Tagged / maintenance loans

HE policy update for the w/e 8th October 2021

Parliament was still in recess whilst the Conservative Party Conference takes place. We have the news from the Conference, some movement on Essay Mills and several new reports.  And we have a big primer on student finance, ahead of the budget.

Conservative Party Conference

After the first day of the Conservative Party conference Wonkhe speculate what the personalities and lack of fiscal room for manoeuvre mean for HE in the forthcoming spending review (looming on the later October horizon):

  • At last night’s Policy Exchange fringe meeting, new Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi represented a breath of fresh air insofar as he was keen to stress that decisions would be “evidence-led”, that he understood that universities delivered vocational skills and that a consultation is still coming over aspects of Augar. But the spending envelope isn’t his call – and the big question for this spending review remains “What does Rishi Sunak want?” If he wants to balance the books and demonstrate fiscal prudence – and all the signs point to a reining in after the immense scale of public spending during Covid-19 – then universities could be in for a rough ride when stacked up against other pressing priorities. The potential for a fee cut, in particular, will be keeping university finance directors up at night. Without a complete rethink of the funding system, there are few good available options to reduce the overall cost of the system. Thanks to inflation, even maintaining the status quo of the frozen fee level means diminishing funding to higher education over time.
  • It now seems likely that a new financial settlement, aimed at reducing the Treasury’s exposure to higher education, will see changes to graduate repayment terms, perhaps even retrospectively for existing students. Last week, former universities minister David Willetts, in a pamphlet for the Higher Education Policy Institute, suggested that this option is more politically defensible at a time of constrained public spending than reducing funding to universities via tuition fee cuts. Minimum entry standards could also do its bit to cap the supply of students over time, thus saving Her Majesty’s Government a little more money, though with few outside the fringes of the Conservative Party genuinely believing that fewer people benefiting from a higher education is a desirable outcome, and ever-growing numbers of school and college leavers hoping to go – it’s a policy that if implemented could end up coming back to bite the Conservatives in the future.
  • So with so many moving fiscal and political parts around the spending review and Budget, there’s every chance that late deals could lead to unexpected outcomes and changes to what was previously thought to be a direction of travel. As ever in politics, decisions are not made until they are announced in public, and with this prime minister in particular, huge changes of direction can be made on a whim

New Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi gave a keynote address at the Conservative Party Conference. It focussed heavily on schools (including emphasis on English and maths). Nadhim also gave HE a nod in crediting Oxford University for the vaccine development. The Government’s intention towards T levels remains.

  • DfE is investing in maths hubs, while at post-16 there is funding for a further 2m courses. One day soon I want T levels to be as famous as A levels.
  • Zahawi promised a schools White Paper in the new year to focus on illiteracy and innumeracy. I will work tirelessly…to unleash the brilliance of young people in this country.
  • Nadhim added that as Vaccine minister he used evidence to deliver a world-leading vaccines programme and that DfE will deliver the same for education.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised new scholarships in artificial intelligence:

2,000 elite AI scholarships for disadvantaged young people within the Government’s focus on innovative technology which he stated was a sign of the party’s ambition for the future.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a particularly colourful rambling speech to entertain the Conference attendees. It was light on HE content. Within the context of levelling up he questioned why York (2 universities) had so many graduates yet Doncaster (a FE/HE college) didn’t. Perhaps not the best example his aides could have chosen.

  • There was also familiar messaging about the alternative routes than university: our universities are world beating, I owe everything to my tutors and they are one of the great glories of our economy but we all know that some of the most brilliant and imaginative and creative people in Britain and some of the best paid people in Britain did not go to university and to level up you need to give people the options the skills that are right for them and to make the most of those skills and knowledge and to level up you need urgently to plug all the other the gaps in our infrastructure that are still holding people and communities back
  • On foreign investment: It was not the government that made the wonder drug it wasn’t brewed in the alembics of the department of health. It was, of course it was Oxford University, but it was the private sector that made it possible behind those vaccines are companies and shareholders and, yes, bankers.

Lots of focussed discussion took place during the Conservative Party Conference fringe events. Here are some summaries of the content prepared by Dods with bold emphasis added so you can pick out the most relevant HE points.

Contract Cheating

On Tuesday the DfE stated it will introduce a ban on ‘essay mills’ via the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill which is currently making its way through Parliament. The Government intends to make it a criminal offence to provide, arrange or advertise cheating services for financial gain to students taking a qualification at any institution in England providing post-16 education including universities.

You’ll recall from our regular coverage on contract cheating that Lord Storey has campaigned to this end for a long period, including introducing two Private Member’s Bills (PMB) which the Government was not opposed to but neither succeeded. In contrast to Lord Storey’s PMB the DfE’s intention is to apply the legislation to all post-16 providers including colleges and sixth forms.

Previously the Government urged the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education), UUK and the NUS to collaborate and produce institutional guidance on combatting the threat from essay mills and compiled guidance for students to make them better aware of the consequences to send the clear message that these services are not legitimate.

Minister for Skills Alex Burghart said: Essay mills are completely unethical and profit by undermining the hard work most students do. We are taking steps to ban these cheating services. We have also announced a new measure to make sure all young people receive broader careers guidance so everyone can get the advice that’s right for them. [Perhaps meaning to pursue T levels and an alternative route than university.]

Gender Differences in subject choice

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) paper Gender differences in subject choice leads to gender pay gap immediately after graduation highlights how course choice exacerbates the gender pay gap.  IFS notes:

  • In 2019 – before the pandemic disrupted data collection – women were paid 16% less per hour than men on average. The gap in average annual earnings was even larger, at 37%, since women are much more likely to work part-time.
  • The financial return to getting a degree – how much more a graduate earns compared to an otherwise similar non-graduate – varies enormously across subjects. Previous IFS research estimates that studying economics at university boosts women’s pay by 75% by age 30; this is more than ten times the return to studying creative arts (7.2%). However, women make up nearly two-thirds of creative arts graduates but less than a third of economics graduates.
  • In general, women are overrepresented in degree subjects with low financial returns. There are some exceptions – for example, medicine and law both have average or slightly above average shares of female students and very high returns.
  • Differences in degree subject choices explain most of the gender pay gap soon after graduation.
  • Of the 5% gap in annual earnings at age 25, 2.9 percentage points (55%) can be accounted for by university subjects, with A-Level subject choices making up a further 0.2 percentage points (5%).
  • Subject choice continues to contribute between 3 and 5 percentage points to the gender pay gap over graduates’ early careers.
  • But over this period, other factors lead to a widening of the gender pay gap, so that by age 30, subject choice explains only a fifth of the total gender pay gap.
  • Other factors that come into play could include motherhood, gender differences in attitudes towards risk, recognition for group work, hours worked, the propensity to bargain over wages and ask for promotions, and discrimination.
  • We should be concerned if information on the returns to different subjects isn’t easily available to young people, and if the large differences in subject choice (arts for girls, economics for boys) are driven as much by gender stereotypes as by true preferences.
  • When it comes to a subject like economics, which delivers the very highest financial return for female (and male) graduates, there is an additional concern that many students cannot access the subject at all because it is not offered in their school.
  • More needs to be done to educate and inform young people about subject choices at A level and university, particularly in a system like the UK where subject choices narrow at an early stage and where decisions taken early can have long-lasting effects.

Research

Research and innovation review: BEIS published the terms of reference for the Review of the Research, Development and Innovation Organisational Landscape. The independent review (announced on 22 July) will be led by Sir Paul Nurse with the final report expected during Spring 2022.  The goals of the Review are to:

  • explore the features and characteristics in the existing ecosystem of RDI-performing organisations across the UK, learning from the best in the world and drawing on transformative examples
  • identify whether improvements to the organisational research landscape are required to deliver the government’s objective for the UK to be a science superpower at the forefront of critical and emerging fields of science and technology, and drive economic growth and societal benefit
  • futureproof the UK landscape of organisations undertaking all forms of RDI, from pioneering, visionary blue-skies research to practical support for innovators to commercialise or implement their ideas, and ensure an agile and sustainable system that can respond to future priorities and developments

The Review will consider the full and varied policy and funding context within which RDI-performing organisations are set up and operate. The Review is focused on the landscape of organisations that deliver research rather than on mechanisms for funding research and will:

  • analyse how the various organisations that contribute to the ecosystem of RDI-performing organisations across different parts of the UK – including universities, institutes and laboratories, across UK government and the devolved administrations, public, private and non-profit sectors – compare to each other and that of other countries with strengths in RDI
  • learning from international examples, consider the role that different mixes of organisations can play in delivering economic and societal impact from RDI, and the mechanisms and business models that will best enable the UK to capitalise on emerging and new fields of science and invention
  • consider how best to secure an organisational landscape now and in the future that delivers high-quality RDI outputs, and which is sustainable and cost-effective
  • consider options to support the UK’s strengths and what targeted interventions in the public sector might enhance the quality and diverse mix of RDI-performing organisations through our policy framework and the policies of the devolved administrations

Research Budget distribution: MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, published a policy briefing calling for the pledged increase of the R&D budget to £22bn to be shared more equitably around the country in the name of the Government’s levelling up goal.  The briefing emphasises the importance of re-balancing the way research in the UK is funded so that modern universities, many of which sit in marginalised areas of the country, and those hit hardest by the pandemic, can do more to support a world-class system of research and innovation, for the benefit of their regions and the country. Recommendations:

  1. Scale up the Higher Education Innovation Fund, so that knowledge exchange makes up a greater proportion of overall grant funding from Research England.
  2. Increase the number of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships funded across the UK.
  3. Expand the Strength in Places Fund.
  4. Ensure that the Shared Prosperity Fund is devolved, based on long-term funding cycles, and accessible to universities and local businesses.

MillionPlus also published Innovate and generate: modern universities supporting local businesses aiming to highlight the partnerships that modern universities with local roots and an industry-facing outlook  have with businesses in their regions. The document emphasises their calls for Government to prioritise and dedicate specific R&D funding streams for such relationships and the positive impact it can have on levelling up the UK.

Quick news

  • Incentivising business innovation through taxation – CBI Economics consider the arguments for R&D tax credits
  • Imperial College London announced their new Institute for Infection. The aim of the Institute is to address some of the biggest unanswered questions in the field of infectious disease, such as how is climate change impacting the spread of diseases transmitted by flies and mosquitoes, how can gene-editing technologies help to reduce the spread of disease (such as Dengue and Zika), and how can animal vaccination programmes help to curb diseases which also affect humans.

Access & Participation

Student Hardship funding: Hitting the news last week (from the July OfS Board papers) was that £1.66 million of the additional £70 million hardship funding provided by the Government was unspent and recovered by the OfS.

Wonkhe say: Despite overwhelming evidence that the hardships caused by Covid-19 were near universal, the government was wedded to the idea of individual student problems rather than the systemic issues felt across the whole cohort. There were conditions attached to allocation: providers had to distribute funds to students that expressed a specific need, and all of the money needed to be handed out by 31 July…The complexity of existing hardship fund arrangements at providers (many had to recruit extra staff to administer the process) and the tight deadline (three months for the final tranche) made it difficult to get the money to where it was needed.

Mental Health

The Mental Health Foundation released new research combining evidence with expert opinion and public views. You can read about it here but in short it recommends (in order of popularity):

  1. Be aware of using drugs to cope with difficult feelings
  2. Build money skills and seek financial support if you need it
  3. Get more from your sleep
  4. Develop awareness of your feelings and emotions
  5. Have something to look forward to
  6. Get closer to nature
  7. Speak to someone you trust for support
  8. Stay curious and open to new experiences

Almost as popular (chosen by at least 45% of the public panel) were:

  • Have a healthy diet
  • Help others, contribute to something bigger
  • Engage in physical activity
  • Practice gratitude and cultivate hope
  • Strengthen social connections

Our research shows that it’s the fundamentals of life that protect our mental health: our finances, our relationships and our experiences

Student Finance

The DfE updated the information on who is eligible for undergraduate, postgraduate and further education financial support from Student Finance England. The update includes new policy notes on the rights to home fee status and student support for people covered by the Withdrawal Agreements who make a valid late application to the EU Settlement Scheme, and rights for joining family members under the EU Settlement Scheme:

Possible changes to fees and funding have been in the news a lot over the autumn in the build up to the Comprehensive Spending Review on 27th October when, yet again, we are promised the final response from the government to the Augar report and an outcome for the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, which Augar was meant to inform.

Some changes have already happened:

  • Some OfS funding for “non-strategic” subjects was cut this year – but it was a small cut to a tiny amount of funding. Anxiety was heightened because the former Education Secretary kept saying in the HoC and to newspapers that he was “slashing” funding, but he was exaggerating.  A lot.  The OfS got very defensive about it.  You can read what they did here.  Anyway, it set the tone for what may be more to come.  The OfS were told to stop calling the main funding a “teaching” grant and call it a “strategic priorities” grant.  You get the point.  Let’s hope the updated Ministerial team choose their language more carefully, to avoid future misunderstanding.    Words matter.
  • The OfS decided to distribute a chunk of their capital funding via a competitive bidding arrangement, in a big departure from previous allocation methods. You can read what they did here.  This may well also set the tone for the future, and is consistent with what is expected to happen with some streams of research funding going forwards.

The main pre-announcement that we are expecting to see followed through with a consultation at the end of the month is on minimum entry requirements.  This is a technique to reduce or at least limit the growing cost of the student loan portfolio by applying a floor to the academic entry requirements that applicants must meet in order to qualify for a student loan.  Students could still go to university, if they pay their own way, of course, or are able to borrow the funding another way.  Widely criticised as a cap on aspiration and a retrograde step for social mobility, because of the risk that many of the potential students who will be excluded from university will be those whose prior attainment does not reflect their true potential, and because many of those will be in that position as a result of some form of disadvantage.   We have commented on this extensively before and note that Augar suggested that it be deployed as a last resort if universities did not clean up their act on quality.  We note that we are not convinced that there is necessarily a direct link between “quality” and low entry tariffs and that it feels a bit early in the cycle for last resorts.  But there you are.  The definition of quality debate is a much bigger one that is ongoing now as the OfS looks at its licence conditions.

And there could be many other things announced.  Most of the press coverage recently has been about a potential cut to the repayment threshold (increased by Theresa May in a shock move after the 2017 election that cost the government a lot of money).  This idea has not been well received by students or recent graduates.  We note that retrospective changes to the terms of loans (other than interest rates) are not usually allowed (for banks, for example), and that there is a general feeling that students and recent graduates, who have not had a great couple of years, will be asked to fill a government financial hole “because they don’t vote conservative anyway”.  Given that Theresa May put the floor up precisely because she was worried about the so-called youthquake in the 2017 election, the link seems to be a fair one.  The Tories in 2017 didn’t have the majority that they have now.  And the financial hole is very big.

BU staff can read our May 2021 summary of what else we might have to look forward to here.

Given that there is likely to be a flurry of press stories, better or less-well informed opinion, social media excitement etc, around any changes, we wanted to give you a bit of context.  Apologies to regular readers or those with students in the family who know all this, all too well, but here we go.  And apologies to readers in the devolved nations, we are focussing on England here.  Also we are focussing on undergraduates.

Undergraduate tuition fees

These are capped.  The cap hasn’t moved for a long time.  There is very little prospect of it moving for a long time to come.

They are not tuition fees.  The OfS in their most recent publication on the subject (well worth a read) calls them “course fees”.  They aren’t really that either.

When they were introduced they replaced a big chunk of government funding for universities and, apart from those universities with huge numbers of international or post-graduate students, or huge proportions of research or donor income, these fees are the main source of income for most universities.  They therefore pay for staff, services, loan interest, depreciation, building maintenance, IT, OfS registration fees, and so on – the lot.  They famously cross subsidise research which is generally funded at less than cost.

If a student has a tuition fee loan (most do as otherwise they need to pay up front), the fee is paid by the Student Loan Company directly to the university in three chunks across the year.  The biggest chunk (50%) is paid in the summer AFTER the student has completed most of the year.  This helps avoid a situation where the university gets money for students who don’t stick around.  But it also explains why cash flow across the year is a talking point in universities, and why a temporary change took place last year when the second instalment was paid early because of concerns about financial sustainability of universities in the pandemic.

Maintenance loans

These loans are made available to UK students to help with their living and other costs while at university.  They replaced the grant system.  Before loans were introduced, if students didn’t qualify for a grant they needed parental support or another source of income.  That is still the case.  There is a minimum amount for a maintenance loan, but above that loan eligibility is means tested according to the income of the student’s family.  So the vast majority of students in the UK still need parental support for their maintenance costs, and if that isn’t available, they will need to work or borrow money instead.

You can see more in the SLC document for 2021/22 students.

Maintenance costs are a huge issue for many students.  Unlike the tuition fee, which is paid by the SLC to the university, this is cash the students need to find and spend.  There has been a lot of coverage of the high cost of accommodation in many places (often more than the maximum loan) and of the particular unfairness of the situation over the last two years when students were told by the government not to return to accommodation they had paid for, with money neither they nor their families could afford.  That’s a long and separate story.

Student loans

Although they are called loans, student finance arrangements are very different from the usual loan arrangements we are all used to, and this is where it gets complicated and political.  So apologies again.  This very useful paper from the House of Commons library (September 2021) has lots of context on this.

As noted above, student loans are made up of two items, tuition fees and maintenance loans (you can also use a student loan for postgraduate support but that’s a different story).

Interest starts to accrue on the loan balance straight away, while the student is at university.  Interest rates are very high – compared to some other rates available in the market.  But the interest rate charged varies over time and according to the income of the graduate (not their family, this time).

From an SLC document describing 2021/11 arrangements:

  • While studying and until 6th April after you finish: RPI pls 3%
  • After that:
    • Income £27,295 or less – RPI only
    • Income above £27,295 to £49,130 – Interest applied on a scale from RPI to RPI + 3%
    • Income above £49,130 – RPI + 3%

Martin Lewis explained the latest rate for Money Saving Expert in October 2021:

  • On 1 October 2021, for students from England and Wales who started university in or after 2012, the headline student loan interest rate decreased from 5.6% to 4.1% in line with the current RPI, and the temporary ‘Prevailing Market Rate’
  • Despite the decrease, this rate is still higher than most mortgages, and far higher than for students from prior cohorts. And, the headline rate is expected to increase again, to 4.5%, on the 1 January 2022. 

Repayment arrangements

This is where student loans really start to look different from “normal” loans. The student finance arrangements we have are not really loans at all.  Really what we have here is a graduate tax.  But shhh – it isn’t called that.  Because people don’t like taxes, so it could never be called a tax.

The notional amount of the student finance grows throughout out the time that a student is studying, and interest is added during that time and afterwards.  So far so like a loan.

But – graduates only start to repay it from the April after their course ends, and only when their income reaches a threshold.  Most students are on what is called “plan 2” and we are going to use their data:

  • You’ll only repay when your income is over £524 a week, £2,274 a month or £27,295 a year (before tax and other deductions).
  • G. Your annual income is £28,800 and you are paid a regular monthly wage. This means that each month your income is £2,400 (£28,800 divided by 12). This is over the Plan 2 monthly threshold of £2,274. Your income is £126 over the threshold (£2,400 minus £2,274). You will pay back £11 (9% of £126) each month.

In other words, repayments are means tested, and only the income over the threshold is used to calculate the repayments.  Clearly in a lot of cases that means that the amount you are repaying is not enough to cover the interest that is also still accruing.  So the overall amount just keeps on going up, just as it would with a “normal” loan if you didn’t pay enough off each month.

The other big difference with a “normal” loan, though, is what happens at the end.  The whole thing, interest and all, is written off after 30 years from the April after your course finished.  That is a big and growing cost to the government.  This very useful paper from the House of Commons library (September 2021) gives some context on what this means.

  • The RAB charge is the difference between the amount lent to a cohort of students, and the value of their repayments as graduates. For 2020/21 it is predicted by the Government to be 53%.
  • … repayments for the 2020/21 cohort will range from just over £1,000 on average in decile 1 to almost £63,000 for decile 10. The average lifetime repayment across all borrowers is just over £19,000.
  • “Overall, 22% of borrowers are forecast to repay their loans in full, this rate varies from 0‑2% in the bottom four deciles to 87% in decile 10”

So when students say that they are “paying” tuition fees – they aren’t paying it yet, and in fact most will never pay it all back.  Only the highest earners, mostly men, will pay it all back.  The paper has charts showing the difference for women and men.

We should also note that the loan is not treated like a normal loan when you are taking out a normal loan, either.  Your potential repayments are taken into account when considering your ability to pay, but it is not treated the same way for your credit score as a typical loan would be.  So it is treated more like a mobile phone contract than a car loan.

So it’s really a graduate tax which stops after 30 years.  Or an income dependent contingent loan (which is written off after 30 years).

Potential changes

The government would clearly like to recover more of this money.  It must be noted that it was never intended that it would all be repaid, however.  When the system was set up it was deliberately intended that only the students with higher income would pay it all back.  This was meant to be progressive.

That’s why there has been little sympathy for arguments to reduce the interest rate.  On the face of it, students seem to be “paying” a high interest rate.  But they aren’t in fact paying it at all, and most of them will never pay it.  It accrues at a high rate, and then most of it is written off.  So increasing the interest rate may be an option instead:

  • The impact of a 1 ppt increase in the interest rate would mean that the average repayment per borrower would increase by £1,500 or 5.2%.
  • However, this increase is not spread evenly across borrowers. Only those with higher earnings pay back more. The number of borrowers who repay their loan in full would drop from 22% under the current system to 18%.

For a long time the government was able to keep this cost “off the balance sheet” until the auditing rules were changed and the whole cost was added to the national debt.  That started to change perceptions about it.

And of course, since the scheme was introduced, the number of students going to university has increased, we are just emerging from a demographic dip.  So the potential cost just keeps on going up.

We have already mentioned changes to the repayment threshold may be under discussion.  That has all sorts of consequences – but they are not very progressive (another HoC library paper):

  • Middle earners would see the largest absolute increase of around £4,000 on average, while the highest earners would see their repayments fall slightly.
  • While the increase for lower earners is below average in absolute terms, it represents the largest percentage increase at around 30%. The number of borrowers who repay their loan in full would increase from 22% under the current system to 25%.

There has also been talk of extending the payment term from 30 to 35 years (Augar said 40) and increasing the rate of repayment (different from the interest rate).  Another helpful briefing paper here.

  • both measures result in increased lifetime repayments especially from middle to higher earners.

What next

We’ll see.  But we think there will be some tinkering with repayment arrangements – despite the fact that these would be retrospective changes to the agreed terms.  And there may be other changes that will reduce the number of people eligible to take these loans out in the future – as well as the minimum qualifications requirement.

Or there may a cut in the tuition fee.  The latter would reduce the loan book and the notional interest  – and give the government more direct control of university funding though the use of “strategic priorities” to top up (some of) the difference  – consistent with the current direction as noted at the start of this section.

There could be caps on the numbers of students studying particular subjects, or at particular institutions (if they don’t meet quality thresholds, for example). Note in this context that the government is increasingly linking definitions of quality to “outcomes”, by which they mean highly skilled employment and relative earnings.  And that is a whole different subject which we have discussed before, and will again.

Mature students

The Lifelong Education Commission, supported by ResPublica and chaired by former universities minister Chris Skidmore MP, published The Pathway to Lifelong Education: Reforming the UK’s Skills System. It is the first of 8 reports the Commission has planned on on lifelong learning and the UK’s skills system. The Commission recommends how the barriers to adult learning can be removed; what future investment is needed to support this; and what change is needed to ensure the maximum flexibility that will benefit learners and deliver on the promise of a whole system change for lifelong education.

Recommendations:

  1. All citizens will be able to access the loan entitlement regardless of prior qualifications, or how they choose to study, including: modular or full qualifications; part-time or full-time; via face-to-face or distance learning.
  2. The Lifetime Loan Entitlement should allow funding to be applied to different modules of learning to enable (i) existing qualifications to be unbundled into smaller units (e.g. 30 to 60 credits) and (ii) microcredentials to be stacked as part of larger units.
  3. A more ambitious reform would be to create a unified credit-based funding system that does not distinguish between different modes of study and provides equal access and support for learners regardless of how they learn or where learning takes place.
  4. Alongside the loan entitlement, Government should consider means-tested maintenance grants to provide support with living costs and encourage adult learners to access higher technical qualifications, particularly those for whom debt will be viewed as a disincentive and a barrier to reskill.
  5. Government should: (i) Build on the existing credit framework and regional consortia approach to design a networked system that can guarantee the autonomy of higher education providers while enabling the transfer and accumulation of credit. (ii) Consider reform of the wider regulatory framework to simplify the jurisdiction between various bodies (HEIs, the Institute, QAA, Ofsted, OfS, etc.) regarding higher technical qualifications, which has the scope for duplication and inconsistency. (iii) Consider Scotland’s ‘articulation agreements’, which provide a good model for clearer routes between FE and HE.
  6. There is, especially in England, a need to bring together and better integrate the various parts of the careers system: (i) A single integrated careers service is required for all citizens at all stages of their working life. This will need to provide high level, specialist advice, available in every locality. (ii) A system should be established to regulate and support the continued professional development of careers advisers. As a minimum, all careers advisers should be registered with the Careers Development Institute and have relevant qualifications at Level 4 or above.
  7. Retain part-time student premium funding and make part-time learning an explicit priority for the teaching grant to incentivise lifelong education and training.
  8. Remove the remaining restrictions on ELQs so that available funding (including loans for fees and maintenance) can support those who want to study for a second higher education qualification in a different discipline.
  9. Government should explore options, including a ‘Flexible Skills Levy’ and ‘Tax Credits’ to incentivise employer investment in skills training.
  10. In addition to employers and educational institutions, Mayoral Combined Authorities in England with devolved responsibilities for adult skills should play a central role in the coproduction of local skills plan. Moreover, MCAs should be given genuine power over issues of essentially regional concern. Almost all of the functions currently exercised by the Department for Education could be devolved.

Former universities minister Chris Skidmore said: If there is one policy to deliver ‘levelling up’, it is adult learning and skills. Acquiring new skills is something we all do throughout our lives. Yet the formal process for acquiring them is incredibly constrained. There are too few opportunities to return to learning for those who have left it. And those willing to retrain or re-skill can barely see the wood for the trees; the pathways are so complex.

The government is embracing adult learning at just the right time. The Lifelong Learning Entitlement, combined with the prospect of modular and course-based learning and the expansion of Level 4 and 5 provision, has the potential to create new journeys into learning for those for whom a graduate route was not the way. But if these reforms are to succeed, it is essential that new partnerships are forged between HE and FE providers.

Grammar and spelling – the next stage of the culture war?

The OfS have published an ominous paper on this.

  • This review examines the policies on spelling, punctuation and grammar in written assessment at a small number of higher education providers. It features anonymised examples of approaches that maintain rigour in student assessment, and examples of approaches that do not.
  • The purpose of the review is to highlight to higher education providers which assessment policies are likely to be a cause for regulatory concern, and encourages providers to adjust their policies accordingly.

This supports the position in the recently closed consultation on quality conditions.

New condition B4.2: 

…the provider must ensure that:  …c. academic regulations are designed to ensure that relevant awards are credible;   ….

“credible” means that, in the reasonable opinion of the OfS, relevant awards reflect students’ knowledge and skills, and for this purpose the OfS may take into account factors which include, but are not limited to:  …ii. whether students are assessed effectively and whether assessments are valid and reliable;  ….

Guidance re “Credible”: …identifying circumstances in which it is likely to be concerned about the credibility of a provider’s qualifications:…c. Students are not penalised for poor technical proficiency in written English. For example, for assessments that would reasonably be expected to take the form of written work in English and for which the OfS, employers and taxpayers, would reasonably expect such proficiency, the provider’s assessment policy and practices do not penalise poor spelling, punctuation or grammar, such that students are awarded marks that do not reflect a reasonable view of their performance of these skills. ….

Key bits from the report itself:

  • Because of the importance of these issues, we undertook a short review during summer 2021 to gather evidence and examples of practice from a small number of providers about the extent to which technical proficiency in written English is being assessed. This report summarises our findings and sets out their implications for our ongoing regulation of higher education providers.
  • We sought voluntary cooperation from a small number of providers, selected to allow us to explore a range of assessment practices. The inclusion of a particular provider in the review was not driven by whether or not it had featured in press reporting about its assessment practices, and this report does not identify the providers that were involved in the review
  • The common features we have seen in the small number of cases we have considered in this review suggest that the practices and approaches we have set out in the case studies may be widespread across the sector. We are therefore drawing the attention of all registered providers to our findings, because they highlight matters that are likely to raise compliance concerns, now and in the future.
  • The findings in this report are shared as case studies; we have not conducted a formal regulatory investigation. Any regulatory judgements we make in future would depend on the circumstances of an individual case, and would involve detailed consideration of the impact of a provider’s policies on the marks awarded to students.

If we were to consider compliance with our current regulatory requirements for the practices described in the case studies, we would be likely to have regulatory concerns about the following: 

  • Case studies 1 and 2: In these examples, it seems plausible if not likely that some students are not being assessed on their proficiency in written English. This is because learning outcomes do not include this requirement. In these circumstances we would have concerns about whether the provider’s courses are well designed and provide a high-quality academic experience. We would also have concerns about whether the qualifications awarded to students are valued by employers or enable further study. We would consider whether such qualifications represent value for money for students and taxpayers. 
  • For Case study 2, we would take a particular interest in the effect of the policies on groups of students whose first language is not English
  • Case study 3: In this example, we would have similar concerns as for case studies 1 and 2. We would also consider the adequacy and effectiveness of the provider’s academic governance arrangements, which have the potential to create inconsistencies in the requirements for students in different subject areas.

We are currently consulting on proposals to clarify and strengthen our regulatory requirements for quality and standards. We will consider all consultation responses carefully before reaching a decision about whether or not we should take forward our proposals, in full or in part. For illustrative purposes, if we were to implement the proposals as set out in the consultation document, the practices we have seen would be likely to raise concerns in relation to proposed conditions B1, B2, B4 and B5

If the policies and approaches identified in this report are leading to students getting higher marks than they otherwise would, for instance because poor proficiency in written English is not being routinely assessed, then this not only undermines the rigour of assessment processes, but also contributes to unexplained grade inflation. 55. We will test this hypothesis for individual providers through our investigatory work.

Local Digital Skills Partnerships

DCMS published the findings of an independent Evaluation of the Local Digital Skills Partnerships  which assessed the impact made by six regions operating Local Digital Skills Partnerships (LDSP). LDSPs are designed to build regional capacity to improve digital skills capability at all levels. They bring together and connect partners from the public, private and third sectors to upskill the current workforce, advance digital inclusion, and raise awareness of the importance of digital skills regionally. The evaluation found the LSDP model to be agile and worked effectively. Therefore, DCMS have confirmed they’ll consider the key findings, and look to build on this early success and expand the model to other parts of the country.

Other news

Academic lockdown time recovery: A Wonkhe blog on the impact of lockdown on academic parents with suggestions on how to help them catch up on missed research and professional time:

  • Potential solutions here are: using a different form of annual evaluation, reducing the teaching load in future semesters on academic parents who’ve seen their research completely stalled, providing more teaching assistants or other types of support to reduce the teaching load, temporarily reduce service and administrative burdens, and/or have better parental leave arrangements. One respondent indicated that their university developed a working parent task force, to get input from the working parents and think about solutions together.
  • Taking a step back, we recommend developing a culture of care, and making our universities places where compassion and solidarity are important values.

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JANE FORSTER                                            |                       SARAH CARTER

VC’s Policy Advisor                                                              Policy & Public Affairs Officer

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HE policy update for the w/e 21st January 2021

After a long wait the sector received a landslide of HE policy interventions on Thursday. The FE Skills White paper, PQA consultation, the Government’s take on Augar, publication of the Pearce TEF review with the DfE’s response, and significant changes to the HE recurrent grant, alongside some far less exciting stuff! And it wasn’t a quiet week before all that.

Some of it is good, some of it is very ominous indeed.  Some of it is very high level and vague and so could go either way.  There are a lot of new consultations to come and there will be lots to talk about in 2021.  It will keep Sarah and I busy!

Boil that kettle, locate your reading glasses, and get comfy on the sofa ready to enjoy a bumper policy update!

Skills White Paper

This is the biggy because it’s a White Paper,  However, most of it is not about HE. The Government has published the Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth white paper setting out their ambition for reform to the post-19 technical education and training landscape.

Gavin Williamson spoke in the House of Commons (see this link at 13:08 pm)

  • White paper on skills for job published today (see below)
  • Enormous challenges ahead to rebuild the economy. Support packages already announced (etc).  Strong and independent trading nation (etc).
  • Lifetime skills guarantee, flexible digital skills bootcamps (etc).
  • April – kick start Higher Technical Education by making it easy to get a loan. Pilots on modular learning.  Lifelong loan entitlement running from 2025.
  • Employers at the centre of technical education. Supporting local economy.  German style local skills improvement plans led by Chambers of Commerce. Strategic development funding for FE.
  • New courses – trailblazer areas this year. Fund of £65m in 2021-22.
  • $1.5bn of capital funding for FE. Announced next phase for FE and T-levels.
  • Longer term – more coherent longer term funding model that will collaborate on with the sector. Principles of high value, greater flexibility and greater accountability.  By 2030 nearly all technical courses will follow employer led requirements.
  • Continue with apprenticeships and T-levels.
  • Network of Institutes of Technology will expand across the country.
  • Top quality teaching staff in FE – recruitment campaign, more support etc, training and development and industry experience.

We’ve done a separate 6 page summary for BU readers, because it’s long (and repetitive and full of the usual patting on the back about other good things already announced).

RP say (amongst many other things):

  • It’s almost as if there is a good news story to be told about further education, while the government hopes its lack of decision-making on higher education falls off the news agenda…
  • It’s actually called the Skills for Jobs white paper, which in fact takes the story away from underfunded further education and pivots towards post-Covid economic recovery. You will have seen much of the content before.
  • …So modular funding is on its way, but 2025 is a long way off—that takes us into the next parliament. Perhaps the Treasury has costed the commitment and decided to kick that particular can down the road.
  • The Skills for Jobs white paper… will seek to justify both disinvestment in higher education and funding of technical education on the cheap. It will play to the prejudices of the Conservative base and the idea that too many people are going to university and that decades of regional inequality can be resolved by more plumbing courses at local further education colleges.

From Dods: The Department says that the measures announced today “will put an end to the illusion that a degree is the only route to success and a good job, and that further and technical education is the second-class option.”

The White Paper is being pitched as forming part of the Plan for Jobs

  • As expected, the Paper enshrines the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, providing a clearer idea of what the programme looks like in practice – adults without a full level 3 qualification (A-level equivalent) to gain one from April 2021 for free in a range of sectors including engineering, health and accountancy.
  • The long-touted Lifelong Loan Entitlement is also fleshed out in more detail, representing significant reforms to student finance. [Actually, there is very little detail and there is going to be a consultation on this “in early 2021”.]

Measures include:

  • The Government is investing £1.5bn in further education colleges, to allow for high quality buildings and facilities
  • Employers will have a central role in designing “almost all” technical courses by 2030, to ensure education and training reflects the skills needed in the job market, supported by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education
  • Business groups, including Chambers of Commerce, will work alongside colleges to develop tailored skills plans“to meet local training needs”
  • This will be supported by a £65m Strategic Development Fund to put said plans into action, and establish new College Business Centre
  • New approved qualifications from September 2022, supported by a Government-backed brand and quality mark, to boost the quality and uptake of Higher Technical Qualifications(levels 4 and 5)
  • From 2025, people can access flexible student finance so they can train and retrain throughout their lives, supported by funding in 21/22 to test ways to boost access to more modular and flexible learning.
  • Nationwide recruitment campaign to get more teachers into further education and supporting professional development including a new Workforce Industry Exchange Programme
  • An “overhaul” of the funding and accountability rules, so funding is better targeted at supporting high-quality education and training that meets the needs of employers
  • An introduction of new powers to intervene when colleges are failing to deliver good outcomes for the communities they serve, and strengthening of Education Secretary’s powers to intervene in corporations and local areas with persistent weaknesses.  [The sales pitch on this is a good bit of spin, it is presented as an opportunity to have a strategic discussion with the department and pitch the strengths of the college, but….]

The next phase of the FE Capital Transformation Fund has also been launched today, and further education colleges across the country are invited to bid for funding to upgrade buildings and campuses.

The Augar report stressed the need for impartial and quality careers advice and guidance, so more people can be support to make the right education, training and career choices. There will be an expansion of Careers Hubs and other infrastructure in line with the Gatsby Benchmarks of Good Career Guidance. Furthermore, Dods tell us that, as part of the Skills White Paper reforms, Professor Sir John Holman has been appointed as Independent Strategic Advisor on Careers Guidance, and will oversee the local and national alignment between The Careers & Enterprise Company and the National Careers Service. Sir Holman is currently an Emeritus Professor in Science Education at the University of York, and is also Senior Adviser to both the Gatsby Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.

RP continue:

  • The Department for Education says: “The measures announced today will put an end to the illusion that a degree is the only route to success and a good job, and that further and technical education is the second-class option. Instead, they will supercharge further and technical education, realigning the whole system around the needs of employers, so that people are trained for the skills gaps that exist now, and in the future, in sectors the economy needs, including construction, digital, clean energy and manufacturing.”
  • The government may be hoping that first sentence becomes true; it surely knows that the second sentence lacks credibility. The white paper proposals are accompanied by a £65 million Strategic Development Fund to put the plan into action and to “establish new College Business Centres to drive innovation and enhanced collaboration with employers”.
  • To put that in context, the much-mocked Turing one-way exchange scheme has a budget of £100m, which is a reduction by nearly half of its Erasmus predecessor. The £65m fund is not going to reverse decades of underinvestment in skills, while College Business Centres sound like a classic ministerial vanity project doomed to irrelevance when their limited funding dries up.
  • There is going to be a lot of that sort of thing today, including the Workforce Industry Exchange Programme, aimed at coaxing talented individuals to teach in further education. It is not thought to involve basic incentives such as a competitive salary or security of employment.

RP also pick apart the percentage comparisons in the DfE’s criticism of the sector.

Wonkhe did a special email update at lunchtime: Debbie McVitty runs through the highlights so that you don’t have to.

On the proposals for funding lifelong learning, Debbie says: If the government can crack this policy Holy Grail, it will have a genuine claim to having radically transformed post-compulsory education. But this white paper marks an intention to start developing the answers rather than concrete proposals. 

Commenting on the government’s interim response to the post-18 review of education and funding, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said:

  • ‘An increased focus on lifelong learning will help develop the highly skilled graduate workforce needed to support our economy, nationally, regionally and locally. The OfS plans to work with students, the sector and employers to explore how higher education can be made more attractive and responsive to mature learners, and ensure that mature students are aware of the breadth of options available to them in both further and higher education.
  • ‘The focus on quality and the need to tackle poor quality provision is a strategic priority for the OfS as we consult on new proposals to enable us to anticipate and respond to poor quality, while ensuring that our approach is proportionate and targeted where it is needed.’

Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Committee:

  • “The proposals from the prime minister and department for education mark a sea-change in government thinking on skills.
  • “It will help address our skills deficit by boosting the accessibility of technical qualifications alongside the lifetime skills guarantee. It meets the needs of businesses in building an employed-led system, working with FE, to design employer qualifications and ensure funding follows employer requirements. It will give those from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to climb the skills ladder of opportunity, through the skills guarantee and easier access to finance. It is good that new funding will be made available in areas where colleges work with employers to transform their skills offering.
  • “‘Build back better’ clearly means building back a skills nation. I am really excited by these plans.”

Policy Exchange blog – Alun Francis and Andy Westwood preview the forthcoming FE White Paper.

There are some relevant blogs on HEPI:

Research

Academic spinouts: Wonkhe review: The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub has published a report on academic spinouts. Just four universities – Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and UCL – account for a third of UK spinout companies, with all such companies raising £1.30 billion in investment in 2018. While the impact of the pandemic is not yet fully known, indications point to increased investment in spinouts dealing with medical technology and pharmaceuticals. The Scotsman has the story.

Parliamentary Question: The potential merits of extending funding for all PhD students who have faced disruption as a result of the covid-19 outbreak.

Changes to HE Teaching Grant

So alongside all of this it is not surprising that we see some “rebalancing” in funding away from HE.  And given that “low value” courses have been a focus for some time, it is not surprising to see how this has gone.

Gavin Williamson spoke in the House of Commons (see this link at 13:08 pm)

  • Proposed reform to teaching grant will allocate funding to deliver value for money for students and the taxpayer. Strategic priorities.  Engineering and medicine.  Will “slash” taxpayer funding for subjects such as media studies.
  • Will provide additional support for specialist arts institutions.
  • Will consult on introduction of minimum entry requirements and addressing the high cost of foundation years. We cover this in more detail with the rest of the Augar content below, the minimum entry requirements bit is a cost saving measure, of course.
  • Full response on Augar and post-18 review with next spending review (well maybe).

There’s more (a lot more) in the response to Augar, which we cover below, but let’s get down to brass tacks and immediate changes to 2021/22 funding first.

Gavin Williamson has written to the OfS to set out new guidance for the allocation of the £1.48 billion HE teaching grant for the 2021/22 financial year.

  • Strategic reprioritisation of high-cost funding towards the provision of high-cost, high-value subjects that support the NHS and wider healthcare policy, high-cost STEM subjects and/or specific labour market needs, reducing funding initially by 50% for high-cost subjects that do not support these priorities (with further decreases in subsequent years).
  • Remove weightings for London providers from across the T-Grant, including the students attending courses in London supplement, and weightings within the student premiums. (This saves the Government £64 million.)
  • Allocate £5m to providers in order to provide additional support for student hardshipThis is to mitigate the rise in student hardship due to pandemic impacts on the labour market which particularly affect, for example, students relying on work to fund their studies, students whose parents have lost income and students who are parents and whose partner’s income has been affected. The OfS should establish exactly how this is distributed but the funding should be clearly targeted towards disadvantaged students. The £5m will be a drop in the ocean across the national provider base but provide another support statistic for the Government to trot out when asked how they are addressing the issue.
  • Allocate £15m to help address the challenges to student mental health posed by the transition to university, given the increasing demand for mental health services. OfS to establish how to target those students in greatest need of such services, but likely through a Challenge Competition.
  • Protect the £256m allocation for the student premiums to support disadvantaged students and those that need additional help [yes, that £256m]
  • Reduce the allocation for Uni Connect to £40m (losing £20m). With the lost £20m redirected towards mental health and student hardship (as per the bullet points above) – so it’s not really new money, more robbing Peter to pay Paul.
    Back to Uni Connect – the letter says: Funding for Uni Connect was originally agreed until July 2021, and so this is an appropriate moment to consider the scope and objectives of the programme. We welcome the current [OFS] consultation on the future of the Uni Connect programme… we believe that future investment is best directed to support the core infrastructure of partnerships, and funding targeted activities to fulfil specific policy objectives.
  • Increase funding for specialist providers, particularly those who are world leading and specialise in the performing and creative arts, by approximately £10m to £53m. This will help to support and/or expand the provision at those providers best equipped to secure positive outcomes for graduates, boosting outcomes for the sector. Note the wording there – positive outcomes, boosting outcomes…so specialist providers without the right metrics might be disappointed! Again the OfS is to decide who is eligible.
  • Deliver capital funding to providers through a strategically targeted bidding process and target funds at specific projects and activities aligned with the high-quality, skills-based education agenda – not the old formula model (because: The extent to which we can assure ourselves that funding is adding value and investment is focussed on key government priorities is, therefore, limited.) Jisc and HESA’s Data Futures Programme can still be supported too.
  • If you are willing to delve far enough you’ll spot that Annex C allocates £28 million for Turing outward mobility in 2021/22 from the teaching grant.

The letter also instructs OfS to consult with the HE sector given the impact on the HE sector anticipated from the proposed changes. With all the other special allocations to iron out and their regular workload the OfS will be busy!

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said about the Department for Education’s statutory guidance for the OfS’s approach to funding:

  • ‘Distributing funding is an important part of our regulatory work. Our annual grant funding for universities and colleges plays a critical role in ensuring the availability to students of high quality, cost-effective higher education across the country. We intend to consult on the government’s proposed changes to how we distribute this funding, and have written today to universities outlining our proposals for consultations and a revised schedule for distributing next year’s grant allocations.’

Wonkhe: Gavin Williamson has set out his strategic priorities again to OfS including changes to the teaching grant that will hit London universities the hardest.

HEPI also has a blog piece on the case for the Office for Students to be a strong regulator, working closely with universities and sector bodies.

Post-18 Review of Post-18 Education and Funding and interim response to the Augar report

The Augar report from 2019 has been gathering dust for a long time following the (2018) Post-18 Review of Education and Funding (one of  Jo Johnson’s legacies). The Augar Review made 53 recommendations for the reform of the FE & HE sectors including a more coherent unified post-18 system.   You might want to look back at what Augar actually said (way back in May 2019).

The Government’s response to Augar has been long promised and many times shifted further down the road due to elections, Brexit, the pandemic, and the further postponement of the comprehensive spending review.

While the sector may approach the Government’s response to Augar with both anticipation and trepidation – alongside a healthy dose of just tell us! – it seems we’ll still have to wait for the real decisions. The DfE’s interim conclusion of Augar has been released, the main points are below. Much is inextricably tied in with the Skills white paper and FE decisions. The Government also plan to consult on further reforms to the system in spring 2021, before setting out their full response. The full conclusion of the review is promised to sit alongside the next Comprehensive Spending Review. Augar: the sequel, we can’t wait!

  • The TEF will continue to play an important role in driving improvement in HE provision. The OfS will consult on a more, streamlined, improved, low-burden TEF exercise, and in an aim to reduce bureaucracy, the Government will not be introducing subject-level TEF. There is a lot more on the TEF below.
  • The Government are considering further reforms for tackling ‘low quality provision’ and will set out a response in due course.
  • The report highlighted the significant taxpayer subsidy in the HE student finance system. The Government intend to freeze the maximum tuition fee cap to deliver better value for students and to keep the cost of higher education under control, initially for one year, with consideration of further changes before the next Comprehensive Spending Review. It appear the reduction in the fee cap to £7,500 may still be on the table.

Wonkhe have a blog: editor in chief Mark Leach argues that the government’s chronic failure to resolve the Augar recommendations on reducing home undergraduate fees is storing up serious problems for later this year – Holding the threat of reducing fees over the sector will not help universities or students. 

Research Professional (writing before the response was officially released): What will be presented as an interim response to Philip Augar’s review of post-18 education and funding will be little more than a holding position, with all the big financial decisions put on hold until the comprehensive spending review…It is also, no doubt, a way of putting pressure on universities so that the government gets its way on other policy priorities, such as low-value courses. Time will tell whether these interim findings will be a sword of Damocles held over universities or part of a process by which the Augar review is finally put out to pasture.

Autumn 2021 is the earliest the next CSR is likely to take place.

Some extracts from the response – but at 13 pages it is worth reading in full:

  • The Government’s focus on the response to the coronavirus pandemic means that now is not the right time to conclude the review in full. However, we remain committed to introducing further reforms that will ensure a just and financially sustainable student finance system, drive up the quality of higher education provision and promote accessibility for students. This will include consideration of elements mentioned in the Augar Report, including student finance terms and conditions, minimum entry requirements to higher education institutions, the treatment of foundation years and other matters. [note the minimum entry requirement piece. You will recall the outrage about this proposal which was going to be in Augar – the discussion at the time about the impact of a 3Ds minimum level.  Augar actually stopped short of recommending it but threatened it as a response to the sector not sorting out issues relating to “low value courses”.  See more detailed section below.]
  • We plan to consult on further reforms to the higher education system in spring 2021, before setting out a full response to the report and final conclusion to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding alongside the next Comprehensive Spending Review. [and how many times have they said that – the last two spending reviews at which we were promised this were cancelled]
  • As a further part of our Lifetime Skills Guarantee, and informed by the recommendation of the Augar panel, we will move to a system where everyone has a Lifelong Loan Entitlement, giving them access to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education. This flexible entitlement will bring technical and academic education closer together and will help people to train, retrain and upskill throughout their lifetime. The Lifelong Loan Entitlement will provide fairness of opportunity by making the same funding system available regardless of the route you choose and when you choose to study. We will consult on the scope and detail of the entitlement in early 2021, including seeking views on objectives and coverage.
  • This is potentially huge: We will move towards modularisation of higher education in order to provide a truly flexible system that provides more opportunity for upskilling throughout people’s careers, as recommended by the Augar Report. We will consult widely about the changes that are needed to enable universities and colleges to provide a modular offer.[doesn’t say when they will consult on this]
  • Our vision is that the substantial majority of post-16 technical and Higher Technical Education will be aligned to employer-led standards by the end of this decade
  • We will set out how the higher education teaching grant will be used next year to ensure that more of taxpayers’ money is spent on supporting provision which aligns with the priorities of the nation, such as healthcare, STEM and specific labour market needs. This gives reassurance to potential students that incentives are aligned to encourage courses with good job outcomes and reinforces the Government’s commitment to safeguarding the UK’s high-quality research base.
  • As recommended by the Augar Report, we will create a system that stimulates demand for technical education, improving the nation’s skills and encouraging growth…..
    • …We need a better balance between academic and technical education – we are currently too skewed towards degrees above all else
    • .. We want every student with the aptitude and desire to go to university to be able to do so and we want technical, employer-centric training to be a viable option for many more people.
  • We will ask the OfS to consult on a more streamlined, improved, low-burden TEF exercise that will ensure that the drive to improve the quality of provision applies across all providers, not just those at the lower end. In line with the ambition to reduce bureaucracy, we will not be introducing a subject-level TEF. [that is a fascinating nuance – see the TEF section below]
  • We are considering what further reforms may be needed to tackle low-quality provision and will set out a full response on this issue in due course. [So what is that, then?  More than what the OfS are already doing with their quality and standards work, presumably.    Augar also looked at, in the same way as it looked at minimum grade requirements, (i.e. “we aren’t recommending but you could look at”), targeted number caps on courses offering low value for money.  Is that what the government response is hinting at?.  We look at this in more detail below as well].
  • The Augar Report highlighted the significant, and growing, taxpayer subsidy in the higher education student finance system. It is important that the student finance funding systems remain sustainable and that those who benefit from their higher education should make a fair contribution. We intend to freeze the maximum tuition fee cap to deliver better value for students and to keep the cost of higher education under control. This will initially be for one year and further changes to the student finance system will be considered ahead of the next Comprehensive Spending Review. [There you are, postponed again to another spending review. Which is surely unlikely to happen this year, for the same reasons as it hasn’t happened the last two years.]

HEPI has a blog “The Government’s emerging vision for universities: labour-market need at the heart of the system.”

  • The Government might be determined to put short-term labour-market need at the heart of our higher education system – determining the subjects that people are encouraged to or able to study… If enacted, these proposals will lead to (i) a weaker student voice, (ii) an un-benchmarked metric that equates professional-level employment fifteen months after graduation with success, and (iii) connecting university courses’ conditions of registration to a pass/fail rule about successful outcomes that takes no account of the social backgrounds of different students. This would be a very significant change in how universities are held to account and, by implication, a philosophical shift on what the fundamental purpose of university is considered to be. Short-term labour-market need, not student choice, will be at the heart of the system. The Government is perfectly entitled to do all this but it will have ripple effects. The current funding model puts primary responsibility on the individual graduate to pay for their education. Young people might wonder whether they should pay in a system that steers their choices in a direction someone else has judged appropriate.

So what’s coming next on Augar?

So, the response to Augar says there will be a consultation on minimum entry requirements and one on “further reforms”  – and more work on low value courses.  We remind you about the previous debates about minimum entry requirements, and what Augar said about them, as well as what it said about further action on capping student numbers for low value courses.

Minimum entry requirements: This suggestion was made in Augar the context of this:

  • Our preference is for the HE sector, through the OfS, to resolve the problem of students being inappropriately recruited onto low value courses.
  • We believe that the sector should have three years – until the start of academic year 2022/23 – to put its house in order

If not, Augar said, then the government should do two things – impose minimum entry requirements and cap numbers on low value courses.

To remind you about the arguments:

Augar was published in May 2019 and actually said this on minimum entry requirements (see pages 99-101)

  • We have considered the introduction at some future date of a contextualised minimum entry threshold for access to Level 6 student finance for students under the age of 25, to be used if the measures outlined above did not deliver the scale and pace of change needed. Students under 25 with tariff points below a certain level would be ineligible for student loans for tuition at Level 6. To repeat, this policy would need to be implemented such that disadvantaged students were not unfairly penalised.
  • The choice of threshold would be critical. As Figure 3.14 shows, there is no clear drop-off point in graduate earnings by attainment. To be effective, a threshold would need to be both high enough to address the issues of drop-out and lower wage returns set out earlier; and low enough to ensure that the impact could be managed across the sector and would avoid disproportionate impact on disadvantaged groups.
  • Were a minimum entry requirement introduced, it should apply only to students under the age of 25, after which work experience, rather than Level 3 qualifications alone, would be the appropriate entry criterion. The policy should apply only to Level 6 courses: any young person with Level 3 attainment below the threshold would still be eligible for student finance to study at Levels 4/5, and could then use their qualification at those higher levels to progress on to, and therefore receive finance for, Level 6 in the future. Introducing high-quality alternatives to degree study will be crucial to addressing the problems of low-value degrees set out above. Students recognise the value of higher-level study but they must have these alternatives available to them or they will continue to enrol for poor-value degrees. We are aware that even with contextualisation the impact on some HEIs would be significant. Some of them might wish to focus on the new higher technical provision discussed in the previous chapter; if they chose to do so, this would be a positive outcome [ouch]
  • We consider a minimum entry threshold contextualised for socio-economic background to be feasible and that it could address the problems of low returns for graduates in a socially progressive way.
  • However, such a threshold would be a significant intervention into what has been designed as a competitive autonomous market. It could be seen as a reversal of the principle of allowing all who are able to benefit from HE to attend, a principle that has underpinned HE policy in recent years and was first pronounced in the 1963 Robbins Report.
  • It might be objected that the contextualisation process breaks the clear link between attainment and entry established by a minimum entry threshold. For example, it could result in a position where two students at the same school with the same grades holding the same offer from the same university would have different outcomes; one would be moderated over the threshold and attend university while the other would not. In so doing, it could be presented as an example of social engineering – and breach of concepts of fairness – that do not fit comfortably within a meritocratic education system.

There was a lot of debate about this idea before Augar was published – because it was leaked as a possible recommendation.  Chris Skidmore, who was Universities Minister at the time, did not like the idea.  In the end it was watered down as a threat if the sector did not sort out “low value courses” by 2022/23.  The current government look to be a bit more impatient and have assumed that these issues will not be sorted out by then.  And it may not be just this that they are considering – we look at the other Augar threat on targeted number caps below.

Targeted number caps on courses offering poor value for money

This was in the same context as the minimum entry requirements proposal:

  • Our preference is for the HE sector, through the OfS, to resolve the problem of students being inappropriately recruited onto low value courses.
  • We believe that the sector should have three years – until the start of academic year 2022/23 – to put its house in order

..and if not then: Augar said this on capping numbers (see pages 101-102)

  • If recruitment practice has not improved by 2022/23, discussed further below, an alternative or complementary option for the government and OfS is the imposition of a cap on the numbers admitted to courses that persistently manifest poor value for money for students and the public. The existing regulations give OfS the power to implement such caps where that is justified in accordance with their regulatory aims, at institutional or subject level.
  • The government has made it clear that it will not re-impose a cap on student numbers at national level. It would be out of scope for us to propose this and we would not wish to do so, even if it were within our terms of reference. However, we are mindful that the government does exceptionally place a cap on numbers, notably on university places for Medicine, because of the very high cost of a medical degree and of the professional training that follows it, and have considered whether this practice could be extended.[this looks interesting now in the light of the attempt to apply student number caps in the pandemic which was abandoned so quickly when the extent of the 2020 A-level results mess-ups became apparent].
  • We therefore invite the government to consider the case for encouraging the OfS to stipulate in exceptional circumstances a limit to the numbers an HEI could enrol on a specific course, or group of courses.
  • Where there is persistent evidence of poor value for students in terms of employment and earnings and for the public in terms of loan repayments, the OfS would have the regulatory authority to place a limit, for a fixed period, on the numbers eligible for financial support who could be admitted to the course. The institution in question would remain free to recruit to all other courses without restriction. Such a cap system would clearly target the institutions that are offering poor value, rather than altering the entry criteria for individual students.

International and mobility

Wonkhe have new content: Ahead of the British Council’s international education virtual festival this week, Director Education Maddalaine Ansell takes stock of the state of international recruitment.

Parliamentary Question: Ensuring the UK remains an attractive destination for education for international students

Wonkhe have a blog on what is needed for Turing to be a success. Here are some of the recommendations:

  • Monitor the graduate outcomes of Turing on a longitudinal basis so we can measure its benefit not just as a snapshot six or twelve months from graduation but over an individual’s lifetime
  • Be global in principle but trade oriented in focus because the rise of the Asian Century means giving our students as much opportunity to travel to Asia and learn Asian languages/culture as engaging with Europe and North America.
  • Ensure more industry and employer engagement which will require universities to understand their international graduate destinations and form alliances and partnerships with international companies that can host students on work placements overseas. With robust country specific data on international graduate outcomes institutions can focus employer engagement where it will have the most impact.
  • Attribute value to soft power because global goodwill is essential for the UK’s future economic success particularly during and following the global pandemic. Mapping the careers of those that take part in Turing will put the UK in the driving seat when it comes to having alumni with a wide network of contacts with the authority to invest and trade.
  • Demonstrate excellence through international employability by showing the value to an individual’s future career if they take part in Turing. Evidencing the outcomes from the scheme must be part of the hearts and minds approach to ensuring that UK students are motivated to take part in outward mobility.

Meanwhile Wonkhe report: Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams is reported to be in discussions with her counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland about the possibility that the three nations could rejoin the Erasmus+ scheme. Nation Cymru has the story.

HEPI have a blog: Five questions to ask about the Turing scheme

Parliamentary Questions

  • Whether UK students will be liable for fees in their host countries under the Turing programme. Answer – students taking part will receive grants to help them with the costs of their international experience…On tuition fees, we expect these to be waived for Turing scheme participants consistent with the arrangements for Erasmus+.
  • Will Turing involve a competitive bidding element? Answer: We will be making further information available very shortly to enable providers across the UK to prepare to bid for funding when applications open in the coming weeks for placements to take place from September 2021. This will include information on how applications will be assessed, and funding allocated and we plan to have a call for bids much like Erasmus+. Successful applications will receive funding for administering the scheme and students taking part will receive grants to help them with the costs of their international experience.

This scheme will be demand-led and will be open to bids from providers across the UK. As such, there is no projection as to the number of students from each nation or specific limits for any specific region.

TEF

The Independent (Pearce) Review of the Teaching and Student Outcomes Framework (i.e. the TEF Review) has been published. This was completed and submitted to government (in August 2019) but hibernated in the Ministerial in tray (election etc…) whilst Governmental focus and priorities shifted.

RP:

  • the subject-level Teaching Excellence Framework looks to be heading for the highest shelf in the cupboard of abandoned higher education policy initiatives. It seems as if the Office for Students is to be sent back to the drawing board to come up with something less burdensome and more in keeping with government priorities on low-value courses.
  • As ever, higher education should be careful what it wishes for, as the replacement for the subject-level TEF might be even less rigorous and more intrusive. The absence of benchmarking in the Office for Students’ consultation on quality has spooked some, who fear the imposition of a less sophisticated assessment process for universities.

Here are all the links:

Overall: Is it worth it?: Given the value of HE to the UK, we believe it is firmly in the public and student interest for TEF to have, as its primary purpose, the identification of excellence across all HE and to encourage enhancement of that provision.

We’ll set out the Pearce recommendations and the government responses together so you can compare.

Statistical analysis:

Pearce: Improvements are needed in the management and communication of:

  • statistical uncertainty at all levels of the process, including multiple comparisons
  • small numbers ( small providers and/or small datasets ) and non-reportable metrics
  • relative versus absolute comparisons

These have a significant impact on flagging and generating the initial hypothesis.

Appendix B sets out the essential ONS recommendations that address these concerns.

Government: …we would like the OfS metrics group to take into account and address the concerns raised by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) when reviewing the robustness of its metrics and data.

Subject level exercise:

Pearce: The process and statistical risks become exacerbated at subject level where the impact of problems due to small numbers becomes greater. This, in addition to the problems with subject categorisation and risks of inconsistencies at scale, mean that ratings at subject level risk undermining the successful development of TEF as a whole.

There is evidence however, that a subject-level exercise has value for driving internal enhancement. For this reason, we recommend that while TEF should not progress to ratings at subject level at this stage, a subject-level exercise should be incorporated into the provider-level assessment and inform provider-level ratings.

Work is needed to develop the most effective way to do this. We propose that all providers receive a full set of subject-level metrics and that failure to sufficiently address variability in subject performance should act as a limiting factor on ratings of the aspects of assessment and the overall provider rating.

Government: …we do not want to move to subject-level TEF ratings, because we do not consider at this stage it can be achieved without significant burden

Metrics:

Pearce:

  • Teaching and Learning Environment: Institutionally determined evidence addressing ‘how we create an excellent environment for teaching and learning and how we know we are doing this well’. Subject variability in teaching and learning environments should be addressed.
  • Student Satisfaction: Evidence to address ‘what our students think of our educational provision’. National comparisons should use National Student Survey (NSS) metrics. In the submission, institutions should address their performance in the NSS metrics and may also add their own data. Subject variability in satisfaction should be addressed.
  • Educational Gains: Institutionally determined evidence addressing ‘what our students gain from our educational experience and how we evidence that’. Educational gains might include knowledge, skills, experience, work readiness, personal development and resilience. This will be conceptualised differently in different institutions. Since there is no single nationally comparable metric of ‘learning gain’, each provider would be expected to demonstrate how, within their own particular mission, they articulate and measure ( quantify if possible ) the educational gains that they aim to provide for their students. Subject variability in those gains should also be addressed.
  • Graduate Outcomes: Evidence to address ‘what our students do as graduates and how we have supported these outcomes’. In addition to the existing TEF employment metrics, measures beyond employment should be used and regional differences in labour markets should be controlled for. Continuation and differential degree attainment should also be part of this aspect. Institutions would use their submission to respond to the metrics and add their own data. Subject variability in graduate outcomes should also be addressed.

Government:

  • ….the Government does not consider ‘Student Satisfaction’ to be an appropriate measure of excellence, as satisfaction can, potentially, be too easily obtained via a reduction in quality or academic rigour – we believe ‘Student Academic Experience’ to be a more appropriate aspect
  • …we would like the OfS to ensure that the TEF ratings are based on an assessment of high quality, nationally gathered metrics and data (e.g., Graduate Outcomes, Longitudinal Education Outcomes and non-continuation data) and contextual qualitative information.
  • It should use more than just earnings and should take account of regional variations
  • OfS will also need to consider if and how educational gain can be reliably measured
  • The outcomes of the NSS Review will be important in considering the role the survey plays in the TEF assessment. We recognise that there is a place for students’ feedback on the quality of their teaching and learning experience and we will work with the OfS to develop how this aspect of quality could be included

Plus, new: For this reason, the Government considers it essential that student outcomes should act as Limiting Factors, such that a provider should not achieve a high TEF rating if it has poor student outcomes. We will work with the OfS to determine how the Limiting Factors should work. [so they will be a baseline in the quality framework and a limiting factor in the TEF -they are doing a lot of work here]

Submission

Pearce: …a standard structure should be developed which incorporates a subject level exercise. The student body should also be given the opportunity to provide direct input in an independent structured submission.

Government: We agree with the Independent Review’s recommendation that provider-level ratings should be derived from robust data and structured submissions from providers and students.

Ratings:

Pearce: Greater granularity in the rating system would provide more information about excellence and reflect the complexity of educational provision. We therefore recommend providers are awarded both an institutional rating, and a rating for each of the four proposed aspects.

We also recommend that the names of the ratings should reflect the level of excellence identified. We propose the following names:

  • Meets UK Quality Requirements
  • Commended
  • Highly Commended
  • Outstanding

Government: We agree with the Independent Review that there should, in future, be four TEF ratings overall, with the top three being signifiers of excellence to varying degrees.

The new bottom category will capture those providers failing to show sufficient evidence of excellence, and it will be made clear that these providers will need to improve the quality of their provision. We will work with the OfS to confirm the names for the four ratings in due course. [this is really interesting – the OFS quality consultation has a whole thing on using the bottom TEF rating as a reason to investigate a provider, which suddenly makes sense].

The name of the scheme

Pearce: We heard much frustration that the name ‘Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework’ does not adequately reflect what the TEF really measures. Teaching is only assessed via proxies and the student learning experience is dependent on more than just teaching. We recommend that the name should reflect more accurately what a revised TEF will measure and assess. Of the options we have considered, we propose the Educational Excellence Framework (EdEF).

Goverment: The Government would like the scheme to continue to be known as ‘the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) This name has a well-established brand value, and is increasingly understood, in the UK and internationally, to mean a rating on teaching, learning and student outcomes.

And in terms of the practical question about what happens next, the government have said:

  • … we will end the current approach of TEF running each year and expect the TEF to be a periodic exercise, taking place every 4 or 5 years.
  • Its costs should also be kept proportionate and for each exercise the costs, for both providers or the OfS, should, at an absolute maximum, not exceed the costs per provider of the TEF exercise that has taken place to date

And the OfS have told us (Letter to universities):

  • We are developing proposals for the TEF to be an integral part of the overall quality system in England. The role of the TEF is to continue to incentivise excellence above our baseline requirements. In developing our proposals for the TEF, we will take into account the Independent Review recommendations and the government’s response to these, and the evidence from the subject-level pilots. We expect to consult on these proposals in the spring, aligned to more detailed proposals on our approach to the regulation of quality and standards through the conditions of registration. 
  • We do not expect a new TEF framework to be in place before the current TEF awards expire in summer 2021. We are considering the options for the interim period until a new TEF framework is in place and expect to consult about this soon.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said:

  • ‘Students invest a significant amount of time and money in higher education and should expect a high-quality academic experience. The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) plays an important role in driving up the quality of provision in universities and colleges – we welcome the publication of Dame Shirley Pearce’s review and the recommendations she has identified for developing the scheme further.
  • ‘We are committed to raising the bar on quality and standards across the English higher education system. As we refine our overall approach to regulation, the TEF will continue to incentivise improvement in areas that students care deeply about: the quality of teaching and learning, and how well their courses set them up for success after their studies.
  • ‘We will develop proposals on how best to take forward the independent review recommendations and the government response to these, as well as evidence from our own subject-level pilots. We expect to consult on proposals for the future TEF in the spring, aligned to more detailed proposals on how we regulate quality and standards through conditions of registration.’

On Wonkhe: TEF – Big changes lie ahead and David Kernohan is here to walk you through them.

Admissions

The DfE launched a consultation on their proposed changes for post-qualification admissions (PQA) in HE as part of Thursday’s deluge. The consultation explores whether student’s receiving and accepting university offers after they have achieved their A level grades would ensure a fairer higher education admissions system.

Brief overview of rationale from the documentation:

  • There is evidence that disadvantaged students ‘undermatch’ in relation to the grades they actually achieve
  • A PQA system might encourage disadvantaged students to be more aspiration in their choices and identify courses they are better matched to
  • Use of conditional unconditional offers and other undesirable admissions practices such as material inducements to persuade students to enter certain courses has increased in recent years, dramatically in the case of conditional unconditional offers
  • The current system is complex and difficult to navigate
  • Post-Qualification Admissions (PQA) has been proposed as a reform that could help alleviate some of these issues by a wide variety of groups and commentators across the political spectrum – including The Sutton Trust, The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), The UCL Institute of Education and Policy Exchange
  • UCAS and Universities UK have concluded that now is the time for admissions reform to be considered, following months of engagement with students, schools, colleges and universities. This consultation will build on these findings, working across education sectors, to agree how reform could be delivered.

The consultation document states: We believe that it is time to explore whether a PQA system could address some of the challenges posed by the current HE admissions system: namely, that it is complex, lacks transparency, works against the interests of some students, and encourages undesirable admissions practices. Key delivery partners, as well as those across the education sector, have signalled that this is the right time to review the system. The experience of having completed full Level 3 qualifications, and knowledge of their actual results could put students in a better position to decide on their best options for further study. PQA could allow them to consider the full range of available qualifications, including higher technical qualifications as well as degree level study. Hence, it may lead to more students making better informed decisions, improve continuation rates in higher education and potentially lead to better career outcomes for students.

Prior to publication Research Professional said:

  • while a consensus seems to be gathering that post-qualification admissions are the right thing to do, a rearguard action is being mounted by vice-chancellors of low-tariff and medium-tariff universities who think that their institutions will be disadvantaged by the change.
  • The feeling is that there are some universities that need to spend more time building a relationship with applicants, and post-qualification admissions will see school leavers migrate towards established brand names. This, of course, may be what the government is hoping for.

Wonkhe have: A consultation from DfE on post-qualification admissions landed and Jim Dickinson has everything you need to know.

Exams in 2021: 

Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for School Standards, issued a written ministerial statement on exams. There was no new content or updates, all remains as we outlined in last week’s policy update, the consultation closes next week.

Meanwhile Sammy Wright, a Social Mobility Commissioner, has stated that:

  • fair A level results are impossible and calls for a fully funded foundation year at university to avoid “catastrophic unfairness” among this year’s cohort.
  • Wright said disadvantaged students would not face “a level playing field” because they had missed out on more digital learning than their peers, and he warned that asking teachers to be objective in their grading could result in “a worse disaster than last year”. He also stated that no matter how grades are awarded, many students will be embarking on courses in September 2021 at a lower level than they may have done in a normal year

Wright was in favour of the Government’s proposal for clearing to take place after students have had time to appeal their grades. Wright states: At all costs we must avoid the chaos of clearing in 2020—and as such, we again call on UCAS and universities to ensure that clearing does not happen until all appeals have been responded to.

HEPI have a blog: How to be ‘innovative’ in school exam assessment – fewer grades

The Sutton Trust has published a report on how teachers and parents are responding to the second period of school closures.

Free Speech

During 2018 the debate over Free Speech in HE was a frequent topic in the policy update. While the HE sector agrees free speech is essential many were baffled by the Government’s dogged pursuit of the topic and the lack of evidence of its prevalence. This week we were transported back to 2018 – but on steroids – gone are the Ministerial speeches and push for the HE sector to sign up to ‘agreements’, now some Parliamentarians want a law and the ability to fine universities if they fail to uphold free speech. Conspiracy theorists might hypothesise that it all feels like another step towards a different agenda of tighter Governmental control over these (pesky) semi-autonomous university organisations. But back to this week…

David Davis (Conservative MP, currently an under-secretary of state for Wales and assistant Government Whip) presented a Ten Minute Rule motion on Freedom of Speech (Universities). In essence the Bill aims to: place a duty on universities to promote freedom of speech and to make provision for fining universities that do not comply with that duty. Davis’ introductory speech included:

  • Today, there is a corrosive trend in our universities that aims to prevent anybody from airing ideas that groups disagree with or would be offended by. Let us be clear: it is not about protecting delicate sensibilities from offence; it is about censorship. We can protect our own sensibilities by not going to the speech. After all, nobody is compelled to listen. But when people explicitly or indirectly no-platform Amber Rudd, Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell, Peter Hitchens and others, they are not protecting themselves; they are denying others the right to hear those people and even, perhaps, challenge what they say.
  • …views expressed in a recent survey commissioned by Britain’s biggest university academic union showed that Britain has the second-lowest level of academic freedom in all Europe. Just last month, a report by Civitas found that more than a third of our universities impose severe restrictions on freedom of speech—including, I am ashamed to say, Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews. The fact is that a number of our international allies today protect freedom of speech much better than we do.
  • Although in the UK we theoretically have laws protecting freedom of speech, in practice they are buried in education Acts, resulting in the protections not being widely known and universities not always upholding their duties.
  • speech that is illegal—incitement to violence, for example—would of course be forbidden, but speech that is merely unpopular with any sector of the university would not be proscribed. Controversial views and the challenging of established positions would not be proscribed.

Ten Minute Rule motions are an opportunity for backbencher MPs to float an idea for a new Bill to the House, a ‘vote’ at the end of the (roughly) 10 minutes decides whether the Bill passes to the next stage. Similar to Private Members Bills the Ten Minute Rule motions rarely pass into legislation. However, some are introduced as a plant for the Government (perhaps to judge sentiment and support within the house without Cabinet embarrassment). This Bill was supported by 11 other Conservative MPs and it passed the initial ‘vote’ meaning it can progress to the second reading stage.

In theory Davis’ Bill should now stall – because time for all private bills has been paused due to Covid – but Davis knew this before he presented the Bill. Furthermore, if the Government wishes to back the Bill they can allocate it some of the time set aside for the Government’s agenda to progress it through the legislative stages. It will be an interesting one to watch.

Wonkhe take issue with the content of Davis’ speech: David Davis’ speech in support of his Ten Minute Rule motion to introduce a Freedom of Speech (Universities) Bill was passed unopposed in the House of Commons. His speech took in the 1689 Bill of Rights, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the “no-platforming” of Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell, “professional iconoclast” Peter Hitchens, and Amber Rudd – none of which were actually denied a platform.

Free Speech was one of the landmarks within Sam Gyimah’s tenure as Universities Minister in which he seems to have made several unsubstantiated claims that he later had to row back from. This BBC article stated the committee found little evidence that such censorship was “pervasive” – but instead found that a relatively small number of incidents were being widely shared. Research Professional dismissed another of Gyimah’s claims about overegging a safe space culture – With the Department for Education unable to confirm this latest claim about safe-spaces in universities, there remains little documented evidence of a culture of censorship in UK higher education. And an Oxford Professor states the obvious elephant in the room about lack of evidence in this Guardian article –  When it comes to Sam Gyimah and Jo Johnson’s warnings that free speech is threatened, I’ve never seen either of them produce any evidence to support those statements. In education you’re supposed to be able to back up what you say, and they just don’t. The same article has Amatey Doku speaking within his 2018 role at NUS: There is vigorous debate every single day at universities. If there really were a censorship problem we’d hear about it. What we actually find are isolated instances blown out of proportion. There are a couple of reasons why ministers exaggerate: politically it plays well for their voter base. 

iNews provide up to date coverage of the issue highlighting that Free Speech has continued as a hotspot for the Government, they state:

Michael Barber (outgoing Chair of the OfS) made a farewell speech on Wednesday evening in which he mentioned free speech. Research Professional pick it apart in their inimitable manner:

  • Referring to high-profile cases of “no-platforming”, Barber said: “I am often told that the vast majority of such possibly controversial speaking engagements do in fact go ahead. I am willing to believe that this is the case, but I would love to see the data. It is hardly a job for a regulator but if I were a university administrator or an influence at Universities UK, I would be collecting the data.”
  • England’s higher education regulator-in-chief seems to be unaware that the organisation he has chaired for the past four years gathers precisely these data, asking universities to return figures on the number of speakers approved or rejected as part of the Prevent legislation. In 2017-18…53 speaker requests [were] rejected. Of those 53, how many were to do with extremist views and how many were to do with a failure to complete the onerous paperwork properly? We are willing to bet on the latter for quite a few.
  • The Prevent statistics do not capture the Amber Rudds and Germaine Greers, but they do capture the reality of free speech in UK universities, rather than the issue imagined by some who mistake inherited privilege for inalienable rights.
  • Barber said: “My critique of the current free speech debate is not that it is too extensive but that it is too limited. After all, the conceptual rule for such events is surely clear: a university should be a place that actively promotes and protects the widest possible freedom of speech within the law.” At which point he should have sat down, or turned off his Zoom, because nobody ever, anywhere, has disagreed with that.

So will the Bill progress or fizzle…? I’m not sure even the Government know right now. Wonkhe’s irreverent interpretation (written before the Bill was presented) made me smile: There’s little chance of whatever’s in it becoming law all on its own – so we’ll have to wait and see to work out whether an extension of the culture war that the public looks increasingly bored with will take off this time around.

Education Oral Questions

Gavin Williamson took centre stage for Education Oral Questions and the Topicals on Monday breezing through content asking about:

  • the end of the Brexit transition period for HE,
  • Turing – Question: how will the Secretary of State ensure that the Turing scheme, a poor replacement for Erasmus, is as effective in encouraging inward student mobility? Answer: The Turing scheme is not a poor replacement…It is about us looking around the globe as to how we can expand opportunities for students. No comment on inward student mobility was made.
  • Research investment
  • Students paying rent for accommodation the Government have mandated they may not use (Answer: hardship funds)

Wonkhe covered the HE questions: Education Questions in the House of Commons saw Gavin Williamson once again reiterate that support for students remains under review – but apart from the £20m put towards hardship funds just before Christmas there has been no action.

Specific questions from Labour’s Emma Hardy and the SNP’s Stuart McDonald on support for rent where students are unable to use the property if following government guidelines saw no substantive answer.

  • Remote education (for pupils). Williamson states problems should be addressed with the school first before resorting to Ofsted complaints. Live lessons for SEN pupils was also covered as was laptops for disadvantaged pupils and internet access and free school meals.
  • Technical and vocational exams

During topicals:

  • Q – Bim Afolami: Many students have suffered as a result of inadequate teaching and pastoral care at their universities, in addition to unfair costs for accommodation that they are not even allowed to stay in. What action will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that the Government are a voice for students, that they stand up for students and that they allow them to be compensated in some way by their universities when those universities fail them and let them down?
  • A – Gavin Williamson: There can be no excuses when universities are not offering the type of remote teaching and educational support that is expected. That is why it is so critical that, where that remote teaching and support is not happening, students’ rights are upheld. We saw at the tail end of last year that students’ rights were upheld and universities had to redress that. That is the right approach. We recognise how important it is to support students, which is why we will continue to look at how best we can support them through programmes such as the hardship fund.

This week’s Education Committee session focussed solely on the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services. There was no HE content. Do get in touch if you would like to receive Dods’ summary of the Committee session.

Case for Commons Reform

UCL’s Department of Political Science have an interesting publication: Taking back control – Why the House of Commons should govern its own time. It highlights that much of the time within the Commons is directed by the Government ministerial agenda and that several of the reforms recommended 10 years ago have not been implemented – some of its central concerns about the management of time in the House of Commons went unheeded… whereby MPs [despite coming from the majority party] have inadequate say over the running of their own institution. The report makes recommendations for change such as allocating more regular opposition and backbench business days, that the weekly agenda be put to members in an amendable form for decision (as happens in other parliaments) which would make ministers more responsive to the Commons majority (particularly their own backbench MPs). Also: that there should be a wide-ranging formal review of the extent of government control of House of Commons business.

In conclusion: As the Wright committee pointed out more than a decade ago, the extent of government control of the House of Commons is both unusual in international terms, and problematic for the functioning of Westminster. This was already true under periods of single party majority government, but it became even more obvious under minority government, as applied between May 2017 and November 2019. At present, House of Commons rules too often explicitly privilege the government rather than privileging the parliamentary majority. But these two will not always be the same thing. The core principle guiding House of Commons functioning should be majority decision-making, not government control.

Strategic Education Recovery Plan

Previous universities minister, Chris Skidmore, writes Thinking, fast and slow. Why we need a long-term Education Recovery Plan for Conservative Home. The article begins with humble words acknowledging the reality of home schooling whilst working. He recognises the disruption to all children’s learning and calls for an all through long term education plan from nursery to university. He states: We cannot afford to simply react to events, waiting to see what happens with the spread of the virus and its containment, before we decide the next stages of an entire generation’s future. The impact of the pandemic will emerge like the widening ripples in a pond when a stone has been thrown: its impact, in particular its educational impact, will be with us for years, a fact which we must come to terms with and have a strategic plan to help counter.

Already the Chair of the Education Select Committee and educational leaders have called for a redesign of the examination system. What is needed foremost, however, is a definitive understanding of the outcomes that we wish to achieve, before moving onto the processes to deliver this.

He highlights with two years’ worth of key stage assessments cancelled a system is needed to monitor individual pupil progress, so that pupils at risk of educational failure due to the pandemic can be rescued as quickly as possible, and given the individual support and tuition that they need to get back on track. This should be viewed as the critical mission. Identifying those pupils at risk of educational disadvantage means new forms of assessment, and data collection, will need to be considered. Above all, there must be transparency and a common approach to what is being measured. And this is the crux of his point. While schools will all be tracking and assessing the individual pupils without a national approach where is the policy push and additional funding. Remember the year 7 support funding – for pupils below year 6 SATs standards has been sucked into the coronavirus catch up fund – with different criteria for access.

He also talks about exams and HE admissions – I’m cautious about re-inventing the wheel at a time when stability and certainty is needed. Pupils deserve exam results to show for all their hard work, and existing systems that have held their own as a standard over time should not be thrown out for the sake of change. But we do need to address the issue of admissions to university, and how results and assessment are used to deliver this.

Post Qualification Admissions have been proposed as a way forward, yet with the qualifications themselves under review, we need greater long-term certainty of how we can achieve an equitable admissions system that encourages disadvantaged pupils to reach their potential.

Reforms to post-18 education to ensure lifelong learning and flexible qualification structures have taken on a fresh urgency in light of the pandemic, especially with the likely need for retraining and reskilling of a large number of people seeking new forms of employment. 

Ultimately, a long-term education recovery plan must start not from what is convenient for existing systems and vested interests of the organisations that operate in this space. To do this would mean that those with the loudest voices, and greatest lobbying efforts, win out. What is needed instead is an approach that defines the “points of contact” at every stage of a child’s educational journey — and defining how these have been adversely affected by the pandemic, and what can be done to resolve this.

Defining and delivering a long-term plan, with the investment needed to achieve this, will be hard work: easier, more tactical approaches, may seem more attractive. Yet to achieve an effective recovery, the longer term, strategic planning is now essential… With all the immediate talk of laptop provision as the instant solution to current learning problems, we must not forget that now is also the time to prepare all pupils for their educational recovery, encompassed in a long-term strategic approach.

HE Staff Statistics

HESA have released HE sector staff statistics and data for the (pre-Covid) period to 1 December 2019.

Much media content has focussed on the lack of improving diversity, particularly at professorial level (see BBC). Some headline points from the HESA analysis.

  • Staff ethnicity – 18% BMC – an increase of 1 since 216/17; 11% of professors are BME
  • Staff nationality – 17% EU (excluding British), 14% non-EU
  • Gender – Men are more likely to work full time (52%) and academics are more likely to be male (53%); Females make up the larger proportions of part time staff (66%) and work in a non-academic role (63%).
  • Age – 19% of academic staff are aged 56 or over; almost half of all professors are aged 56+ years.
  • 78% of academics’ salaries were paid in full by the institution. The other 22% were financed in part by research councils, UK branches of multinational companies, the NHS and/or UK and overseas charities.
  • 44% of academic staff held teaching and research contracts. 32% held teaching only contracts. Teaching only contracts are increasing steadily each year, in 2015/16 teaching only contracts were held by 26% of staff.

Wonkhe have a good analysis delving into more detail (with understandable interpretations) here. Their blog specifically looks at Black underrepresentation too. The blog concludes by looking forward and reminding us that today’s issues will all have an impact on future figures. The pandemic has resulted in redundancies without appointing replacements, Brexit and the new immigration system may affect the diversity of nationalities employed, and, Wonkhe: A lot of what happens depends on government decisions as well as those made by providers – in particular institutional managers will be watching the decisions made by the Office for the Independent Adjudicator that could have a wider impact on student fee refunds. Other decisions made about university funding, for example as part of the response to the Augar report, will have an impact on university liquidity too.

Welsh support for students

The Welsh Government announced an additional £40m for universities to support students facing financial hardship. The fund aims to help the students most affected by the pandemic with expenses such as accommodation costs and addressing digital poverty. The £40 million is in addition to the previous £40 the Welsh Government provided to support students and universities. Kirsty Williams, the Welsh Education Minister, said:

  • This year, due to reasons beyond their control, many thousands of students have not been able to return to campus yet. In some cases, this means some students might still be paying for their accommodation while they are unable to use it. We recognise how difficult this is, which is why we are announcing this additional funding.
  • Our universities have worked tremendously hard to support their students, ensuring learning has continued, while putting measures in place to protect their students, staff and their local communities.  This funding will allow them to build on that good work.

The Welsh Minister’s tone differs substantial from her English counterpart Michelle Donelan (who is still under fire on her Twitter feed). This week Research Professional dissect and comment on Donelan’s 6 ‘student’ Tweets, and they offer MP and leading HE sector figures censure on her simplistic slogans.

Access & Participation

HEPI have two blogs:

Digital Poverty

At the end of last week Jisc, Universities UK, GuildHE and ucisa wrote to Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, calling on the Government to lift higher education students out of digital poverty to avoid a lost generation of learners. By ignoring university students while helping other disadvantaged learners to study online, the government and telecommunications companies risk creating a ‘lost generation’of young people who are missing out on their education. They state:

  • Half of higher education students are digitally disadvantaged
  • Many families are at risk of slipping into poverty and cannot afford the data costs required for online study
  • Digital and data poverty is the main issue that prevents effective delivery of online learning
  • Demand for hardship funding from universities has doubled

Indicating that around half of HE students are digitally disadvantaged, the letter cites the learning and teaching reimagined research project conducted by Jisc with sector partners, which found that digital and data poverty is the main issue that prevents delivering online learning effectively.

The letter goes on to highlight that, despite the welcome extra government funding to alleviate hardship for HE students, the demands on hardship funding have doubled, putting significant strain on university resources.

In conclusion, the letter, which calls for an urgent meeting with government and telecoms companies, states: Universities have moved mountains to provide learning and teachingonline since the first lockdown and are now much better equipped to deliver a quality curriculum online. However, without urgent action to ensure students can get online affordably, the government is risking creating an even deeper and more long-term digital divide in education. We urge you to take action now on behalf of all higher education students experiencing digital poverty, or risk creating a lost generation of young people who are missing out on their education.

The Guardian cover the story here.

Disabled Students Commission: Wonkhe summarise the new report: The Disabled Students Commission has published its annual report, Enhancing the disabled student experience. The report outlines how the commission approached supporting disabled students during the Covid-19 pandemic. Going forward the Commission plans to adopt a student lifecycle model to inform its research and recommendations, with considerations including the intersection of disability with other characteristics such as race and gender, the diversity of disabled student experience, and greater consultation with disabled students.

Parliamentary Questions:

  • Access to post-16 education for asylum seekers is governed by funding rules in further and higher education.
  • What proportion of people (a) applying for and (b) securing places at higher education institutions were from (i) working class and (ii) disadvantaged backgrounds for the academic year 2019-20.
  • The effect of the covid-19 lockdown on the attainment gap (pupils). Answer: The Department has commissioned an independent research agency to analyse catch-up needs and monitor progress over this academic year. This research is based on a large sample of pupils and will identify whether particular groups of pupils have been more affected by time out of school – including the most disadvantaged, those with historically poor outcomes, and those in particular areas.
  • What assessment the Government has made of the report by the Social Mobility Commission Changing gears: understanding downward social mobility, published in November 2020; and what plans they have to address the Commission’s finding that one in five people move into a lower occupational group than their parents.

Students

Wonkhe have two student focussed blogs:

Parliamentary Questions:

  • Sharia compliant alternative student finance product (no update yet); but this one on potential barriers to Muslim students has been answered
  • Additional support for HE students who have caring responsibilities for children and who are engaged in university studies alongside home tutoring. Government response: it’s up to the university but we expect them to be supporting student welfare
  • What support the Government plans to provide for undergraduate students whose university education has been disrupted by the covid-19 outbreak. Answer (as you’d expect): we are working with the sector to make sure that all reasonable efforts are being made to enable all students to continue their studies and provide the support required for them to do so. Our expectation, during these challenging times is that universities should maintain the quality and quantity of tuition and the Office for Students (OfS) will continue to actively monitor universities to ensure that quality of provision is maintained and accessible for all. And yes, Donelan also mentions the £256 OfS Student Premium funding which can go towards student hardship funds and the £20 million of additional hardship funding expected by providers soon
  • Student Finance – Illness/shielding: Students who suspend their studies for a variety of reasons, including shielding, can apply to Student Finance England for their living costs support to be continued while they are absent from their course. Students who suspend their studies due to illness automatically receive living costs support for the first 60 days of their illness.
  • Supporting students who have paid rent for accommodation at university but are unable to use it as a result of covid-19 restrictions. Answer: The government plays no direct role in the provision of student accommodation. However, the government encourages all providers of student accommodation to review their accommodation policies to ensure that they have students best interests at heart. We also urge them to communicate their policy clearly and be fair.
  • Emma Hardy, Shadow universities minister has been asking some emotive questions about students nurses such as whether they’ll have to pay extra tuition fees because Covid has prevented them from completing their placement hours and similar on course extensions
  • Private rented student accommodation – no Government support for release from contracts, use of hardship funds mentioned
  • While the parliamentary question asked about the mental health taskforce the minister sidestepped to respond: it is for higher education providers as autonomous bodies to identify and address the needs of their student body and to decide what mental health and wellbeing support to put in place…the government has asked universities to prioritise mental health support, and continue to support their students, which has included making services accessible from a distance…Many providers have bolstered their existing mental health services, and adapted delivery mechanisms including reaching out to students who may be more vulnerable. You can read more on the Government’s response 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 or inquiries.

Consultations to look forward to from today’s pile of announcements:

  • OfS consultation on a new TEF (in the “Spring”)
  • OfS consultation on interim arrangements for the TEF because the current awards expire in the summer (“soon”)
  • DfE consultation on further reforms to the higher education system in spring 2021, before setting out a full response to the report and final conclusion to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding alongside the next Comprehensive Spending Review.
  • DfE consultation on the Lifelong Loan Entitlement – “we will consult on the scope and detail of the entitlement in early 2021, including seeking views on objectives and coverage.”
  • DfE consultation on the changes that are needed to enable universities and colleges to provide a modular offer – doesn’t say when they will consult on this.
  • DfE: We will set out further plans to use the National Skills Fund in due course, consulting on the details in spring 2021 to ensure that the investment from the Fund helps to meet the needs of adults, employers and providers
  • DFE will consult on the proposals to reform FE funding and accountability

The OfS say: We are aware of the sustained pressure on providers as the impact of the pandemic continues to be felt and of the additional burden that may be caused by these proposed additional consultations. We have extended the deadline to our quality and standards consultation to 25 January 2021 and will continue to monitor the situation regarding current and future consultations. 

Other news

  • Remote teaching: Wonkhe: Matt Jenner led a popular online course about teaching online – here’s what he learned from the experience about how to support educators in adapting to remote teaching.
  • On Monday Boris Johnson launched a new business initiative – the Build Back Better Council. Details including the Council members are here.
  • Teach online this year: UCU (the University and Colleges Union) are calling for teaching to remain online for the rest of the academic year to protect the wellbeing of staff, students and their communities. UCU state they fear staff will be forced to return to work in unsafe and unpredictable working conditions. UCU have warned they are considering balloting members for action against an unsafe return to in-person teaching.
  • Student rent strikes: The BBC cover student rent strikes in Wales. Politics Home also have an article on rent strikes.
  • Asynchronous learning: From Wonkhe – Asynchronous learning gives students the chance to treat modules like box sets, bingeing or skipping as they see fit. Tom Lowe wonders what this might mean for learning.
  • Academic misconduct: Contract cheating is well known however this (short) Times article explores the perspective of the innocent who was wrongly accused of cheating. It is written by lawyers who represent students appealing against academic misconduct.

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HE Policy Update w/e 18th January 2021

The Minister for Universities and the OfS ended the week with the opposite of a charm offensive.  Significant interest in student rent reached a head this week with MPs calling for action and supporting student concerns in Parliament. GCSE and Gavin Williamson announced his alternative plans for exams this summer (spoiler alert: the proposal centres on externally set exams, but they will be marked by teachers and other evidence can be taken into account). Perhaps not surprisingly the political gossip centred on whether Gavin Williamson has run out of road.

The Minister takes to Twitter

So perhaps rather late in the day taking a lead from other leaders who (used to) use Twitter to communicate with the masses, and continuing the pattern that both the DfE and the OfS have had since March of communicating with the sector late at night and at weekends, Michelle Donelan took to Twitter on Friday evening (at 7.16pm).  With the “student message” headings left in, which were surely drafting notes, it looks like it was done in a hurry.  It is safe to say that it hasn’t been very well received, with attacks both from across the sector and also from the group it was probably aimed at – parents (ie voters).

It’s a real issue that the Minister is taking this tone and approach, apart from perpetuating the myth of the £256 million.

And the tone is consistent with the tone the OfS are taking.  They wrote to universities on Thursday.

  • They say that universities should do all they can to deliver the teaching they have promised to students and make alternative arrangements where this is not possible – this may include putting on extra lectures, repeating parts of the course, or offering fee refunds.
  • The OfS does not have legal powers to require refunds to be paid, but it has set out actions for universities and colleges to ensure they continue to meet regulatory requirements so that students can continue to benefit from their education.
  • The regulator has asked universities to assess the extent to which they have met the commitments they made to students in relation to teaching and alternative arrangements, and inform the OfS where there are risks that they may not be able to comply with its regulatory conditions.
  • Universities should assess:
    • whether they were sufficiently clear with new and continuing students about how teaching and assessment would be delivered in 2020-21, the circumstances in which changes might be made, and what those changes might entail
    • whether during the 2020 autumn term, students received the teaching and assessment they were promised and might reasonably have expected to receive based on information provided
    • whether current plans for the 2021 spring and summer term will ensure that students receive the teaching and assessment they were promised and might reasonably expect to receive based on the information provided.
  • The OfS will, where appropriate, take action as the result of notifications from students and others, and is likely to request further details of provider assessments where it has additional concerns.
  • Where students are not provided with clear information about how teaching and assessment will be delivered in 2020-21, or where teaching and assessment are not delivered as promised, universities are expected to actively consider refunds or other forms of redress.
  • The OfS expects each university to:
    • inform students of any further changes to teaching and assessment arrangements, such that these are broadly equivalent to those previously offered to students within the requirements of public health advice
    • inform students about their entitlement to seek refunds or other forms of redress – such as the opportunity to repeat parts of their course that were not delivered this year – if they have not received the teaching and assessment promised
    • provide students with clear information, advice and guidance about the implications of the changes and the options available to them.  This must include clear signposting of the route to complain or seek redress.
  • The OfS intends to publish revised guidance by the end of January on protecting quality and standards during the pandemic. These changes will include guidance on the approach to exams and assessments and the appropriate measures universities should take when considering mitigating or exceptional circumstances.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said:

  • “The pandemic is having a profound and ongoing impact on students who are still facing exceptional challenges. Universities and colleges have generally worked tirelessly under great pressure to ensure that students continue to receive good quality teaching, albeit now largely delivered remotely. We have consistently emphasised the importance of universities being clear to students about potential changes to course delivery where face-to-face teaching is not possible.
  • “Of course, we understand the tremendous pressures that the new lockdown imposes on universities and colleges, and some may no longer able to deliver the teaching and assessment arrangements that they said they would. This may not be in their direct control. However, in these circumstances they should do all they can to offer students alternatives – for instance by putting on extra lectures or course content later in the year – and where that is not possible, they should consider providing refunds where appropriate.
  • “Students will also be rightly concerned where they are being charged rent for properties they can’t currently occupy. Some universities have decided not to charge full rent in these circumstances. We are encouraging all universities and colleges who are not already doing so to consider carefully what the appropriate response is to these unprecedented circumstances where students have been asked not to return to their accommodation this term. We are also asking universities to consider what discussions they can have in support of their students with private landlords.”

Lots of commentary is available and will continue to emerge (apart from the responses to MD’s tweets) but here are some:

Admissions

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson wrote to Ofqual Chief Regulator, Simon Lebus, setting out the  2021 exam grading contingency options for consultation (including vocational qualifications). The regulator responded the same day with his own letter (its almost as if he knew what Gavin’s letter would say before he received it!).

And then the consultations came out on Friday and run for two weeks.  The main proposal for GCSEs and A-levels as noted above is externally set exams, sat in school and marked by teachers, used as part of a package of evidence for teacher assessed grades, with moderation and quality controls but no forced ranking or overriding algorithm, and a massive appeals process for all students which must be managed by schools.  On vocational exams it is hard to understand what they are proposing – they want assessments to go ahead and where these are practical and need in person attendance “the assessment will need to wait until it can practically be conducted, and the student is ready.”  The position is different because the relationship between Ofqual and the awarding organisations for vocational qualifications is different, so they are largely leaving it to Pearson and the rest to sort out.

Apart from anything else, this is perplexing for school and college students.  The PM told them exams were cancelled – what he actually meant was that “normal” exams would not go ahead but that assessment would continue which might well (read almost certainly) include formal exams which will in many cases be sat in school.  Lots of people and students welcome the opportunity to have exams.  But those who were anxious about them will now be anxious again.  If nothing else it would reduce anxiety levels to be accurate when making significant announcements.  If the detail wasn’t available (and it was, because they say have been working on it for months) then the PM could just have announced it was being looked at.

Consultation: GCSEs, AS and A Levels

The Secretary of State’s letter says:

  • Based on teacher assessment
  • A teacher’s final judgement on a student’s grade ought to be as late as possible in the academic year to maximise remaining teaching time and ensure students are motivated to remain engaged in education
  • Consulting on what broader evidence teachers require in setting grades and whether the externally set tasks and papers are required or just recommended.
  • Pupils should be assessed based on what they have learnt, rather than against content they haven’t had chance to study (balanced against good enough coverage of the curriculum)
  • Schools and colleges should undertake quality assurance of the teachers’ assessments and grades and provide reassurance to the exam boards. There will be training and support for this and external checks in place for fairness and to ensure consistency between institutions.
  • Changes to the institutional grades awarded as a result of the external quality assurance are expected to be an exception – the process will not involve second-guessing the judgement of teachers but confirming that the process and evidence used to award a grade is reasonable. Changes should only be made if those grades cannot be justified, rather than as a result of marginal differences of opinion. Any changes should be based on human decisions, not by an automatic process or algorithm.
  • A clear and accessible route for private candidates to be assessed and receive a grade – consultation will consult on these options.
  • A clear route for review and appeal of grades (again ironed out in the consultation).
  • No algorithm will be used nor automatic standardisation of any individual’s grades

 Consultation detail:

  • It proposes externally set papers, possibly modular to allow teachers to choose which papers depending on what has been covered, to be marked by teachers and then included in the assessment along with other evidence. Exams to be sat in schools but with potential for online for students who can’t attend.  One of the consultation questions is whether these papers will be mandatory.
  • The main difference from last year is that there will be no forced ranking of students and while there will be moderation by the exam boards (which is surely going to be algorithm based although they can’t use the A word) any decisions have to be made by people. There will be no formal grade boundaries for the exams.
  • The other thing to note is that all students can appeal and the schools have to manage the appeals – a further appeal to the exam board will be on procedural issues only.  Also on timing – the assessment is to be made as late as possible but results will be published early……

Consultation: Vocational and Technical Qualifications (VQTs)

The Secretary of State’s letter says:

  • Students will be able to progress fairly, irrespective of whether they sat an exam in January
  • Assessments should continue, taking place remotely, as adapted by individual awarding organisations
  • Recognition that level of disruption may mean no all internal assessment can be completed by all students
  • Essential assessments will be held in February and March for some students – i.e. where they must demonstrate the proficiency required to enter directly into employment or are needed to complete an apprenticeship – these will continue with protective measures in place.
  • Written exams will not go ahead. Assessments to be held online where they can, where they can’t alternatives will be consulted upon.

Consultation:

The proposed new alternative regulatory arrangements would:

  • permit awarding organisations to develop an approach to awarding qualifications in scope of the Department’s proposed policy on the basis of incomplete assessment evidence. As part of their approach awarding organisations should consider their minimum evidential requirement for awarding these qualifications to ensure sufficient validity and reliability. They should also consider where they need additional assessment evidence from teachers and what form this should take. For qualifications most similar to GCSEs, AS and A levels we would expect awarding organisations to use similar approaches to assessment and awarding. These approaches are currently being consulted on in parallel with this consultation.
  • expect awarding organisations to be mindful of the burden their approach places on centres and learners, and to provide clear and timely advice and guidance
  • require awarding organisations to issue certificates (where appropriate) as normal and to not refer on the certificate to a result having been determined under the alternative regulatory arrangements
  • require awarding organisations to include private learners in their arrangements as far as possible
  • permit awarding organisations to take the same approach for qualifications taken in international markets, provided that this does not undermine the validity of the qualifications. We would also expect awarding organisations to consider and address the risks around malpractice and the particular needs of the international market

In Lebus’ letter to Williamson a few points stand out:

  • we are fully committed to doing all that we can, including making sure teachers are equipped and making use of awarding organisations’ quality assurance processes, so that students’ results are as fair as possible
  • no assessment arrangements can take account of all the different ways that students have suffered from the pandemic.
  • we have been considering together the potential alternatives to exams and other formal assessments for some time and have learned a number of lessons from last summer. Our thinking is well advanced. It is, though, important that all affected by these arrangements have the opportunity to comment on them.
  • We both wish to ensure that accountability for decisions following the consultation is clear and transparent. We understand your final determinations will be reflected in a formal direction to us under the relevant legislation. We will publicly and formally record the decisions we take in light of your direction. [A ‘don’t blame us’ this time warning?!]
  • we will want the consultation to consider the role of externally set short papers.
  • we also wish to support and incentivise students to engage with their education for the remainder of the academic year, including to continue with any non-exam assessment where possible. We propose that the final determination of a student’s grade should take place as late in the academic year as possible. We believe this will give students a greater sense of agency, which is critical to securing widespread acceptance of the outcomes
  • It is important that the consultation makes clear to all, especially those who rely on the results to make selection decisions, that overall outcomes this year will likely look different from 2020 and previous years. This issue will be important for your work with the post-16 and higher education sectors to secure orderly progression and to protect the interests of disadvantaged students.
  • We are acutely aware that all who have a stake in the results this year, particularly students and their parents and carers and teachers, as well as higher and further education institutions and employers, need certainty about the arrangements to be put in place

A selection of this week’s coverage:

The Petitions Committee agreed to schedule debates for the following e-petitions which reached over 100,000 signatures:

However, as Westminster Hall debates have been suspended (as a Covid safety measure) neither will see a debate in the immediate future.

Admissions Reform: Research Professional have an article: There is an “appetite for reform” of the university admissions process, according to the Office for Students’ director for access and participation—but changing the application timetable is not a “magic bullet”.

Research

Kwasi Kwarteng, who was previously minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, has taken over as Business Secretary as Alok Sharma has gone off to head COP26.

  • Research Professional (RP): One of the immediate issues that Kwarteng will be asked to consider is whether the Research Excellence Framework should be further delayed given the pressures put on university staff by the latest lockdown. No-one has yet been prepared to make the case that ensuring REF returns are made by 31 March is a priority for our newly designated critical workers. RP cover this here and here.
  • Also Research Professional: emails seen by Research Professional News have revealed the close ties between prime minister Boris Johnson’s controversial former adviser Dominic Cummings and the UK’s largest public research funding agency.

The Lords Science and Technology Committee held a session on The contribution of Innovation Catapults in delivering the R&D Roadmap you can read a summary of the session here. It included scrutiny of the catapults role in meeting the Government’s 2.4% R&D target.

UKRI announced the winners of the second phase of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’s (ISCF) decarbonisation of industrial clusters: cluster plan competition. The six winners sharing the £8 million come from consultancies, development companies, local authorities, partnerships, and consortiums. It is unclear if any have strong links with universities.

NERC appointed four new Science Committee members from the HE sector. And the Wellcome Trust’s new Director of research programmes, Cheryl Moore, will take up the post in May 2021.

Research Fundermentals published their own horizon scan and predictions about what 2021 will mean for research matters.

Research Professional also published these articles:

Parliamentary Questions:

Student Concerns

Despite parliamentary petitions and grass roots campaigning students made small progress with the calls to be refunded for tuition fees during online study and receive rent reductions or get out of their letting contracts. The lobbying quietened down for a while but gained momentum in the last week. Towards the end of last week several Labour MPs signed an early day motion (EDM) calling on the Government to scrap tuition fees and cancel student debt. As it was a manifesto pledge for Labour the EDM wasn’t remarkable.

Next the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students launched an inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on university students and calls for compensation.  

The number of parliamentary questions relating to student fees and accommodation costs has grown significantly again, including those relating to healthcare tuition fees and nurses working within the NHS as part of the Covid response. This week rent stories exploded across the media and HE specific sources, students initiated rent strikes, Unite Students (a major student accommodation provider announced partial refunds and concessions) and MPs came out in support of student rental concerns.

BBC – students have pledged a rent strike over unused rooms

Research Professional – universities have been warned that they could be breaking the law by refusing to allow students to return to halls; and:

The UCAS Knight Frank survey was released to a very receptive national audience. Wonkhe describe:

  • a survey of more than 70,000 new and current students between February and November last year. The Student Accommodation Survey finds that between March and June, around 75 per cent of students surveyed reported that they had or were planning to move back home, though there were regional variations.
  • Seventy-two percent of last year’s first year students were not paying rent after campuses closed – 71 per cent of students in other years were paying full rent.
  • The survey also offers an insight into who pays for accommodation – 41 per cent of first years, and 49 per cent of those in other years, reported that their parents or guardians were funding accommodation costs. On average, students living in private purpose built student accommodation (PBSAs) paid £7,200 per annum, compared to £6,650 in university accommodation and £5,900 for students in privately rented accommodation.
  • Sixty-nine per cent of students living in university-owned or PBSAs were happy with their landlord’s approach to Covid-19, compared to just 25 per cent of students in houses of multiple occupancy.

Research Professional add: Unsurprisingly, the ability to terminate tenancy agreements and a degree of flexibility on rent were highlighted as factors behind greater contentment with purpose-built accommodation over other settings…Respondents renting in non-purpose-built housing said private landlords were not prepared to make “any allowances for the impacts of the virus” and had “poor communication or lack of understanding and sensitivity around students’ financial situations and job losses”.

On Wednesday a NUS survey highlights student rental concerns. Wonkhe summarise: The most recent iteration of an NUS survey finds that 69 per cent of students are worried about their ability to pay rent, and 22 per cent have been unable to pay their rent in full in past months. The survey of 4,193 students ran between 6 and 23 November. 

An equally well timed YouGov poll surveyed the nation (so not just those with a vested interest as students or parents of students) on accommodation fees. They asked Do you think students who are unable to return to their student accommodation due to lockdown should still have to pay rent as normal or not?  54% of the public respondents felt that students shouldn’t have to pay anything at all; 30% felt they should pay a reduced rate; 5% felt students should continue to pay their rent in full.

Several MPs and Lords have expressed support for students to be offered some form of package or reduction. David Davis MP tweeted his letter to the Government to support university students who are unable to return to their term-time accommodation. He also stated Unite Students are right to provide refunds to students for periods where they cannot return to their properties and calls on the Government to step up.

This cross-party parliamentary support for student rent forgiveness alongside Boris Johnson acknowledging that the issue needs addressing, and Unite Students’ proactive refunds have been significant progress for this student concern. What remains to be seen is what position the Government will take however, no matter how sympathetic they are to the cause, it is still hard to imagine a Government scheme offering blanket refunds (including private landlords).

A selection of parliamentary questions on tuition fees…

And parliamentary questions on other student matters:

Finally the Petitions Committee published their latest decisions on e-petitions which received over 100,000 signatures and agreed to schedule a debate for:

However, Westminster Hall debates have been suspended (as a Covid safety measure) so the debate will not take place in the immediate future.

Professional Registration

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) issued a press release stating they’re in discussion with Universities Minister Michelle Donelan, alongside 17 professional, statutory and regulatory body representatives and Universities UK to address new challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The press release states they: discussed a range of barriers affecting progression and graduation in accredited programmes, in order to ensure students are able to complete their awards this summer and progress into the workplace with continued assurance of high standards and competencies.

QAA Chief Executive, Douglas Blackstock said:

  • Throughout the pandemic, QAA has engaged with PSRBs on behalf of our members and with a focus on ensuring students can progress towards the profession they have chosen. These bodies play an important role in protecting public safety and we are grateful that they have been able to adapt flexibly during the pandemic.
  • QAA has worked with professional bodies for many years and will continue to work collaboratively with them, and our members, so that students can achieve professional competencies and learning outcomes and so that standards are maintained.

Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan said: It is absolutely vital that students are able to graduate from their courses this year and achieve the meaningful qualifications that they need to kickstart their careers. Education has been our priority from the start of this pandemic, and we will continue to work closely with QAA, Universities UK and sector bodies, to identify and address any challenges they face during this difficult time.

Will he stay or will he go?

Speculation about Williamson’s continued tenure as Education Minister continues. On Monday Research Professional reported Boris as stating that the education secretary is doing his job “to his utmost ability”. One doesn’t quite know if that is support or censure. The BBC have: Gavin Williamson: How has he survived? It is well worth a read, it begins: Gavin Williamson’s political obituary has been written so many times he must sometimes feel like the walking dead. So how has England’s under-pressure education secretary survived in his job? Or is there a counter-narrative that he’s been unfairly blamed for decisions not really his own? For example, it has been well trailed that Boris went over Gavin’s head in closing the schools during a meeting he didn’t attend – meaning a U turn in one of Gavin’s flagship policies (that schools would remain open). The question of a reshuffle or even just an ousting of Williamson may come down to the reluctance (stubbornness?) of Boris to sack key staff, despite their mistakes and public unpopularity. Or perhaps as the BBC put it Gavin knows where the bodies are buried.

Gavin Williamson was scrutinised by the Commons Education Committee on Wednesday. Prior to the session Research Professional speculated what he might be questioned on in this brilliant article. It mentions many of the major points and issues facing education and HE at present and with only a couple sentences on each it is a great catch up for anyone still stuck in the Christmas cheese or overcome by home schooling.

In the end the Committee had very little direct HE content. There was strong focus on schools and on matters surrounding the alternatives to the 2021 exams (including BTEC) Williamson’s performance at Committee maintained the Government lines and yielded little new information. He appeared uninformed at times and employed famed political techniques such as not answering the question asked, answering a question that wasn’t asked, avoiding apologising and blaming others (schools mostly). However, he was focussed in his answers and less aggressive in tone than in recent appearances. Dods provide a comprehensive summary of the session here.

If you want the short version, there was one question on HE:

  • Asked about financial sustainability for universities, including the challenge for the newer ones with no reserves, and about student accommodation costs.  Rambles about universities giving additional support (?).  Some institutions may be in financial difficulties, he says the restructuring regime is established and ready to go.  Despite concerns there have been no collapses but contingency is ready.  MP says her local university was offered a loan not a grant and some management consultants that they didn’t want or need and they have had to have major staff cuts.  GW says some will have to restructure what they offer and how they run.  Zero empathy for the sector in these replies.   He doesn’t answer the questions either.

And he mentions us at the end when he thanks everyone working in education, including universities.

Graduate Wellbeing Analysis

The OfS have released data for key performance measure 17 – graduate wellbeing. It shows part timers scoring higher on life satisfaction and for feeling that things done in life are worthwhile.

Note – only the respondents who gave the strongest positive wellbeing response were included in the above analysis. For the data and more information start here. It may seem odd to you that the OfS data release only covers this aspect and limited data. It seems odd to us too. One hopes it isn’t the regulator searching for a new stick to beat HE with or engaging in political point scoring.

Education Policy – research / curriculum development

The Education Policy Institute has published two reviews. Curriculum policy in England has been characterised by frequent change in recent decades. In order to identify lessons about how curriculum systems can be better formulated and revised in England, this evidence review outlines how five leading education nations around the world have developed their curriculum systems in recent years.

The first review aimed to understand how leading education nations around the world develop their education policies and examines the education systems of Finland, Japan, New Zealand, Scotland and South Korea – How Leading Education Nations Develop And Reform Their Curriculum Systems.

The second considers the role of research and evaluation in education policymaking in leading nations including Australia, Finland, Japan, Scotland and Singapore. It focuses on how leading countries organise, focus and fund their education research and evaluation, both in the context of major system change and in terms of how each country assesses the effectiveness of its education system.

Access & Participation

The Education Committee continued hearing evidence into the inquiry on Left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Dods have provided a summary of last week’s session which covers several aspects relating to HE.

Fair Admissions: The Nuffield Foundation have published Fair Admission to Universities in England: Improving Policy and Practice. Neon describe the report: A new report from the Nuffield Foundation finds that highly selective universities in England are increasingly taking into account the socioeconomic and educational contexts in which applicants achieved their grades when making admissions decisions. However lead author, Professor Vikki Boliver of Durham University argues that universities should be bolder in their approach:

“Universities have taken some tentative steps in a positive direction when it comes to widening access to higher education for students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds. This is encouraging but by being bolder we believe that they can further improve the chances of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The report recommends several steps that universities should take including:

  • Reducing entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged applicants by more than just one or two grades.
  • Contextualising all admissions criteria, including GCSE grades, personal statements and interview performances.
  • Ensuring that the new commitments to supporting contextually disadvantaged students to achieve their potential at university are fulfilled.

Overall the report recommends switching from the traditional admissions model, where places go to the highest qualified candidates, irrespective of social background, to a model where prospective students’ qualifications are judged in light of their socioeconomic circumstances. The report also recommends that there is a move towards post qualification admissions and replace POLAR with individual measures of socioeconomic disadvantage which is made available to universities.

Parliamentary Questions:

International & Mobility

Research Professional published: Drop in international first-years made up by other students

On Turing The Times has an opinion piece from Taiwo Owatemi, MP for Coventry North West, on the inadequacies of the new scheme.

Parliamentary Questions

Parliamentary Questions

Sir John Hayes supports the alternatives to HE agenda:

Regulatory

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

Censoring ‘Free Speech’: Students and graduates recruited to work on a free speech campaign have resigned in protest stating their views were censored and they were pushed to conform. There was also anger that they had been signed up without understanding the links between Toby Young’s controversial pressure group the Free Speech Union (FSU) and the project they had been recruited to. The Guardian has the story.

Poverty report: The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published its annual report on the nature and scale of poverty across the UK. It covers investment in skills and the retraining agenda.

Mental health: The Government have announced they will reform mental health laws.

T levels: The Government announced a £135 million capital fund for T level providers to bid into. The Government press release states: the multi-million pound investment will ensure T Level students have access to the world class facilities and cutting-edge equipment they need to get ahead.

Tech access for disadvantaged pupils: Commenting on the Department for Education’s supply of laptops and other equipment to enable disadvantaged students to access remote learning, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: It is not credible for Boris Johnson or Gavin Williamson to claim that their priority under Covid is to protect the very same disadvantaged students they have so routinely let down. It is a stain on the Government’s record that they have failed disadvantaged students so badly. The immense disruption in autumn half term, with so many absent from school due to self-isolation or close contact with those in their bubble who were having to self-isolate, was a clear warning that the education secretary needed to properly build the groundwork for a continuity and equity of education for all students. But the warning went unheeded, and in Gavin Williamson ‘s recent announcements on laptop and data roll-out it is abundantly clear he is still weeks away from anything like an adequate response. Schools have been kept waiting for equipment that has been promised to them throughout the pandemic, with last minute delays, changes or retractions of the kit they need becoming an alarmingly normalised response from the Department for Education.  It is surely a no-brainer that schools should be compensated for having to plug the gaps, which are entirely due to governmental sloth. Every child must have access to the equipment they need to ensure they can learn safely from home. When will the government take their responsibility towards these children seriously?  However, speaking at the Education Committee on Wednesday Gavin Williamson painted a very different picture stating the equipment had been sent to schools and some were in line to receive additional items.

Islamophobia: Research Professional published this article Universities fail to see ‘insidious nature’ of campus Islamophobia stating that the report finds improvements are needed by institutions.

EdTech Boom: FE News report that lockdown measures and mandatory school closures in 2020 led to a 71.5% growth of the UK educational technology (EdTech) sector – despite a -11% contraction in GDP overall. Over the course of the pandemic, schools, colleges and universities have had to move lessons online, and many educators, organisations and businesses have developed smarter ways to deliver remote learning. The growth puts the value of the UK EdTech market at almost £3.5bn – with EdTech exports pre-crisis bringing in £170m to the economy, now expected to have topped £292m.

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HE policy update for the w/e 13th December 2019

It’s a full moon on polling day and the results will be announced on Friday the 13th! Superstitions aside we’re issuing your policy update early this week before the election outcomes are announced so you can focus on all the educational news. Fear not, we’ll bring you all the election fall out and early outcome scenarios in a post-election special edition.

Measuring Up the Educational Manifestos

We’re not including the myriad of speeches and party declarations this week. However, worth a short mention is the Education Policy Institute (EPI) who have (like many others) analysed the five main parties’ manifestos, compared them against EPI costings, and considered what the impact would be from an independent perspective. They conclusions don’t paint the rosiest of futures for the education sector:

  • Although all parties have made bold pledges about reducing opportunity gaps and raising educational attainment, the policies in their manifestos are unlikely to deliver on these aspirations.
  • Despite a large proportion of the attainment gap between poor children and the rest emerging before entry to school, party policies seem to focus on improving childcare for employment and cost of living reasons, rather than focusing on high quality early years education. While Labour and the Liberal Democrats are making major funding commitments in this area, there are serious questions about whether their policies can be delivered effectively and secure high quality and value for money over the limited implementation periods envisaged. The Conservatives give no indication of whether they will take action to improve the quality and progressiveness of early years entitlements.
  • All major parties are pledging additional funding for schools, colleges and special needs education – with Labour and the Greens committing to the biggest increases. This could help to deliver effective interventions and may improve teacher retention. But under Conservative policies, there will be a relative shift in funding away from schools with higher levels of disadvantage – and this attempt to “level up funding” could widen the disadvantage gaps in attainment. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats may have under-estimated the cost of their policies on free school meals, and this could require funding to be diverted from other parts of the schools budget.
  • Large policy differences have opened up between the parties over school inspection, school testing and performance tables. The current system of accountability is in need of improvement, but education research suggests that Labour and Liberal Democrat plans to scrap primary tests and move to lower stakes inspection could damage attainment, and might particularly pose a risk to improving outcomes for the most vulnerable learners. The Conservatives do not commit to improving the current system or addressing any of its negative incentives and impacts.
  • Party policies on post 18 education are particularly disappointing. Labour proposes that its most expensive education policy should be allocating around £7bn to scrap university tuition fees, even though this may not improve participation, or the access of vulnerable groups. The Conservatives offer few policies on higher education, and the one concrete measure (reduced interest rates on student loans) would disproportionately benefit higher earners. The Liberal Democrats appear to be offering a similar “Review” to those included in their two previous manifestos.
  • While all parties are committed to additional education funding over the years ahead, there is a high level of uncertainty about the revenues which have been earmarked for such funding. The Conservative plans assume that the growth impact of Brexit will be moderate; the Labour plans assume the same, and also rely upon large tax revenues from a limited number of sources; meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are banking on a “Remain Bonus”, and revenues from uncertain sources such as tax avoidance. With all parties, it is unclear how education spending plans would be altered if the projected revenues isn’t realised and cuts have to be made.

Natalie Perera, Executive Director and Head of Research at the Education Policy Institute, said:

  • “All of the main parties are united by one thing – bold ambitions to raise attainment and close gaps. However, our analysis shows that while each party has some well-designed and helpful policies, none has a properly evidence-based strategy to meet their ambitions”

A NUS General Election survey with healthcare students found that 68% of students (with a loan) are more likely to vote for a party because they plan to bring back maintenance grants post-election. Claire Sosienski Smith, NUS Vice President (Higher Education) also mentioned the NUS Homes Fit for Study Report which said 1 in 6 students are unable to keep up with their rent payments. She said “we know that a student finance system based on individual debt is fundamentally flawed.” This was reinforced by the recent General Election survey with 2 out of 3 students stating they did not have enough money left to pay for everything once they had paid their rent and 43% rely on their bank overdraft. Healthcare students particularly raised issues of having to fund placement expenses up front, inadequate hardship funding systems and paramedics who are unable to access reimbursement for placements.

Also hitting the news this week are the health care courses at risk due to the bursary removal recruitment crisis – podiatry, radiotherapy, prosthetics, orthoptics, and mental health and learning disability nursing. BU’s Steve Tee, Executive Dean of HSS, is quoted in the article:

  • Now the bursary has been taken away there are specialist courses with small numbers nationally that have been put at risk. This is intensified if the course is in an area like radiography, which requires expensive kit. Why would a university invest if they are only getting 20 people?”

Grade Inflation

There is an interesting article on Wonkhe by Mark Corver of dataHE. Sarah was lucky enough to hear him speak at Wonkfest and explain how claims about grade inflation rely on inaccurately data.  The data modelling actually suggests grade deflation –a double whammy for students. The article is a little technical but worth a read to understand why the Government’s claims are being refuted. It also has a high number of comments at the bottom of the article showing how engaging it is (and as Wonkhe only publish the ‘most interesting’ comments we can imagine there was a lot more chatter than published). Some excerpts to get you started:

  • It is likely that the true attainment of today’s young people is being seriously underestimated, putting them at a disadvantage, and damaging universities in the process.
  • ..there might be areas where this powerful grade deflation could be causing problems for young people and universities. Here are two examples.
  • The first is the damage from the charge that the sector is “dumbing down”. This has that – in contrast to the past – universities are now admitting people whose attainment is simply not good enough for higher education. That the average A level grades for UCAS acceptances has been going down provide fuel for this view… If you correct for the modelled grade deflation (Figure 8), average grades held by UCAS applicants who get into university have not been going down. They have been going up.
  • The second problem is where post-2010 grade data is used for analysis through time. Particularly so if that analysis is used by government to pursue policy. Which takes us back to those sharply worded complaints of degree grade inflation that the government has levelled at universities, and its calls for action to stop it. These rest on Office for Students statistical models of degree grade inflation. A level attainment is a very powerful factor in that model. And rightly so because the stronger your A level grades the better your odds of getting a higher class degree.
  • But the way the model is built effectively assumes that A level grades are an absolute measure of educational attainment that are stable through time. With this model construction, if universities maintain their academic standards then it is inevitable that the neglected A level grade deflation will pop up as degree grade inflation. But it would be a false signal. Degree quality would be unchanged. It is the measure of the input quality that has changed.
  • Our proposed A level grade deflation might not be a big enough effect to account for all the degree grade increases seen. But it would be a very substantial effect. We think that this, and other potential weaknesses in the model, do amount to reason enough to look again at the models and their conclusions. Meanwhile, government might want to think again about its pressure on universities to make it harder for students to get “good” degrees. Otherwise a double whammy for young people looms: those who have already been hit by deflated A level grades risk being hit again with a lower degree class than their attainment deserves.

Student Finance & Accommodation

Clear Accessible Finance Information throughout the Student Lifecycle

In June UUK and NEON published The Financial Concerns of Students. They said that the available information on tuition fees and the student loan system in England is often inaccessible and unclear, and that students want more information on how universities spend tuition fee income. The main findings were:

  • Prospective and UG students need clearer and better-targeted financial advice on the full implications of taking out a student loan.
  • Prospective students are uncertain what universities spend tuition fee income on.
  • Living costs are a more significant concern for current UG students than the level of tuition fees.
  • Strong agreement that going to university generally helps graduates to earn more money in the longer term (64% of prospective students and 77% of UG students).
  • More than half of students believe they should make some contribution to the cost of their education.

Since the report NEON and UUK ran a student finance information advisory group consisting of sector experts from nationwide leading organisations who work with prospective and current students to communicate student finance information. This week the group published Improving the provision of information on student finance and have proposed a Student Finance National Education Programme which recommends how to ensure student finance is more understandable and accessible for all (including family members). In summary:

  • Student Finance Information should be more coherent and collaborative – government and information providers should develop and sign up to an industry standard of core messages.
  • Teachers, schools and parents vary in their capacity to support prospective students’ decision making – leading to access gaps. Approaches and activities offered to schools should be underpinned by a more robust, funded, national careers policy than exists at present. Specific parental information is important as they are one of the most influential actors on the young person’s decision.
  • Take a student lifecycle approach to the provision of information required. Focus on sharing information during study and post-graduation (differentiated for particular groups of students) as well the prospective student stage.
  • The UK’s student population is larger and more diverse than ever before. A national education programme on student finance must reflect this diversity with a balance of different approaches to information sharing. It should reflect the needs and circumstances of prospective and current students, from school leavers to those in work considering study, and those with caring and other commitments. There is potential to strengthen a range of different approaches, such as online and face-to-face provision, and explore implementing tailored approaches for groups like mature students and care leavers.
  • Policymakers need to adopt a more strategic approach to the provision of information on student finance and be more ambitious in their goals particularly on coherence. A strategy should be developed collaboratively and in consultation with students, those who advise them, and student finance information providers. This strategy should aim to provide more than a basic level of information at the pre-higher education stage and ensure that students have a level of knowledge enabling them to make the right choices for them, based on an understanding of the costs and benefits of higher education prior to, during and after study.

Wonkhe have a blog on the topic: How we communicate student finance needs a re-think.

Accommodation

Wonkhe report that Commercial Estates specialist Cushman and Wakefield have reported on the level of private student accommodation. Key points:

  • 87% of new student beds are delivered by the private sector
  • The average ensuite accommodation is priced at 70% of the level of the maximum student loan. (NUS recommends rent by no more than 50% of maximum available.)
  • There are 23% more places in private halls since 2013
  • Demand for student accommodation rises 30% faster than can be built (although there are huge increases at some providers balanced by decreases elsewhere). Research Professional state – the top five universities for recruitment accounting for 41% of all growth in the last five years while the bottom five universities by student growth have seen a 29% decrease in student numbers.

The Times covers the report in the (very short!) Students struggling to find affordable accommodation.

Research Professional also covered the report in their own way highlighting concerns over absence of affordable student rooms stating that private student accommodation blocks are becoming more luxurious but affordable options remain scarce.

Eva Crossan Jory, vice-president for welfare at NUS echoed this and called for rent controls to stop prices spiralling further. “This is the latest report to confirm the increasing cost of accommodation has created a real affordability problem for students,” she said, adding that “reform is urgently required.”

Social Mobility

HEPI have released a wide range of content this week. Their policy note (prepared by colleagues at Exeter University) on Social Mobility has particularly been picked up by the media.  The note begins by stating

  • Much of the heavy lifting on widening participation in higher education to date has been undertaken by newer and less selective higher education institutions. The access challenge therefore remains greater at more selective institutions. They could learn from the best practice that exists in less selective universities.
  • It will take nearly a century for highly-selective universities in England to raise the participation rate for 18-to-30-year olds from the least advantaged areas to the existing participation rate for 18-to-30-year olds from the most advantaged areas.

Interestingly they state that if the number of degree places at the selective institution remains static (i.e. doesn’t grow) the number of places for advantaged pupils would need to fall by as much as 10,000, which is one-third of current annual intakes [to meet social mobility targets]. To meet the targets highly selective universities would need to double their places over the next 20 years to ensure all young people access the same participation rates as the most advantaged students. An extra 19,400 18-year old students from the least advantaged areas would need to enrol each year at highly-selective universities to equal the current participation rate of 18-year olds from the most advantaged areas.

Other recommendations:

  • Social mobility rankings for universities should be established, measuring outcomes for disadvantaged students.
  • The Office for Students should challenge highly-selective universities to expand student numbers in innovative ways to diversify intakes, including degree apprenticeships, foundation years and courses for part-time and mature learners.
  • Universities should undertake a social mobility audit, benchmarking their work on outreach, access and academic and pastoral support for disadvantaged students.
  • Universities should also consider using random allocation of places for students over a certain minimum academic threshold (as has occurred in other countries).

On Contextual Admissions the report states:

  • Universities have long taken into account the context of prospective students when assessing their potential. Contextual admissions are used in many ways – giving students a taste of university life, establishing which candidates should be interviewed or offering a degree place on lower grades.
  • But too often universities operate in the dark, worried that reduced offers will damage their reputations. ‘How low can we go?’ is the first question, sometimes followed by ‘how can we keep this out of the public eye?’ What is baffling for applicants is that contextual information is used differently from one university department to another. Research suggests that more consistency and transparency is needed.

Later the policy note acknowledges how university league tables have ‘chilling effects’ on universities’ efforts to promote social mobility. But rankings are here to stay.

  • The problem is that league tables punish universities for improving social diversity. Perversely, the tables do not generally measure the gains made by students. Universities gain higher rankings for the higher A-Level entry grades they demand – a direct disincentive to award lower grade contextual offers or consider applicants without traditional academic qualifications. Dropping down the newspaper rankings and losing status can mean fewer future applicants from the very groups a university is trying harder to attract. A succession of government representatives have tried in vain to convince newspaper compilers to reform their rankings.

Instead the policy note authors suggest that social mobility rankings could bring balance to the importance placed on current attainment based ranks.

On the place lottery:

  • Post-qualification applications would open up more radical possibilities. Universities could use random allocation of places for students over a certain threshold of A-Level grades. This is the fairest way of selecting equally-qualified candidates for degree courses. Lotteries have been used widely in education. You might compensate losers in the lottery – such as guaranteeing a place at another institution. Dutch medical schools select the highest academic performers by traditional means, and enter lower achievers into a lottery.
  • The benefit of these schemes is their simplicity. Admissions tutors have amassed a battery of criteria designed to distinguish between thousands of equally well-qualified applicants: personal statements; teacher recommendations; predicted exam grades; essays; university admissions tests; interviews; and much more. But how much of this data add to predicting which candidates are best suited for degree courses? And how much does the complexity alienate potentially excellent applicants?

The policy note concludes:

  • The time has come for a simpler, more transparent, consistent and honest system of university admissions, recognising that A-Level grades (still less predicted grades) are no longer the gold standard of entry.
  • Failing to find ways of expanding university places will prompt acrimonious battles over who secures degree places – a clash of the classes – with politicians, parents and students questioning the fairness of university admissions.
  • Universities need to embrace a cultural shift in the support provided for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, seeing greater diversity as an opportunity to enrich the academic experience for all students and staff.

The Times takes up the HEPI report arguing for most selective universities to allocate places to all those meeting the A level grade criteria threshold by lottery (with a fall back place at another University for students who do not ‘win’ the lottery).

HEPI have also published a reply to the paper on their website by Tim Blackman, VC of the Open University.

  • “‘Elite’ universities are described as such simply because they are so selective. They are the grammar schools of the higher education sector and cause the same problem for other universities as grammar schools cause for other schools. This problem is that they cream off students who have had all the advantages that enable them to be academic high-achievers at school, concentrating these students in institutions that are full of other students like them, making all universities less diverse and denying other universities a mix of abilities that is likely to enrich their learning environment and benefit everyone.
  • Lee is silent about the many, often post-92, universities that have become the secondary moderns of the higher education sector because of the self-perpetuating prestige of highly selective institutions. While the measures he advocates would help diversify these institutions, they would do so at the cost of other universities that do not have the prestige that comes with the academic snobbery that pervades British higher education.
  • Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that the only way to address this problem is to return to student number controls at an institutional level and require institutions to use entry quotas banded by grades above a minimum matriculation requirement to create mixed ability intakes across the board. This would be a requirement of their access or outcome agreements. There could be some exceptions; in The Comprehensive University I suggested that a regional distribution of research universities could be excluded on the basis that they explicitly prioritise research over education and the unique open access mission of The Open University would continue to serve a valuable role.
  • What I do not think is a good idea is to advocate more audits and more league tables. The sector is already creaking under the number of reports and returns it is required to complete, paradoxically never including institutions’ own strategic plans and institutional performance indicators. There are many progressive incremental reforms that can be made – I would add to Lee’s list the scandal of part-time distance learning students being denied access to maintenance loans in England – and in that sense his note is certainly to be welcomed. But there are great dangers in a one-sided argument that frames the debate as one that is just about access to ‘elite’ universities.”

Meanwhile Prospect Magazine takes a differing tack arguing that education is no longer a path out of the social mobility trap and that a greater focus on creating better jobs is a solution.

Finally Wonkhe have a new blog on the transformative experience of HE for care leavers.

Mental Health

Student Minds have created the University Mental Health Charter – a set of principles to ensure student and staff mental health becomes a UK wide university priority. The principles will inform the Charter Award Scheme which will be developed during 2020 to recognise universities promoting with excellent mental health practices. This summary contains the key recommendations under various topics such as transitioning to university, learning and assessment, support services, managing risks, residential accommodation, and proactive interventions. There is a timeline highlighting the next steps as the Charter Award Scheme is developed and piloted. The Scheme is due to launch in Winter 2020.

Student Minds highlight that the Charter has drawn on all the current evidence, research and sector context to ensure its real world validity for the university sector. It states it isn’t intended to be definitive and encourages institutions to combine the elements to fit the local context. Future work will review the Charter and refresh it as new evidence emerges with a major review every 3-5 years. In conclusion Student Minds state:

  • It is not expected that universities will aim to fulfil each of these themes perfectly (no such a thing exists), but we hope they inspire discussion, thought, new interventions, evaluation and learning. The evidence we have suggests that progress on each of these themes will bring us closer to a moment when our universities are mentally healthy environments.
  • Universities are incredible places. Within our universities we have established the basis of science, unravelled the mystery of DNA, discovered stem cells and even located a long lost King under a car park. Improving the mental health of students and staff is within our ability, given time, resource and commitment. We hope the University Mental Health Charter helps to make a contribution to this process.

Mark Fudge, Chair of the University and Colleges Division for the British Association of Counselling, responded to the Charter’s publication:

  • Student Minds’ University Mental Health Charter is a step in the right direction and something for the higher education to sector to aspire to… But higher education leaders need to ensure they invest in counselling services to ensure they have enough resources so student have access to a range of mental health and wellbeing support options while at university.
  • There are thousands of students who are accessing counselling services every year. These services are at the forefront of supporting the most disenfranchised and vulnerable university populations.  They don’t just offer counselling but all sorts of group work, training and other support. They are often under-resourced, but they are having a positive impact on students’ lives and universities need to see that and invest more in them.
  • Universities need to invest in all forms of mental health support so that students have access to a range of options when they need them.”

Immigration

Universities UK has published a public poll (data available here). British adults were interviewed on their attitudes towards the immigration of university staff coming into the UK. Had there not been a purdah period for the General Election the timing of this poll would have hit whilst the Migration Advisory Committee considers how to implement a points-based immigration system and a salary threshold for international staff. Key points:

  • 87% strongly agree that it is more important that the UK’s immigration system attracts university staff who are highly skilled than it being more important that the UK’s immigration system attracts university staff who are highly paid (3% felt high pay was an important factor to allow immigration).
  • 89% agree that scientists, academics and their support staff are valuable to the UK, with half (51%) saying they strongly agree. 3% disagree.
  • 85% agree that it is important for the UK to be a world leader in science and research. 5% disagree.
  • 82% agree that the UK should try to compete with other major economies to attract scientists, academics and their support staff. 7% disagree.
  • 69% said that a UK points-based immigration system should be designed so that scientists, academics and their support staff score highly.

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, commented on the findings:

  • “Technicians, researchers, and language assistants are all vital in supporting both high-quality teaching and innovative research at our universities. These skilled roles are critical to the ongoing success of our universities. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, it is more vital than ever that the UK remains a world leader in science and research and continues to attract international talent at different stages of their careers – from support staff and technicians to Nobel Prize winners.
  • If a new immigration system were to have a salary threshold, Universities UK has called for a threshold of £21,000 which would allow recruitment for most technician and language assistant roles in the higher education sector. This polling shows the strength of feeling among the British public that immigrants should be welcomed into the country on the strength of their skills and potential rather than facing a system that judges them on their income. This is vital for the UK to continue to lead the way in research and education.”

Wonkhe reported that a linked report from Universities Scotland had similar attitudinal findings with 78% of Scottish adults agreeing that the immigration system should support the entry of academics and support staff. The National covers the Scottish perspective.

Other news

Political untruths: Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price published a new draft law on Thursday that would make deliberate lying by politicians a criminal offence. The bill states “It shall be an offence for an elected representative acting in their capacity, or an agent acting on their behalf, to make or publish a statement they know to be misleading, false or deceptive in a material particular”. Adam was interviewed by Sky News highlighting how Parliament had changed: “Unfortunately we are normalising a dishonesty, we used to have conventions, social mores and norms etc. you know people used to resign in parliament if they mislead”. Adam said the push for the lying law was triggered by the misleading and false information such as Conservative HQ rebranding their twitter account to appear to be a fact checking service alongside other politicians Brexit claims which the EU have refuted.

Student Vote denied: The Independent report on the c.200 Cardiff Halls students who registered to vote but were not informed their application was incomplete and have been denied the vote. The student quoted in the article selected her address from a pre-filled drop down list but later discovered it had not registered her because it did not contain her room number. NUS called for Cardiff Council to resolve this unacceptable outcome. The Council said they had not been able to contact the c.200 people who supplied the incomplete addresses to register them in time.

Gamification: A Wonkhe article considers whether gaming could be a positive outreach method (alongside more traditional current efforts) in Simulation games: can gaming break barriers to university?

System Working: NHS Digital has published  a briefing on workforce challenges in the NHS:

  • As part of the drive to offer staff incentives to stay in the system, trusts are seeking to collaborate with local partners to make it easier for staff to move between organisations. Initiatives like rotation agreements and staff ‘passports’ have the dual benefit of creating a varied developmental employment offer for staff who might otherwise look outside of the system for new opportunities, and creating a more efficient mechanism for filling vacancies where they arise.
  • Our workforce has a substantial role to play in driving the progress of system working. How we work with our valued workforce to enable closer relationships between trusts and other health and care organisations, and how we support staff throughout periods of change and transformation, will be an important determinant of how systems work in collaboration to tackle workforce pressures and drive integrated care

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JANE FORSTER                                            |                       SARAH CARTER

Policy Advisor                                                                     Policy & Public Affairs Officer

Follow: @PolicyBU on Twitter                   |                       policy@bournemouth.ac.uk

HE Policy update for the w/e 23rd November 2018

Considering we were late and included much of Monday’s news in the last update, this is a bumper update for you.  Lots of data and lots of speculation about fees etc.  We have managed to avoid the B word this week – as you will have had enough of it from all the other news sources.

Internships

Sophie Bradfield, the Policy & Campaigns Coordinator for SUBU, returns with another guest piece for us this week

Sutton Trust has published research today on graduate internships detailing that “39% of graduates in their twenties have done an internship, including almost half (46%) of young graduates under 24.” These statistics have a direct correspondence with research published in a Lancaster University HECSU-funded Graduate Resilience Project in 2016, looking at how students transition after graduating, where “45% of respondents identified a concern that they lacked relevant experience.” Pairing this with the competition for graduate jobs, it’s of no surprise that so many students seek to undertake internships. At BU gaining placements and real-world experience is a unique selling point and as BU proudly states on the placement information page “90% of our graduates have relevant work experience and this can give you a real head start in the competitive jobs market.” The Students’ Union at Bournemouth University (SUBU) is in absolute agreement that offering opportunities to gain experience can really help students to stand out from the crowd; learn transferable skills for employment; and increase employability and so we have a lot of extra-curricular opportunities on offer for students and collaborate with BU on a number of joint projects including recruiting paid students to be on programme review panels.

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