Tagged / international students

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.

 

HE policy update No 7: 18th March 2024

This week’s update looks at some ministerial statements, what the OfS has learned from its funded project son mental health and wellbeing, employability and what works, a look at foundation years, who does them, and the outcomes, more on international students and the review of the post-graduate work visa, and the OfS are taking a fresh look at grant funding for universities.

The outlook for research at UK universities

Research Professional held an event recently and had some interesting speakers.  They report on a speech by Jessica Corner, the executive chair of Research England:

  • “It may be that our research and innovation system is beginning to contract a little bit,” Corner told delegates, having spoken about expectations that the sector is likely to be “entering into a more financially constrained few years”.
  • She said that analysis by UK Research and Innovation, the parent agency of Research England, had shown that the higher education sector is contributing around £5 billion a year to UK research, “which makes universities actually one of the biggest funders of research overall”.
  • With data suggesting falling numbers of international students, whose fees provide crucial financial support for universities, “there will be less to cover research”, Corner suggested….
  • Corner suggested that if the UK’s research sector does contract in scale, “that doesn’t mean to say it’s necessarily contracting in what it delivers”. She said that the opportunity offered by artificial intelligence to boost productivity is “huge”. “We need to carry on with the investment that we’ve got, but we’re going to have to be very smart with it,” she said.

At the same event the Science Minister, Andrew Griffith, spoke and amongst other things he addressed the funding point and also suggested that the new UKRI head, when Ottoline Leyser stands down in June 2025, may be from industry rather than the sector

  • Griffith said he wanted “true diversity, meaning the widest range of backgrounds and experiences”. He said new leadership “could well be from inside the sector, but also they could be from the top of the business world, or someone who has come from a professional services organisation”.
  • Griffith’s predecessor as science minister, George Freeman, has also recently told Research Professional News that new UKRI leadership “cannot just be traditional academic administration” and that there should be “a more business-like, more focused, accountable, output-orientated delivery culture in UKRI”…
  • The science minister was also asked about comments made by Donelan at the Lords committee that ministers do not think there is a crisis in university funding. Griffith said “we overuse the word crisis” and that universities are not alone in facing a period of “really intense macro change” affecting many countries. “We should expect that we are going to have some challenges to work through some of that,” he said.
  • Griffith was vocal about the importance of the UK higher education sector and that the “recipe for success must begin with our universities”, which are an “absolute magnet for the very best in global talent”. “We are, as far as I can possibly tell, the most open and diverse country on the planet in that respect,” he said.
  • Asked about how the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology is engaging with the Home Office about widespread sector concerns about changes to the UK immigration system, Griffith said this was being done “diligently”. He also said the UK must not “talk ourselves down” in terms of attractiveness to international talent, in order to prevent a “self-fulfilling prophecy, which would help nobody”.

Employability

Wonkhe has a blog on work-related experiences that is worth a read with some ideas that can sit alongside placements as a way of building work-relevant experience into courses, especially given the practical difficulties with placements that arise for some students and some sectors.  Ideas include:

  • More integration between employers and universities throughout the curriculum
  • Using university technical services to develop hands on learning on campus
  • Ensuring “work-like experience” in the curriculum and finding a different way of talking about what we already do in terms of employment and employer based learning so that students realise what they are getting and its value
  • Recognising the wider benefits beyond employability through projects in partnership with employers
  • Acknowledging the practical issues and supporting access to opportunities
  • Leaning into virtual experiences
  • Putting the resources in to support delivery

And while we are on the theme of placements, the OIA has published some notes on cases they have heard.  There are a lot of good points in here, some are summarised here.

  • Whatever the context of the placement, it’s important that students are given clear and accurate information about it. Students need to know what’s expected of them and where and how to access support while they’re on placement. It’s also important that providers have processes in place to respond when things go wrong.
  • Providers will sometimes need to work with placement organisations outside of the local area.
    • It’s important to manage students’ expectations about the possible location of their placement, for example by explaining what the provider considers to be a reasonable time and/or distance to travel.
    • For some students there will be considerations to take into account when deciding where to place them, for example accessibility needs, caring responsibilities or transport considerations that might make commuting to a placement more difficult.
    • Providers can usefully signpost students to any sources of financial support, either at the provider or elsewhere, that may be available to help with any costs associated with the placement. Where it’s not possible to offer a placement within the expected area, the provider may want to consider whether it would be reasonable to support the student with any additional expenses they may incur as a result of being offered an out of area placement.
    • It’s also important to tell students in good time what placement they have been allocated so that they have time to make any arrangements they may need to.
  • It’s important that students know in advance where they can go for advice and support whilst on placement.
    • It is good practice for providers to ensure that students have a named staff member at the provider that they can liaise with, as well as a named mentor at the placement organisation.
    • Some students may need additional support during the placement, for example because they are disabled or have caring responsibilities. The provider should explore in advance how those support needs might be met, and whether the provider or the placement organisation will be responsible for meeting them. …

And much more…

Mental health and wellbeing

The OfS funded a set of projects and they have now been evaluated.  There’s a report and all sorts of analysis, but the one page summary sets out a set of effective practice for addressing barriers to support for a set of target groups and also some conclusions:

  • Co-creation with students is critical for support to strongly align to need.
  • Tailored outreach was the most effective method to reach targeted groups supplemented through ‘snowball’ techniques with students.
  • Describing services with positive framing and avoiding over medicalised descriptions in language tailored to targeted audiences was vital.
  • Developing strategic, multi-agency partnerships internal and external to lead institutions is a key enabler of delivery success.
  • Evaluation of delivery should be embedded across all project activities using clear logic model and mixed method approaches to ensure data collected accounted for failure. A designated evaluation lead is key.

Foundation years

The government and the OfS have some concerns about foundation years.  One of the recently published quality assessments by the OfS referred to a provider not ensuring insufficient academic support for foundation year students once they progressed onto the main programme – support should have continued for these students at higher levels.  This article from Wonkhe in October noted that:

  • To be fair, you would imagine that students that struggled at level 3 for reasons other than ability (and thus would be likely FY candidates) would continue to struggle when in higher education for the same reasons – poverty, lack of social capital, other responsibilities – that they had faced previously.

foundation year is not the same as a foundation degree. A foundation year is integrated with an undergraduate course, whereas a foundation degree is a standalone qualification.   We all get a bit confused about how the regulatory conditions apply: continuation is defined as year 1 to year 2: in this case that means foundation year to year 1 undergraduate.  Completion means completion of the undergraduate programme (for foundation year students that means 4 years, without a placement year, 5 with a placement).

You will recall that the government is worried about the cost and value add of foundation years.  The House of Commons library research briefing on student number controls from August 2023 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.

International

After the fuss earlier this year about international students allegedly accessing foundation year courses with lower grades than UK students and in the context of the government priorities on reducing migration, the Home Secretary has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to review the post-study work visa.

Although the report is not due until May, and recommendations may not be implemented for the start of the 24/25 academic year, this is likely to have a further chilling effect on international recruitment in September.  It is possible though that the government want steps to be taken before the election, the timetable means there will be no time for a call for evidence.

  • Initial data from the MAC annual report shows that the proportion of international students studying at lower tariff institutions has risen to 32% in 2021/22, while the number of [international] postgraduate students attending institutions with the lowest UCAS tariff quartiles has increased by over 250% between 2018 and 2022.
  • We are keen to understand the drivers behind this, including whether it is because people are using these courses as a long-term route to work in the UK. An international student can spend relatively little on fees for a one-year course and gain access to two years with no job requirement on the Graduate route, followed by four years access to a discounted salary threshold on the Skilled Worker route. This means international graduates are able to access the UK labour market with salaries significantly below the requirement imposed on the majority of migrant skilled workers. The Government is already taking steps to change the general salary threshold for the Skilled Worker Visa from £26,200 to £38,700, which will increase the requisite salary in order to switch routes, including with the applied discount.
  • Early data suggests that only 23% of students switching from the Graduate route to the Skilled Worker route in 2023 went into graduate level jobs. In 2023, 32% of international graduates switching into work routes earned a salary above the general threshold at the time (£26,200), with just 16% earning over £30,000 – meaning that the vast majority of those completing the Graduate route go into work earning less than the median wage of other graduates. Initial data shows that the majority of international students switching from the Graduate route into the Skilled Worker route go into care work. This is clearly not what the Government intended in the 2019 Manifesto when it pledged to establish the Graduate route to attract the best and brightest students to study in the UK.

Wonkhe has a piece.

In this context, the QAA has also announced a review of pre-entry courses for international students.

  • This review will compare the admissions requirements between foundation programmes for domestic students and international students, assess the standards of the courses being offered to international students as both foundation programmes and international year one programmes, and assess whether these standards are being achieved and maintained in practice.
  • QAA will publish the findings of this review by the end of Spring 2024.

And if you are not sure what these pathways for international students are or how much they are used, the Nous Group have a report out.

  • In-person delivery at a relevant university campus: this is the most common mode in the UK where many UK universities host a pathway provider building on one of their campuses.
  • In-person delivery at a pathway provider campus in the destination country: some pathway providers have study centres in the country in which students wish to study that are independent of a university campus.
  • In-person delivery at a partner university in the source country: foundation programmes offered by destination universities are often delivered via a partnership with an in-market university.
  • In-person delivery at a study centre partner of a pathway provider in the source country: not all pathway providers deliver education directly. Some partner with study centres across source countries to deliver pathway programmes designed and assessed by the provider.
  • Online delivery via the pathway provider learning platform: the expansion of providers into online delivery was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now multiple providers offer fully online foundation courses with guaranteed progression to a partner university on successful completion.

OfS funding review

The OfS has announced a consultation on how they fund the sector – not tuition fee funding but grant funding.  It closes on 23rd June and we will be considering a BU response.

Our current model of recurrent funding for higher education providers is based on assumptions that some activities cost more to deliver than others. This could relate to particular subjects; to supporting particular groups of students to achieve success; or to reflect the operating models of some types of providers. The two primary types of funding the OfS distributes are:

  • Course-based: This is a high-cost subject funding allocation – for example, for courses in medicine, or physics – and includes targeted allocations to address specific priority areas – for example degree apprenticeships, and skills at Levels 4 and 5. We do not provide funding for courses in subject areas, such as law and humanities, that are classroom-based and that do not need the same level of specialist facilities to teach.
  • Student-based: This is a funding allocation to recognise additional support needs of students from disadvantaged groups or groups historically less likely to participate in higher education. Student-based funding also includes funding for Uni Connect.

We want to hear views on the effectiveness of the two primary types of funding the OfS distributes: course-based funding and student-based funding.

First three questions by way of illustration

Question 1: What are your views on OfS course-based funding? We are interested in any views, and below are some prompts for respondents to consider:

•         Should the distribution of funding continue to primarily reflect the courses and subjects students are studying? Should we also consider additional factors and/or approaches for course-based funding?

•         What should we seek to achieve with course-based funding?

•         What activity is currently supported in providers by this funding?

•         Are there any areas of important provision that are currently not supported by our funding allocations?

•         How should our approach adapt in the future?

•         What assessment is currently made by providers of the impact of this funding

 

Question 2: What are your views on OfS student-based funding? We are interested in any views, and below are some prompts for respondents to consider:

•         Should the distribution of funding continue to reflect the characteristics of the student population at individual providers? Should we also consider alternative factors and/or characteristics and/or approaches for student-based funding?

•         What should we seek to achieve with student-based funding?

•         What activity is currently supported in providers by this funding?

•         How best can the OfS use this funding to support access, success and progress for students?

•         How should it be targeted?

•         What assessment is currently made by providers of the impact of this funding

 

Question 3: What are your views on OfS capital funding? We are interested in any views, and below are some prompts for respondents to consider:

•         What assessment is currently made by providers of the impact of this funding?

•         How should we strike an appropriate balance between formula funding and competitive bidding to allocate capital funding?

Is this good, normal practice to review this as it was last reviewed in 2012, or deeply worrying?  The suggestion that they might use quality data to determine funding is interesting. And there is no new money, it is just the way it is distributed that it is up for discussion.

Wonkhe have a view:

  • This is a very broad call for evidence – in section A for each of the streams detailed above OfS wants to hear what activity is currently supported, what value is added, and whether what OfS tries to achieve with these allocations is the right thing to be aiming at.
  • .. And then you get to section B, in which OfS suggests that we scrap HESES…. The new proposal (actually an old idea familiar to anyone who has been involved in this debate historically) is to scrap the December allocation entirely and use two year-old data (so the 2021-22 year end data informs the 2023-24 allocation), thus reducing burden for providers in submission and reconciliation…. My suspicion is that rapid changes in student numbers year-on-year (and, increasingly, in year) will make this idea quite a hard sell strategically. But in terms of practicalities, the crashing failure of Data Futures – it genuinely blows my mind that we still (in March 2024) don’t have official 2022-23 student number data – might mean that people are reluctant to let go of the various checks and balances in the current system.
  • …OfS has been clear that there are no “proposals” in this document, just a starting point for conversation. It’s just an odd time to start the conversation.
  • The other (tuition fee) end of the funding system is set up to use information on teaching quality and equality of opportunity – your TEF grade is meant to determine the extent of an annual inflationary uplift in the higher level fee cap, and access to this higher level is still predicated on the existence of a credible plan on access and participation. Building these factors into the old (largely atrophied) teaching grant end too feels like double counting – though there could be a case to link access to grant funding to a minimum level of teaching quality there would need to be a far more robust and widely supported method of determining this to keep OfS out of court.

Wonkhe have a graph of what everyone gets (BU gets nearly £7m). Nottingham University is the top with £49million.  There are all sorts of pots in here though, including capital, special projects, student premium, high cost courses, etc.  Nottingham’s was nearly all high cost subject funding, as was ours, although we had a relatively large chunk of student premium money too.

You’ll recall that capital allocations recently switched to competitive bidding from an allocation mechanism.

Apprenticeships

The PM is set to announce new funding for apprenticeships.

  • Rishi Sunak is promising to create up to 20,000 more apprenticeships with a series of reforms including fully funding training for young people and cutting red tape for small businesses.
  • The government will pay the full cost of apprenticeships for people aged 21 or under at small firms from 1 April. To enable this, it is pledging £60m of new investment for next year.
  • …In a speech to a conference for small businesses in Warwickshire, the prime minister will set out a package of reforms he says will “unlock a tidal wave of opportunity”. As well as funding the cost of apprenticeships, ministers will also raise the amount of funding companies who are paying the apprenticeship levy can pass on to other businesses.

The press release gives a bit more detail.

Lifelong learning entitlement

You will recall a deep dive into this in a recent policy update using the DFE’s concept paper.  The house of commons library has now issued a briefing paper.  It’s a good read, especially if you click through to the full paper, going back over all the history and context.  The LLE stuff starts on page 20.

There is a lot more consultation to come

  • In spring 2024, the Department for Education will launch a technical consultation on the wider expansion of modular funding and lay secondary legislation covering the fee limits for the LLE in Parliament.
  • In autumn 2024, it will lay the secondary legislation that will set out the rest of the LLE funding system in Parliament.
  • In spring 2025, the LLE personal account will be launched for learners.
  • In autumn 2025, the Department for Education will launch the qualification gateway.
  • The Office for Students (OfS) will consult “in due course” on the development and introduction of a new third registration category for providers offering LLE-funded course and modules.

Free speech

The OfS consultation on free speech complaints panels has  now closed and we look forward to the outcomes.

As previously announced, the OfS has confirmed that there will be another consultation before the end of March, on the guidance for the sector and changes to the regulatory guidance.

  • We expect the proposed guidance to cover two broad areas: 
    • Examples where a provider, constituent institution or students’ union may not have taken steps to secure free speech; and
    • A non-exhaustive list of steps that it may be reasonably practicable for providers, constituent institutions and students’ unions to take to secure free speech within the law. This includes steps relating to the free speech code of practice.

This is a complex area and an 8 week consultation period is fairly tight.

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

Politics and Parliament

Budget

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

BBC stories:

Politics Home has a summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is one level 5 in there: nuclear technician.

And the NHS?

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

Britain’s mood, measured weekly

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

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

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

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

Research and knowledge exchange: war on woke

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

On 5th March, several things happened:

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

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

Student experience, wellbeing and finances

Student experience: the Student Futures commission

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

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

Mental health

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

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

Social and engagement:

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

Disabled students

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

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

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

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

The recommendations are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loan forgiveness for nursing students

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

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

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

Research Professional have the story.

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

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

International: Falling international recruitment

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

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

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

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

HE sector sustainability and change

Outreach work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•         Uni Connect could be more consistently effective and impactful.

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

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

Research Professional have the story.

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

So maybe there will be a change in approach?

Franchising investigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, as we know:

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

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

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

And Susan Lapworth for the OfS said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a discussion about monitoring attendance and engagement.

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

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

HE policy update 5: 26th February 2024

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

Politics and Parliament

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

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

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

So to this one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Universities UK manifesto

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

Future of apprenticeships:

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

Regional inequalities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research and knowledge exchange: Spinouts

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

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

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

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

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

Education: Subcontracted provision

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

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

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

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

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

Context from the NAO report:

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

Summary findings:

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

There are some interesting articles from the last year here:

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

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

Duty of care

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

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

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

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

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

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

The response from the University of Bristol is here.

Harassment and sexual misconduct

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

International

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

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

Student numbers and admissions

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

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

The mission groups argue the taskforce would:

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

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

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

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

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

And the Scottish model?

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

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

Research Professional have the story here.

Freedom of speech

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

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

 

HE policy update: no 4, 5th February 2024

The update is a bit shorter this week, focussing on the bigger news on research and education.  The next update will be in a couple of weeks.

Research and knowledge exchange

Ref changes: the wheels on the bus go round and round

There’s nothing new in policy and politics.  As the debate rages about research culture and environment, how to measure it and whether we even should, there is a blog on Wonkhe reminiscing about the similar debate in 2009 around impact.

There’s an update from Research England here: Overall, the community has expressed clear support for the principle of an increased emphasis on PCE in the next REF, while outlining concern around the need for careful consideration of the reporting burden on the sector and the potential dangers of metricising culture or prescribing what good looks like.

Plans for taking this forward were confirmed in an update on people, culture and environment from UKRI which said that the extra time used by the postponement of the next REF from 2028 to 2029 would enable them to run a pilot exercise alongside  a project to develop a set of indicators.

  • The PCE indicators project will provide multiple opportunities for the sector to engage with the development of the PCE indicators. Desk-based research will draw on a variety of sources including Environment statements from REF 2021, feedback received through prior engagement and consultations with the sector, and other published reports. The initial consultation during spring 2024 will comprise in-person workshops in each of the four UK nations and a series of online thematic workshops. ….. Once the draft indicators have been developed, and in parallel with the PCE pilot exercise, a second round of consultation with the sector will be conducted gathering feedback through workshops and an open consultation (survey). ..
  • The pilot exercise will focus on a sample of UoAs (we anticipate in the region of 8 UoAs) selected to provide a general insight into the assessment of PCE for similar subject areas and to highlight particular issues or special considerations that may exist for the assessment of PCE. ….
  • Institutions will be invited in March 2024 to apply to participate in the pilot exercise, …. We anticipate selecting around 30 institutions to make submissions to the pilot exercise. …
  • Institutions that take part in the pilot will be expected to produce unit-level submissions for between 1 and 8 UoAs and also an institution-level submission. These submissions will be based on the indicators identified and developed templates emerging from the commissioned work on PCE indicators.
  • Pilot panels will be comprised of academics, research professionals and others with appropriate expertise. Recruitment of pilot panels is anticipated to be in April 2024 and will be through an open process, to a set of tightly defined criteria. …..

Doctoral funding and training

There’s a UKRI update out with a new statement of expectations for Doctoral Training.

Education research areas of interest

You can read about the DfE’s areas of research interest here.  What is this for?

  • In practical terms we hope this ARI document will steer and support researchers in developing relevant evidence and enable them to make stronger funding bids by linking their work to these priorities.

The areas of interest include:

  • Skills: Drive economic growth through improving the skills pipeline, levelling up productivity and supporting people to work. 1a. What are the country’s future skills needs to support growth and prosperity, particularly in STEM and green skills? 1b. What are the organisational challenges and opportunities facing higher education (HE) and further education (FE) institutions? 1c. What are the funding, system and market challenges and opportunities for increasing participation in technical education, apprenticeships and adult training? 1d. What are the drivers of UK and foreign students’ decisions about pathways into and out of FE and HE, including impact of funding, finance and experience
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Technology: Harness the use of AI, technology and data across our sectors to support safe and effective use within education 5a. What are the potential impacts of AI, and how can new technologies be used safely and effectively within education? 5b. How can the impact of digital technology be robustly measured, and implemented in a way that supports teachers and students? 5c. What approaches or innovation are needed to support the efficient handling of data within education settings?

Education

Complaints

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator published its annual report.

  • In 2023 we received 3,137 complaints, our highest ever number. This is 10% more than in 2022, and followed increases in each of the previous six years

They are also consulting on new scheme rules: this consultation closes on 8th March 2024.

The OIA handles individual complaints and deals with complainants and universities quietly, but also publishes anonymised case studies which make interesting reading and a useful reference point.

The latest from January is on complaints relating to accommodation:

  • The case summaries show that students are not always clear about what they have signed up to, or about how to formally raise issues when they have concerns. It is important that providers’ information for students is as clear and easily accessible as possible, keeping in mind that for some students it is the first time they have lived independently away from home, or lived in a different country.
  • Sometimes the issues raised in complaints are about the accommodation itself, and sometimes they involve the student’s behaviour or that of other students in the accommodation. It’s important that the provider investigates the issues, considers the impact on those involved and takes steps to minimise it, and keeps the student informed. ..
  • We encourage early resolution of complaints where possible. In some of the cases we have seen, the provider recognised issues either during its internal processes or in the early stages of the student’s complaint to us and made an offer to the student to put things right. Sometimes complaints to us are settled in this way. Where the student doesn’t accept what we consider to be a reasonable offer, the complaint to us will usually be Not Justified on the basis that a reasonable offer has been made, and the case summaries include some cases with this outcome.

The previous update relates to disciplinary matters.

You can search them all by theme here

Staff/student ratio and student experience

An interesting blog for Wonkhe in Feb 24 demonstrates that there is no correlation between lower SSRs and student experience however you cut the data:

  • Plotting student:staff ratio against NSS fails to show even a non-significant relationship between satisfaction and staff numbers. Looking primarily at NSS question 15 (which relates to the ease of contacting teaching staff and seems most likely to see an impact from staff student ratios) there are no clear relationships between our two variables in any subject area”.

A common narrative when this is discussed is that SSR data is distorted by research only staff, but the Wonkhe data excludes them.

Generative AI and assessments

There’s a new HEPI/Kortext policy note out: Provide or punish? Students’ views on generative AI in higher education.  There are some interesting findings including:

  • More than half of students (53%) have used generative AI to help them with assessments. The most common use is as an ‘AI private tutor’ (36%), helping to explain concepts.
  • More than one-in-eight students (13%) use generative AI to generate text for assessments, but they typically edit the content before submitting it. Only 5% of students put AI-generated text into assessments without editing it personally.
  • More than a third of students who have used generative AI (35%) do not know how often it produces made-up facts, statistics or citations (‘hallucinations’).
  • A ‘digital divide’ in AI use may be emerging. Nearly three-fifths of students from the most privileged backgrounds (58%) use generative AI for assessments, compared with just half (51%) from the least privileged backgrounds. Those with Asian ethnic backgrounds are also much more likely to have used generative AI than White or Black students and male students use it more than female students

Based on these findings, the authors recommend:

  • Institutions should develop clear policies on what AI use is acceptable and what is unacceptable.
  • Where AI has benefits, institutions should teach students how to use it effectively and how to check whether the content it produces is of high quality.
  • To prevent the ‘digital divide’ from growing, institutions should provide AI tools for those who cannot afford them when they have been identified as benefitting learning.
  • The Department for Education (DfE) and devolved administrations should urgently commission reviews to explore how academic assessment will be affected by AI

There’s a Wonkhe article by Jim Dickinson here.

Quality assessments

The Office for Students have published two more quality assessment reports: concerns were found in both of these, to add to the two previous ones where concerns were found.  Most of the reports published so far relate to business and management, the one published so far for computing  confirmed that there were no concerns.  There are a few more expected.

It is helpful to look at some of the themes picked out in the four reports so far that identified regulatory concerns:

Theme Finding
Teaching quality, delivery and learning resources ·       The teaching and learning resources used to teach disciplinary knowledge were not consistently up-to-date.

·       The manner of teaching delivery meant that courses were not consistently effectively delivered.

·       Delivered content was not consistently informed by up-to-date, discipline specific academic theory and research. This meant that courses did not consistently require students to develop relevant skills.

·       The cohort of students recruited by the university required high quality resources to support their independent learning. However, the quality of the virtual learning environment (VLE) was not consistent, with some modules having inadequate learning materials to facilitate the cohort of students’ learning

Course delivery: format and timetable 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.
Academic support Student academic support needs were not consistently identified, limiting the opportunity for senior and academic staff to enhance the quality of poor-performing modules and improve the academic experience of students.
Monitoring and management of attendance and engagement Inadequate central monitoring and pro-active management of engagement and attendance and over-reliance on individual academic staff to follow up.  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

Assessment and feedback ·       The format for providing formative feedback on assessments may not have been sufficient for some students across a number of modules reviewed. … 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

·       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.

Allowing up to six attempts to pass an assessment (for those students that resit a module) without a clear underpinning pedagogic rationale, brought into question the rigour of the assessment and diluted the challenge provided that was relevant to the level of the course. The team considered that because those students were permitted to attempt an assessment that was lacking in rigour and challenge, it meant that those students were not assessed effectively
Academic misconduct Support for avoiding potential academic misconduct was not consistently provided in assessment feedback via the online assessment platform at Level 4
Foundation year students Insufficient academic support for foundation year students once they progressed onto the main programme – support should have continued at higher levels
Staffing Insufficient staff to provide adequate support, impacting personal tutoring, assessment and feedback and academic support
There was considerable variability between the pedagogical and teaching skills of different academic staff across business and management courses including an overreliance on PTHP which had an impact on learning and outcomes
Leadership and governance A lack of adequate educational leadership and academic governance was affecting the overall academic experience of students: this included gaps in key leadership roles and no plans or arrangements to cover, and inadequate noting and oversight of key data and action plans

There’s a Wonkhe blog on the latest two reports here.

Why do these matter?  Here is a reminder of the relevant licence conditions invoked by the OfS in relation to these issues

Apprenticeships

It’s National Apprenticeship Week and so a new standard has been announced: this time for teachers.  You can read the Secretary of State’s announcement here.

  • With a TDA, you’ll work in a school while you gain qualified teacher status (QTS), which you need in order to teach in most schools in England. At the same time, you’ll be studying for a degree.
  • It means trainees won’t take on student debt and will earn while they learn, supporting those who may not have the financial means to do a traditional university-based teacher training programme.
  • It will be available for people to train as both primary and secondary teachers.
  • Subject to final approval, schools will be able to start recruiting apprentices from autumn 2024, with the first trainees beginning the programme in 2025.

Student experience, wellbeing and finances

The Office for Students have announced that they will launch before the end of the academic year a competitive process to allocate £2m towards projects to “seed new practices and test new ideas” supporting equality of opportunity.

Mental health and duty of care

Wonkhe have the story about a recent coroner’s report.

There is a first report from the Department for Education’s HE Mental Health Implementation Taskforce.  Wonkhe are critical in a blog here.

As a reminder what this was for and a summary of the progress made so far:

Objective: adoption of common principles and baselines for approaches across providers, such as through sector led charters

  • The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education wrote to all HEPs in June 2023 asking for ownership of mental health at an executive level to drive adoption of best practice. A target was also set for all universities to join the UMHC Programme by September 2024. In October 2023 Student Minds confirmed significant progress had been made, with 96 members now signed up across the UK, representing a greater than 50% increase in membership. Of those, 83 are English members, over two thirds of the cohort in scope of the UMHC Programme target.
  • Student Minds intends to undertake a light-touch review of the Charter and award process to begin early in 2024.
  • Next steps: Understand the means by which HEPs construct their mental health strategies and engage with the sector to understand where additional work may be impactful (particularly with regards to the formulation and oversight of HEP mental health strategies) by May 2024.

Objective: better identification of students in need of support and a clear user journey for accessing that support

Workshops have been held and three broad approaches considered:

  • Staff training and competence
  • Mental health analytics
  • Encouraging early disclosures

Next steps: It is proposed that the following work take place prior to the second stage Taskforce report:

  • Consider the evidence for the effectiveness of different training programmes to raise awareness for non-specialist staff, identify examples of good practice, and share these within HEPs as well as sector agencies which may design and deliver staff accreditation processes (e.g. Advance HE);
  • Work with the sector, and potentially Jisc and system suppliers, to develop and promote guidance for HEPs looking to implement student analytics or other related data systems, paying particular attention to supporting HEPs to improve their data governance; and
  • Work with UCAS to support their developing work around student surveys and references, facilitating discussions between UCAS, HEPs, FECs and schools to understand what additional information might be collected, the means to do so, and how this might be shared with HEPs. Feed into the work of the HE Student Support Champion on understanding and establishing methods of addressing barriers to schools and FECs sharing information with HEPs on students’ previous educational records, including their mental health needs.

Objective: development of more sensitive policies, procedures, and communications within a proposed HE Student Commitment

Sector engagement has uncovered challenges faced by HEPs when endeavouring to make improvements in this area:

  • the need for a broader range of good practice exemplars, in particular compassionate policies;
  • the requirement to adapt existing and emerging practice to the precise requirements of each individual provider;
  • the centrality of creating a consistent, whole institutional approach, where many sources of communications and interactions become mutually reinforcing;
  • the vital role of senior leaders in setting the tone for a compassionate culture;
  • the volume of material to be revised, in the context of resource constraints and competing priorities; and
  • the balance between compassion and the need to be clear about requirements and potential consequences of non-observance.

Next steps It is proposed that the following work take place prior to the publication of the second stage report:

  • Consult with the wider sector and students on the agreed principles;
  • Continue to engage with the sector to identify further examples of embedding compassionate principles into policies, procedures, and communications;
  • Develop material that can be utilised by the OIA;
  • Continue to promote the importance of this area with senior leaders with responsibility for overseeing policies, procedures, and communications, and more broadly with HEPs and their professional bodies; and
  • Deliver a national event to promote the Commitment

Objective: Effective local case reviews and engagement with the National Review of HE Suicides, including generation of insights into mental health services on offer by HEPs, and exploration of the methods for achieving greater timeliness and transparency on suicide data

  • In November 2023 DfE appointed the University of Manchester’s National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health (NCISH) to conduct the National Review.
  • In scope of the National Review will be suspected suicides and attempted suicides with an initial focus on those that have occurred in the Academic Year 2023/24. HEPs will be encouraged to submit their reviews to NCISH. Guidance to support HEPs to engage with this activity will be shared with the sector in early 2024.
  • HEPs will be able to make use of the template for serious incident reviews set out in the UUK Postvention guidance, published in December 2022, though this template is not mandatory. The National Review’s final report will be published by spring 2025 and will outline lessons around good practice and areas for improvement, drawn out from submitted reviews.

International

International student admissions

Immigration, including the impact of international students, remains a hot political topic.

The big story in the Sunday times on 28th Jan was about international students taking the place of better qualified home students.  The paper is behind a paywall, but the Guardian report is here.  There has been a lot of pushback on the original story which seemed to compare admissions requirements for foundation courses with degree courses.

There’s a UUK update on the story here.

UUK also published on 2nd Feb a statement about what they are going to do in response:

  1. Review the Agent Quality Framework (AQF) and make recommendations to enhance the system. We will:
  • Work with our members and partners to ensure adoption of the AQF across the sector.
  • Make recommendations on how the AQF and wider UK data infrastructure can be enhanced to identify and address bad practice and improve resilience.
  1. Review of quality and comparability of International Foundation Programmes (IFPs) and Foundation Programmes for Home (UK) students. We will: commission the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to undertake a rapid review of IFPs. The review will compare requirements of International and Home Foundation Programmes, including entry requirements.
  2. Update the Admissions Code of Practice to clearly state its applicability to international recruitment. We will: review the Admissions Code of Practice to signpost where the Code is expected to apply to international recruitment and update the Code if appropriate.

The DfE are also looking recruitment practices: see this Research Professional article.

International student outcomes

This report in the FT talks about data from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University.

  • The number of overseas graduates staying on in the UK to work in care rose more than six-fold last year, according to research that puts a spotlight on unintended consequences of the government’s migration policy.
  • More than half of all foreign students who switched from graduate visas to skilled worker visas in the year ending June 2023 went into care work, the Migration Observatory think-tank at Oxford university found via freedom of information requests.
  • Some 26,200 overseas graduates were recruited into the care sector, from 3,900 in the year to June 2022, the data showed.
  • “Most international students graduate from masters programmes in subjects like business, engineering and computer science, so it is striking to see so many take roles in care, which requires few formal qualifications,” Ben Brindle, researcher at the Migration Observatory and co-author of the report, said.
  • Brindle noted that while some graduates taking care roles may want to work in the sector, others will have taken on the work, despite being heavily overqualified, “because it provides a route to stay in the UK”.

There’s a response here on Wonkhe from a former international student.

Of course similar stories appear frequently about the number of home graduates taking less highly skilled work, usually linked to the outcomes and quality discussion, such as this one from July when the government confirmed their approach to student number controls linked to the OfS quality assessments (see above under Education for some context for these).

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

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HE policy update 27th November 23

Autumn Statement

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

Somewhat acerbic summary from Research Professional here,

Some extracts from the statement

Science and Innovation:

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

Life Sciences

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

Creative industries

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

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

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

King’s Speech

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

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

Of most interest to HE:

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

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

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

The background briefing on these forthcoming Bills is available here.

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

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

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

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

Cabinet Reshuffle

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

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

The minister is responsible for:

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

Research

UKRI EDI Advisory Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

REF2028 – overload and dilution?

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

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

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

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

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

Blogs:

AI news

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

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

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

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

Announcements:  

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

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

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

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

Quick research news round-up

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

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

Full details here.

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

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

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

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

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education Questions

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

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

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

Growth for the sector

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

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

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

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

Rip off degrees

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

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

Mental health

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

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

He ended:

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

Not off the hook yet…

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

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

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

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

Quality

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

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

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

Short summary available from QAA here.

Modules

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

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

Student Finance

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

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

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

Quick Student News

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

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

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

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

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

UUK recommendations:

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

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

There are also five threshold conditions that need urgent attention:

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

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

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

Political News

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

They also commit to:

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

HE statistics

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

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

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

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

Full data here.

Applicants

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

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

Access & Participation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendations:

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

International

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

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

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

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

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

Inquiries and Consultations

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

Other news

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

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JANE FORSTER                                            |                       SARAH CARTER

VC’s Policy Advisor                                                              Policy & Public Affairs Officer

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HE policy update w/e 3rd November 23

We have a response from the Government on student accommodation, DSIT is all about the AI research, whole-sector foundation year student statistics are rather damning, we hear from the new Free Speech Tsar, and the BTEC | T level | Advanced British Standard confusion takes the next step as 85 qualifications are defunded.

Parliament – new session beckons

Parliament has been prorogued ready for the Kings Speech and the new session of Parliament to open on Tuesday 7 November. Carry-over motions were agreed for six Bills, with the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill being of most relevance to universities. In addition, the Renters Reform Bill was introduced but was still awaiting a second reading when this briefing was published (see below for a discussion of that one).

Bills that had not completed the legislative process and for which a carry-over was not agreed have now fallen.  They might be brought back, along with the ones that were announced but had not gone forward, including bills on media, audit reform, and mental health.

The King will formally open Parliament on 7 November and in his speech (which is written by the Government) he will announce the Government’s proposed policies and legislation for the coming session. The new session will end when Parliament is dissolved ahead of the general election – which must be held in January 2025 or before.

The House of Commons Library briefing King’s Speech 2023 has lots of useful information, including setting out some potential areas for the 2023-23 new legislative session:

  • Criminal justice measures, including knife crime and sentencing
  • Raising the age of sale for tobacco products
  • Implementing legislation for UK accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership
  • Transport
  • Leasehold and commonhold reform
  • Changing the Habitats Regulations to ‘scrap nutrient neutrality’.

Conference season – final elements

Jonathan Woodhead of Birkbeck College has written a piece for the campaign for Learning on the LLE after the party conference season – lack of clarity seems to be a theme.

Wrapping up the final elements from the 2023 party conference season we highlight the aspects in Labour’s conference most of interest to HE:

  • Keir Starmer criticised the Prime Minister’s comments on universities, saying I never thought I would hear a modern Conservative Prime Minister say that 50% of our children going to university was a “false dream”. My Dad felt the disrespect of vocational skills all his life. But the solution is not and never will be levelling-down the working-class aspiration to go to university.
  • Labour’s speeches were light on policy announcements throughout the conference, likely because the polls suggest Labour is favoured for the next election. Members of the Lighthouse Policy Group suggest staying non-committal on policy announcements means they can avoid making any gaffes that would hurt the party’s chances in the polls and avoids the Conservatives producing a reactive manifesto that usurps Labour’s plans.
  • Kier also spoke of Technical Excellence Colleges describing them as having stronger links to their local economies…planted firmly in the ground of young peoples’ aspiration. TECs are expected to transform existing FE colleges and will have improved links to local universities.
  • Bridget Phillipson, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, stated that Labour would change the way students pay for their time at university, so none of our young people, fear the price they’ll pay for the choice they’d like. The feeling in the sector is that they are favouring a graduate tax, unlikely to increase the cost of tuition fees (despite sympathy for universities’ unit of resource), may be open to reintroducing maintenance loans on a small scale, and are likely to introduce some form of tuition forgiveness for teaching and nursing/midwifery.
  • Shadow Secretary of State for the Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology, Peter Kyle, announced that Labour would create 10-year R&D budgets allowing relationships with industry to build and long-term partnerships to form – leading to investment in new technology and the infrastructure that underpins it. Also that Labour would increase the number of universities spinouts, accept the recommendations of Lord O’Neill’s start-up review. This would include publishing annual data on the performance of university spinout support and a new founder track, giving more flexibility to people who establish spinouts and want to keep a higher stake of the equity. You can read the full transcript for Keir Starmer’s speech and Bridget Phillipson’s speech.

Research

  • AI & medicine: The House of Lords library published their science current affairs digest for October looking at how AI is changing drug discovery and its role in pharmaceutical changes such as anti-ageing, personalised cancer cures and robotic dosing implants. The paper includes the government’s approach to regulation.
  • AI safety summit: DSIT published the programme for the AI Safety Summit on 1 and 2 November. Day 1 will consist of roundtables on AI risks and AI safety and a panel discussion on the immense opportunities of AI to transform education for future generations, Michelle Donelan will provide closing remarks. On day 2 PM Rishi will convene a small group of governments, companies and experts to further the discussion on what steps can be taken to address the risks in emerging AI technology and ensure it is used as a force for good. Michelle Donelan will led a group of international counterparts to agree next steps.
  • Innovation funds: DSIT announced funding for £32 million for innovation projects that can improve productivity in key sectors through the use of AI; and £5 million for feasibility studies into 100 small firms’ pioneering AI ideas. Artificial intelligence projects in areas as diverse as fashion, farming and fire-fighting are being backed…as…Michelle Donelan highlights how AI can be a force for good ahead of next month’s AI Safety Summit. The funding is from the UKRI Technologies Mission Fund (administered by Innovate UK).
  • AI safety research team: Yet another AI announcement from DSIT the government’s Frontier AI Taskforce has begun building an AI safety research team to evaluate the risks at the frontier of AI. The Taskforce has partnered with Advai, Gryphon Scientific and Faculty AI – to tackle questions about how AI systems can improve human capabilities in specialised fields and risks around current safeguards. The findings of the research will be incorporated into presentations and roundtable discussions with government representatives, civil society groups, leading AI companies and experts in research at the AI Safety Summit in November. The findings of the research will be incorporated into presentations and roundtable discussions with government representatives, civil society groups, leading AI companies and experts in research at the AI Safety Summit in November.
  • AI superpower: The Lords Communications and Digital Committee met to examine whether the Government is striking the right balance between opportunity and risk in their ambition to make the UK an AI superpower. Large Language Models were considered. You can read or watch the session here.
  • Creative: Wonkhe – The Council for Science and Technology has set out recommendations to the government for harnessing research and development in the UK creative industries. Its recommendations include the Treasury and the Office for National Statistics collaborating on improvements to data collection on creative industries R&D.
  • Horizon funding: Parliamentary Question – UKRI funding of Horizon Europe guarantee scheme and other aspects of the UK research system. George Freeman MP: The government’s priority is to ensure the UK’s R&D sector gets the right support to allow them to continue their ground-breaking research and international collaboration. UKRI has to date issued grant offer letters totalling approximately £1.36bn through the Horizon Europe Guarantee scheme with further funds to be committed throughout 2023-24. UKRI has delivered further support across the Horizon programme, including elements of targeted investments to support UK research, as announced by the Government in November 2022, – with spend underpinned by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. UKRI’s budget remains as published in our Annual Report and Accounts for 2022-23
  • Innovation clusters: DSIT announced £75 million to fund eight Launchpads (regional SME innovation clusters). These initiatives will build on existing clusters of high-tech innovation in each region…The £7.5 million bespoke funding from each Launchpad will allow SMEs in each region to bid for support that is tailored to the unique needs of each business cluster, helping them drive innovation, expand operations, and boost their local economies. The Launchpads cover Net Zero, Digital Technologies, Health Technologies, Agri-Tech and Food Tech, Marine and Maritime, Bio-based Manufacturing, Immersive and Creative Industries, and the Life and Health Sciences.

George Freeman, DSIT Minister: The UK science, research and innovation economy is not just the ‘golden triangle’ of Cambridge-Oxford-London. It is all around the UK. That is why we have launched our flagship Launchpads programme – and this £75 million investment will support high-growth companies to build the industries of tomorrow – in sectors from renewable energy through to digital health. These Launchpads will play a pivotal role in growing our local economies, creating jobs and levelling up the UK

Regulatory: Free Speech

Professor Arif Ahmed, Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at the OfS made his inaugural speech at a King’s College London event. He confirmed his role was non-partisan and stated freedom of speech is not the property of one side in any culture war and that the role exists to protect and to promote freedom of speech within the law. On academic freedom Arif stated that data showed academic freedom in the UK had dropped in the last 10 years and now ranks around 60th in the world, below most EU countries. There is lots more in the transcript, it follows the messaging you’d expect from OfS covering the chilling effect and institutions silencing controversial voices.

Smita Jamdar explores how the Middle East conflict challenges free speech principles and practice in an article for Research Professional.

Meanwhile Michelle Donellan, Science Minister, has drawn huge amounts of criticism for intervening to tell UKRI to change its approach to equality and diversity, citing the social media accounts of two members of a committee as symptoms of a much wider problem and calling for the committee to be disbanded.  This is a row that is likely to run for a while.  James Coe writes for Wonkhe on the exchange of views with links to how the issue unfolded and escalated if you missed it.  Regardless of views on whether the Minister should have made comments about the individuals concerned or her criticism is justified (and we express no view on that ourselves), the elision of that issue with a wholesale challenge to the equality and diversity work at UKRI seems unhelpful.  The wholesale challenge has been on the agenda for a while, alongside other challenges to what the papers like to call “woke” ideology in universities, but ought perhaps to be treated as a separate and important issue in its own right not at raised the end of an unconnected and different sort of letter – which makes it look less considered than it probably is.

Students

Mental health – by characteristic

OfS published the Meeting the mental health needs of students insight brief examining issues relating to mental health at university. It considers the likelihood students will report mental health conditions by characteristic (age, sex, ethnicity, free school meals and area deprivation measures) and how these affect student outcomes (continuation, completion, attainment, and progression).

Mental health & climate change

Student Minds published the Climate Change and Student Mental Health report which considers curriculum design, leadership, behaviour changes, the impact on specific student groups, the role of government and HEIs:

  • 71% of student respondents were quite or very concerned about climate change.
  • 68% were quite or very concerned about the impact on them personally.
  • 53% of students wanted to learn about sustainability in their curriculum, while only 20% already had.
  • Students believe their universities and the government should focus on energy and recycling over measures to tax or ban meat on campus.

Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation, said: This fascinating report illustrates the need for universities to offer students practical and constructive ways for them to tackle climate change and wider environmental issues – not only for the good of the planet – but for their own wellbeing too.

Research Professional has a good write up and analysis of the report here.

Student mental health – blogs

Wonkhe has two blogs on student mental health:

Foundation year student statistics

The DfE published foundation year student statistics for 2021/22. Bear in mind the Government is currently reviewing HE funding for foundation years in key areas and the presentation of the statistics seems to match their agenda.

Providers, courses and entrants

Foundation year courses have proliferated in the last 10 years with the greatest number of foundation year providers in London and the South East.

  • There are 69,325 foundation year entrants at English HE providers. This is an increase of over 60,000 since 2011/12 (8,470 entrants), and a 718% increase overall (more than 20% increase each year).
  • Since 2011/12, the number of foundation years available has been growing rapidly, with the number of courses increasing more than fivefold between 2011/12 and 2021/22, from 678 to 3,717.
  • The proportion of foundation year entrants studying a classroom-based subject reached 59% in 2021/22. Most entrants were studying business and management (51% of total foundation year entrants). The figure is higher than undergraduates in the first year of their course, of whom only 13% were studying business and management in 2021/22. Business and management are one of the key areas the Government intends to discontinue foundation year funding.

In total, there were 105 English providers of foundation years in 2021/22.

  • 23 of these providers were based in London, the second highest cluster was South East England (16 providers).
  • 42 of the 105 providers (40%) had a low or unknown tariff in 2021/22, the highest percentage across all OfS provider typologies.

Student characteristics 

Foundation year students are older, more ethnically diverse, balanced between the genders, and less declare disabilities compared to first year undergraduates.

  • 64% of foundation year entrants were aged 21 and above in 2021/22
  • 58% of students entering HE through a foundation year do not have prior attainment in the standard tariff population. (For comparison, only 15% of first year undergraduates entering HE are in this category.) After excluding those recorded as not in the standard tariff population, the prior attainment of those who undertook a foundation year was still lower than for first year undergraduates.
  • In 2021/22, foundation year students identified as White (54%), Asian (14%), and Black (14%). In 2021/22 the proportion of non-white entrants was significantly higher among foundation year entrants (46%) than among first year undergraduate entrants (34%).
  • Gender is split evenly among foundation year entrants (for comparison 58% of first year undergraduates are female).
  • The proportion of foundation year entrants with at least one known disability in 2021/22 was slightly lower than the proportion among comparable first year undergraduates (11% compared to 18%).

Outcomes

Students who complete full HE study that commenced through a foundation year have lower graduate outcomes than non-foundation entrants.

  • 53% of entrants who started in HE with a foundation year completed HE within 6 years (during the academic year 2021/22). Whereas 80% of first year undergraduates completed their qualification within 5 years.
  • Foundation year students studying at high tariff and medium tariff providers saw the highest percentage of graduates in employment or further study (90%).
  • The average salary for a foundation year graduate five years after graduation was £24,500, almost £4,000 lower than that of comparable undergraduates (£28,200).

Full data available here.

Student accommodation

The Government’s response to the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee inquiry on reforming the private rented sector includes information that touches on student tenancies.

The Committee recommended that fixed-term tenancies should be retained for the entire student housing sector and require all landlords letting to students to sign up to one of the existing Government-approved codes of conduct. Long term the Committee called on the Government to replacing existing codes with a single national code of conduct. Also to consider ways to prevent or deter landlords from abusing the exemption such as introducing financial penalties.

The Government response:

  • The government recognises that the student market is cyclical – and that removing section 21 will mean landlords cannot guarantee possession each year for a new set of tenants.
  • Having engaged across the sector, we understand the cyclical model is critical for landlords’ business models and ensures a timely and robust supply of student accommodation. We will therefore introduce a ground for possession that will facilitate the yearly cycle of short-term student tenancies.This will enable new students to sign up to a property in advance, safe in the knowledge they will have somewhere to live the next year.
  • Retaining fixed terms for students, as per the committee’s recommendation, would not in itself mean properties are available at the end of an academic year for next year’s students. Unless notice is served, tenants have a right to remain in a property when a fixed term ends, and a landlord must still use a ground for possession or section 21 to evict them. We believe retaining fixed terms would unfairly lock students into contracts, meaning they could not leave if a property is poor quality, or their circumstances change. Student tenants should have the same flexibility as others.
  • We do not think it is viable to introduce codes which cover all student housing. There are a very large number of private rented sector student properties which would make enforcement extremely challenging, and further regulation would be a significant burden on small landlords. There are key distinctions between private housing rented to students and purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) which warrants a different approach. PBSA is designed specifically with students in mind and caters for their needs, often with additional facilities or support services that would not be available in a standard home rented to students.

Read the full 25-page Government response here.

Renter’s Reform Bill

Wonkhe have a blog: Jim Dickinson reviews the emerging compromise between students and landlords over the Renters (Reform) Bill – and wonders if it will be enough to get the legislation through.

Here’s the latest on the Renter’s Reform Bill discussions taking place in Parliament.

  • Clive Betts MP (Labour), Chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, described exempting purpose-built student housing from the ban on 6 periodic tenancies as ‘entirely sensible.’ Regarding non-purpose-built student accommodation, he said landlords having the right to terminate a tenancy in line with the university year may prove a good compromise and will be further probed at Committee stage.
  • Mary Robinson MP (Conservative) highlighted concerns from landlords operating student lets on the abolition of fixed-term lets. She said it may prevent landlords from securing tenants ahead of time for the next academic year, taking away certainty and security for both landlords and students. She also warned that the changes could negatively impact the rental market and make it unattractive for landlords to let to students.
  • Paul Blomfield MP (Labour) raised the concerns of student renters, drawing on his findings as Chair of the APPG for Students. He highlighted that approximately 45% of students who live in the private rented sector and are currently not covered by the Bill. Participants in a recent roundtable had agreed on the many positive elements of the Bill but stressed the need for it to succeed for all renters. Paul Blomfield proceeded to note the heterogeneity across the student community, urging the Minister to not rush to exempt students from the protections in the Bill relating to non-fault evictions…without careful consideration of the impact on all types of students.
  • Helen Hayes MP (Labour) recounted an experience of a constituent who had lost their first-year university student son to suicide. As their son had signed a tenancy for second-year accommodation with a guarantor agreement, after their son’s death the parents were pursued for rent. She said she would table an amendment to address this issue.
  • Caroline Lucas MP (Green) warned against excluding students from the reform, reminding the Secretary of State of the White Paper which stated, it is important that students have the same opportunity to live in a secure home and challenge poor standards as others in the PRS.
  • Matthew Pennycook MP, Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning, said Labour would press for clarification of the new grounds for possession for students’ landlords to ensure they are not too expansive and ensure the complexities of the student market are reflected.

The Bill is being carried over to the next Parliamentary session where it will be considered in depth at Committee Stage. It’s this stage that the real shape of the Bill will begin to emerge.

UUK have a good in-depth briefing on the implications of the Renter’s Reform Bill for students.

HEPI report on student accommodation costs

Student accommodation costs across 10 cities in the UK: Cost pressures and their consequences in Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (HEPI Report 166) provides an authoritative picture of student living, conducted in response to the unprecedent rent rises and supply issues witnessed over the past two academic years. It includes data voluntarily submitted by both universities and the 10 largest providers of Purpose-Built Student Accommodation operating across ten major regional university cities who collectively manage more than 125,000 beds in those cities (including Bournemouth).

Consequences

  • The overall picture that has emerged is one of very challenging market conditions. While many accommodation providers acknowledge there is an undersupply of accommodation and rising rents, there are no easy fixes.
  • Although there is much talk of affordability, the ability of providers to build more to relieve supply pressures is being hit by high development costs. The new rooms that do get built come with a higher price tag, so that providers can recoup their development costs. The pipeline of new accommodation is being slowed by historically high interest rates which are driving up funding costs. Rent levels in existing buildings have also been increasing as a consequence of rising running costs.
  • All providers surveyed recognise that the result of all this is that many students are having to put up with steep rent rises because they have no other options.

Policy implications and recommendations (from main report):

Student maintenance system

  • The student maintenance system needs resetting, if access to higher education is to be maintained evenly across both richer and poorer students. ‘Maintenance loans’ could more accurately be described as ‘a contribution to living costs’. The importance of the parental contribution should be highlighted rather than just mentioned in passing and parents should be provided with clearer official information on the minimum they are expected to contribute.
  • Maintenance support needs to be based on how much it actually costs to be a student living independently and away from home. In England, there is a golden opportunity to harvest the invaluable data collected for the government-funded Student Income and Expenditure Survey (SIES) and to use it as an evidence base towards a better system.

Affordability and financial intervention

  • Beyond the talk of affordability, the figures show that new and additional PBSA is getting more and more expensive. Rent for new beds in 2023 is 22 per cent more than for existing stock.
  • The main driver for the growth of PBSA is the private sector, and they are unlikely to increase their risk by going it alone on innovative products or lower-cost accommodation to fulfil an educational agenda. These options will only be developed if led by educational institutions, sharing some of the risk through private sector partnerships: universities must get more involved.
  • Accommodation bursaries can be effective in markets where there is a lack of affordable options.Finding resources for partnering with private providers is essential if educational institutions are going to make this support available. This is an important short-term approach, even if it serves to help shore up a dysfunctional student maintenance system.

Wonkhe blogs on the topic:

Admissions

Grading of level 3 results

Dr Jo Saxton, Ofqual’s Chief Regulator, wrote to HEIs to communicate grading arrangements for England’s 2023/24 admission cycle. It notes the 2-year transition to pre-pandemic grading is complete and normal grading arrangements will continue for GCSE, AS and A levels in 2024. Meaning national results in 2024 are expected to be ‘broadly similar’ to those of the summer of 2023. Grading arrangements for vocational and technical qualifications will continue as normal with awarding organisations adopting the same approach for the academic year 2023 to 2024 as they did previously.

Progression to HE: key stage 4 and 5 student data

The DfE published three data releases on the destinations of key stage 4 and 5 students in 2021/22. The releases cover whether students go into apprenticeship, education and employment destinations, and whether they progress to HE. All three data sets are available here.

The data release covering progression to higher education or training look at the percentage of level 3 pupils continuing to a sustained education or training destination at level 4 or higher in the two years after they completed their 16 to 18 study back in 2019/20.

The proportion of students that progressed to a sustained level 4 or higher destination was 68.3% (+2.3%); of the 68.3%:

    • 64.0% were studying for a (full level 6) degree.
    • 1.7% were participating in a higher/level 4 apprenticeship.
    • 2.6% were studying other qualifications at level 4 or 5

Disadvantage

  • Disadvantaged students (those eligible for pupil premium in year 11) were less likely to sustain a level 4 or higher destination (63.4%) than other students (69.5%) – a larger gap than last year
  • Disadvantaged students were much less likely to sustain a degree destination at a top-third HEI (12.2% vs 21.6%).
  • However, this gap reverses looking at the value-added scores (which take prior attainment at GCSE and qualification type into account).
    • Disadvantaged students scored +1.9, compared to -0.5 for other students, showing that a student of given prior attainment and qualification type is actually slightly more likely to progress if part of the disadvantaged cohort.
    • This could be because disadvantaged students are more likely to enter into level 3 study with the intention of progression, or it could be that they are boosted by the London effect (London has by far the highest proportion of disadvantaged students and a very high progression rate).

Gender

  • Female students were more likely to progress to a level 4 or higher destination (71.4%) than male students (64.7%), a slightly larger gap than last year. Except there are more males on tech levels (qualifications prior to T levels) with male tech level students obtaining a higher progression score (+2.7) than female students (-1.8). Gender bias it likely at play here due to the type of tech level subjects chosen (some tech subjects lead to higher rates of education/ apprenticeship destinations than others).
  • Though female students were much more likely to sustain a degree destination, male students were slightly more likely to sustain a level 4 or level 5 destination and nearly twice as likely to sustain an apprenticeship.

Ethnicity

  • There is large variability in the rate of progression by ethnicity group. Asian or Asian British students were most likely to sustain a level 4 or higher destination at 84.6% overall. 21% ahead of students from the White ethnicity group which had the lowest progression rate.
  • Once prior attainment and qualification type were accounted for, students from the Black or Black British ethnicity group achieved the highest progression scores (+17.2), followed by students from the Asian or Asian British group (+13.4). Students from the White major ethnicity group were the only ones to average a negative progression score, however they were more likely than students from other groups to have a high-level apprenticeship or level 4/5 destination.

Region

  • London continues to have the highest rates of progression to level 4 or higher (79.1%), while the South West continues to have the lowest (61.7%). This difference remains even when prior attainment and qualification type are considered. The gap has widened on last year. Proximity to HEIs is likely a biasing factor here – students from London might have the opportunity to sustain degree destinations while living at home, while those from the South West have fewer options and may find the necessary travel/rental costs prohibitive. London also has a higher-than-average ratio of schools to colleges, creating a stronger bias towards education destinations over employment.

Previous provider type

  • Students from non-selective schools in highly-selective areas continue to progress well below the national average even once prior attainment is taken into account.
  • For two students with the same GCSE results and studying the same qualification types, both at non-selective schools, the one studying in a highly-selective area is 5.5% less likely to progress to a level 4 or higher destination than the other student.
  • Students from selective schools continued to progress at a very high rate (89.7%) with an average progression score of +2.0.

You can find the full data release on progression to HE here.

The DfE has also published data on 16-18 destination measures detailing students who left 16-18 study in 2020/21 and follows their destinations in 2021/22. Excerpt: Disadvantaged students were more likely to stay in further education and less likely to progress to higher education: While 45.8% of non-disadvantaged students leaving 16 to 18 education progressed directly to higher education, the rate for the disadvantaged group was 35.6%. On the other hand, 7.7% of disadvantaged students continued in further education, compared to 6.1% of all other students.

Finally, there is also information on key stage 4 destination measures.

BTECs out. T levels in for now.

Rishi’s announcement that T levels will be defunded when (if) Britain moves to the Advanced British Standard put the DfE in a bit of quandary as to whether to continue the (unpopular) cancellation of BTECs that are gradually being replaced by T levels or whether to have a serious rethink. After a quick ponder the DfE are moving ahead and continuing to pull back from BTECs (and similar technical qualifications) and have published the final list of 85 qualifications assessed to overlap with wave 3 T Levels. The overlap occurs in these areas:

  • Business and Administration
  • Engineering and Manufacturing; and
  • Finance and Accounting.

The Government will withdraw public funding from these qualifications, for new starters, from August 2025.

Universities and Skills Minister Halfon has issued a written ministerial statement announcing the changes. It points out that of the 85 qualifications – 30 didn’t have any current enrolments and another 23 had fewer than 100 enrolments in the 2020/21 academic year. Although given that parents knew these qualifications were about to be dumped there is a question over the chicken and egg here!

Moving onto the Advanced British Standard (ABS) Education Secretary Gillian Keegan published a written ministerial statement on the Government’s proposals. She confirmed the Government would provide £600 million over the next two years to prepare for the ABS, consisting of:

  • £100m each year to double the rates of the Levelling Up Premium and expand it to cover FE colleges (to disproportionately benefit disadvantaged students). All teachers who are in the first five years of their career, teaching key STEM and technical shortage subjects and working in disadvantaged schools and all FE colleges, will be paid up to £6,000 per year tax-free.
  • £150m each year to support students who need the most support. I.e. those without a grade 4 or higher pass in maths and English GCSE at age 16. And supporting English and maths for all post-16 apprentices who have not gained their Level 2 qualification, uplifting the funding rates to match the Adult Education Budget.
  • £60m over the next two years to expedite evidence-based techniques for maths teaching, including in post-16.
  • £40m to the Education Endowment Foundation to expand their post-16 work and embed evidence-based approaches in 16-19 teaching.

Keegan stated the Government will consult extensively over the coming months on the design of the new qualification with the consultation resulting informing a White Paper to be published during 2024.

Wonkhe report that since the ABS was announced student enthusiasm for T levels has waned. They have a blog: As demand for “gold standard” T levels atrophies in the face of news that they’ll be replaced, Johnny Rich laments an obsession with killing off BTECs.

Access & Participation

Social Mobility

HEPI published The English Social Mobility Index which compares the performance of (English) HEIs was published. Research Professional set to the Index and have questions in this good article: Mobility Issues. Excerpts:

  • If accurate, it would seem to confound assumptions about which sort of universities are doing the heavy lifting on social mobility.
  • The results are somewhat counter-intuitive. Are Imperial College (13) and the University of Cambridge (16) doing more for social mobility than Brunel and Birkbeck (18 and 19 respectively)?
  • Is the University of Manchester (22) a more effective engine of social movement than Manchester Metropolitan University (36)? Is the University of Oxford (21) doing more on social mobility than Middlesex University (44)?
  • Examples like this could be multiplied as you move through the ranking. The bottom nine institutions are all post-92s, with the University of Exeter the only member of the Russell Group in the bottom quartile.
  • The obvious question would be, how accurate a portrait of social mobility is this? The emphasis on graduate outcomes—weighted equally between median salaries and the Office for Students definition of “positive outcome” of graduate-level employment or further study—would tend to favour both high-tariff institutions and those based in the capital.
  • the graduate outcomes and continuation data are very broad-brush strokes, especially in larger universities, which may or may not bear much relevance to the experience of “social mobility students” at any given institution. For example, Oxford’s access numbers might be quite low, but its continuation and outcomes figures will be great, producing a decent score in the table—but that is not the same thing as delivering on social mobility, and certainly not en masse.

Read more here.

Service Children

NEON cover the new report which analyses universities’ APP plans: Under the Radar – Service Children in the UK today, highlighting that only a quarter of universities (10% drop since 2000) in England have strategies in place to support Service children to progress to HE and these numbers may fall over the next year. Read more here. You can also access a recording of the event covering service children.  And Graeme (from NEON) writes for Wonkhe: Children from military families have worse progression rates into higher education. Graeme Atherton argues that they should be a target group for access work.

Neurodiverse students

Wonkhe blog – As retention rates for autistic students are lower than any other disability group, Helen Guyatt explains what could be done to help – and what incentives there are for institutions to do so.

International

China

The Lords Chamber debated the long-term strategic challenges posed by China. The Government’s approach to protecting Chinese students from undue pressure on political issues was criticised and Lord Stirrup questions mechanisms that could effectively be used to protect students including monitoring interactions students have with their own government.

  • Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench) raised Confucius Institutes and suggested the UK worked with the Government of Taiwan for language and culture studies rather than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He queried what steps were being taken to help universities reduce dependency and diversify their funding sources.
  • Baroness Coussins (Crossbench) cautioned against ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ in responding to Confucius Institutes. She added that ‘closer monitoring of the situation in some universities is clearly advisable, but any action against the Confucius Institutes should be proportionate and properly targeted.’
  • Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State FCDO, responded on behalf of the Government stating a series of measures had been introduced to tackle threats to HE, such as the HE (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023. Also that the Government were working to increase protections for academic freedom and university research, including strengthening the screening of Chinese academics and researchers in sensitive areas of research. On Confucius Institutes, the Minister said they were ‘taking action to remove government funding from Confucius Institutes in the UK, but currently judge that it would be disproportionate to ban them.’ More details here.

There’s also a Wonkhe blog that may be of interest: Glen Noble explains how UK universities need to develop their own risk management processes for collaborating with China – especially when it comes to sensitive research areas.

International Growth

Lord Jo Johnson has spoken out (again, same messages) on restricting further international student growth and the need for universities to diversify their portfolio.

Wonkhe report: Speaking at a Universities UK International conference yesterday, Johnson said the sector is “reaching the political limits” of tolerance for higher numbers – because of dropout rates among Indian and Bangladeshi students of “approaching 25 per cent”, and questions over students’ ability to support themselves. Reflecting on accusations that universities were “selling immigration into the UK rather than education, he called on universities to take “collective action to weed out poor quality and fraudulent applications”.

There is full coverage in the Financial Times.

Health surcharge

Wonkhe report that the Home Office has published an equality impact assessment for the forthcoming increase to the Immigration Health Surcharge, which for students and their dependants (the discounted rate) will rise from £470 to £776 per person per year. It shows that the disparity between the median weekly wage for younger and older migrants may mean that students see higher impacts from the increase to the charge, making saving to pay the Health Charge more difficult.

Digital Teaching

Digital experience: UUK report on the JISC staff digital experience insights survey 2022/23 covering perceptions of HE teaching staff to technology and its potential in teaching.

  • 71% of teaching staff agreed the use of digital technology in teaching is convenient.
  • 61% agree that it allows them to teach in ways they prefer.
  • 64% rate the quality of their online teaching environment as above average.
  • 61% agree that it enables students to make good progress.

However, the survey also shows that teaching staff need more time and encouragement when it comes to improving their digital skills, with nearly half (49%) rating support for teaching effectively online as average or below average.

Kathryn Heywood, Head of Business Intelligence at Jisc said: This year’s student digital experience insights survey shows that HE students find online learning more engaging and motivating since 2020, and they havereaped the benefits of teaching staff working hard to improve their practice. What’s clear from this year’s staff survey, is that teachers need more dedicated support from the organisation to focus on their digital skills.

Digital enabling: Wonkhe and Kortext published Setting the curve – deploying technology for learning, teaching, and student success looking at how to deploy technology to support longer term learning, teaching, and student success strategies. Excerpt: in making technology part of the solution universities must also ask some searching questions: about the degree of digital capability required of staff and students; about what “hybrid” work and learning should look like and why; about the interaction of the digital and physical estate; and, crucially, about the nature of the spaces available for being critical about technology adoption, and how the conversation about technology moves forward. Read more here.

Other Wonkhe blogs:

Inquiries and Consultations

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

Other news

General Election: The Times reported that the Government has been advised not to call the general election for November due to security concerns should the campaigning period align with America’s (fixed) November presidential election. The Times quotes an official as saying There are huge security and market implications if two Five Eyes countries are holding elections at once. It could potentially open up two countries to cyberwarfare and electoral manipulation from hostile states and if a security threat were to arise during a campaign it would leave western countries exposed. With a second Whitehall source stating: Far more care would have to be taken around national security and meddling from hostile countries. The Times also reports that Labour are preparing for a May election. The last possible date the UK election can be held on is 28 January 2025.

HE growth: Wonkhe blog – On the tenth anniversary of David Willetts’ 2013 Robbins Revisited report, David Kernohan wonders if it still stands up.proroSubscribe!

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HE policy update for the w/e 29th September 23

It was a funny old week. TEF and KEF results popped out with little fanfare, OfS announced a degree apprenticeship push and are getting on with the sexual misconduct survey (finally). We’ve got to hope the Government keep their receipts safe if they wish to claim the Horizon Europe guarantee refund – through a voucher discount for the next scheme (which we may or may not join). UKRI’s PGR new deal scheme gets a pasting and Minister Halfon sneers at the criticism that the Lords Committee dished out to the OfS. It’s a parliamentary recess for conferences so you can expect more politics and less policy in the news for the next couple of weeks!

Teaching Excellence Framework

The new TEF results were announced on Thursday for 228 providers, the remaining 23% (53 providers) are pending appeal. More detail will be provided in November when the provider submissions, panel statements, and student submissions are published (along with the outcome of the appeals). Once this is released we’ll have a fuller national picture of how institutions have engaged with TEF across the nation.

You can search the results here.

If you’re not familiar with TEF it’s changed a lot since BU received the previous silver award – since then there were lots of experiments and interim exercises. Wonkhe have an explainer: TEF now contains two “mini TEFs” – one covering student experience (the NSS metrics plus evidence from submissions) and the other covering student outcomes (continuation, completion, progression, plus evidence from the submissions. You get an award for each, which are then combined into your main TEF award

73 universities and colleges were awarded Gold for at least one aspect.   Of the Gold ratings awarded:

  • Ten are for what the OfS has categorised as “low entry tariff” providers. A further seven low tariff providers have been awarded Gold for one of the two aspects.
  • Seven are for what the OfS has categorised as “medium entry tariff” providers. A further five have been awarded Gold for one of the two aspects.
  • Ten are for what the OfS has categorised “high entry tariff” providers. A further eight have been awarded Gold for one of the two aspects.
  • Nine are for specialist providers in creative arts subjects.
  • Three are for specialist providers in other subjects. A further three have been awarded Gold for one of the two aspects.

It is interesting to see how little the new “requires improvement” award was used in practice – no-one received an overall RI rating and only a few had one aspect rated as requiring improvement.  Which is good, of course.

Prior to the announcement Wonkhe questioned: But what – if anything – does TEF mean in a world of dwindling resources and acute student hardship? The 2015 Conservative manifesto that sparked the exercise was speaking to a different world, and it seems highly unlikely that anyone in power will use these results as a spur to praise the excellence and diversity in the sector.

What does it all really mean – we don’t know until we can read the submissions and the panel assessments.

Blogs:

KEF

Research England published the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF 3) results on Wednesday. If you’re unfamiliar with the KEF the best explainer is on the Research England website. KEF is a series of dashboards which summarise an institution’s performance on seven areas of knowledge exchange (or ‘perspectives’) – public and community engagement, research partnerships, working with business, working with the public and third sector, CPD and grad start-ups, local growth and regeneration, IP and commercialisation. If you scroll down to table 1 (on the webpage) you’ll see what activities are measured to provide the KEF judgement for each of the perspectives listed above. The data for the KEF is pulled from the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction survey.

For the KEF, institutions are grouped into “clusters” and results are compared across the cluster, with every institution being given a rating for each perspective based on which quartile it falls into in its cluster.  Confused?  Well yes, it is confusing!

For more coverage delve into:

  • NCUB blog: What can the KEF tell us about university KE performance and improvement?
  • Wonkhe blog analysing the KEF 2023 results across providers and clusters.
  • Some good (if rather chatty) coverage from Research Professional (suitable for novices to KEF) in At KEF’s door. It begins:
    • some of our readers may be old enough to remember when former universities and science minister Jo Johnson told the Universities UK annual conference that the KEF was “a challenge” that all universities “did not need to rise to”. The fact that the architect of the KEF did not expect all universities to take part in it has not prevented the entire sector from having a go …with the KEF: the large research-intensives of the Russell Group have their own group of death, and the specialist arts providers play among themselves….It’s all in a good cause, we are told, because obviously the Royal College of Music should not be compared with the University of Oxford when it comes to industrial research collaborations. Over the years, the KEF has developed a basket of metrics to allow meaningful comparison, to encourage institutional improvement.
    • …[this] third instalment…leaves us wondering if anyone is enjoying this apart from the people who produced it.
    • …Is the KEF driving improvement in knowledge exchange across the board or has it created another battleground for institutions to compete against one another? At the moment, Research England is sitting on the fence on that one.
  • UKRI article: KEF3 gives insights on emerging trends in performance improvement

Research

Horizon Europe voucher refund. Following intervention from the Lords last week Science|Business have broken the news that the financial guarantee mechanism will only be implemented if the UK participates in the Framework Programme 10 Horizon successor programme (FP10). Underperformance against contributions in Horizon will be ‘refunded’ in the form of a voucher against FP10 participation. The guarantee assures the UK if they pay over 16% more in Horizon costs than they receive credit back through the voucher. Martin Smith, Head of the policy lab at the Wellcome Trust said the rollover clause is good news, because it lays the groundwork for the UK to take part in future framework programmes. “It’s setting up an expectation that participation is a long-term thing, which is great”. Full details here.

Wonkhe blog:  With Horizon association secured, Maëlle Gibbons-Patoure takes us through the challenges, joys and practicalities of working with the world’s largest funding framework.

Quick News

  • Consultations: REF 2028 planning continues to move forward. There are currently two consultations open for contributions – our tracker outlines who to contact if you wish to contribute to BU’s responses. Wonkhe have two blogs on the topic:
  • Business links: Research Professional – the performance of very large universities with a major research focus has dropped slightly when it comes to linking with businesses, according to a major assessment.
  • PGR New Deal: Wonkhe criticise UKRI’s new deal for PGRs, excerpts:
    • If I thought the Office for Students’ work on student voice and engagement was weak, I wasn’t quite prepared for UKRI’s “New Deal” for PGRs…The trifecta of a pretty weak set of rights to start with, institutions that are trying to squeeze every last drop and effort and value from dwindling funding, and an environment in which PGRs think any attempt to enforce the rights that are there will result in perceived reputational damage when trying to build a career means that we really do need to work out how their “voice” can engender protection and change…As such, the “New Deal” for PGRs…is a real let down.
    • …The “baseline” of support it’s thinking of establishing – over everything from supervision standards to mental health – ought to have a real relationship with quality frameworks from OfS and QAA, and government-backed work like the University Mental Health charter. That neither the Quality Code, OfS’ B Conditions nor Student Minds are mentioned doesn’t fill me with hope that PGRs will be properly considered 
    • …A genuine sector collaboration on the issue – drawing in providers, funders, regulators, the unions and actual PGR students – is long, long overdue. Read the short blog in full here.

Try this blog for a rundown on what the new deal includes or read the official version by UKRI.
Meanwhile the Russell Group issued a statement welcoming the new deal for PGRs.

  • PGR stipends: UKRI to review stipend payments to improve support for postgraduate researchers.
  • Spinouts (part 1): Wonkhe – Investment group Parkwalk has releaseda report on equity investment in UK university spinouts, finding that the total amount invested fell from £2.7bn in 2021 to £2.3bn in 2022, and “looks set to fall again in 2023.” However, the figure for 2022 was significantly higher than that of 2020 (£1.5bn) and all preceding years, and the number of spinouts over the last three years has been largely unchanged. Life sciences continues to be the main area for spinouts, though the report also highlights the growing importance of artificial intelligence-related companies. It’s also suggested that since 2021 there has been a decline in the proportion of investments exclusively from UK investors – historically around 80 per cent, but in the last two years at 64 per cent – with an increase in the share of UK-foreign co-investment deals. The Financial Times covers the report.
  • Spinouts (part 2): Wonkhe – The government should introduce standardised agreements with universities regarding the equity shares they take from spinouts, the Social Market Foundation has argued in a new report – the think tank suggests five to ten per cent in companies founded by staff, and no share in student-founded firms. The report also suggests identifying regional hubs for high value industries, and scaling up the local universities with increased investment and research funding. The Times covers the report.

Lifelong Learning Entitlement

The Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) became law last week, closely followed by the DfE publishing the modelling assumptions behind the LLE financial planning. It assumes learner numbers for modular programmes will start small.

Wonkhe say: There are also some very generous assumptions about costs incurred by providers and the modelling on which the Department for Education is basing the business case contains assumptions about staff time that many in the sector will find generous to the point of fantasy. There’s plenty of time for that to change because the LLE is only in the planning stages, it will be implemented from 2025 onwards. Blogs:

Regulatory

Cracking quality: Research Professional report on the announcement in the Sunday Times that Rishi Sunak is planning yet another “crackdown” on low-quality university courses as part of his pre-election reset of Conservative policies. However, they anticipate it to be more bark than bite: The last time the government rattled a sabre over low-quality university courses, the attack was all but abandoned by lunchtime as ministers struggled in media interviews to name a course or university that would be subject to restrictions. We can expect a line or two about Mickey Mouse degrees in Sunak’s conference speech in Manchester next week, but little more in the way of action from a regulator licking its wounds following the Lords select committee report that criticised the Office for Students as too close to government.

Of course, the government already announced how it was tackling low quality courses earlier in September – through the regulatory system.

In favour:  Universities Minister Robert Halfon responded to a comment in the Financial Times defending the university sector and trotting out a reminder of his pet projects (degree apprenticeships, lifelong learning entitlement, cracking down on low quality courses). What was most interesting in the response was Halfon’s dismissive mention of the Lords inquiry which heavily criticised the OfS. Halfon states: while I recognise there is always more to be done to reduce regulatory burdens, the Office for Students is an essential part of our mission to drive up the quality of higher education by holding universities to account, championing students’ interests and improving social justice. It’s a strong indication that the Government’s response to the Lords formal report won’t call for significant change or rebuke the regulator publicly.

Sexual Misconduct: The OfS launched a pilot survey aiming to identify how widespread sexual misconduct in HE is. They’ve commissioned independent research by IFF Research who will work with the 13 HEIs that put themselves forward for the pilot. All students at the HEIs will be invited to complete the survey and answer questions about their experiences of sexual misconduct, how these experiences have affected their lives and studies, and their experiences of using the reporting mechanisms in their university. Note, this is the fieldwork element of the pilot survey announced in January 2023 (here).

Wonkhe highlight a warning for the sector regarding what the pilot may find: this pilot survey should offer some insight into the scale of the issue facing institutions and what kind of support students might need…At a Wonkhe event last week, academic and founding member of The 1752 Group Anna Bull warned that the sector should prepare for the discovery that the scale of sexual misconduct is higher than anticipated – smaller-scale prevalence surveys have indicated that around one in five students in any given year may be affected, and up to two-thirds of students during their time enrolled in higher education. These students are predominantly, though not exclusively, women – and perpetrators are typically other students at the same institution. Replication of these findings could change the picture considerably for how institutions seek to tackle the problem, encourage reporting, support survivors, and handle alleged incidents. 

Blogs on the topic:

Degree Apprenticeships: The OfS have earmarked £40 million (awarded through competitive bidding) for HEIs to expand their Level 6 degree apprenticeship programmes.

Apprenticeship levy: There’s a parliamentary question on the total amount of unspent apprenticeship levy and the funds returned to the Treasury.

Cooperation: the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education has signed a memorandum of understanding with Ofqual agreeing to work together and share information in order to meet their respective responsibilities in the HE sector.

Student News

  • Turing: Parliamentary Question revealing the DfE cannot currently calculate the actual average cost to the public purse per participant supported by the Turing Scheme in each academic year. And that data on the international mobilities delivered in the first year of the Turing Scheme (2021/22) is coming soon.
  • Accommodation: Wonkhe – Cushman and Wakefield’s annual student accommodation report highlights the brewing “student accommodation crisis” – with average private sector rents outside of London now at 77% of the maximum available maintenance loan. Fewer than one in ten spaces are now affordable for the average student, with university cities including Durham and Exeter offering even less affordable housing. Overall average rental costs have risen by more than 8% this academic year – driven by a growth in demand, rising operational and development costs, high inflation, and fewer new spaces available. The Guardian has the story.
  • Student support: Wonkhe have a neat blog looking at student support across the four nations and which students/parents get the best deal for their household income. HEPI also published a paper earlier this month on how different institutions are approaching student support with cost of living.
  • Loan forgiveness: It feels as though one organisation or another calls (or writes about) the need for student loan forgiveness for nursing (and often other allied health disciplines) every week. This week it’s the BBC’s turn covering calls for the loans to be written off once the student has completed 10 years of NHS service, although much of the article focuses on non-completion of training. The research behind the BBC’s article comes from a Nuffield Trust report: Waste not, want not. Nuffield state the estimated cost would be somewhere in the region of £230 million for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals per cohort in England. A similar scheme, or early-career loan repayment holidays for doctors and dentists in eligible NHS roles, should also be seriously considered. We believe this would represent a very sound investment.
  • Meanwhile the Royal College of Midwives highlight a report which finds that midwifery degree apprentices improved accessibility and retention within the workforce. There were lower drop outs (almost 0%) than through a traditional degree route (13%) – likely influenced by the majority of apprentices already holding positions in the maternity support workforce. And the programme was also found to support diversity, both in terms of supporting mature apprentices and those with caring responsibilities, and those from non-white backgrounds.

Admissions

A Levels: The Times reported that Rishi Sunak plans to replace A levels with a British baccalaureate qualification incorporating more subjects including compulsory English and his manifesto committee of maths to age 18. The extension of compulsory maths already has an expert advisory group looking into it. Dods report that the DfE have not denied Rishi’s proposals are being explored but that they had already reformed post-16 education (T levels and apprenticeship changes) and that the baccalaureate policy was a personal mission for Rishi, not the DfE.

Sector response to the possibility of replacing A levels has been dismissive. The concept faces many barriers because it would require significant infrastructure change for the educational curriculum, the overcoming of the maths teacher shortage, and the policy has to convince not only the DfE but also the electorate in the upcoming general election. Even if adopted it may polarise education in the nations further as Wales and Northern Ireland may choose to retain their current systems.

Here’s a comment from Research Professional on the baccalaureate:

  • Just as with the seven recycling bins, all of this can be filed in the category of never going to happen. Even if Sunak were to win a general election, the teacher shortage would make such a curriculum impossible.
  • Universities have not been consulted on replacing A-levels and there are no details on the changes that would need to be made to both GCSEs and higher education admissions to make any of this possible. Given how long it would take for these wholesale reforms of English education, it is almost as if Sunak himself has no real expectations of any of it happening.

What is interesting is the timing of this announcement. We’ve entered conference season and the political parties and party leadership need to be seen to make bold changes for the future demonstrating both their worth and that of their party – positioning it well in the electorate’s eyes for the forthcoming general election.

The party conferences are staggered so we’ll provide coverage across the next few policy updates.

Finally, Lord Willets weighs in on the A level debate in this Conservative Home blog: Why Sunak is right about A-levels and what should be done next.

Quick news

  • Recruitment caps: Wonkhe blog – Northumbria SU’s Tom Wellesley is concerned that the government’s plansfor recruitment caps on “low-quality” courses will restrict opportunities for prospective students.
  • New UCAS Chief: Dr Jo Saxton steps down as Chief Regulatory of Ofqual (in Dec 2023) to become the Chief Executive of UCAS (in Jan 2024 – replacing Clare Marchant). Recruitment for her Ofqual replacement has begun. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: I am hugely grateful to Jo for guiding Ofqual through the challenges that followed the pandemic, ultimately overseeing a smooth return to exams and normal grading. Jo’s knowledge and experience have been invaluable as we’ve navigated the past 2 years and returned to the exam arrangements that best serve young people. I look forward to continuing to work with Jo in her new role at UCAS, supporting students to progress onto university, degree apprenticeships and the world of work.

Access & Participation

Parliamentary Question: Care leavers’ access to HE.

TASO published: Student mental health in 2023 – Who is struggling and how the situation is changing. It highlights more and more students are experiencing (or reporting) mental health difficulties and looks at how gender, LGBTQ+, ethnicity and student background factors interact with poor mental health. It also highlights mental health as the leading reason to withdraw from university. If you don’t fancy reading all 32 pages check out the conclusion starting on page 27 or read Research Professional’s analysis of the TASO paper which also delves into university resources and the Government’s attention to student mental health to provide a rounded picture.

International Recruitment

The Big Issue reports on international recruiters: £500 million is being spent by UK universities on a murky and unregulated industry. Education agents, who are paid a commission for each international student they enlist, are involved in 50% of international student admissions in the UK. In some countries such as China, this number reaches 70%. Twenty years ago the figure was just 10%. So who are they, and why are they now so widespread?  The article is timely given Lord Jo Johnson’s call for international recruiters to be regulated and for HE providers to diversify their international portfolio to reduce financial risk and alleviate security concerns about the influence of overseas nations.

Inquiries and Consultations

Click here to view the updated inquiries and consultation tracker. Email the contact listed against the item you’re interested in (or policy@bournemouth.ac.uk) if you’d like to contribute to any of the current consultations.

Other news

Skills shortages: The DfE published the 2022 employer skills survey demonstrating that 10% of employers have a skill shortage related vacancy. Skills shortages as a proportion of all vacancies rose from 22% in 2017 to 36% in 2022. 15% of employers stated they had an employee (or employees) who lacked the skills for the job and overall 5.7% of the workforce have a skills gap (up from 4.4% in 2017).

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JANE FORSTER                                            |                       SARAH CARTER

VC’s Policy Advisor                                                              Policy & Public Affairs Officer

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BU policy update for the w/e 22nd September 2023

Lots of meaty topics for you to chew over this week. The student cost of living debate had a hearing in parliament. The Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Act 2023 has received royal assent and we’ve a pop out summary on the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. The OfS received strong criticism in the Lords Industry and Regulators Committee report. We’ve the latest on visa fee increases, clearing and oodles of research news.

Parliament has now entered conference recess but government business will continue over the next few weeks. There will also be items of interest from the party conferences which will receive closer scrutiny this year given the impending general election.

As always if you need this update, or the pop out summaries, in a different format for accessibility please email us on policy@bournemouth.ac.uk

Political News

Lifelong Learning (HE Fee Limits) Bill

The Lifelong Learning Bill finished its passage through the Lords and the King has given Royal Assent. You’ll recall this Bill contained limited detail and will be padded out through secondary legislation further down the line – meaning the Government of the day will retain control and be able to tweak the implementation details when they wish.   Note the name change: it is now about lifelong learning not lifelong loan entitlement.

During the debate Baroness Barran, the Government’s representative, thanked the former Education Ministers and Secretaries of State for their insight (Lord Blunkett, Lord Willetts and Lord Jo Johnson).

Baroness Barran stated: The LLE will become the route for people who require student finance for levels 4 to 6 study across higher and further education. In introducing the LLE, we want to do as much as possible to make it accessible and affordable for the most disadvantaged. And confirmed that the Government would monitor the concerns the Lords raised at Report Stage, that the number of learning hours in a credit wouldn’t be changed unless sector standards change, and that the alternative student finance product compatible with Islamic finance principles would be delivered as soon as operationally possible after 2025 (further update coming on this later in 2023).

Labour’s spokesperson, Baroness Twycross, confirmed their support for the Bill’s aim: we support the idea that people can access funding to undertake the learning they need throughout their career. With people undertaking portfolio careers and with continual changes in technology and society, it is no longer the case that what you learn through a traditional three-year degree course is all that you will need in your work for the next 45 years or so. But reminded that the detail (scope) of the Bill was limited and felt a more formal review process for several aspects could have been set to safeguard against unintended consequences.

Baroness Garden of Frognal (representing the Liberal Democrats) highlighted the party remained concerned about how many adults will wish to take on debt in order to improve their learning, and we look forward to hearing updates from the Minister about how many people have done so. From these Benches, we feel that grants would be a much more effective way of persuading adults to learn. But, of course, we are all totally in favour of lifelong learning, and we wish the Bill well.

You may have noted the name change to Lifelong Learning (HE Fees Limits) Act, previously it was called the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. Apparently, the name change was decided upon following engagement with the sector. For those that have been in this game a long time you may harbour a small chuckle at the name change when you recall a rival party proposed a similar policy in the early 2000s based on, and called, Lifelong Learning.

The DfE published a policy paper on the LLE – it provides a useful introduction to the key details of the intended LLE operationalisation. Here are the next steps we can expect from the government, including two consultations:

In autumn 2023:

  • we plan to provide further information about the entitlement
  • we will work with the regulator, awarding organisations and providers of current advanced learner loans (ALLs) funded Ofqual-regulated qualifications to embed changes we set out in HMG’s response to the LLE consultation
  • OfS will launch a consultation on the development and introduction of a new third registration category

In spring 2024:

  • we will launch a technical consultation on the wider expansion of modular funding
  • we will lay secondary legislation covering the fee limits for the LLE in parliament

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

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill: The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill is a controversial bill seen as eroding university autonomy and there was dissent from some parties at the detailed Committee Stage (although other HE sector members agree with its legal principles). You can read a summary of the evidence provided in the early Committee stage sessions here. The bill now awaits a date for Report Stage. Wonkhe also update us that: The Home Office has released draft guidance on the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (FIRS), designed to monitor foreign influence on UK politics. Sector-specific guidance will follow – supported by consultation panels from the research and higher education sector – but there are a handful of examples given of activities either requiring or not requiring registration under the scheme that make reference to international students or staff.

The future for education policy?

The New Conservatives published a ‘manifesto’: plan to upskill Britain which Research Professional view as an attempt to push Conservative education policies to the right. It’s keen on developing technical routes and reforming the apprenticeship levy and technical skills in general.

It’s less keen on universities stating: Since the reforms of 1992, too many universities have not been fit for purpose. Steps to address skills shortages in Britain and rising student debt should not shy away from one of the main culprits – rip-off universities. And: The false promise of university –  Long gone are the days when university was the hallmark of success. Many young people today could have much more opportunity if they opted for on-the-job training alongside receiving an industry recognised qualification, rather than go to university. But too few school leavers make that choice [apparently because they’re promised higher starting salaries].

The manifesto calls for a crack down on poor quality and less people attending university- redirecting the public funds saved to quality technical and vocational education. And they call for minimum academic grades to qualify for student loans: Introducing minimum grade requirements at GCSE-level would see an approximate reduction of 10 percent in the number of students qualifying for student loans. Although introducing minimum eligibility requirements of Level 4 grades at GCSE English and Maths would close off student loans to around 40 percent of all students… They would also like to ensure student loans are re-paid – although NHS employed graduates would be offered a three year loan repayment exemption.

Research Professional say the ‘manifesto’ is full of holes  – you can read their take down of the manifesto in Blue on blue.

Government role changes: Dehenna Davison MP has stepped away from her post as Levelling Up Minister due to ill health. Jacob Young MP will take over.

Free Speech: Wonkhe highlight that the OfS has published indicative timelines for the introduction of free speech related duties and provisions – under the proposals, 1 August 2024 would see the launch of the new complaints scheme and the coming into force of new statutory duties from providers and students’ unions. Provisions relating to OfS’s monitoring of overseas funding and new conditions of registration around free speech and academic freedom would come into force on 1 September 2025.

Research News

ARIA

The construction of ARIA continues – this week their programme directors announced their key questions and invited input from the R&D community. For colleagues familiar with the expression of Areas of Research Interest this is the ARIA equivalent. Although it’s not clear how universities can feed their research in to answer the questions yet. However, Wonkhe, have their finger on the pulse and inform that each set of programme questions has a budget of £50m. And that most of the programme directors have joined from academia. They are now mandated with developing a concrete programme, based on the “area or set of areas they feel compelled to explore” – these include programmable plants, interfaces with the human nervous system, climate intervention technologies, and robotics. Wonkhe also have a neat blog on how ARIA is taking shape. Excerpts:

The team as a whole tells us some important things about ARIA.
The first is that they are aligned to what the broader scientific community would consider to be some of the world’s greatest threats and challenges. AI, climate change, and food security, would appear at the top of most lists of the most pressing issues facing humanity…

Equally, the team straddles a hinterland between having programme directors that have more conventional academic careers with big interests, academics that have run or built companies, and programme directors that lean more into business and technology worlds but with significant academic credentials…
this [the programme directors] is a group of people who probably ordinarily would never hang out together…The mix of expertise and backgrounds speaks to the fundamental challenge and promise of ARIA. Its whole purpose of existence is to fund the things that funders would not usually fund in ways they would not usually fund them. The challenge is to not only discover new things but to make a new disparate team function with some of the standard practices needed to make scientific breakthroughs…  And a tolerance for constructive failure that will see programmes potentially outlive ministers, funding, and maybe even ARIA itself.

Quick Research News

  • Biosecurity: The UK Biosecurity Leadership Council held its inaugural meeting to build our national resilience to future biological threats, whilst establishing the UK as a world leader in responsible innovation. The Government’s press release mainly focuses on the details about the Council with little on what was discussed.
  • Tech: Dr Dave Smith has been appointed as the Government’s National Technology Adviser taking over from Sir Patrick Vallance.
  • DSIT policies: The Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) published a summary of their achievements in the six months since the Department was formed. These include the Science and Technology Framework, the AI White Paper, setting up the Foundation Model Taskforce, the 20-year National Semiconductors Strategy, the 10-year National Quantum Strategy, and the International Technology Strategy. There’s also info on the DSIT Start-Up Board.
  • AI: Research Professional: Ursula von der Leyen has said the EU should work with its partners to develop a global framework for regulating artificial intelligence.
  • Catapult: DSIT published a Catapult Network review update
  • REF: Wonkhe – Research England has “concerns” from stakeholders over the proposed People, Culture and Environment element of the 2028 Research Excellence Framework, both around its suggested weighting (25 per cent) compared to Contribution of Knowledge and Understanding, and around whether “robust indicators” can be developed to fairly assess research environment. There’s a blog from Jessica Corner (Exec Chair of Research England).
  • CaSE: Daniel Rathbone has been appointed as interim executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.
  • Funding: Research England published the remaining HE grant allocations for 2023-24.
  • R&D spend: The House of Commons Library published a research briefing on R&D spending. It covers the (2022) methodology change in how R&D spend estimate are calculated – leading to the false achievement of the 2.4% of GDP 2027 target. We also learn that of business research in 2021: 23% was spent on research into computer programming and software development, 18% on miscellaneous activities, technical testing and analysis, and 17% on chemicals and pharmaceuticals. For public sector (2021) research: 35% went towards the general advancement of knowledge, 21% to health and 13% to defence. Other items of interest are the R&D spending by region 52% of all R&D resides in London and the South East (£24.4 billion) with the least in Wales. With the new calculations UK R&D spending is equivalent to 2.9%-3% of GDP – above the OECD and EU averages (but less than the USA, Japan and Germany
  • China: Wonkhe – Both OfS and UKRI need to do more to mitigate overreliance on China, for tuition fee income and research capability respectively. This is the conclusion of a report from former universities minister Jo Johnson and others, revisiting past recommendations for “de-risking” higher education given the potential for deterioration in the UK-China geopolitical relationship. The report highlights that Chinese students made up 28 per cent of non-UK PhD student starts in 2021–22, up from 17 per cent in 2017–18, with a growing concentration across the most selective institutions – the authors caution that “there is no next China or EU” in terms of markets for research student recruitment. There’s coverage in The Times, and the Guardian.
  • Confucius diplomatic immunity: A parliamentary question on diplomatic immunity for Chinese nationals working in Confucius institutes in the UK. Helpful answer from Robert Halfon, universities minister.
  • Horizon: The Lords Chamber debated Horizon Europe and Pioneer. Short transcript here. Discussions included the global talent visa. Research Professional (RP) also have a good article: UK in Horizon: money on the table. Researchers can already apply for (2024) Horizon funding, even though the UK officially joins on 1 January 2024. Funding is available across six clusters and three main innovation schemes – there is summary detail in the RP article. Chair of the House of Lords European Affairs Committee, Lord Ricketts, has called on DSIT SoS Michelle Donelan to provide additional detail…about the operation of the corrective mechanism designed to prevent the UK from paying a disproportionate net contribution to the [Horizon] scheme. We also ask you to update us on the expected timetable for the political agreement to be formally adopted by the Specialised Committee on Union Programmes. Lord Ricketts’ letter pulled no punches as he also highlighted the detrimental consequences of the last two years of uncertainty, and asked the government to stop using research as a political football.
  • Case Studies: Wonkhe – The UK Collaborative on Development Research has publishedan analysis of how development research appeared in REF 2021 impact case studies. The report examines which unit of assessment contained most international development impact case studies (business and management), how these were distributed across the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and which countries most often appeared (India, followed by the United States and Kenya).
  • Researcher influx: DSIT Minister Jonathan Berry has stated the UK will need 380,000 new researchers by 2027 to meet the growing need for research and counter retirement numbers. Berry continued that attracting overseas talent will need to be a big part of the growth, however, peers have expressed concern that the visa regime may hamper the influx. Labour peer Stephen Benn called for the global talent visa to be reformed and highlighted how the visa fees were discouraging talent from working in Britain. Research Professional have more on the tussle here.
  • New REF: Wonkhe on the new REF – With the consultation period drawing to an end (the deadline is the first Friday in October), it’s slowly becoming clear that there are two unconnected but influential lines of pushback.
    The first, from within the sector, is the argument that it is the quality of output that matters, and boosting the role of narrative statements and measures of input dilutes the essence of what really matters in the REF.
    Separately is an external climate in which the use of government funds to support anything that can be labelled as “EDI work” provokes tachycardia in the bosom of influential figures. Against this backdrop, Research England (in conjunction with the other UK funding bodies) is going to additional lengths to promote discussion and debate around the prominence and use of research culture measures, with Executive Chair Jessica Corner noting on Wonkhe that the weighting given to different elements of the next REF is still a live question, even if the commitment to assessment that “supports a thriving and healthy research system” remains steadfast.
  • Researcher mobility: Wonkhe – The government should make the mobility of researcher careers a “key design principle” of the research and innovation system, according to a report from the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) Researcher Career Mobility Taskforce. The report argues that researchers need to be “empowered” to move between industry and academia throughout their whole career. The taskforce found that research staff are currently not always aware of opportunities (with existing guidance often focused on academic career pathways), that mobility between sectors is seen by many as high risk, and that institutional recruitment and progression frameworks can undervalue skills and experiences gained in other sectors. Blog.
  • Israel agreement: The UK has signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel committing £1.7 million to support joint research focused on technologies critical to future prosperity and quality of life, like quantum. Details here. Other recent bilateral international science deals the UK has signed include partnerships with India, Switzerland and South Africa. And funds have been committed to the International Science Partnerships Fund (launched last year with an initial £119 million).

International

De-risking international reliance

King’s College London policy institute published The China question revisited: de-risking higher education and research. The report was led by previous Minster for Universities, Lord (Jo) Johnson who has long been a supporter of international students balanced by the need to minimise risks to the nation and financial stability of HE providers, e.g. through diversification of international recruitment to reduce the reliance on some countries, including China.

The report highlights that China has become an increasingly entrenched collaborator on research and a key source of doctoral students crucial to the strength of the UK’s research system. The paper proposes a range of measures to de-risk HE’s relationship with China:

  • Requiring universities to publish an annual statement on their international student recruitment plans, in order to provide greater visibility of current strategies to diversify the international student population.
  • Improving regulation of course quality, given high drop-out rates among students from countries such as India and Bangladesh.
  • Weeding out poor-quality and fraudulent applications by charging an application fee for international students, requiring tuition fees to be paid up front and maintenance funds to be put in escrow at the start of the year.
  • Maintaining a register of recruitment agents and publishing key performance indicators relating to visa refusals, to improve accountability.

If you’ve been following the policy update for a while you may remember our review of a Westminster Higher Education Forum event on this topic earlier this year. The calls to action in the report are exactly those expressed by Johnson previously – he’s nothing if not considered and consistent. Given his influence in the House of Lords, and the strong ex-Ministerial powerhouse of Johnson – Blunkett – Willets, we can expect some pressure from the peers on this and other key HE matters over the next year.

Visas

Legislation to increase the immigration and nationality fees has been laid in Parliament. The changes:

  • the cost for a visit visa for less than six months is rising (by £15) to £115
  • the fee for applying for a student visa from outside the UK will rise +35% (by £127) to £490 (equalling the amount charged for in-country applications).

If approved the new fees will apply from 4 October 2023. Changes to the planned increase to the Immigration Health Surcharge are scheduled to be introduced later in 2023. The Home Office equality impact assessment on the fees is here – its concludes there is no direct or indirect discrimination based on protected characteristics observed for the changes to student fees.

The latest visa letter from Home Secretary Suella Braverman is here. The letter is dated 3 August but it has only just been released to the public via the Lords Science and Tech Committee.

There’s also a parliamentary question on visas granted under the High Potential Individual route.

Finally, from Wonkhe, The Erasmus Student Network has published a report on international student perspectives of the UK, based on polling conducted earlier this year (and with EU students notably overrepresented). Almost 16% of 465 respondents who had studied in the UK reported that obtaining a visa was a significant problem, and almost half disagreed that they received enough support from their host university in finding accommodation. Some 77% would have liked more interaction with local students.

Regulatory

OfS Inquiry

From March 2023 the Lords Industry and Regulators Committee ran an inquiry into the work of the OfS looking closely at its effectiveness as a regulator. The committee published their report: Must do better: the Office for Students and the looming crisis facing higher education. As is clear form the title the Lords concluded that the regulator is performing poorly, even accounting for the extra challenges facing HE today. The report concludes that the OfS has poor relations with both providers and students, a controlling and arbitrary approach to regulation, and a lack of independence from the Government.

On the OfS’ duties and decision making the committee highlight that the OfS has legal duties, but substantial freedom to pick and choose what it prioritises, creating uncertainty. Also the Lords believe the other regulators within the HE sector cause duplication and red tape.

The Lords recommend:

  • When the OfS makes changes to its approach, it should make clear how it has taken its legal duties into account or explain why it has not done so.
  • The Government should set out the steps it is taking to streamline the responsibilities of different regulators in the higher education sector.

On financial sustainability of HE the committee notes the undergraduate tuition fees have been frozen since 2018 with their value further eroded by inflation and that universities are relying more on the income boost provided by international (and postgraduate) fees – which sits uncomfortably with government concerns over the influence of other nations. Bottom line – the committee states that current HE funding is not sustainable and worries about the geopolitical vulnerabilities (in 2021/22 22.3% of student came from China). The peers state we were not convinced that the regulator has paid enough attention to the financial challenges facing the sector.

Recommendations:

  • The Government must review how higher education is funded, setting long-term, sustainable funding and delivery models for the sector
  • Both the Government and the OfS should also clarify whether there is any strategic oversight of the sector’s long-term financial stability.
  • Hold discussions with providers more regularly about their financial situation and ensure it is aware of the systemic challenges facing the sector;

On students the Lords committee highlights that despite the OfS explicitly being set up to regulate in the interests of students it has never defined what these interests are, creating a suspicion that it uses them as a smokescreen for political priorities. And that students often feel their views are not acted upon, especially where they do not match with what the OfS wants to do. The committee gives the example of from the OfS’ Student Panel who stated that when student issues of importance contradicted with the Government’s views the OfS threatened the Panel’s future.

Recommendations:

  • The OfS should conduct work with students, to define student interests and explain how this drives its work.
  • Hold providers to account if they do not ensure prospective students receive clear, digestible information on their course, including its long-term costs and approximate contact hours
  • The OfS must also ensure its Student Panel is free to raise issues of importance to students, whether or not the OfS agrees with them and ensure that there are at least two student representatives on the OfS’ Board and open up more of its work to student involvement.
  • Conduct detailed scoping work, with students, on how it defines “the student interest,” and how this informs its work.

On regulation and sector relations the committee acknowledged evidence from HE sector representatives that found the OfS over controlling in their approach to regulation:

  • We conclude that it [OfS ]has demonstrated little regard either to the autonomy of providers or the impact of its requests and decisions, particularly its onerous requests for data.
  • We also heard that the OfS is both distant and combative in the way it treats providers, giving the impression it seeks to punish them rather than help them to comply.

The peers welcomed the OfS’ focus on value for money for students, however, they felt the OfS did not provide HEIs with value for money because of their regulatory approach and particularly when higher registration fees partly reflect the regulator’s own expanding remit.

Recommendations:

  • The OfS should be more transparent about its approach, making clear why it makes particular requests and decisions.
  • Make clear how it has taken the institutional autonomy of providers into account when it regulates.
  • Build trust with higher education institutions and adopt a more strategic, less combative approach to its work.
  • The Government should reconvene its Higher Education Data Reduction Taskforcein order to reduce unnecessary red tape.
  • Urgently align its framework for quality with international standards, including reinstating an independent Designated Quality Body

On independence from Government the committee questioned whether the OfS really was the independent regulator it claims to be:

  • we found that it lacks both real and perceived independence, with its actions often appearing driven by political priorities. The fact that the OfS Chair continues to take the Conservative Party whip in the House of Lords has not helped.
  • The OfS lacks independence from the Government, and its actions often appear driven by the ebb and flow of short-term political priorities and media headlines.
  • We concluded that the Government has also contributed to this situation, by being too prescriptive in the guidance it sends to the OfS. The situation has been worsened by the fact that the OfS has had to work with seven Education Secretaries and six Universities Ministers since 2018.

Recommendations

  • The Government and the OfS should set out what each of them will do to secure the OfS’ independence.
  • As a first step, the Government should consider requiring serving politicians to resign any party political whip before becoming Chairs of independent regulators.
  • Limit itself to providing higher level, strategic input to the OfS, rather than overly prescriptive guidance.

Lord Hollick, Chair of the Industry and Regulators Committee said:

  • At a time when the higher education sector faces a looming crisis caused by financial instability, increased costs, industrial action, and reduced EU research funding, it is vital that the sector’s regulator is fit for purpose.
  • However, it was evident throughout our inquiry that the OfS is failing to deliver and does not command the trust or respect of either providers, or students, the very people whose interests it is supposed to defend. We were surprised by the regulator’s view that the sector’s finances are in good shape, which is not an assessment that we or most of our witnesses share.

The Government must respond to the committee’s report and recommendations by 13 November. It remains to be seen if the Government will throw the OfS under the bus (unlikely) or agree to consider a small number of actions (probable, and most likely those that place the onus on the OfS to deliver) whilst arguing the point on other items. Of course, the Government can completely refute the committee’s report if it wishes too – again this is unlikely because the OfS has already responded to the report conceding improvements are needed in some areas. You can read OfS Chair, Lord Wharton’s, response on the OfS blog and Susan Lapworth’s, OfS Chief Executive, response in Learning lessons – a Research Professional blog.

The report may not be a bad thing for the OfS. They have been willing to concede some shortcomings, and the committee’s recommendations recommend the OfS should be given more freedom and leeway to work outside of the government dictat they currently operate within.

Research Professional (RP) spoke with two members of the Lords committee – Chair Clive Hollick and Ann Taylor (both Labour). RP highlight some of the frank quotes from the Members here.

RP: to what extent do they feel the OfS has fallen short of its objectives, particularly compared with other regulators—and can the trust that has been lost with the higher education sector be regained?

Hollick: It is a relatively new regulator, so it is still finding its feet, if I could put it that way—in response to which, Taylor quips that this is a “very generous” bit of context. Hollick agrees.

They also explore what the Peers think of the OfS denouncement of the QAA:

  • Elsewhere, the Lords expressed concern that the OfS is currently operating not only as England’s regulator but also as its Designated Quality Body, after the Quality Assurance Agency gave up the role over its concerns that the English regulatory framework was now at odds with European standards.
  • The OfS said after the QAA quit as DQB that it wasn’t overly pleased with how the QAA was carrying out its brief anyway.
  • Since that spat, the OfS has said that it sees no problem with keeping the DQB role itself, at least in the medium term. To what extent are Hollick and Taylor concerned about all this?
  • “We’re still trying to find the real reason [why the OfS was unhappy with the QAA],” said Hollick. “Why change something that’s working, that’s trusted, that is actually valuable for the brand, not only nationally but internationally?”
  • He added that the current situation, with the OfS in ostensibly temporary control as DQB, is “a complete muddle, and an unexplained muddle”.
  • Taylor added that the inquiry had heard fears that this was “a power grab” by the OfS, and “unless things are sorted out…that fear remains”.

There was great coverage of the committee report – here are some good sources if you want to read the editorials:

Research Professional: Friends in high places and Lords a-meeting.

Wonkhe blogs:

  • Jim Dickinson reflects on calls to reduce regulation of universities, arguing that the real problem is the way we frame higher education as “big boarding school”.
  • Chair Lord Hollick presents the findings of the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee inquiryinto the work of the Office for Students.
  • Everyone loves to commit to reduce data burden in higher education. Andy Youell asks what it would take to actually do it.
  • The long awaited Industry and Regulators Committee report on the work of the Office for Students is here – David Kernohan sets out everything you need to know.
  • Wonkhe also have a different coverage angle in their Monday summary: Many of its findings and recommendations chime with established concerns about the regulator – distant, opaque, punitive, expensive, politically compromised… But take a step back and what is powerful is the way that the committee’s report situates its critiques in the context of wider financial issues affecting the whole sector. The risks to education quality and to provider sustainability are greater than they were at the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act in 2017. Arguably, the higher education sector needs strong regulation more than ever to address failures where they do occur – but tempered with a sense of proportion about the feasibility of what is expected, and responsibility for the sustainability and success of English higher education. The question, then – with little money around and little prospect of a lot more coming – is what should happen next.

One obvious area for attention is expectations of providers. Even if OfS was seen as credible in its efforts to pursue the interests of students, there is little doubt that some of the “burdens” of regulation might be streamlined to allow the sector to get on with delivering on those interests…

But efficiencies and engagement can only get a reformed regulator and its beleaguered providers so far. There’s a case to be made that expecting one regulator to have a grip of the range of issues affecting students’ university experience and act as a proxy for bodies as diverse as the Charity Commission, the Competition and Markets Authority, and various local authorities is too much to ask. We need bodies looking out for the interests of students, that are worried about their housing and health, and that are capable of causing those things to be discussed and resolved… if the expectations on OfS are just that little bit too large – yet reflect a wider problem of what we ask universities to do while absolving others from ever thinking about over two million citizens.

There is further coverage in the national media: the Mail, the Standard, the BBC, and Byline Times.

For full detail read: the full published committee report on OfS effectiveness.

Quality Regulation

QAA: This week Research Professional highlighted how the House of Lords critique raising concerns over the effectiveness of the OfS is a small victory for the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) which stepped down from the role of Designated Quality Body (April 2023) in protest that the English regulatory framework was at odds with European standards. QAA continues to oversee quality in the other nations of the UK as well as internationally. The Lords report recommends that the OfS urgently aligns its framework for quality with international standards, including reinstating an independent Designated Quality Body.

QAA Chief Executive Vicki Stott stated: We’re really pleased to see that the committee recognises the importance of strengthening the current oversight of quality in England by returning to alignment with international good practice and for quality assessment to be undertaken by an independent body… You can’t simply take a self-assessment review and pass it to the body that is doing the regulation and funding and expect the two of them to mediate the accuracy of that assessment for themselves.

The OfS has responded to the report by saying it will consider the findings carefully over the next few weeks.

You can read the full Research Professional write up here.

On the QAA Wonkhe also inform us that they’ve released a briefing note with a definition of quality in UK higher education, intended for policymakers and other stakeholders internationally. Indicators of quality set out include staff and students thriving professionally and academically, a relevant and challenging learning experience, and external experience being sought and used. And:

This morning, and with impeccable timing, the QAA publishes the first in a new series of briefings on the “future of quality in England”—which it says “builds on” the Lords report. Among other things, it calls for England to “realign” its approach to quality assurance with “internationally agreed good practice”. Read The Future of Quality in England. The paper suggests policymakers commit to:

  1. Realign the English quality system with internationally agreed good practice.This should include honouring the UK’s commitment to the European Higher Education Area by working with QAA and the sector to develop a pathway to alignment that maintains and strengthens international trust while recognising the distinct characteristics of the English sector. This would involve addressing:
  • the independence of quality assessment so that the system operates without fear or favour
  • a periodic touchpoint with all providers to secure up-to-date assessments of their provision
  • student engagement across the full quality system, including as full members of assessment teams
  • the transparency of data, thematic analysis and assessments.
  1. Formally recognise enhancement as part of the quality systemto encourage an approach of continuous improvement where providers are supported by an independent body, such as QAA.
  2. Streamline regulatory requirements from the various bodies with oversight of higher education(Office for Students, Ofsted, Ofqual, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, the Education and Skills Funding Agency and relevant PSRBs) by convening them to align requirements in terms of data requested, format required and relevant deadlines, following the Regulator’s Code principle of ‘collect once, use many times’. This should be achieved through reconvening the Higher Education Data Reduction Taskforce and ensuring all relevant oversight bodies are represented.

Wonkhe blogs:

Students

Cost of living

This week HEPI published on the student cost of living in:  How to Beat a Cost-of-Learning Crisis: Universities’ Support for Students. They find:

  • 76% of universities help their students with food and drink (discounts, food banks and food vouchers), with nearly half (47%) helping with health and more than a third (35%) respectively with travel and digital.
  • Wales, the South West, the North East and the South East were the regions where universities were most likely to operate a food bank.
  • Four-fifths (82%) have an online platform to communicate their support to students.
  • On average, hardship funds are awarded up to £2,470 and institutions commit to get funds to students within four weeks.

Recommendations:

  • All universities should establish a cost-of-living working group streamline their hardship fund, launch an emergency fund and include students throughout their cost-of-living response.
  • Students’ unions should encourage their university to act by mounting an ambitious and practical cost-of-living campaign, founded on strong evidence and excellent relationships with university staff.
  • The Government establishes a cost-of-living taskforce, which consults regularly with students and sector leaders, and urgently reviews the level of maintenance support.

The publication came ahead of this week’s Westminster Hall debate on student cost of living. We have a short summary of the debate cut and thrust here. In the main, Minister Halfon followed the well-worn party line on disadvantage student numbers being up, extra funding for skills, and toughed out the calls for additional hardship funding. He agreed to look into the issue of students taking poorer quality accommodation due to price constraints and explained the government were trying to target hardship funding as there isn’t a consistent national picture. Although it appears the ‘targeting’ is simply the previous redistributed leftover budget that institutions already received.

Research professional also have an excellent summary and analysis on the student cost of living recent publications and debate.

Disciplinary process Pinsent Masons have a blog on disciplinary procedures following the landmark High Court ruling whereby a former student successfully sued their university for breach of contract. It concludes universities should understand the case before making hasty changes to their processes: It is therefore very much about the appropriate training of disciplinary panels and those involved in disciplinary processes, and how they should properly assess and test the evidence put before them – rather than this being a strict process point requiring the need to urgently revise procedures.

Medical Bursaries Vs Loans

While pressure is being applied for allied health professions to reinstate bursaries or receive loan forgiveness the Institute for Fiscal Studies has moved to an opposite position for medical and dental students stating the NHS bursary should be binned and tuition fee loans rolled out. Wonkhe cover the story:

The NHS bursary for medical and dental students should be scrapped and replaced with tuition fee loans, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has argued, with the money saved spent on NHS staff pay. The think tank contends that the bursary “displaces student loan funding” – in some cases leading to less upfront support for those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds – and ultimately benefits high-earning medical graduates who are able to pay off their loans earlier.

It also notes that “Plan 5” student loan reforms in England will benefit medical graduates by around £20,000, undermining one of the original arguments for the bursary which was to protect those who spent many years in training from the effects of high interest rates.

However, the Sutton Trust disagree and call for caution because they believe scrapping the NHS bursary may make medicine less accessible for disadvantaged students. Peter Lampl, Founder of the Sutton Trust, stated:  Any change to the NHS bursary should look at the support provided to students across the NHS professions rather than just for medicine…This is to avoid funnelling less well-off young people towards other health professions and away from medicine for financial reasons. We should also ensure that medical students have adequate access to maintenance support to live on, in whichever form that is provided.

Similarly Wonkhe report on the Union position to move away from tuition fees (across all programmes): The Trades Union Congress has carried a motion in favour of campaigning for the abolition of [all] tuition fees, improved pay and conditions in the higher education sector, and the tackling of education “cold spots”. The motion was proposed by the University and College Union (UCU) to the annual congress.

Loneliness

DCMS published an interesting YouGov survey exploring (young) students’ concerns across a range of areas such as friendships and fitting in, cooking and cleaning for themselves and finding housing, homesickness and loneliness, managing money and the difficulty of their course. It shows the range of intensity of concerns in the above areas. Including that 43% of students worry they’ll be judged if they admit feeling lonely.  The factors students found least helpful to alleviate the loneliness were speaking to university staff and online resources. The Government has launched a loneliness awareness campaign but it’s received criticism from some sector members.

Quick student news

Parliamentary Question: The Government has no remit to intervene in the student housing market (re: overseas students).

Parliamentary Question: tackling anti-Semitic and pro-Iranian messaging in universities.

Parliamentary Question: non-continuation of first year students (2015-2019)

Wonkhe blog: universities can do more to address gambling harms

At-risk Academics

Finally there was a Westminster Hall debate on UK support for At-risk Academics who are working overseas. Julian Lewis MP reflected positively on the work of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) and noted that CARA fellows had a (recent) 100% visa application success rate. He called on the Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration to continue to support at-risk academics, and on the government to consider a long-term follow-on scheme. Sarah Dines MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Home Department, responded on behalf of the Immigration Minister noting the benefits at-risk academics bring to the UK and thanked CARA and the wider university sector for their contribution.  Research Professional has a good article on the record numbers of Ukrainian and Russian academics placed through CARA in the last 18 months.

Admissions

Wonkhe report record numbers secured university places through clearing this year despite a dip in overall recruitment:

16,040 UK 18 year olds found a place through Clearing after releasing themselves from a previous choice this year – 32%  (the largest single pool) of all Clearing placements. Today’s figures come as we reach 28 days after A level results day, usually considered the end of the main application cycle.

Overall recruitment is down by just over 5,000 from last year, though this still represents a growth of 12.9% over 2019 – the last year to feature a comparable results profile immediately prior to Covid-19. Similarly, this year saw a slight decline (around 500) in international recruitment beyond the EU, though this was 25% up on 2019. The BBC and The Evening Standard cover the news.

Savanta have stated the dip in top A level grades drove the increased demand for Clearing this year: early data from UCAS suggests that by the day after results day, 10,400 school leavers had been through Clearing to secure a university place (compared to 6,600 placed at the same point last year), with fewer securing their first or second choice university.

Savanta also have a downloadable report for colleagues interested in how universities approached the marketing and comms around Clearing.

Research Professional has an entertaining and useful read, UCAS pocus, on the UCAS data released for this year’s student intake numbers. It begins: Once more, it is time to release the party poppers and streamers over in Cheltenham. The headline comes with more spin than the average washing machine…. The press release goes on to say that “growing numbers of students that have been placed at their firm choice are using clearing to secure a new choice of university. In total, 16,040 UK 18-year-old applicants found a new course after releasing themselves from a previously held choice. This compares to 14,760 in 2022, and 12,170 in 2019.”…That all sounds wonderful until you pause for a moment to reflect that this must surely mean that “record numbers” of students were therefore denied their first-choice institutions or failed to make the necessary grades.

Some 32 per cent declined their original firm choice—this is the largest single pool. Another 30 per cent did not meet the terms of their offer and were released into clearing on results day, while 38 per cent either applied directly into clearing or held no firm choice.

That is, as Ucas acknowledges, an unprecedented use of clearing, which is surely something that cannot be good for either prospective students or university recruitment planners. It all rather raises the question of whether we should now get serious about a post-qualification admissions process.

Access & Participation

Care leavers

Think tank Civitas published Breaking the Care Ceiling: How many care leavers go to university? In 2022 the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care estimated the lifetime cost of poor outcomes for children with experience of our care system was over £1 million per child. The report argues that graduating university turns the poor outcomes around.

Wonkhe have two blogs:

Other news

Other news

BTEC gap: The Protect Student Choice Campaign published Desperate measures: data and the reform of Level 3 qualifications finding that 155,000 young people – 13% of all sixth form students in England – could be left without a suitable study programme from 2026, given the planned reduction in AGQs [applied general qualifications] and slow growth of T levels. See chart below. They also provide examples of when they believe the government has misrepresented data to suggest AGQs such as BTECs perform poorly. You can read their points on the data here.

HTQs: The Government’s policy line has been to grow Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQ) for several years, and it’s a particular passion for current Universities Minister Robert Halfon. If you’re not quite sure what a HTQ is we’ve got an explainer (below) and the Government has released a policy paper providing an overview of how the funding and approval system works for HTQs.

The key information to understand about HTQs is that they are an alternative qualification to apprenticeships and degrees. They are level 4 or 5 qualifications such as HNCs, HNDs and foundation degrees. They bridge the gap between A/T Levels and degrees and are taught at a range of FE, HE and independent providers. The Government plans to expand the range of HTQ courses by 2025 – there’s a list here (scroll down to Available Subjects).

Creative & Arts round up: An interesting Guardian article noting the disappearance of art schools. Wonkhe also had creative content this week: All political parties should commit to a series of measures in support of creative education, a coalition of sector bodies has urged. The Creative Education Coalition – made up of sector bodies including University Alliance, GuildHE and London Higher, as well as institutions and subject groupings – has set out a manifesto with eight “asks” for revitalising creative arts education from school level onwards, including retention of BTEC qualifications in creative areas and an end to “low value” rhetoric around arts subjects and careers. There’s a Wonkhe blog on the topic too: A manifesto for creative education. Finally, AHRC has announced a reduction in the number of PhD students it funds from 425 to around 300 by 2029–30. There will be an increase in “strategic investments that fill specific sector-related gaps,” with a lower number of studentships through its Doctoral Training Partnerships – these will also be funded through a formula approach, rather than competition, in a move designed to reduce administrative burden (Wonkhe).

Commuters: The COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities (COSMO) study published new analysis of their cohort data and report that this year’s university applicants look more likely to stay at home during term time than previous cohorts.

Midwifery educators: Wonkhe – A lack of senior midwifery educators is severely impacting the UK’s ability to recruit more midwives, a new report has found. The State of Midwifery report from the Royal College of Midwifery (RCM) highlights growing numbers of people leaving midwifery education – with poor working conditions and low pay among the main reasons for the resignations. It says the drop off in educators has increased staff-to-student ratios in the UK, and in the 2022-23 academic year there were fewer recruits than previous years. The number of midwifery students leaving their courses before graduating is also rising, with around 15 per cent of students failing to complete their degree in 2021-22. The Belfast Telegraph has the story.

UUK International published Lessons from the UK higher education sector response to the invasion of Ukraine. Full report here, summary here. UUKi introduce the report: the report highlights how the UK sector was mobilised to support universities in Ukraine and sets out ways in which we might better respond to future crises, while recognising that there is no ‘one size fits all’ model. It reflects on the policy, funding and political levers which have enabled a broadbased response and how these need to be considered when formulating a response to emerging crises at individual, institutional and sector levels. The report sets out a framework that institutions might employ to help develop and tailor such responses, providing a practical tool that can help maximise the effectiveness and impact of university action.

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Broadening horizons: Network Science at Utrecht Summer School

We are thrilled to announce that Assemgul Kozhabek, one of our  PhD candidates, recently had the opportunity to participate in the Utrecht Summer School on “Data Science: Network Science” from July 10-14, 2023. Assemgul’s research, under the guidance of Dr. Wei Koong Chai, is centered around understanding and optimizing urban road networks. By attending this course, she was able to gain a deeper understanding of network science and its relevance to her research goals. The course covered various topics, including network modeling, analysis techniques, and practical application of network science in real-world scenarios.
The Utrecht Summer School provided Assemgul with a unique learning experience. Through interactive lectures, hands-on workshops, and networking opportunities with experts in the field, she was able to broaden her knowledge and enhance her skills in analyzing urban road networks. She expresses her gratitude to Dr. Wei Koong Chai for his support and guidance throughout this journey. Assemgul also immensely grateful for the OpenBright Award that made this opportunity possible.
Assemgul’s participation in the Utrecht Summer School on “Data Science: Network Science” has undoubtedly equipped her with valuable insights and tools that will contribute to her ongoing research. Stay tuned for exciting updates on her research journey!

HE policy update 28th June 2023

Some major areas covered in this policy update. We summarise all the latest parliamentary action on duty of care and consider what’s next for the sector more generally. Lots if research news, including the House of Lords being grumpy about the UK’s plans (and progress) to become a science and technology superpower. Horizon Europe guarantees have been extended (again). There’s the latest on free speech and the CMA requirements relating to course changes. Finally, an in-depth look at the future of international students from two authoritative figures in the sector.

The outlook for the sector

In a speech at an event hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute, the Secretary of State outlined his 3 priorities for the sector, to meet skills needs, advance social justice and deliver high quality qualifications. He talked extensively about apprenticeships and wanting the sector to do more in this are, as these programmes not only help with skills needs but also support disadvantaged students to earn while they learn, enhancing his social justice agenda too. He also made reference to mental health and wellbeing and the importance of student support.

  • The government has yet to provide the outcome to the Department for Education consultation on minimum entry requirements and student number caps – these have been outstanding since last year. In his speech the Secretary of State for Education, Robert Halfon said that he hoped we would get them soon.
  • Here is a Wonkhe blog covering Halfon’s speech.

Shadow Secretary of State for Education Matt Western also spoke at the event. He wouldn’t be drawn on detailed plans ahead of the work that Labour have to do on their manifesto.  Labour have already indicated they want to replace the current system with something “fairer and more progressive,” including reversing the changes being implemented this year which will increase the payment term and lower the threshold for student loan repayments, meaning that some lower paid graduates will pay more (because of interest and the longer term) than higher paid ones who pay it back earlier. It does sound increasingly like a graduate tax arrangement. He noted that the sector needed to be financially sustainable, but there are no promises about increased income under the new government. The Shadow Minister was also supportive of the LLE.

  • The Shadow Minister noted the cost of living issues impacting students, criticised the negative rhetoric about the value of a degree, and talked about social and educational inequality. He was highly critical of the regulatory burden in the sector, with multiple and overlapping regulators. He expressed admiration for what is happening in Wales, where the Welsh government are in the course of setting up a new combined regulator and funding body for tertiary education, which includes FE and HE, apprenticeships and skills training. Note that in Wales there are means-tested grants available for maintenance costs. The Welsh have also not extended the student loan repayment term to 40 years.
  • Research Professional have a piece Muddied red water which argues the fit with the wider UK isn’t clear, particularly because the Welsh arrangements do not address the issue of financial sustainability as the value of the tuition fee falls.
  • Iain Mansfield (ex- SpAd to Michelle Donelan and Director of Research and Head of Education and Science at Policy Exchange) writes for Wonkhe stating that while a return to real interest rates would be more progressive and seem intuitively fair he’s not sure the claims and the numbers stack up. Mansfield has his own political agenda and if you read the full blog you’ll spot he favours this argument pattern: stating ‘this looks nice…but it won’t work because…’
    • On public perception of fee fairness and the tax system Mansfield states: A system where interest rates are no higher than inflation, so that no-one will pay back more, in real terms, than they paid in is intuitively felt to be fair. Tony Blair, arguably the most canny political operator of our time, understood this, and it was a fundamental concept that underpinned the system of student loans in the New Labour era. Introducing swingeing rates of interest in 2013 toxified the system – and it is no coincidence that fees have only been raised once since then… If you want to deliver more progressive taxation, changing income tax rates is far better targeted than introducing arbitrarily high rates of interest into your higher education funding system – not least because you can target the whole population, rather than the minority who are graduates.
    • On the numbers: There’s a second big problem, and it’s that you can’t use a future asset – the additional money you will hypothetically receive from graduates in 30-40 years’ time – to directly pay for a current expense, such as reduced repayments or new maintenance grants… additional cash now requires additional borrowing. I’m going to go out on a limb, therefore, and say that the claim that reducing monthly payments can be done without additional borrowing will end up being incorrect.
    • On grants Mansfield foresees consequences for universities: …it seems that the poorest students may get a maintenance grant… Restoring maintenance grants is a very reasonable thing to want to do – but it has consequences… For universities rightly worried about their finances it means that maintenance grants and lower repayments look likely to be prioritised over any increase in the funding per student…it shows where Labour’s priorities lie: and that is with graduates and low-income students, not with universities.
    • Mansfield also reminds that Labour’s tax cut messaging didn’t work out for Theresa May when she raised the repayment threshold from £21k to £25k – graduates saved £360 per year but it cost the Treasure £2.3 Billion and had no impact on political gain in the polls
  • Following Labour’s announcements that they will not abolish tuition fees NUS Scotland campaigned Scottish Labour who have confirmed they continue to support free tuition in Scotland.

To note: All together now: An independent report into tertiary education in Scotland (the Withers report) – Fit for the Future: developing a post-school learning system to fuel economic transformation – advocates for a single organisation to provide the funding, strategy (and presumably operationalisation) of all tertiary education in Scotland. This in an interesting one to watch how it plays out because while Westminster haven’t been bold enough to suggest this for England’s tertiary education it fits well with the Government’s ideals of a rationalised and coherent post-compulsory sector where the different routes through education have a parity of esteem. Also, FE and HE Minister Halfon is on a crusade to tackle the systemic underfunding of FE provision. Such a change in England would require a major upheaval, however, it’s an interesting one to watch for the medium to long term. That is, if Scotland even decides to adopt it (Scottish HE Minister Graeme Day has made encouraging noises but stopped short of committed support). If you’re interest in the topic Wonkhe have a blog but the detail is here.

Susan Lapworth, Chief Executive of the OfS also spoke at the HEPI event and talked about the two priorities of the OfS: quality and standards and equality of opportunity, alongside the enabling and underpinning matters such as governance and financial sustainability. The OfS recently published its annual report and accounts.

Student Experience

Ahead of the NSS, which it has now been confirmed will be published on 10th August, the annual HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey was published in June.

  • 76% of students feel that the cost of living crisis has affected their studies. 50% state that their studies were impacted “a little” and over a quarter (26%) state that their studies were affected “a lot”.
  • There has been a major increase in the number of students in paid employment, from 45% to 55%.
  • The proportion of students whose experience exceeded expectations increased from 17% to 19%.
  • 37% of students said they received good or very good value for money.

The reasons for these perceptions are interesting as are the relative changes – generally, the % for each reason has fallen for each category, both in the positives and negatives, even below the 2020 cohort (generally completing pre-covid).  The industrial action category was new this year after being highlighted in the open text replies previously. Note:

  • A fall in positive responses linked to course organisation (11 ppts) although a drop in negative comments too
  • A fall in positive responses to teaching quality but negative comments have also fallen
  • A fall in positive responses to level of challenge
  • Positive change in relation to quality of feedback
  • A fall in the positive and a rise in the negative from 2020 and 2021 on accessibility of teaching staff

As usual, there is a lot more content including analysis by characteristic, and the report is worth reading in full.

Here’s the Wonkhe blog on the survey.

Horizon Europe Guarantee – extended

Following on from the not-new-news Viscount Camrose set out above the Government has announced the extension of support for UK Horizon Europe applicants until the end of September 2023. The extension continues to guaranteed funding for successful UK Horizon applicants. End May figures note that £1.1 billion of grant offers have been made.

  • The guarantee will be in place to cover all Horizon Europe calls that close on or before 30 September 2023. Eligible, successful applicants to Horizon Europe will receive the full value of their funding at their UK host institution for the lifetime of their grant.
  • Successful awardees do not need to leave the UK to receive this funding, which will provide reassurance for future collaborations, and support UK researchers whether association is confirmed, or otherwise.

Full information on the Government announcement here. Operational detail on the UKRI website.

UK as Science and Technology Superpower

The Lords met to discuss Science and Technology Superpower, following the publication of the Science and Technology committee report. Leading the debate Baroness Brown of Cambridge was disdainful about aspects of the Government’s performance including:

  • the “science superpower by 2030” slogan was vague;
  • that numerous sectoral strategies existed across government, but they did not appear to fit into a clear, prioritised plan, and without international collaboration;
  • concerns over the scale of investment and that the Government should adopt a new, appropriate, target for R&D investment.

The Baroness called for better definition on the Government’s strategy, for a Science Minister to sit in Cabinet and for the UK to rebuild its reputation as an international pattern, starting with association with Horizon Europe.

Other Peers raised:

  • that regulation is important to support the sector and where do specific sectoral strategies, such as the AI strategy, fit into an overall coherent approach across all sectors.
  • questioned how the Government were tracking what other countries did; the importance of researchers from abroad and whether scientific visa applicants were subsidising other functions of the Home Office.
  • the need to develop global science partnerships, also that many, such as the Wellcome Trust, the ABPI, and the Royal Society, had highlighted that the UK needed to articulate more clearly its policies of global co-operation to attract science talent to the UK. Immigration policy popped up several times during the debate.
  • that the report could have gone further in articulating how the UK could harness its advantages of agility, expertise and a focus on global impact to overcome disadvantages of scale, such as the Vaccine Taskforce.
  • That ecology and social innovation were missing from the five critical technologies identified in the science and technology framework.

Lord Rees of Ludlow on HE: there are some worrying trends. The labour involved in grant applications was diminishing chances of success while research was still strongly concentrated in universities the encroachment of audit culture and other pressures are rendering universities less propitious environments for research projects that demand intense and sustained effort. Dedicated, stand-alone labs might become preferable, such as the biomedical science labs which allowed for longer-term research, supplemented by the Wellcome Trust, the cancer charities and a strong pharmaceutical industry. He said we needed this in energy, AI and other crucial technologies.

Viscount Hanworth stated concern over the systematic underestimation of the percentage of GDP that the UK devoted to research and development highlighting that it was still well below the OECD average and far behind that of most research-intensive nations. He added that the UK could not become a scientific superpower if it lacked a basis of scientific and technological industries that were ready to call upon the skills of the research workers.

The Government’s representative, Viscount Camrose, responded that the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) would promote a diverse research and innovation system, connecting discovery science to new companies, growth and jobs. Camrose said the science and technology framework challenges every part of government to put the UK at the forefront of global science and technology. Action will focus on creating the right environment to develop critical technologies; investing in R&D, talent and skills; financing innovative science and tech companies; creating international opportunities; providing access to physical and digital infrastructure; and improving regulation and standards.

Camrose tacked the funding calls by remind of the Government’s committed spend:

  • £2.5bn over the next decade for quantum tech
  • £1bn strategy for the UK’s semiconductor sector
  • Government had recommitted to increasing public expenditure on R&D to £20bn per annum by 2024-25, representing a one-third cash increase and the largest ever increase in public R&D spending over a spending review period.

On Horizon, Camrose stated that the Government continued to be in discussions, in good faith, with their European counterparts on the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe and hope that their negotiations will be successful. Pioneer will become the default if the Government is not able to secure Horizon association on fair and appropriate terms.

Camrose also updated on ARIA’s progress – it has been established and is still in its early stage of development. ARIA is recruiting its first cohort of programme directors, who will help to shape and inform the agency’s first set of research programmes. None the less, funding transformative research with long-term benefits will require patience, as prepared for in the agency’s design.

On the risks of precarity for research careers, Camrose said the Government is looking at how to support through a new deal for PGRs and mentioned UKRI’s sector consultation as a first phase of this long-term programme of work, and the results would be published soon, in 2023.

Quick Research News

REF changes: Nature have a lovely gentle editorial into the changes to REF2028. While the ‘how’ detail isn’t known yet we do know that the weighting will be changed:

  • Output (now named contribution to knowledge and understanding) weighting is reduced from 60% to 50% of the overall score.
  • The environment weighting (now known as people, culture and environment) increases from 15% to 25%.
  • Everyone’s favourite – Impact – (now renamed engagement and impact) will remain at 25% of the overall score

Read the article for more on intentions for change around equality and diversity, quality PhD mentorship, and the expansion of the definition of excellence.

Wonkhe also have blogs on REF2028 and more background delving including the FRAP (Future Research Assessment Programme) is in this blog, and there’s a guest blog by the University of Liverpool – REF 2028: A Quiet Transformation.

Research infrastructure: Wonkhe report that – UKRI has announced £72m of investment into research infrastructure, including funding for wind tunnels and digital infrastructure for biomedicine. An independent report into progress with UKRI’s infrastructure programme has also been published, finding the programme has generally delivered its intended outputs and outcomes. However, the report observes that business case development and approval processes are still “overly complicated, duplicative and lengthy,” while noting that these processes sit outside the Infrastructure Fund’s remit and involve decision makers beyond UKRI.

Moonshots: Wonkhe highlight that UKRI and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) have opened a call for submissions for “moonshots” – “bold, ambitious, and transformative ideas” across the research and innovation landscape. The call for ideas will be followed by discussion events and shortlisting, with chosen proposals set to receive funding through the government’s Horizon Europe alternative Pioneer – or possibly through alternative sources of funding if the UK does associate to Horizon.

Defence innovation: Wales has committed £5 million funding for Defence and Security acceleration across several streams. More detail here.

AI mitigation: Rishi announced the UK will host the first major global summit on AI safety (following polling show public concern over the safety of AI). Also announced were:

  • The Government will increase the number of scholarships the UK Government funds for students undertaking post-graduate study and research at UK and US universities, enhancing our shared expertise in STEM subjects. Under the scholarship uplift announced today, the number of Marshall scholarships will increase by 25%, to 50 places a year. The Marshall scheme was established 70 years ago to give high potential Americans the opportunity to study in the UK for two years.
  • The UK will also fund five new Fulbright scholarships a year – up from the 25 currently funded. The Fulbright programme is predominantly funded by the United States to sponsor international students to study in the US and vice versa. These new scholarships will focus on STEM-related subjects, boosting the UK and US’ shared expertise in the technologies of the future.

Research Security: Wonkhe – Scientists at least 11 British universities have helped the Iranian regime develop technology that can be used in its drone programme and fighter jets, the Jewish Chronicle reported yesterday. Politicians expressed “deep concern” over the findings, with the government saying that Britain would “not accept collaborations which compromise our national security.” The story is picked up in the Telegraph.

Canadian Cooperation: Wonkhe – Science minister George Freeman has announced a range of agreements covering collaboration on science and innovation issues with Canada. These include £20m for a joint programme on biomanufacturing, deeper collaboration on quantum and climate change research, and Canada becoming a partner to the International Science Partnership Fund.

NERC: NERC interim executive chair has been confirmed as Peter Liss (of University of East Anglia).

Research culture: Wonkhe blog – A recent parliamentary committee report called for the REF to incentivise reproducibility – but more fundamentally the issue is about promoting openness and transparency. Grace Gottlieb explains.

Life Science: Jeremy Hunt announced £650 million package to drive growth and innovation in the Life Sciences sector. The government is committed to making the UK the most attractive destination for life sciences companies and has developed a comprehensive package of policies spanning regulation, research and development (R&D), infrastructure, skills and planning which is aimed at driving investment, growth and innovation. Full details here.

Innovation economy: The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) published The Skills Opportunity: Building a more innovative UK (summary here) it covers the challenges for education and skills provision in the UK, with recommendations for building a more research and innovation-intensive economy.

AI research: The Government announced (UKRI funded) research investments to develop trustworthy artificial intelligence (AI) research with £13 million going to 13 universities for developing AI technologies to have more sustainable land management, accelerate energy efficient CO2 capture, and improve resilience for natural hazards and extreme events. Also £31 million to create a UK and international research and innovation ecosystem for responsible and trustworthy AI. The consortium led by the University of Southampton will fund multi-disciplinary research and work across academia, business, and the public sector. Plus £2 million for 42 projects’ feasibility studies in businesses as part of the BridgeAI programme. These projects will look at developing a range of tools to facilitate assessment of AI technologies through governance, fairness, accountability, transparency, and privacy, and security. And, finally, £8 million for 2 Turing AI Researcher Fellowships, funding ground-breaking research on some of artificial intelligence’s biggest challenges including its application across drug and food design, and healthcare imaging.

Diversity in STEM: Dods summarise – The Science, Innovation and Technology Committee has published the government response to their report on diversity and inclusion in STEM, which it describes as “disappointing” and has urged the Government to adopt a more purposeful strategy. In its response the Government said it is preparing a cross-Government action plan, led by the Department for Education, to “drive wider participation in STEM” and see “a more diverse range of people enter the science and technology workforce by 2030”. The Chair of the Committee, Greg Clark MP, has said that “without any specific commitments or timings this amounts to a plan to have a plan.”

Duty of Care

Dominating parliamentary time on HE matters recently has been the call for universities to hold a specific duty of care for the wellbeing of students. The impetus for change has been driven by a group of parents who tragically lost a child to suicide whilst at university. Their campaign has been mentioned in Prime Minster’s Questions and formally entered parliamentary business through a petition which reached the required threshold for the matter to be debated (see here for the volume of individuals that signed the petition in the constituencies surrounding BU). The Petitions Committee also ran an evidence session on the statutory duty of care (our shorter summary of the evidence session is here).

Ahead of the Westminster Hall Debate the Petitions Committee ran an online survey on the proposal for a statutory duty of care for HE students to gauge public opinion on the matter. The survey revealed:

  • 27% of students who experienced poor mental health said their university was supportive/very supportive of their mental health.
  • 40% said the university was unsupportive/very unsupportive.
  • 86% of current students said they had suffered with poor mental health at university.
  • 77% of parents or guardians of a current student said that their child was suffering or had suffered with poor mental health whilst at university. Of those, 91% had not been contacted by the university about their child’s mental health
  • More statistics here.

Outside of the headline statistics are a number of quotes the Committee has included in the survey report.

  • University staff member: “The university I work at has implemented some measures, but they are not ‘joined up’ and most staff don’t know what they are. There is no clear guidance on who should do what.”
  • University student: “with the ‘trusted contact,’ I have had the opportunity to put someone down which I did when I started at university. However, when I experienced a mental health crisis and told the student wellbeing team I was suicidal, they did not contact my ‘trusted contact’ or ask if they could. They also did not offer me any support other than telling me to go to A&E if I hurt myself. So while it’s good for a university to have the ‘trusted contact’ option it’s also important that they use it
  • Parent: “Although University has various contacts, like student support, counselling, there is no way to actually speak to someone as a parent when you have concerns about a student…In an urgent situation as a parent you need to know there is a way of escalating your concerns.”

At the Westminster Hall Debate Nick Fletcher, member of both the Education Committee and the Petitions Committee, and chair of the Issues Affecting Men and Boys APPG, opened the session by noting between 2017 and 2020 that 202 male students and 117 female students had died by suicide. Here are some of the main contributions made by Members during the debate:

  • Hilary Benn stated that where a student attempted suicide, it was inexplicable that the university would not contact the parents and questioned whether the UUK suicide prevention guidelines should be made compulsory.
  • Nick Fletcher stated that many universities cited GDPR issues regarding contacting parents but that, in his view safeguarding always overrides GDPR. He also questioned why universities were still to sign up to the UUK guidelines or the university mental health charter [Helen Grant MP later stated only 61 universities have signed the Charter, only 5 had achieved Charter status and no universities had reached the higher merit and distinction levels of accreditation].
  • Nick Fletcher also stated that the witnesses they’d heard from in the committee’s evidence session – such as PAPYRUS and the student services organisation, AMOSSHE – had agreed that a duty of care would not be the best approach.
  • Nick Fletcher: questioned why universities were still carrying out bad practice such as telling students they must leave by email, without any thought of the inevitable emotional and mental impact. He asked why institutions weren’t coming together to find common themes in coroners’ reports of the 319 students.
  • Nick Fletcher: urged the Government: a statutory duty of care would ensure that all parties knew where they stood, but until we have one, please use the levers you have to make the universities do better at helping our young people. If they do not, do what the petitioners ask and legislate so that they must.
  • Paul Blomfield, Chair of the Students APPG: noted UCAS estimates that over 70,000 students entered higher education every year with a mental health condition, but around half of them told UCAS in a survey that they had not shared that information prior to entry. Also that universities could not be the only post of call for students who were struggling – students should be able to access NHS services, but were struggling to do so.
  • Paul Blomfield: stated he was not convinced that a duty of care would do the job those advocating it wanted, and could have unintended consequences. However, he said there still needed to be clear expectations on universities to up their game across the sector. He urged the Minister to acknowledge the other factors contributing to the mental health crisis, and asked what he would do, along with DHSC colleagues, to make support available to those working alongside universities.
  • Helen Grant: a statutory duty of care would set the bar to level up… a standard that required all higher education providers to do what might reasonably be expected, while maintaining their autonomy in deciding exactly how that would be achieved.
  • Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Matt Western, had met many families from the LEARN network and stated their diversity and number were a painful reminder that no family was immune from the consequences of the mental health crisis that affected many students on campuses. He stated he appreciated the time and money that many universities gave to providing mental health support for students and staff but said the gap between the expectations of students and parents and the reality of mental health provision in universities was far too great. He acknowledged that demand for services and support was clearly rising, with one in four student respondents to one survey reporting a diagnosed mental health issue. Many of those issues were also starting earlier in students’ lives. He also expressed disappointment that so few universities were signatories to the University Mental Health Charter.
  • Matt Western highlighted that in Wales, the Commission must ensure it’s satisfied with the effectiveness of registered education providers’ arrangements for supporting and promoting the welfare of their students and staff. Western noted Wales was the first country in the UK to introduce such a requirement for FE & HE providers and asked if the Minister would consider something similar in England.

Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Robert Halfon, responded on behalf of the Government to the debate. He stated:

  • he owed it to the memories of the young people to collectively take strong and effective action that prevented further tragedies.
  • the Government’s approach would rely on funding services, spreading best practice and having clear responsibilities for providers and protection for students.
  • the suicide-safer universities framework provided guidance on suicide prevention for university leaders. There was also now postvention best practice on providing compassionate and timely support after a suspected suicide. The associated charter programme was not a panacea but a process which enabled continuous improvement.
  • if the response is not satisfactory from universities then the Department would ask the Office for Students to look at the merits of a new registration condition on mental health.
  • Professor Edward Peck was appointed as the first ever student support champion in 2022 and is chairing a new higher education mental health implementation taskforce, with its outputs reporting directly to Ministers. By the end of this year, the taskforce would be asked to put in place an interim plan for better early identification of students at risk and for delivering the university student commitment as well as clear targets for improvements by providers. By May 2024, it should follow with a final report outlining the next steps, including how the sector will publicly report on the progress measures over the coming years.

Halfon declined to introduce legislation to create a statutory duty of care: I absolutely get the arguments and hope I have demonstrated that I share the petitioners’ fundamental aims, which are to protect those who study at university and to prevent future tragedies. If creating a duty for higher education providers towards their students was the right way to achieve that, it would absolutely have the Government’s backing. There are reasons why we believe that it may not be the most effective intervention.

Halfon stated there was already a sufficient general duty of care in common law as part of the law of negligence, plus further protections for students within the Equality Act 2010 to protect students with disabilities, including mental health conditions. He expressed concern that if a framework was too overbearing people will recoil even further and avoid any natural intervention that they would ordinarily make.

Halfon:

  • setting aside the legal position, we do not believe that the most effective way to improve student mental health is to introduce new legislative requirements when the sector is making progress on a voluntary basis. Although the sector absolutely could and should do more…providers are still innovating and improving, and there is not yet consensus on which interventions are most effective…It is no excuse for not doing anything or for inaction, but it does mean that the one-size-fits-all approach may not achieve the best results and support for students suffering from mental health difficulties, which is what we all want to see…
  • I expect universities, as organisations with an obligation to do the right thing for their students, to rise to the challenge that we have set for them today…if we do not see the expected improvements I will not hesitate to ask the Office for Students to introduce a new registration condition on mental health. It is vital that the whole sector takes this call to action seriously.
  • I hope that I have been clear that we are not standing by and letting things continue as they are. I am determined that all universities will sign up to the mental health charter

In conclusion, Nick Fletcher said it was disappointing that progress was not being made faster but if there was not an improvement after 2024 when all universities had signed up to the mental health charter then he would be back to ask for the issue to be looked at again.

For more coverage here are some media sources:

So what’s next?

While the Minister has turned down the request for a statutory duty of care the matter is very much of national interest and the parent group’s campaign has brought greater focus and national coordination from the previous reporting of isolated student suicides that occurred across various institutions.

Halfon has remained true to his word and aims for the sector to provide consistent support with improvements where necessary. His expectation is that matters will progress and he is serious about intervening with licence or other conditions if action isn’t sufficient or fast enough. Halfon immediately wrote to universities setting out a range of actions (below). Of course, we have to mention the potential disruptive factor – the impending general election. Halfon has set a timeline to 2024, however the general election must take place by 28 January 2025. Even if the current Government wins Halfon isn’t certain to remain as Universities Minister and the policy focus changes as Minister’s change. That said, this is a matter of interest to all major parties and the media and while the specifics may alter with electoral changes the thrust of the matter will remain (and presumably so will the OfS).

Halfon’s Letter: Halfon tweeted the contents of his letter stating I am not closing the door on future legislation if that is what is required but I am confident the sector will rise to the challenge of the action plan I have set out below. The message is clear do it voluntarily, with some flexibility to apply it within own institutional context or be dictated to by the regulator/legislation.

Also important to mention is that there is a new NSS question on access to mental health support. It’ll be closely watched and if results are low the OfS may act (even though their regulatory remit does not apply to student welfare or support systems).

There is also a Duty of Care Bill introduced by Tim Farron (Lib Dem, Westmorland and Lonsdale). As expected, it’s a PMB (Presentation Bill), it’s nothing but a title – no Bill text, no explanatory notes. A Bill to provide that higher education institutions have a duty of care for their students; and for connected purposes. It was presented for First Reading on Wed 21 June and will (may!) receive Second Reading on Fri 24 November. Of course, there are LOADS of them scheduled for Second Reading, and being a Presentation Bill it’s at the bottom of the pile.

Mental Health debate

There was also a recent debate on mental health treatment and support.
Aaron Bell MP:

  • Aaron highlighted that many universities have a professional counselling and mental health team to support its students.
  • He spoke of HESA data: In 2021-22 19% (416,000) of UK students declared a disability—and within that, 119,500 said they had a mental health condition (5.5% of all UK students). He stressed the growth in number – That number is three and a half times higher than it was in 2014-15 and noted higher rates are found among women, undergraduates, full-time students and those in their second or later years. He stated: there is an issue here that we have to address
  • He believes the pandemic is partly to blame.

Layla Moran also focussed on students withing the debate:

  • It will come as no surprise that the Mental Health Foundation found that 40% of students are not coping well with their anxiety.
  • In Oxfordshire…82% of students at Oxford Brookes University had self-medicated with drugs or alcohol to cope with mental health issues.
  • Where students know that they cannot rely on the NHS, an added burden is put on university staff. Tutors increasingly find themselves acting as therapists or counsellors for their overburdened, ill or anxious students.
  • …the students I have spoken to have made it clear that “University wellbeing services are not and cannot be a substitute for adequate mental health care”
  • On the duty of care Layla stated: It is just common sense. It already exists between employers and employees. All we are asking is for the same duty of care to apply to students.
  • we all know, the problems in young people’s mental health services are not restricted to those at university. So many people tell me the system is broken: parents, teachers, educational psychologists and clinical psychologists all identify the same failings. One parent wrote to me:
    • I am breaking my heart listening to my son saying horrible things about himself, threatening to take his life, and struggling with his mental health in general. Next year we would have been on the waiting list for four years and nothing will probably happen.
  • We know how to fix this; it is about more funding. A senior healthcare professional in Oxfordshire told me that “every pound spent on a child’s mental health saves thousands in the future.”

Regulatory

Wonkhe report that the OfS will publish a review highlighting concerns about some assessment and awarding practices in higher education providers. We’re also waiting for consultations on freedom of speech and the lifelong learning entitlement.

If you fancy some light relief read Research Professional’s irreverent take down of the OfS under the banner of commenting on the OfS annual report.

  • Excerpts: As a bureaucracy, the OfS, now in its fifth year, seems to exist to defend the act of regulation rather than to actually represent the interests of students.. Questions are being asked about the OfS, such as why it cannot complete a single investigation… The regulator’s inquiry into the graduate outcomes of university business schools has been going on—shrouded in secrecy—for a year. An investigation into grade inflation in English higher education began in September 2022 and is yet to report. There is a lot of regulation going on but precious little regulatory outcomes. In March of this year, the OfS announced plans to bill universities found guilty in an investigation for the cost of their investigation. To date, no one has been sent an invoice. The investigations continue.
  • the OfS has become an inertial and litigious organisation, but one oddly enough prone to legal mishap. The regulator lost its legal fight against the Bloomsbury Institute and as a result embarked on an odyssey of consultation and reform that has resulted in ever-greater monitoring and reporting for universities.

The article reminds that the fees universities pay to OfS be registered HE providers are being increased substantially. Yet the OfS currently has reserves of £6.2 million—more than some universities. Although overall for the OfS reserves are down which is mostly due to the decline in the value of direct grants from central government. Research Professional (RP) question Does that mean regulatory fees are increasing for providers to make up for cuts in funding from the DfE? RP also provide a nice comparison: The OfS does seem to cost an awful lot to run. The staff bill for the regulator last year was £25.9m. If the OfS were a university, it would be roughly the size of the University of Chichester.

Lifelong Learning (HE Fee Limits) Bill

The Lifelong Learning (HE Fee Limits) Bill had an airing in Parliament. It was debated in the House of Lords at Second Reading stage and has progressed to Committee Stage where rigorous scrutiny will commence. The Bill is the legislative support for the Government’s lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) which will introduce a credit-based method to calculate maximum tuition fee limits based on the delivery of modules, short and full courses across a ‘course year’ rather than an ‘academic year.’ It only applies to England and provides a personal post-18 funding pot which students can chose to spend in flexible ways across their lifetime.

The Government intends to set the detail of the fees and credit information through secondary legislation so that each time changes are required it does not need to go through the full legislative process again. The downside of this is it hands greater power to the Government and reduces parliamentary scrutiny and intervention. Concerns over the lack of detail in the current Bill on these important aspects was raised by Baroness Wilcox of Newport, the Shadow Education Spokesperson. She stressed that Labour broadly supported the introduction of the LLE and the credit-based method to determine fees, but called for a definition of credits and what the yearly minimum and maximum  credits would be. She also questioned if different per-credit limits would be set based on the intensity and duration or based on the subject (topic) and level of study, and whether all 2025 students would automatically fall under the LLE or if it would be a gradual transition. She also raised the current part time student premium and wanted this flexibility to be retained, and for distance learning maintenance support to be introduced for access purposes.

Baroness Garden of Frognal (Liberal Democrat) wanted to know the criteria by which modules would be determined to be eligible, spoke up on the uncertainties for disabled students, and suggested that if high-cost modules did not attract pro-rata teaching grants it would disincentivise modularisation in disciplines where there were particular skill shortages.

Lord Stevens of Birmingham highlighted the DfE short course trial hadn’t attracted much interest and suggested that the LLE fee support may not be attractive, Baroness Garden agreed with this stating she felt the debt was unlikely to be attractive to mature learners. Lord Stevens also raised  maintenance support for distance learners.

Lord Willetts (Conservative) called for more detail on how the new third category of OfS registration, which would enable new providers to supplement existing provision from established universities, would work. Highlighting policy inconsistencies he also asked the Minister to reconcile that the policy encouraged learners to dip in and out of courses whereas the OfS’ monitor and criticise universities with high drop-out rates.

Lord Rees of Ludlow (emeritus professor at Cambridge University) argued that post-18 education needed to be much more flexible and open and offer everyone the opportunity to enter or re-enter, maybe part-time or online, at any stage in their lives.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone (Conservative, previous Universities and Science Minister) stated the Bill addressed an important problem with the current funding system for HE (i.e. the impact it had on lifelong and adult learning) which Johnson believes has been in crisis for a decade. He also noted another problem was that the system had not allowed tuition fees to rise with inflation stating this has led to the progressive defunding of universities. And the consequential increased dependence of universities on international student income to cross-subsidise domestic tuition and research was an issue. Johnson declared disappointment that the Bill did not address the problems he noted and that modular degree wouldn’t commence until 2027-28 (almost a decade since the Augar report was commissioned). He also called on the Government to make modular funding available for level 7 provision.

Baroness Barran, Minister for the School System, speaking on behalf of the Government, said that the Government would not impose credit transfer arrangements and would facilitate credit transfer through other methods, including through the introduction of the requirement for providers to produce a standardised transcript on the completion of individual modules. She also confirmed the number of learning hours in a credit would remain as now, unless standards in the sector changed.

On rollout the Baroness explained 2025-26 would roll out higher technical qualifications and modules at levels 4 and 5. And that maintenance loans would be available for part-time study below level 6.

You can read the full cut and thrust of the debate here.

Free Speech

King’s College London (KCL) announced that UUK will reconvene a previous advisory group for free speech and academic freedom, with KCL’s President and Principal, Shitij Kapur, Charing the group. KCL state:

  • The primary role of the Advisory Group will be to shape the implementation of the Freedom of Speech Act and provide advice and recommendations to the UUK Board, which will include shaping UUK’s engagement with the OfS in relation to free speech and academic freedom.
  • Alongside responding to the immediate policy environment, the Advisory Group will also play an important role in providing guidance on the approach UUK should be taking to the wider free speech and academic freedom debate, including how the sector should respond over the medium-to-long-term and where UUK can further support members to meet their new duties.

Student news

Course changes

Wonkhe have a blog on the updated CMA (Competition and Market Authority) guidance which strengthens students’ rights when teaching is significantly changed. Wonkhe say: The guidance warns providers over giving a “misleading impression” about whether a course is accredited, who is involved in its delivery, and how many optional modules are available – it advises that students’ express agreement must be obtained for deviations from the pre-contract information which informs their decision-making, including information about teaching. The CMA also cautions that contractual clauses excusing providers from liability due to industrial action may not be regarded as fair, as this is something which “could be within [an institution’s] control.” Here’s the blog: Making major changes to courses just got a lot harder.

There’s some good detail with clear interpretation on the legal requirements in this Pinsent Masons blog: Updated CMA guidance adds to universities’ obligations and enhances students’ consumer rights.

And, most recently, the OfS has published an Insight Brief setting out the scope of consumer protection law and how OfS regulation protects consumer (student) rights.

Loan rates:

Plan 1 (pre-2012) student loans have increased to 5.5%.

Admissions | Personal statements

HEPI published a policy note – How do Admissions Professionals use the UCAS personal statement? Context: UCAS plans to reform the personal statement to short questions covering the six themes of motivation; preparedness for course; preparedness through other experiences; extenuating circumstances; preparedness for study; and learning styles. HEPI surveyed admissions professionals to explore how they use undergraduate person statements and what implications this has for UCAS’ plans. Here are the key stats:

  • While the majority of personal statements are read, the average time spent on each statement is two minutes. 39% are read for one minute or less.
  • Personal statements are mainly used to assess applicants’ interest in a course (88%), or to gather contextual information (65%), assess academic potential (40%) and assess work experience (29%).
  • The majority of admissions professionals feel that decisions are primarily made on the basis of grades
  • The personal statement is considered to be important for vocational or highly selective courses.

HEPI says the results have implications for UCAS’ proposed changes:

  • There is little evidence that ‘preparedness for study’ and ‘preferred learning styles’ are used in admissions – therefore, these themes should be removed from UCAS’s proposals.
  • There should be space within the UCAS form for applicants to discuss extenuating circumstances, as admissions professionals do consider this information.
  • There is little evidence to support the division of ‘preparedness for the course’ and ‘preparedness through other experiences’ into two separate questions – only 6% of personal statements for non-vocational subjects were used to assess applicants’ transferable skills.

Caring – life chances

Parliament has launched its first APPG ‘inquiry’ (investigation) into the impact of caring responsibilities on the life chances of young adult carers. UCL research shows young carers and young adult carers were 38% less likely to get a degree than others their age. Carers aged 23 or over were also less likely to get a job. Those caring for 35 hours or more a week are 46% less likely to enter employment than non-carers. And a Carers Trust survey finds greater demands on their time than previously – 56% of young and young adult carers are spending more time caring than the year before, while 47% are looking after more people than they used to. The inquiry will look into include access to education among other caring issues. It will also focus on how caring affects young people into adulthood such as the impact on further education and employment prospects. A report is expected in November 2023 and may contain recommendations for HE providers on supporting carers.

Free school meals – educational outcomes comparison between providers

HEPI published a paper on educational outcomes across different universities for students formerly eligible for Free School Meals: The disconnect between quality and inequality: An analysis of the gaps in educational outcomes achieved by free school meal-eligible students in English higher education. Quick points:

  • Institutions with a TEF Gold Award recruit significantly fewer Free School Meal pupils as a proportion of their overall intake compared to Bronze and Silver universities.
  • Universities that recruit a smaller number of Free School Meal students have a higher entry tariff and are disproportionally more likely to receive a Gold award under the TEF. Not a single provider with more than 30% of their students having been eligible for Free School Meals was awarded a Gold in the TEF.
  • There are no significant correlations between the proportion of Free School meal pupils and the size of any outcome gaps (Continuation, Completion, Attainment or Progression). Gold providers, despite having far fewer Free School Meal students, do not achieve comparatively better Continuation, Completion, Attainment or Progression for these students compared to Silver and Bronze providers.

Ethnicity Degree Awarding Gap

TASO (Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education) published the report Approaches to addressing the ethnicity degree awarding gap – Contextualising the landscape and developing a typology. The project:

  • Reviewed APPs (Access and Participation Plans) to produce a typology of approaches.
  • Interviewed sector stakeholders on institutional infrastructure, attitudes, barriers, and enablers.
  • Established an Expert Reference Group.

The analysis of APPs found 16 different types of approaches to addressing the ethnicity degree awarding gap (EDAG) – see pages 18-19 for the list and explanations of the types and this chart shows how frequently they’re found:

Key findings:

  • Despite the sector being broadly aware of the EDAG, they lack confidence about how to address the gap.
  • While the report shows a real commitment to addressing the gap, HE providers need to do more to consider approaches based on contextual factors – such as institutional student data – to bring about meaningful change.
  • One-of-a-kind individuals were hailed as catalysts for effective progress when addressing the EDAG therefore there is concern that meaningful work may stagnate or cease if these individuals were to move roles.
  • The sector has a good awareness of the need for evidence-informed practice, and the need to evaluate approaches to addressing the EDAG. However, capacity and capability for evaluation vary greatly between HE providers.
  • Working with students is central to addressing the EDAG, therefore there is a need for HE providers to consider how they work with students to ensure their voices are sought and valued.

In response to the findings, TASO recommends HE providers:

  • Develop Theories of Change (ToCs) and associated evaluation plans which make clear links between proposed activities and desired outcomes. This will allow providers to consider the barriers and facilitators to carrying out an approach successfully.
  • Consider the different elements of approaches and how these would work at their organisation so they are better placed to develop interventions that are tailored to their organisational context.
  • Reflect on organisational structures and allocate accountability and responsibility for addressing this gap so providers can best determine what systemic changes can be implemented to support these challenges.
  • Use data to inform action taken to address this gap. By including data analysis as a stage in their ToC, providers can highlight the importance of this and use findings to inform later stages of the approach.
  • Include students in their work to address this gap and develop models for student co-creation, moving away from a model that only consults students on plans to address these inequalities.

TASO are now tendering for providers to receiving evaluation support to develop Theories of Change for interventions aimed at addressing the ethnicity degree awarding gap.

International

The future of international students in the UK

Lord Jo Johnson, former Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister (2016-19), gave the keynote address on the Future of International Students at the Westminster Higher Education Forum. Johnson is a supporter of international students and the economic and wider benefits they bring to the UK and our education system. He was instrumental in establishing the graduate work visa during his time in office.

Johnson spoke of the gradual weakening of the political consensus for the graduate work route and the growth of international student numbers. He highlighted three key concerns that the HE sector should resolve to satisfy and reverse the Government’s cooling of support for international students. Johnson urged the HE sector to engage with these concerns rationally and make visible changes where needed.

  1. Address the false narrative that international students are displacing domestic student and/or taking ‘their’ graduate jobs. Emphasise that international and domestic students are symbiotic and reliant on each other. Ensure the cross-subsidy from international fees is seen as a positive as they increase choice and broaden the range of courses available to domestic students making what would otherwise be loss m7aking courses viable.
  2. The Government’s concern that some institutions are seen to be selling immigration into the UK rather than education is genuine and one of the factors behind the changes to the dependants visa policy. Johnson intimidated that these institutions are ruining it for the majority and that the practice needs to be immediately and publicly curtailed to address the Government’s concerns. Johnson stated he supports the cessation within visas for international students to switch to work mid-stream (and felt it never should have been an option). The second element within the immigration concerns that Johnson felt strongly about is that universal systems need to be in place to check and ensure that international students really have the funds needed and declared to gain their visas. Johnson highlighted examples of a London food bank which is providing for 1,000 international students per week and overcrowded housing where up to 15 students are sharing a small flat. Johnson stated that these issues were exacerbated by the pandemic as students were not able to access sufficient work. Johnson called on the sector to address these concerns to achieve a sustainable international student model.
  3. Johnson’s third concern focused on (lack of) diversity within the international student body. The overreliance on certain nations of international students leaves universities vulnerable to geopolitical changes and Johnson argues limits the experience for other students. For example, the reliance on China within post graduate courses and India for masters students (particularly in a specific set of post-92 universities) was a concern for Johnson. Johnson highlighted that the Government has stated it wants diversity in the international student body but the dominance of certain countries is creating difficulties. In addition, to head off Government concerns, Johnson urged universities to raise the quality of students entering the system.

Johnson gently sang the praises of the DfE and their work representing the value of international students to the Home Office stating if not for their efforts the package of measures introducing restrictions for international students and their dependants could have been much worse. Johnson felt the DfE intervention protected the international graduate route architecture. However, he believed the days of government support for rapid international growth are over and cited technicalities in the wording of the Government’s current policy documents to demonstrate this. Johnson felt this position was inescapable because of the abuses creeping in at the edges – and believes that if these been dealt with at the time today’s restrictions could have been avoided. To this end Johnson recommended four reforms which we set out below.

It’s worth a mention at this point of how influential Johnson remains within Parliament. You’d be wrong to assume his influence is diminished because he now sits as a Peer, not an MP, and because his brother, Boris, has resigned his position under a recent cloud. Jo, as a previous long-standing education minister has established authority, is well connected, and he joins a powerful group of other ex-Ministers and education sector experts within the House of Lords that have demonstrated (e.g. during the Freedom of Speech Act’s passage and the recent Lords select committee inquiry into the OfS) that they’re willing to show their teeth and fully engage with their role to bring scrutiny to bear on the Government and operate the checks and balance functions within Parliament.

Back to Johnson’s four recommendations/reforms for the university sector:

  • Regulatory – universities are tightly regulated for domestic students but not international. Johnson believe the B3 conditions should be applied (and regulated) to international students too. Johnson suggested universities take not of the work which highlights the drop-out rates from certain countries – because the Government is taking note of this, and action may follow.
  • Universities should publish their international student recruitment plans as an annual counterpart to their domestic APP (Access and Participation Plan). This would allow the regulator (the OfS) to gain insight into the risks relating to international students and provide projections forecasting the national picture for international students across the HE sector. It felt it would also provide reassurance that the widening of international participation does not limit (or push out) domestic students.
  • Institutions and sector bodies should do more, through collection action, to weed out poor quality and fraudulent applications. Johnson felt universities need to urgently address this across the sector. He believes universities should raise the quality of applications by
    1. charging an application fee for international students (Johnson stated the evidence is that higher fees result in higher enrolment rates and successfully counter the loss of time/money/staff resource tied up in processing applications for those that don’t ultimately enrol/turn up
    2. that international fees should be paid up front
    3. that international students should place their maintenance money into a specific type of account and draw it down across the year. Johnson believes this would address the fraud and lack of diversification in the system. Johnson also spoke of the low risk countries on the register and overcoming the issue of losing visa awarding powers due to number of refusals.
  • Finally, Johnson wants to see greater accountability for recruitment agents, to weed out the unscrupulous factions. Johnson suggests using VI data and requiring universities to publish non-continuation route and visa refusals by recruitment agent to identify, across the sector, the agents with concerning practices and performance. He felt this would allow institutions to gravitate towards agents supporting the UK university reputation. As Johnson spoke on this topic there was an undercurrent of expectation and onus on the university to be required to do this and a hint that it may be an area for future regulation/OfS scrutiny.

Throughout Johnson demonstrated that he was aware that universities may be reluctant because they don’t want to suffer a ‘first to move’ disadvantage. However, in his opinion the sector needs to urgently address his points and recommendations to stave off less favourable international student reforms in the future.

Baroness Diana Warwick who chaired the session stated she supported the international fee subsidisation of the teaching and how it enables a wider range of courses for domestic students without which institutions wouldn’t be able to support.

A second presentation at the conference by Matt Robb, from EY Parthenon, on Financial Sustainability was equally compelling. He highlighted that across the world there is a once-in-a-lifetime expansion in tertiary enrolment and, therefore, a strategic imperative to capture a significant enough proportion of the market share for international students before the expansion matures. Robb felt the UK needed to establish itself as a  leading provider during this growth as the UK would not be able to regain its share once the maturation slow down begins.

highlighted that multiple countries are facing these issues. Alongside this he recognised the significant costs of transitioning to digital materials, which the UK was less prepared for. He highlighted how universities tend to respond when facing cost pressures, e.g. trimming the course portfolio, which is fine for a small financial squeeze but Robb suggested that over sustained time it led to underinvestment leading to weaker offers and poorer performance. He also highlighted how providers adapt e.g. strategic distinctiveness.

Robb made two key points for student planning. First, The medium to long term growth for the sector is in international students because the UK tertiary enrolment isn’t as high (or growing as much) as other countries – so there will be surplus demand in certain countries internationally. Robb reinforced the need to debunk the myth that international students are displacing domestic students to ensure policies remain favourable for international recruitment.

Second, the concentration of international students from particular countries will be really difficult for the sector to address. Robb gave the example of how affordable international education is within China currently (the Chinese economy is growing and limitations on the number of children mean two generations of a family’s income are available to support the one child to study abroad). Robb also address the elephant in the room – that outside of China one of the reasons why international students come to the UK is to secure work after graduation, and part time work to fund themselves while they are studying. He highlighted that those who are financially affluent already have access to their own very high quality domestic education – so few would want to study overseas. Robb stated that universities often limit recruitment to strong economies which further compounds the diversification issue  and isn’t an access friendly policy. Robb felt a solution would be to use more agents to work into further and newer markets. However, he noted that the further flung the agent network the harder it would be to ensure receiving genuine and quality applications – so running counter to Johnson’s maintaining quality objective. Robb also acknowledged that Brexit continues to exacerbate the concentration (lack of diversity) issue.

Quick International News:

Minister Halfon commits via a Parliamentary Question (PQ) to ensure the visa changes relating to international students and their dependants will be watched to ensure the UK remains competitive in the international market for students. Halfon stated: The Department for Education will work closely with the Home Office, the Department for Business and Trade, and across other government departments, to assess the impact of these changes on research, science and arts in the UK.

Plus two more PQs confirm an equality impact assessment was carried out for the reform package, and that the Government cannot confirm the [overall] value of the immigration health surcharge fee,

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 this week: Generative artificial intelligence in education.

Other news

Universities had a letter from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. Newly introduced, this is intended to fulfil “an important manifesto commitment to “ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries”.”

Student Loans: Martin Lewis, from Moneysavingexpert.com, has published a new blog:  New student loans to cost many 50% more: 6 need-to-knows about ‘Plan 5’ English student finance running through the changes for English students commencing in September 2023 in his usual what-it-means-in-practice style.

HTQs: The DfE announced the second round of the Higher Technical Education Skills Injection Fund committing £48 million for higher technical qualifications (HTQs) across areas such as digital, engineering and manufacturing, and protective services in the 2024-25 and 2025-26 academic years. An additional 66 qualifications have also been approved as HTQs. Government press release here.

Short course trial: An update from Wonkhe – The Department for Education has updated its list of courses included in the higher education short courses trial, with two new courses added and two no longer running removed.

Policy campus: The DfE, Cabinet Office, Home Office and DWP are all cooperating to establish a Civil Service Policy Campus based in Sheffield. All the details are here, but in short it’ll pilot a regional fast stream, provide policy apprenticeships at level 4, offer policy internships and research projects for regional students, and work with Sheffield universities on policy research.

Creative: The Government published  its creative industries sector vision. It plans to grow the creative industries by £50bn and support a million more jobs by 2030.

Graduate outcomes: HESA released the outcomes data for 2020-2021’s graduates.

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HE policy update for the w/e 2nd June 2023

This is your half term catch up policy update.

Regulatory

OfS: Freedom of Speech

Following the passage of the new law, the OfS has announced the appointment of Professor Arif Ahmed as the first Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom.  Professor Ahmed chose the Times to write about his appointment, so we turn to Wonkhe for a perspective.  For Wonkhe, Jim Dickinson focuses on the potential conflicts and challenges with balancing free speech and academic freedom with equality rights, and as an example, highlights Professor Ahmed’s previously stated position on the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which conflicts with the government’s position (and specifically the position of the current Secretary of State for  Education).  You will recall Michelle Donelan getting herself in a muddle over this issue too.   It’s going to be interesting to watch this unfold.  As Jane learned a long time ago, hard cases make bad law…and it seems a lot of the cases are going to be hard.

The work of the OfS: Minister Halfon examined

The Lords Industry and Regulators Committee conducted it’s final session examining the work of the OfS by interviewing FE and HE Minister Robert Halfon alongside Anne Spinali, Director of Higher Education Reform and Funding at the DfE. Alongside the probe into the OfS the session is useful to highlight the latest ministerial thinking on the key issues facing the sector today.

HE Financial health

The Chair opened the session by highlighting the concerns the HE sector had reported over financial sustainability, loss of Horizon funding, dependency on international students and how these combine to create other vulnerabilities. Halfon listed the various income sources of HE institutions (e.g. tuition fees, other income, research grants, funding body grants, investment, donations and endowment) highlighting that universities get up to just under £40 billion…among 400 registered institutions. That is not a small sum of money…We also know that 75% of universities are in good financial condition. The question I would ask…is why the vast majority of universities are able to be in good financial health while a few are not… Later in the session he implied this is due to the management and leadership of these particular institutions.

Nevertheless, despite the challenges of Covid, the cost of living, energy bills and so on, on the whole, given the current context that we are in, HE—higher education—is not doing too badly financially. If you…look at the funding that HE has got compared to the funding that further education has got over the last few years, there is no comparison. Halfon also confirmed he thinks the OfS’ risk based approach to monitoring is the right approach and he continued his predecessor’s party line that The priority of the Government when it comes to financial difficulties at universities must be to look after the students. That is where I believe a government intervention would be, if there was severe financial difficulty for a particular higher education institution, to make sure that they had a provider to go to. Halfon also reminded the Committee that during Covid there was precedent through the HE restructuring fund. However, he also implied he didn’t subscribe to the concept that some universities were too big to fail and that he, personally, preferred mobile, agile universities.

Anne Spinali noted that some universities with financial concerns approached the DfE before they took the matter up with the OfS.

Financial sustainability came up time and again throughout the session, however, Halfon held firm that he thinks the sector is in a good position, even if time lags may be masking how many will become unsustainable in the medium term:

  • Given the current circumstances, given that universities get £40 billion from a variety of sources, given that 75% of them have a surplus and given everything else that is going on in the economy and the public sector, HE is in a fairly strong position compared with other parts of the public sector.
  • I will always welcome and champion more resources for HE and FE, of course, but I want more funding for skills… I want to ask, “What’s the best way to ensure that we have more qualified people who get good, skilled jobs at the end of their education?” That is the way I look at it. I look at it not as “university, university, university” but as “skills, skills, skills”.

On the freezing of tuition fees (and real terms decrease in their value): …if the economy improves, we get back into surplus again, we get rid of our deficit, we get down the £2 trillion debt and we pay back the £400 billion that we spent during Covid, maybe…we will have more money and will be able to increase tuition fees. However, I am not an advocate of increasing tuition fees. It would hit the student, importantly, at a time when things are very difficult. That does not mean that they are never going to go up but the approach of the Government has been the right one.

International Students  – a conflicting view?

Halfon stated he is very supportive of international students. I think that they are a good thing…my wife was an international student. Halfon spoke of the benefits international students bring aside from finance they are examples of soft power as well as being worth 25 billion quid to our economy…I do not see having too many international students as a risk.

Halfon also stated he does not believe there is a dependency on international students and that their numbers will not decline:

  • Given that 76% of students are domestic, I do not necessarily think that it is the problem that some people view it as…I do not see this as a problem in the way that may be felt by yourself. It is a good thing, especially given the current financial context we are in.. It is worth £25 billion; the ambition is that it will be worth £35 billion by 2030. That is very significant. If you look at the cost benefit of those international students, it outweighs the issues you may raise, such as that we have an unsustainable model.
  • We also have a cost of living crisis. The last thing I can do is go and tell students that we are going to raise their tuition fees. I feel a lot of pressure in the House of Commons from Members on all sides about why we did not raise the maintenance grant or maintenance loan higher than we did… Nevertheless, you have to be fair to students and to the taxpayer.
  • Given the financial situation that we are in, if universities are getting cross-subsidisation from international students, that is not a bad thing. I agree with you that it is dangerous to rely on one or two countries. We are doing a lot of work on diversification there… I worry about dependency on one or two countries. A lot more work needs to be done.

Halfon reveals his preferred vision for future HE institutions

  • The underlying part of your question is perhaps not even about the loan system but about whether the funding of universities and their business model should be done differently. That may be right. It requires a lot of thinking and work to see whether the current system is sustainable…
  • …my dream university of the future is the Dyson Institute. The reason for that is that it has a business on-site. It does research. It does vocational degree apprenticeships. The people who complete them get jobs in Dyson afterwards. It is very agile; I would like to see a lot more of that. That is a sustainable model for the future. I also want to do more to encourage degree apprenticeships because, again, you then avoid the whole issue of tuition fees.
  • …my dream would be to have 50% of our students doing degree apprenticeships one day. They help the disadvantaged. They build our skills base. They guarantee jobs for people who complete them. Now, we have Russell group universities as well as traditional vocational universities doing them.
  • It is not just for STEM, by the way. You could have one easily in the creative industries. You could have the British Museum doing the same thing, for example, where people can study archaeology or curating or whatever it may be. If I was thinking of universities in the 21st century, it would be more on that model.
  • …the [Halfon’s] vision is clear: it is jobs, skills and social justice. It does what it says on the tin. In my view, apart from the stuff that it does brilliantly already—research, et cetera—the engine of HE should be geared towards those purposes. That is the strategy of the Government.

Regulatory burden

Anne Spinali: There is a difference between institutional autonomy being impinged and regulatory burden…Both the OfS and the department are absolutely clear that institutional autonomy is paramount. Whether the regulatory burden is proportionate is a question for the OfS. It has recognised that it could do more to tackle this and is actively looking at areas where it could reduce its regulatory activity by taking a more risk-based approach. Halfon felt the OfS regulatory requirements were not onerous for a university, but, that universities also fall under the regulation of a range of institutions are regulated by a range of organisations (page 16) whereas Halfon would prefer a more streamlined model. However, Halfon did express disapproval at the OfS digital uploading system: I definitely think that that has to go. On minimising regulatory burden we also heard that the Government are considering a third category of registration for the lifelong loan entitlement which draws on existing material to reduce the regulatory burden.

Halfon: In my view, it [OfS] should be there partially to protect the autonomy of universities. The Government do not always get their way. They [OfS] are perfectly able to refuse to adopt the guidance that we suggest.

Sector relations with OfS: In response to Lord Reay’s question of whether the OfS was distant and often combative and the HE relationship characterised by a lack of trust Halfon stated: there needs to be much more informal engagement between the OfS and HE because, in my six months in the job, that has come up time and again. That would be beneficial. To be fair to the OfS, it does a lot of round tables and a lot of events with universities. It is not perfect but, inevitably, you are going to have some difficulties because of what the OfS is tasked to do.

Value for money: Halfon – I have a really firm view: in terms of HE and value for money, it must be about outcomes and jobs with good skills and progression. Otherwise, if you do not achieve what you should afterwards, what is the point of spending all that time at university and taking out the loan? Halfon also mentioned transparency with fees and ensuring students understand what they are getting for their money on application, including in person teaching.

OfS fees: Halfon refused to be drawn on the 13% OfS fee increase. He stated OfS reduced their fees in 2021-22 but they are inevitably going to have to go up because of the QAA coming in but we are consulting with government and the OfS… We will make an announcement on it in the very near future.

The announcement came shortly after the session – we’ve covered it here.

Robert Halfon has also written to the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee giving further background and justification for Tuesday’s announcement of a sizable increase to OfS registration fees for 2023–24.

We also learnt, from Anne Spinali, that the DfE has quarterly discussions with the OfS on its efficiency, its spend and how it is discharging its responsibilities with regard to the spend. The economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the way in which it discharges its responsibilities, and what it does with its £26 million of fees, are monitored really actively. It is robustly challenged on resources associated with activities. It is a difficult challenge and discussion sometimes in terms of the level of resources needed to carry out the whole breadth of activities that the OfS has to carry out.

For more detail see the – Transcript, watch the session on Parliament TV or review the inquiry information.

Financial sustainability (OfS)

The OfS published their annual financial sustainability report updating on the financial health of the HE sector. If finds that university finances are generally in good order but that there are growing risks to the sector’s finances such as the over-reliance on international student recruitment, sustainability of pension schemes, investment in facilities and environmental policies and inflationary pressures. Belying this headline statement, however, is a more mixed picture of the financial performance of different universities. The OfS also wrote to 23 HEIs who have high student recruitment from China urging them to have contingency plans in place in case recruitment patterns change and there is a sudden drop in income from overseas students.

  • Income – sector growth across the next three years (£40.8 billion in 2021-22 to £50.1 billion forecast in 2025-26).
  • Improved cash flow and surplus, but the sector is forecasting a decline in financial performance and strength in 2022-23, with costs increasing at a faster rate than income and a significant dip in the income and expenditure surplus.
  • In 2021-22 total HE course fees and education contracts were reported at £22.5 billion (+8.8%). Fee income is forecast to increase to £29.3 billion by 2025-26, with a 17.5% forecast rise in student numbers between 2021-22 and 2025-26 across all levels of study. However, this trend varies significantly between different universities and colleges.
  • Total non-EU (overseas) tuition fee income was reported at £7.8 billion in 2021-22 (+25%). This is consistent with strong growth in overseas fees in recent years. Non-EU fee income as a proportion of total income is forecast to increase from 19.3% in 2021-22 to 24% in 2025-26, which the report states highlights the sector’s increasing reliance on fees income from non-EU students to sustain their activities.
  • Overall cash flow and short-term investments are reported as £16.6 billion for 2021-22 (+10% on 2020-21).

The key risks are:

  • impact of inflation on costs and challenges in growing income to meet increasing costs
  • increasing reliance on fees from overseas students in some higher education provider’s business plans, especially students from China or any individual country
  • challenges in meeting investment needs for facilities and environmental policies.

And it’s not all about China, the OfS says:

 … Teaching-intensive providers can be particularly reliant on tuition fees from students. In recent years, many have successfully increased their recruitment of overseas students, particularly from India and Nigeria, onto postgraduate and undergraduate courses. These providers also face significant staff and pensions costs. In the event of a reduction in the total numbers of students coming to the UK from China, it may be that research-intensive providers are able to attract UK and international students away from teaching-intensive providers

In response to these risks and financial pressures the OfS says they anticipate providers may adopt certain behaviours (which they’ll be keeping an eye on if the impact on student choice and experience):

  • closing courses which are less financially sustainable
  • rebalancing recruitment from UK students to overseas students
  • reducing research activity where funding may not cover the full cost of research
  • pursuing strategic mergers and/or collaborations or sharing resources and centralising costs
  • changes to course delivery models – including standardisation in academic subjects, more online and distance learning
  • increases in specialisation – we may see a concentration of more providers with academic specialisms or niches, with the aim of reducing competition risks.
  • Seeking to diversify commercial income streams – from activity that is not teaching or research
  • reducing the size and complexity of estates

Susan Lapworth, OfS chief executive, said: Universities and colleges have weathered storms over recent years, and most remain in good financial health. This new analysis shows that they are confident that income and student numbers will continue to grow. However, cost pressures are having a substantial impact, with an expected reduction in financial performance across the sector in the short-term…‘For a small number of institutions the financial picture is of particular concern and we will continue to focus our attention on those cases. But all institutions will continue to face financial challenges, with a number of risks present at the same time for many.

…we continue to have concerns that some universities have become too reliant on fee income from international students, with students from one country sometimes a significant part of the financial model.

You may also be interested in this Research Professional article: A fine balance.

More coverage in: The Guardiani News, and Wonkhe.

OfS Registration Fee hike

The Government has supported (and legislated for) an 18%[1] fee hike that universities will pay the OfS to maintain their registration as a provider of HE. Many institutions will now pay £170,344 each year and the largest universities will pay £214,485. Across all providers it will generate £4.96 million for the OfS. Universities Minister wrote to the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee (who are running an inquiry into the work of the OfS) to justify the increase. His justifications stated the OfS will be undertaking significant and important new work, including:

  • The implementation of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, to ensure that freedom of speech is protected and promoted within higher education (guidance, consultation on complaints scheme, developing new registration conditions and making changes to the regulatory framework)
  • Following the de-designation of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) as the designated quality body under HERA, the OfS has taken on functions relating to the assessment of quality and standards. his fee increase will enable the OfS to fund the infrastructure costs associated with the performance of these assessment functions
  • Preparing for the implementation of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement

Halfon stated: I want to assure you that the government has not taken this decision lightly. I understand the financial pressure the sector is currently facing. As a result, my Department will be providing £1.5 million of additional funding to the OfS this year, to help cover its costs and prevent these from being passed on to the sector in full. Earlier he reminded that the OfS has not had a registration fee increase since 2018, when it was set up, and delivered a 3% reduction in 2021.

Wonkhe say:

  • For a sector facing a real terms freeze in fee income it does feel a little tone deaf to be seeking an increase substantially above the rate of inflation. 
  • To a sector struggling with soaring inflation, rising costs, and income streams that are at best stable this will be a difficult pill to swallow. 
  • There were always limitations to farming the cost of regulation to providers that receive large amounts of their funding from the public purse – it is an inefficient model and one that has never met the running costs of the OfS. Announcing this in the current financial climate pours petrol onto the already flammable state of relations between the regulator and the sector it manages.

Once it’s published we’ll scour the Lords Committee report to see what their reaction to the fee hike is.

[1] Percentage rise in fees: Wonkhe modelling shows 18%, Halfon’s letter states 0-12% per provider

Graduate outcomes

HESA have published the Graduate Outcomes data for students who graduated in 2020/21. The headline is positive on full time employment (up 4%).

Of course, as we know, the OfS metric is “highly skilled employment and further study” – we will have to wait a bit longer for that analysis.  Wonkhe have an article on why comparability of data on employment outcomes is a real issue.

International

International Students: Economic benefits

HEPI and partners published the third iteration of The benefits and costs of international higher education students to the UK economy. The research sought to quantify the economic benefits – less any costs – of international students and family members living and studying in the UK. The report demonstrates growth in the financial worth of international students.

The modelling includes tuition fee income, living expenditure, and indirect income from family and friends visiting the UK – tax revenue, longer-term investment, soft power, and cultural value are not included in the analysis.

  • 4 in 10 first year students in London are international
  • Some areas benefit more financially from international students, outside of London this includes Glasgow, Nottingham and Newcastle.
  • On average, each parliamentary constituency in the UK is £58 million better off because of international students – equivalent to approximately £560 per citizen.
  • Even when accounting for dependants and other costs, international students are a huge net contributor to the UK economy. Every 11 non-EU students generates £1 million worth of net economic impact for the UK economy.
  • The estimated total benefit to the UK economy from 2021/22 first-year international students over the duration of their studies was approximately £41.9bn, while the estimated total costs were £4.4bn. This implies a benefit-to-cost ratio of 9.4.
  • The net economic impact per student was estimated to be £125,000 per EU domiciled student, and £96,000 per non-EU student. In other words, every 9 EU students and every 11 non-EU students generate £1m worth of net economic impact for the UK economy over the duration of their studies.
  • Reflecting the 40% increase in the number of international students between 2018/19 and 2021/22, the net economic impact has increased from £28.2bn for the 2018/19 cohort to £37.4bn for the 2021/22 cohort (a 33% increase in real terms). The impact has also increased by 58% in real terms since 2015/16 (from £23.6bn in 2015/16 to £37.4bn in 2021/22).

The Russell Group published their response to the report.

HEPI also have some short commentary setting out the policy position on each of the areas of contention for international students.

Growth in international student recruitment:

  • The UK is an attractive destination for international students because of the global recognition of UK qualifications, teaching in English, and our one-year Masters courses are particularly popular.
  • Between 2010 and 2016, there was no growth in international student numbers, as Home Office policies worked to limit incoming students.
  • In 2019, the Government launched the International Education Strategy with a national target to increase the number of international students in the UK. The target was exceed well ahead of the deadline.

Post-study work visas: Post-study work rights were introduced in Scotland in 2005, adopted UK-wide in 2008, abolished in 2012, reintroduced in 2021, and the certainty of their future is…well…uncertain. HEPI write: post-study work rights affect the pipeline of talent flowing into the UK as well as the ability of employers to find and recruit the high-level and niche skills they so desperately need.

Diversifying student cohorts: institutions have been expected to widen their geographical base beyond China and East Asia…institutions have sought to broaden their intakes by recruiting more international students from other parts of the world, especially India and Nigeria. Yet the response of policymakers to this shift has not always been positive, for example because students from these regions are typically older and have a higher likelihood of bringing dependants with them.

International Students: Dependants’ visas

It was been trailed for weeks and finally we’ve had the official announcement that taught postgraduate students will not be permitted to bring their dependants into the country. This decision is part of Home Secretary, Suella Braverman’s, measures to reduce net migration. Here are all the measure in brief:

  • Removing the right for international students to bring dependants unless they are on postgraduate courses currently designated as research programmes.
  • Removing the ability for international students to switch out of the student route into work routes before their studies have been completed.
  • Reviewing the maintenance requirements for students and dependants.
  • Steps to clamp down on unscrupulous education agents who may be supporting inappropriate applications to sell immigration not education.
  • Better communicating immigration rules to the higher education sector and to international students.
  • Improved and more targeted enforcement activity.

The restrictions commence in January 2024, impacting the January starters in the 2023/24 academic year.

Braverman stated:

  • Around 136,000 visas were granted to dependants of sponsored students in the year ending December 2022, a more than eight-fold increase from 16,000 in 2019, when the Government’s commitment to lower net migration was made
  • We are committed to attracting the brightest and the best to the UK. Therefore, our intention is to work with universities over the course of the next year to design an alternative approach that ensures that the best and the brightest students can bring dependants to our world leading universities, while continuing to reduce net migration. We will bring in this system as soon as possible, after thorough consultation with the sector and key stakeholders.
  • This package strikes the right balance between acting decisively on tackling net migration and protecting the economic benefits that students can bring to the UK. Now is the time for us to make these changes to ensure an impact on net migration as soon as possible. We expect this package to have a tangible impact on net migration. Taken together with the easing of temporary factors, we expect net migration to fall to pre-pandemic levels in the medium term.
  • …The Government will seek to continue to strike the balance between reducing overall net migration with ensuring that businesses have the skills they need and we continue to support economic growth. Those affected by this package will predominantly be dependants of students who make a more limited contribution to the economy than students… 

Read more: The BBC have coverage of the announcement, Wonkhe have a blog: everything we know about the new plans, i News has an opinion piece and there’s are parliamentary questions – Overseas student visas and adequacy of support for families moving on a student visa.

Research Professional cover the latest Transparent Approach to Costing (Trac) statistics which they state reveal just how reliant higher education institutions are on fees from overseas students in Deficits grow for research and teaching home students. Wonkhe cover the same topic with a different take: David Kernohan is depressed by how little we know about how much it costs universities to provide higher education.  Also, an interesting exchange on the topic during Urgent Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Do give it a read if you’re interested in this area.

More broadly on international student benefits is this Wonkhe blog: International and transnational education bring cultural, economic, and reputational benefits to the UK. University of London vice chancellor Wendy Thomson asks why the government isn’t over the moon.

Finally, the Government has now published the latest migration figures for the year ending March 2023. Total long-term immigration to the UK was around 1.2 million in 2022, and emigration was 557,000, so net migration settled at 606,000 (source). There is quite a lot of information of interest relating to students spread across multiple sources so we’ve popped it into this separate document. It covers the facts on study visas, extensions of temporary stay, and the migrant journey (who arrives, how long they stay, and when they leave). Enjoy!

International: Confucius Institutes

If you followed Rishi’s leadership campaign with an avid eye you’ll have spotted he committed to closing the 30 Chinese state-sponsored Confucius Institutes across the UK. However, the Government have U-turned stating it would be “disproportionate” to ban the institutes. Some Conservative Members have been outspoken in their disapproval of the U turn.

Dods report that Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns hit out in response to the news arguing that powers established recently under the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 “must be deployed if evidence of free speech stifled by CCP indoctrinators on our campuses.”

The BBC have a write up, including this from the Government:

  • We recognise concerns about overseas interference in our higher education sector, including through Confucius Institutes, and regularly assess the risks facing academia.
  • We are taking action to remove any government funding from Confucius Institutes in the UK, but currently judge that it would be disproportionate to ban them.
  • Like any international body operating in the UK, Confucius Institutes need to operate transparently and within the law, and with a full commitment to our values of openness and freedom of expression.

As we mentioned earlier, this week the OfS wrote to 30 UK HE providers regarding their high recruitment levels of Chinese students. The letter advised contingency planning should a drop in income occur suddenly. Also, the OfS published their annual financial sustainability report (we’ve explored it here.)

Research

Health Security: The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) published a 10-year strategy detailing how science can save more lives and contribute to the UK’s ambition to be a global science superpower. It highlights how UKHSA’s scientific capabilities (including genomics, vaccine evaluation, surveillance, data science, diagnostics and toxicology) will be deployed to prepare for future health security hazards, respond to current threats, protect livelihoods and build the UK’s health security capacity. More here. UKHSA have stated they are actively seeking partners across government, industry and academia in pursuit of the ambitions in this Strategy. 

Concordats: The second phase of the (UUK, UKRI & Wellcome Trust) Concordats and Agreements Review has reported, much shorter info here.

Net zero: The National Audit Office published Support for innovation to deliver net zero. The report addresses the approach in the £4.2 billion investment in research and innovation to deliver net zero. It argues that further action is needed to strengthen governance and delivery mechanisms to achieve value for money.

UKRI: UKRI launched a stakeholder perceptions survey which they state will act as a benchmark for the funding body to understand how their stakeholders perceive UKRI and its role within the system. The survey is here.

Research infrastructure: DSIT and UKRI announced details of the £103 million investment to expand and upgrade the UK’s research infrastructure. It’s not all new money, the funding divides as:

  • £79.3m as part of the £150m announcement, to address the impacts of the ongoing delay in UK association to the EU’s Horizon Europe programme
  • £23.7m as part of the £370m announcement to forge a better Britain through investment in science and technology

The 13 universities who will receive the equipment/lab investment have already been chosen. More on the funding here.

Windsor Framework: Responsibility for the delivery of the Windsor Framework will be transferred from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to sit alongside the existing Northern Ireland Unit in the Cabinet Office. The Foreign Secretary remains responsible for UK/EU relations and will continue as co-chair of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement Partnership Council and Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee – the body that oversees the UK and EU implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Parliamentary question on research infrastructure: increasing public expenditure on R&D to £20 billion per annum by 2024/2025. The total allocation for UK Research and Innovation over the period 2022-2025 is £25.1 billion. This includes £3 billion of investment in infrastructure projects, including £481 million for the new UKRI Infrastructure Fund. This will finance cutting-edge research infrastructure, delivering a step-change in the capabilities available to the next generation of researchers and innovators whilst supporting scientific breakthroughs.

Statutory duty of care for HE students

The House of Commons Petitions Committee held three sessions on the proposed statutory duty of care for HE students. Witnesses included Lee Fryatt, the petition creator, people with lived experience, representatives from Student Minds, NUS, PAPYRUS, AMOSSHE and UUK among others.

The Committee sessions explored whether universities should have a statutory duty of care to protect students at risk of suicide or other serious mental health problems. The sessions included advocacy for the duty of care; the reason for student suicide and views on the proposed statutory duty of care; and questioned sector representatives on their views plus the efficacy and future trajectory of existing suicide prevention and mental health frameworks. We have a summary of all three sessions here.

In advance of the session the House of Commons Library provided a briefing on student mental health.

Also on mental health from Wonkhe: The proportion of higher education providers with a mental health or wellbeing strategy increased from 52 per cent in 2019 to 66 per cent in 2022, according to a report from IFF Research for the Department for Education. 66 per cent of higher education institutions had a policy on student suicide prevention, alongside 54 per cent of FE colleges and just 42 per cent of private providers. On the site today I consider the report in light of calls for a statutory duty of care.

Student loan cap – 7.1%

Following the market rate fluctuation the Government has announced the student loan interest rate cap will now be 7.1% for all plan 2 (undergraduate) and plan 3 (postgraduate) loans, and plan 5 (undergraduate) loans. This applies until 31 August 2023 (or until future market changes prompt an announcement on a new cap level). You can see how 7.1% compares to previous in the written ministerial statement. The student loan interest rates from September 2023 will be announced closer to the time.

Access & Participation

TASO published the summary report Evaluating multi-intervention outreach and mentoring programmes with the aim of advancing the evidence base and improving practice across the sector. Recommendations:

  • Universities should adopt TASO’s Mapping Outcomes and Activities Tool (MOAT),
  • Multi-intervention outreach incorporates multiple elements. To rigorously evaluate the impact of these programmes, HEPs should identify the value of each element by using TASO’s Enhanced Theory of Change tool to map how it is anticipated that individual activities will influence outcomes.
  • Also multi-intervention outreach programmes may be reaching students who are already highly likely to enter HE and highly selective universities. They further suggest that the true value of the programmes may lie in informing student choice about where and what to study, rather than whether to attend. Better pre-entry preparation may also result in higher rates of continuation and success once on the course. HEPs should scrutinise the rationale and assumptions behind their programmes to ensure that evaluation outcomes are well-matched to the activities they run
  • Use behavioural and survey outcomes to mitigate for low response rates/small samples
  • To improve response rates, HEPs should offer appropriate compensation to thank students for their time, such as entry into a prize draw or a small value voucher
  • HEIs should use local evaluations as a blueprint to explore randomised controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs as part of their evaluation approach for multi-intervention outreach

And there’s another report: Understanding online mentoring delivered as part of multi-intervention outreach programmes

Wonkhe summarise both reports: Three randomised controlled trials at universities in England found that the programmes did not have an effect on student enrolment into higher education, though a final evaluation is still forthcoming. A separate study of online mentoring as part of outreach found that engagement with such programmes should not only be measured by the number of messages participants send – number of days engaged was a more robust measure.

Increasing access to HE

The OfS has published two reports on increasing access to HE covering collaborative partnerships and an evaluation of Uni Connect phase 3. You can read a summary of both here.

Labour’s Policy Programme

After the clearest indication yet from Keir Starmer a few weeks ago that the Labour policy  on abolishing fees was going to be dropped, when he announced a “review” with the aim of finding an arrangement that would be fairer, the party have now made an interim announcement that they would reverse the latest changes, which will apply to students who start university in September – the bigger review of policy is still ongoing.

The Guardian piece  quotes from a Times story that is behind a paywall:

  • Labour has promised to reverse changes to the student loan system being plannedby the Conservative government in a way that could reduce monthly repayments for graduates.
  • Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said on Friday the tuition fees system was “broken”, but repeated the insistence by her party leader, Keir Starmer, that Labourwould not be able to afford to scrap fees altogether.
  • Starmer’s decision to drop the promise to end feessparked anger among students and on the Labour left. But Phillipson’s comments in the Times give the first sense of how the party may seek to win those voters back. Phillipson said: “The Conservative tuition fees system has long been broken, and their latest set of reforms will make it worse.”
  • She added: “Plenty of 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 – Labour will not be increasing government spending on this.”
  • Under the plans announced by the Treasury last year, graduates will have to start repaying their loans when they earn £25,000, rather than £27,295, and will have to continue repaying for a maximum of 40 years rather than 30. Interest rates will be cut for new borrowers and tuition fees capped at £9,250 for another two years.
  • The measures are predicted to double the number of graduates who pay off their loans in full, and save the government tens of billions of pounds. But lower earners will have to pay significantly more, thanks to the reduction in the lower repayment threshold.

Labour published their draft policy programme. It’s best thought of as a pre-manifesto but two steps removed. Within it, of interest to HE, is:

Give genuine choice of further and higher education

  • Ensure all learners have a genuine choice of first class further and higher education
  • Encourage a thriving college and independent training sector that can provide high quality vocational courses, including apprenticeships, fosters a love of learning, links students with exciting job opportunities through excellent careers advice, and works with businesses to meet local skills needs.
  • Reform broken tuition fees system for university funding, ensuring that people from every background and all parts of our country have the opportunity to study at Britain’s world-class universities

Work with businesses, workers, and universities to grow the high-tech, competitive industries of the future:

  • Ensure our world-class researchers and businesses have the data and computing infrastructure they need to compete internationally
  • Ensure our intellectual property system is fit for the digital age
  • Look at ways to close the digital divide. Improve digital education in schools and upskill the workforce

Introduce an industrial strategy and support firms

  • Introduce an industrial strategy based on a genuine partnership with businesses, workers, unions and universities, with four central goals: delivering clean power by 2030, caring for the future, harnessing data for the public good and building a resilient economy
  • Aim for at least 3% of GDP across the public and private sectors to be invested in research and development
  • Ensure the funding system can act with the agility, speed and predictability required to win the race for the industries of the future

Deliver landmark shift in skills provision

  • Deliver a landmark shift in skills provision and give people the tools they need in the workplaces of the future
  • Devolve adult education and skills budgets; reform the apprenticeships levy into a ‘growth and skills levy’ across all nations
  • Establish a new expert body – Skills England – to oversee the English national skills effort of the coming decade, which will pull together the expertise of trade associations, employers from large and small companies, representatives of trade unions, central and local government and further and higher education

Tackle NHS staffing issues

  • Double the number of medical school places to 15,000 a year
  • Train 10,000 new nurses and midwives each year
  • Double the number of district nurses qualifying every year
  • Train 5,000 new health visitors a year

Also Labour favours economic devolution, voting for 16 and 17 year olds, and abolishing the House of Lords.

There’s also a relevant Wonkhe blog:  A Labour government may not mean the sector relationship reset that many are hoping for. Public First associate director Jess Lister cautions against raising expectations.

Inquiries and Consultations

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

Other news

Campus fatigue: The QAA published Student experience and expectations of teaching and learning relating to post-pandemic students and trends. Wonkhe have a neat synopsis on part of the report: The pandemic appears to have created a “fatigue” amongst students to proactively engage with enrichment activities traditionally linked to campus life, student halls or SUs. It has also caused many students to feel isolated and to miss out on developing peer group friendships and relationships with academics, triggering an increased demand for mental health and well-being support… half of survey respondents found it not at all or only slightly important to spend time at university outside of timetabled hours – students most commonly were on campus two or three times a week, with 15.1 per cent having a commute of between one and two hours, and 4.4 per cent more than two hours.

Student rentals: Wonkhe – A renter’s reform bill has been published – and given the good news for tenants, some fear landlords will sell up. Jim Dickinson weighs up their case.

Apprenticeships: Wonkhe – The total number of apprenticeship starts has fallen significantly since the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, according to new analysis published by think tank Policy Exchange. Since 2015, the number of apprenticeship starts for 16-18 year-olds has fallen by 41 per cent, for 19-24 year-olds by 31 per cent, and 26 per cent for those over 25 years old. The sharpest falls recorded were for those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds… The authors do not believe that the sharp decline in starts is due to a lack of demand… Instead they point to a lack of supply, and a lack of transparency and poor understanding of the levy’s purposes – leading to a significant amount of the Levy returning to the Treasury rather than being spent on apprenticeships. They argue that for businesses to make better use of the levy system, there needs to be more flexibility, shorter courses, and less bureaucracy.

Working conditions: HEPI published a new report benchmarking the pay and benefits of academics and exploring whether academics have better or worse working conditions than other professionals.

Free Speech: Research Professional – News is out on the “chilling effect” of university failures to support free speech on campus. The Office for Students released yesterday its update on institutions’ compliance with the Prevent duty to monitor potential radicalisation on campus. And this includes figures on the number of speakers and events cancelled over the past year. See this Research Professional article: Fewer than 1% of English university speakers ‘cancelled’.

The latest OfS data show that during 2021-22, some 31,545 speakers or events were approved in English universities and colleges, and 260 planned events did not go ahead—just under one per cent of the total. Another 475 went ahead with some mitigation.

Most [of the events that did not go ahead] were rejected for procedural reasons, such as failing to submit a request on time. David Smy, director of monitoring and intervention at the OfS, said: “While this data suggests that the overwhelming majority of events with external speakers went ahead as planned—which is welcome—the data may not provide the full picture. The data does not capture decisions not to invite speakers in the first place or voluntary withdrawal of requests for approval. We recognise that this could be masking cases where event organisers or speakers feel unable to proceed with the event they had planned.” Surely the OfS is not about to make use of new advances in artificial intelligence that make mind-reading a possibility?

Transnational education: OfS published an insight brief on Transnational Education. In 2021-22, 146 English universities and colleges taught 455,000 students outside the UK. 69% were undergraduates, 31% were postgraduates.

  • 27% were taught by overseas partner organisations
  • 25% were taught by distance, flexible or distributed learning
  • 6% studied at English universities’ overseas branch campuses
  • 42% were covered by other arrangements, including collaborative provision.

52% lived in Asia – 61,505 (14% overall) were based in China. Malaysia (9%) and Sri Lanka (8%) had the second highest proportion of students.

Lots more interesting content in the full insight brief.

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JANE FORSTER                                            |                       SARAH CARTER

VC’s Policy Advisor                                                              Policy & Public Affairs Officer

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HE policy update w/e 12th May 2023

There is a renewed focus on funding for the sector amidst talk about elections.  Student visas are back on the agenda and UKRI have been reviewing arrangements to support knowledge exchange.

Elections

Local elections were held in England on 4 May.  Dorset Council did not have an election.  Locally, BCP issued an update:

“The Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council local elections have resulted in no overall control, with the largest number of seats held by the Liberal Democrat party. Liberal Democrats won 28 seats, the next largest party was Conservatives with 12 [down from 34], followed by Labour, Christchurch Independents, the Green Party, Poole People, Poole Engage and five Independent candidates….The new leader of BCP Council will be elected at a meeting on the 23 May, and a new Cabinet formed.” 

With the general election looming before January 2025 the local results were being watched very closely to predict outcomes, but of course as always it is very hard to tell and there is time for lots to change before then.

Impact of requiring voter ID

This was also the first election where photo ID was required and pre-election concerns centred on voters being turned away at the polls, particularly the young, old and marginalised groups. There will likely be discussion of the impact of voter ID (and its potential to bias the election outcome through the groups that will find providing ID easier) over the next week. The impact of the photo ID requirement is being formally reviewed, initial findings are due in June and the report is scheduled for September.

However, early indications come from the Guardian who say: Anecdotal evidence of issues, but no clear picture of impact yet…Peter Stanyon, the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said there had been “no reported incidents of any major concern” as the UK rolled out new voter ID requirements for the first time. And Peter Walker and Jessica Murray report that fears of widespread chaos did not materialise. But by the end of the day, there were anecdotal reports of a number of people, many from marginalised groups, being unable to cast their ballots. The Electoral Reform Society said there were “countless examples”. ITV News reported that polling station tellers in Oxfordshire estimated that 10-25% of would-be voters had been turned away. The Electoral Commission said that the election was “well run” overall but “some people were regrettably unable to vote”.

The Financial Times reported last night (£) that ministers plan to widen the forms of photo identification that will be valid in future if turnout is shown to have fallen – a U-turn in government policy.

The Telegraph has a more positive spin on the success of the photo ID requirement.

Student Voting

Earlier this week HEPI published political polling of current full time UK undergraduates on voting intention.

  • 85% expect to vote at the next general election
  • 89% are registered to vote, and 64% who are registered to vote say they are registered only at their home address (so less influence of the young vote in election towns than has previously been claimed).
  • 78% understood they will needed photo ID to vote (and 61% think this is a good idea)
  • 46% of students would vote Labour if there were a general election ‘soon’, 11% would vote Green and 7% would vote Conservative

On student fees and funding (see also below), the polling shows student opinion:

  • Tuition fees:
    • 28% of students domiciled in England want Labour to commit to abolishing tuition fees in England,
    • 23% want Labour to reduce fees to £6,000,
    • 20% want Labour to back the current system of fees capped at £9,250,
    • 15% want Labour to cut fees to £3,000,
    • 4% want Labour to introduce a graduate tax, and
    • 3% want Labour to let the current fees rise with inflation
  • Living costs:
    • 52% of students think living costs should be covered by targeted grants and top-up loans, while
    • 25% want a mix of grants, loans and parental contributions
  • Maintenance support:
    • 46% of students think maintenance support should be between £10,000 and £12,500 each year
    • 19% think it should amount to under £10,000 and
    • 18% think it should be between £12,501 and £15,000
  • Student opinion priorities: 77% of students say the NHS is a high priority for them, 58% rate education as high priority, 46% reducing poverty, but few students give priority to defence (6%), migration (5%) or international development (2%)

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

  • Our poll suggests it is wrong to think of students as apathetic or disengaged from party politics. Most students plan to vote and they care about the same issues as other voters, most notably the NHS.
  • The results won’t make happy reading for the Conservative Party, who now have minimal support among undergraduates. While they will make happier reading for Labour, it is clear there is no single student funding model that would be overwhelmingly popular with students. This will make the Opposition’s job harder as they firm up their policies in the run up to the next election.

International Student visa restrictions

The press report the Government are considering visa restrictions to prevent postgraduate students’ dependants from accompanying them. Financial Times:

  • The surge in legal net migration is boosting the size of Britain’s workforce but the issue is politically problematic for the prime minister….
  • Students have been one of the main drivers of the the…surge in migration…with 135,788 visas granted to dependants in 2022, up from 16,047 in 2019.
  • The Department for Education, the Home Office, and the Treasure are finalising a plan that would stop dependents from travelling with master’s students on one-year courses…
  • The Treasury, which normally favours higher migration, has accepted the political need to restrict the number of dependants of overseas students, while Gillian Keegan, education secretary, has also agreed to the plan.
  • But government insiders said Keegan was insisting that master’s students should be able to bring family members to the UK if they stay to work in the country after completing their studies.

UUKi’s response: we recognise that the growth in the number of dependents may have exceeded planning assumptions and that this has created some concerns for government, and indeed challenges in some areas of the UK – for example, around access to suitable family accommodation. We are committed to working with Government to understand these issues and to find solutions that ensure the UK continues to welcome international students and that we are able to grow numbers in a sustainable way that protects both the quality of the student experience and the UK’s global competitiveness.

Wonkhe coverage: Dependants of international PGTs won’t be able to get a visa

Fees & Funding

Closely tied to electoral outcome is the wicked problem of HE fees and funding. Here’s a round up of the latest news on the different elements surrounding fees and funding.

We start with a couple of interesting Wonkhe blogs:

Labour’s HE Fee Policy

In last week’s policy update we reported that Labour were reviewing their policy for HE tuition fees giving a clear indication in an interview on BBC Radio 4 that the previous policy of abolishing fees will not survive because of costs concern. This week the media is widely reporting on Labour’s ‘U turn’ on tuition fees i.e. that fees will not be abolished and paid for by the public purse. From the coverage we’ve seen this hasn’t been formally announced but Keir Starmer continues to caveat his interview responses to nudge in this direction, perhaps a soft announcement then. Here is the latest coverage:

  • Research Professional: Channel 4 News looks at what Labour leader Keir Starmer has said about the party’s tuition fees plan.
  • Wonkhe – The Independent, theBBCChannel 4, the MirrorITV, and the Sun all have pieces examining the Labour Party’s – and others parties’ – stance on tuition fees.
  • Research Professional: In The Guardian, Labour is to begin consulting on new ways to fund university education,
  • Wonkhe – Labour leader Keir Starmer yesterday told the BBC’s Today programme that Labour is “likely to move on” from its commitment to free university tuition. The Times had earlier reportedcomments from a senior party source that Starmer will later this month deliver a speech on the party’s move away from its 2019 manifesto commitment. The BBCthe Independentthe Telegraphthe Guardianthe Mirror and the National all cover the remarks. There’s also a sketch in the Guardian.
  • NEON – Labour leader Keir Starmer announced yesterday that the party is abandoning its commitment to abolish university tuition fees in England. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme he said “We are likely to move on from that commitment because we do find ourselves in a different financial situation”. He was critical of the current system describing it as “unfair” and arguing that it doesn’t work for either students or universities. He promised that Labour would set out a “fairer solution” in the coming weeks. The move has drawn criticism from both Labour Students and Momentum.
  • Wonkhe blog on the topic: Jim Dickinson runs the numbers.

Wonkhe also reported this morning that Polling company Public First and think tank Progressive Britain have…announced a major national poll and extensive focus group work to test public attitudes to university funding reform. The research will be published prior to party conference season in October, and Public First expects its findings “to play a significant role in the ongoing debate about the future of tuition fees, university funding, and student finance.”

Also from Wonkhe, earlier this week: London Economics has published further modelling on options for the English fees and funding system, building on work conducted in December for the University of the Arts London. The models include an estimate of the impact of Plan 5 reforms – updated due to forthcoming ONS changes in inflation measurements, which significantly reduce the cost to the Exchequer – and two alternative “stepped repayment” models, with repayment rates varying depending on income level.

Landmark divergence in Welsh HE policy

Wales has announced they will retain their current student finance repayment system (despite changes to the English system). This is a break in tradition as historically the Welsh repayment system mirrors England. However, Jeremy Miles, Welsh Minister for Education, is concerned that the new English system would mean Welsh students would repay loans over a longer period of time (England 40 year repayment; Wales 30 years) with higher earners paying less and middle- and lower-income earners paying back more than at present. The Welsh system is more progressive than the English system -Welsh undergraduate students generally repay less as Wales has some non-repayable grants and there is a guaranteed level of maintenance support irrespective of a student’s household income.
The Welsh system will be reviewed annually to ensure sustainability.

Jeremy Miles said: “…the new system in England is not a good deal. The reforms benefit the highest earners and worsen the position for middle and lower earning graduates. Women are also disproportionately affected. We certainly shouldn’t be asking teachers, nurses and social workers to pay more, while the highest earners pay less. I can therefore announce today that we will not move to the system adopted in England but will retain the current system.”

The BBC cover the announcement.

How should universities be funded?

YouGov polling reveals the public do not have a clear consensus on how universities should be funded.

It’s worth looking at the interactive chart on the YouGov site to drill down into the results by different groups (e.g. political affiliation, age, social grade, region, gender).

Parliamentary News

HE (Freedom of Speech) Act

It’s been nearly two years since its first reading and now – three Prime Ministers and six education secretaries later the Government have finally got the legislation over the line and in the form they wanted. The Government played hard ball during the final stage parliamentary ping pong over the contentious tort in the HE (Freedom of Speech) legislation. The Lords weren’t happy, however, their hands were tied by the parliamentary convention that they do not block legislation that the elected Government included within their manifesto.

Wonkhe report on the disgruntlement: Peers agreed to the government’s latest version of the statutory tort, which included language clarifying the availability of redress for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages, and the possibility of seeking an injunction, without a vote. However, the changes were not universally popular – in particular, Lord Grabiner described the government plans as “blowing away” the previous compromise that saw the tort reserved only for when other avenues had been exhausted, and Lord Willetts raised the spectre of interventions such as this bringing higher education into the public sector.

Cambridge’s Professor Arif Ahmed has been appointed as the OfS Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom. The role will have the power to investigate universities and student unions in England and Wales that ‘wrongly’ restrict debate. The director will also advise the sector regulator on imposing fines for free speech breaches.

Lifelong Learning

The Lifelong Learning (HE Fee Limits) Bill has completed its initial journey through the House of Commons and is awaiting a date for the second reading of the Bill in the House of Lords. The Second Reading stage is the first opportunity for members of the Lords to debate the key principles and main purpose of the Bill and they will flag up concerns or highlight areas where they believe amendments need to be made. After the Second Reading the Bill will progress to Committee Stage. This is when it is examined in detail, line by line, with discussion and close scrutiny. MPs did not make any amendments to the Bill and it proceeds to the Lords in its original form.

HEPI published Does the Lifelong Loan Entitlement Meet its own Objectives? Spoiler alert: not for part time and distance students – inhibiting it’s transformative effect. Questions still to be answered include:

  • How will the credit-transfer mechanism work?
  • What will be the rules for students building their own degree?
  • How will a wide range of providers be incentivised to provide flexible learning?
  • How will the needs of employers be met?

Regulatory – OfS

The Lords Industry and Regulators inquiry into the work of the Office for Students heated up this week when Susan Lapworth (Chief Executive) and Lord Wharton of Yarm (Chair) were called to give evidence. You can read a summary of the session here.

Wonkhe report:  In a revealing hearing, we learned that the student panel is being reformed, that quarterly online meetings for vice chancellors are one part of the regulator’s strategy to improve communications, that 30 providers are currently subject to enhanced financial monitoring, and that two thirds of the quality assurance reports submitted by the QAA were not deemed usable for regulation when first submitted.

Wonkhe also have a short blog: Lapworth and Wharton face the committee – But don’t expect answers to everything that previous witnesses have brought up

Concerns over Wharton’s impartiality as a member of the Conservative party were raised. When suggested that senior figures often resign their political affiliations when they take up office Wharton replied Some do…I chose not to. It’s not a requirement.

HE Minister, Robert Halfon, is expected to be questioned next in this high profile inquiry before the proceedings wrap up and the Committee publishes its report.

Research

Research England (RE) published their Review of knowledge exchange funding.

The main themes within the review are data and metrics:

  • a key issue to unlock the potential for long-term and more fundamental changes to our methods, including the use of KEF as a basis for allocating HEIF, is the availability of better data, metrics and evidence.
  • our current metrics set does not capture the full achievements, nor help describe the ambitions, of HE KE. Better evidence is also a theme in DSIT’s priorities, particularly related to better evidence on HE performance in commercialisation and business collaboration.
  • Better metrics are then critical to make more significant changes to our methods in the long run. The issue of better metrics is a theme running through the feedback received and also a central issue in our decisions.
  • A major decision of the review then relates to our commitment to a significant work programme to improve metrics and evidenceThis is with the intention to have the tools available to make more fundamental changes to our approaches in the longer run.

The bulk of knowledge exchange (KE) related funded (KEF and HEIF) is based on the Higher Education: Business and Community Interactions (HE-BCI) survey. HESA are reviewing the HE-BCI and this report informs that UKRI will piggy back to build upon and widen the review for KE purposes.

…it is essential to add new classes of data, beyond improving the quality of guidance and definitions of existing data fields as is currently being done through the review …we and HESA are agreed that more effort is needed, particularly in the longer-term design of new data collection.

UKRI intend to develop a national capability to be a centre for knowledge exchange and impact evidence, metrics and data.

UKRI will:

  • Over 2 years develop UKRI as a national capability centre for university knowledge exchange, impact evidence and metrics, partnering with HESA.
  • Present a blueprint (for the national capability) in Spring 2023 at a major metrics conference and establish the blueprint by Spring 2025.
  • Our long-term aim following successful culmination of our work on the national capability and centre is to have available the appropriate data to make more fundamental changes to our approaches. Specifically, we aim to bring forward proposals for consultation on the development of KEF for use in funding. As this is necessarily a long-term endeavour, we would not expect to bring forward such proposals before 2025/26 at the very earliest. We note that any subsequent implementation and a phased roll out of an evolved funding method may take several further years.

KEF: Review feedback sees the KEF as having a positive impact on raising the profile of knowledge exchange (KE) and incentivising strategic approaches within HEIs and across the sector, with overall beneficial effects of improving HE KE performance. RE state there is broad agreement that the KEF has been useful within HEPs as a novel tool for benchmarking performance, making useful comparisons, giving greater accountability, and as a prompt to starting discussions on future areas of strategic focus.

However, KEF is not well understood beyond the KE sector and particularly by external users.

KEF will continue in a consistent and stable form in the short term because UKRI see worth in how the KEF provides HEIs with data to understand, benchmark and improve their own performance until at least KEF5 in 2025. RE will drop the KEF aim/purpose to meet the information needs of external (non-HE) partners but will continue to use it for public information purposes. In the long-term RE will bring forward proposals for consultation on development of KEF for use in funding.

HEIF: The review suggested that there is a good degree of confidence in [the] current HEIF approach, including balancing government priorities with HEI funding flexibility (getting the best out of the sector to meet the priorities).

Research England (RE) note points raised:

  • Our definitions and scope of HEIF were generally regarded as appropriate. There were a range of views on whether additional activities should be included, but generally it was felt that RE was not getting it wrong. The drivers from research and teaching were flagged and there were discussions as to whether our approaches fully address both.
  • There were a range of views put forward on how to measure success, including qualitative approaches. Our substantial work programme on metrics and evidence addresses the need to provide the more sophisticated tools needed to achieve all our objectives.

There are no major changes planned (now) – formula funding and accountability will remain.

However, RE will consider how to manage:

  • Problems for HEIs caused by year-on-year fluctuations in HEIF allocations – limiting long-term strategic decisions.
    • RE note they cannot commit funding past a government spending review period but could fix allocations for the full spending review period rather than recalculate each year.
    • There would be winners and losers to this approach and they note reverting to a less dynamic approach could also depress prompt rewards for improvement (including HEPs below the allocation threshold for the entire SR period).
    • The impending general election also pushes any change to the allocation methodology into the medium/long term. However, RE state they will look into this for the future.
  • Within the work on improving metrics Research England will look into activities that still generate impact but are not qualifying income-generating.
  • We recognise a potential opportunity to be more ambitious to identify and reward all forms of KE achievements in the longer run.
  • They will also look at the £250k allocation threshold (tricky as the threshold is a government policy priority handed down to RE), implementation from 2024-25 at earliest.

KE Concordat: The approach to the Concordat is to remain relatively stable.

Feedback showed strong agreement that the KE Concordat processes of self-evaluation and consideration of principles had been a useful exercise for HEPs, raising the profile of KE within their institution and encouraging engagement from across the institution

RE will look into suggestions for process improvement (more on page 11)

Forthcoming actions

  • Summer 2023 – publish KEF3, allocate 2023-24 formula funding, consult on eligibility
  • Later 2023 – publish HEIF threshold work
  • Spring 2024 – Host major metrics conference and launch national capability blueprint
  • Summer 2024 – publish KEF 4, allocate 2024-25 formula funding, publish work on dynamism/predictability of HEIF allocations with implementation in 2025/26 if spending review allows. (Note – potential disruption due to general election.)
  • Spring 2025 – the national capability and centre for university KE and impact evidence and metrics will be operational
  • Summer 2025 – allocate 2025-26 HEIF funding (in whatever form it takes), publish KEF 5.

Useful links:

Research integrity

The Science, Innovation and Tech Committee published a report on Reproducibility and Research Integrity. The background to this report are the increasing concerns that the integrity of some scientific research is questionable because of failures to be able to reproduce the claimed findings of some experiments or analyses of data and therefore confirm that the original researcher’s conclusions were justified.

This report finds and recommends:

  • while there are many reports of problems of non-reproducibility, there has been no comprehensive and rigorous assessment of the scale of the problem in the UK, nor which disciplines are most affected and therefore the extent to which this is indeed a ‘crisis’.
  • While we welcome the establishment of the new Committee on Research Integrity and note that one of its so-called strategic pillars is to “define the evidence base”, we are concerned about the absence of reproducibility as a priority in the new organisation’s strategy. We recommend that a sub-committee focussed solely on questions of reproducibility in research should be established.
  • Evidence to our inquiry raised important concerns about the academic publishing industry in—however unintentionally—giving rise to pressures that can undermine research integrity. To be successful, academics need to establish a strong list of publications in highly-rated learned journals. We heard a widespread view that journals favoured for publication original—rather than repeated—research and work which had striking or new outcomes. This meant that the value of conducting repeated or confirmatory studies was much reduced, and that there were strong incentives to obtain striking research findings. We call upon publishers to commit to publishing without prejudice confirmatory studies and those whose findings turn out not to be novel or striking.
  • the short-term tenure of early career academic contracts and research grants provide insufficient time for researchers to ensure that their work is reproducible by others. We call upon funders, including UK Research and Innovation, to consider whether its grants provide the resources necessary to ensure that work that it funds is reproducible, and we recommend that it requires reproducibility as a condition of grants awarded.
  • Training researchers in research integrity and the need to ensure reproducibility is inconsistent and often absent. We recommend mandating the provision of such training at undergraduate, postgraduate and early career researcher stages.
  • We welcome UKRI’s policy of requiring open access to research that it funds, but we recommend that this should go further in requiring the recipients of research grants to share data and code alongside the publications arising from the funded research.
  • We believe that a wider set of measures of academic success than lists of publications should be encouraged. The Future Research Assessment Programme, being carried out by UKRI, should address this and funders should also consider wider use of the ‘resume for researchers’ format in funding calls.

Further information links:

Research – quick news

  • AI: MPs Warn Against “Sleepwalking” Into AI Danger Without Rapid Regulation– PoliticsHome
  • Business collaboration: The National Centre for Universities and Business published Artificial Intelligence: the present and future of technology to showcase 8 university-business collaborations to address human challenges through AI partnerships
  • Parliamentary Question: Whether the Government is taking steps to help ensure that cities and towns which do not have a research-intensive university (a) benefit economically from innovation and (b) create innovation-driven jobs. Answer: to support places across the UK to fulfil their potential for innovation, the Government has pledged to increase domestic public investment in R&D outside the Greater South East by at least 40% by 2030, and by at least a third over the spending review period. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) invests across the UK with £25.1 billion allocated for 2022-2025. Innovate UK’s Launchpad programme is an innovation cluster development programme with up to £7.5 million funding available for each Launchpad for business-led innovation projects, such as the pilot in Tees Valley. Additionally, UKRI’s Strength in Places Fund provides opportunities for innovation across the UK.
  • Doctoral stipend: UKRI announced the minimum doctoral stipend for UKRI funded students will rise to £18,622 for 2023/24. The minimum fee that universities can draw from UKRI training grants will also increase, to £4,712. Research Professional coverage: Sophie Inge reports that campaigners have welcomed plans to increase the minimum stipend for doctoral studentsfunded by UK Research and Innovation to £18,622. And Wonkhe has a blog: UKRI’s work on the PGR new deal.
  • Postgraduate childcare: Wonkhe report – The N8 Research Partnership of eight universities in the north of England has writtento the government raising concerns over the ineligibility of postgraduate researchers for government-backed childcare subsidies. This follows a similar call from GW4 Alliance at the beginning of April.
  • Health & Wellbeing: Wonkhe report that Wellcome has announced£73m in funding for eight “discovery research platforms” aimed at addressing barriers holding up progress in areas related to health and wellbeing – seven of the platforms will be at universities in England and one at the University of Cape Town.

Students: Parliamentary Questions

  • Timely assessment referral and diagnosis of ADHD
  • Q: Whether the Government will implement the recommendations made in the APPG for Students report on the impact of the cost of living crisis on students. Answer (excerpt): Together with the HE sector, the department is doing all that it can to support students facing hardship. However, decisions on student finance have to be taken alongside other spending priorities to ensure the system remains financially sustainable and the costs of HE are shared fairly between students and taxpayers, not all of whom have benefited from going to university.

Other news

The University of Exeter and UPP Foundation have published a new guide on university-led tutoring, encouraging other universities to take up the practice, including practical lessons around quality and scale.

The petition for HEIs to hold a statutory duty of care for students will be heard in an evidence session (held by the Petitions Committee) on 16 May. There will also be a debate in the House on 5 June.

Parliamentary Question – the cost of training doctors and nurses.

QAA published advice for providers on how to manage the rapidly increasing use of Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) in HE settings. HEPI also have a new blog on the topic: How are HE leaders responding to generative AI?

Publishing: Wonkhe blog – As a new sector agreement with Springer Nature is reached, Libby Homer reminds us that we all have a duty to seek value for money in research publishing.

EO: Wonkhe – The Office for Students has published an independent analysis of the responses received to its consultation on regulating equality of opportunity. The analysis, conducted by Pye Tait Consulting, saw respondents generally welcome the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register (EORR) but seek more clarity on how it would work. Small and specialist providers also stressed data limitations and the need to avoid resource burden.

Turing: Wonkhe – The House of Lords European Affairs Committee has called for an increase in engagement between the UK and EU. In a wide-ranging report, it recommends that the government consider adding a reciprocal student exchange programme to the Turing scheme, pointing at Wales’ Taith programme as a good model – the committee does, however, praise the Turing scheme’s flexibility and emphasis on widening participation. The report also highlights the administrative barriers faced by EU students wishing to study in UK universities.

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BU PhD student receives OpenBright grant

I am thrilled to announce that I have been awarded a grant from OpenBright to take part in a short summer course on “Data Science: Network Science” at Utrecht University, located in the Netherlands. OpenBright award grants to support women in computing to develop their research projects.
As a PhD student, I am currently working on a research project titled “Smart Transportation Networks for Smart Cities,” under the supervision of Dr. Wei Koong Chai. The research is match-funded by Bournemouth Christchurch Poole (BCP) Council.   Through the course, I am excited to further enhance my knowledge and skills in network science, which is crucial to my research work.
I am thankful for the support and recognition from OpenBright, which provides me with the opportunity to learn from some of the most renowned researchers and scholars in this field. This grant not only benefits me but also fosters the advancement of women in computing, promoting gender equity and diversity in science.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my supervisor Dr. Wei Koong Chai, for his invaluable guidance and support throughout my PhD journey.
Author: Assemgul Kozhabek, 3rd year PhD student, SciTech, Computing and Informatics department