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HE policy update No 12: 20th May 2024

The year started fairly quiet and then it all took off.  There is more to come on the international student story but the big news at the end of the week was the OfS financial sustainability report (which is linked of course, to the international student story).  A report on skills and LLE suggests we need to get better at credit recognition (now where have we heard that before?  Gavin Williamson wrote to the OfS about making it a priority in February 2021 but I don’t recall anything happening – there were other things going on at that point).

All change in Parliament

According to the Institute for Government, as of 9 May 2024, 104 MPs have announced that they will not stand again at the next general election

  • 64 Conservative
  • 19 Labour
  • 9 SNP
  • 8 Independent
  • 2 Sinn Fein
  • 1 Green
  • 1 Plaid Cymru

Research misconduct

The UK Research Integrity Office has released a report about the barriers to investigating and reporting research misconduct.

There are three themes:

  • the need for every actor involved to have clarity on the relevant procedures and processes;
  • confidence that these procedures will be followed (and the relevant parties have the appropriate skills, resources and information to do so);
  • and wider shifts in research culture which destigmatises research misconduct, promotes transparency, and ensures the task at hand – to uphold the research record – remains at the heart of investigating and reporting efforts.

The report makes four proposals:

  • The adoption of standardised requirements and procedures detailing how allegations of research misconduct are investigated and reported
  • Professional research misconduct investigation training for all sectors undertaking research
  • A flagging system that promotes transparency, destigmatises allegations of research misconduct, and normalises early raising of concerns
  • National infrastructure to collect and report on research misconduct cases annually

Education

Skills Commission report

The Policy Connect Skills Commission report is out. Perhaps not surprisingly, it calls for long term joined up thinking and associated funding.  The most interesting recommendation for HE, apart from the strategic approach in the first two recommendations, which includes devolving spending for adult skills to regional authorities, is the last one, which is a working group on cross-provider credit recognition in HE to support modular and lifelong learning.

  • Recommendation 1: The Government should develop a national skills strategy that is embedded within a wider industrial strategy. It should create a Skills and Workforce Council, a non-departmental public body at arm’s length from government, to oversee the delivery of the strategy’s goals.
  • Recommendation 2: The Government should provide Mayoral Combined Authorities and other regional authorities with “no-strings-attached” funding settlements for adult skills and an enhanced set of powers to shape skills provision in their area.
  • FE:
    • Recommendation 3: Further Education colleges should receive multi-year funding settlements of 2+ years from the Education and Skills Funding Agency or, where applicable, their regional authority.
    • Recommendation 4: The Department for Education should deliver a new Further Education Workforce Strategy.
    • Recommendation 6: The Department for Education should extend the Pupil Premium Plus to looked after children and care leavers aged 16-19 in Further Education, building on the successful pilot programme.
  • Apprenticeships
    • Recommendation 5: The Government should enact a multi-pronged strategy to address the financial and educational barriers that 16-19-year-olds face when seeking to take up and complete an apprenticeship. The strategy to help young apprentices should involve:
      • Encouraging and supporting all regional authorities to introduce free travel.
      • The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) exempting them from earnings-based reductions in Universal Credit and Child Benefit payments.
      • Providing a VAT exemption for their equipment purchases.
      • Providing them access to the maintenance loan system.
      • The Department for Education developing an alternative to maths & English exit requirements.
    • Recommendation 7: To increase investment in skills, all Apprenticeship Levy funding should be allocated to training and not be retained by the Treasury.
    • Recommendation 8: The Government should reform the Apprenticeship Levy. Employers should have greater flexibility to use funds for a range of high-quality training. Part of the levy should be ringfenced to promote entry-level talent in the workforce.
  • Lifelong learning
    • Recommendation 9: The Government should launch a new lifelong learning initiative that supports the “right to retrain”
    • Recommendation 10: The Department for Education should develop the digital infrastructure to underpin life-long learning. Each learner should have access to a personalised digital environment including a skills account and passport
    • Recommendation 11: The Higher Education Minister should lead a working group on cross-provider credit recognition within the higher education sector. The group should include senior figures from the sector and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)

Student complaints: OIA annual report

The next sections of this update include doom and gloom about financial sustainability and more worry about limits on international students, which would make the situation worse. However, in this context it is helpful to have a reminder about student experience.  While it is a negative take, because only otherwise unresolved complaints that have exhausted university processes can be taken to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, their annual report provides a snapshot of where the sector is at.

Summary: complaints are up, mostly driven by complaints by international students.  Some stats are set out below. there is lots of useful advice on how to avoid these problems: mainly listening to students, applying processes properly and making sure that policies and communications are clear.

TEF analysis

The Office for Students have published another analysis of the TEF which focuses on strategic approaches to improvements.  Findings summarised below.  there’s a theme: it’s about impact.

Planning for and implementing success

  • … The relationship between mission and values on one hand and the strategic steps taken to improve practices on the other is not always fully articulated. However, the importance of the specific context of each provider type is evident.
  • Providers describe a range of operational frameworks employed to effect strategic change. These include frameworks for approaches to teaching, curriculum design and student assessments. It is not always made clear how wide the implementation of these frameworks is across undergraduate provision, and how they are evaluated and adjusted accordingly. In the best examples, frameworks helpfully illustrate changes to practice and their impact is evaluated with reference to internal and external data.
  • Some providers have explicitly changed the scope and content of their educational provision during the TEF period, whereas for others there appeared to be more continuity. Where changes had been made, providers typically explained the reasons for them in relation to improved impact on students. Evaluation of that impact, where provided, was helpful.
  • Providers all refer to a range of ways in which staff whose roles relate to student education, student experience and student outcomes are developed. Advance HE fellowships play an important role in structuring developmental provision, both for early career staff and with respect to continuing professional development. The relationship between developing staff and addressing challenging areas (for example, particular programmes with poor student satisfaction or outcomes, or in thematic areas such as assessment) is sometimes, but not always, made clear. Findings from evaluating staff development are not always indicated, but within 25 pages it is very difficult to include information of this kind. Some providers highlight new or changed staff roles that have made a demonstrable impact on student experience or outcomes.
  • The development of resources, estate and infrastructures has been significant for many providers in the sample. The impact of the global Covid pandemic on practice is frequently noted; the development of digital resources and online infrastructures has been a high priority, resulting in some changes to approaches to teaching and learning. Providers also describe improvements to the built environment, and these accounts of improved learning environments are most effective when their development has been related purposefully to changing modes of teaching and student engagement, and when their impact has been evaluated.
  • Providers give strong accounts of the ways in which they are embedding working with students as partners into the life of the organisation. Many providers have moved beyond simply including student representatives on committees, to developing much more comprehensive partnerships with students’ representative bodies. Examples of activities include regular student forums, ‘students as change agents’ initiatives and student ambassador schemes. Most providers also highlight the importance of maintaining and enhancing strong relationships with alumni, who can, for example, act as advisors for programme teams and as mentors for staff or students.
  • The importance of partnerships is made clear in many submissions. A range of partnerships is articulated; these may be academic, industry-related or civic. The rationale for the choice of partners is generally clear, and their impact on student experience and outcomes articulated, but more could perhaps be done, even within the page limit, to highlight evaluations of partnerships in relation to impact on students.

Evidencing, rewarding and celebrating success

  • Some providers have changed or enhanced their ‘planning and review’ frameworks. Some have adopted Theory of Change principles, which can help to pin down key purposes, actions and approaches to evaluation.
  • Providers highlight internal data, both qualitative and quantitative, to illustrate progress made in relation to TEF features. Some providers are very clear about the range of internal data available to them, how it is being gathered, how it has been improved and how key findings have been acted upon. Providers also refer to external datasets, including the published OfS data and other sources of data, for example the International Student Barometer. Providers sometimes helpfully link, compare and analyse data from different sources that relate to similar themes; again, it is difficult to do this at any length within the word limit, but key areas of development can be highlighted briefly.
  • Some providers have the capacity to undertake research studies into student education, student experience and student outcomes, which then inform practice. Some also refer briefly to published research from the sector and its relevance to their strategic steps for improvement. Such studies can provide a helpful evidence base for action, and in some cases students become partners in undertaking research, bringing their insights to bear in helpful ways. Smaller providers may benefit from collaborating in this area.
  • Many providers have improved their promotion and reward frameworks to improve the status of teaching, innovation and education-focused leadership. These are helpfully outlined, although with varying degrees of clarity with respect to the numbers of staff impacted and the ways in which this may be impacting student experience and outcomes.
  • Different approaches are taken to highlighting and promoting successes. Annual awards for staff, some or all of which are voted for by students, are highlighted as providing valuable opportunities to celebrate success and promote innovations and good practice. Providers also highlight institutional awards and rankings. The extent to which these add to the submission can be variable; context and scope of the impact recognised by the awards or rankings can be difficult to ascertain. However, there are many positive examples of promoting and celebrating excellent provision and improvements among and sometimes beyond the provider’s community.

Overall:  the TEF submissions provide credible accounts of very high quality and outstanding practices. They are strongest when links are clearly made between the planned steps, the nature and scope or the actions taken, and the evidence of improved student experience or outcomes. The use of Theory of Change principles could be helpful in establishing consistent practices with respect to embedding meaningful evaluation into all identified areas of improvement. These principles, or comparable articulations of logical strategic steps through the planning, action and evaluation process, could both help providers embed evidence-based practice in all areas of development and articulate those approaches even more clearly and succinctly in future TEF submissions.

Post-study work visas

We are expecting some sort of government response this week to last week’s MAC report recommending that the visa should stay as it is and there is visa data from the Home Office out on Thursday.  But while we wait there are other things to think about.

The FT has an article on the public perception of international students.  Citing a Survation poll:

  • A significant consensus emerges in the survey: 57 per cent of people think illegal immigration should be the priority and an even larger majority, 66 per cent, think that the post-study visa should allow international graduates to work in the UK for the two permitted years — or even longer.
  • Just 2 per cent thought that restricting the ability of students to stay in the UK and work after their studies would be a good way of tackling high immigration and only 1 per cent want the government to focus on reducing international student numbers. (For comparison, 45 per cent say that blocking small boat arrivals should be the priority.)

On Wonkhe, David Kernohan has asked why there aren’t more home PGT students.

  • PGT students (headcount) paying home fees have fallen sharply, from over 200,000 in HESES20 to just over 160,000 in 2023. This could be a decline from a pandemic-era boom, or a result of a high number of vacancies within the high-skill end of the job market, but it also represents bad news for provider incomes.
  • There’s a subject aspect to this too. The continuing absence of HESA Student 2022-23 data means we can’t be as precise as I might like, but the most notable decline is in the “D” (classroom-based, non-STEM) subjects – and I’d take an educated guess that much of the decline has been in business courses.
  • People who have completed a higher degree report a higher quality of work (a compound measure developed at HESA that includes consideration as to whether a graduate finds their work “meaningful”, whether they are using what they have learned in their studies, and whether what they are doing aligns with future plans). This is variable by subject, but offers a better insight into the wider benefits of postgraduate study (salaries or job types don’t really work when so many take postgraduate courses while already in employment).

And what would Labour do?  This from the Evening Standard gives a flavour:

  • A Labour government will recognise the “major contribution” made by international students to the UK economy and be led by evidence about its impact on immigration, shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said. “International students make a major contribution to our country in economic terms,” she said in an interview with the Standard, pointing to their higher fees feeding into a “cross subsidy” for British students. “Alongside that, the jobs in local communities that are created and the investment that comes – that’s felt in every community right across the country that has a university,” the shadow minister said.
  • Ms Phillipson stressed: “We do want to bear down on the very high levels of net migration that we see overall. And we’ll be looking carefully at whatever the Government says in response to the Migration Advisory Committee. “But they have set out some very clear recommendations which are evidence-based, and our approach on international students will be in line with the best available evidence,” she said.
  • “The majority of students who come here have a great experience and then return home to their country of origin. And then we build those ties that endure over the long term, our standing in the world, business links.”

OfS annual financial sustainability report

The Office for Students have issued their annual sector financial sustainability report and, no surprise, it makes a grim read. Alongside this there is an insight brief

Some extracts from the main report:

  • Overall, providers are forecasting deterioration in the short- to medium-term financial outlook. Their data returns show that the sector’s financial performance was weaker in 2022-23 than in 2021-22, and is expected to decline further in 2023-24, with 40 per cent of providers expecting to be in deficit and an increasing number showing low net cashflow.
  • The sector is predicting an improvement in outlook from 2026-27 onwards, however, this position is based on significantly optimistic predictions of student recruitment for the sector as a whole. Our modelling of different recruitment rates suggests that the actual outturn position for the sector in the short and medium term is likely to be even more challenging than providers have forecast and the longer-term recovery they forecast is significantly uncertain. Without the growth assumed in providers’ student recruitment forecasts, our analysis suggests that the recovery providers are anticipating would be reversed and the financial situation would continue to weaken across the period to 2026-27 unless mitigating action is taken
  • In aggregate, the forecasts submitted by providers assume growth of 35 per cent in international student entrants and 24 per cent in UK student entrants between 2022-23 and 2026-27. The latest data on undergraduate applications and student sponsor visa applications indicates that there has been an overall decline in student entrants this year, including a significant decline in international students. This contrasts starkly with the sector’s growth forecast at an aggregate level….
  • Providers need to be ready to manage this uncertainty. They need to have plans in place to respond proactively if they are not able to achieve their student number targets and to respond to other risks that may be present in their specific context. We know that many are taking action to secure their financial position. While this can involve making difficult decisions, leadership teams are right to take action to ensure their institutions are financially sustainable over the medium to long term and to ensure they can continue to provide a high quality education to students.
  • Financial performance and strength vary significantly between providers. However, projections from the sector’s financial data show that an increasing number of providers will need to make significant changes to their funding model in the near future to avoid facing a material risk of closure. We are seeing some strong examples of this in the sector, with providers proactively identifying risk and adapting their operating model to respond to the emerging challenges. Within the information submitted by providers, there are examples of steps to improve efficiency. Many providers have put significant focus on protecting their cashflow, ensuring they are well placed to maintain their viability and are prepared for future financial risks. However, our view is that many providers will need to take additional, or more significant, action to fully respond to the financial risks that the sector is facing. It is important that providers are developing robust and realistic financial plans that incorporate stress testing and contingency planning.
  • The growth [over the last few years] in business and management, law and social sciences correlate with those subject areas that are often considered less expensive to deliver, where there is greater demand and where less specialised facilities and equipment are required for students’ learning

On Wonkhe there is a review of what it all means and the four scenarios that the OfS have used to suggest what might happen next.

HE policy update No 11: Migration Advisory Committee special

The Migration Advisory Committee review is out!

The report was released on 14th May as planned.

Firstly, because you are all interested in this, the recommendations,  Worth reading and set out (in more detail but lightly summarised) at the end of this update, but broadly:

  • They propose keeping the post study work visa because numbers will fall anyway as a result of the other changes (dependants for students and salary thresholds for skilled workers) will reduce the numbers of students coming and those staying for the long term in any event.  They note the impact on universities of removing it, particularly universities outside London and the South East in the context of no increase in tuition fees.
  • The government wants the graduate visa route to support the UK labour market (mainly graduate roles and STEM, they are not happy about international students working in non graduate roles in social care). In response to this, rather than suggesting subject level caps, as some had predicted, they merely suggest that the government and the sector should “collaborate” on integrating international students into work in priority sectors.
  • But there are some recommendations for change, particularly in relation to agents and data monitoring. On agents, they recommend that “universities should be required to publish data on their spend on international recruitment agents and the number of students recruited through agents annually”.  They also suggest that the voluntary code for agents is probably insufficient and therefore recommend a mandatory registration system for international recruitment agents and subagents which includes quality controls, and enforced removal of agents from the system for compliance breaches, and a data sharing framework to monitor compliance.  They want universities to have to say which agent they have used on a CAS application.
  • On data, they want universities, who already have to report completion of a programme, to report on degree class. This would inform applications to the Graduate route.  They want the Home Office to sort out its own data and use HMRC data.

It is also important to note that the introduction makes it clear that they do not believe that there is significant abuse of the Graduate route.

Context: The MAC quote the government’s purpose when setting up the graduate route:

  • In 2021, the Home Office outlined the key objectives of the Graduate route. It is worth quoting this in full: “The Graduate route is introduced to enhance the offer to international students who choose, or are considering choosing, to study in the UK. It is intended to retain their talent upon graduation thus contributing to the UK economy. Through increasing the attractiveness of the UK as a destination of study, the policy will ensure the UK remains internationally competitive, assist to achieve the Government’s ambition to increase the number of international students in higher education and increase the value of education exports.

The questions: the committee summarise their instructions (important because of what has been said since)

  • The letter made clear the intent of the government to continue attracting “the brightest and best” international students to study in the UK consistent with the International Education Strategy, and the important role the Graduate route has played in this ambition. However, there was a concern in the commissioning letter that the Graduate route may be attracting migrants to come to the UK primarily for post-study work opportunities, rather than to access a quality education and the secondary opportunity to gain experience in the UK labour market.
  • The government asked us to provide evidence in answer to 5 questions:
    1. Any evidence of abuse of the route including the route not being fit for purpose (covered in Chapter 3); (see above; no)
    2. Who is using the route and from what universities they graduated (covered in Chapter 1);
    3. Demographics and trends for students accessing a study visa and subsequently accessing the UK labour market by means of the Graduate route (covered in Chapters 1 and 2) (see above);
    4. What individuals do during and after their time on the Graduate route and whether students who progress to the Graduate route are contributing to the economy (covered in Chapter 2); and,
    5. Analysis of whether the Graduate route is undermining the integrity and quality of the UK Higher Education system. This includes an understanding of how the Graduate route is or is not effectively controlling the quality of international students, such that it is genuinely supporting the UK to attract and retain “the brightest and best”, contributing to economic growth, and benefiting British higher education and soft power – in the context of the government’s wider International Education Strategy (covered in Chapters 3 and 4)

Recommendations:

The future of the Graduate route

…. Based on our analysis, the Graduate route is broadly achieving its objectives and supporting the International Education Strategy. We recommend retaining the Graduate route in its current form.

In making this recommendation, our key considerations follow.

  • The government’s concerns about misuse of the route and its aim to reduce net migration:
    1. The restrictions on dependants on the Student route only came into force in January 2024. This change of policy on the Student route is in effect a restriction to the Graduate route, as dependants are only eligible for the Graduate route if they have been dependants on the Student route. Early indications show that this change will reduce the number of international students coming to study in the UK later this year, though it is not yet possible to assess the full impact given its recent implementation. In time, this change should reduce the numbers of both main applicants and dependants on the Graduate route as the student cohorts move into the route.
    2. We also expect the share of people moving from the Graduate route to long-term work visas in the UK to decline due to significant increases in salary thresholds on the Skilled Worker route. It is possible that this could potentially disproportionately affect some groups of international students and we would expect that the Home Office would have considered this whilst conducting an Equalities Impact Assessment before changes were made to the route.
  • The impact of closing or further restricting the route on the higher education sector:
    1. Under the current higher education funding model, closure or additional restrictions could put many universities at financial risk. There has been a substantial fall in the real value of domestic fees since their introduction and many HE providers are becoming increasingly reliant on international student fees as the business model to fund increasing losses on domestic student provision (driven primarily by inflation) and research. If the government were to prioritise different objectives and restrict the route significantly, it should only do so once the full impact of the change to the dependants rules on the Student route and therefore the Graduate route can be seen and once it has addressed the current HE funding model which is driving the dependence on international student fees.
  • The government’s levelling up agenda:
    1. Based on where the expansion of student numbers has occurred and the reliance of regional economies upon universities, a decrease in international student numbers due to the restriction or closure of the Graduate route could disproportionately impact local and regional economies outside London and the South East.
  • For these reasons, our recommendation is to retain the Graduate route in its current form.
    1. However, we do suggest that greater collaboration between government and the HE sector could be fostered to support the government’s desired labour market objectives for the route. International graduates provide a potential pool of underutilised labour and could be better integrated into priority occupations and sectors. Universities benefit from the Graduate route, and they could further support the integration of international graduates into work and do more to raise awareness of the route among employers.

International Recruitment Agents and the Agent Quality Framework (AQF)

  • It is important to protect international students from abuse and exploitation and to ensure that UK HE and our available study routes are being represented accurately by international recruitment agents. While we recognise the valuable role that many agents play in supporting international students and HE providers, we have heard from student representatives and Graduate visa holders about poor practice amongst some agents and sub-agents, such as providing misleading information about UK HE to prospective students.
  • There is limited transparency around the extent to which universities are using agents. We recommend that universities should be required to publish data on their spend on international recruitment agents and the number of students recruited through agents annually as a starting point to improving disclosure.
  • Whilst we welcome the voluntary Agent Quality Framework (AQF) to control for the quality of agents going forward, the current lack of a mandatory data sharing framework makes it difficult to understand which agents are working in the best interests of UK HE and students and the scale of poor practices. Based on experience of voluntary schemes within the immigration system, there is insufficient evidence that this voluntary code will prove effective against deliberate poor practice. We recommend that the government establishes a mandatory registration system for international recruitment agents and subagents which encompasses the quality controls in the voluntary AQF, consulting with the Devolved Administrations to ensure UK-wide coverage. Where agents and subagents are shown to have engaged in non-compliance, they should be removed from the system.
  • We also recommend that a new data sharing framework encompassing key parties including universities, the British Council, and UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), should be established to monitor agent and subagent practices effectively. This could include a requirement for universities to submit which agent has been used in an application for a Certificate for Acceptance of Study, allowing UKVI to collect comprehensive data on agents.

Recommendations on data and monitoring

  • …. the introduction of the Graduate route in 2021 was a major policy change and we find it extraordinary that the government appeared to have very limited plans for data collection, monitoring and evaluation when the route was launched. Until this review, there was for example no data readily available looking at what universities those on the Graduate route had attended. In future, we recommend that the government should only open new migration routes or make significant policy changes when it has a clear plan for how it will collect and monitor data to assess the effectiveness of the route against its objectives and understand wider impacts. ….
  • We also recommend that the Home Office introduces a requirement for universities to provide confirmation of the course outcome (e.g. class of degree) on the Student route, in addition to confirmation that a course has been successfully completed which is currently required. This should be part of the process for international students applying for the Graduate route, and that the data are collected in a way that will enable statistical analysis. This will enable an understanding of whether the government’s objective of retaining talented students has been achieved.
  • We have also come across significant issues on the misunderstanding or mislabelling of Home Office data, … We recommend the Home Office undertakes a review of the data variables used for analytical purposes across the largest visa routes (including the Skilled Worker route, Student route and Graduate route) to develop a clear definition of what these data represent, and the quality of each variable collected. …We recommend that the government explore and make further use of the HO/HMRC matched data. … Data which follows the migrant journey over time linking between visas and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) earnings data is useful for analysing long term migrant progression and impact over time. …

Other data

Alongside the report, the Home Office published some data on migrants use of the Graduate route

Student perspectives

The Home Office also published some research on the sponsored study route to understand the broader context including the motivation of students and HEI perspectives.

So what next?

Well of course, just because the MAC report says keep the post study work visa doesn’t mean that the government will.  There appeared, from some of the media reports, to be a fair level of unhappiness with the outcome of the report.  There was a distinct lack of formal response though.  Those in the sector rushing to celebrate should be cautious.

The BBC:

  • The prime minister thinks there is “further to go” to bring down legal migration numbers, according to Rishi Sunak’s spokesman. “British students should be the priority for our education system and universities – and student visas must be used for education, not immigration,” he said. “We are focused on driving down migration whilst ensuring the UK attracts the best and the brightest.”

That sounds like doubling down.

The FT:

  • Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is still looking to restrict the UK’s graduate visa scheme to cut legal migration to Britain, even after he was strongly advised by the government’s migration adviser not to abolish the programme. Sunak’s spokesperson has insisted ministers were not obliged to accept recommendations from the independent Migration Advisory Committee.
  • …Senior Tories have been divided over whether to restrict the route. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and education secretary Gillian Keegan have privately lobbied to retain the scheme in light of the severe financial strain many universities are under, said people familiar with the matter. But former migration minister Robert Jenrick and former health minister Neil O’Brien, who released a scathing report attacking the Tory government’s legacy on migration last week, criticised the MAC’s findings. Both former ministers argued on social media platform X that the report was guided by misleading parameters set by the government. This included not asking the MAC to review the government’s goal of attracting 600,000 foreign students per year and asking it to assess the extent of abuse in the visa system, rather than the social and economic impact of this type of migration. Jenrick and O’Brien reiterated calls for the graduate route to be scrapped immediately.
  • …Industry figures cited in the report indicated the number of international students paying a deposit to study in the UK had fallen 57 per cent in May compared with a year earlier.

The Guardian

  • The report’s release has stoked an internal Conservative party row over net migration, with senior rightwing MPs describing it as a “whitewash”.
  • Robert Jenrick, a former immigration minister, wrote that the committee’s inquiries were tightly controlled by the commission from James Cleverly, the home secretary. “The MAC’s conclusions have clearly been constrained by the narrow terms of reference deliberately set by the government. If you order white paint, you get a whitewash,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
  • Neil O’Brien, a Tory MP who is an ally of Jenrick, described the report as a “whitewash” on Substack: “We are pursuing an arbitrary target, and the expansion of universities for their own sake.”
  • Another Conservative MP said backbenchers were “piling pressure” on Rishi Sunak to ignore the committee’s conclusions.
  • The government has so far declined to say whether it will accept the MAC recommendations. A source close to the home secretary said he would read the review thoroughly and listen to Prof Brian Bell, the committee’s chair, carefully before he makes any decision. They were due to meet on Tuesday afternoon.

Wonkhe has a piece summarising the findings which notes:

  • Whether government will issue a suitably studied response is the next question for the sector. Next week’s Office for National Statistics data will bring a headline figure for net migration in 2023, a number which UK politics seems to have lost the ability to contextualise over the last few bi-annual releases, opening itself up instead to a furious buffeting from the press.

Research Professional also has a piece by Nick Hillman

  • I am not a natural fan of the Migration Advisory Committee. It is said to be “independent” but has often seemed part and parcel of Whitehall—more specifically, the Home Office.
  • The chair and members are picked by the Home Office, who decide the terms of reference of the committee and the work it undertakes, while the secretariat includes Home Office officials.
  • But on this occasion, I am happy to eat my hat. The MAC has begun to strike out on its own. Even though it didn’t want the graduate route introduced in the first place, it now wants it kept in place. It has even floated some sensible-sounding—and, in truth, probably overdue—ideas on regulating agents. These could maintain confidence in the pathways followed by potential international students, although they won’t placate the Tory right.
  • …There are two possible responses from ministers and the opposition to the MAC. One would be to throw their toys out of the pram. When advisers don’t give the advice that ministers want, they can be sacked and the government can do as it pleases. But another response would be to recognise the MAC has indeed come of age and that the child sometimes knows better than the parent.

HE policy update No 9: 19th April 2024

Catching up after the Easter break, an EDI focus this week, by coincidence, a look at educational gain and the value of apprenticeships, the underwhelming strategic priorities funding announcement and some politics in the form of an EU proposal on freedom of movement, freedom of speech (again) and an odd UKVI proposal on remote delivery for international students.

New Universities minister

As we creep towards the general election which is likely to be in the autumn but must be before the end of January 2025, MPs are thinking about alternative careers.  One of those is Robert Halfon, who has stepped down as Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education) having decided not to stand for election again.  He was replaced by Luke Hall.

The minister’s responsibilities include:

  • overall strategy for post-16 technical education
  • T Levels and transition programme
  • qualifications reviews (levels 3 and below)
  • higher technical education (levels 4 and 5)
  • apprenticeships and traineeships
  • further education workforce and funding
  • Institutes of Technology
  • local skills improvement plans and Local Skills Improvement Fund
  • adult education, including basic skills, the National Skills Fund and the UK Shared Prosperity Fund
  • careers education, information and guidance including the Careers and Enterprise Company
  • technical education in specialist schools
  • relationship with the Office for Students
  • higher education quality and reform
  • Lifelong Loan Entitlement
  • student experience and widening participation in higher education
  • funding for education and training, provision and outcomes for 16- to 19-year-olds
  • college governance and accountability
  • intervention and financial oversight of further education colleges
  • reducing the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training
  • international education strategy and the Turing Scheme

Research and knowledge exchange: UKRI diversity data

UKRI has published diversity data for 2021-22.

Some findings are not very surprising, i.e. that PIs and CoI applicants tend to be older than others: but the awards data shows that awards are more variable when reviewed by age.  The disability data shows only small differences, with very small numbers of applicants declaring a disability.

The ethnicity data shows some challenges: For PIs applying to UKRI in 2021 to 2022, White applicants had a significantly higher award rate than both Asian and Black applicants. Asian CI applicants also had a significantly lower award rate than White CI applicants in 2021 to 2022.

As does the gender data, in terms of applicants, but here the award data is more positive: For fellows applying to UKRI in 2021 to 2022, female applicants had a significantly higher award rate than their male counterparts.

The report also looks at intersectional data.

Educational Gain

In the Teaching Excellence Framework the least defined element was in the student outcomes section, relating to educational gain: the Office for Students asked providers to set out what ‘educational gains’ they intend their students to achieve, how they support students to achieve them, and what evidence they have that students are succeeding in achieving these. Educational gains go beyond the measures of continuation, completion and progression also used in the TEF, and extend into areas such as knowledge, skills, personal development and work readiness.

The OfS has published an analysis of the submissions of the 51 providers that received a Gold rating for student outcomes in TEF 2023

The following conclusions are drawn:

  • Students’ educational gains are core to providers’ missions and stated values. They benefit both individual students and communities more broadly.
  • Articulations of educational gains can include but are not limited to a set of core graduate skills and attributes, and these remain dynamic in the context of rapid changes in society, technology and the workplace.
    • [page 12] It is evident from across the range of submissions that providers with excellent outcomes do articulate an indicative set of expected graduate skills and personal attributes, either in prose or graphical form, but they do not limit their discussion of gains to a particular set of comprehensive attributes. The discussion is typically widened to highlight additional gains made by students as they select from the wide menu of opportunities made available to them by the provider, its departments and its stakeholders. Changing global, national and regional landscapes mean that any characterisation of graduate attributes, or comprehensive gains, must remain dynamic.
  • Educational gains are broader than learning gains. They include additional benefits, such as building new networks and personal, cultural and careers-related opportunities.
  • The focus on educational gains can be on those that are comprehensive (gains shared by all); targeted (for example, at a specific demographic group); and personalised (curated for individual students). These are not mutually exclusive.
  • The knowledge, skills and attributes developed through core academic and professionally orientated programmes of study remain central. These include both disciplinary and interdisciplinary gains.
  • Curriculum design, pedagogic teaching approaches and resources are all of central importance in maximising students’ learning outcomes.
  • Co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, including connecting with alumni, employers and civic society, provide a rich menu of opportunities for students to extend their educational gains.
  • Students and student groups are differently situated with respect to their opportunities to achieve gains, and providers are committed to offering support in a range of areas, including finances and mental health and wellbeing.
  • Measuring educational gains is complex. Where a clearly defined set of gains is foregrounded, such as a particular set of skills, appropriate metrics can be selected that act as proxies for those gains. However, students’ actual gains will be broader.
    • [page 30] Recognising that it is not feasible to undertake a comprehensive measurement of all gains made by students, providers with outstanding student outcomes set out some illustrative measures of, or proxies for, the range of gains made. These include, for example:
      • Assessing students’ learning outcomes on their programmes of study. These outcomes include subject-specific and interdisciplinary knowledge and skills as well as wider transferable skills.
      • The OfS datasets showing students’ continuation, completion and progression rates.
      • Measuring engagement with co-curricular and extra-curricular activities.
      • Student portfolios and career-focused surveys, through which students track their own development.
      • Student surveys, paying particular attention to questions that ask students to assess their own gains.
      • Learner analytics, whereby data from across one or more platforms is used to track student engagement, progress and achievements.
    • Measuring the distance travelled by students is highly complex. In some but not all contexts it can be estimated through proxy measures.
    • Students can have a proactive role in articulating, curating, tracking and measuring their own educational gains, both within and beyond the curriculum.
    • A provider’s stakeholders, including employers and their representatives, can make a meaningful contribution to both articulating and measuring educational gains.

The report includes a set of helpful prompts for discussion,

Disabled Students Allowance and reasonable adjustments

According to Wonkhe, the government is proposing to abolish a central funding allowance that allows disabled students to access specialist nonmedical support. The article explains these very complex arrangements.

And TASO has a report out on transition support and mapping reasonable adjustments.  Wonkhe has an article on that too.

Remote delivery for international students

Wonkhe reported that UKVI has shared a draft “remote delivery” policy with higher education providers for consultation.

  • So, doing the rounds of the sector at the moment is a draft policy, applying to undergraduate and postgraduate taught courses, as follows:
    • Remote delivery of between one and 20 per cent of a course is permitted without additional justification by any provider in good standing;
    • For remote delivery of between 21 and 40 per cent (“mainly face-to-face”) providers may be permitted (on a course-by-course basis) by application;
    • Courses with online provision greater than 40 per cent cannot be offered under the student route.
  • This immediately prompts a number of questions. First up, what is “remote delivery” for these purposes? Well:
    • timetabled delivery of learning where there is no need for the student to attend the premises of the student sponsor or partner institution which would otherwise take place live in-person at the sponsor or partner institution site.

Apprenticeships

The QAA have issued a report: DEGREE APPRENTICESHIP: VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE Impact, Policy and Good Practice Guide 2024.

This follows the government data on degree apprenticeship outcomes that I referred to in the last update.  This is a summary of the findings.

Impact of the Levy: Employers value the apprenticeship levy as a critical driver for investing in skills and training. The apprenticeship levy is considered crucial for programme sustainability (99% agree). Without it, most employers (68%) would discontinue degree apprenticeships.

Productivity and Business Growth

  • Performance Enhancement: Nearly all employers (99%) state that degree apprenticeships positively influence their organisation’s performance.
  • Strategic Alignment: An overwhelming majority (95%) believe that degree apprenticeships contribute to achieving their strategic goals, indicating alignment with the overall organisational direction.
  • Future Growth: An overwhelming 93% of employers state that degree apprenticeships play a pivotal role in fostering the future growth of their organisations.
  • Talent Attraction: A substantial majority (89%) view degree apprenticeships as an effective means to attract new talent, stating that these programmes tap into a pool of motivated candidates eager to learn and contribute.
  • Employee Engagement: Nearly all employers (92%) observe that degree apprenticeships lead to more engaged employees.
  • Staff Retention: A significant majority (89%) credit degree apprenticeships with improving staff retention.
  • Diversity: Encouragingly, 84% of respondents recognise that degree apprenticeships contribute to diversifying their workforce.

Industry-academia Collaboration

  • A significant majority (77%) of employers and apprentices (66%) report that their degree apprenticeship assessments are contextualised for their work environments.
  • 44% of employers have someone in their organisation contributing to the teaching sessions of the apprentices, e.g., as guest lecturers in university. This is highly encouraging as it is over and above the statutory/ regulatory requirements.

Quality of Delivery

  • 82% of apprentices report that it is facilitating their career progression.
  • Overall satisfaction with teaching quality is high (80%).
  • Over two-thirds of apprentices believe that their course has been helpful in giving them the knowledge, skills, and behaviours they need to excel at their work. Nearly 80% of apprentices state that they are able to bring their academic knowledge and skills into their workplace.
  • Additional academic support for apprentices is deemed important by almost all (97%) training providers, and 55% of providers offer dedicated additional academic support for apprentices which is over and above the academic support offered to their non-apprenticeship learners.
  • At least 55% of the academic respondents use different teaching methods for their degree apprentices and never co-teach degree apprentices alongside non-apprentices.
  • Bespoke course systems for apprenticeships are prevalent (95%), but only 44% of training providers offer dedicated training for line managers to ensure they fully understand the academic requirements of degree apprenticeship programmes.
  • Sharing good practices across programmes is actively encouraged by 84% of training providers, but external collaboration remains limited (43%).

Areas of Improvement

  • Only 5% of apprentices received support for degree apprenticeship applications from schools and colleges.
  • Work-life balance management varies, with 60% of apprentices feeling they manage it well and 69% finding employer support helpful.
  • Off-the-job needs are not always fully met: 30% of apprentices perceive insufficient off-the-job time and 30% feel employers lack understanding of these requirements.
  • Training providers identified several key areas for improvement, including a clearer understanding of the course requirements, flexible learning models to accommodate diverse needs, increased programme size to improve cost-effectiveness, and closer alignment of curriculum with industry demands.
  • More needs to be done to integrate degree apprentices within the university environment – Only 19% of apprentices feel highly integrated within the student body of their training provider with over 22% not feeling integrated at all.

Other Success Factors

  • The two pivotal success factors identified by apprentices are support from employers and support from training providers.
  • Work-based academic tutors are the keystone of successful degree apprenticeship delivery. Nearly all training providers (99%) believe it is important for lecturers and work-based academic tutors to work as an integrated team.
  • A significant majority (92%) of training providers undertake peer-observations for teaching staff in their institution and have found peer-observations useful. This indicates that degree apprenticeships have sharpened the focus on the quality of teaching in universities.
  • 96% of training providers have dedicated apprenticeship departments, while 94% have teams dedicated to supporting teaching practice and pedagogy. However, only 53% have training for delivering degree apprenticeships as a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) opportunity within their institutions.

International: Freedom of movement for young people

This from Research Professional this week:

  • Could this be the beginning of a Brexit compromise? The European Commission has proposed talks with the British government on freeing up cross-border movement for young people, including lowering tuition fees to domestic levels for EU students studying in the UK. If the talks go ahead—and succeed—they could prove transformative not only for young people across Europe but for universities.
  • The proposal, put to the bloc’s member states yesterday, is for EU and UK citizens aged between 18 and 30 to be able to stay for “a reasonable timeframe (e.g. four years)” in the destination country for various activities, including studying, training and working. UK nationals would only be able to stay in the member state that admitted them, and the Commission is keen to point out that they would not enjoy the same freedom of movement as EU citizens. But there would be no quota for the number of young people able to take advantage of the proposal.
  • They would also be treated equally to nationals when it comes to tuition fees for higher education, working conditions and health and safety in the workplace, although an annex to the main document says this should not extend to study and maintenance grants and loans. While the idea is that the UK healthcare surcharge would be waived, details of rights to bring over family members would need to be worked out.
  • …The Commission said that Brexit had “particularly affected the opportunities for young people to…benefit from youth, cultural, educational, research and training exchange”, adding that it was now seeking “to address in an innovative way the main barriers to mobility”. Interestingly, it says that in 2023, the UK approached “several (but not all)” member states, intending to negotiate bilateral arrangements on youth mobility modelled on the UK’s youth mobility visa scheme. This scheme allows 18-to-35-year-olds from certain countries to live and work in the UK for up to two years if they have at least £2,530 in savings and enough money to pay the health surcharge and the £298 application fee.
  • This is not something the EU approves of, since it dislikes EU members being treated differently from one another and the move “does not address the main barriers to mobility experienced by young people” since Brexit, such as tuition fees and the inability to take part in internships as part of an EU study programme. An EU-level approach to relations with the UK was one of the key considerations of the 2018 European Council guidelines on future relations between the two.

So far so interesting: note that it is clear that the number of EU students coming to the UK has collapsed since Brexit when UK student loans were no longer available for EU students.  It is not clear that this would increase numbers to where they formerly were, as although the tuition fees would be capped at the UK cost, they would not be eligible, under this proposal, for loans.  There is a small market for EU students in the UK at international fee levels, the one at UK fee levels may be only slightly larger, with living and accommodation costs on top.

Anyway, it may too politically sensitive this side of a general election, see this in the FT.

  • But it received a cool response from the opposition UK Labour party, which is leading in the polls ahead of an election expected this year. A Labour official said the party saw youth mobility schemes as “synonymous with freedom of movement”, noting it had ruled out a return to free movement as one of its Brexit red lines. A spokesperson told the Financial Times that “Labour has no plans for a youth mobility scheme”, but added it would look to improve UK-EU relations in other ways.
  • …A UK government spokesperson said: “We have successful youth mobility schemes with 13 countries, including Australia and New Zealand, and remain open to agreeing them with our international partners, including EU member states.”

Financial sustainability

The Office for Students (OfS) has received guidance from the Secretary of State for Education and the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education on the Higher Education Strategic Priorities Grant for the 2024-25 financial year.

  • It remains my priority that students pursue HE studies that enable them to progress into employment, thereby benefitting them as well as the wider economy. It is important to provide students with different high-quality pathways in HE, notably through higher technical qualifications (HTQs), and degree apprenticeships. These are important alternatives to three-year degrees and provide valuable opportunities to progress up the ladder of opportunity.

Details are set out in Annex 2 (page 7)

High cost courses

  • The OfS must ensure that the total budget to be allocated to Providers for High-Cost subject: price groups A to C1.1 is increased by at least £18,000,000 (eighteen million pounds) [from last year].
  • The OfS must allocate funding of at least £16,700,000 (sixteen million seven hundred thousand pounds) to Providers for High-Cost subject funding for price group C1.2. [unchanged from last year]
  • The OfS must ensure that the postgraduate taught supplement is only allocated in respect of subjects in price group A, B and C1.1, and that the budget to be allocated to Providers for the postgraduate taught supplement funding is reduced by £5,000,000 (five million pounds) [from last year].
  • The OfS must ensure that the intensive postgraduate provision is only allocated in respect of subjects in price groups A, B and C1.1, and that the budget to be allocated to Providers for the intensive postgraduate provision is reduced by £10,000,000 (ten million pounds) [from last year].
  • Subject to sufficient bids being received that meet the requirements, the OfS must allocate at least £24,000,000 (twenty-four million pounds) of funding to Providers for Degree Apprenticeships.
  • The OfS must allocate to Providers no less than £16,000,000 (sixteen million pounds) for Level 4 and 5 funding

Student Access and Success [There’s a Wonkhe article on this aspect of the funding here.]

  • When determining the amount to be allocated to Providers, the OfS must ensure that the total budget for the Student Premiums is increased by at least £5,000,000 (five million pounds) [from last year].
  • When determining the amount to be allocated to Providers, the OfS must ensure that the budget for the Premium for student transitions and Mental Health [is no more than last year]
  • When determining the amount to be allocated to Providers the OfS must ensure that the budget for Uni Connect funding is reduced by £10,000,000 (ten million pounds) [from last year]

Other things

  • The OfS must ensure that the budget for the additional medical school places for the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan 2024 expansion and for the medical degree apprenticeship pilot initiative is no less than £2,000,000 (two million pounds). [to increase the maximum limits for the home students by 205 medical training places starting in 2024-25 academic year and to fund the 200 medical degree apprenticeship pilot programme that will start in 2024]
  • The OfS should continue to fund world leading specialist providers up to a limit of £58.1m for FY24/25. The OfS should continue to encourage them, through regulatory expectations in relation to equality of opportunity, to promote the prospects for disadvantaged students at these providers. [Wonkhe point out that this is  a £100k increase on last year]

Wonkhe covered the story here.

  • There’s a £2m uplift on the strategic priorities grant – that’s up 0.14 per cent on last year, and so a huge real terms cut (of £53m, if you take February’s CPI).
  • In the attached strings, the famous “magic money twig” (what’s supposed to be funding for universities to support students at risk of not completing but gets wheeled out as both a mental health and hardship fund by ministers at every opportunity) is “up” £5m – although given DfE allocated an extra £10m this year, that’s really a £5m cut.
  • Not a word on the increasingly obvious financial problems that the sector is in, obviously – and seemingly obliviously.

Future funding: The Higher Education Policy Institute published a new report entitled How Should Undergraduate Degrees be Funded?

  • Abolishing tuition fees would cost the public purse £10.5 billion per cohort and sees only a tiny rise in the percentage of potential students who would be likely to apply to university.
  • The most popular proposed alternative model with potential students is the graduate levy – where employers pay a small percentage of graduate salaries to fund higher education.
  • Potential students are already carefully considering the cost implications of living in different university towns when making their application choices.
  • Half of potential students say they won’t apply to university if fees rise with inflation.

Freedom of speech

There is a new OfS consultation on their Freedom of Speech guidance.  The deadline is 26th May: Consultation on proposed regulatory advice and other matters relating to freedom of speech (officeforstudents.org.uk)

The proposed guidance is designed to help providers and others to navigate their free speech duties although it does not remove the requirement for them to make their own judgements about compliance with those duties. The proposed guidance will also provide transparency about the issues that the OfS may consider when making decisions about free speech matters.

The draft guidance itself is here: Regulatory advice 24 Guidance related to freedom of speech (officeforstudents.org.uk).  It gives a whole lot of examples which make very interesting reading. The consultation also covers changes to the regulatory framework to reflect the new law.

The Act will amend section 73 of HERA to empower the OfS:

  • to recover, from a registered provider, a constituent institution or a relevant students’ union, the OfS’s costs in relation to making a decision that a complaint under the OfS free speech complaints against that body is justified or partly justified. We have recently consulted on our approach to making decisions about free speech complaints.
  • to recover its costs in relation to the process that results in the imposition of a monetary penalty on a relevant students’ union in relation to a breach of any of its free speech duties. We have recently consulted on our approach to imposing a monetary penalty on relevant students’ unions.

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.

Leveraging the value of ‘capacity-building’ research impact!

The narrative around research impact has quite rightly come to the fore in recent years. With funding organisations looking for a ‘bigger bang for their buck’ and universities emphasising their contribution to societal and economic value, it is no surprise that the words ‘research impact’ are central to researchers activities.

Whilst many researchers develop plans that emphasise ‘conceptual’ and ‘instrumental’ impacts, the long-term effect of their research is more difficult to consider. This is where ‘capacity-building’ impact comes into play. It refers to the positive effects of your research on the ability of individuals and organisations to utilise your research to strengthen their skills and invest resources in new and improved policy, processes and structures.

My work as an advisor to the Horizon Scanning & Foresight Committee in UK Parliament provides a useful example of how to develop this type of impact. My research and expert knowledge on managing uncertainty through horizon scanning and scenario planning is now informing parliaments new horizon scanning and foresight policy which will be used to identify ‘Areas of Research Interest’ (ARIs). ARIs are lists of policy issues or questions that select committees use to inform their work. Importantly, they help UK Parliament prepare for the future by identifying emerging trends and developments that might potentially affect UK Government policy.

A key feature of ‘capacity-building’ impact is that it takes time, resources and commitment to achieve a practical application. It’s not a one-off activity, but it can provide researchers with a powerful argument to leverage the impact of their work.

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.

 

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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 15th January 2024

Politics and Parliament

The PM has confirmed that 2 by-elections will be held in February. (from the FT)

  • The Conservatives on Thursday moved the writ for by-elections to be held in Wellingborough in the east Midlands and Kingswood, near Bristol, both of which were held by Tory MPs. Peter Bone won Wellingborough in 2019 with a majority of 18,540 over Labour but was forced out of the House of Commons after an inquiry upheld claims of bullying and sexual misconduct against a staff member. … The Wellingborough contest has been given additional interest by the decision of local Conservatives to choose Bone’s partner, Tory councillor Helen Harrison, as their candidate.
  • The Kingswood contest was triggered by the resignation of former energy minister Chris Skidmore in protest at Sunak’s plan to promote North Sea oil and gas drilling. Skidmore secured an 11,220 majority over Labour in 2019.
  • The moving of the writs means the contests must be held within 21 and 27 working days; polling in both constituencies is therefore expected to take place on Thursday February 15.

Education

Lifelong learning

All this is coming soon, including changes to the way that fees are calculated and paid to providers so that they are not based on years but on credits.  This means that there will be no more special arrangements for accelerated programmes.

But will there be any demand for modular programmes?  The OfS ran a big trial:

  • In autumn 2021 the Office for Students (OfS) launched the ‘Higher Education Short Course trial’ Challenge Competition, through which higher education (HE) providers bid for funding to develop short courses of 30 or 40 credits at Levels 4-6 in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), education, digital innovation and healthcare subjects and to help meet skills needs for Net Zero. Employers were to be closely involved in designing and developing the provision.
  • Through this competition, 22 providers received a total of £2 million to develop new short courses. Over 100 new courses were proposed in total, most to commence delivery in autumn 2022, with projections that over 2000 students in total would participate in 2022-23.

And the takeup for loans for the short courses was very small.  Out of 96 courses offered, only 17 were launched by 10 of the 22 providers, and instead of the 2000 participants planned, there were 240 applicants and 125 enrolments; with only 41 taking up the new student loan product.

The paper includes a lot of recommendations.  Wonkhe article here.

Apprenticeships

The government have pledged to increase apprenticeships at the cost, perhaps of “traditional” degrees.

In practice, apart from a lot of bigging them up in speeches and so on, this means that the OfS have been told to fund development of apprenticeships and they have been doing so:

  • The OfS will distribute up to £40 million through a competitive bidding exercise, which is now open for applications from OfS-registered higher education providers. Of the £40 million, up to £16 million will be allocated to projects that will complete before 31 July 2024 and up to £24 million is available for projects that will complete before 31 July 2025.
  • The funding competition aims to:
    • Expand course provision at higher education providers already offering Level 6 degree apprenticeships
    • Increase the number of students on Level 6 degree apprenticeships
    • Expand course provision at higher education providers who are new to offering Level 6 degree apprenticeships
    • Increase equality of opportunity within Level 6 degree apprenticeships

Note the focus on L6.  The government have made noises in the past about being unhappy with the volume of L7 apprentices being funded through the levy, especially where these are already senior employees, and this is something that may be addressed through policy changes in the future, e.g. restricting the use of the levy to L6 and below.  As noted last week, Labour have suggested repurposing the levy for apprenticeships and skills, which would also probably result in a reduction of the proportion of levy available for L7 apprenticeships, depending on how the changes were implemented, unless the amount available under the levy was increased.

Student experience, wellbeing and finances

We talked about cost of living in last week’s report, there was a December Sutton Trust analysis which makes grim reading.

  • Polling by Savanta for the Trust shows that 62% spend less than £37 a week on food, which is the minimum needed for a single person to buy essential food items, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust.
  • Overall, students living at university in England outside of London have median costs of £11,400 a year on essential spending. These essential costs include accommodation (on average 52% of their spending), groceries (12%), and bills (6%). However, the median total loan in England outside of London of £7,000, equivalent to 61% of spend, does not come near to covering these basic needs.
  • And although the median loan in London is higher at £8,500, this is drastically less than the median spending of £17,287 by students in the capital.
  • To make ends meet, two thirds of students reported taking on paid work, with 20% working 16-30 hours per week. 49% have missed classes as a result, and 23% reported that they had missed a deadline or asked for an extension in order to work.
  • The maintenance package in England is now at its lowest value in real terms for seven years, as maximum loan amounts have not kept pace with inflation. Furthermore, fewer students are eligible for maximum loans as the parental earnings threshold has also been frozen since 2008. To secure the maximum loan, a student’s household must earn under £25,000 per year, which captures far fewer households than it did 15 years ago.

Here is the December Wonkhe story.

What are the characteristics of students?

Alongside the TEF outcomes published last year (and updated with most of the pending awards just before Christmas, were summaries of the characteristics data for students in the UK for the 4 years to 2020-21. This is interesting to consider, and although some of this might seem obvious, does it hold true for our own cohorts and it is that obvious really?

We tend to talk a lot in the sector about student outcomes in the context of student characteristics, achievement gaps and so on.  But the other aspect, which I have been discussing with Shelley recently, is what this means for education practice.  A couple of examples – there is more to think about here and BU’s numbers are different from the sector in some ways:

  • Only 52% of full time undergraduate students come in to HE with only A levels: while that is still a lot, 48% is a lot of students with different learning experiences.
  • 40% of full time PGT students are over 25, which suggests that they have had work or other experience since they completed their UG programmes.

Age on entry:

Part-time students and apprentices are generally older.  In particular there is a much higher proportion of apprentices who are over 31, which is not surprising given that many degree level apprentices at L6 and L7 will be people already in work who are being asked by their employers to upskill via an apprenticeship, and this is consistent with the lifelong learning/skills agenda

Disability:

  • A higher proportion of part-time students have declared disabilities than full time -this may be one of the reasons for students choosing to study part-time.
  • A smaller proportion of PG students, full-time and part-time, have declared a disability.
  • A smaller proportion of apprentices have a disability than full time students (for both UG and PG).
  • Cognitive or learning difficulties is the biggest category of disabilities

Ethnicity:

  • There are large proportions of “unknown” ethnicity for full-time PG students; this may reflect the high proportion of PG international students and makes any comparison between full-time UG and PG unreliable.
  • Part-time students and apprentices are much more likely to be white.

Qualifications on entry (UG only):

  • There is a smaller proportion of part-time students with A levels or BTECs, and a larger proportion of part-time students from access or foundation courses or with no, or unknown qualifications. There is also a large proportion (34%) with HE level qualifications undertaking part-time programmes.
  • 52% of full-time UG students have 3 A levels, and 16% have a BTEC or a combination.
  • There is a larger proportion of apprentices with HE qualifications, and also with no, or unknown qualifications.

HE sector sustainability and change

You will have seen from the policy updates over the last year the negative rhetoric around “poor quality” courses: of course we all agree that we don’t want those.  Some noses were put out of joint by the Autumn Statement’s only reference to HE: “Proposals will be implemented to decrease the number of people studying poor-quality degrees, and to increase take-up of apprenticeships”.

As noted last week, 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.

This House of Commons library research briefing on student number controls from August 2023 is an interesting read.

Here are some extracts from the press release from July 2023 when the final bit of the Augar changes (no sector wide student number caps or minimum entry levels):

  • The UK has some of the world’s leading universities, but a minority of the courses on offer leave students saddled with debt, low earnings and faced with poor job prospects. The government wants to make the system fairer for them, but also for taxpayers – who make a huge investment in higher education and are liable for billions of pounds in unrecovered tuition fees if graduate earnings are low.
  • Figures from the Office for Students show that nearly three in ten graduates do not progress into highly skilled jobs or further study 15 months after graduating. The Institute for Fiscal Studies also estimates that one in five graduates would be better off financially if they hadn’t gone to university. [more on those figures below]

And none of this is helped by the increasing cost to the government of funding the HE system.  The IfS published a report on 9th January: ”higher long-term inters rates and the cost of student loans”.

The debate around funding student loans has largely focused on what share of student loans will be repaid, and what share of the cost will need to be picked up by the taxpayer. Much less attention has been paid to the government cost of financing student loans that do get repaid. In this report, we investigate how the cost of student loans including these financing costs has changed as a result of increases in government borrowing costs over the past two years.

  • The cost of government borrowing as measured by the 15-year gilt yield has risen from 1.2% to 4.0% over the past two years. Relative to expected RPI inflation, this is a 3 percentage point increase. As the interest rate on student loans is now the rate of RPI inflation, this means that the government can expect to pay 1.6 percentage points more in interest on its debt than the interest rate it charges on student loans. Two years ago, just before the most recent student loans reform, it could expect to pay 1.4 percentage points less than the rate of RPI inflation.
  • This increase in government borrowing costs translates to an increase in the expected cost of student loans including financing costs of more than £10 billion per year. With borrowing costs as at the end of 2021, the government could have expected to earn a total net profit of £3.2 billion on student loans to the 2023 university entry cohort, arising from the positive spread between the interest it charged on student loans and the interest it paid on its debt. With today’s borrowing costs, this interest rate spread is negative, and the government can expect to make a loss of £7.3 billion. 
  • Concerningly, this extra cost is not reflected in either of the government’s official measures of the cost of student loans. The ONS measure does not take the cost of government borrowing into account at all. The DfE measure that underlies the so-called RAB charge uses a backward-looking measure of borrowing costs, which does not yet capture the sharp rise in gilt yields over the last two years.

Quality

This crackdown on perceived low quality has so far consisted of several waves of OfS quality assessments, last week I highlighted the first published outcomes of the first waves of assessments in business and management and computing: the regulatory consequences of these assessments are yet to be announced (with concerns only confirmed at 2 of the 6), but where problems are found the OfS can do lots of things including a combination of these:

  • launch a formal investigation;
  • apply more frequent or intensive monitoring;
  • impose specific licence conditions on a provider (i.e. specific action that the provider must take (or not take): to note specifically this could include recruitment limits or student number controls for a provider in general or linked to specific subjects;
  • impose a fine;
  • refuse to renew an access and participation plan (note that has consequences for fee caps);
  • suspend aspects of a providers registration, including access to student support funding or OfS grant funding;
  • vary or revoke degree awarding powers or permission to call itself a university; and/or
  • deregister a provider.

Another interesting point to note: providers have to pay fees to cover the cost of the investigation if they are subject to a regulatory investigation by the OfS unless they are completely exonerated.

This Wonhke article from July 23 describes when the OfS has already imposed licence conditions relating to B3: most of these required improvement plans and most (other than 2) related to colleges or alternative providers rather than universities.

It is worth reading the article which includes a response from Burton and South Derbyshire College.  Their main point is that the OfS is using very old data: the latest OfS dashboard data is for continuation for students starting in 2020-21, and of course graduate outcomes and completion data is by definition for students who started much longer ago than that; and who are following a programme which is likely to have change quite a lot since they started.  Just as a counter-balance to that, for existing providers (rather than newly registered providers) sanctions will usually follow an investigation, so although the outcomes data may be old, the practice and actions taken by the provider that the OfS are reviewing is current.  Before imposing a restriction, the OfS would need to form a view that those current actions and other steps were not likely to be adequate on their own to address the issues flagged by the (old) data.

The latest quality assessments have focussed on two subjects, and have looked at a wide range of student outcomes and experience in the context of the B licence conditions.  Often discussions of the B conditions focus on B3 (minimum absolute levels of student outcomes), but there is a lot more to the B conditions than those.

These were covered extensively when the consultations about these new conditions were ongoing several years ago, but as a lot has happened since then, here is a reminder.

I’ll talk more about the TEF and some of these conditions and other licence conditions in future updates.

Student numbers and admissions

This from Wonkhe in the daily update on Friday 12th January makes interesting reading in the light of all the concerns from the OfS about risky dependence on international student numbers

  • International student recruitment from Pakistan has overtaken the “languishing” Nigerian market for the January 2024 intake, according to the latest data from recruitment platform Enroly – which suggests that deposits are down 37 per cent compared to the same period last year, with a similar fall in the number of Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) issued.
  • The data, based on a sample of 68,000 international students from the firm’s partner institutions, also shows that CAS issuance for students from India looks to have fallen by over 34 per cent, accompanied by a drop of more than 70 per cent in the Nigerian market – survey data suggests “unfriendly government policies” are playing a role in the decrease. But for students from Pakistan, deposits are up by 22.5 per cent, and CAS issuance by 14.2 per cent.

Financial sustainability

There has been a lot of press about financial sustainability and a lot of providers have been in the press for their efforts to manage financial gaps, arising from a whole range of issues as discussed last week.

To add to the doom and gloom here are some articles on the topic:

FT article 11th Jan 24: Senior leaders at four English universities told the FT in December they were experiencing a slowdown in international recruitment, driven in part by renewed competition from the US and Australia, which closed their borders during the Covid-19 pandemic. Data collected by the Enroly web platform that helps international students through the bureaucratic process of joining universities has indicated a sharp drop-off in enrolments from Nigeria and India. The company said a representative sample from more than 68,000 applicants to small and large UK universities found that overall deposit payments were down by 37 per cent for the January 2024 intake when compared with the previous year.

Research Professional article 5th Jan 24: universities at risk of insolvency in 2024

  • “These issues affect individual institutions in different ways and many universities remain financially secure, but we have a big and diverse higher education sector and a minority of universities are undoubtedly under the cosh financially at the moment,” Hillman said.
  • There are very few recent examples of UK higher education institutions closing down. In July 2019, the private provider GSM London—formerly known as the Greenwich School of Management—went into administration, and earlier that year Heythrop College, formerly part of the University of London, closed permanently. There have also been a number of mergers between providers.

ITV news: November 2023 Higher education sector in ‘existential crisis’ as one in four universities make losses

  • Data seen by ITV News paints a bleak picture of the higher education sector, which experts have described as being in an “existential crisis”.
  • One-quarter of universities are currently making a loss and total losses over the entire sector sits at a staggering £2 billion, a huge increase from the £200 million from the year before.
  • Professor Jenny Higham, from Universities UK, the umbrella body which represents 142 universities across the country, told ITV News an urgent solution was needed or the consequences would be severe.
  • “If [universities] continue not to be able to make up that deficit the end result will be universities will close,” Professor Higham said. “We need to work with everybody who has a vested interest in universities and their output to come up to solution for this problem.”

Universities UK report: sustainable university funding, September 2023

  • While it is not true that international students are displacing home students, it is the case that income from international students mitigates losses in teaching domestic students, and in turn helps grow, and make viable, domestic student capacity. Compared with a £1 billion loss in teaching domestic students, teaching international students brings in a £3 billion surplus. Given losses incurred in teaching domestic students, growth in international student income is needed to help grow domestic student capacity, which is needed as there is an increasing number of 18-year-olds projected in the UK population. It is debatable whether further growth in international student income is feasible, given increased competition from other countries, potential geopolitical risks to this income stream and recent government actions. Without this growth, and no further funding for teaching, it is likely that the chance of entering university for future cohorts will be more restricted than for previous cohorts.

The House of Commons library research briefing on student number controls from August 2023 referred to above also describes the upcoming cap on fees for some foundation years from the 2025/26 academic year: we are awaiting a consultation on the detail of this

It’s not easy in Wales or Scotland either, see recent articles from Wonkhe at the links.

There are OfS licence conditions about financial sustainability too: OFS licence conditions: financial sustainability and student protection in the case of a risk of market exit.

Minimum service levels

Something you may have missed in the run up to the holiday was the announcement of a consultation on minimum service levels in education (consultation closes 30th January 2024):

  • Any minimum service levels regulations we might implement following the consultation would apply on days when strike action is taking place in education services, and help minimise disruption to children and learners across education settings.

In the consultation document the section on HE starts on page 27

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 w/c 2nd Jan 2024

Welcome to the first update of 2024, which brings you up to date with what happened before the holidays.

We’ve provided pop out documents so those with a keen interest in each topic can read more detailed summaries.

We’ve the latest on the Renters (Reform) Bill, REF has been delayed until 2029, we summarise the Government’s response and commitments following the Nurse Review on research landscape, the UK celebrates official association with Horizon Europe, and we’ve gone in depth on international students bringing the hottest debate from the Parliamentary Chambers over the last few weeks.

I’ll be experimenting with some new approaches this year to make sure that the update is useful and relevant to as many people as possible: any feedback gratefully appreciated.

Quick parliamentary news

Schools and post 16 education: The Education Committee questioned SoS for Education, Gillian Keegan on the Advanced British Standard (ABS). Keegan stated that the ABS was being introduced to allow for more time, greater breadth, and better parity of esteem between technical and academic qualifications. The consultation on the new qualification is expected to be released soon.

Marking boycott: Gillian also stated that the marking assessment boycott was outrageous and damaging to the brand image of the sector. She stated the consultation on minimum service levels would help consider if it was helpful to equip universities with an additional tool to alleviate the impact of disruption. We introduce you to this consultation here.

Education oral questions: Minister Keegan also responded to education oral questions in the Chamber on Monday.

Healthcare students: A Westminster Hall debate, pay and financial support for healthcare students, was held following three petitions on the topic. We have a short summary of the debate provided by UUK here. Prior to debate the House of Commons Library provided a useful briefing on the matter (full briefing here, useful short summary here).

HE challenges: Minister Halfon spoke at the THE conference to set out his 5 ‘giants’ – the 5 challenges he believes HE faces in this decade and beyond: HE reforms, HE disruptors, degree apprenticeships, the lifelong learning entitlement, and artificial intelligence and the fourth industrial revolution. The speech is worth a quick read.

DSIT campus: DSIT is moving many of its roles to a base in Manchester. It’s part of the government’s Places for Growth programme, a civil service wide commitment to grow the number of roles outside of London and the south-east to 22,000 by 2027. Details here.

REF 2029

REF has been delayed from 2028 to 2029 to allow for additional time to implement the big changes the 2029 REF exercise will entail. Research England state the delay is in recognition of the complexities for HEIs in:

  1.   the preparation for using HESA data to determine REF volume measures
  2.   fully breaking the link between individual staff and institutional submissions, and
  3.   reworking of institutional Codes of Practice

The REF Team is working through dependencies in relation to this change, including the on-going work on people, culture and environment. We will provide an updated timeline as soon as possible.

More information on the detail behind the changes here. Research Professional has a write up here and here. Wonkhe coverage here.

Research: Nurse Review – Government response

The Government published Evolution of the Research, Development and Innovation Organisational Landscape, its response to the Nurse Review of the Research, Development and Innovation Organisational Landscape which began in 2021 and published the review outcomes in March 2023.

There are a large range of actions and approaches the Government has committed to take. Including

  • Developing a comprehensive map of the UK’s clusters of RDI excellence, to be published in the coming months.
  • Boost support for universities in areas with lower levels of R&D investment through the Regional Innovation Fund, which provides £60 million funding across the UK in 2023/24.
  • Publishing a breakdown of DSIT’s R&D budget over the financial years 2023/24 to 2024/25.
  • Invest £20 billion into R&D per annum by 2024/25 (this isn’t all new money!)

The Government state they will pilot innovative organisational models, embed data, evidence and foresight into their approach, maximise the impact of public sector RDI organisations and expand philanthropic funding into research organisations. The Government call on everyone within the sector to play their part, recognising the central role of DSIT as a single point of leadership and coordination.

The full 62 page detail is here, or you can read the key points in our pop out document.

Previous reports and letters relating to the Nurse Review are here. UKRI’s reaction to the Government’s response is here.

There’s also a parliamentary question on the Review and research funding:

Q – Chi Onwurah MP: [edited] with reference to the Government response to the Nurse Review what the (a) milestones, (b) deliverables and (c) timelines are for the review of the future of QR research funding.

A – Andrew Griffith MP: The Review of Research England’s (RE) approach to Strategic Institutional Research Funding (SIRF) which includes quality-related research (QR), will assess the effectiveness of unhypothecated research funding for Higher Education Providers. It will assess the principles and assumptions underlying current approaches and evaluate implementation. The review, set for 2024, will update the evidence on SIRF’s impact, enhance transparency, and engage the Higher Education sector. RE will commission an independent review on the ‘Impact of SIRF’ in December 2023 and stakeholder workshops in Summer 2024. Any changes to funding approaches will not be implemented before Academic Year 2026-2027.

Wonkhe delved into the government response in their usual pithy fashion making short work of a glaring omission:

  • It’s reckoned, on average, that the average research council grant covers around 70 per cent of the cost of performing research, rather than the 80 per cent it is supposed to. It was hoped that the government’s response to the Nurse review of the research landscape, published last week, would address this. It did not. Those hoping to see the full economic cost issue addressed saw it balanced against the overall project funding pot and the availability of other research funding, particularly QR allocations – with the implication being that a bump to one would result in losses to at least one of the others.

More analysis available in Wonkhe’s blog: DSIT published its response to the Nurse review of the research landscape, but there’s not much evidence of the unifying strategy Nurse asked for. James Coe breaks it down.

Research: Quick News

Horizon: On 4 December the UK formalised its association to the Horizon and Copernicus programmes. DSIT also announced their aim to maximise participation in Horizon with funding of up to £10,000 available to selected first time applicant UK researchers to pump prime participation, via a partnership with the British Academy and other backers. SoS Michelle Donelan stated: Being part of Horizon and Copernicus is a colossal win for the UK’s science, research and business communities, as well as for economic growth and job creation – all part of the long-term decisions the UK government is taking to secure a brighter future. UUK Chief Executive, Vivienne Stern MBE, said: This is a momentous day. I am beyond delighted that the UK and EU have finally signed the agreement confirming the UK’s association to Horizon.

There are several recent interesting parliamentary questions:

Research Funding: parliamentary question (edited) – Chi Onwurah MP – whether the £750 million of R&D spend is in addition to existing R&D funding (paragraph 4.49 of the Autumn Statement 2023).

Answer – Andrew Griffith MP: As a result of the UK’s bespoke deal on association to Horizon Europe and Copernicus, the government has been able to announce substantive investment in wider research and development (R&D) priorities. The £750 million package is fully funded from the government’s record 2021 Spending Review funding settlement for R&D. This includes £250 million for Discovery Fellowships, £145 million for new business innovation support and funding to support a new National Academy of mathematical sciences. These are transformative new programmes that maximise opportunities for UK researchers, businesses and innovators. We will also continue to deliver a multi-billion-pound package of support through the existing Horizon Europe Guarantee.

Regional inequalities: parliamentary question (edited) – Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: what steps the Government is taking to reduce regional inequalities in government-funded research and development.

Answer – Viscount Camrose: The Levelling Up White Paper (published in February 2022) committed to a R&D Levelling Up Mission, recognising the uneven distribution of gross R&D (GERD) spending across the UK. DSIT is delivering this mission to increase public R&D investment outside the Greater South-East by at least 40% by 2030, and at least one-third over this spending review period. We are making progress through investing £100 million for 3 Innovation Accelerators (Greater Manchester, West Midlands and Glasgow) for example, and investing £75 million for 10 Innovate UK Launchpads, £312 million for 12 Strength in Places Fund projects and £60 million for the Regional Innovation Fund.

Research Bureaucracy Review: Parliamentary question (edited) – Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: when the Government intend to implement the final report of the Independent Review of Research Bureaucracy published in July 2022.

Viscount Camrose: The Government is committed to addressing the issues set out in the Independent Review of Research Bureaucracy. We are working with other government departments, funders and sector representative bodies to finalise a comprehensive response to the Review and will publish it in due course. In the meantime, government departments and funding bodies have begun implementing several of the Review’s recommendations. We have established a Review Implementation Network, bringing together senior representatives from across the research funding system, to deliver the recommendations of the review and maintain momentum on this issue.

Independent Research Funding: DSIT announced an application round for the £25m Research and Innovation Organisation Infrastructure Fund. The fund will provide grants to research & innovation organisations to improve their national capabilities and is open to independent research and innovation bodies in the UK for funding for new small and medium scale research equipment, small and medium scale equipment upgrades, or small and medium scale facility upgrades. DSIT aim for the fund to address market failures in the funding landscape identified by the Landscape and Capability Reviews, therefore improving the R&I infrastructures available to RIOs, improving the quality of the national capabilities they provide and enabling them to better serve their users and the UK.

Spin outs: The Government published the independent review of university spin-out companies. The review recommended innovation-friendly policies that universities and investors should adopt to make the UK the best place in the world to start a spin-out company. To capitalise on this the government intends to accept all the review’s recommendations and set out how it will deliver them. You can also read the UKRI response here. We have a quicker read summary of the review here.

EDI: Remember the furore over the SoS intervene when Michelle Donelan ousted a member of UKRI’s EDI group for inappropriate social media posts/views? A recent parliamentary question on the matter tries to get behind the investigation to find out how it commenced.

Q – Cat Smith (Labour): To ask the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, who authorised the reported gathering of information on (a) the political views and (b) related social media posts of members of the UKRI EDI board; and how much money from the public purse was expended in the process of gathering that information.

Answer – Andrew Griffth:

  • After concerns were raised about the social media activity of a member of a public body advisory panel, the Secretary of State requested information on whether other members of the group were posting in a manner that might come into conflict with the Nolan Principles. Minimal time was taken by special advisers to gather information already in the public domain.
  • Information is not gathered by special advisers on the views or social media of staff working in higher and further education, except in exceptional circumstances, such as this, where it supports the Secretary of State to reach an informed view on a serious matter.

Life Sciences: We introduced the autumn statement in the last policy update. However, we’re drawing your attention to the content announcing the £960 million for clean energy manufacturing and £520 million for life sciences manufacturing aiming to build resilience for future health emergencies.

Quantum: DSIT published the National Quantum Strategy Missions. The missions set out that:

  1. 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.
  2. By 2035, the UK will have deployed the world’s most advanced quantum network at scale, pioneering the future quantum internet.
  3. 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.
  4. By 2030, quantum navigation systems, including clocks, will be deployed on aircraft, providing next-generation accuracy for resilience that is independent of satellite signals.
  5. 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.

Research concerns: Research Professional publish the findings of two of their own research surveys: concerns over pressure to publish, predatory journals and culture issues. More here.

Regulatory

You’ll recall earlier this year the Industry and Regulators Committee delivered criticism and called for improvements to be made by the OfS in the way it engages with and regulates the HE sector. Recently the OfS wrote to the Committee to set out their response. The OfS confirmed their commitment to act on the Committee’s findings and set out these actions:

Engagement with students

  • Expanding our existing plans for a review of our approach to student engagement, to consider more broadly the nature of students’ experiences in higher education, and to identify where regulation can address the greatest risks to students.
  • Reframing of the role of our student panel – designed to empower students to raise the issues that matter to them.

Relationship with the sector

  • Robust, two-way dialogue is key to regulation that works effectively in the interests of students.
  • We have significantly increased our engagement with institutions in response to feedback, and this will be an ongoing priority.
  • The Committee’s report gives further impetus to that work with colleagues across the sector to reset these important relationships.

Financial Sustainability of the sector

  • We agree that the sector is facing growing risks and we are retesting our approach to financial regulation in this context, including developing the sophistication of our approach to stress-testing the sector’s finances.

The content the OfS provides in its response document at pages 4-26 pads out the above headline statements with more detailed plans and context and touches on wider topics such as free speech, value for money, and the regulatory framework. Read it in full here.

Research Professional discuss the main elements here (in rather a more polite tone than you might usually expect from them). Meanwhile Wonkhe summarise recent IfG content: the OfS

  • needs to assert its independence better – and the government must refrain from “frequent meddling” in the regulator’s work. These are among the conclusions of the Institute for Government think tank in its assessmentof the government and OfS responses to the Lords Industry and Regulators Committee report. It suggests that OfS’ dual role as regulator and funder is creating confusion, and that this issue was not sufficiently explored in the committee’s inquiry.

Renters (Reform) Bill – Committee Stage

The Renters (Reform) Bill completed Committee Stage and is waiting for a date to be considered at Report Stage in the House of Commons. We have a pop out document for you listing the most relevant information on the Bill in relation to student rental accommodation.

Mental Health

Nous and the OfS published a report on student mental health: Working better together to support student mental health – Insights on joined-up working between higher education and healthcare professionals to support student mental health, based on a ten-month action learning set project.

Separately, NHS Digital published the wave 4 findings as a follow up to the 2017 Mental Health of Children and Young People (MHCYP) survey. Overall, rates of probable mental disorder among children and young people aged 8 to 25 years remained persistently high, at 1 in 5, compared to 1 in 9 prior to the pandemic.

PTES

Advance HE published the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey results:

  • 83% of students were satisfied overall with their experience, up 1% since 2022, and the highest since 2016 and 2014 when it also reached 83%.
  • Satisfaction levels among non-EU overseas students have continued to increase and now exceed by a sizeable margin those of UK students across all measures of the postgraduate experience.

Consideration of leaving their course

  • 18% of postgraduate taught students had considered leaving their course and, of those, the number who cited financial difficulties increased from 8% in 2022 to 11% in 2023.
  • UK students were considerably more likely to consider leaving their course than overseas students (29% of UK students considering leaving in comparison to, for example, students from India, of whom only 6% had considered leaving).
  • Women and non-binary students were more likely to consider leaving their course, as were those who studied mainly online.
  • Students who had free school meals as children were more likely to consider leaving their course, particularly because of financial difficulties, and this differential continued even among students aged 36 and above.

PRES

Advance HE also published the postgraduate research experience survey.

  • 80% postgraduate researchers express overall satisfaction with their experience at their institution.
  • Researchers working mostly or completely online were less satisfied than those who worked mostly or completely in-person.
  • The largest gaps in satisfaction between ethnicities focused around the opportunities provided for development activity with Black students a lot less likely to have been offered (or taken up) teaching experience and other development opportunities.
  • Among those considering leaving, cost of living is an increasingly important factor in how they view their challenges.

Jonathan Neves, Head of Business Intelligence and Surveys at Advance HE, said: It is positive to see nearly four out of five PGRs satisfied with their experience and there is encouraging feedback about research. But we should note that this is not for all groups. Institutions will also wish to explore why some – females and minority groups, in particular – are experiencing lower levels of satisfaction and at the same time to look at ways to address a gradual fall in satisfaction over time.

Student Loans

The Student Loans Company (SLC) published the latest figures covering student financial support for the academic year 2022/23 and the early in year figures for the academic year 2023/24, across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England:

  • 3% decrease in higher education student support in academic year 2022/23, at £19.7 billion.
  • Number of full-time Maintenance Loans paid remains relatively consistent to the previous year, at 1.15 million.
  • In 2022/23, as the last Maintenance Grant-eligible students conclude their courses, the % of full-time maintenance support attributable to grants falls below 0.1%.
  • Provisional figures indicate a potential 1.1% decrease in the number of Tuition Fees Loans paid on behalf of full-time students.
  • Continued decrease in the number of Tuition Fee Loans paid on behalf of EU (outside UK) students, due to the change in policy in 2021/22.
  • 1% decrease in the number of Tuition Fee Loans paid on behalf of part-time students.
  • Tuition Fee Loan take-up for accelerated degrees continues to increase.
  • 3% of all full-time loan borrowers took only a Tuition Fee Loan and opted out of Maintenance Loan support – consistent with the previous two years.
  • 7% decrease in the number of Postgraduate Master’s Loans issued in 2022/23.
  • Provisional figures for 2022/23 indicate a potential first, yet small decline in the take-up of Postgraduate Doctoral Loans.
  • Finalised figures confirm a 5.9% increase in the number of full-time students claiming Disabled Students’ Allowance in academic year 2021/22.
  • 3% increase in the amount claimed in Childcare Grant, reaching £244.1 million in 2022/23.
  • By end-October 2023, a total of 1.17 million undergraduates and postgraduates have been awarded/paid a total of £4.81 billion for academic year 2023/24.
  • Early look at academic year 2023/24 shows a continued decline in the number of EU (outside UK) students paid, due to the funding-policy change in 2021/22.
  • Early figures indicate a potential 4.5% reduction in the number of new students receiving student finance in academic year 2023/24.

A parliamentary question on the revision of the calculation formula used to determine overseas earnings thresholds for student loan repayments for English and Welsh students who live overseas or work for a foreign employer determine the review isn’t forthcoming. Minister Halfon confirmed it would require a legislative amendment to make changes to the formula.

There’s also a House of Commons Library briefing on students and the rising cost of living. It considers how students have been affected by escalating costs and what financial support is available. The Library briefings are useful because they support non-Minsters to understand debate topics better whilst formulating their opinions, and it provides them with facts and figures from which to engage in the debate. The full briefing is 34 pages long but there’s a shorter high level summary here.

Wonkhe blog: For the first time in almost a decade we have official figures on the income and expenditure of students in England. Jim Dickinson finds big differences between the haves and have-nots.

Graduate Employment

The Graduate Job Market was debated in the House of Lords. Lord Londesborough opened the session asking the government what assessment they have made of the jobs market for graduates, and whether this assessment points to a mismatch between skills and vacancies.

Baroness Barran spoke on behalf of the government stating that one-third of vacancies in the UK are due to skills shortages and that the HE sector delivers some of the most in-demand occupational skills with the largest workforce needs, including training of nurses and teachers. The DfE published graduate labour market statistics showing that, in 2022, workers with graduate-level qualifications had an 87.3% employment rate and earned an average of £38,500. Both are higher than for non-graduates.

Undetered Lord Londesborough pressed that we have swathes of overqualified graduates in jobs not requiring a degree (he stated the figure was 42-50%) and that graduate vacancies are falling steeply, as is their wage premium, and students have now racked up more than £200 billion of debt, much of which will never be repaid.

The debate also touched on regional differences in graduate pay, the importance of the creative industries which require a highly skilled workforce, the teacher skills shortage and whether tuition fees should be forgiven for those becoming teachers, and health apprentices not covered by the levy. You can read the full exchange here.

AI in jobs

The DfE published analysis on the impact of AI on UK jobs and training. It finds:

  • Professional occupations are more exposed to AI, particularly those associated with more clerical work and across finance, law and business management roles. This includes management consultants and business analysts; accountants; and psychologists. Teaching occupations also show higher exposure to AI, where the application of large language models is particularly relevant.
  • The finance & insurance sector is more exposed to AI than any other sector.The other sectors most exposed to AI are information & communication; professional, scientific & technical; property; public administration & defence; and education.
  • Workers in London and the South East have the highest exposure to AI, reflecting the greater concentration of professional occupations in those areas. Workers in the North East are in jobs with the least exposure to AI across the UK. However, overall the variation in exposure to AI across the geographical areas is much smaller than the variation observed across occupations or industries.
  • Employees with higher levels of achievement are typically in jobs more exposed to AI.For example, employees with a level 6 qualification (equivalent to a degree) are more likely to work in a job with higher exposure to AI than employees with a level 3 qualification (equivalent to A-Levels).
  • Employees with qualifications in accounting and finance through Further Education or apprenticeships, and economics and mathematics through Higher Education are typically in jobs more exposed to AI. Employees with qualifications at level 3 or below in building and construction, manufacturing technologies, and transportation operations and maintenance are in jobs that are least exposed to AI.

Enough Campaign

The Government announced the next (third) phase in the Enough campaign to tackle violence and abuse against women and girls, which focuses on HE. The government describe the initiative:

30 universities across the UK are partnering to deliver bespoke campaign materials designed to reflect the scenarios and forms of abuse that students could witness. It will see the wider rollout of the STOP prompt – Say something, Tell someone, Offer support, Provide a diversion – which provides the public with multiple options for intervening if they witness abuse in public places and around universities.

Graphics on posters, digital screens and university social media accounts will encourage students to act if they witness abuse, as part of wider efforts to make university campuses safer. The latest phase of Enough also contains billboard and poster advertising on public transport networks and in sports clubs, as well as social media adverts, including on platforms relevant to younger audiences.

Home Secretary, James Cleverly said: While the government will continue to bring into force new laws to tackle these vile crimes, equip the police to bring more criminals to justice and provide victims with the support they need, the Enough campaign empowers the public to do their part to call out abuse when they see it and safely intervene when appropriate.

Baroness Newlove, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales said: If we are to effectively tackle violence against women and girls, this requires a whole society approach with the education sector playing a key role. I welcome the latest phase of the Enough campaign as it expands into university campuses. Government commitments to future iterations of this campaign are crucial if we are to see the wider cultural shifts we know are necessary.

Apprenticeships

FE week report that the party’s over for degree apprenticeships as Chancellor Jeremy Hunt plans to restrict use of the apprenticeship level for degree level apprenticeships. Snippets: Multiple sources have said that Jeremy Hunt is concerned about the affordability of the levy amid a huge rise in the number of costly level 6 and 7 apprenticeships for older employees, while spending on lower levels and young people falls… Treasury officials have now floated the idea of limiting the use of levy cash that can be spent on the highest-level apprenticeships, but the Department for Education is understood to be resisting… Networks of training providers and universities contacted the Treasury this week to plead with the chancellor not to cut access to the courses, who claim the move is “political posturing” to appeal to certain parts of the electorate. Those involved in delivering the courses have also argued that the majority of level 6 and 7 management apprentices are in public services and “critical for the productivity agenda and fiscal sustainability”.

Think Tank EDSK are in favour of Hunt’s approach. Wonkhe report that they are campaigning for those who have already completed a university degree should be banned from accessing levy-funded apprenticeships, the think tank EDSK has argued in a new report, which criticises the proliferation of degree apprenticeships used to send “existing staff on costly management training and professional development courses.” The report sets out recommendations for improving the skills system for those young people who choose not to study at university – another recommendation is potentially preventing employers from accessing levy funds if they train more apprentices aged above 25 than aged 16 to 24.

Moving from opinion to data:

The DfE published 2022/23 data on apprenticeships.

  • Advanced apprenticeships accounted for 43.9% of starts (147,930) whilst higher apprenticeships accounted for a 33.5% of starts (112,930).
  • Higher apprenticeships continue to grow in 2022/23. Higher apprenticeship starts increased by 6.2% to 112,930 compared to 106,360 in 2021/22.
  • Starts at Level 6 and 7 increased by 8.2% to 46,800 in 2022/23. This represents 13.9% of all starts for 2022/23. There were 43,240 Level 6 and 7 starts in 2021/22 (12.4% of starts).
  • Starts supported by Apprenticeship Service Account (ASA) levy funds accounted for 68.1% (229,720).

Wonkhe on apprenticeships:

Admissions

Recruitment

UCAS released their end of cycle data key findings. These are notable as this cycle included questions to collect information on disability and mental health conditions as well as free school meals entitlement, estrangement, caring responsibilities, parenting, and UK Armed Forces options.

  • The number of accepted UK applicants sharing a disability increased to 103,000 in 2023, up from 77,000 in 2022 (+33.8%) and 58,000 in 2019 (+77.5%).
  • Those sharing a mental health condition rose to 36,000 this year compared to 22,000 last year (+63.6%) and 16,000 in 2019 (+125%). (Possibly because the changes mean that fewer accepted students needed to select ‘other’ when sharing their individual circumstances – 5,460 in 2023 versus 6,700 in 2022 which is -18.5%.)
  • The second highest number of UK 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have secured a place at university or college this year. A total of 31,590 UK 18-year-olds from POLAR4 Quintile 1 have been accepted – down from the record of 32,415 in 2022 (-2.5%) but a significant increase on 26,535 in 2019 (+19%). …but…
  • The entry rate gap between the most (POLAR 4 Quintile 1) and least disadvantaged (POLAR 4 Quintile 5) students has slightly widened to 2.16 compared to 2.09 in 2022.
  • The number of accepted mature students (aged 21 and above) is down – 146,560 compared to 152,490 in 2022 (-3.9%) but an increase on 145,015 in 2019 (+1.1%).

Sander Kristel, Interim Chief Executive of UCAS,, said: Today’s figures show growing numbers of students feel comfortable in sharing a disability or mental health condition as part of their UCAS application… This forms part of our ongoing commitment to improve the admissions process, helping to ensure that all students have available support and guidance to progress to higher education, no matter their background.

Also:

  • There has been a decline in the number of accepted international students – 71,570 which is a decrease from 73,820 in 2022 (-3.0%) and 76,905 in 2019 (-6.9%). We see a different trend when broken down by international students from outside the EU – with 61,055 acceptances, down from 62,455 in 2022 (-2.2%) but significantly up from 45,455 in 2019 (+34%).
  • Of the 1,860 T Level applicants, 97% received at least one offer. A total of 1,435 people with an achieved T Level have been placed at higher education, up from 405 last year (+254%)

Wonkhe has other thoughts and doesn’t quite believe the rosy picture UCAS is known to paint: while a decline in acceptances for 18-year-old undergraduate students could be explained in terms of disappointing A levels or the cost of living, a two per cent decline in applications – confirmed in last week’s end of cycle data from UCAS – is rather more worrying. Coming at a time of a widely reported slowdown in international recruitment as well, the worries begin to mount up. There are blogs delving deeper:

School curriculum breadth

Lord Jo Johnson has been chairing the Lords Select Committee on Education for 11-16 Year Olds (report here) which highlights that the EBACC has led to a narrowing of the curriculum away from creative, technical and specialist interest subjects – which isn’t ideal for future HE study. The committee’s inquiry was established in response to growing concerns that the 11-16 system is moving in the wrong direction, especially in relation to meeting the needs of a future digital and green economy. Research Professional have a nice short write up on the matter in Bacc to the future.  Snippets:

  • “Schools have accordingly adjusted their timetables and resourcing to promote these subjects to pupils and maximise their performance against these metrics,” the Lords committee says. “As a result, subjects that fall outside the EBacc—most notably creative, technical and vocational subjects—have seen a dramatic decline in take-up.”
  • The evidence we have received is compelling; change to the education system for 11-to-16-year-olds is urgently needed to address an overloaded curriculum, a disproportionate exam burden and declining opportunities to study creative and technical subjects,” Johnson said.
  • It looks like more government education reform could be on the cards soon. If prime minister Rishi Sunak is returned at the next election—a big if, we appreciate—then he has post-16 reform in his sights, so we could be in for a busy time on that front.

Access & Participation

The OfS has a new approach to regulation learning lessons from the 30 (ish) HEIs that rewrote their Access and Participation plans a year early.

Wonkhe blog: John Blake deletes even more of the cheat codes to access and participation.

  • I’m also pleased that many wave 1 providers have put a greater focus on evaluation: hiring evaluation specialists, training staff, developing theories of change and evaluation plans for plan activities. This is promising for the future of the evidence base of what does and does not work relating to intervention strategies. We are keen to see this focus increase further and to see more evaluation plans that explore cause and effect robustly.
  • I want to see more evidence of collaboration between universities and colleges and third sector organisations, schools, and employers to address the risks to equality of opportunity that current and prospective students may face. Joining forces brings together expertise and agility and great numbers of students who can benefit from interventions.
  • I also want to see more ambitious work to raise attainment of students before they reach higher education. What the EORR clearly shows is that where a student does not have equal access to developing knowledge and skills prior to university, they are more likely to experience other risks at access, throughout their course and beyond.
  • We heard an understandable nervousness from providers around setting out targets and activity where the success of the activity undertaken is not necessarily entirely in their control. This was particularly in relation to collaborative partnerships and around work to raise pre-16 attainment. Whilst this is entirely understandable, I encourage providers to take calculated risks, and to know that where expected progress is not being made, we will provide you with an opportunity to explain the reasons for this, as well as your plans to get back on track, where possible. Our regulation is not designed to catch anyone out who is doing the hard work – even where that work does not always lead to the outcomes we all want.
  • We do not intend to update the access and participation data dashboard prior to May 2024 at the earliest. This is to ensure clarity, and as much time as possible for providers to work on new access and participation plans in light of delays to the first Data Futures collection of student data. Providers should use the data and insights that are currently available, including through the data dashboard published earlier this year, to support them to design their plans.

International

Short version – lots of debate on international students and migration. The Government plans for them to continue to be counted in the net migration statistics and continues to be opposed to bringing dependents into the country.

Here’s the five key exchanges in which the matter was discussed in Parliament over the last few weeks.

  1. At Home Office oral questions (transcript) Wendy Chamberlain MP (Liberal Democrat) asked what assessment had been made of the potential merits of providing temporary visas to the dependants of visiting students and academics when the dependants are living in conflict zones. The Minister for Immigration, Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, said that migration should not be the first lever to pull in the event of a humanitarian crises.

Jonathan Gullis (Conservative) described the recent ONS net migration statistics as completely unacceptable. He asked whether the Minister would support the New Conservatives’ proposal to extend the closure of the student dependant route to cover those enrolled on one-year research master’s degrees. The Minister stated that the level of legal migration was far too high and outlined the recent policy related to dependants. He believed the policy would have substantive impact on the levels of net migration but added that the government were keeping all options under review and will take further action as required.

  1. The Commons chamber debated net migration through the urgent question route. Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick MP, stated:

Earlier this year, we took action to tackle an unforeseen and substantial rise in the number of students bringing dependants into the UK to roughly 150,000. That means that, beginning with courses starting in January, students on taught postgraduate courses will no longer have the ability to bring dependants; only students on designated postgraduate research programmes will be able to bring dependants. That will have a tangible effect on net migration.

He went on to say (and it’s not clear if he is referring to students or net migration across all areas): It is crystal clear that we need to reduce the numbers significantly by bringing forward further measures to control and reduce the number of people coming here, and separately to stop the abuse and exploitation of our visa system by companies and individuals. 

Alison Thewliss (SNP) challenged the anti-migration tone stating: I thank those people who have come to make their home here [Scotland] and to contribute to our universities, public services and health and care sector, and who have made our society and our economy all the richer for their presence. Have the Government thought this through? Who will carry out the vital tasks of those who have come to our shores if they pull up the drawbridge and send people away? 

Tim Loughton highlighted that 135,000 visas were granted to dependants last year, up from 19,000 just three years ago, and around 100,000 visas were granted to Chinese students, up 87% over the past 10 years.

The Immigration Minister confirmed the government has considered a regional system of immigration but discounted it as unlikely to work in practice.

Paul Blomfield shared familiar messaging about the investment that international students bring to the UK and called for their removal from the migration statistics: International students contribute £42 billion annually to the UK. They are vital to the economies of towns and cities across the country. Most return home after their course. Those who do not are granted a visa for further study or a skilled workers visa, because we want them in the country. Students are not migrants. The public do not consider them to be migrants. Is it not time we took them out of the net migration numbers and brought our position into line with our competitors, such as the United States, whose Department of Homeland Security, as the arm of Government responsible for migration policy, does not count students in its numbers?

The Minster was unmoved, and responded: I do not think fiddling the figures is the answer to this challenge. The public want to see us delivering actual results and bringing down the numbers. Of course, universities and foreign students play an important part in the academic, cultural and economic life of the country, but it is also critical that universities are in the education business, not the migration business. I am afraid that we have seen a number of universities—perfectly legally but nonetheless abusing the visa system—promoting short courses to individuals whose primary interest is in using them as a backdoor to a life in the United Kingdom, invariably with their dependants. That is one of the reasons why we are introducing the measure to end the ability of students on short-taught courses to bring in dependants. Universities need to look to a different long-term business model, and not just rely on people coming in to do short courses, often of low academic value, where their main motivation is a life in the UK, not a first-rate education.

  1. Next the Lords debated net migration (end of November) – Lord Sharpe of Epsom, Home Office Minster, stated the government had introduced measures to tackle the substantial rise in students bringing dependants to the UK. Baroness Brinton flew the flag for international students stating they add £42 billion to the UK economy. She questioned why the government constantly portray them as a drain on the UK and why are they proposing to reduce their numbers, rather than recognising their direct contribution to our economy, communities and universities. The Minister replied that many students stayed in the UK after their studies and that they are remaining in the net migration statistics.

Lord Johnson asked the Minister for assurance that there was no plan to axe the graduate route for international students. The Minister replied there are no plans to affect the student graduate route. These measures are specifically targeted at dependants.

  1. Next up UUK summarise James Cleverly’s statement on legal migration from 4 December:

The Secretary of State confirmed that he had asked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the Graduate route to ‘prevent abuse and protect the integrity and quality of UK’s outstanding higher education sector’. Taken together with announcements in May and those outlined below, he claimed this would result in around 300,000 fewer people coming to the UK.

Other announcements:

  • End abuse of health and care visa by stopping overseas care workers from bringing family dependents.
  • Increase the earning threshold for overseas workers by nearly 50% from £26,200 to £38,700.
  • End the 20% going-rate salary discount for shortage occupations and replace the Shortage Occupation List with a new Immigration Salary List, which will retain a general threshold discount. The Migration Advisory Committee will review the new list against the increased salary thresholds in order to reduce the number of occupations on the list.
  • Raise minimum income required for family visas to £38,700.

The Shadow Home Secretary, Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP, said that Labour had called for (i) an end to the 20% ‘unfair discount’, (ii) increased salary thresholds to prevent exploitation, and (iii) a strengthened MAC. She proceeded to note that while the UK benefitted from international talent and students, the immigration system needed to be controlled and managed so that it was fair and effective. She criticised the government’s approach saying that there was nothing in the statement about training requirements or workforce plans.

Chris Grayling MP (Conservative) asked if there was a case for looking at who comes to study and if they should have an automatic right to work after they complete their studies. In his reply, the Home Secretary said that the UK’s university sector was a ‘global success story’ and widely respected across the world. He added that higher education should be a route to study, rather than a visa route by the back door.

Layla Moran MP (Liberal Democrat) criticised the government for ‘starving’ the science industry of lab technicians and other talent by introducing these new measures.

Patrick Grady MP (SNP) asked what steps the government was taking to negotiate more visa exchange programmes with the European Union and other countries that could allow the sharing of skills and experience across borders. The Home Secretary said he had negotiated a number of youth mobility programmes to attract the ‘brightest and the best’.

  1. On 5 December the Lords debated the legal migration statement. Lots of the content was similar to what we’ve already described above. Here we mention some additional points:

Lord Davies of Brixton (Labour) pointed to the impact that a fall in overseas students could have on the education provided for UK domiciled students. He urged the government to do more to encourage people to study in the UK. He warned that the measures announced would deter some international student from coming to the UK alongside proposals announced in May to ban PGT students from bringing dependants. He asked for reassurances that these factors will be considered in any impact assessments.

Baroness Bennett (Green) asked how much income was expected to be lost to UK universities in light of government predictions that 140,000 fewer people would come via student routes. She also asked about the regional impact of this.

The Minister also confirmed that the ban on dependents at Masters study level was not differentially applied based on subject. The ban applies to science students as much as humanities.

Finally, the House of Commons Library published a briefing on International students in UK higher education, the shorter summary here is a useful quick round up of the key points. The Home Office’ press release on their plan to cut net migration is here. Research Professional meander through some earlier international migration speculation (scroll to half way down if you want the more focussed content).

Recent Wonkhe coverage addresses the predicted loss in tuition fees arising from recent increases to student visa and health charges over five years could be up to £630m – a figure criticised by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Reviewing the Home Office’s impact assessments for the Immigration Health Surcharge increase and the student visa charge increases, the committee argues that both should have been considered together, with the possible effects “greater than the sum of each individually.” The Home Office had informed the committee that the two impact assessments were carried out independently. Plus Wonkhe blogs:

International Students Digital Experience

Jisc published International students’ digital experience phase two: experiences and expectations. Finding:

  • Most international students were positive about the use of technology enabled learning (TEL) on their course; notably, they appreciated how it gave them access to a wide range of digital resources, online libraries and recorded lectures.
  • Most were using AI to support their learning and wanted more guidance on effective and appropriate practice.
  • Home country civil digital infrastructure shapes digital practice, which in turn forms the basis of assumptions about how digital will be accessed and used in the UK
  • International students often struggled with practical issues relating to digital technologies, including setting up authentication and accessing university systems outside the UK

There is a shorter summary and some key information here.

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.

New consultations and inquiries:

The DfE has published a consultation on minimum service levels (MSLs) in education which sets out regulations the government may implement on strike action days to require a minimum educational delivery to be maintained (including within universities). If introduced, regulations would be brought forward under the powers provided to the Secretary of State in the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023.

The government states your feedback will help to inform the design of a minimum service level in schools, colleges and universities.

Minister Keegan’s ministerial statement launching the consultation is here and the consultation document is here, the response window closes on 30 January 2024. Please get in touch with Jane Forster if you wish to discuss this consultation or make a response.

Wonkhe even published a blog on the new consultation.

Other news

TEF: The remaining 53 TEF judgements for providers appealing their original results are expected to be published soon. Wonkhe got excited as the qualitative submissions, student submissions, and panel commentaries were published: Our initial analysis suggests that consistency across subject and student type, along with demonstrable responsiveness to feedback from students, have been key to securing positive judgements on the qualitative side of the exercise. They have three new blogs:

Growth contributor: A quick read from Research Professional – Andrew Westwood argues that the quietly interventionist autumn statement overlooked universities’ role in growth.

Cyber: From Wonkhe – David Kernohan talks to the KPMG team you call when your systems have been attacked and your data is at risk.

LLE: Wonkhe – New polling shows that demand for lifelong learning entitlement fee loans is not where the government may hope. Patrick Thomson tells us more. Also:

2023: The year in review – read HEPI’s annual take on the state of higher education.

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JANE FORSTER

VC’s Policy Advisor

Follow: @PolicyBU on Twitter

Applications are open for the 2024 – 2026 Parliamentary Thematic Research Leads

This is a great opportunity to become involved in Parliament, get your research noticed and have policy impact. Parliament’s Knowledge Exchange Unit has opened applications for Parliamentary Research Leads in the following areas:

Key dates

  • Monday 11 December: Parliamentary Thematic Research Leads 2024 – 2026 opportunity opens for applications
  • Wednesday 17 January, 1pm – 2.30 pm: Online Information Session
  • Sunday 3 March: Deadline for applications
  • Second half of April: Interviews
  • May – August: Research Organisation submits request for funding to UKRI, security clearance sought, Fellowship Agreement signed
  • September: Thematic Research Leads take up their positions in UK Parliament
    It is our expectation that the process will follow the timescales above. Should any changes to this be necessary, we will update the Thematic Research Leads webpage with details as soon as possible.We are aware that adjustments of timing may be required for some applicants throughout this process including disabled people, those with caring responsibilities and those observing religious occasions or festivities. If you have any adjustment needs that will impact your participation in the timescales above, please let us know so that we can consider an adjustment for you.

What is a Thematic Research Lead?

This is a prestigious and influential role, the purpose of which is to facilitate and enhance the use of research evidence and expertise in Parliament (in both the House of Commons and House of Lords) through effective knowledge exchange and collaboration. Each TRL leads on a specific policy area.

To achieve this, TRLs conduct three primary activities:

  • strategic support for the production and delivery of research evidence for Parliament, within a broad policy area
  • activities to support the development of a research and innovation landscape that facilitates and encourages knowledge exchange between Parliament and the research community
  • participation in a network of Thematic Research Leads to share intelligence and insights across policy areas.

Who is this opportunity open to?

Applications are open to:

  • all UK-based mid-career university researchers who already have a PhD and are employed on an academic contract, at a university. Exceptionally, they are also open to those who don’t have a PhD but have equivalent experience of a mid-career researcher and are employed in a UK university on an academic contract.
  • those who work in UKRI’s ‘Eligible Independent Research Organisations’ and are active researchers within their organisation. They will either have a PhD or equivalent experience of a mid-career researcher.
  • for the purposes of this call, mid-career researchers are defined as those employed on a contract that actively involves research (including joint teaching and research contracts) up to but not including professorial level.

Why apply to be a TRL?

The position of TRL is a highly influential and prestigious role at the heart of Parliament. As far as we are aware, we are the first parliament globally to have developed such a position, and the first nation to have embedded an academic network in our legislature. In a global landscape, delivering and developing this role therefore provides exciting possibilities.

The role offers an exciting opportunity for you to see first-hand how research feeds into policy, through shaping parliamentary work with your research expertise and participating in the development of parliamentary processes for knowledge exchange.

You will be uniquely placed to build connections with parliamentary and government stakeholders, and this participation will provide you with rich and varied experiences to support you on an upward professional trajectory. Current postholders have reported that the role has contributed to advancement in their careers, including to professorial level.

Where can I get more information?

  • More information is available on their webpage: www.parliament.uk/trls
  • You will also find detailed Guidance Notes on our TRL webpage – please read these before applying!
  • They will be holding an information session on 17 January, 1pm – 2.30pm. This session will be for interested applicants, knowledge mobilisers, professional services teams supporting applicants, or senior management; it’s an opportunity to find out more about the TRL role. The link to register for this will be made available on the TRL webpage and will be circulated in one of our normal weekly round-ups.

Please email impact@bournemouth.ac.uk in the first instance if you are interested in applying for one of these roles.

Food for Thought for Parliament: Presenting Consumer Insights to All Party Parliamentary Group

Professor in Consumer Behaviour Jeff Bray writes about his experiences presenting his research to an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG)… 

Earlier this term I received an unsolicited invitation to attend Parliament and present my research to an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). It was the first time that I received such a request and immediately viewed it with suspicion, imagining that it could be some kind of predatory conference or publication using Parliament logos improperly. But after some online checking, it did appear genuine and interesting, so I accepted the invitation.

I was invited to share my thoughts on ‘Behaviour Change’ to the Food and Health APPG. The brief was as open as that and no further guidance was forthcoming regarding likely group size, expectations or requirements. So, it was with a degree of uncertainty that on Tuesday I travelled to London with my notes, hoping that I had judged the audience and expectations correctly. I share some reflections here in the hope that it could provide others with a little guidance and confidence in similarly delivering such briefings for the first time.

I arrived in good time having been warned that getting through the airport style security could take 45mins +.  I then seemingly had the run of the place and was able to wander freely. I found the public viewing gallery in the House of Lords to be a warm spot to sit for 30mins looking through my notes, but I was distracted by the debate – the second reading of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, which given my research field was actually quite interesting!

Finding the committee room was straightforward given the number of security guards around to advise. It was quite easy to forget that the room was filled with MP’s, Lords and Baronesses since there was a real collegial tone (despite being cross party) and definitely the discussion was more friendly and less combative than I’ve observed at some academic conferences.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience but would have done so more, had I have known a bit better what to expect in advance. There are APPGs on a wide range of topics – the most recent register of groups is available here:  APPG register.  If there is a group that is closely linked to your expertise I believe it would be possible to contact the ‘Public enquiry point’ e-mail address and offer to present your work or just attend one of their sessions for interest.