviation sector and almost £73 million in automotive technology.

New apprenticeships: From FE Week. The ministerial statement is here

  • Thirteen specially selected apprenticeships will receive a £3,000 per-apprentice funding boost from April, the Treasury has announced. 
  • The extra cash will come on top of usual funding bands but training providers will need to deliver a minimum of 15 starts to access it.

There is one level 5 in there: nuclear technician.

And the NHS?

  • the government will invest £3.4 billion to reform the way the NHS works. …
  • This investment in NHS technology will be central to a wider NHS productivity plan including workforce productivity improvements set out in the long term workforce plan. ….
  • £430 million will be invested to transform access and services for patients, giving them more choice and the ability to manage and attend appointments virtually, and enabling £2.5 billion savings over five years. …. These transformations include:
    • Making the NHS App the single front door through which patients can access NHS services and manage their care….
    • Digitally-enabled prevention and early intervention services, through the NHS App, introducing a new digital health check ….
    • Delivering a radically improved online experience for patients, giving citizens a single digital access point for information about NHS services…..
  • £1 billion will be invested to transform the use of data to reduce time spent on unproductive administrative tasks by NHS staff, enabling more than £3 billion of savings over five years. …. This includes:
    • Pilots to test the ability of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to automate back office functions. By automating the writing and clinical coding of notes, discharge summaries and GP letters, clinicians will be able to spend more time with patients at more appointments. ….
    • Providing all NHS staff with digital passports and access to a new NHS Staff App. …..
    • An acceleration of the Federated Data Platform (FDP) to bring together operational and ICS data currently stored on separate systems to every trust in the country by the end of 2026-27 ….
  • £2 billion will be invested to update fragmented and outdated IT systems across the NHS….This will also lay the groundwork for cutting-edge technologies such as AI, enabling the NHS to become a world leader in using technology. These steps include:
    • Upgrading IT systems, scaling up existing use of AI and ensuring all NHS staff are equipped with modern computing technology.
    • Ensuring all NHS Trusts have Electronic Patient Records by March 2026….
    • Upgrading over one hundred MRI scanners with AI, enabling scans to be delivered up to 35% more quickly…
    • Digitising transfers of care. …
  • The government and NHS England will convene an external expert advisory panel to ensure that the programme has the support and challenge to deliver its goals, including making the best use of new and emerging technologies.
  • A step change in the timeliness of data and reporting will also enable the NHS to identify and adapt the best policies for improving productivity more quickly. NHS England will start reporting against new productivity metrics regularly from the second half of 2024-25, at a national, Integrated Card Board (ICB) and Trust level. New incentives will be introduced to reward providers that deliver productivity improvement at a local level, including through effective investment helping to deliver better outcomes. Further detail will be set out in the summer.
  • Building on the progress already made, the government will work with NHS England to reduce the costs of agency staffing, including ending the use of expensive “off-framework” agency staffing from July 2024, while ensuring that emergency cover can continue.
  • Alongside this, the NHS will introduce a wider set of measures to review agency price caps, tighten controls and rules around agency staffing, and improve support and transparency. Further details will be set out in the NHS’ Planning Guidance, which will be published shortly.
  • Maternity safety: The government and NHS England are investing £35 million over three years to improve maternity safety across England, with specialist training for staff, additional midwives and support to ensure maternity services act on women’s experiences to improve care…including:
    • We will train an additional 6,000 midwives in neonatal resuscitation and nearly double the number of clinical staff who have received specialist training in obstetric medicine in England.
    • Increasing the number of midwives by funding 160 new posts over three years

Britain’s mood, measured weekly

YouGov measure the mood of the country weekly, you can find it here.  They also measure government approval.

Politics Home have an updated list of MPs standing down at the next election.

  • So far, 95 MPs have announced their intention to stand down as MPs at the next general election. At the last general election in 2019, a total of 74 MPs announced that they would not stand again…
  • Conservative: 59 Conservative MPs and 4 independent MPs (Matt Hancock, Julian Knight, Lisa Cameron. Bob Stewart no longer hold the Tory whip)
  • Labour: 17 Labour MPs and 2 independent MPs (Nick Brown and Conor McGinn no longer hold the Labour whip)
  • 13 other party MPs (9 SNP, 2 Sinn Féin, 1 Green, 1 Plaid Cymru)

What is perhaps more telling is the fact that many of those stepping back from frontline politics are relatively young, in their 30s and 40s. While the Tory MPs stepping down have an average age of 56 years, Labour MPs stepping down have an average age of 69, mostly made up of veteran MPs retiring from long professional lives in Parliament.

Research and knowledge exchange: war on woke

You will recall the huge fuss in October 2023 about Michelle Donelan’s somewhat intemperate intervention in UKRI governance when she called out members of the Research England Expert Advisory Group on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion for expressing allegedly “extremist views” on social media.  The Minister demanded that the group be disbanded and people sacked. UKRI launched an investigation.  One of the people implicated, Professor Kate Sang, took legal action against the Minister.

On 5th March, several things happened:

  • UKRI reported that the investigation had exonerated all the advisory board members involved and reinstated them to the panel
  • It is reported that the Minister has paid damages and costs (or rather that the department has on her behalf).  Bindmans, the law firm who represented Professor Sang,  issued a statement.
  • The Liberal Democrats demand an inquiry into why the taxpayer is funding the payments.
  • Michelle Donelan issued a statement on X confirming she has withdrawn her concerns expressed in the tweet.

Poppy Wood, from the I newspaper, has it all set out in a thread on X. Research Professional has a timeline of what happened.

Student experience, wellbeing and finances

Student experience: the Student Futures commission

This report from the UPP Student Futures Foundation includes new polling about student experiences.  Some of the splits by demographic are very interesting.

  • 79% of students agreed that their university had given them all the support they needed to prepare for the start of term. The splits here suggest that different support is needed by the “low socio-economic status” students
  • 74% of students were working at or above the academic level they expected to be.
  • 74% of students agreed with the statement “I feel happy at university”, and 63% agreed with the statement “I feel I belong at my university”  In the original report, findings highlight that students are more likely to feel a connection with their course (55%) than with their university (39%). This gap has widened: now, 56% of students feel a sense of attachment to their course, and only 17% to their university overall.

Mental health

  • 57% agreed that university had had a positive impact on their mental health overall (though over 1/5th (22%) of students felt it had had a negative impact overall).
  • Over a quarter (27%) of students would be uncomfortable contacting their university for support if they were struggling with their mental health.
  • 60% of students were confident that if they contact their university for support when they were struggling with their mental health, that the university would be able to help them.

Teaching and learning: while 57% report having fully in person learning, only 42% think that is ideal.  Most of the rest want a mix: fully or mostly online are not the popular choices.

Social and engagement:

  • 44% of students were less engaged with extracurricular activities than they were expecting to be, and a quarter (25%) had never engaged at all.
  • 50% of students had not had any specific conversations or guidance about future careers with staff at their university;
  • 72% felt there was more their university could do to integrate workplace skills into the curriculum

Disabled students

The update a few weeks ago talked about getting to know our students.  Here we have a focus on some of the challenges and outcomes for students with disabilities.  Wonkhe’s take on the UPP report discussed above is here: Disabled students need more than support plans and “fixing” | Wonkhe: looking at the polling behind the report in more detail highlights the challenges with belonging that some groups experience, focusing on disability in particular as the largest group

Shaw Trust launched a report, ‘The disability employment gap for graduates’.  It’s an interesting read.

And the challenges are real: AGCAS launched the ‘What happens next in challenging times?’ report, analysing 2020 and 2021 Graduate Outcomes data for disabled graduates:

  • The total employment of disabled graduates at all levels of qualification was lower than the total employment of graduates with no known disability in both 2019/20 and 2020/21.
  • In both years, for first degree and postgraduate taught, autistic graduates reported the lowest proportion of highly skilled employment, followed by graduates with mental health conditions
  • In 2019/20 and 2020/21, the majority of first degree disabled graduates were more likely than graduates with no known disability to work in roles that did not require their qualification.

The recommendations are:

•         Maintain focus on the total employment gap for disabled graduates, to ensure that positive progress in outcomes for the wider graduate population does not obscure continued inequality of employment opportunities and outcomes for disabled graduates. Within data on disabled graduate outcomes, further breakdown by disability type is needed to highlight variance amongst the outcomes of disabled graduates.

•         Higher education institutions and employers should adopt the relevant recommendations in the 2023 Disabled Student Commitment. All stakeholders should consider how to effectively support and resource appropriate higher education careers and employability activity, to work towards reducing, and ultimately eliminating, the total employment gap for disabled graduates.

•         All bodies collecting quantitative data on graduate outcomes should look to ensure parity of data between disabled graduates and graduates with no known disability, as well as providing a breakdown of data by disability type to highlight variance amongst the outcomes of disabled graduates. Alongside this, there is a need for more qualitative data on disability disclosure during and after higher education participation.

•         Further research and data on the experiences and outcomes of autistic graduates are urgently needed. A collaborative approach from sector bodies, higher education institutions and employers is vital, and all work must centre the voices of autistic students and graduates.

•         Higher education institutions should review their long-term employability support for recent graduates to help mitigate any additional barriers to successful graduate transition and prioritise support for disabled graduates to prevent the compounding of existing inequalities of outcome.

Wonkhe have a blog from the authors: There is still an unacceptable gap in employment outcomes for disabled graduates | Wonkhe:

  • The pipeline is not so much leaky as blocked, to the detriment of our society. The barriers that disabled graduates, and the wider disabled population, experience in seeking, securing and maintaining good work are significant, varied and complex. Disabled people are often actively excluded from employment, directly or indirectly, as illustrated by the overall disability employment gap.
  • It is also worth remembering that our new research projects only focus on accessing work. Once in work, disabled people continue to experience inequality, with the disability pay gap currently standing at 13.8 per cent. There is a long way to go here.

Loan forgiveness for nursing students

As covered in the last update, there is a challenge with recruitment to nursing courses.

MillionPlus and the Royal College of Nursing have written to the Chancellor ahead of the budget

  • To fulfil the ambitious goals outlined in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, the annual intake of nursing students needs to average 29,000 between 2023 and 2031, solely to meet the NHS’s staffing requirements. Universities, and in particular modern universities who train around 70% of new nurses, stand ready to meet this challenge. However, the current pipeline, represented by the 2023/24 nursing student cohort, stands at only 22,470, highlighting a significant shortfall. To further complicate matters, current recruitment efforts primarily rely on overseas professionals, posing long-term sustainability challenges for the NHS. Further compounding this critical situation, university admission figures reveal a worrying 26% decline in nursing applications over the past two years, making a bad situation worse.
  • The burden of student debt coupled with real terms cuts in maintenance grants for nursing students act as significant disincentives for talented individuals to pursue this vital career path. These financial pressures are part of a vicious cycle of understaffing, ultimately jeopardising the quality of care delivered by our NHS.
  • To address this critical challenge, we urge you to seize the opportunity presented by the Spring Budget and invest in a loan forgiveness model for nursing graduates working in public services

Research Professional have the story.

And it seems there is public support for this: A YouGov poll: MillionPlus has a blog:

  • MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, has today commented (5 March) on polling by YouGov which shows overwhelming public backing for a fee loan forgiveness scheme for nurses.
  • In total, three quarters (76%) of the public backed the measure in polling conducted by YouGov ahead of Wednesday’s budget. Support for the policy was shown by all age groups, with those 65+ most in favour (78%). The scheme received majority support from the voters of all three main parties (Con, 73%, Lab, 89%, Lib Dem, 79%).

International: Falling international recruitment

Government data published on 29th February includes numbers of sponsored study visas.

These students are expected to leave the UK: Analysis from the Migrant journey: 2022 reportshows that most foreign students do not remain in the UK indefinitely. Around 4 in 5 of those arriving on study routes had expired leave 5 years later. Since 2007, fewer than 10% of people who came to study in the UK had indefinite leave to remain 10 years later (compared to over 20% who came for work and over 80% for family reasons). The recent introduction of the Graduate route and other factors may change the proportion of students who stay on in the UK, which will be monitored in due course through the annual migrant journey reports.

This Wonkhe blog predicts this decline will continue: the change of rules on dependants will be part of it, but so also is cost of living for all these students, especially dramatically for Nigeran applicants given the changes in the value of the Nigerian currency which have made the UK a very expensive place to be.

And this one makes very worrying reading in terms of the impact of all this.: Will international recruitment fall even further? | Wonkhe.

HE sector sustainability and change

Outreach work

For a long time the sector has been pushed to do more with schools, not to support recruitment but to improve attainment for students in those schools.  At one point there was a suggestion that all universities should be required to sponsor schools.  A policy update from November 2017 has this:

  • At the UUK Access and Student Success summit on Tuesday a Government representative made clear that broader (and effective) forms of partnership working are welcome but that they expect more universities to be involved in a school sponsorship style model.
  • Background: In December 2016 the Government made clear that they expected universities to be more interventionist proposing that all universities sponsor or set up a school in exchange for charging higher HE tuition fees. The Schools that work for everyone consultation garnered responses to the Government’s aim to harness universities’ expertise and resources to drive up attainment through direct involvement. When the snap election was announced the school sponsorship agenda featured in the Conservative’s manifesto. However, recently there has been little additional push from Government.
  • Working quietly in the wings throughout this period, OFFA have been urging institutions to make progress against a more diluted version of the Government’s aim – that universities take measures to support school pupils’ attainment and increase school collaboration through the Fair Access Agreements

The analysis of responses to the consultation showed that the sector did not universally welcome this approach:

  • The consultation received a wide range of suggestions for how universities can best support school level attainment. This included support for students, support for teachers and support for schools in primary, secondary and further education. However, while the idea of school support was broadly welcomed, not all agreed that traditional, formal, academy sponsorship arrangements should be prioritised over other forms of school engagement.…
  • In addition to the specific questions asked in the consultation, some respondents raised concerns about higher education institutions being required to sponsor schools and support attainment in schools. These included some uncertainty about the extent to which universities’ sponsorship will guarantee improvements in attainment, caution about the impact the policy would have on other methods of engagement, and opposition to tuition fees in general. …
  • … the consultation received over 2,600 suggestions for how academic expertise at universities could help improve school-level attainment. Suggestions could be categorised into three broad areas: support for pupils; support for schools; and support for teachers. These respondents said that universities had a role to play in supporting primary, secondary and further education, and often cited multiple types of support suggesting that it is important that universities make a contribution across a number of different fronts simultaneously. However, higher education institutions and their representative bodies were opposed to a prescriptive approach – for example school sponsorship – due to concerns that this would limit the number of schools that are supported, and the number of pupils reached, compared to the diverse approaches currently taken.

The outcome from the consultation from 2016 referred to above was published in 2018.  On this question it concluded: The Government endorses this guidance [from the Office for Students, about Access and Participation plans] and expects more universities to come forward to be involved in school sponsorship and establishing free schools, although support need not be limited to those means. What is important is that institutions can clearly demonstrate the impact their support is having on schools and pupils.

Since then the guidance on access and participation has changed several times as has the Director for Fair Access.  In this Insight Brief from April 2022 we were told:

  • The government has signalled that it expects ‘to see the whole higher education sector stepping up and taking a greater role in continuing to raise aspirations and standards in education’. Money spent by universities on access and participation should be ‘used effectively and in line with evidence to deliver real social mobility’…
  • In the next phase of the Uni Connect programme, we are expecting partnerships to develop evidence-informed collaborative approaches to raise attainment in local state secondary schools, acting as a broker, drawing on the resources and input of local higher education providers. We expect them to continue to engage schools and colleges to deliver higher education outreach with the aim of supporting young people to make informed choices about their options in relation to the full range of routes into and through higher education, including through apprenticeships.

So now we hear from Public First, commissioned by the OfS to review UniConnect.  The report is here.

•         There is a strong underlying case for some form of centrally funded programme to encourage and deliver high quality collaborative outreach.

o   Collaborative outreach has been a feature of the system in England for more than two decades. Uni Connect is the latest of five (or depending on how we count it, six) centrally funded collaborative outreach programmes in that time.

o   The literature review conducted as part of this review reveals a strong case in principle for collaborative outreach over and above action which might be taken by individual HEIs.

§  Because HEIs have incentive to focus outreach activity on recruiting students to their own institution, especially students who are statistically more likely to attend and perform well throughout and beyond their courses. This would damage equality of opportunity for students that are currently underrepresented.

§  Because regulatory requirements to address this risk through Access and Participation Plans are still likely to incentivise individual action by universities, and thus lead to inefficacy, duplication of effort and gaps in outreach for some places and groups of students.

§  Because such collective action is likely to require additional funding since it is unlikely to be offered voluntarily at scale.

•         At their best, collaborative outreach programmes can be transformative for individuals and provide the ‘connective tissue’ that strengthens higher education access within regions and nationally.

•         Uni Connect could be more consistently effective and impactful.

o   National gaps in access to higher education between the most and least advantaged students have not narrowed during the lifetime of Uni Connect – and there is little evidence at a macro level of a reduction in the participation gap between Uni Connect target areas and the rest of the country

•         There is evidence of several reasons for Uni Connect not consistently delivering to its potential.

Research Professional have the story.

  • The reports find that “for many in higher education, and in Uni Connect partnerships themselves, the new focus on attainment-raising represents a further dilution of Uni Connect’s mission and an expansion into work that sits outside partnerships’ core competencies”.
  • For schools, this new direction “has been a poorly explained (and even outright unwelcome) incursion into work they view as their own core competency”, the consultancy adds.
  • John Blake, director of fair access and participation at the OfS, said: “As you can imagine, that was pretty hard reading for me, but I’ve spent two years telling people that you can’t just have the evidence you like—you have to pay attention to the evidence you don’t,” he said.
  • Blake added that he wasn’t about to “surrender my belief that what happens in earlier phases of education makes a difference to higher education, because that seems to be unarguable”. However, he did say that today’s reports had given him pause for thought about the best approach to that issue.

So maybe there will be a change in approach?

Franchising investigation

I explained last week the background to the public accounts committee investigation into franchised provision and specifically into student loan fraud linked to franchisees. I listened to some of the oral hearing session with the OfS and others and the transcript is here.  I’ve set out quite a lot because it is interesting, not specifically in relation to the particular fraud problem at the relevant institutions, but because of the perspective on the system and the sector as a whole.  Fascinating.

The committee started with an explanation of how student loan finance works and a focus on how much it costs the student (this set the tone for some of what came later): the Chair asked: “What assessment have you made of the affordability of student loan debt—for example, in the context of the cost of living or the affordability of housing –when setting repayment terms such as the interest rates and the length of loans? This is a huge burden that we are saddling youngsters with. I know from one of my employees that it makes a huge difference, when you are applying for a mortgage later on in life, if you are still saddled with this huge debt.”  Then there was a long discussion about defining the question, which was really what the actual debt is (i.e. over the lifetime of the loan with interest) and what is repaid and Susan Acland-Hood of the DfE had to agree to provide the data separately.

Then they went straight in with “what assurance can you give us that you are taking the fraud and abuse of student funding seriously?”.   The answer from Susan Acland-Hood was that the DfE are doing a lot, of course, but for this purpose the definition of “abuse” given was broad.

  • There are three risks that are different but related to each other.
    • There is an individual fraud risk, where somebody is trying to defraud the taxpayer of money that could be paid out in, typically, student maintenance payments—individuals who claim to be studying when they are not or who are trying to defraud the system.
    • You then have a related set of risks around something that is a bit more like misuse or mis-selling—people trying to persuade students, who themselves are more genuine than the fraudulent ones at this end, that they should engage in higher education, but where the principal aim is about gathering tuition fee payments. There may be less curiosity and interest, to put it mildly, from providers in whether what they are delivering is of really good quality.
    • Then you have a set of concerns around poor quality provision, which might not be from any bad intent, but is not serving students as well as it should be.

There was a long discussion about failures of the OfS. DfE and the SLC to talk to each other about the actual fraud case that is discussed in the NAO report on the fraud.  They all said that they are now sharing information more effectively.  The OfS spoke about the work they have done to impose additional reporting requirements on some providers and the formal investigation that was published last week.

The Chair asked another straightforward question “Why are the course outcomes poorer for those franchised higher education providers?”.  The OfS explained the B3 licence conditions on student outcomes and how they are benchmarked according to student demographics and the subjects that they are studying.

And, as we know:

  • We have been escalating our casework on those student outcomes cases over the past year. That work has covered some of these providers, but, as colleagues have said, for the next cycle, we are going to prioritise looking at the outcomes for students who are studying through those franchised arrangements, to make sure that we are having a really good look at what is happening for them and at the detail of the outcomes in particular partnerships for particular providers.

There was a conversation about guidelines for the use of agents and financial incentives.  Susan Acland-Hood confirmed:

  • We have been talking to the sector about agents. Universities UK has worked to introduce the UK agent quality framework, which is designed to make sure that agents are being well used in the system. Agents have a positive role to play but need to be operating responsibly and acting in a way that is genuinely in students’ interests. On the back of more recent reports, we have also started a rapid investigation into the use of agents, both domestically and internationally, in order to protect students’ interests. Alongside that, Universities UK has committed to reviewing the agent quality framework and updating the admissions code of practice to make clear how that applies, particularly to students studying foundation degrees, which is one of the focuses of recent attention. There have also been commitments from others in the sector that they will make sure that they abide by the updated agent quality framework when it is produced

And Susan Lapworth for the OfS said:

  • We have seen, for instance, weaknesses in the internal control environment for the lead providers, suggesting that they do not have the grip that we would expect over the recruitment activity of those delivery partners, including where agents are used. We have monitored the actions that those lead providers are taking to resolve those internal control issues. More broadly, we are always clear for these sorts of providers, as well as for all providers that we regulate, that they are subject to consumer protection law. …More recently, we have entered into a partnership with National Trading Standards, which is able to enforce consumer law. We are referring cases to them to show that we are serious when we say that compliance is not optional in this sector.

There was a discussion about the financial sustainability of the sector.

Then a really interesting point about the funding arrangements for franchise provision:

  • Chair: …When I and other members of the Committee read this, it made our blood absolutely boil. It is the bit that clearly you know only too well. It is about the amount of deductions that can take place when lead providers have franchise arrangements. You pay the student loan to the lead provider, but the lead provider, as the report says, can deduct between 12.5% and 30%. 30% can be deducted. The poor student who is taking out the loan does not even know anything about it. That is completely unacceptable, is it not? Even the worst credit cards only take 19%. That is completely unacceptable. They do not know the deduction even exists.
  • Susan Acland-Hood: Just to be clear, that is a deduction from the tuition fee amount, not from maintenance or other loans that would otherwise go into the student’s pocket. In a sense, it represents the value that the lead provider should be adding in making sure that the provision is of good quality. I would agree with you. Amounts at the upper end of that are interesting.
  • Chair: It is not interesting. I would put it to you that it is unacceptable. It is particularly unacceptable that the student is not being made aware of this. If I take out a mortgage, my financial provider has to provide every piece of information under the sun, including how much the introductory agent is being paid and how much that is worth over the term of the mortgage. Why are we not having more transparency in this area of student loans?
  • …Julia Kinniburgh from the DFE: At the moment, it is for the lead provider to think about the arrangement that they want to have with their franchisee, but it is questionable for that not to be transparent and open. That is one of the things where we want to think about whether we should take further action in that space
  • Chair: I put it to you that it is not questionable; it is egregious and it is wrong. I wonder what you can do to put it right.
  • …. Susan Lapworth: Yes, some of these figures have become visible to us as we have done the work that we talked about earlier. I agree that some of those numbers are quite shocking. Interestingly, there is also quite a range. Some are less shocking than others. Like DfE colleagues, we are concerned about what this might be telling us about the amount of that tuition fee payment, the £9,250 a year, that is being spent on making sure the courses are high quality as they are delivered to students. Those are the sharp questions that we have been posing for vice-chancellors. If the lead provider is taking that kind of percentage from the fee and the delivery provider is generating a profit or surplus from the enterprise, that squeezes down the amount of money that is being spent on students. That is of concern to us. ….
  • Chair: I hear all of that. Ms Acland-Hood, should this information be in the public domain so that every student applying for every course in the country can see what these deductions are? Sunlight is the best form of disinfectant; so is transparency. There is too much secrecy involved here. Why can we not make these arrangements fully transparent?
  • Susan Acland-Hood: As you are hearing, a lot of us think that would be a very sensible thing to do. It is under discussion with Ministers now.

Then there was a discussion about how to improve controls, mandatory registration of franchise providers etc.

A question was asked about providers who had been refused registration then becoming franchise providers: Susan Lapworth said that 20 providers have been refused registration and she was aware of 2 that had become franchise providers.

There was a discussion about monitoring attendance and engagement.

There is some published written evidence.  The UUK evidence refers to this last point about attendance and engagement:

  • We recommend that in following the NAO’s suggestion, if the Department for Education (DfE) is to develop further guidance on what constitutes meaningful engagement, that the DfE first consult with the sector to understand where there might be gaps in current approaches and where further guidance is necessary. We also recommend consideration is given to whether the OfS should lead this process, and how the regulator and government can work together with the sector on this issue to avoid the complexity of similar yet distinct expectations being created.

HE policy update 5: 26th February 2024

An interesting mixture of news: a look around through the eyes of the House of Lords library and a lengthy analysis of the differences between the 4 nations, a hopeful look forward through the UUK manifesto for the election, Research England are taking steps on spin-outs and there are serious concerns about abuse of franchised provision arrangements in some parts of the sector.  I also look at the latest developments in two sad cases of student deaths and what the might mean for the sector going forwards.  A look at Scottish and Welsh funding for HE just makes everyone scratch their heads more about how to make the numbers add up.

Politics and Parliament

Here’s something cheerful in the context of all the criticism of the sector: a House of Lords library briefing on the sector’s contribution to the economy and levelling up.  This has come out because there is a motion in the House of Lords in early March:  Lord Blunkett (Labour) to move that this House takes note of the contribution of higher education to national growth, productivity and levelling up.

As we were reminded by all this week’s chaos and anger about the Gaza motion and its various amendments, these “motions” have no actual force: they don’t directly lead to any action or decision, they are usually very party political in nature and it is not unusual for one party or another to decline to vote on them at all so that while they may be passed there is even less meaning to be taken from them.

That is not to say that they don’t have some impact: the debate itself can influence perceptions in the longer term and the briefings are always interesting. A reminder that briefings from the libraries of the House of Commons and the House of Lords are not party political: they are intended to be factual and to be used by all potential participants in the debate.  As such they provide a useful summary of the current state of affairs.

So to this one:

Citing a London Economics report for UUK in August 2023: Its analysis estimated that the ‘economic footprint’ of HE providers across the UK resulted in:

  • 768,000 full-time jobs
  • £71bn in terms of gross value added (GVA)
  • £116bn in terms of general economic output

And goes on to quote from the report: In addition to the large impact within the government, health, and education sector itself (£52.8bn of economic output), the activities of UK HE providers are estimated to generate particularly large impacts within the distribution, transport, hotels, and restaurants sector (£15.4bn), the production sector (£12.6bn), the real estate sector (£9.7bn), and the professional and support activities sector (£9.2bn).

Using a separate London Economics Report with HEPI and Kaplan International Pathways from May 2023 it also refers to findings about the contribution of international students: The average impact was highest for parliamentary constituencies in London (with an average net impact of £131mn per constituency, equivalent to £1,040 per resident). The average impact per parliamentary constituency in the North East and Scotland was estimated at £640 and £750 respectively per member of the resident population; between £500 and £510 per member of the resident population in the East and West Midlands, Northern Ireland, and Yorkshire and the Humber; and between £360 and £390 in the North West, South East, South West, the East of England, and Wales

There is a load of data about participation, and then this on outcomes, using the government’s graduate labour market statistics from June 2023

  • Looking at the labour market as a whole (therefore not just 2020/21 graduates), the government has identified better employment outcomes for graduates than non-graduates:[28]
  • In 2022, the employment rate for working-age graduates (those aged 16–64) was 87.3%, an increase of 0.6 percentage points on 2021 (86.6%). For working-age postgraduates, the employment rate was 89.3%, an increase of 1.1 percentage points on 2021 (88.2%). For working-age non-graduates, the employment rate was 69.6%, a decrease of 0.2 percentage points from 2021 (69.8%).
  • In 2022, 66.3% of working-age graduates were in high-skilled employment, compared to 78.3% of postgraduates and 23.6% of non-graduates.
  • In 2022, the median nominal salary for working-age graduates was £38,500. This was £11,500 more than working-age non-graduates (£27,000), but £6,500 less than working-age postgraduates (£45,000).

The paper goes on to talk about government policy, including its levelling up strategy, but also its policy statement from July 2023 which was the final response to the Augar review from 2019.  You’ll remember this one, it talked about promoting level 4 and 5 courses, applying student numbers controls to provision with “poor outcomes”, and proposed fee caps and loan limits for foundation years.  [You will also recall that this confirmed they would not go ahead with the minimum entry requirements that had been proposed].

In the context of international students, the paper notes the concerns about immigration and the recent changes to visa rules to prevent most students bringing their families to the UK.  Following some exciting stories in the press about entry standards (which were covered in the last update), the paper notes the recent announcement by UUK that they will review admissions practices for international students.

UUK has recently announced a review of admissions practices for international students following concerns that institutions were lowering admission standards to bolster recruitment and fees. This will include reviews of:

  • foundation programmes for international and domestic students
  • the agent quality framework, which provides tools and best practice guidance for when universities use agents to help recruit international students
  • the admissions code of practice, which sets out expectations for university processes

There’s an analysis of responses to the levelling up approach including a reference to a report by Lord Willetts from October 2023 which set out four groups of benefits that higher education can offer individuals and society.

It should be an interesting debate, and a useful reminder of the value of higher education.  Just don’t expect any policy changes as a result.

Universities UK manifesto

The UUK manifesto sets out a wish list for the sector.  It all looks very expensive and so while ambitious, unlikely to be replicated in anyone’s actual manifesto.  We can expect to see more of these over the next few months. Research Professional have the story here.

Future of apprenticeships:

An article in the FT by Alison Wolf calls for the percentage of the apprenticeship levy to be reduced, for it to be extended to smaller businesses and for limits what it can be used for.

Regional inequalities

In the meantime, the Education Policy Institute, along with a range of partners, have published a report Comparing policies, participation and inequalities across UK post-16 education and training landscapes.  This is an interim report and compares contexts, choices and outcomes across the 4 nations.  It’s a weighty piece and mostly about 16-18 education, but some highlights relevant to HE include:

  • The level of policy churn experienced within UK E&T is enormous and potentially damaging for all the individuals and institutions involved. Constant policy churn emphasises the view that the E&T system is at best flawed and at worst failing. This has the potential to harm the morale of staff and stakeholders involved in the system as well as negatively shaping the aspirations of young people and their families and their perceptions of different E&T pathways. ….[they may be talking about FE mostly here but this applies to HE too, and the impact of this washes through to post-18 education]
  • When we were able to look at socio-economic inequalities in access and outcomes, we observed gaping differences in educational outcomes from choices. Those from more disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely to achieve A level or equivalent qualifications, and less likely to achieve degree-level qualifications. As a result, they are then less likely to be in employment, will have lower earnings and less likely to be in professional occupations when they do enter the labour market. These inequalities are of similar size across all four nations, with just slightly higher university attendance amongst the most disadvantaged students in England.
  • Outcomes are particularly concerning in Wales, including “Welsh boys having the lowest levels of higher education participation

Recommendations are mostly about schools and FE not HE, but we would agree with this:

  • A new stable settlement is needed. In the short run, a new vision and policy approach for post-16 E&T may be needed. This will require political consensus within each nation on goals and ambitions that can be realised, well-funded institutions and structures, and a stable set of qualifications

In the section about funding it notes the divide between FE and HE (from p24):

  • Historically, the four nations have maintained a divided system that rests on a categorical distinction between academic and vocational knowledge and skills. This is rooted in entrenched class division and a perception of HE as a gateway to privilege, contributing to an esteem deficit for FE and negatively influencing young people’s choices (and their families’ perceptions of the sector) when considering available pathways to a good future. Arguably this restricts access and progression and emphasises differentiation and social selection at the expense of social inclusion and the needs of individual learners. …
  • However, the relationship between FE and HE has become increasingly blurred over the last decade. Universities have been increasingly encroaching on FE spaces through a variety of sub-degree level provision, including, but not limited to, foundation degrees while degree level qualifications are offered by some FE colleges, with degree apprenticeships sitting in a hybrid vocational-academic space….
  • As each attempts to operate in the others’ space, competitive behaviours are increased and colonisation, rather than quality or diversity of provision, becomes the de facto driver. ….

Research and knowledge exchange: Spinouts

You will recall that the government published alongside the Autumn Statement its response to the Independent Review of University Spin-out Companies.  The government said that it accepted all the recommendations of the review and would implement them all.  These were:

  • Government will work with universities to improve deal terms, data and transparency in the sector. This includes reporting on which universities have implemented the policies recommended by the review, creating a database of spin-out companies and supporting the sector to develop a full set of deal terms guidance for different sectors, including template term sheets….
  • We are providing £20 million for a new cross-disciplinary proof-of-concept research programme. Research England will review the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) to ensure commercialisation functions in universities are appropriately funded and incentivised. We will set up a pilot of shared technology transfer functions for universities….
  • Government will map and publish support services available to founders and develop proposals to fill gaps or improve support. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will ensure that all PhD students it funds have the option to attend high quality entrepreneurship training and increased opportunities to undertake internships in local spin-outs, venture capital firms or technology transfer offices. ….
  • Government will continue its work to support access to finance through the Long-term Investment for Technology and Science (LIFTS) scheme, establishing a new Growth Fund within the British Business Bank, delivering a new generation of British Business Bank Nations and Regions Investment Funds and extending British Patient Capital to 2033-34 with £3 billion of funding. The government will also continue to deliver the Mansion House reforms, including improvements to our capital markets. …
  • To support our ambition to make the UK’s Research, Development and Innovation landscape more open and navigable, the government will work with UKRI and the National Academies to develop opportunities to improve their fellowship offer for commercialisation, including the option of ‘academic returner’ fellows. ….

Research England have now set out how they are going to do all this.  There is a blog here.

  • They want universities to let them know if they have adopted the best practice policies ahead of a stock take at the end of 2024. The set of best practice policies will be published later in the Spring.  They don’t think this is relevant to very many providers.
  • HESA is going to consult in April 2023 on collecting additional data
  • Reviewing HEIF: not doing anything now as they have enough data for review, approach will be published in the Spring
  • Pilot of technology transfer arrangements: more to come in the Spring

And this: Our Connecting Capability Fund (CCF)-RED programme is our main approach to developing university commercialisation capability, through collaboration. We are shortly to publish our priority commercialisation themes for CCF-RED including a first opportunity to bid

Education: Subcontracted provision

In late January there was a National Audit Office report that triggered press interest into allegedly fraudulent outsourced providers of HE. It doesn’t name providers.  As a result there is a hearing at the Public Accounts Committee on 26th Feb.   More here from Wonkhe.

We already knew that subcontracted provision is one of the OfS priorities for quality assurance reviews this year but those quality assurance reviews are not usually announced in advance and we don’t believe that they have been kicked off for this year yet.

This week the OfS have announced a formal investigation into one university in relation to its subcontracted provision, looking at whether:

  • the courses delivered by sub contractual partners are high quality
  • the lead provider has effective management and governance in place for sub contractual partners
  • the lead provider has complied with the requirements relating to provision of information to the OfS

A Wonkhe article on the formal investigation: 22nd Feb 24 highlights the large proportion of subcontracted students at this provider.

Context from the NAO report:

  • Universities ….may create partnerships, also known as franchises, with other institutions to provide courses on their behalf. The … lead provider.. registers those students studying at their franchise partners, which allows them to apply for funding administered by the Student Loans Company (SLC).
  • Students may apply for loans covering tuition fees … and maintenance support …. Students normally repay these loans, including accrued interest, once they have finished studying and are earning above a certain amount. These loans represent a long-term liability to taxpayers if not repaid. …. during the 2022/23 academic year SLC made £1.2 billion of loans for tuition fees and maintenance for these [franchised] students.
  • Lead providers must be registered with the …OfS…, for their franchised provider’s students to be eligible for student funding. Franchised providers do not need to register. Lead providers retain responsibility for protecting all students’ interests, including teaching quality at franchised providers. They also confirm to SLC that students at their franchised providers are, and remain, eligible for student funding….

Summary findings:

  • …The number of students enrolled at franchised providers more than doubled from 50,440 in 2018/19 to 108,600 in 2021/22. Much of this expansion has been in a relatively small number of providers, with eight of the 114 lead providers responsible for 91% of the growth. Despite this increase, in 2021/22 those studying at franchised providers represented a small proportion, 4.7%, of the total student population…
  • ….Government intended the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA) to encourage providers to join the sector and improve innovation, diversity and productivity. DfE considers that franchising helps widen access to higher education. In 2021/22, 57,470 out of 97,000 (59%) students from England studying at franchised providers were from neighbourhoods classed as high deprivation, compared with 40% of students at all providers
  • …As a lead provider retains responsibility for a franchised provider’s compliance with these standards for their students, there is no statutory or regulatory obligation on franchised providers to register with OfS. In 2021/22, 229 (65%) of the 355 franchised providers were not registered
  • …Lead providers share fees with their franchised providers, the amount varying according to their contractual arrangements. OfS does not have detailed knowledge of these arrangements but, where it has, told us that some lead providers retained between 12.5% and 30% of tuition fee payments…
  • …We have seen that some providers use agents or offer financial incentives to recruit students, activities which government does not prohibit or regulate. Government does not know how many providers use these practices, but those we have seen are used by franchised providers. One scheme offered students rewards for referring other people to the provider, with no limit on the number of referrals. There are no regulations to prohibit or regulate these practices, which may present risks to taxpayers’ and students’ interests. Students who sign up in response to incentives may be vulnerable to mis-sold loans, while also being potentially less likely to make repayments…
  • …Over the past five years trend data show that, at franchised providers, detected fraud cases have increased faster than the proportion of SLC-funded students. In 2022/23, 53% of the £4.1 million fraud detected by SLC by value was at franchised providers
  • …Routine analysis by SLC detected suspicious patterns of activity involving franchised provider students across four lead providers. Further investigation by SLC raised concerns across a total of 10 lead providers. Following a request from SLC, DfE instructed SLC to suspend payment of tuition fees while cases under suspicion were investigated. This led to SLC identifying and challenging 3,563 suspicious applications associated with £59.8 million of student funding, with 25% of this money still withheld as at January 2023…
  • …In May 2022 a lead provider disclosed to OfS, as required by its registration conditions, that it suspected widespread academic misconduct at one of its franchised providers and was undertaking investigations. Following investigation the lead provider withdrew the majority of the then 1,389 students enrolled at the franchised provider. SLC has recovered £6.1 million in respect of the tuition funding provided to withdrawn students. OfS has clawed back £172,600 of its grant funding paid to the provider in respect of these students. To date, DfE and OfS have not imposed other sanctions on providers…
  • …There is insufficient evidence that students are attending and engaging with their courses. In determining a student’s eligibility for loan payments, and before making payments, SLC uses lead providers’ data to confirm students’ attendance. Lead providers self-assure their own data, also having responsibility for the accuracy of their franchised providers’ information. There is no effective standard against which to measure student engagement, which attendance helps demonstrate, and there is no legal or generally accepted definition of attendance…
  • …Given SLC’s concerns about potentially fraudulent student loan claims, OfS required several lead providers to commission independent audits of their franchised provider controls and data submissions. This identified controls weaknesses. In October 2023, OfS announced that, for the first time, it would consider whether registered providers had franchise arrangements when deciding where to focus its work assessing student outcomes
  • DfE is consulting stakeholders on potential changes to how providers are regulated. SLC has undertaken a ‘lessons learned’ exercise which proposed recommendations that need to be taken forward by other bodies, including OfS and DfE. …. DfE told us there had been discussions on potential policy options with representative bodies and universities with a large proportion of franchised provision…

There are some interesting articles from the last year here:

  • A Wonkhe article from June 2023 that chillingly refers to “legal threats aimed at silencing the discussion
  • A Wonkhe article on what better regulation might look like: June 2023
  • Wonkhe on the OfS priorities for quality reviews: October 23
  • Wonkhe piece on the NAO report: Jan 2024
  • A comment piece on Wonkhe on law regulation: January 2024

A HEPI paper from this week suggested some ways forward, describing what one provider (Buckinghamshire New University) already does and concluding: “We believe the solution is a strong sector-wide and sector-owned code of practice that requires higher education institutions to work together in the wider interests of students and stakeholders, including government and regulators. This would see higher education institutions establish effective consortia for each franchisee, simplifying and coordinating the multiple demands they place on franchisees, and strengthening the requirements to enhance quality and promote stability”.

Duty of care

There has been a long running campaign by bereaved parents, politicians and others to impose a “duty of care” on universities in relation to students with mental health issues, sometimes described as similar to universities being “in loco parentis” for students.  The stories are always terribly sad and this is a difficult area, especially as students are adults and sometimes do not want to engage with university services or staff on these issues, and sometimes don’t want to involve their parents either.   A little bit of clarity is emerging as a result of two recent cases.  There is no legal duty of care (whatever that means) yet, but there is discussion about a responsibility on staff to “notice” and also about a duty to ensure that process and procedures don’t get in the way of reasonable adjustments.

This debate will continue: the government is pushing all universities to sign up to the University Mental Health Charter (BU has) and the OfS is also undertaking work on this.  The government have a taskforce led by Professor Edward Peck, and I reported on their first stage report in the last policy update: you can find that report here and the policy update from 5th Feb here.  It is a complex area but one where there will certainly be a lot more changes in approach to come: including potentially OfS licence conditions in the future.

I noted last time the recent coroner’s report into a student death at the University of Southampton.  This Wonkhe article from January covers the story.

  • Like so many students [Matthew Wickes] was diagnosed after he began on his course, and did not disclose his condition to the university – and so formal codified reasonable adjustments were not able to be put in place.
  • But despite the lack of disclosure, [the Coroner] does raise concerns about the “level of awareness, understanding and curiosity” of academic staff around the mental health of students – particularly in the post-pandemic climate – where “interruptions to their study and dysregulated student life have had a significant impact on their mental health”. The message seems to be – it was likely that there would be significant, long lasting mental health impacts from Covid and its lockdowns, which ought to have generated a strategic response in terms of staff capacity to recognise them.
  • There is a thread in this and similar cases that is about capacity to “notice”. [The Coroner] noted the university’s processes for “raising a concern” by academic staff through student hubs, and the university talked in the inquest about a new “early warning system” involving triggers around academic absence or changes in study or support behaviours. But [the Coroner]’s worry was more basic: I am concerned that in not ensuring that academic staff are at least armed with the ability to spot or to know when to make initial enquiries of students or are clearly guided on how best to do so (particularly with regard to an understanding of the needs and skills required to liaise with students with neurodiversity), there is a risk that an over-focus on academic policies and procedures will endure and that those students who are struggling to adhere to them will be missed or overlooked.
  • For example, during the inquest the university had said that all staff were offered training on mental health management and provided with guidance on how to support students. But [the Coroner] said: I am concerned that aspects of this are not made compulsory for academic staff … It remains unclear as to who or how many staff have actually viewed or undertaken the online training around student mental health.
  • …But while the coroner isn’t saying that all staff or all personal tutors should be counsellors or mental health experts, he is effectively saying that all students ought to be able to expect that the staff that teach and support them have a basic level of awareness and competency over student mental health.
  • Even if an issue is identified, Wilkinson identified concerns with the interventions in place (particularly for neurodiverse students given an apparent focus on group based interventions) and also discussed concerns over the existence, frequency and accuracy of the recording and minuting of academic meetings with students: It was of concern to me that the university was unable to locate or provide clear minutes of supervisory catch ups, progress checks or agreed guidance or actions for Matthew. It was of further concern that the academic staff supporting and mentoring him in his third year had not provided written evidence of his progress or agreed minutes of actions etc to him.

The next case relates to the University of Bristol.  Again, Wonkhe have the story.

  • Natasha’s father, Robert Abrahart, brought a legal action against the university alleging it had contributed to his daughter’s death by discriminating against her on the grounds of Disability contrary to the Equality Act 2010, and by breaching a duty of care owed her under the law of negligence.
  • In May 2022, a senior County Court Judge, Alex Ralton, ruled that the university discriminated against Natasha and that this contributed to her death. Ralton found that the university had breached its duty to make reasonable adjustments to the way it assessed Natasha, engaged in indirect Disability discrimination against Natasha, and treated Natasha unfavourably because of the consequences of her Disability.
  • But Ralton did not find that the university owed Natasha a common law duty of care. The High Court has now considered both an appeal from the university, and a cross-appeal on the duty of care issue.
  • The university’s appeal challenged the court’s finding that the university breached the duty to make reasonable adjustments, and challenged the court’s finding that the university breached section 15 of the Equality Act 2010 (discrimination arising from Disability). Both areas failed.
  • …the university … failed in its argument that…the assessment of a student’s ability to explain laboratory work orally, to defend it and to answer questions on it was “a core competency of a professional scientist” and so not subject to the duty to make reasonable adjustments.
  • …The appeal judge …overall found that the County Court’s judgement – that the university’s reliance on due process and medical evidence before making adjustments did not outweigh its duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments – was sound, particularly given its awareness of Natasha’s challenges and the impact on her ability to participate in oral assessments.
  • Crucially, [the appeal judge] didn’t disagree with the County Court in rejecting the university’s arguments that it lacked sufficient knowledge or expertise as a defence for its inaction – and found that the university’s internal regulations and policies, while important, “must yield” to the legal requirements to accommodate students with disabilities. In fact, the procedures, in practice, became another barrier to making necessary adjustments.
  • ….The university had argued that “legitimate aims” were rigorous assessment and fairness among all students and that that hadn’t been properly considered. That wasn’t washing with [the appeal judge]. Finding the original judgment’s findings to be permissible, he concluded that if complying with the duty to make reasonable adjustments would have resulted in Natasha attending and potentially performing better, then the marks and penalty points ascribed to her (which were, after all, based on her non-attendance or performance in the unmodified assessments) could not be deemed proportionate.

The response from the University of Bristol is here.

Harassment and sexual misconduct

A year since the OfS launched their consultation on their new approach to this, we are still waiting for the outcome: the consultation closed in May 2023.  There’s an anniversary HEPI blog on the issues, which are complex and contested: perhaps why it is taking the OfS so long to reach a conclusion.

International

Recent updates have talked about the conflicting rhetoric on international students: Lord Jo Johnson has written in the FT with a plan to sort out the problem.  Nice try; but the first two seem unlikely to catch on:

  • First, Westminster must fix the funding crisis. With domestic fees frozen for all but one of the last 10 years, universities lose money teaching home undergraduates. The government must inflation-proof fees, ideally by linking increased funding to outcomes and aligning interests of universities, taxpayers and students. Such a mechanism exists in the Higher Education and Research Act and was used in 2017 to lift fees to £9,250. Institutions that deliver great outcomes, as assessed by the Teaching Excellence Framework, should once again be allowed to raise fees in line with inflation.
  • Second, the government should ensure the Office for National Statistics only counts international students as net migration when they stay on post-study. In this framework, they would be included in migration figures when they transfer from the student visa to a graduate route or work visa. Otherwise, they would be treated as temporary residents or tourists.
  • Third, universities would commit to ensuring that entry requirements for international students are comparable to those for domestic ones. This can be measured using the actual grades held by those who have accepted offers. And it should, in theory, be a low-cost commitment, as universities claim to be doing it already.
  • Fourth, universities would commit to transparency on effective entry requirements. This means publishing the distribution of actual grades held by those accepted, broken down by course and domicile, as opposed to just the advertised entry requirements. There is often a wide difference between the two. This would, additionally, be a game-changer for widening access for disadvantaged domestic students, who will see that they have a chance of admission to many institutions with lower grades than advertised. [this is part of the UUK fair admissions code anyway]
  • Finally, the government should require every institution recruiting international students to provide an annual statement to the Office for Students. This should detail plans for the international student body, broken down by domicile and programme. Greater visibility into institutional recruitment is needed to reassure domestic stakeholders that international students are not crowding out domestic ones. 

Student numbers and admissions

There has been concern about falling numbers taking up healthcare courses, recently.  This story on Research Professional notes the fall in nursing applications.

Research Professional noted that some of the mission groups have written to the Secretaries of State for Education and Health calling for a cross government taskforce.  You can read the letter via the University Alliance website here.

The mission groups argue the taskforce would:

  • bring together representatives from the Department for Education and the Department for Health and Social Care to meet alongside representatives from NHS England, health regulators, local government and higher education providers.
  • effectively co-ordinate activity to bolster student recruitment, work to find ways of increasing the capacity of clinical placements and medical school places, and develop strategies to ensure the recruitment and retention of staff.
  • help realise the Long-Term Plan’s ambitious targets for degree apprenticeships, and to tackle the low funding and high regulatory burden associated with delivering them.

Universities UK have issued a report on why students may not go ahead, based on a survey.

The future for student funding under a possible Labour government: the Welsh model?

As we have described before, we know very little about what a potential Labour government would do about HE funding: they want to make it both fairer and more affordable, they are not keen on capping ambition and reducing numbers, but there is no more money.  The only thing we do know is that they are interested in what is happening in Wales on post-16 regulation.  And it seems likely that they would improve maintenance funding, at least a bit.

So in that context this HEPI blog is interesting.  HEPI are doing a tour and holding events this Spring to talk about how funding works across the UK and how it could be changed: I will report the outcomes.

And the Scottish model?

The IfS have published a report on the Scottish budget for higher Education Spending.

  • …. Unlike in the rest of the UK (where students are charged tuition fees), the Scottish Government meets the whole costs of teaching, and has controlled these costs in recent years by controlling the number of places for Scottish students and freezing per-student resources. Funding per student per year of study has fallen by 19% in real terms since 2013–14 and, as a result, Scottish universities are increasingly reliant on international student fees.
  • A cut to higher education resource funding … was announced at the Scottish Budget for 2024–25. This is a cash-terms cut of 6.0…. This implies that funding for home students will fall, with the Scottish Funding Council (which allocates funding to universities) trading off a further squeeze on per-student resources with potential cuts to the number of funded places.
  • Around £600 million is provided in the form of living cost support to students each year, the vast majority in the form of living cost loans (£500 million), alongside non-repayable bursaries of up to £2,000 per year for the poorest students. Living cost support has become less generous over time, with total support for the poorest students declining in real terms by 16% (£1,600 per year) between 2013–14 and 2022–23…..
  • A £900 cash increase in loan entitlements this academic year, in response to cost of living pressures, was the first real-terms increase in support since at least 2013–14. A much bigger increase of £2,400 per year is planned for next academic year. This delivers the Scottish Government’s commitment to provide a total package of student support ‘the equivalent of the Living Wage’ by 2024–25. The earnings threshold above which Scottish borrowers make student loan repayments is also set to increase in April 2024…. If there was full take-up of living cost support, these changes would increase average lifetime loan repayments in real terms by around £5,000, and increase average loan write-offs by around £3,400 per student.
  • Importantly, the costs of issuing loans to Scottish students, and of any eventual loan write-offs, are currently met by the UK government. Increases in generosity of support or in repayment terms for Scottish borrowers of the type planned for 2024–25 come at no cost to the Scottish Government’s main budget so long as this funding arrangement continues.
  • This system costs the Scottish Government around £850 million more per cohort (£28,700 more per student) than the English system would. From this spending, Scottish graduates on average gain £23,800 (largely through lower borrowing and loan repayments), and the UK taxpayer gains £4,900 per student in the form of lower loan write-offs.

Research Professional have the story here.

Freedom of speech

The implementation of the new legislation on freedom of speech continues.  A new blog on the OfS website reminds us of where we are and of what is to come.

  • A reminder that we are currently consulting on our new free complaints scheme that we expect to launch on 1 August 2024. Students, staff and visiting speakers will be able to complain to us about restrictions on free speech at a university, college or relevant students’ union where they claim to have suffered adverse consequences. Under our proposals, if we find the complaint justified, we may make recommendations such as changes to policies or processes or payments to the complainant. Our consultation is open until 10 March 2024.
  • We have also been developing our proposed approach to the regulation of students’ unions in relation to their new free speech duties. This will be the first time the OfS directly regulates students’ unions and we expect our new role to take effect from 1 August 2024. We’re consulting on our proposals and this consultation is open until 17 March 2024.
  • In the coming weeks we expect to launch a further freedom of speech consultation. This will cover proposed guidance for universities, colleges and relevant students’ unions on securing free speech within the law and on publishing and maintaining a freedom of speech code of practice. At the same time, we will also consult on proposed revisions to the OfS’s regulatory framework to make reference to our new free speech functions. Finally, we will consult on our proposed approach to the recovery of costs in connection with our regulation in this area.

 

Open Call for HEIF Knowledge Exchange Project Applications 2024

Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) February 2024 Open Call

HEIF funding is now available for innovative Knowledge Exchange projects.

Research England provide universities with funding for knowledge exchange (Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF)) to enable them to support and develop a broad range of knowledge-based interactions and work with business, public and third sector organisations, community bodies and the wider public, to exchange knowledge and increase the economic and societal benefit from their work.

The primary purpose of the funding is to support a small number of projects which can include:

  • significant projects that are underway and require a further injection of funds;
  • existing knowledge exchange projects to develop these ideas to the next stage of development;
  • projects with ambition that require a seed funding, capacity building, proof-of-concept or launchpad (please note that follow-up funding to support further development of your successfully funded HEIF-projects will be available to apply for in the 2024-25 academic cycle; we encourage applications for this call as an opportunity to kick-start your work).

The HEIF FEBRUARY 2024 OPEN CALL fund supports the ambition of the UK Government’s Plan for Growth to support and incentivise creative ideas and technologies that will shape the UK’s future. Further developing BU’s work in this area will also enable us to support UKRI’s aims to support cooperation and collaboration, as well as developing our academic talent. The aim is to provide a platform for academics to take their knowledge exchange ideas to the next stage of development or to completion.

If you would like to discuss your application or your project’s eligibility, there will be a drop in session on Thursday 29th between 1pm – 2.30pm in the Reception Area of Dorset House (BUBS). Or you can contact Dr Wendelin Morrison, the Knowledge Exchange Manager by email wsmorrison@bournemouth.ac.uk

Key details

Amount: This year, £50000 of BU’s HEIF grant will be allocated through this open call, to support up to 6 knowledge exchange and innovation projects.

Timeframe: Projects should span a maximum of 4 months. The funds awarded must be spent by 31 July 2024.

Closing date: Friday, 8 March 2024

The link to the Guidance and Application form is below – please ensure you DOWNLOAD a copy to your own computer and do not edit directly on the SharePoint: HEIF February 2024 Open Call.docx

HE policy update 22nd January 2024

This seemed like a good moment to explain what the Lifelong Learning Entitlement is really about and what it means for universities (spoiler: a lot of administrative work and not much else, in the short term), and this update also includes some horizon scanning by UKRI, some data on staff numbers and applications and a bit more on financial sustainability, as hard to get away from in stories about the sector this month.  And there is more besides.

Politics and Parliament

Lots of time spent this week on the Rwanda bill, with work for local MP Michael Tomlinson in his new role as Illegal Immigration Minister. The two deputy chairs of the Conservative Party resigned their roles yesterday along with a PPS but the Rwanda bill was passed unamended and has gone to the Lords where there will be more challenges.

Meanwhile it isn’t a manifesto but there is a campaign brochure from the Labour Party.   It says “we will be able to seize the opportunities of advances in AI, digital, life sciences and technology as drivers of economic growth”.  It presents again the 5 missions we discussed in issue 1 of this update. On education: this is the closest to a reference to HE: there simply aren’t enough high-quality pathways onto apprenticeships, and technical education. So we will have to keep waiting for the detail.

And if you missed it, constituency boundaries change for this election.  There were originally going to be major changes locally but those were dropped in the last round of reviews, so not much is changing here.  However, there might be implications elsewhere: there is a BBC article here.  One point to note is that Chris Skidmore stood down on environmental issues and there is a by-election planned in February: but his constituency is one of those disappearing.

Ongoing legislation

Research and knowledge exchange

Business and innovation

UKRI have published a position statement on their “commitment to improve the research and innovation environment for businesses seeking to scale up, through enhancing the support that we offer alongside private capital to help them invest, innovate and grow”.

As well as confirming some of the things they already do they will be:

  • launching a new digital guide to help businesses, along with investors and researchers, to make the most of UKRI products and services to commercialise research
  • launching new £20 million proof-of-concept funding in 2024 to support researchers to spin out scientific discoveries into exciting new products and services
  • ensuring that UKRI’s core offer of training to new doctoral research students improves awareness and experience of commercialisation and entrepreneurship, building on existing opportunities that allow students to work with businesses
  • creating a joined-up funding pathway over 2024, working with the British Business Bank and UK Export Finance, to enhance access to finance for scaling businesses

The Science Minister, Michelle Donelan, gave a speech about “scaleups” on 16th January.  It has unicorns, silver bullets, powder kegs and goldmines.  There is a lot in in it apart from those theme park elements, but this bit caught my eye:

  • Regulate to innovate is not just some slogan that I happen to use – I think it is a commitment I make to businesses across the country. 
  • And that is why I am backing the Regulatory Horizons Council report, published today, and committing to reviewing the recommendations to become unapologetically ambitious in our regulatory approach. 
  • And that is also why this year, I will develop a regulatory support service specifically designed to help science and tech companies to navigate rules and regulations.  Because we know that regulation isn’t just about dry ink on the statute books. I believe the behaviour of our regulators and regulatory simplicity is absolutely key.  

What is the Regulatory Horizons Council?  The Regulatory Horizons Council (RHC) is an independent expert committee that identifies the implications of technological innovation, and provides government with impartial, expert advice on the regulatory reform required to support its rapid and safe introduction. Find the membership etc at the link.

Here is the report and its recommendations:

  • Recommendation 1: DSIT, working with the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) .. should ensure that regulators are empowered with the tools and resources to better support innovative startups and scaleups.
  • Recommendation 2: DSIT should work with relevant partners to embed a greater understanding of regulation, and earlier engagement with regulatory issues, within the early-stage business community.
  • Recommendation 3: Government and regulators should continue to build the knowledge base on pro-innovation regulation, and particularly the impacts on start-ups and scaleups.

Emerging technologies horizon scan

In December, UKRI published an insights report on Innovate UK’s 50 emerging technologies that could be part of our everyday lives in 2040 and beyond.

Although there are 50, the report is only 39 pages: the list is in the contents page (and it does briefly explain what they all are).  The world has been very focussed on the risks of new technology, AI in particular, in recent months, but this is a very hopeful list, focusing on the problems that can be solved rather than disruption and destruction.  The report does note the ethical challenges (in the context of AI in particular) and sets our five questions to consider:

  • As technology is more embedded in our bodies, will humans turn into something new and different? What makes us human will be increasingly questioned.
  • Should AI be allowed to make decisions on our behalf? All aspects of business and society will be transformed through AI and computing.
  • If humans can expect a century of good health, what does this mean for employment, pensions or housing? The quality and length of our lives will be greater than ever before.
  • Will a shift towards cleaner, affordable energy change the way we live and work? A transformed energy system could help new industries to thrive.
  • What will a vast expansion of our understanding of the world mean for the UK economy? The UK’s ability to draw on its research and business strengths will help us solve big problems and seize opportunities.

Quantum missions

In the context of the above, the government announced 5 “quantum missions” in November: there are likely to be more funding rounds for research and projects in these areas.

  • By 2035, there will be accessible, UK-based quantum computers capable of running 1 trillion operations and supporting applications that provide benefits well in excess of classical supercomputers across key sectors of the economy. 
  • By 2035, the UK will have deployed the world’s most advanced quantum network at scale, pioneering the future quantum internet. 
  • By 2030, every NHS Trust will benefit from quantum sensing-enabled solutions, helping those with chronic illness live healthier, longer lives through early diagnosis and treatment. 
  • By 2030, quantum navigation systems, including clocks, will be deployed on aircraft, providing next-generation accuracy for resilience that is independent of satellite signals. 
  • By 2030, mobile, networked quantum sensors will have unlocked new situational awareness capabilities, exploited across critical infrastructure in the transport, telecoms, energy, and defence sectors. 

And the other Horizon (Europe)

You can’t have missed it, but the UK is now an associate member of Horizon Europe from the start of 2024.  You can read more on the UKRI website here.  The Horizon Europe work programmes are listed here.

Small but beautiful

Research England have also announced the results of the second round of the “expanding excellence in England” fund. Research England is investing £156 million to support 18 universities across England to expand their small, but outstanding research units. The list of projects funded in round two (and round one from 2019) is here.

Regulation

These policy updates so far this year have included a lot of regulatory content, focussing on the OfS, but did you know that many other regulators may have an interest in aspects of education at universities, and this makes for a challenging and potentially burdensome situation.

Research Professional reports on an event sponsored by the Higher Education Policy Institute and AdvanceHE, which Keith attended this week, at which the VC of London South Bank University raised this issue:

  • Phoenix pointed out that if a level 4 or 5 course is taught as part of a degree, then it is regulated by the Office for Students, but if it is a standalone qualification such as a higher national certificate and taught in a college, it is overseen by Ofsted.
  • Similarly, if higher technical qualifications are taught in higher education, they are quality-assured by the OfS in universities but by Ofsted or Ofqual in further education, while level 4 apprenticeships are overseen by Ofsted regardless of where they are offered.

Of course it is even more complicated than that, as apprenticeship funding is overseen by the ESFA (the Education and Skills Funding Agency, part of the Department for Education), making them an important regulator for HE too.  If you haven’t heard of the ESFA, then here is what they do: it isn’t obvious from this that it includes degree apprentices delivered at universities; but it does.

As an executive agency of the Department for Education, and on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education, ESFA is responsible for administering funding to deliver education and skills, from early years through to adulthood.  

ESFA funds education and skills providers, including: 

  • maintained schools and early years institutions, through local authorities 
  • academy trusts 
  • special schools 
  • colleges 
  • independent training providers (ITPs) 
  • high needs institutions 

ESFA is responsible for: 

  • £67 billion of funding for the education and training sector, ensuring timely and accurate allocations and payment to education and training providers 
  • providing assurance to Parliament that public funds are spent properly, achieving value for money for the taxpayer and delivers the policies and priorities set out by the Secretary of State 
  • provides, where necessary, financial support for providers

Outstanding OfS consultations

Just a reminder of the ones that are ongoing or we are expecting outcomes on from the OfS:

  • Consultation on a new free speech complaints scheme: open until 10th March: BU is considering a response
  • Consultation on the approach to regulating students’ unions on free speech matters: open until 17th March
  • Consultation on the inclusion of higher technical qualifications in student outcome measures: closed November 2023
  • Consultation on a new approach to regulating harassment and sexual harassment-this one has been closed since May 23 so there should be an outcome soon

And two Department for Education ones:

Apprenticeships

In the last couple of updates I have mentioned the government focus on apprenticeships, which is being supported by funding provided by the OfS to support the development of new L6 apprenticeships.   On 17th January the outcome of the latest funding competition was announced, with £12 million being allocated.  The list is here (BU is on it).

Applications and admissions

UCAS have published the end of cycle 2023 data.

Sector:

  • Overall applicants fell in 2023, the peak was 2022
  • 18 year olds had grown (slowly in some years) since 2014 when this data starts until 2023 when the number fell back
  • More females than males applied in every age group

As well as the more general picture there is also data for nursing, which shows tor UK applicants there is a fall in application numbers for most age groups since 2021 but applications for 18 year olds and over 35s remain higher than they were in 2019, and the over 35s are now the biggest group, as they were in 2020 (and almost were in 2021).  The proportion of male applicants over 35 is also higher than the other groups.

Midwifery applications have also fallen since 2021 but remain higher than 2019 for 18 years olds and the over 35s, 18 year olds being by far the largest group with the over 35s just squeaking in at second.  The gender data is interesting: tiny numbers of male applicants.

Wonhke have an article and analysis: there are a little over a thousand more English domiciled applicants who have accepted a place at a Russell Group provider this year than last. Everyone else (excluding alternative providers) has lost accepted applicants over 2022, but (as UCAS is always keen to remind us) the “last regular year” comparison to 2019 looks a bit rosier. There are loads of charts and even a map.

Student experience, wellbeing and finances

Cost of living: This year’s updates have covered this ongoing issue; the Russell Group published a briefing this week on the impact of inflation on the maintenance loan and what their members are doing to help. The briefing also points out: The shortfall is compounded by the freeze on the parental earnings threshold used to calculate maintenance loans in England. Students with a household income of less than £25,000 are eligible for the maximum loan, but this figure has been frozen in cash terms since 2008. It is estimated that had this threshold increased with earnings, it would now sit at £35,000, making many more students eligible for the maximum support.

Lifelong loan entitlement

This has been a long running story and we have reported for several years on the various legislative changes and consultations but it all still seems a bit remote and confusing: the new funding system will be in place for entrants to HE from September 2025.

This is about two things, really:

  • putting funding arrangements for university degrees and other post 18 higher level courses on an equal footing; and
  • the “lifelong” bit: enabling flexible and modular learning including to support returning or mature learners

The real change is in the mechanics of funding for universities.  In preparation for modules and to support the “LLE personal accounts” the funding basis is switching to a system based on credits, not academic years.

Last week I talked about the OfS funded short course trial that had a microscopic take up.  I wonder if the public accounts committee will be interested in the cost/benefit of that £2m investment?

There’s a blog here that the OfS wrote in October 2024 on the changes for HE that the LLE will bring:

Over time, we think this will lead to some or all of the following changes:

  • Universities and colleges will offer standalone modules from existing courses
  • Students will be able to build a full qualification by completing different modules, across different courses, from different universities or colleges
  • Students could end up studying at several universities or colleges at the same time, or across multiple departments in a single higher education provider
  • Students will be able to study modules that will give them the skills or knowledge they need to progress their career without the intention of building or completing a full qualification.

If there is a growth in LLE funded modular study, we also think there might be a shift to:

  • Universities and colleges changing existing …courses to an LLE fundable modular format
  • …An increase in modular study overall, not only LLE fundable modules
  • A decrease in the number of employers paying for continuing professional development (CPD) related courses as individuals will receive funding for standalone modules; [and] an increase in employers encouraging employees to take up CPD related modules as they will not need to fund them.

But if you are still puzzled about what it is all really about, and what it means in practice for universities, the Department for Education have published a guide in the form of a policy paper this week. sorry this is a bit wordy!

The summary: so far not very revolutionary.

From the 2025 to 2026 academic year, the LLE loan will be available for:

·       full courses at level 4 to 6, such as a degree or technical qualifications

·       modules of high-value technical courses at level 4 to 5

Under the LLE, eligible learners will be able to access:

·       a tuition fees loan, with new learners able to access up to the full entitlement of £37,000, equal to 4 years of study in today’s fees

·       a maintenance loan to cover living costs

Targeted maintenance grants will also be available for some groups such as learners with disabilities, or for support with childcare.

An additional entitlement may be available in certain cases – for example, for some priority subjects or longer courses such as medicine.

Learners will be able to see their loan balance through their own LLE personal account. This will help them make choices about the courses and learning pathways available.

So the devil, as always, must be in the detail.  What is covered, see below, again, fairly straightforward, except the bit about modules. 

But that isn’t coming straight away “The government will take a phased approach to provide modular funding. We expect to expand modular funding to more courses from the 2027 to 2028 academic year.”

Eligibility:

·       The LLE will be available to new and returning learners.

·       For returning learners, the amount they can borrow will be reduced depending on the funding they have previously received to support study.

·       LLE tuition loans will be available for people up to the age of 60. Learners who are over 60 may still qualify for maintenance support, though not a tuition fee loan.

·       Eligibility criteria for the LLE will track existing higher education (HE) student finance nationality and residency rules.

Courses: the LLE will be available for:

·       full years of study at higher technical and degree levels (levels 4 to 6)

·       modules of technical courses of clear value to employers

From the 2025 to 2026 academic year, the LLE will fund:

·       full years of study on courses currently funded by HE student finance including:

o   traditional degrees

o   postgraduate certificates in education (PGCE)

o   integrated master’s degrees (a 4-year programme that awards a master’s degree on top of a bachelor’s degree)

o   the foundation year available before some degree courses start

·       all HTQs, including both full courses and modules of those courses

·       qualifications currently funded by advanced learner loans where there is clear learner demand and employer endorsement

·       modules of some technical qualifications at levels 4 and 5 currently funded through advanced learner loans with a clear line of sight to an occupational map and evidence of employer demand

So what does this mean for students?  The main change is that tuition fee and maintenance loans will be available for a wider range of courses.

The entitlement

New learners (those who have not yet received government support to undertake higher-level learning) will be able to access a full entitlement equal to 4 years of full-time tuition. This is currently equal to £37,000 across 4 years, based on today’s maximum fee limit of £9,250 per year.

This means a student could use their £37,000 to pay for more than 480 credits of learning, depending on the per-credit cost of the course. For example, if a student can borrow £37,000 and they use £7,000 for a 120-credit course, they would have £30,000 of the LLE left for other courses, regardless of the size or duration of the original programme.

Returning learners …who have not used it all will have access to a residual entitlement. For example, a typical graduate who completed a 3-year degree worth £27,750 in today’s fees will have a £9,250 residual entitlement.

An additional entitlement above the core 4-year entitlement will be available for some priority subjects and longer courses such as medicine.

Maintenance loans

Maintenance loans are designed to help learners with living costs while they study. There is a maximum claim amount based on a student’s course, location and personal circumstances.

Under the LLE, the maintenance loan for living costs and targeted support grants, such as the Disabled Students’ Allowance and the Childcare Grant, will be made available for all designated courses and modules that require in-person attendance. Maintenance support will be subject to personal criteria such as income. This will broadly remain the same as the current criteria.

Repayments

The latest repayment arrangements apply as for students who started university this year.

And what does it mean for universities?

There will be a maximum financial amount per credit and a maximum number of credits that can be charged for in each course year, which will be set by the government.

We will treat certain course types under the LLE as ‘non-credit-bearing’. This means that different rules will apply. Non-credit-bearing courses include courses such as medicine and PGCEs, and courses where the provider has not assigned a qualifying credit value.

To support the LLE, the government will introduce a standardised transcript template to ensure a learner’s assessed achievements are always captured under the new modular, credit-based system.

There will be a new process for new providers and new qualifications.  This is properly new stuff and the subject of a lot of the ongoing work listed below, but probably not a lot of interest to readers of this update!

There is a separate paper on how tuition fees will work, from November 2023. This bit is confusing and implementing it will be tricky: lots of new reporting and forms likely to achieve this!

In the LLE system, we’ll set fee limits per credit. Credits are a measurement used by colleges and universities to identify how much learning is in a period of study. One credit generally equals 10 hours of learning by the student. This includes all tuition, assessment and any self-guided study in the student’s own time.

The credit-based system means that providers will only be able to charge for as much learning as they offer. A course containing 60 credits will have half the fee limit of a course containing 120 credits at the same provider.

The LLE system will have different fee limit rates. The limit-per-credit will depend on the type of study. There will be different limits for work placement, study abroad, and foundation years in certain subjects. Each of these limits may be lower if the provider does not have:

·       a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) award

·       an approved access and participation plan (APP).

There will no longer be different limits for part-time study. Instead, each course or module will have a fee limit based on the number of credits it contains. This is subject to a course year maximum and a course maximum. This means that if a course contains 360 credits, its overall fee limit will be the same regardless of how many years it takes to complete.

Some courses will be non-credit-bearing. For these courses, we’ll allocate a default number of credits. For example, we’ll allocate a PGCE course 120 default credits. This is because currently providers do not always allocate the same number of credits to these courses, but the amount of content is always very similar.

Under the LLE system, we’ll calculate fee limits according to the number of credits in a course year, multiplied by a limit-per-credit. For example, if a year of a course contained 120 credits, and its limit-per-credit was £50, its fee limit would be £6,000.

The LLE system will no longer have different fee limits for accelerated study. Instead, the overall fee limit for an accelerated degree will be the same as the overall fee limit for the same degree (full-time or part-time).

There will be a cap on the number of credits for which providers can charge in each type of course. This ensures that credits are not added on to courses simply to increase tuition fees. Providers may offer additional credits beyond the maximum, but are not allowed to charge for them.

If a student repeats part of their course, the repeat study is not counted towards the course cap. For example, if a student on a 360-credit degree fails a 30-credit module and repeats it, the provider can charge them for 390 credits overall.

And those modules?

There are no restrictions on the number of chargeable credits in a module. However, a module must have the same number of credits as it does when it is offered as part of the full course.

Modules offered separately from full courses must contain at least 30 credits. This can include multiple smaller modules bundled together.

So what is next?

In spring 2024, we will:

·       launch a technical consultation on the wider expansion of modular funding

·       lay secondary legislation covering the fee limits for the LLE in parliament

·       communicate the details on the benefits of the third registration category

In summer 2024, we will: publish further information about the qualification gateway

In autumn 2024, we will: lay the secondary legislation that will set out the rest of the LLE funding system in parliament

In spring 2025, we will: launch the LLE personal account, where users can track their loan entitlement and apply for designated courses and modules

In autumn 2025, we will: launch the qualification gateway, an approval process that allows qualifications to access LLE funding (as noted above, not directly relevant to us)

Who are the staff at UK universities?

HESA published a bulletin about UK HE staff statistics as at 1st December 2022, on 16th January 2023.

  • Research Professional article here.
  • Wonkhe article here

The data shows an increase in the number of academic staff and non-academic staff employed in the sector since the previous year and a small decrease in the number of a-typical academic staff employed.

  • In 2022/23, 103,005 or 43% of academic staff were employed on contracts described as having a teaching and research function. The total for 2021/22 was 100,170 or 43%.
  • A further 36% of academic staff were on teaching only contracts. This percentage has steadily increased year-on-year since 2015/16, when it was 26%.
  • Among academic staff, 71,420, or 30% were employed on fixed-term contracts in 2022/23. Of full-time academic staff, 22% were employed on fixed-term contracts in 2022/23. In contrast, 43% of part-time academic staff were employed on fixed-term contracts, marking an eight percentage point decrease from 2021/22.
  • Of academic staff with known ethnicity, 22% were from ethnic minority backgrounds in 2022/23. This has increased from 16% in 2017/18.
  • Of the 22,345 professors with known ethnicity, 2,865 or 13% were from ethnic minority backgrounds. The majority of professors from ethnic minority backgrounds were Asian.
  • From 2021/22 to 2022/23 there was an increase of 40 Black professors.
  • The number of staff known to have a disability increased by 1,100 compared to 2021/22

Financial sustainability: Scotland

Last week’s update mentioned student number caps, which may soon be applied in specific cases (by provider, by subject) based on quality reviews by the OfS.  The government recently ruled out reintroducing more widespread caps in England after a consultation.  There have caps in Scotland, though, and they are about to be reduced.  Wonkhe reported this week on remarks in the Scottish Parliament:

  • Scottish finance secretary Shona Robison confirmed that at least 1,200 funded university places for Scottish-domiciled students will be cut following the Scottish government’s 2024–25 budget. Her remarks were made a scrutiny session with the Scottish finance committee – Robison told MSPs that the funding for additional places, instituted due to increased demand during the pandemic, was no longer sustainable.

The Scottish caps on home students have had a direct impact on the finances of Scottish institutions and they have turned increasingly to the international market to make up the income as, like in the rest of the UK, the real value of domestic tuition fees falls.   The financial challenges for Scottish universities are described in this recent report from the Scottish Funding Council (4th Jan 24).

You will recall that there is a reason for these caps: the Scottish government funds tuition fees directly in Scotland for Scottish students, there is no tuition fee loan. The actual amount received was £7,610 for each Scottish student this academic year year (see a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies from December 2023), significantly less than the £9,250 capped fee in England.

Institutional failure

Last week I talked about the OfS licence conditions in place to protect students in the context of a university closing down, perhaps as a result of financial issues.

Wonkhe have several blogs this week.

There is one from two members of Public First on what would happen if a large university ran out of money:

  • The DfE (rightly) puts in place lots of warning measures for schools in difficulty, and if a school or group of schools start to find themselves in real trouble, a lot of things kick into place. They can mandate that schools have cost cutters come in; they can prescribe significant changes to operating models; and they can both demand that the school or school group takes an advance from the state, whilst placing (pretty onerous) conditions that are attached to repaying that advance. And given that financial trouble often goes hand in hand with performance trouble, the government has pretty carte blanche to change leadership and management when a poor performance judgement is made….
  • Universities are, of course, not big schools. And it is their fiercely guarded autonomy – as safeguarded in HERA – which means we don’t have a clear set of state interventions. When the Westminster government made its various moves to extend a more market based HE system in England in the early 2010s, it was explicitly envisaged that some providers could exit the market – and that government wouldn’t step in. This was not a bug, but instead a positive virtue of the system…
  • There is no power in today’s legislation for the government to give “extraordinary support” to a particular institution. In a major failure scenario, they could theoretically want to support (or even force) a merger or acquisition. They could also want to support specific institutions financially to keep them open at least for an interim period. But both would likely require new legislation, potentially at speed, and all of this tells against a story of autonomy
  • …. This issue all relies on some very big P political questions. Which institutions might be allowed to fail – and which won’t? What does increased government intervention mean for institutional autonomy, an idea already much eroded in political and policy circles? What does it mean for the status of universities, and could they be reclassified as FE colleges as public sector bodies if the state gains more control over funding or governance? And how much is the sector as a whole willing to trade to save a small, but potentially significant number of institutions?

There is one is from two members of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) talking about what will really happen if a provider fails.

They point out the regime that applies to FE, for which there is no equivalent for universities:

  • the Technical and Further Education Act 2017 established an insolvency regime that applies to further education and sixth form colleges in England and Wales. This introduced a special education administration regime, which protects learner provision for existing students at insolvent colleges with the overarching duty to the learner

They conclude:

  • We have talked before about insurance schemes or a “pot of money” to help students in these situations. We often hear that many providers would not be willing to pay into a system as they do not think such a situation really impacts them.
  • But the impact on the wider sector, students and the reputation of HE must be worth further serious discussion, and we are increasingly finding that there is an understanding that this situation needs to be addressed. …..
  • Whatever the answer, students should not be the collateral damage. A provider closure can leave students significantly disadvantaged, with their experience of and faith in higher education ruined. The potential impact on some students’ mental health cannot be underestimated. The financial impact, in a system where students are at the end of a long list of unsecured creditors, could create significant hardship and may make it unsustainable for a student to complete their studies.
  • We cannot just wait for a large-scale disorderly exit to happen before we engage in a serious discussion.

HE policy update: outlook for 2024

New year, new start for the BU HE policy update.

It’s an election year, so I will be looking at the policies, predictions and plots as the year unfolds alongside the usual news and comment.  I’ll be trying some new approaches this year so let me know what you think.

Alongside all the policy and politics there are the big geopolitical issues that may escalate even more dangerously this year; with luck some of them may creep towards a resolution.  Just to list a few: Ukraine, Israel/Palestine, China/Taiwan, ongoing conflict or issues in Yemen, Afghanistan, North Korea, elections in the US, Mexico, Venezuela, India and Pakistan and a new leader in Peru, a third of African nations have elections this year) alongside climate change and equality issues across the world.  These issues have an impact on domestic politics including through the impact on cost of living and potentially as people seek clarity,  reassurance or perceived strong leadership in a time of fear or uncertainty.  There’s an interesting article here from CIDOB on the issues the world is facing this year.

If you are interested in predictions, IPSOS have a survey of what the public are expecting.

Politics and Parliament

Let’s start with the current government’s pledges and likely priorities: as the year unfolds I will look at some of these in more detail and review the alternatives.

YouGov have a take on the most important issues facing the country: the economy, health, immigration and asylum are at the top

Conservatives seeking re-election

A year ago the PM set out 5 pledges: we can expect to hear a lot more about them.  Reviews here from  the BBC and the New Statesman:

  • Halving inflation by the end of 2023: This has been met, but this will continue to be a focus along with the reason it matters: cost of living (see below).
  • Get the economy growing wages have improved somewhat in real terms but GDP is flat
  • And there is an issue with fiscal drag, as more people pay more tax (see the FT)
  • National debt falling: The pledge was that it would be forecast to fall in 2028/29 (i.e. not yet). The BBC points out:
    • In the Autumn Statement in November, the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt claimed to be on track to meet that pledge because the OBR predicted a fall in 2028-29. But it’s going to be tight and will involve challenging spending restraint for some government departments.
    • When will we know? The next debt forecasts will be published alongside the Spring Budget in 2024.
  • Cutting NHS waiting lists: This is not going very well.  The overall waiting list was expected to fall by March 2024: we will know in May 2024 when the figures come out.  The BMA have some data, and the BBC chart uses the same NHS data but helpfully splits it out by how long people have waited. Ongoing strikes will remain a challenge for the government this year.
  • Stopping the boats.  Controversial and difficult.  Chart from the BBC again. Here’s a link to the 2nd Jan update from the Home Office on this one.  Stopping the boats is just part of the larger policy agenda on cutting net migration to the UK (see below).

Things to watch this year: cost of living

The reason inflation mattered so much was the impact on cost of living.  The increases may have slowed but costs are still high:

… food bank charities like the Trussell Trust are helping record numbers of people, and some people are using debt to pay for essentials … The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) collects data on destitution in the UK. Someone is ‘destitute’ when they didn’t have two or more of six essentials in the past month because they couldn’t afford them, or their income is too low to purchase the items themselves. JRF found that 1.8 million households experienced destitution in 2022, a 64% increase since 2019. The rising prices of essentials has contributed to this increase. The essential that most destitute people went without most often was

  • food (61%), followed by
  • heating (59%)
  • clothes (57%),
  • toiletries (51%),
  • lighting (35%) and
  • shelter (which means they slept rough) (14%).

Things to watch this year: net migration:

Despite the focus on the small boats, the real policy issue is the net migration number, going back to the original pledge from more than a decade ago to reduce that number.

There is a useful annual report from the Migration Advisory Committee here (Oct 23).

This report also has a section on student migration which is discussed below in relation to international students.

Other things to watch in 2024 (as well as the general election)

Local elections and by-elections – always interesting in the run up to a general election: Local elections are in May (not in BCP), there is a by-election in February in Wellingborough: another test for the government as the former seat of Peter Bone MP is contested; and another possibly in Blackpool later in the year.

Spring budget: 6th March 2024: likely tax cuts, with a potential to reduce the fiscal drag point noted above, plus possible cut to inheritance tax. Other appeals to the Tory base are likely and there are rumours of “traps” to make life hard for Labour in the election campaign or if they win the election.

Political leadership: this is a mainly post-election consideration, but would Sunak step down if the Tories lose the election and who would replace him? What would happen to Starmer if Labour lose?  What about the SNP and what will happen in Northern Ireland?  Wales will have a new First Minister this year (in the Spring as they are holding leadership elections).

The political fallout from the Covid inquiry: which will continue through this year.

Some parliamentary bills of interest to HE were carried over to the new session, and new ones were announced in the King’s Speech such as:

Labour’s 5 missions

As well as these, Labour have also talked about the possibility of replacing the system of education regulators with one combined regulator, as they are doing in Wales,  Unlike the Conservatives, they do want to encourage more 18 year olds into HE.  See the bold highlights below.

These were set out a while ago:

  • Get Britain building again: not just about home building but this one is about growing the economy more generally: “Secure the highest sustained growth in the G7 – with good jobs and productivity growth in every part of the country making everyone, not just a few, better off.” This includes:
    • A new industrial strategy and a council to implement it
    • A Green Prosperity Plan: private sector investment
    • Changes to planning to help industry
    • Devolution
    • National Wealth Fund
    • Making it easier for universities to develop self-sustaining clusters of innovation, investment, and growth in their local areas
    • “reforming planning rules and arcane compulsory purchase rules, with new protections for renters”
    • “closing the holes in the government’s Brexit deal, cutting the red tape”
    • “Establishing a supply chain taskforce to review supply chain needs across critical sectors”
  • Switch on Great British Energy: this does include a plan for a new energy generation company but also a wider objective to “make the UK a clean energy superpower
    • Act fast to lead the world with clean and cheap power by 2030, backing the builders not the blockers so Britain gets the cheap, clean power we need;
    • Establish GB Energy – a new home-grown, publicly-owned champion in clean energy generation – to build jobs and supply chains here at home;
    • Set up the National Wealth Fund, which will create good, well-paying jobs by investing alongside the private sector in gigafactories, clean steel plants, renewable-ready ports, green hydrogen and energy storage; and
    • Upgrade nineteen million homes with our Warm Homes Plan, so that families have cheaper energy bills permanently, with warm, future-proofed homes.
  • Get the NHS back on its feet: lots in here. for HE the most relevant are:
    • Labour will create 7,500 more medical school places and 10,000 more nursing and midwifery clinical placements per year. We will allocate a proportion of the new medical school places in under-doctored areas, to address inequalities in access to healthcare – because one of the strongest indicators of where doctors practice is where they train. We’ll also train 700 more district nurses each year, 5,000 more health visitors and recruit thousands more mental health staff.
    • Give everyone the opportunity to participate in research if they want to, so we can speed up recruitment and give patients access to treatments faster
  • Take back our streets: “Halve serious violent crime and raise confidence in the police and criminal justice system to its highest levels, within a decade”
  • Break down barriers to opportunity: lots in here, including:
    • urgently commission a full, expert-led review of curriculum and assessment that will seek to deliver a curriculum which is rich and broad, inclusive and innovative, and which develops knowledge and skills
    • Recruit over 6500 new teachers to fill vacancies and skills gaps across the profession.
    • Replace headline Ofsted grades with a new system of school report cards, that tell parents clearly how well their children’s school is performing.
    • Labour wants all young people to complete compulsory education with a firm foundation and will ensure that 80% of young people are qualified to Level 3 (A-Level equivalent) by 2035, with an interim target of 75% by 2030. Labour will reverse the decline in the number of young people moving into sustained education, employment or training after completing their 16 – 18 education. We will aim for over 85% of young people to be in a sustained destination by 2030, including more young people who have completed a level 3 qualification moving onto higher level education and training, with over 70% moving onto higher level opportunities by 2030
    • Labour will establish Skills England, bringing together central and local government, businesses, training providers and unions to meet the skills needs of the next decade across all regions.
    • “Improving the flexibility of the apprenticeship levy, turning it into a ‘Growth and Skills Levy”
    • we will work with universities to ensure there are a range of options on founder-track agreements helping to boost spin-outs and economic growth.
    • Labour will reform this [tuition fee] system to make it fairer and ensure we support the aspiration to go to university. Many proposals have been put forward for how the government could make the system fairer and more progressive, including modelling showing that the government could reduce the monthly repayments for every single new graduate without adding a penny to government borrowing or general taxation. Reworking the present system gives scope for a month-on-month tax cut for graduates, putting money back in people’s pockets when they most need it. For young graduates this is a fairer system, which will improve their security at the start of their working lives and as they bring up families. We will build on the legacy of the last Labour government’s target for 50% of young people to go to university to reverse the trend of declining numbers of adults participating in education and training. We’ll press on and ensure that the ambition for any young person to pursue higher education, regardless of background or geography, is realised.

And that election

Lots of MPS are stepping down: update here from the Institute for Government and a nice interactive map from Cambridgeshire Live here:  makes Scotland look very interesting as they lose standing MPs just as they are in trouble politically on lots of fronts.

Research and knowledge exchange

This will be an interesting year as plans for REF 2029 (as we must now call it) are developed further.  We will be watching for R&D announcements in the Spring budget.

If you missed our coverage of the King’s Speech and the Autumn Statement then you can catch it via the link and here are some highlights relating to RKE:

REF 2029

Announcements made in December including:

  • The next REF will be REF 2029, with results published in December 2029
  • Moves to break the link between individual staff members and unit submissions were welcomed by the community and this principle will be maintained
  • Outputs sole-authored by PGR students, including PhD theses, will not be eligible for submission, nor will those produced by individuals employed on contracts with no research-related expectations
  • The overall Unit of Assessment structure will remain unchanged from REF2021
  • The minimum number of Impact Case Studies that an institution can submit per disciplinary submission will be reduced to one, and the removal of the 2* quality threshold is confirmed

BU’s approach to the REF: the REF Steering Group, led by Professor Kate Welham, is working with the Interim Associate PVC for RKE, Professor Sarah Bate, and with colleagues from across BU on our approach to the REF and Kate is attending UET regularly to discuss developments.  The REF Committee is chaired by Professor Einar Thorsen.

BU has responded to the consultations so far on the REF and will continue to do so: we broadly welcome the changes although we have flagged some concerns about inclusivity and the administrative burden.

Strategic themes and research priorities

The government have a database of their areas of research interest.  These tell us “what policymakers are thinking, what their priorities are and where they need help

UKRI are working through a 5 year strategy and it is helpful to recall their strategic themes:

Education

There is always a lot to talk about on education in the policy updates, but for the first one of the year I wanted to go back to basics and look at the priorities for the OfS and the government and set them in context.  For example, did you know:

  • That the OfS monitors continuation, completion and graduate outcomes against an absolute baseline for ALL students at all levels (including PGRs and apprentices) at an institutional level, by student characteristics and at a subject level? This is licence condition B3 and if you didn’t know, you can look at the OfS dashboard here for sector data and find data relating to our own provision on the Prime SharePoint site.
  • That the OfS have recently published the outcomes of 6 quality assessments for business and management and computing, with more to come in those subjects and other areas, with some important areas highlighted for other providers: see below for more on this.
  • That we have to inform the OfS within 5 days if certain things happen under what they call the “reportable events” regime, and this can include a wide range of academic or other things: please email reportableevents@bournemouth.ac.uk if you become aware of something that might be reportable (even if it might turn out not to be).
  • That the OfS provides funding for educational development and other work in universities including the development of apprenticeships and other programmes: worth checking their website from time to time.

Government education policy

Government policy as it relates to HE does not address the big elephant in the room: in other words they are NOT proposing any changes to fees and funding or maintenance arrangements.   A series of changes to student loan arrangements came into effect in the autumn, including extending the repayment period.

If you missed our coverage of the King’s Speech and the Autumn Statement then you can catch it via the link and here are some highlights relating to education:

  • In October 2023, the Prime Minister announced a strong action plan to ensure every student has the literacy and numeracy skills they need to thrive through the introduction of the Advanced British Standard. This new Baccalaureate-style qualification will bring the best of A-Levels and T-Levels together, creating a unified structure that puts technical and academic education on equal footing. This reform will ensure every student in England studies some form of maths and English to age 18, boosting basic skills and bringing the UK in line with international peers. It will increase the number of taught hours by 15% for most students aged 16 to 19 and will broaden the number of subjects students take. [this means abolishing T levels, which are supposed to be replacing BTECs, as well as A levels]
  • Proposals will be implemented to decrease the number of people studying poor-quality degrees, and to increase take-up of apprenticeships [as far as we can tell, this does not mean new measures but continuing to instruct the OfS to use its existing powers of regulation plus a continued focus on funding and promoting apprenticeships]

Funding priorities:

  • On 14th December the government asked the OfS to run a competitive scheme to allocate funding for 350 new medical student places for 2025: this follows an expansion by 205 for 2024 and supports the NHS long term plan (although they will need to do more).
  • In their latest strategic priorities letter to the OfS (March 23) the focus was on:
    • Choice and flexibility or provision: the changes to enable lifelong learning (i.e. changes to the structure of loan payments etc), technical education, apprenticeships
    • Strategically important subjects: subjects that support the NHS and wider healthcare policy; science, engineering and technology subjects; and specific labour market needs
    • Degree apprenticeships especially at level 6 (i.e. not level 7)
    • L4 and L5 provision: higher technical qualifications
    • Specialist providers
    • Mental health and wellbeing

Read about OfS funding for 2023-24

OfS strategy

The objectives are:

  • Participation: All students, from all backgrounds, with the ability and desire to undertake higher education, are supported to access, succeed in, and progress from higher education.
  • Experience: All students, from all backgrounds, receive a high quality academic experience, and their interests are protected while they study or in the event of provider, campus or course closure.
  • Outcomes: All students, from all backgrounds, can progress into employment, further study, and lead fulfilling lives, in which their qualifications hold their value over time.
  • Value for money: All students, from all backgrounds, receive value for money.

The two areas of focus are quality and standards and equality of opportunity. That results in 11 goals:

  1. Students receive a high quality academic experience that improves their knowledge and skills, with increasing numbers receiving excellent provision [see the section on quality below]
  2. Students are rigorously assessed, and the qualifications they are awarded are credible and comparable to those granted previously. [see the July 23 analysis of degree classifications]
  3. Providers secure free speech within the law for students, staff and visiting speakers [read the latest consultation on the new complaints scheme and their consultation on regulating students’ unions].
  4. Graduates contribute to local and national prosperity, and the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda [measured by progression to highly skilled employment: see below for the outcomes data]
  5. Students’ access, success and progression are not limited by their background, location or characteristics [see the new guidance on access and participation plans].
  6. Prospective students can choose from a diverse range of courses and providers at any stage of their life, with a wide range of flexible and innovative opportunities [linked to the government agenda on higher technical qualifications, apprenticeships, lifelong modular learning etc]
  7. Providers act to prevent harassment and sexual misconduct and respond effectively if incidents do occur [ we are expecting the outcomes of a consultation on this fairly soon, it closed in May].
  8. Providers encourage and support an environment conducive to the good mental health and wellbeing that students need to succeed in their higher education [read their insight brief]
  9. Providers are financially viable and sustainable and have effective governance arrangements [see the section on sustainability below]
  10. Students receive the academic experience they were promised by their provider and their interests as consumers are protected before, during and after their studies.
  11. The OfS minimises the regulatory burden it places on providers, while ensuring action is effective in meeting its goals and regulatory objectives.

Outcomes

The OfS annual review provides some data to set the scene.

The report highlights that continuation is lower for:

  • students from more deprived areas or who were eligible for free school meals,
  • students from most (although not all) black and minority ethnic groups
  • mature students
  • students with reported disabilities, other than those with reported cognitive or learning difficulties (who make up 5.1% of students); and
  • care experienced students.

The report highlights that completion is lower for:

  • students from more deprived areas or who were eligible for free school meals,
  • students from most (although not all) black and minority ethnic groups
  • mature students
  • students with reported disabilities; and
  • care experienced students.

The report highlights that attainment rates are lower for:

  • students from more deprived areas or who were eligible for free school meals,
  • students from most (although not all) black and minority ethnic groups
  • mature students
  • students with reported disabilities with the exception of students with a reported mental health condition (4.5% of students); and
  • care experienced students.

The report highlights that progression rates are lower for:

  • students from more deprived areas or who were eligible for free school meals,
  • students from most (although not all) black and minority ethnic groups
  • students with reported disabilities other than those with reported cognitive or learning difficulties (who make up 5.1% of students); and
  • care experienced students.

In relation to mature students, those aged 31-40 have the highest progression rates while those aged 50 and over have the lowest.

Quality and standards in HE: OfS quality assessments

If you don’t follow the announcements from the OfS closely, you may have missed the trickle of OfS quality reports, so far in two subject areas, business and management and computing.  There are context papers which provide an interesting read and then the investigation reports themselves (so far 5 published for business and management and one for computing).  Concerns were found in 2 of the 5 business and management reports: no sanctions have been confirmed yet.

More detail is given below, but just to flag the priorities for 2024 quality assessments.  With the government already having announced that fee caps will be reduced for some foundation year courses, note the link to foundation year courses below: there will be quality reviews in this area especially as outcomes are lower, as noted in the linked Wonkhe article from October.

OfS sector context papers:

  • Business and Management
    • Growth in numbers (pp5 and 6) which highlights some potential issues which probably triggered these investigations and explain why they picked it as a subject priority
    • The percentage of full-time undergraduate entrants taught through sub contractual arrangements has more than doubled since 2018-19, from 10 per cent to 27 per cent (pp9 and 10)
    • The proportions of full-time undergraduate students that are from deprivation quintiles 1 or 2 are consistently higher in business and management than for all other subject areas (p18)
    • The proportions of full-time undergraduate students who are on courses that include an integrated foundation year are consistently higher in business and management than for all other subject areas (p20)
    • Low continuation for UG (p23), low completion for UG (p25), low progression at UG and PG (pp27 -28)
    • Low NSS for teaching (p30) and some other areas (not learning resources)
  • Computing
    • Low continuation and completion compared to other subjects (pages 23 to 26) at UG and PG
    • Balanced by good progression – but a provider that didn’t have good progression would stand out (pp 27 and 28)
    • Low NSS scores (pp29-34)
    • High proportions of non-permanent staff (p41)

Quality assessments: Business and management

Themes: concerns were found in relation to two of the five published so far and findings included:

  • Insufficient staff to provide adequate support, impacting personal tutoring, assessment and feedback and academic support
  • Not enough flexibility in course delivery to support the cohort of students recruited, namely not providing sufficient flexibility when students had to work to finance their studies or have caring responsibilities, having recognised that this was a specific feature of their intake: licence condition to deliver course effectively was brought into play
  • Inadequate central monitoring and pro-active management of engagement and attendance and over-reliance on individual academic staff to follow up  – licence condition to take all reasonable steps to ensure students receive sufficient academic resources and support.  Recommendations included:
    • Clear lines of responsibility at faculty and university level regarding who the lead for continuation is, and further channelling of university-level resource, expertise and effort towards the continuation problem in the Business School.
    • Systematic analysis of student failures on modules and historical withdrawals, to provide a more detailed picture and understanding of why students do not continue their studies at the university.
    • Better real-time monitoring of engagement and a university-level set of criteria that can be used to identify a student who may be at risk of dropping out, combined with systematic analysis of student behaviour and non-attendance so that proactive additional support can be offered.
    • A review of examination board processes and module performance criteria to ensure that under-performing modules are being picked up and addressed through the quality assurance and enhancement system. While the assessment team acknowledged the new course and unit enhancement planning process, this did not appear to be embedded and should be monitored closely.
  • Support for avoiding potential academic misconduct was not consistently provided in assessment feedback via the online assessment platform at Level 4
  • The format for providing formative feedback on assessments may not have been sufficient for some students across a number of modules reviewed. This concern also relates to condition of registration B2 because the assessment team considered that ensuring consistent access to formative feedback is a step that could have been taken to ensure students have sufficient academic support to succeed
  • Insufficient academic support for foundation year students once they progressed onto the main programme – support should have continued at higher levels

Quality assessment: Computing: no concerns were found in relation to the one report published so far.

Apprenticeships

As noted above these remain a priority for the government (and would likely be for a Labour government too).  In that context a report from the summer by UCAS with the Sutton Trust is interesting:

  • Today, 40% of students (430,000) interested in undergraduate options are also interested in apprenticeships. Despite this growth in demand, the number of starts for young learners remains low – with the number of Level 4 and above starts for under-19 year olds less than 5,000
  • Disadvantaged students are more likely to be interested in apprenticeship options, with 46% from the most disadvantaged areas interested in this route, compared to 41% from the most advantaged areas. Furthermore, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (63%) are more likely to have considered apprenticeships
  • A quarter (24%) of former applicants said that one of the top three reasons why they did not pursue an apprenticeship was because they felt they could not afford to do so.

Student experience, wellbeing and finances

Student finance

The cost of living update from the House of Commons Library Nov 23 has a section on student loan repayments and maintenance support (page 64) which links to this report from September 2023 on the value of student maintenance support.

International

Despite all the negativity about international students in the context of the migration policy (see above) and the OfS’ regulatory concern about the risk of large numbers of international students, there is a positive policy in relation to international students: the government have an International Education Strategy that has two ambitions by 2030:

  • increase education exports to £35 billion per year
  • increase the numbers of international higher education (HE) students studying in the UK to 600,000 per year

According to the annual report from the Migration Advisory Committee here (Oct 23) referred to below, this second target was achieved in 2020/21:

  • according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), this target was met in early 2020/21, with 605,000 non-UK students at Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). This has increased further since then, with growth driven by a small cohort of countries, notably India and Nigeria.
  • Non-UK students accounted for almost 30% of first-year enrolments in tertiary education last year, up from 25% before the policy announcement in 2018/19.
  • In a global context the UK is a major market for international students. HEIs in the UK accounted for 9% of all international students in 2020, behind only the US for market share. The UK’s market share had been steadily declining since 2006 having been briefly overtaken by Australia as the second most popular destination for international students in 2019

Student visas

The annual report from the Migration Advisory Committee here (Oct 23) referred to above also has a section on international students.  It includes the policies on stopping dependants which have now been implemented.

There is some interesting data on student numbers: it shows the large number of international student in London and also Scotland (not surprisingly given their student number cap for home students).  Perhaps surprisingly, there are more international than UK students in the East of England and the North East and numbers are more or less equal in Yorkshire and the Humber, although this data includes students on the London campus of universities based outside London.

HE sector sustainability and change

Student numbers and admissions

UCAS projects that there could be up to a million higher education applicants in a single year in 2030, up from almost three quarters of a million today.

But will there be?  Applications and admissions fell last year, but that was after a bumper post-covid year in 2022 and UCAS described it as a return to normality.  Or is it the rhetoric from the government on mickey mouse degrees etc and changes to loan repayments making it more expensive for students in the long run having an impact?  Time will tell: eyes will be on this year’s applications.

Financial sustainability

The OfS annual review provides some context for this. The OfS issued their annual report on financial sustainability in May 2023 and identified the following key risks which are still relevant:

  • The impact of inflation on costs and challenges in growing income to meet increasing costs. In particular, the ‘per student’ income from tuition fees from UK undergraduates is capped and not increasing, while other costs rise.
  • Increasing reliance on fees from overseas students, particularly postgraduates, in some higher education providers’ business plans. (In May 2023, the OfS wrote to 23 higher education providers with high levels of recruitment of students from China. We reminded them of the importance of contingency plans in case there is a sudden drop in income from international students. We asked a subset of those higher education providers most exposed to a short-term risk to provide information about their financial mitigation plans)
  • Challenges in meeting investment needs for facilities and environmental policies

The OfS identifies a number of strategies that they may see to address financial sustainability concerns.

JANE FORSTER, VC’s Policy Advisor

Follow: @PolicyBU on X

HE policy update 27th November 23

Autumn Statement

You can find the full autumn statement and all the associated papers here.

Somewhat acerbic summary from Research Professional here,

Some extracts from the statement

Science and Innovation:

  • Scientific breakthroughs are a crucial driver of long-run growth and play a critical role in improving lives and helping to tackle societal challenges. The UK hosts many of the world’s leading universities and the government provides the most generous support for business R&D in the OECD as a share of GDP through tax relief and public investment. The government is now going even further to ensure the UK remains at the cutting edge of science, innovation and technological development.
  • The Prime Minister has negotiated excellent terms for the UK to associate to Horizon Europe and Copernicus, getting great value for taxpayers while maximising opportunities for researchers. As a result, the government can now announce ambitious investments of over £750 million in UK R&D this financial year. These investments include transformative new programmes, including £250 million for long-term world-class Discovery Fellowships, £145 million for new business innovation support, and support to establish a National Academy focussed on mathematical sciences. The government is also ensuring the research, development and innovation organisational landscape is diverse, resilient, and investable, in response to Sir Paul Nurse’s review. The government will also continue to cut bureaucracy in grant applications.
  • University spin-outs are some of the UK’s most innovative companies and play a hugely important role for the UK economy, with investment increasing almost five-fold since 2014. To capitalise on this strength, the government is accepting all the recommendations of the Independent Review of Spin-outs and setting out how it will deliver them. Several universities and investors have already endorsed the recommendations of the review, and the government will provide £20 million for a new cross-disciplinary proof-of-concept research funding scheme, to help prospective founders in the UK’s universities demonstrate the commercial potential of their research.
  • Also published: government response to the independent review: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/independent-review-of-university-spin-out-companies
  • Also published: government response to the Paul Nurse independent review of research, development and innovation landscape: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-development-and-innovation-organisational-landscape-an-independent-review
  • The government is committed to staying at the forefront of new technology. For example, this Autumn Statement provides £121 million for the UK’s space sector. This investment will pave the way for new space clusters and infrastructure, make progress towards the government’s climate goals by supporting the earth observation industry and deliver new capabilities in low earth orbit satellite communications technology. The government is also building on the £2.5 billion ten-year National Quantum Strategy by publishing an ambitious set of quantum missions, including a mission to have accessible, UK-based quantum computers capable of running 1 trillion operations by 2035. Other missions focus on quantum networks, medical applications, navigation, and sensors for infrastructure.

Life Sciences

  • Life sciences is a strength of the UK economy, with the sector critical to the country’s health, wealth and resilience. In May 2023, the government committed £121 million in funding as a first response to Lord O’Shaughnessy’s recommendations on improving the UK’s commercial clinical trial offer. The government has published its full response to the review, supported by an implementation plan, to make the UK one of the best places in the world to conduct clinical research. Up to £20 million of this funding will launch the first Clinical Trial Delivery Accelerator, focused on dementia, to help innovation reach NHS patients even faster.
  • To build resilience for future health emergencies and to capture and capitalise on the UK’s R&D strengths, the government is providing £520 million in funding from 2025-26 to support transformational manufacturing investments in life sciences. It is also backing UK innovation by investing £10 million, with an additional £10 million from Scottish Enterprise, in a world class Manufacturing Centre of Excellence in Oligonucleotides. Tackling antimicrobial resistance will be essential for future health resilience, so to mark the 2028 centenary of the discovery of penicillin, the government is granting £5 million seed funding to help launch  the Fleming Centre. A collaboration led by Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, the Centre will support the next generation of world changing health innovations.
  • The UK is uniquely placed to harness the power of health data to improve patient outcomes. In England the NHS has 1.6 million patient interactions every 24 hours generating real world experience and insights at scale.72 The government is therefore announcing a further £51 million for the Our Future Health (OFH) programme, a world-leading resource for health research, to genotype their first 1 million participants and to recruit hundreds of thousands of new volunteers, supporting the development of better ways to prevent, detect and treat diseases. The COVID-19 vaccine showed the UK is one of the best places to launch lifesaving therapies. Building on this legacy, Genomics England, along with a consortium of partners, is announcing the launch of a world first Rare Therapies Launch Pad, generating evidence on whether a pathway for new individualised therapeutics could be implemented in the UK for children with ultra-rare disease.

Creative industries

  • The UK has world-leading creative industries at the heart of an increasingly digital world. The sector grew at over one and a half times the rate of the wider economy between 2010 and 2019,73 contributing £126 billion in GVA in 2022. In June 2023, the government published its Sector Vision which set ambitions to grow the creative industries by £50 billion and deliver a creative careers promise to support a million more jobs by 2030. This included £77 million in new government spending, bringing the total announced since the 2021 Spending Review to £310 million. The sector also continues to be supported by significant tax reliefs, which were worth £1.66 billion in the year ending 2022.75
  • The government expects further growth and a rise in employment as creative industries embrace new technologies. To maximise the benefits of this, the government will further boost the international competitiveness of tax incentives for the UK’s world-leading visual effects sector. The government intends to increase the generosity of the Audio-Visual Expenditure Credit for visual effects expenditure, and will work with industry on how best to design this with the intention of implementing changes to the tax relief from April 2025.
  • To support the production of film and high-end TV across the UK, the government will provide £2.1 million of new funding next year for the British Film Commission and the British Film Institute Certification Unit. Furthermore, the government will review public investment in R&D spending for the creative industries to a Spending Review timeframe

Making a long-term investment in skills by delivering a world-class education system

  • A crucial part of securing Britain’s prosperity for future generations is building a world-class education and skills system. Long-term investment in human capital is crucial for growth and productivity: changes in labour quality contributed to around 15% of growth in labour productivity between 2001 and 2007, and the majority of labour productivity growth in the years after. This is why the government continues to make year on year increases to school funding in England, boost opportunities for adults to train, upskill and retrain, and, from 2025, transform the student finance system through the Lifelong Learning Entitlement.
  • In October 2023, the Prime Minister announced a strong action plan to ensure every student has the literacy and numeracy skills they need to thrive through the introduction of the Advanced British Standard. This new Baccalaureate-style qualification will bring the best of A-Levels and T-Levels together, creating a unified structure that puts technical and academic education on equal footing. This reform will ensure every student in England studies some form of maths and English to age 18, boosting basic skills and bringing the UK in line with international peers. It will increase the number of taught hours by 15% for most students aged 16 to 19 and will broaden the number of subjects students take.
  • The government is funding a down payment of over £600 million over the next two years. This will give teachers in key shortage academic and technical subjects – who are in the first five years of their career – a payment of up to £6,000 per year tax free, including further education colleges for the first time; support students to achieve their maths and English GCSEs where they did not pass first time; improve the quality of maths teaching; and build a deeper understanding of what works in 16-19 teaching and training with a £40 million capital investment into the Education Endowment Fund.
  • Beyond 16-19 education, the government is supporting employer based training in England so that adults of all ages can access high quality apprenticeships. The government has transformed apprenticeships to offer a prestigious and high quality alternative route to higher education. In 2021-22, almost a third of all starts were at Level 4 and above compared to only 4% in 2014-15.
  • The government continues to work closely with businesses to improve the apprenticeship system to meet the needs of learners, employers and training providers. The government is supporting plans to catalyse the growth sectors by committing £50 million to deliver a two-year apprenticeships pilot to explore ways to stimulate training in these sectors and address barriers to entry in high-value standards.

King’s Speech

King Charles III delivered his first King’s Speech to open the new parliamentary period on 7 November 2023. The speech is written by the government, not the King, and delivered within Parliament in a ceremony with all manner of pomp and tradition. If you’re interested in the history this article looks at how the custom developed and what themes were apparent in previous monarch’s first state opening speeches.

Onto business, the speech highlighted the broad areas the government intends to move in the forthcoming year. None were a surprise as the government has been announcing them across the last few weeks.

Of most interest to HE:

  • Steps will be taken to create the Advanced British Standard qualification, bringing technical and academic routes together.
  • Proposals will be implemented to decrease the number of people studying poor-quality degrees, and to increase take-up of apprenticeships. [There’s no new legislation for this so it will be a continuation of the OfS using existing powers and the proposal to include salary (by subject) in the graduate outcomes baselines in licence condition B3.  It’s not clear at this stage if there will be more proactive work to increase apprenticeships.]
  • Encourage innovation in new technologies such as machine learning and continue to lead international discussions to ensure AI is delivered safely.
  • Proposals will be published to reform welfare and support more people into work.
  • New legislation to empower police to tackle digital crime, including child sexual abuse.
  • New legislation to create a smoke-free generation, by restricting sale of tobacco, as well as the sale and marketing of e-cigarettes to children.
  • New legislation to promote the creative industries and support journalism.

Wonkhe also highlight this legislation which will impact on the HE sector:

  • A new Terrorism (Protection of Premises Bill) – known as “Martyn’s Law” – will require UK venues including universities to have preventative plans against terror attacks.
  • The new Data Protection and Digital Information (no. 2) Billis intended in part to “clarify and improve rules around using data for scientific research.”

The background briefing on these forthcoming Bills is available here.

In addition to the new legislation some Bills of interest to HE were carried over, such as:

Anything that wasn’t officially carried over is now defunct. This includes any parliamentary questions and Private Members’ Bills you may have been following.

If you’d like to read more delve into content from the House of Lords Library on the 2023 King’s Speech.

The King’s Speech was followed by several days of debate. Secretary of State Gillian Keegan led Friday’s  debate failed to answer Labour ex-Shadow HE Minister Emma Hardy’s question about how the government would identify low quality courses while controlling for local and regional differences in graduate salaries. Emma Hardy quoted the words of Lord Willetts to argue from research evidence that parental background also has a huge effect on graduate outcomes. The full transcript is here.

Cabinet Reshuffle

Although headline grabbing in a general sense there wasn’t much change for HE.

George Freeman resigned as Science Minister, replaced by Andrew Griffith:

The minister is responsible for:

Nick Gibb resigned as the long standing Schools Minister, replaced by Damien Hinds (another returner after a long period of absence),

Research

UKRI EDI Advisory Group

We mentioned this in the last update but there’s been significant sector interest, and some more movement on the UKRI EDI Advisory Group.  On 28 October DSIT SoS Michelle Donelan wrote to UKRI with concerns that individuals appointed to the UKRI EDI advisory group had expressed inappropriate views on social media which weren’t in keeping with their public responsibilities. Michelle recommended for UKRI to immediately close the group and undertake an urgent investigation into how this happened.’

Michelle also suggested that UKRI were overstepping their boundaries by going beyond the requirements of equality law in ways which add burden and bureaucracy to funding requirements, with little evidence this materially advances equality of opportunity or eliminates discrimination.

Wonkhe consider Donelan’s interventions and succinctly explain whether (in their opinion) she has the right to intervene or not. You can read Donelan’s letter and the two Wonkhe blogs: Michelle Donelan writes to UKRI over “jobs for Hamas terrorist sympathisers” and Can the Secretary of State tell UKRI what to do?

In response to the SoS letter UKRI immediately stated they would:

  • Suspend operations of the Research England Equality Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group with immediate effect.
  • Launch an investigation into the specific areas of concern.
  • Use the findings to come to a conclusion about the ultimate future of the RE EDI advisory group, and how best to ensure its purpose is fulfilled, as advised by the Research England Council.
  • The Board would review advisory structures to ensure that they are fit for purpose. This will include the processes for their establishment and operation.

Most recently UKRI Chief Executive, Ottoline Leyser, highlighted that only the EDI Expert Advisory Group’s work had been suspended. All other UKRI EDI initiatives continue their work programmes. And: We are fully committed to the principles of freedom of speech within the law and equality, diversity and inclusion. These are the foundations on which research and innovation excellence is built. I am determined to uphold these principles through the actions we are taking, despite the heightened emotions surrounding these debates at the current time…In line with the principles we espouse, we understand that different people will take different views about the best way to act and we respect their decisions.

REF2028 – overload and dilution?

HEPI published a Policy Note by former Warwick VC Nigel Thrift: REF 2028: Outputs Matter expressing concern that research outputs will be reduced from 60% to 40% and outputs will not be directly tied to individuals. He argues the REF is becoming overloaded and this is diluting its core purpose and putting Britain’s science superpower status at risk.

Last week Sarah was at a research sector gathering and noted a clear divide between those who are extremely concerned with the REF changes including the strong voice of Professor Dinah Birch (who led main panel D in REF2021) and those in favour of progress and changes such as Helen Cross from the Scottish Funding Council who was involved in the FRAP. It feels the tussle for REF 2028 isn’t yet over, not least because Professor Birch is advocating delaying REF past 2028 if the assessment changes are implemented.

The very quick read of Thrift’s policy note is here or read the full seven pages here.

An analysis of REF 2021 impact case studies was published last week exploring the pathways to research impact, and the practices that enable it. Wonkhe report:

  • The team identified 79 “impact topics” that highlight the diverse range of areas where UK research is making a difference to policy, practice, and people’s lives. Notably, 72 per cent of impact case studies linked to two or more disciplinary areas. Of the 79 impact topics, those associated with “grand challenges”, such as environmental conservation and food policy, are more likely to be underpinned by interdisciplinary research than those for which disciplinary and professional practice are more closely linked, such as clinical medicine. Research collaboration also features prominently in generating research impact.
  • What lessons should be learned from this data? The one that the sector most hopes will be clear is that funding research generates societal benefit – there can be no doubt about that. Some might argue you don’t need an “impact agenda” to know that, but on a purely pragmatic level it really helps to have the evidence.
  • The second lesson might be about the links between research culture and excellence – the current debate over the extent to which research culture should form part of the REF is interrogating the extent to which inclusive, cooperative research culture is associated with excellence, and there are almost certainly links to be made around research collaboration, cooperation with non-academic partners, and the engagement of diverse disciplinary perspectives as being research practices that actively support research impact.
  • …to what extent should REF incentivise universities to align their research agendas to local challenges as well as grand global challenges? Some would say that it doesn’t matter how far away the impact occurs as long as the research is excellent and impactful. Others might point out that the relative “place-blindness” of research funding until recently has led to a situation in which R&D spend is not very evenly distributed across the country, and that part of universities’ social compact involves deploying their resources for the benefit of their places.
  • Universities will, in many cases, already be considering these questions in light of a new focus on place from funders, some of which will materialise in the next iteration of REF. But it is always worth considering the extent to which local research impact forms part of a university’s agenda and how that ambition might be realised in time for the next big assessment.

Blogs:

AI news

Similar to previous weeks, there’s a significant amount of artificial intelligence (AI) related news. We’ve kept content as brief as possible so do click the links for more information if this is your interest area.

Medical diagnostics (AI): The House of Lords published part two of their Current Affairs Digest: Science. It looks at how advances in AI are changing medical diagnostics. Once trained on vast datasets of images and research AI tools have been designed to interpret scans, refine images for clinical review, and map anatomy ahead of treatment. It looks at whether AI can save clinician time, costs and workload. Thes briefing presents a range of studies on applications, accuracy and challenges.

£118m AI Package: The Government announced a £118m “boost to skills funding”, including a new grant scheme and confirmation of a further 12 Centres for Doctoral Training in AI (£117 million), funded through UKRI. The remaining £1 million creates the AI Futures Grants scheme to help the next generation of AI leaders meet the costs of relocating to the UK- it’s currently being designed and will launch in 2024. The British Council and UK universities are also funding 15 GREAT scholarships for international students to come to the UK to study Science and Technology courses, including subjects related to AI or life sciences. The ‘Backing Invisible Geniuses’ (BIG) scholarship pilot is being launched. It’s led by the Global Talent Lab and champions outstanding high-school performers in International Science Olympiads, setting them on a path to excel in maths, science, and AI. Funded by XTX Markets and in partnership with DSIT. The government intends to create a new dedicated visa scheme for the world’s most talented AI researchers to come to the UK on internships and placements, early in their careers, to encourage them to build their careers, ideas and businesses.

AI Safety Summit: For weeks the government has been building up to the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park. You can read a summary of the Summit’s discussions provided by DSIT and the summaries of the eight roundtables are here.

Announcements:  

  • Michelle Donelan announced the government’s Frontier AI Taskforce and leading British researchers will be equipped with supercomputers to analyse the safety of advanced AI models.
  • The investment into the AI Research Resource has been tripled to £300m, up from £100m announced in March 2023, in a bid to further boost UK AI capabilities. This will bolster Isambard-AI (Bristol University) announcement and will connect Isambard-AI to the newly announced Cambridge supercomputer called ‘Dawn’.
  • The connection of the two new supercomputers means researchers will be able to analyse advanced AI models to test safety features and drive breakthroughs in drug discovery and clean energy (from summer 2024). The Frontier AI Taskforce will have priority access to the connected computing tools to support its work to mitigate the risks posed by the most advanced forms of AI. The resource will also support the work of the AI Safety Institute, as it develops a programme of research looking at the safety of frontier AI models and supports government policy with this analysis.

AI safety institute: DSIT published further information about the new AI Safety Institute. The creation of the Institute was announced by the Prime Minister in a speech at The Royal Society. It will focus on advanced AI safety for the public interest, minimising surprises to the UK and humanity from rapid and unexpected advances in AI. It will work towards this by developing the sociotechnical infrastructure needed to understand the risks of advanced AI and enable its governance. Read more about its three core functions here:

  • Develop and conduct evaluations on advanced AI systems
  • Drive foundational AI safety research
  • Facilitate information exchange.

The Frontier AI Taskforce has been subsumed within the AI Safety Institute to continue its safety research and evaluations. The other core parts of the Taskforce’s mission will remain in DSIT as policy functions: identifying new uses for AI in the public sector; and strengthening the UK’s capabilities in AI. Ian Hogarth continues as Chair of the AI Safety Institute and the External Advisory Board for the Taskforce will now advise the AI Safety Institute. A Chief Executive of the Institute will be recruited.

Quick research news round-up

Ex-Science Minister George Freeman announced the recipients of over £14 million funding for the UK’s quantum sector. He described how the government is continuing with its ambition to become a quantum-enabled economy by 2023 and broke the £14+ million down into the following elements:

  • The launch of a UK Quantum Standards Network Pilot that will help to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of establishing global standards for quantum
  • Over £10m in funding for 6 projects to accelerate the development of components and systems for quantum network technologies
  • Over £4m to strengthen collaborative research and development through Canada-UK partnerships to develop real-world quantum technologies for commercial use
  • The National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC) closing its £30m competition to provide quantum computing testbeds, alongside a partnership with IBM to provide users cloud access to IBM’s full fleet quantum machines
  • A new science and innovation agreement with the Netherlands to deepen collaboration on quantum which will see closer cooperation covering research and development, commercialisation, investment, and skills

Full details here.

Horizon Europe PQ: Shadow Universities Minister Matt Western asked the government to assess the potential impact on the (a) finances and (b) reputation of individual universities of not having participated in the Horizon programme for two years; and to publish the 10 most affected universities. The government stated that the Horizon Europe Guarantee scheme meant no UK researchers has been left out of pocket, and that 2,600 grant offers (£1.39 billion) had been made by end September 2023.

RIF allocations: At the end of October UKRI released the 2023-24 Regional Innovation Fund (RIF) grant allocations to institutions (total £48.8 million for England). All HE institutions receiving HEIF will receive a RIF allocation. More detail here.

Spinouts: Wonkhe – The government should push universities to offer a two-track system for spinouts, with a “light touch” option taking a small equity stake for those who do not want additional support from technology transfer offices. This is according to a report from the Tony Blair Institute, Onward and the Startup Coalition on the need to harness artificial intelligence. The report also recommends reform to the High Potential Individual Visa so that it applies to graduates from a wider range of universities internationally, in particular institutions with a specialism in technology.

REF 2028 Parliamentary Question: Q – Ben Lake – will the SoS for DSIT meet with representatives of the Universities Policy Engagement Network to discuss the implications for Departments of the REF2028 requirement that universities demonstrate (a) impact and (b) engagement.
Answer – George Freeman: The design and implementation of the REF 2028 is being carried out by the devolved funding bodies of the UK nations, including Research England in England. During this process the funding bodies have engaged widely with stakeholders, including many of the members of the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN), on the design of the next REF. This engagement, including a currently open opportunity to provide written comments, will continue through the autumn and the final design of the REF will take full account of stakeholders’ contributions to the engagement process. [Note, the consultation mentioned is actually closed now.]

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Prior to the prorogation for the King’s Speech, the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill 2022-23 was debated in the House of Commons at Report Stage against the backdrop of increased tension in the Middle East. Labour called for the Bill to be delayed or withdrawn due to the geopolitical context. Margaret Hodge MP (Labour) also criticised the Bill stating it was flawed and would not solve the problem of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and accused the Conservative party of introducing it for party political point scoring. She was also concerned it would inflame recent community tensions on university campuses and in workplaces.

During the debate several MPs spoke about the antisemitism and Islamophobia following the 7 October attacks and examples of antisemitism on campus were cited.

Previous Secretary of State for Education, Kit Malthouse (Conservative), introduced his amendment which requested universities were exempted from the Bill. He believes that aspects of the Bill run contrary to the recent HE Free Speech Act and the work of the new OfS Free Speech tsar. Kit also felt including universities would be another step towards universities being classed as public bodies – which he was opposed to – because the Treasury had taken on significant debt when FE colleges had become public bodies and the government risked greater debt should they bring universities into the fold. He requested his amendment be considered and did not present the amendment for a vote.

Chris Stephens (SNP) spoke to Clause 4 stating the Bill would, in effect, prevent elected councillors and university Vice-Chancellors from publishing public statements indicating intention to act in ways that would contravene the ban. He highlighted that anti-boycotts laws in the US had curbed freedom of expression. Angela Rayner (Labour) also spoke to the Clause 4 gagging clause and stated Labour believed it was incompatible with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – she called on MPs to remove or amend the Clause. David Jones (Conservative) also spoke out against Clause 4 again highlighting the HE (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023; he stated the Clause was an unacceptable constraint on free speech and a deeply un-conservative measure – he called for the removal of the Clause from the Bill.

Angela Rayner also outlined her amendment which would allow public bodies to produce a document setting out their policy on procurement and human rights. She said this could ensure that ethical considerations could be applied equally to all countries rather than singling out individual nations, adding consistency and avoiding the critique from some around Israel having special treatment.

John McDonnell (Labour) argued that BDS actions should be seen as an overall tactic rather than solely in the current Israel/Palestine context, citing BDS actions throughout history including for apartheid South Africa, and more recently for Russia and Iran. MPs from both sides of the House raised concerns that the only states and territories explicitly named on the face of the Bill, were Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), and the Golan Heights. Angela Rayner said that this showed how the government were failing to treat Israel like any other state or nation, despite the Secretary of State previously claiming the Bill would be non-country specific. Angela highlighted how the Bill would apply as much to China, Myanmar and North Korea, as it does to Israel and this would have significant impact on the ability for e.g. communities to support Uyghur minorities in China.

George Eustice (Conservative) stated including the OPTs and the Golan Heights alongside Israel on the face of the Bill could send a signal that the UK had changed its longstanding position of a two-state solution and that the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories were illegal. He warned the government against equating Israel with those territories.

Kit Malthouse outlined his cross-party amendment which sought to remove the prohibition on the government specifying Israel, the OPTs or the Occupied Golan Heights as a country or territory to which the prohibition on boycotts does not apply. He said that this was seeking to ensure that Israel was treated like any other country in the world and avoid adding fuel to the argument that it receives special treatment, which he said gave rise to antisemitism.

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, responded on the government’s behalf stating he appreciated the debate came at a sensitive time, but that the House was united in their horror of terrorism, their desire for peace and belief in a two-state solution. He highlighted that the Bill was introduced following a manifesto commitment, made prior to the current conflict in the Middle East. [This is significant because when the Bill reaches the House of Lords, while they can amend and offer challenge protocol dictates they should not deliberately oppose manifesto commitments.] Gove acknowledge the debate concerns but felt they had misunderstood the provisions and intention of the Bill. He said the Bill did not prevent any individual from articulating their support for the BDS campaign, rather it prevented public bodies and public money from being used to advance these ideals. On free speech, again he said the Bill would not affect individuals right to free speech but prevent public bodies themselves from making their own foreign policy. Finally, he said that the Bill did not prevent human rights considerations from being taken into account by public bodies, and that the Bill made it clear that legitimate human rights considerations, provided that they are noncountry-specific, should be taken into account.

All amendments were rejected and the Bill passes to the House of Lords unamended.

Education Questions

The DfE ministerial team answered Education Questions. Here is the content most relevant to HE:

  • Rosie Duffield (Labour) highlighted the regular use of food banks among the student community, questioning what the government were doing to support students and staff that were forced to turn to food banks. Halfon, Universities Minister, stated the Government had frozen tuition fees and provided £276 million student premium funding. He added that it was important to provide a system that was fair for students and the taxpayer, and that prioritised the most disadvantaged.
  • Lilian Greenwood (Labour) highlighted that the maintenance loan had fallen £1,500 in real terms since 2020/21. She said the cost-of-living crisis was affecting students’ education and physical and mental health; she challenged the Minister on whether this was acceptable. Halfon responded that the government were doing everything possible to support the most disadvantaged.
  • Matt Western, Shadow HE Minister, highlighted the increased level of paid work among students, and the negative impact it was having on their studies. He asked Minister Halfon whether he expected students to balance paid employment with university work, and to acknowledged it was forcing many students out of higher education. In his reply, Minister Halfon stated: Actually, the opposite is true. We have a record number of students going to university. Disadvantaged students are 71% more likely to go to university now than they were in 2010. We have a huge package of support. I have mentioned the £276 million for disadvantaged students. We are doing everything we can to help disadvantaged students. The hon. Gentleman criticises the money we are giving but does not come up with a figure of his own. Warm words butter no parsnips.
  • Carol Monaghan MP, SNP spokesperson (Education): The Minister mentions some things that are maybe trying to help these students, but recent Higher Education Policy Institute analysis shows that students who previously received free school meals are less likely to complete their degree and those who do are less likely to get a first or a 2:1. Support cannot stop once they get to university. She asked the Minister to detail what support he is giving those students at every stage of their journey to make sure they really do have the same opportunities as those from more privileged backgrounds. Halfon responded: Many universities offer bursaries to students…we are doing everything possible to ensure that students who do courses get good skills and good jobs at the end. That is the purpose of our higher education reforms…

There were also a number of questions on Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) – you can read the content here (scroll down the page to locate the HTQ questions).

Growth for the sector

Lord Willetts (and the Economy 2030 inquiry*) published How higher education can boost people-powered growth. The report notes the success of HE and rejects the claim that there are too many university degrees. It calls for reforms to the system to properly fund HE and to support new innovative universities to enter the market. The report recommends:

  • An open, evidence-based debate about the calibration of the graduate repayment scheme so the system is adjustable and reflects changing political judgements. Via a once every five years review of fees and loan terms so the system can be modified without tearing it all up and starting again.
  • Banks could be invited to partner with universities to buy the debt of a university’s graduates from the Student Loans Company.
  • The DfE could launch a competition inviting applications to create a new university with a particular focus on places that do not currently have one.

If you prefer the short version Lord Willetts wrote about the recommendations in Conservative Home: This is the moment to seize the opportunity for growth in apprenticeships and higher education.

* The Economy 2030 inquiry is not a Select Committee or a Select Committee inquiry – it’s the name of a collaboration between the Resolution Foundation and the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.

Rip off degrees

Minister Halfon dodged responding to a parliamentary question requesting the Government state which degree courses they plan to increase controls for to prevent rip-off university degrees (reference: Crackdown on). Halfon used the Prorogation of Parliament to state they wasn’t enough time to respond to the question before the parliamentary session closed. Let’s hope Charlotte Nichols (who tabled the question) reintroduces it in the new session so we can receive the official government word on the matter.

Meanwhile Wonkhe have managed to find the time and have highlighted that OfS published prioritisation criteria for its 2024 quality round, stating where it (OfS) sees the greatest risk to student outcomes. The OfS areas for quality focus for the year ahead are as expected: business and management courses, foundation year provision, and franchised provision. There’s a blog: England’s higher education regulator has announced its areas of focus for its next round of inspections. Snippet: What is OfS getting at? The combination of mentions of integrated foundation years, business courses and subcontracting is very interesting – partly because a good hypothesis is that all three characteristics make up a good chunk of the story in the DfE figures on foundation years that were released recently. Wonkhe suggest universities for whom all three areas of focus intersect should prepare for the ‘boots on the ground’.

Mental health

The Minister for HE has suggested that he might ask the OfS to consider a licence condition to require universities to take more action to address mental health. In a speech to a UUK conference, Robert Halfon said:

  • I’d like to begin by paying tribute to all the student services staff who work on the frontline, day in, day out, to support students. You are there for them on their hardest days at university. You strive to help them find a way through. You do it because you care – because you want the best for your students.
  • … In my year as Minister for Higher Education I have made this an absolute priority. There are 3 pillars to our approach: Funding vital services and projects; spreading and implementing best practice; and clear responsibilities for providers and protection for students.
  • The first pillar is about investing in the wellbeing of students. To provide nationwide access to free mental health resources and confidential support, we provided Student Minds with £3.6 million to set up Student Space. Over 450,000 students have now benefitted from this service, including those who recently braved the “freshers” experience… We are backing university wellbeing services to support these students as part of this year’s £15 million investment in mental health by the Office for Students (OfS)
  • Our second pillar is about best practice. We need to create the right conditions on campus for students to thrive through a whole-university approach to mental health. This means not just relying on student wellbeing services. It means everyone, from the Vice Chancellor down to the librarian takes responsibility for creating an environment and culture that supports positive mental health and wellbeing. The principles for achieving this are laid out in the University Mental Health Charter. ..Thanks to the hard work of university staff, and the backing of your leaders, you have delivered an incredible 50% increase in University Mental Health Charter Programme membership over the summer. We’re now at 96 universities, which is a big step – perhaps even a giant leap – closer to our target of all universities joining by September 2024. 
  • Clear responsibilities for providers and protection for students:…
    • I wrote to university leaders in June to ask them to take ownership of mental health at an executive level. The sector needs to come together to finish the job of embedding the guidance that has been set out.
    • I now want to turn to the work of Professor Edward Peck, and take this opportunity to thank him for all the progress he has made since his appointment as HE Student Support Champion. This summer I asked Edward to build on that work and chair the Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce – a vehicle for delivering real change… The taskforce will conclude its work in May next year, providing an interim update in early 2024.

He ended:

  • As I’ve said before, I am confident we have a strong plan in place, but I don’t rule out going further if needs be. If we do not see the improvements we need, I will not hesitate to ask the Office for Students to look at introducing a new registration condition on mental health.
  • Ultimately, we must do what it takes to provide the safety net that students and their loved ones expect and deserve as they embark on the amazing privilege of university life.

Not off the hook yet…

The House of Lords has continued their theme of inquiring into regulation. They’ve published a new inquiry into UK regulators. It’s described as a short and cross-cutting inquiry into UK regulators as a whole (including the OfS), with a specific focus on roles, remit, independence and accountability.

The inquiry will examine whether regulators as a whole have been given a clear job to do and whether their roles and remits are sufficiently discrete from one another. The inquiry will also examine whether regulators are appropriately independent of Government, including whether the right balance is being struck between strategic and political input from government and preserving regulators’ operational independence.

The inquiry will further examine how regulators should be held to account for their performance, and by whom – including the respective roles of the Government and of Parliament.

Lord Hollick, Chair of the Industry and Regulators Committee, said: The committee has recently conducted scrutiny of regulators including Ofwat, Ofgem, and the Office for Students. A common area of concern arising from all these inquiries is the relationship between the regulator and the Government, and the level of independence and accountability regulators have. Many regulators are public bodies funded by the taxpayer and have significant powers; it is therefore vital that they are scrutinised and held to account.

Quality

UUK report on the QAA’s (Quality Assurance Agency for HE) latest policy paper in the Future of Quality in England series: The right ambition, the wrong solution? How the Lifelong Learning Entitlement can deliver a high-quality learning experience.

UUK: The paper argues that the eligibility and scope of modules included within the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) is too narrow, and that pathways for progression throughout a learner’s lifetime are unclear. It outlines ways in which the learning experience will need to be adapted for modular learners and how this will impact the way quality is measured. The paper recommends that policymakers should:

  • Balance the option of working towards a full qualification with accessing a suite of standalone modules.
  • Facilitate greater collaboration with the sector.
  • Use evidence to determine how quality is measured. You can read the full policy paper.

Short summary available from QAA here.

Modules

UUK published their response to the OfS call for evidence on positive outcomes for modular study. The response includes:

  • Welcoming the OfS’ approach to policy development.
  • Agreeing with the OfS that the approach to regulation will need to change because of the LLE.
  • Supporting the exploration of completion measures for modular study.
  • Recognising the importance of understanding where students go after studying, whether that’s through further study or employment.
  • Considering how the reflective questions in the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) graduate outcomes dataset could inform what successful study looks like for modular learners.

Student Finance

The Minister for the School System and Student Finance, Baroness Barran, announced the introduction of regulations to allow plan 2 (undergraduate), plan 3 (postgraduate) and plan 5 (undergraduate) student loan interest rates to be capped automatically each month, where they would otherwise exceed comparable prevailing market rates.

There’s also to be a change to the calculation of the overseas fixed instalment repayments for plan 1 student loans (1998 to 2012) with the amended fixed instalment rate increasing to be equivalent to the monthly repayments of a plan 1 student loan borrower earning twice the median working age graduate salary in England. The Minister stated that this would remove a perverse incentive whereby higher earning borrowers residing overseas may have chosen not to submit their earnings information to the SLC in order to reduce their monthly payments.

Student loans:  Wonkhe – The Student Loans Company has posted provisional figures for its student finance dispersals in the current academic year – over £5bn in total, of which £2.06bn are tuition fee payments to providers.

Quick Student News

Commuter students: Shadow universities minister Matt Western: asked for an estimate of the number of domestic students commuting to university campuses in each of the last five years. HE Minister Halfon stated the closest approximation of commuter students shows the proportion remains at around one in four between 2018/19 and 2021/22.

Grades: Wonkhe report – Graduate employers are less inclined to focus on grades when looking for suitable employees – just 44 per cent of the 169 organisations surveyed by the Institute of Student Employers asked for a 2:1 or above, down from 76 per cent a decade ago…This year’s ISE Recruitment Survey also reveals that graduate vacancies are up six per cent on last year, but the average organisation receives 86 applications per vacancy (up 23 per cent on last year). It describes graduate employers as “cautiously optimistic”, but notes that less is being spent on recruitment. Overall, 92 per cent of employers were either “often” or “almost always” able to find the graduate employees they need. The Telegraph covers the report. Blog: The chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers shares the findings of this year’s survey of student recruiters.

Student deaths: Wonkhe – The government’s review of student suicides has come in for criticism from #ForThe100, the campaign in support of bereaved families. On Wonk Corner, Jim Dickinson goes over the issues.

Healthcare courses: Wonkhe – Recent UCAS data indicates that healthcare-related courses are not as attractive to applicants as they used to be. If the last time you looked at this area of provision was during the pandemic’s peaks of aspiration, more recent data will make it clear that all Universities UK, the Medical Schools Council, and the Council of Deans of Health have responded to the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan with a call for thoughtful reform of medical and healthcare provision and funding.

And UUK published Universities Powering the NHS: Working together to deliver future health skills. The paper sets out actions to meet the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan goals. Snippets: Universities fully recognise the challenges involved in such a radical expansion and transformation of health education system capacity…Success will depend on cross-party commitment to support and fund the plan across the next 15 years, which includes general elections and spending reviews.

UUK recommendations:

For universities and the NHS to work together successfully, five system conditions need to be addressed:

  1. a strategic shift within higher education to dramatically expand health education capacity
  2. a culture shift within the NHS to value and support learners and educators and improve the working environment
  3. implementation must be co-produced to an agreed roadmap
  4. funding must be sustained across the plan’s 15-year horizon
  5. regulation must be aligned, outcomes-based and adaptive

There are also five threshold conditions that need urgent attention:

  1. student recruitment including widening participation
  2. the educator and clinical academic pipeline
  3. capital investment to boost system capacity
  4. extending and diversifying placements and practice-learning
  5. health student and early career attrition

BU’s medical simulation game is featured under case studies.

Regional graduate premium: blog – Data on the graduate premium in the UK’s regions suggests some struggle to make the most of graduate-level skills. Debbie McVitty tries to work out what’s going on.

Political News

Dods provide a roundup of the Labour Party’s recent policy statements in The Labour Policy Roadmap – post-conference update. A sectoral breakdown of the party’s pledges and ambitions. Of interest to HE is their commitment to ban unpaid internships, however, it’s not a blanket policy as they caveat their policy commitment to allow unpaid internships when part of an education or training course.

They also commit to:

  • Reform university tuition fees system to lower pay-back costs for graduates.
  • Increase private and public R&D spending to 3 percent of GDP, improve collaboration between universities, business and local economic institutions, enable universities to develop self-sustaining local clusters of innovation and investment, and Introduce 10-year R&D funding settlements to support innovation.
  • Create more medical school places.
  • Create 7,500 more medical school places, 10,000 more nursing and midwifery clinical placements per year, and train 5,000 more health visitors.
  • Include a creative or vocational subject as one of the non-EBacc subjects in pupil’s Progress and Attainment 8.

HE statistics

The DfE published the education and training statistics with the most recent data on schools, attainment, qualifications gained, education expenditure, further education and higher education in the UK.

For HE there were 2,972,33 higher education (HE) students in 2021/22, of which 72% were undergraduates and 28% were postgraduates.

  • More females than males made up the overall student population (57%) and females made up a greater share at every level.
  • The most popular subject was Business and Management with 18% of all students enrolled (over half a million students), followed by Subjects allied to Medicine (12%) and Social Sciences (10%).
  • The majority of students studied full-time but proportionally more females than males studied part-time (23% vs. 19% respectively across all course levels).
  • In 2021/22, 23% of all HE students were from overseas (681,600 students).
  • Overall, 4% of 19 to 64-year-olds held a NQF level 4 or above in 2022 – 67% had level 3 or above, and 83.1% had level 2 or above.
  • Total UK government expenditure on education across the UK increased by 5.1% from financial year 2021-22 to financial year 2022-23.
    • Primary and secondary education saw an increase in spend of 2.2% and 7.1% respectively, while tertiary education saw a 3.6% decrease in spend.
    • Expenditure on education in real terms decreased by 1.3% from financial year 2021-22 to financial year 2022-23. Expenditure on education as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decreased by 0.1 ppts.

DfE also published the statistics which measure HE participation by school cohorts, calculating the proportion of the population aiming to complete a qualification at HE level (measured at age 15, excludes apprenticeship HE hopes).

Full data here.

Applicants

UCAS published the first statistical release of the 2024 undergraduate cycle highlighting applicant numbers for HE courses (with the early October deadline). Dods highlight the key findings:

  • The number of UK 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas (POLAR 4 quintile 1) is at a record high, with 3,160 students having applied, up by 7% from the 2023 cycle (2,950). 17,080 of the most advantaged (POLAR4 quintile 5) have applied this year compared with 16,720 last year, up by 2%.
  • A total of 72,740 have applied to start an undergraduate course with an October application deadline in 2024, down by 2% from last year (74,090), but up by 6% from 2020 (the October 2019 application deadline, for autumn 2020 entry) – the last pre-pandemic cycle (68,690).
  • In total, there have been 39,310 UK 18-year-olds apply by the deadline, the second highest number on record. This is up by 2% since 2023 (38,660) and up by 11% since 2020 (35,290).
  • The total number of UK 18-year-olds who have applied to medicine is 11,750, which is down by 7% since last year (12,700), but up by 8% since the October deadline for 2020 entry (10,930).
  • The number of UK students aged 35 and over applying to medicine for the first time (230) is up from 170 in 2023 (+31%), down from the record of 260 in 2021. This is the largest year on year percentage increase since 2021 (up 39%).
  • There has been a 18% decrease in the total number of UK 19-year-old applicants – which is 5,580 this year, but down from 6,770 in 2023.
  • The total number of international students (all ages) who have applied is 20,850, which is down from 2023 (20,970) but up from 2019 (20,280).
  • China remains the largest source market for international applicants; however the number of applicants from China is down 1% from 2023 (but up 31% against the October deadline for 2020 entry). The USA and Singapore have had the largest growth in applicants since last year, with applicants from USA increasing by 9% and Singapore by 6%.
  • There has been a 6% increase in UK domiciled applicants declaring receipt of free school meals. This is in the context of rising numbers of pupils in England receiving free school meals.

Access & Participation

The House of Commons Library briefing paper Support for care leavers provides an overview of the government’s policies to support care leavers.

The Women and Equalities Committee has endorsed the appointment of Alun Francis as chair of the Social Mobility Commission, following a pre-appointment hearing.

Wonkhe blog: Universities are often failing to enable disabled doctoral students to access their education. Pete Quinn explains a new research report on what can be done to change things.

Wonkhe also outline a new report from TASO examining the effectiveness of four interventions at universities in England – either intended to support disabled students, or improve employability – as well as making recommendations on the evaluation methods used. It notes that evaluations of the “scope and calibre” of those considered in the report are “time-consuming and resource-intensive”, and recommends institutions invest in further evaluation capacity and consider whether academics can provide support with evaluation.

The Sutton Trust published 25 Years of University Access – How access to HE has changed over time. They state it reveals persistent gaps for poorer students, particularly at the most selective universities. Key findings:

  • Over the last 25 years there has been a substantial increase in the number of young people going to university, with 50% of young people going on to higher education by age 30 for the first time in 2017.
  • Proportional gaps in access to university by under-represented neighbourhoods (POLAR) have narrowed over that time, though the gap itself remains significant.
  • Russell Group share of disadvantaged and low participation area students has declined since 1997 compared to the rest of the sector.
  • 4,700 state school students and 1,000 students from areas of the country with low historic participation ‘missing’ from 30 most selective universities each year – these students have the required grades but don’t get places.
  • Students from London are considerably more likely both to apply and to go on to attend higher education, with the rest of the country falling further behind each year.
  • Male students have fallen further behind female students and entry rates for White young people have lagged behind other ethnic groups.
  • These stubborn gaps persist despite considerable efforts from universities, government and the third sector to improve access rates. This emphasises the scale of the challenge in tackling access gaps in an environment with substantial social inequalities, and increasing demand for a limited resource (places at the most prestigious universities).
  • Widening participation efforts have likely prevented POLAR gaps from growing further. Groups promoting widening access in some senses have been ‘running to stand still’. In contrast, where access efforts have had less focus, for example on region, ethnicity or gender, gaps have widened.

Recommendations:

  • Tackling the access gap is likely to become more, rather than less challenging in the medium term, as a population bulge goes through the higher education system.
    • Universities should make greater use of contextual offers, taking into account the wider circumstances of applicants when accessing their potential.
    • It is also vital that universities are properly monitored and held to account on their progress in widening participation.
  • Findings show the importance of looking at how several different aspects of someone’s background and identity can impact on their likelihood of going onto university, and that it is important to look at these factors in combination, as well as overall trends for each group.
  • In the longer-term, we cannot tackle access issues at university level without also tackling the education attainment gap earlier on in a young person’s journey. This should start from the early years onwards, with efforts made at every part of the education system to ensure all young people can fulfil their potential.

International

Parliamentary question what assessment the government has made of the impact of changes to student visas on international students coming to the UK.

The International Higher Education Commission published Is the UK developing global mindsets? The challenges and opportunities for Internationalisation at Home in driving global engagement The report suggests a decline in the international diversity of UK campuses with the loss of incoming Erasmus+ exchange students and UK students’ decline in foreign language studies contributing. To address this the report recommends actions to enhance the advantages of internationalisation at home, including strengthening capacity and capability across various aspects of internationalisation.

The QAA published another policy paper within the Future of Quality in England series. Instilling international trust in English HE – a quality perspective argues that England’s HE international reputation is integral to its role as one of the UK’s biggest assets. It highlights that this reputation is built on trust, which is at risk of being undermined by divergence from international commitments in quality, unhelpful political rhetoric, and a lack of collaborative global outlook.

The briefing contends that, if steps aren’t taken to reinforce international trust, there are potential risks to international student recruitment, international research funding and mutually beneficial international partnerships. To reinforce international trust, the paper recommends that:

  • Policymakers should publicly champion the higher education sector on the world stage.
  • The Government should adopt a collaborative global outlook.
  • Make changes to England’s external quality system to increase international trust.

Inquiries and Consultations

Click here to view the updated inquiries and consultation tracker. Email us on policy@bournemouth.ac.uk if you’d like to contribute to any of the current consultations.

Other news

Good relations: Advance HE updated their guidance on promoting good relations in HE.  Covering how to prevent intolerance and develop a culture where relationships between diverse groups and individuals enhance the learning experience, protect freedom of speech and academic freedom, tackle harassment, and contribute to an inclusive society. It supports institutions to take a proportionate approach in decision making and suggests immediate, medium and long-term strategies for promoting good relations within the present legal framework. It is recommends that institutions should consider any incidents of hate and intolerance or situations where free speech and good relations intersect on a case-by-case basis within the framework of agreed policies, seeking specific legal advice where necessary.

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Research by BU academic on NFTs, Blockchain and IP law cited in Parliamentary Report

A report on ‘NFTs and the Blockchain: the risks to sport and culture’ recently published by the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Committee (CMSC) cites research by Bournemouth University’s (BU’s) Professor Dinusha Mendis.

The report follows the consultation that was conducted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in November 2022 and outlines how Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) and blockchains should be tackled in the future, particularly in relation to art and culture; professional sport and advertising.

In relation to intellectual property rights (IPRs), the report cites copyright infringement, limited recourse and redress (for consumers and creators), the scale of infringement, consumer confusion and the inflexibility of transferring IP as the main issues that needs consideration.

In responding to these issues, the report cites the research by Prof. Mendis calling for more protection for consumers and creators as a result of rising IP infringements, scams and frauds. The report also identifies the unique nature of NFTs and blockchains and cites Prof. Mendis’ research in demonstrating how current laws – such as ‘notice and takedown’ or ‘the right to be forgotten’ – which apply in other circumstances relating to piracy and counterfeiting, may not necessarily apply to online marketplaces. As such, the report recommends a code of conduct to be adopted by online platforms dealing with NFTs.

The hype surrounding NFTs was short-lived and in mid-2022, investors saw a collapse in the NFT market. However, as the report states, “cryptoassets such as NFTs continue to have advocates … [and] even if NFTs never again reach the peak they achieved over the last few years, areas of concern [in relation to regulation] remain”.

As such, based on the research presented in this report relating to intellectual property, the CMSC recommends that the “Government engages with NFT marketplaces to address the scale of infringement and enable copyright holders to enforce their rights”. In relation to sports, the report identifies the financial risks and harm which NFTs present to fans and the reputational harm it presents to clubs and recommends that “any measurement of fan engagement in sports, including in the forthcoming regulation of football, should explicitly exclude the use of fan tokens”.

Finally, in relation to advertising, and once again citing the research by Prof. Mendis, the report recommends that the Government respond to misleading and/or fraudulent advertising for NFTs.

For further information and for the full report, please see here: https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/41611/documents/205745/default/

HE Policy Update w/c 16 October 2023

Here’s your catch-up edition after the Parliamentary recess for the party conferences.

We’ve the full detail from the Conservative events and some snippets from the Labour Conference (we’re still awaiting some of the event transcripts and reports). In addition we have a guest slot from Nat and Stephen who attended the conferences.

Big news is the announcement that A levels and T levels are to be ditched for the Advanced British Standard qualification…in 10 years’ time, perhaps. And Minister Keegan is moving forward to establish minimum service levels for the HE sector during strike action.

Conservative Party Conference

You can read short summaries (provided by Dods) from a wide range of the fringe events held at the Conservative conference here. Pages 2-3 contain the list of fringe events for you to peruse.

Here are some teasers and snippets on the interesting ones:

Skills Britannia: Developing workforce capabilities to drive social mobility with Minister Halfon. The panellists spoke about the need for focus on vocational systems as much as the focus on universities, and the need for greater guidance to students on how they could access them.

Delivering the skills Britain needs – the role of modern universities with Gillian Keegan, Education Secretary. The session focused on skills and apprenticeships, with particular emphasis on the role which universities could play in closing the skills gap.

Snippets:

  • Graham Baldwin, VC of University of Central Lancashire – modern universities deliver not just on the academic but the vocational also, collaborations with business was something that was natural to universities, universities were crucial regional anchors to delivering the skilled workforce needed by UK industry. He said that the skills gap facing the UK was a major economic threat. He said closing these gaps required expanding skills and it was crucial to ensure modern universities provided flexible learning options to make this goal achievable for a wider group of learners.
  • Naomi Clayton, Learning & Work Institute, said higher education was increasingly important to growth and levelling up. She said that they needed a diversity of routes for skills education at all ages. Also spoke about the role of universities in supporting lifelong learning. She said that they needed a system which supported people to change careers and upskill throughout their lives. She said that the lifelong learning entitlement was a welcome move, but for many people, the idea of taking on more debt could be a barrier to accessing education and training.
  • William Atkinson, leader of the panel for Conservative Home, asked whether they had too many people going to universities, and if not, how they could adapt their courses to encourage people to go to universities and get skills.
  • Keegan said it was difficult to generalise. She said there were very few skilled careers that were not vocational or technical in nature, in some capacity. She said that it was not useful to have arbitrary targets, but they needed to make sure there were no rungs missing on the ladder for people to access a variety of opportunities.

How can science and innovation support an ambitious plan for economic growth? With George Freeman, Minister for Science. The panel discussed priorities for the Government in science and innovation, and what the main challenges facing the sector were.

Snippets:

  • Freeman – the Government’s mission was to shift the economic model towards research, innovation and science, away from the current services economy. Challenges facing the sector, Freeman first argued was Whitehall’s lack of ability to move at the same pace as the science sector. Second was the lack of skills. He said there was a disconnect between recruitment lists for jobs and the source of skills to meet them in many R&D clusters. Third was the lack of devolving more powers to R&D clusters
  • Professor Nigel Brandon, Dean at Imperial – wanted to see more stability in Government and a greater longevity of policies and incentives offered to the sector. He believed the priorities for research universities should be greater investment, access to a pipeline of talent and more international collaboration with other institutions.
  • Giles Wilkes, Institute for Government – the most important concept for innovation is openness, picking winners was needed and UK needs to choose where to focus attention and prioritise unlike countries such as the US which can cover more ground.

Key speeches:

Labour Party Conference

Fit for the future: How UK life sciences can drive growth and improve the health of the nation with Chi Onwurah, Shadow minister for Science, Research and Innovation. The panel focused on the vital role played by life sciences to the UK economy and the importance of every region of the UK supporting this sector.

  • Paul Blakely, Life Science Senior Policy Adviser, reasoned that the life science sector in the UK was now seeing a number of challenges due to increased competition in the sector due to increased investment in other countries during the pandemic. He also noted the NHS was in trouble which made the adoption of innovation difficult. He said the question was how could it be ensured that the UK maintained a competitive edge in life sciences.
  • Chi Onwurah, Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, expressed her belief that science and innovation were key to our economy, growth, and to improving our quality of life. She reasoned they were therefore key to Labour’s missions, such as achieving the highest sustained growth in the G7. Chi also noted that medicine technology was an area where science could be transformative and that was what the next Labour would be seeking to unlock.

Peter Kyle, Shadow Secretary of State for Science Innovation and Technology speech announced 10-year R&D budgets. Snippets:

  • This would allow relationships with industry to be built, long term partnerships to form and lead to investment in new technology and the infrastructure that underpins it. We will go further than ever before to make Britain the best place to innovate.
  • We’ll increase the number of University spinouts, accepting the recommendations of our start-up review. That includes better tracking of spinouts from universities with a dashboard to identify what’s working and where there are barriers. And we will work with universities to ensure there are a range of options on founder-track agreements helping to boost spinouts and economic growth.

Making Britain Work – Modern Universities and the Public Sector Workforce with Andrew Gwynne, Shadow Minister for Social Care. The panellists discussed the workforce crisis in the public sector and the important role universities played in training the next generation of public sector workers. The conversation predominately focused on the recruitment, training and retention of teachers and nurses, with panellists discussing why these vital sectors had become less attractive career paths.

Research

George Freeman, science research and innovation minister, wrote for Research Professional in Sold on science. The article is a quick whizz through all the major R&D developments introduced by the Conservative party from the ringfencing of R&D spend to the development of ARIA. It’s an easy read and show the policy progression of the last 13 years, or as Freeman names it the Conservatives legacy.

At the Conservative Party Conference Michelle Donelan (DSIT Secretary of State) announced:

  • AI: a £8 million will be available for AI scholarships over the next 12 months giving 800 more people the opportunity to start on courses. The funding will be disbursed by the OfS.
  • Innovation: a new £60 million Regional Innovation Fund (more on this below)
  • Characteristics: A review into use of sex and gender questions in scientific research and statistics (including those conducted by public bodies). This Cabinet Office review will be led by Professor Alice Sullivan (UCL) (funding provided by ESRC) and will produce guidance on the topic by May 2024. The terms of reference for the review are currently being discussed.

The Regional Innovation Fund will:

  • boost support for universities in areas with low levels of R&D investment.
  • be relative to the size of each UK nation (£48.8 million for 110 universities across England, delivered by Research England).
  • Allocations to the devolved administrations will be : £5.8 million for Scotland, £3.4 million for Wales and £2 million for Northern Ireland.

Biggest bang for our physics buck

DSIT published a policy paper UK strategy for engagement with CERN: unlocking the full potential of UK membership of CERN which aims to ensure the UK gains a good return on its membership of CERN. The UK is one of 12 members of CERN which aims to uncover the mysteries of the universe, including what it is made of and how it works. Space is an important investment area for the Government and they’re keen to maximise the UK’s research potential and leverage funding. CERN is better known for being the creators of the World Wide Web. Minister for Science George Freeman stated: As the second largest contributor to CERN, our return on investment is below where we would like it to be, with much more we can still do to ensure we take full advantage of all opportunities that are afforded by CERN membership. The strategy covers five areas:

  1. Research excellence: including more high-impact papers and maintenance of the UK’s global research ranking, contributing to the government’s science superpower ambition.
  2. World class skills :increased numbers of highly skilled technicians, engineers and scientists whose skills and expertise can be deployed in a variety of fields, advancing industrial capability and attracting world class talent to study and work in the UK.
  3. Commercial impact and innovation: increased uptake of innovation and commercial opportunities that drive growth in the UK and for the UK to be the partner of choice for international collaboration; and using business engagement with CERN to drive technological capability and innovation.
  4. International leadership: increased championing of our principles for engagement on a global stage, including diversity and inclusion, and more UK nationals in positions of leadership.
  5. Engage and inspire: increased awareness and appreciation of the profound impact that science and technology has on everyday life and more students pursuing STEM subjects, specifically:
    • Encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to pursue careers in STEM through the inspiration of CERN’s discovery science and technology.
    • Engage the public about the importance of STEM research and its societal impact.
    • Motivate all UK CERN stakeholders to set as ambassadors for the opportunities afforded by big science to people of all backgrounds.

More detail here.

Admissions: The Advanced British Standard

Rishi’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference said he was committed to stopping universities from enrolling students on courses that do nothing for their life chances, and that the target for 50% to attend HE as a false dream.

UUK Chief Executive, Vivienne Stern, responded to Rishi’s speech commenting: This political rhetoric is not in the interests of students, or the economic prospects of the country as a whole. We should be expanding opportunities and not talking down what is a national success story.

The biggest education announcement of the conference was Rishi’s intention to introduce the Advanced British Standard (ABS), a new Baccalaureate-style qualification for 16- to 19-year-olds which would bring A levels and T levels into a single qualification. The outline of the qualification would include 195 hours more teaching than current provision and learners would study five subjects. Responses to the announcement haven’t balked at a potential change to the long established A level system. Instead the ABS plans have been heavily criticised as there are already concerns for teacher recruitment/retention, particularly in FE, and sector commentators note increasing the number of teachers (even through incentives) is unlikely to yield the level of staff needed to deliver the qualification. If successful the change to ABS would be phased in over the next 10 years. The Guardian has coverage on the teaching crisis angle, highlighting an additional 5,300 teachers would be needed (not to mention a significant uptick in the education budget to fund them).  There are more responses to the announcement from the HE sector here.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan also spoke about the ABS in a subsequent speech.

Shortly after the speech the DfE published a 47 page paper: A world-class education system – The Advanced British Standard, meaning these plans have been in the offing for a while (and Maths to 18 was a key pledge in Rishi’s bid for PM). There’s a shorter Government press release here.

We have a summary if you’d like more detail on the ABS, summary content is drawn from the DfE paper.

The next steps in the ABS journey are:

  • Reforms are unlikely to be realised for at least a decade – with the pupils starting primary school this term expected to be the first cohort.
  • Government will launch a formal consultation on the “approach and design of our new qualification, and the accompanying work to strengthen the system to deliver it in the coming months”.
  • This will inform a White Paper to be published next year.

Party Conference roundup

Nathaniel Hobby and Stephen Bates feature in our latest guest update on the conferences. Nat and Steve attended the Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour Party conferences to understand future opportunities for BU, and to meet with fellow public affairs professionals to talk about collaboration in the coming year and here is their update.

  • At the Labour Party conference, Professor John McAlaney spoke on a panel about responsible gambling and, specifically, updates needed to legislation to help protect from gambling addiction and harm
  • Party conference season has been interesting, with polarising moods depending on which Party you speak to.
  • For the Liberal Democrats, investment in health and care was front and centre, and it was said to be the key issue they will stand on in the next election – well timed with BU’s roundtable discussion following an announcement of the Lib Dems £5bn free personal care plan. Hosted in Bournemouth, the conference was busy with a positive mood towards the future.
  • At the Labour Party Conference, the mood was very optimistic; among Labour Party members and politicians there is a general view that the next election is theirs to lose, and the optimistic mood is a welcome change to the current political climate. A buzzword that came up more than once was this being the time for a ‘prevention revolution’ in a number of areas. Fringe events on alcoholism prevention, gambling addiction prevention (including BU) and healthcare interventions to prevent health problems later in life were littered across the schedule.
  • There was a focus on the Labour manifesto and the subject of technology, a lot about the speed of change in technology and the need for political wheels to move faster. Specifically, it was seen that there is a need to focus on opportunities in the next manifesto, even in areas that can seem risky, as the gear change the country needs.
  • A constant throughout the fringe sessions was a frustration on the lack of collaborative working across sectors, governments, organisations and including universities to solve societal or local issues. Whether it is skills, care, social mobility, jobs or governmental issues, a key thread was the seeming, or perceived, lack of collaboration and co-working for the good of people in local areas. Universities have a role to play in supporting the collaboration, but also being vocal where these collaborations are already happening as a way of fighting the current perception.
  • In HE, the subject of tuition fees was back on the agenda, and it isn’t good news, with a Public First polling report (summarised elsewhere in this update) showing that there is not a lot of public support for increases. At many of the sessions, the mood music was that the HE sector still needs to do much more to show its value to the public, and ‘playing nicely’ with FE, apprenticeships and the skills agenda to look to the long term. Almost universally in any fringe event connected to HE was an agreement that FE and HE need to get as close to it as possible. As one panellist put it, “Universities aren’t the priority for the public and no political party will want to be seen to be adding to the public debt” so universities will need to work much harder to rise up a very busy post-election agenda.
  • For the Conservatives, there were reports in the media of low attendance in the main hall of the Conservative Party Conference but the fringe events were very busy and well attended.
  • Two big themes in the main auditorium were how the UK could/should become a superpower in Science and Innovation and apprenticeships. Imperial and UCL both sponsored events discussing building Britain’s science innovation which were attended by George Freeman (Minister of State for Science, Research and Innovation) and Andrew Griffith (Economic Secretary to the Treasury) respectively.
  • The question of university funding and the fact that international students now fund the shortfall in costs for domestic students, as opposed to providing additional research funding, was more of a focus for the Conservatives. The ministers appeared to agree that this was not a sustainable set up, although no answers to the problem were discussed. Interestingly George Freeman noted that the policy for university funding lies with the Department for Education but it clearly has a knock on impact for the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology who own research funding.
  • Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, attended an event hosted by Policy Exchange and Grant Thornton on degree apprenticeships. As a degree apprentice herself, Gillian Keegan is clearly very passionate about them and, although she said she wouldn’t implement targets, there is going to be a clear policy drive on that if she keeps the brief. She was joined on the panel by the VC of Manchester Metropolitan University who have around 2500-degree apprentices, and Labour Metro Mayor of Liverpool Steve Rotherham who is also a big supporter and will carry on that support if Labour win the next election. Minister of State for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Robert Halfon joined a panel discussion on apprenticeships for school leavers and UCAS joined a panel discussion in the Youth Zone about making it easier for young people to find apprenticeships and explaining how their portal will soon be a one stop shop for apprenticeships and degree courses.

Students

Student withdrawals

The SLC published the (early) in-year student withdrawal statistics. The figures compared the number of students withdrawing from university over five academic years from 2018-19 to 2022-23.

  • In 2019-20, a total of 29,630 withdrew.
  • In 2020-21, a total of 31,279 withdrew.
  • In 2021-22, a total of 39,405 withdrew.

Student Needs

Advance HE published the Student Needs Framework. It maps and categorises students’ needs as:

  • Individual competence, Confidence and Resilience; and
  • Belonging and Community.

It’s a broad overview and doesn’t delve into interventions and explore the multiple ways students may manifest their individual needs. Advance HE say: The framework is designed flexibly to support a broad range of colleagues, especially those involved in teaching, learning and student support in strategic or in practice roles. It will be most effective if adopted at an institutional level, mapped with consideration to your institutional context and priorities to enhance practice and policy.

More information here.

Uni Connect

The OfS published the independent evaluation of the Uni Connect programme’s impact on outcomes for learners. The report is based on learner survey findings after Wave 4 of the project and it recommends that Uni Connect partnerships and individual HEIs should:

  • Continue to offer sustained and progressive outreach to maximise the impact of Uni Connect on learners’ outcomes.
  • Embed personalised support, such as mentoring and masterclasses, with lighter-touch activities such as campus visits, in a multi-intervention approach.
  • Ensure information, advice and guidance focuses on the financial support available (in addition to the costs) and the non-financial benefits (as well as the financial benefits) of HE.
  • Deliver interventions for key influencers.
  • Work with schools and colleges to support attainment-raising.

Industrial action: minimum service levels

At the Conservative Conference Gillian Keegan, SoS Education, announced a consultation to introduce minimum service levels in universities during strike action to ensure students receive the teaching they deserve. The DfE have announced more details: The consultation will focus on stronger protections for final year students, key cohorts or those studying specialist subjects. If introduced, the minimum service level could ensure students get the education they pay for, protecting them from strike action, for example looking at how to guarantee continued services such as teaching contact hours and marking their work during walkouts.

The minimum service concept isn’t new – the Act requiring minimum service levels was passed in July 2023 and applies to education services alongside health, fire and rescue, transport, nuclear activities and border security. However, to implement this legislation regulations are required for each service. And a consultation was launched in August on some aspects of the implementation including what reasonable steps means.

In the DfE press release the government link the minimum service expectation with their priorities of ensure quality degree delivery (and value for money) and the OfS recruitment limits where courses have high student drop out. They state: Today’s announcement is another step in a series of long-term decisions to ensure a bright future for all children and young people, whether it be starting school, through to going to university or undertaking an apprenticeship.

We’ll be watching closely to see how they define minimum service for education, and specifically HEIs. Watch this space.

Regulatory | Free Speech

Here’s a reminder on the HE (Freedom of Speech) Act, which involves:

  1. a new strengthened duty to promote freedom of speech and academic freedom
  2. new OfS condition(s) of registration
  3. requirements for codes of practice
  4. regulation of students’ unions on freedom of speech
  5. the introduction of a statutory tort
  6. establishment of a free speech complaints scheme
  7. creation of the role of the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom
  8. monitoring of overseas funding in relation to risks to academic freedom and freedom of speech
  9. prohibition of non-disclosure agreements in complaints relating to harassment and sexual misconduct

UUK published a briefing and case studies aiming help universities to prepare for the HE (Freedom of Speech) Act. It sets out summarises the new legislation, highlights the consultation for the new OfS conditions of registration has not yet been published, explains the statutory tort, complaints and overseas funding. Helpfully it contains some information on the other legislations and legal duties which overlap or contain free speech content.

Fees

With the likelihood of a 2024 election looming attention turns once again to HE tuition fees. Public First published an interesting report Public Attitudes to Tuition Fees: What are Labour’s Options for Reform? The key findings are below but in short it’s a wicked problem – people want fees to be free or lower but don’t want to pay for them from the public purse, the level of debt students leave HE with remains an emotive issue.

  1. Labour made the right decision politically on fees. Our research confirms that Labour made the right electoral decision to move away from their pledge to abolish tuition fees. It is a decision that benefits Labour significantly more than it costs them as they head towards the next general election. By 43% to 30%, respondents thought Starmer was right to go back on the pledge to abolish tuition fees. Swing voters are even more likely to think that Starmer was right, with 48% saying he was right to drop the pledge, and 28% saying he was wrong to do so.
  1. Tuition fees are not a popular policy; in the abstract, there is a high level of support for fee abolition. People believe higher education is important: parents want their children to go to university, and they believe the cost is too high. They would ideally like to see fees cut or abolished entirely. This is broadly true across all demographics.
  2. However, people also think that there are other, more pressing priorities for spending, particularly in times of financial crisis. When we asked a narrow and direct question about whether people supported fee abolition, there was widespread support, but when the question was posed differently, with people given a list of options for the to pursue, or when people were told how much fee cuts would cost the taxpayer, support fell away.
  1. No matter how popular abolishing fees is in principle, in practice people are very against subsidising changes through general taxation. When informed of the overall cost, fee abolition is seen as too expensive, and there is little real appetite for it among voters. With the exception of raising corporation tax to pay for the abolition of fees, every other option has net negative support(more people oppose than support). It was the prospect of personal taxes and VAT rising to fund a fee cut that particularly put people off a fee cut. Hearing the scale of funding needed – and how this might need to be paid for – was a significant concern to voters
  1. People want university to be more affordable for students in the short term. Returning to maintenance grants was considered a popular alternative to the abolition of fees. Against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis, many considered the cost of the university experience as prohibitive (at least in principle). Voters are also supportive of cutting fees in certain circumstances – such as for those from low income families or studying socially and economically important courses (such as teaching or nursing).
  2. Reducing tuition fees is popular (although paying for it is not). Across the board, people think fees are too high and that people leave university with excessive debt. They would like to see tuition fees reduced, with £6,500-£7,000 being the most popular choice. In particular, people are sympathetic to the plight of young people who leave education with such high levels of debt (which most people hate) but are unsure what the alternatives are. Respondents reject the idea that fees should go up with inflation but are supportive in the abstract of the government providing additional support when this is framed as limiting the cost increase for students.
  1. There is a relatively high level of support for employers making a contribution to the higher education funding system. When described as a levy that businesses pay to universities who train their workers, 59% were in support, making it a more popular choice than additional government funding. Support dropped to 39%, however, when this was framed as higher taxes employers would pay in order to hire graduates – consistent with our findings throughout that there is widespread lack of support for higher taxation in any form.
  2. There are more rewards than risks for Labour when moving away from the abolishing tuition fees pledge. Abolishing or not abolishing fees has little difference on the voting intention for existing Labour voters but is an important policy choice for undecided or swing voters. We estimate there are 83 seats in total where Keir Starmer’s decision not to abolish tuition fees significantly boosts Labour’s chance of winning the seat – including places such as Buckingham & Bletchley; both Isle of Wight seats; and Mansfield.
  3. U-turning on fees may have positive electoral consequences, but it shouldn’t be shouted about. Our results suggest that dropping the pledge has a relatively minimal impact among Labour’s supporters, and if anything is assisting support among those who have switched over from the Conservatives. Labour moving away from fee abolition is likely to have positive electoral consequences, but the act of u-turning on yet another policy position should not be taken lightly. The public needs more information about the context surrounding changing policy positions, such as the impact of the economic environment on decision making and/or what that money would be spent on instead.
  4. Restoring maintenance grants is the option most likely to be both a vote winner and a seat winner for Labour. It was also the option where respondents seemed content for the taxpayer to fund the commitment. When we asked voters directly if they supported reintroducing maintenance grants, assuming the extra cost would be paid for through increased taxation, 55% said they did, while just 14% said they would be opposed. 50% of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a party which pledged to reintroduce maintenance grants, and just 8% said they would be less likely to do so.
  5. Introducing a graduate tax was also more popular than abolishing fees outright, particularly amongst younger voters. Reforms to student repayments could help shore up support amongst highly educated progressives. Voters supported the idea of a graduate tax by 43% to 22%. Young voters supported this most enthusiastically: 18-24s support it by 53% to 18%, and 25-34s by 50% to 22%. 36% of respondents overall said they would be more likely to vote for a party planning to introduce a graduate tax, compared to 19% who said they would be less likely.
  6. There is massive, untapped support for more investment in FE. While there is widespread support for higher education in principle and practice, there is significantly more public support for further education and apprenticeships – and far more than the politicians give credit for. Politicians of all parties ought to be talking more about FE, apprenticeships and training. This is particularly true amongst swing voters, and those in target red wall seats which do not have a local higher education institution.

A manifesto for HE and Research

HEPI ran fringe events at both Conservative and Labour party conferences asking what should be in the party’s manifesto for HE and research. The recording of the Conservative event is here, the Labour event content isn’t available (yet). Ahead of the fringe events HEPI published a Higher Education Policy Institute report on three vice-chancellors’ hopes ahead of the party conferences. It set out the perspective of three HEI leaders on what they wanted to see in the manifestos for HE at the next election.

The essays all emphasise the centrality of HE to the UK’s future success and cover a broad range of themes, including research, local partnerships, and a long term skills strategy. There are some areas of consensus among the three authors (tackling the cost-of-living crisis among students and the growing shortage of student accommodation). However, they differ in their prioritisation of the request for more public funding. The essays are worth a read, even if a bit predictable.

Chris Husbands (Sheffield)

  • Government should establish a National Skills Council, bringing together government, universities, further education colleges, sector bodies and business leaders to shape a long-term skills strategy founded on collaboration.
  • … current support from Innovate UK and Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) should encourage differentiated institutional missions and structures, which might focus on educational cold spots, or offer specific teaching-only vocational provision, tailored to the region
  • Government needs to re-engineer the Student Loans Company to drive flexible and part-time learning
  • Given resource constraints, we propose to fast-track the delivery of the LLE via regional Higher Skills Centres (HSC), focused on mature learners, and located in educational cold spots across the UK rather than a wide-scale rollout – for which systems and demand are still underdeveloped.
  • ….regional business support needs to be restored with universities as key partners
  • Government should create a ‘shared apprenticeship facility’ which would enable SMEs to pool their apprenticeship demands and connect to training providers, including universities
  • Government should establish a funding pot, which need not be large, to drive higher education and further education collaboration in areas where advanced training provision is underdeveloped – largely those towns and smaller cities which do not have a university presence
  • The Office for Students should be merged with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education to provide coherent oversight in the student interest.
  • Government should establish a strategic Tertiary Funding Council with oversight of the sector and the sustainability of institutions, with a more systemic view of the potential of universities to contribute to the full range of economic and social objectives.

Sasha Roseneil  (Sussex)

  • A COVID generation student premium
  • A mental health and wellbeing support grant and University Clinics
  • A ‘Science Superpower and Crucible for Creativity’ grant
  • A new focus on student maintenance
  • An independent, comprehensive review of university funding, to include citizens’ voices
  • Facilitating local public investment in student housing
  • Universities under a single government department

Adam Tickell, Birmingham

  • Foster a conducive environment for universities to thrive, so they can help to tackle the pressing challenges facing the country
  • Prioritise quality-related funding to allow universities to pursue high-risk high-reward discovery research
  • Adopt a long-term, sustainable and predictable funding model for higher education to protect universities’ future
  • Rebalance the current framework so that UK R&D remains internationally competitive
  • Promote and support UK universities on the world stage to maintain the UK’s attractiveness to international students
  • Set the broad policy parameters, then leave universities to get on with what they do best

Another manifesto: what might be in the King’s Speech

But before we get to an election, Policy Exchange have published a manifesto for the next session of Parliament – Iain Mansfield’s request for the King’s Speech. It includes a proposal for a Higher Education and Skills Bill (for England only), most of which will not be surprising to those who follow Iain on X or other platforms:

  • Cap overall student numbers:
    • To impose a duty upon the Education Secretary to, on an annual basis, determine the total number of undergraduate university places that would be funded for the following academic year, at least three months prior to the beginning of that year’s university application cycle.
    • In the event that Parliament did not approve a new annual quantity of places, the number of places funded would be the same as in the previous year.
    • The number of places funded may not be lower than 95% of the total number of places funded the previous year
  • Make the OfS share the cap out between providers based on a massive complex bidding system
    • To impose a duty upon the Office for Students to apportion the limit on funded places amongst higher education providers by imposing a limit on funded places upon each provider.
    • In determining the limits upon each provider, the Office for Students may consider:
      • The wishes of the provider.
      • The need to maintain stability within the sector.
      • The student outcomes achieved by the provider, as measured by completion rates, progression to highly skilled employment or further study and earnings.
      • National skills shortages, as specified in the Shortage Occupation List published by the Migration Advisory Committee.
      • The sufficiency of student accommodation provided by the provider or available in the vicinity of the provider.
      • Whether or not the provider is currently subject to one or more specific ongoing regulatory conditions of registration.
      • Guidance or Directions issued by the Secretary of State under Section 2 or Section 77 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.
      • The need to protect institutional autonomy.
    • In determining the limits upon each provider, the Office for Students may not consider:
      • The content of courses at the provider, and the manner in which they are taught, supervised or assessed,
      • The criteria for the selection, appointment or dismissal of academic staff, or how they are applied, or
      • The criteria for the admission of students, or how they are applied.
    • In determining the limits upon each provider, the Office for Students may not impose a limit that is lower than 95% of the limit imposed the previous year, unless the provider requests such a limit.
    • To impose a duty upon the Office for Students to impose a fine upon any provider that exceeds their place limit equal to twice the total value of tuition fees that would be paid by those students over the course of their studies.
    • The Office for Students may, at its discretion, choose to waive the fine for a provider that exceeds its place limit but does so by less than 2%, where it is satisfied that this was neither negligent nor intentional.
    • The Office for Students may not waive the fine for a provider more than once in any three year period.
    • To provide a right of appeal against such a fine the basis of severe procedural irregularities or significant factual errors only.
    • To provide that the Open University shall be exempt from all limits on funded places.
  • And then to also incentivise employers to invest in training
    • To create a Skills Tax Credit that would enable all businesses to claim a tax relief equal to 10% of the money spent on skills development that could be offset against their corporation tax.
    • Eligible skills spend would include spending on apprenticeship wages, any course at a UK Further Education College, registered independent training provider or registered higher education provider, T-Level placements (up to £1000 per placement), Skills Bootcamps and the cost of external trainers brought in for skills development.
    • Excluded skills spend would include any training required solely or primarily to comply with statutory obligations, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 or the Bribery Act 2010

There are other proposals in the paper including on housing, leaseholder enfranchisement, anti-social behaviour etc.  Not sure that any of this will turn into reality, certainly not in the King’s Speech this autumn, but these things may pop up in election material.

Access & Participation

The Sutton Trust has published the report 25 years of university access setting out how access to HE has changed over time. See page 4 for the key findings.

Inquiries and Consultations

Click here to view the updated inquiries and consultation tracker. Email us on policy@bournemouth.ac.uk if you’d like to contribute to any of the current consultations.

Other news

Medical schools: The government has asked the OfS to allocate an additional 205 places for medicine study as part of the drive to increase the number of doctors needed in the UK. Contact us for more information on this.

Cyber defence: UUK published guidance outlining the main cyber security threats to the HE sector and the impact of recent attacks against individual organisations. Actions universities are recommended to take include:

  • Review institutional security posture using the four-pillar security posture model described in the introduction.
  • Business continuity: make sure everyone in your organisation knows what to do in the event of a serious security incident. Regularly rehearse scenarios with a view to continual improvement, remembering to reflect changes in the threat landscape and technology.
  • Share and collaborate: Defending as one, higher education institutions should work together to share threat intelligence and expertise, which has a positive impact on the sector’s preparedness and capability to respond, both tactically and strategically.

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JANE FORSTER                                            |                       SARAH CARTER

VC’s Policy Advisor                                                              Policy & Public Affairs Officer

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