After a string of very long and detailed policy updates, we have a slightly lighter one for you this week, as most government attention has been on the budget and therefore, for once, HE has not been much in the spotlight. There have been a lot of very boring answers to Parliamentary questions but since they don’t move anything on we are letting you off. Even the OfS has been quiet this week.
We are expecting a “big year” for HE policy, so this is a moment to catch our breath. If you are wondering what we can look forward to, the first thing is likely to be the review of plans to allow students to return to campus “by the end of the Easter holidays”. And at some point there will be a deluge of announcements and consultations linked to the mega list of upcoming changes announced in January and GW’s letter to the OfS about priorities. If you haven’t already seen it, you can read more about what is coming in our latest Horizon Scan here.
Budget – big news but not for HE
As expected, not much in the budget for higher education. Press release: with links to the detailed documents here. And other related documents via links here.
The Build Back Better plan is what it suggests, with some nods to R&D but really not a lot, and some things to look forward to. A full response on the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding within 12 months (we were told to expect it in the November Autumn Statement). Lifelong loans consultation within 6 months. And the Research and Development Places Strategy and People and Culture Strategy within 6 months too.
In the press, John Morgan in the THE writes about visas and the fee cap (which was already announced):
- The government’s interim response to the Augar review had previously said it would “freeze the maximum tuition fee cap to deliver better value for students and to keep the cost of higher education under control”, which would be “initially be for one year” with “further changes to the student finance system…considered ahead of the next comprehensive spending review”….
- But the budget document contained mention of a freeze in the English tuition fee cap, currently at £9,250, for 2022-23.
After the announcements about the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, which we noted last week, the bill to establish it has now been published. As usual with a draft bill there is also a set of explanatory notes.
From the explanatory notes, the section entitled ARIA model explains what it will actually do:
ARIA is expected to emulate key features of the US ARPA model tailored to the UK R&D landscape. This may include:
- Organising ambitious research goals around the long-term programmes of work which are led by so-called Programme Managers. Programme Managers facilitate cohesion between individual research projects in pursuit of transformational breakthroughs. Programmes may include basic research through to the creation of prototypes and commercialised technologies.
- Significant autonomy for Programme Managers who are able to take advantage of innovative and flexible approaches to programme funding.
- A tolerance to failure in pursuit of transformational breakthroughs embedded in its culture. Only a small fraction of ambitious goals will be achieved, however ARIA will provide value from its failures, including spill-over benefits gained from intermediary outputs. For example, a particular goal may not prove technologically viable but in pursuing it, scientists may happen across another promising technology.
There is a bit in the Bill is about purpose:
In exercising its functions, ARIA must have regard to the desirability of doing so for the benefit of the United Kingdom, through—
(a) contributing to economic growth, or an economic benefit, in the United Kingdom,
(b) promoting scientific innovation and invention in the United Kingdom, or
(c) improving the quality of life in the United Kingdom (or in the United Kingdom and elsewhere).
Section 3 of the Bill is supposed to be the big distinguishing feature of ARIA. To get round the natural small-c conservatism and caution that government agencies usually have, with the Public Accounts Committee and the National audit Office breathing down their neck.
- Section 3 Ambitious research, development and exploitation: tolerance to failure In exercising any of its functions under this Act, ARIA may give particular weight to the potential for significant benefits to be achieved or facilitated through scientific research, or the development and exploitation of scientific knowledge, that carries a high risk of failure.
And there is a bit more in the explanatory notes on what tolerance for failure section is intended for:
- ARIA may set highly ambitious research goals which, if achieved, would bring about transformative scientific and technological advances. These advances would yield significant economic and social benefit. These goals may be highly ambitious meaning that it is likely that only a small fraction will be fully realised. The Bill allows ARIA to have a high tolerance to project failure.
- The ambitious research goals may require multi-year programmes of work where pay-back may be highly uncertain and success may not be realised for some years. It is likely that at least a proportion of projects are ones that would not be undertaken by other bodies. ARIA may fund opportunities which are untested and untried, but best suit its ambitious research goals.
- In performing these functions, the forms of support undertaken by ARIA may themselves carry high risk, for example, taking equity stake in a start-up company.
- ….Furthermore, in pursuing highly ambitious research goals, ARIA will be able to bring together high-calibre individuals and bodies from across the public and private sector R&D communities which might not otherwise have been brought together. These connections may endure, spurring future innovation under the leadership of ARIA or others.
Schedule 1 has a bit more technical info. There’s loads of stuff about hiring and firing and procedures and pay and committees
David Kernohan reviews it for Wonkhe, who compares it to UKRI’s powers. David suggests that the implication of the reporting requirements are that ARIA may not be supporting doctorates, and also flags the important and interesting point that ARIA is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. So all that high risk investment will only be as transparent as the reporting obligations require – mainly an annual report to parliament.
A new report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), funded by the Nuffield Foundation, finds that poorer students in sixth forms and colleges trail their more affluent peers by as many as three A level grades when taking qualifications at this level. The report is light on recommendations as it is focussed on understanding, rather than solving the issue that it raises.
They offer this set of conclusions in the executive summary:
- Whilst much of the focus should be on earlier phases, for the disadvantage attainment gap to close, a concomitant increase in efforts to limit the impact of disadvantage during the 16-19 phase is required. If disadvantaged young people are to avoid falling yet further behind, addressing this gap should be central to the government’s reform agenda for the 16-19 phase and for further education.
- Our findings also strengthen the case for including student level disadvantage measures within the 16-19 funding formula, alongside the area-based measures currently used. Introducing such funding as a Student Premium, alongside the associated accountability and transparency requirements for providers, would help heighten the focus on disadvantaged students during this phase.
- Critically, these results also predate the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lost learning and disruption to exams; factors which may have exacerbated the disadvantage attainment gap. To ensure that existing and emerging inequalities are identified and addressed we will continue to review and refine the provisional methodology presented in this report and monitor the 16-19 disadvantage attainment gap through 2020 and beyond.
The disadvantage gap in sixth forms and colleges Based on a new, exploratory analysis of the disadvantage gap at this phase, the research finds that:
- There is a large gap in attainment, equivalent to almost three A level grades, when comparing (on average) the best three qualifications of disadvantaged students (those who had claimed free school meals in secondary school) and the best three qualifications of their non-advantaged peers.
- For the very poorest sixth form and college students – those classed as “persistently disadvantaged” – who were on free school meals for over 80% of their time at school – the gap is even wider, equivalent to four A level grades.
- There was no progress in closing the 16-19 gap between 2017 to 2019 and this is likely to now be worsened by the unequal impact of the pandemic on learning loss, along with the very different approaches to assessments seen in academic and vocational qualifications during 2020.
Which factors explain the disadvantage gap at sixth form and college level? When exploring the contribution of different factors to the large gap at this phase, the research finds that:
- A large proportion of the gap (39%) at the 16-19 education phase can be explained by students’ prior attainment at school (GCSE). Poorer students enter sixth form and college at a significant disadvantage compared to their more affluent peers, having on average, achieved far lower grades previously at school.
- The type of qualifications taken by poorer students also explains a large part of the gap in 16-19 education (33% of the gap): disadvantaged students are more likely to enter fewer, and lower-level qualifications.
- However, while poorer students’ previous level of academic achievement and type of qualification play a strong role in the gap at 16-19, socio-economic disadvantage may be contributing to these students falling even further behind during this phase.
- When controlling for student’s prior attainment and qualification type, poorer students are still shown to achieve poorer grades compared to their more affluent peers – around the equivalent of half an A level grade. This is significant, as it shows poorer students face an extra attainment penalty during the 16-19 education phase.
How does the sixth form and college gap vary across the country? While on average, poorer students in sixth forms and colleges trail their more affluent peers by the equivalent of three A level grades, there are great disparities across England:
- Poorer students are the equivalent of five whole A level grades behind their more affluent students nationally in Knowsley (5.4 A level grades behind) North Somerset (4.8 grades behind) and Stockton-on-Tees (4.7 grades behind).
- In sharp contrast, in many London areas, poorer students are level with or even ahead of their more affluent peers nationally. The areas with the lowest disadvantage gaps in the country are Southwark (poorer students are 1.2 A level grades ahead), Redbridge (0.5 grades ahead) and Ealing (0.5 grades ahead).
- Of the 20 local authorities in the country with the smallest 16-19 disadvantage gaps, almost all of them are situated in or around the London area, with the exception of Redcar and Cleveland (20thsmallest gap).
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