Why are universities important?

At the time when we wait with bated breath for the Chancellor to announce where cuts to the BIS budgets will come ,Universities UK has produced a timely publication “Why Invest in Universities” to add to the debate, and to reinforce the importance of universities not just to the economy, but more broadly.

As I often write, it’s important that we create a narrative about higher education, not just about the economic benefits to the individual , but just as importantly, the benefits which do not just accrue to the individual but also to wider society and the benefits that are not purely economic.

UUK suggests that the UK should invest in universities because:

• Universities transform people’s lives through education and through the wider impact of their research.
• Universities help students to develop the skills and knowledge employers need.
• UK university research is academically world leading and more cost effective than anywhere else in the world, providing the ideas and inventions on which future prosperity will be founded.
• University research benefits everyone – creating businesses and jobs, enriching society and stimulating culture.
• Universities help to ensure that the UK remains competitive in the global market by supporting greater business innovation and export-led, knowledge intensive growth.
• Universities’ international success helps secure the UK’s share of global growth and influence.
• Universities are anchor institutions in their regions – they are essential for vibrant local economies and are drivers of innovation and business development.
• Universities are major contributors to the UK economy, generating £73 billion of output in 2011 alone.
• Universities have transformed themselves in many ways over the past decade, including becoming more efficient and cost effective

Evidence is provided for each of these assertions, and it’s good to see yet again the commitment to showing the importance of international students to university income. The report suggests that 12% of university income nationally comes from international students, and identifies how this is importance in maintaining provision of certain STEM subjects. However, the report also acknowledges the growth in the market for international students in Australia, Canada and USA, who are expanding relative to the UK. Referring back to last week’s blog piece on the recent PA Consulting report on how well the UK sector can face global challenges, this seems to be one where external factors rather than internal issues are holding us back.

As we sit and wait for the changes to the BIS budget, this report helps identify the successes of UK higher education, identifying that universities want to:

1. Provide high quality education that meets the UK’s knowledge and skills needs
2. Provide opportunities for all people with the ability and motivation to study at university to be able to do so
3. Deliver world-class research and support innovation
4. Support the UK’s regions and provide opportunities for businesses to enhance their innovation capacity
5. Attract investment and talent from abroad, and maintain the UK’s international competitiveness in foreign markets

and specifically looking at the second of these, the report proposes that government should

“continue to invest, along with universities, in funding
to support social mobility; the allocation of this funding
should recognise the importance of attracting students
to university as well as supporting a diverse student
body while they are studying”

I think we are all waiting to see whetherr the funding for social mobility through the Student Opportunity Fund will continue – if it is reduced, this could have significant impact on those institutions who recruit large numbers of widening participation students, both in terms of their budgets, but more importantly in how they are able to continue to provide transformation learning.


Willetts – on the benefits and funding of HE

Formerly the minister responsible for universities, David Willetts is now a visiting professor at King’s College, London and last week released a short report on “Issues and ideas on Higher education:Who benefits? Who pays?”.

From the King’s website, the report makes five key recommendations: More cash for students by increasing total maintenance support, whilst saving public spending with a shift from maintenance grants to loans


  • Ensuring any future fee increases, bringing more cash to universities, clearly demonstrates value to the public
  • Freezing the £21,000 threshold for graduates to repay the loan
  • Shifting to a more sensible discount rate for the RAB charge calculations
  • Establishing regular reviews, every five years, of the latest evidence on the costs and benefits of education to set the key figures for the graduate contribution scheme

A pleasing part of the report is the first section on the benefits of HE. At a time when we are always being asked to regard higher education as a private economic benefit, both from outside the academy, and within the institution with a reductive focus and simplistic view of employability above all else, David Willetts clealry articulates that the benefits of HE are both to the individual and society, and are both economic and non-economic. In this he references work from his previous government department of Business Innovation and Skills.


In looking at paying for higher education in England, Willetts reminds us that the current system of loans is not one of commercial loans, and might have been described as a graduate contribution scheme. However the rationale for sticking with slightly misleading terms was:

We did look at this in government but the language of fees and loans had already taken hold. It was how the structure we inherited was described. If we had tried to change it, we would have been in danger of having one official name for it and a separate colloquial description. I did not wish to go back to the days of the poll tax, which ministers were supposed to call the community charge: there was a ragged cheer every time a minister forgot and lapsed into talking about poll tax.

(We wouldn’t have wanted that embarrassment to happen….)

Willetts states that our system of  funding is differentiated from a commercial scheme  through income contingent repayment and universal access for full time students.

In addition to loans or tuition fees, the current system allow for loans for maintenance, and then there are three further items of expenditure.

  • Extra teaching costs for expensive subject, strategic or vulnerable subjects, and teaching disadvantaged students costs just under £2bn per year.
  • Direct funding to students with special needs, maintenance grants or to students who are parents is a further £2bn.
  • Capital funding of £200m per year.

The forth and final category of spending is the Resource Accounting and Budget charge, which probably only David Willetts and Andrew McGettigan fully understand. I suspect they don’t agree with each other though.

The RAB is a measure of the amount of debt that the government will eventually write off based on non-repayment. Willetts explains how it differs from other debt as follows:

However, the government does have to borrow money
now to make the loans to students. This is not regarded as
adding to net borrowing as it is matched by an obligation
to repay the loan – but it does add to net government debt
because the asset which the government acquires, the loan,
is not regarded as sufficiently liquid to count as a financial
asset according to rigorous financial rules. That is why
selling student loans reduces net government debt. If this
leaves you hungry for more detail, the July 2014 Office for
Budget Responsibility (OBR) Fiscal Sustainability Report
has a fuller discussion.

Ok, crystal clear?

The RAB charge s described as being very sensitive to lower growth in earnings, and this is one of the reasons for the rise from 28% to 46%. Willetts argues that the modelling of RAB is more accurate than the system used in other countries, and that to identify a suitable rate for a graduate tax (an alternative HE funding system) would be as difficult, and would also have provided a delay before money started flowing in.

In terms of what to do now, Willetts looks at various other proposals, while remaining with the current system:

What we need is a framework to explicitly adjust the parameters to keep it flexible and sustainable, whilst keeping the basic structure. Such a framework should also avoid endless ad hoc adjustments. Therefore, I suggest that at the start of each parliament the government should assess the latest evidence on the costs and benefits of education, and set the key figures for the graduate contribution scheme. This could be done within government or by an outside panel of experts and interested parties – or some combination. It is emphatically not a review of the whole system. It is not a Robbins or a Dearing or a Browne. Its purpose is not to change the structure of higher education funding. All three political parties, when in office, have recognised its strengths, and structural changes can distract us from uncomfortable tradeoffs. Instead, the aim is to calibrate the structure in the light of new evidence and any change in  political views on the right balance to strike.

The rationale for a 5 year review (linked to parliamentary terms) is given as:

  • matches the main public spending reviews.
  • similar to the system of setting national insurance contribution rates for five years
  • resembles the quinquennial review of the pension age
  • there are limits to how much change and complexity the Students Loan Company can handle,
  • Universities themselves used to be funded with a five year allocation of funding

All in all, a typically well argued defence of the current system for funding HE, together with a clear articulation of the wider benefits of a university education. Howver the emphasis throughout the paper on the need for graduates to pay for their education and not to cross subsidise others (as would be the case with a graduate tax) does maintain the focus on the private rather than societal benefit.

Worryingly though, the government still has to make significant savings from the budget for BIS this year of £450m, and so the existing expenditure on maintenance grants and on support for disadvantaged students starts to look vulnerable. While Willetts shows that not all higher education costs have been privatised, he suggests that “authoritative estimates of the scale of this public support would help tackle this misconception”.

Is it too late to make this plea – we understand the wider benefits of HE, we know that not all funding is yet privatised and the importance of this source of funding, but do we have the right  narrative to explain this, and the right speakers to say it?



It’s all about the money, money, money

This week HESA have published the latest details on expenditure by universities, with details of this for 2013-14. As an institution we have just gone through our own internal budget meetings and so it’s interesting to see how the money is spent across the sector.

hesa13-14 expenditure

(from https://www.hesa.ac.uk/pr/3561-press-release-216)

Firstly, lets just consider the size of expenditure. For 2013-14, this was £29.4bn against income of £30.7bn, up from £25.8bn against income of £26.8bn in 2009-10.

As we go into election week, this is a reminder of the size of the sector and its growing importance to the economy, as well as the non-financial benefits of higher education that accrue to both the individual and to society.

The Times Higher reports on the data, identifying that the average surplus has gone up in the last year, and that the surpluses “support the view that the sector as a whole is financially sound”.

From that article, Phil McNaull, director of finance at the University of Edinburgh and deputy chair of the British Universities Finance Directors Group says

that surpluses should not lead people to think that things were now rosy.

“People look at organisations making a surplus and they think ‘profit’; they think you’re OK,” he says. “They don’t understand that you need to make surpluses to fund the future.”

And the future does hold challenges for the sector. Chief among them is the demand for capital spending, which is already evident on a walk around most university campuses: the growth in the number of shiny new buildings reflects how improving the student experience has become a priority amid an increasingly competitive recruitment environment.

I think we are all well aware of this, and that’s why the proposed new developments for our Stoke on Trent campus, on top of the work already carried out mean that we will be able to offer a great student experience in a city centre campus.


What will universities be for?

There’s nothing like a Bank Holiday weekend to make a start on a blog article on a subject that plenty of others have written on in the past, more eloquently and better researched no doubt. I’m thinking of Cardinal Newman, and more recently Stefan Collini.

Newman said that the purpose of a University is:

“An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit. This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.”

More recently, Stefan Collini has tried to reinforce the need to answer the question “What Afe Universities For”, by looking beyond a

“public perception of universities (that) focuses too much on their teaching role”


“they have become an important medium for conserving understanding extending and handing on intellectual scientific and artistic heritage.”


“This wider perspective may help us become more aware of the limitations of treating economic growth as the overriding test of value”

However much of this post is prompted by recent publications by two other writers, Joanna Williams, of University of Kent, and Andrew McGettigan, author of The Great University Gamble.

At a time when we are preparing ourselves for an HE future that will be shaped by the outcome of this year’s General Election, when so many universities are focussing on their finances, their ability to provide the necessary “student experience”, their contribution to improving student employability, then these writers challenge us to think again about what higher education is about.

Higher education, according to all of the recent major party manifestos is expressed in terms of the financial benefit to the individual (and hence to society through increased tax revenues, and repayment of tuition fee loans). However, previous work from the the Department of Business, Industry and Science – who have been responsible for universities – has shown in “The Benefits of Higher Education Participation for Individuals and Society” that people who attend university are less likely to commit crime, drink heavily or smoke, and  are also more likely to vote, volunteer, have higher levels of tolerance and educate their children better than non-graduates”. The BIS report identifies a range of market and non-market benefits and whether they relate to the individual or society.

Joanna Williams captures the rationale for celebrating higher education in a short piece for Palgrave where she says:

“The idea of the ‘student as consumer’ is derided by academics and commentators alike but it can seem as if there are few intellectually inspiring visions of higher education on offer to young people today. To celebrate higher education we need to move beyond mundane ‘skills for employability’ and to stop drawing a trivial financial equivalence between tuition fees and posh cups of coffee. Rather than focusing upon student satisfaction and the customer experience, universities need to promote the knowledge, ideas and understanding that only they can provide.”

Andrew McGettigan takes a focused look at the treasury view of HE in a new paper for PERC at Goldsmiths where he states:

The focus of policy has been the transformation of higher education into the private good of training and the positional good of opportunity, where the returns on both are higher earnings. Initiation  into the production and dissemination of public knowledge? It does not appear to be a concern of current policy.

He highlights that the Treasury view of higher education is based on the concept of human capital investment, where ultimately the information on salaries earned by graduates from individual subjects at universities, based on tax receipts and levels of payment of student loans will become a factor provided to allow decision to be made about where to study. Recent legislation has provided a series of measures to enable this that:

will also help to create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students.

This will provide data on the repayment rates for different subjects at different institutions, as well as the promotion of “value added” as being based purely on graduate earnings. No doubt this will then provide a new series of value judgments about universities based on metrics rooted in monetarist theory.

McGettigan questions how academics might challenge this new orthodoxy;

The risk is that academics seeking to resist this further privatisation of knowledge will be cast as vested interests seeking to protect an old, inadequate system lacking in transparency. We will end up on the wrong side of the argument. The difficulty: How to articulate what is threatened? How to defend forms of knowledge which are not subordinate to private returns? Academic freedom and autonomy now face a more pressing, insidious, financialised threat than the traditional bugbear of direct political interference. But all this may prove too abstract for effective resistance.

McGettingan cleary states that he does not have a “glib solution”, but that maybe academics (and indeed universities) could challenge the key definition of institutions as providers of

undergraduate study as a stratified, unequal, positional good dominating future opportunities and outcomes. What might find broader public support is a vision of higher education institutions that are civic and open to lifelong participation, instead of places beholden to the three-year, full-time degree leveraged on loans and aiming to cream off ‘talent’.

Although universities need to be managed and governed in such a way that they use public and private monies responsibly, from an academic perspective we need to ensure that in the drive to satisfy our neo-liberal paymasters that we don’t lose the other non-financial benefits of HE and the ability of, and indeed need for, education to be transformational, not just in terms of employability, and for the broadest range of students.

At my own institution, as we move from our new statement of strategic intent, to the development of a new University plan, we have  already said that we will challenge and support our students through “the obligation to provide programmes that stretch our students, delivered by critical thinking, pedagogically advanced, scholarship- and research-active academics”

We need to create a narrative that shows how we can transform all of our students into fully engaged members of society who are able to engage with their subjects to the level of challenging established truths, as well as being able to engage with  the broader hopes of the academy. We need to look closely at what we mean by employability, and make sure that we give our students the opportunities to develop the social capital that they need over and above subject expertise and “transferable skills”. A university that is able to stay true to the principles originally expressed by Newman, reinforced by Collini, and recognises the dangers posed by the current limited thinking driven purely by economics will be the university that enables its students to fully engage with their subjects, to be able to challenge and help create new truths and possibly even be more employable.


Stefan Collini: What are Universities for? Publisher: Penguin (2012) ISBN-13: 978-1846144820

Newman http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/discourse5.html

Andrew McGettigan “The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment” http://www.gold.ac.uk/perc/news/percpaperno6thetreasuryviewofhevariablehumancapitalinvestment.php

Joanna Williams: Celebrate Higher Education http://www.palgrave.com/page/Joanna-Williams/


Essays on student fees, student engagement and student choice

“What do I Get” is the title of this collection of essays on student fees, student engagement and student choice, published by HEPI.

The title comes from a Buzzcocks song, which prompted a a flurry on Twitter of other possible HE report titles with song titles, which led to my first (and possibly only) reference in the Times Higher.


The book seeks to provide evidence of how institutions are faring in a world of £9000 fees, and how this can vary.

Some gems for me:

Edward Acton, former VC of UEA, explains how that institution developed and celebrated a career track that focused on teaching, which led to an improvement in student-staff ratios. In addition, Grove points out the need to take ownership of, and make real, a weekly study time of 40 hours. On this latter point, in the Faculty I currently work in, we will be doing a lot more work in the next year to make sure that we firstly identify all the student-centred learning that is part of a module, but then crucially, to make sure that this is communicated to our students, and is an integral pat of learning, not just “go and read chapter 2”.

Authors from University of Sheffield discuss how, in 2010, a project ran in the university to prepare for the new fee regime.. One of the outcomes from this was the definition of a Sheffield Graduate – that i,s a series of promises around the 5 themes of: course, personal development, support, community and future. An interesting new development for 2015 is the introduction of inter disciplinary projects for all undergraduates.

Richard Brabner of Hertfordshire considers embedding employability into the curriculum, noting that this is increasinglysomething that students expect from university, Again, a set of graduate attributes are described, but here they are linked to the university’s performance management and spending plans. Departments have to show how attributes are embedded and describe their plans for employability. Senior management can monitor activity, reward success and deal with under-performance.

The final essay I’ll look at here was by Ian Dunn, PVC at Coventry and responsible for the development of Coventry University College. This subsidiary company of the university was set up to provide HE with a different learning, teaching and assessment strategy in order to widen access, and crucially at a lower price. Courses range from foundation years, through to honours degrees. The LTA strategy involve modules being taught intensively over 6 weeks each. For modules which fall below a quality threshold, then detailed action plans are implemented to bring them back on track.

Notable from the various essays are the following:

  • the increasing focus on employability – are we keeping pace with others in the sector on this?
  • the development of graduate attributes – how distinctive are these between individual universities?
  • the increase in use of  performance management tools – how do we ensure we have the right data, and use it for enhancement?
  • provision of foundation year programmes – is the CUC model one that others might choose to replicate?


There’s an election coming

If you hadn’t already noticed.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably work in a University, or are interested in higher education, so you know that there are more stories to tell than the tired UKIP one of immigration which all other mainstream parties appear to be trying to imitate.

A number of interesting publications came out in the last week or so, all about HE policy, and all worth looking at in more depth.

Firstly, Universities UK has launched its campaign “Back Universities” with three priority areas that it wants an incoming government to focus on:

  • Research and innovation – making the case for closing the gap between the UK’s investment in research and innovation and that of its major competitors
  • International students and immigration – calling on government and universities to work together to attract qualified international students and staff to the UK
  • Student funding – highlighting the need to develop a sustainable student funding system
    No surprise that once again the issue of international students is on the table –the recent decision about post-study work visas and the perceived lack of welcome are already having an impact on students from India and leading to the loss of income to a range of universities.

On student funding, another interesting publications came out recently. The Institute for Pubic Policy Research has published a report proposing that a student loan system should be extended to postgraduate study.

The paper publishes modelling of the costs and risks of a postgraduate loan scheme offering £10,000 for a taught masters course, to be repaid at 9 per cent on future earnings between £15,000 and £21,000, with other features of the scheme consistent with the existing undergraduate loans. The model assumes this is made available to roughly 47,000 full-time students and 24,000 part-time students.

Crucially, the modelling suggests a non-repayment rate (known as the RAB charge) of 6.9 per cent. This is considerably lower than the non-repayment rate of 40–45 per cent estimated for undergraduate loans.

In response a number of Russell Group universities have dismissed the idea, suggesting that scholarships would be a better approach, although Rick Muir of IPPR points out in the Guardian that a mass scholarship scheme would be unaffordable.

Finally the Institute for Fiscal Studies has written about the socio-economic differences in higher education.

Writing on the million+ website, our VC, Michael Gunn said:

“This research confirms that the support which universities provide for students when they are studying is crucial in terms of outcome. The report’s findings support the government’s decision to retain the Student Opportunity Allocation and suggest that those who say that there is no need for this funding are on the wrong side of the argument and the evidence base.

Student Opportunity funding helps widen access to higher education but it also provides universities with vital extra funds to support students once they have entered a course and plays an important role in retention and social mobility.”

From the IFS website:

“We find that the large raw differences in university outcomes between individuals from different socio-economic backgrounds can largely be explained by the fact that they arrive at university with very different levels of human capital. Comparing individuals on the same course makes relatively little difference to the remaining socio-economic gaps in university outcomes, with those from higher socio-economic backgrounds still 3.4 percentage points less likely to drop-out, 5.3 percentage points more likely to graduate and 3.7 percentage points more likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.”

But an interesting outcome was that the performance of the school that students had attended previously had an effect on outcome:

“amongst students with the same grades on entry to university, those from worse-performing schools are less likely to drop-out, more likely to complete their degree and more likely to obtain a first or 2.1 than those from better-performing schools.”

That last gem makes it even more difficult to work with contextual admissions, or even to assess the impact of WP policies when the performance of a school is probably not a piece of data that we capture.

All in all, it seems as though the various representative organisations and think tanks are putting out information to try to inform policy at the next election. Higher education is rarely one of the top door step conversations for canvassers, but as more and more people in the UK are university educated, and more and more are questioning the role and value of HE, then we should welcome the fact that some cogent and important arguments are being aired.

The Future Politics of Higher Education

We’re now only 7 months from a General Election, and HE is somehow not quite on party radars yet, even after million+ and NUS ran fringe events at recent conferences. Lib Dems may be reticent after their previous pledge not to increase tuition fees (which disappeared after entering coalition), Labour have hinted at £6k cap on fees, but have yet to announce much. The conservatives have said little and UKIP are happy to remove students from the net migration figures (there’s a surprise, and puts them out of line with the Conservatives).

Clearly the financing and regulation of HE (recognising a changed environment, increased marketisation and entry of new providers) will be critical to the success of the sector and the individuals who work and study within it.

Into a vacuum though, something will always flow, and this week sees two sets of neoliberal views being promulgated.

Firstly an article in this week’s Times Higher. I’d like to describe it as muddle-headed, but t’s not that good.

Written by James Martin, a former adviser to Michael Gove, specious claims are made with little evidence, such as:

  • our universities’ failures on academic rigour and widening participation
  • too many higher education courses are of poor quality
  • with the number of firsts doubling in a decade, we need an honest debate about grade inflation and the culture of low lecture attendance and light workloads it supports
  • too many providers are weak imitations of the ancient universities.

No evidence is provided of failures of rigour (unless all degree courses have to be PPE). Poor quality is defined, based on the failure to pay back loans. The comments on grade inflation again are related to small earnings premiums

As a solution the following is proposed:

The first step in a prioritisation of education is to move universities into an enlarged Department for Education after the general election. The Secretary of State should immediately commission a genuinely independent review to determine which degrees are a sound investment or of strategic importance. Only these would be eligible for three-year student loans. Some shorter loans might encourage more efficient courses. Those who will brand this “philistinism” could not be more wrong: it is the traditional academic subjects that are valued by employers (philosophy at the University of Oxford is a better investment than many business courses). I am not arguing for fewer people to go to university. We need more students from poorer backgrounds taking the best degrees.


So this the heart of the proposal – move HE away from BIS, and to the Ofsted and target-obsessed regime of the DfE. Secondly, relate the funding of HE to graduate employment, since it is assumed that quality of education is all about the amount you earn afterwards.

grad cartoon

 “© Schwadron, Jantoo.com”

In other news, the Institute for Economic Affairs ( a right of centre thinktank) has produced a discussion paper, “UNIVERSITIES CHALLENGED: Funding Higher Education through a Free-Market ‘Graduate Tax”

This report recognises that the graduate premium varies between courses and individuals. Instead of the existing loan scheme, or a graduate tax however, the IEA proposes that:

Universities should individually or collectively offer contracts to their students, who would agree to pay to the university they attended a given percentage of their earnings. That percentage could vary by course and institution, though some agreement between universities could be helpful to achieve standardisation. Essentially, the university would be taking an equity interest in the graduate premium earned by the student, although any student who chose to do so could, alternatively, pay the full fees up-front prior to beginning their studies.

·      If universities needed additional cash to finance their current expenditures, they could sell their rights to the graduate equity income stream through a securitisation mechanism. With or without securitisation, the risk of obtaining a low graduate premium will be reduced for students and be minimal for universities as their exposure will be diversified across many students.

·      This approach will ensure that universities have a much stronger interest in the employability of their graduates. That interest will continue after graduation. As such, universities will have an incentive to invest in careers advice and related services and in continuing to provide such services after graduation.

Wow. free marketisation, red in tooth and claw.The IEA goes on the propose that since universities will no longer depend on the state to provide loans, then they would also no longer need to be regulated for undergraduate awards. Indeed they would be free to innovate and engage in competition leading to a race to the top “because universities would have a direct economic interest in the success of their students”.

Both of these reports focus on higher education as a passport to a graduate job, improved employability and increased earning potential. Higher education is more than that, but the sometimes necessary obsession with league tables and other comparative metrics means that ideas such as these become seductively attractive to those who see education purely as a financial transaction, rather than a transformational impact on all aspects of an individual’s life and life chances.

We can expect more of this over the next few months. Within the sector and within our institutions do we need ask and answer questions of ourselves about what we are here for?

We should develop a strong argument for the mixed economy that our HE sector currently comprises, the wide range of benefits that obtain from HE and the need for open debate about how we fund and properly support our universities in the future.

Cuts to Disabled Student Allowance

Last month a written ministerial statement from David Willetts (not widely reported) outlined changes to the Disabled Student Allowance. A brief reference to this was reported to our Learning Teaching and Assessment Committee. In future I anticipate we will be considering the wide-ranging impact this will have, on recruitment, on student satisfaction and on budgets.

This change potentially has serious impact on the individual educational experience of many students, has a potential legal impact on universities, and at a more local level, a possible impact on university and faculty or school budgets.

From the ministerial statement:

We will look to HEIs to play their role in supporting students with mild difficulties, as part of their duties to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act. These are partly anticipatory duties and we expect HEIs to introduce changes which can further reduce reliance on DSAs and help mainstream support. However, we believe that HEIs are better placed to consider how to respond in many cases, including giving greater consideration to the delivery of their courses and how to provide support. The need for some individual non-medical help (NMH) may be removed through different ways of delivering courses and information. It is for HEIs to consider how they make both anticipatory reasonable adjustments and also reasonable adjustments at an individual level.The key changes are set out below:We will pay for higher specification or higher cost computers where a student needs one solely by virtue of their disability. We will no longer pay for standard specification computers or the warranties and insurance associated with them. We will no longer pay for higher specification and/or higher cost computers simply because of the way in which a course is delivered. We are changing our approach to the funding of a number of computer equipment, software and consumable items through DSAs that have become funded as ‘standard’ to most students.Students with Specific Learning Difficulties will continue to receive support through DSAs where their support needs are considered to be more complex.We will fund the most specialist Non-Medical Help. HEIs are expected to consider how they deliver information to students and whether strategies can be put in place to reduce the need for support workers and encourage greater independence and autonomy for their students.The additional costs of specialist accommodation will no longer be met byDSAs, other than in exceptional circumstances.

In the Guardian, Sarah Lewthwaite writes:

Willetts stresses universities’ role in bridging the gap in DSA support. However, universities will receive no monies to cover the financial gap at a time of economic stringencies and pay freezes.Willetts emphasises the importance of new technologies for anticipatory inclusive teaching and learning within the established frame of “reasonable adjustment” required by the Equality Act (2010). However, technological solutions are limited. University eLearning environments cannot ensure universally accessible educational opportunities without (DSA funded) assistive technologies deployed by students, among a raft of other measures and costs. In the short term, at least, prospects for disabled students experiencing cuts to DSAs are bleak.Concerns do not end here. Proposed changes to DSA funding may fundamentally redefine disability in higher education. Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs), such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADD/ADHD, have been singled out for the largest cuts, and there is a real danger that their needs become invisible.Willetts has chosen to restrict focus to more “complex” SpLDs and those requiring “most specialist” support. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between a medical diagnosis and the support requirements that students may have. Indeed, it is ironic that the one group singled out for cuts to academic support are those whose disability explicitly affects learning.

So for students with some of the more common learning disabilities – and we have subject areas where this affects large numbers of students – there might be no more support from the DSA, and universities will be expected to make up the gap.


It might be argued that some of the technologies currently provided (eg computers) are those that we expect all students to already own when they arrive at university. This unfortunately ignores the fact that some disabled students will be those who are also from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and so are least likely to be able to buy such equipment.To me these proposals are to provide support for  “those who deserve it”. Not unlike our changing benefits system that is moving from being one of universal benefit when needed, but one that is only for the deserving poor.


There are different responsibilities for universities here too – the use of the Equality Act and how this could be interpreted to make changes to delivery of courses is an interesting proposition. Smita Jamdar of Martineaus has provided an excellent blog piece on this very subject. She identifies:

Clearly, once the changes take effect there will be less support via the DSA and there are obvious risks to participation levels among students with disabilities, but it is also likely that HEIs will be asked to fund a greater amount and diversity of adjustments once this support stops.

She identifies 2 significant aspects of the ministerial statement:

  1. HEIs are expected not to think reactively about how a particular student’s needs can be accommodated in a particular course, but rather proactively about how their entire portfolio of courses might be made accessible to students with a wide range of disabilities thus obviating or substantially reducing the need for further specific support.
  2. From 2015 it is intended to instead adopt the Equality Act definition of “a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities”.  HEIs may find themselves in debate more often with students as to whether or not their condition meets the definition of a disability, if only to give students support to apply for DSA

Smita identifies that disability discrimination represents the greatest number of student discrimination cases that her law firm deals with, and that “the changes to DSA are likely to increase the pressure from students and campaign groups alike for greater focus on this area from HEIs.”

So in conclusion, we have a change to policy which will save a tiny fraction of the overall benefits bill. For universities though we need to consider the following:

  • how do we proactively change our courses to make anticipatory adjustments?
  • how do we learn to use the Equality Act to determine what support might be needed?
  • how do we minimise the opportunities for legal cases?
  • how do we manage our internal budgets to cover the increased costs that might be coming our way?






Uncapping the Future

A few months ago I wrote a piece here on  my views of how the changes announced in the Autumn Statement might affect universities like ours, specifically the impact of removing the cap on student numbers.

Since then, this has been written about and discussed in detail. Until we get throug hteh next two years of UCAS entry then we can’t draw conclusions completely. In the last week or so, two new articles have appeared on this very subject.

One thing to bear in mind is that the next General Election is not that far away, and over on the wonkhe website, Debbie McVitty suggests:

prudent analysts may be withholding judgement pending confirmation that a future government is ready to stand by this commitment and to source the sustainable flow of funding that would make it a reality

She proposes 4 scenarios, based on ranges of supply and demand for HE places, and concludes that:

A more robust approach would be to consider what interventions will best secure a sustainable pipeline of qualified and informed applicants to higher education (significantly enhanced IAG springs to mind) and how policymakers can identify and share the risks of innovation with higher education providers in order to ensure a meaningful social benefit to increased participation.

Over on the Times Higher websiteBahram Bekhradnia  (president of the Higher Education Policy Institute) writes:

Recently the pages of THE have been filled with more cheerleaders urging the government to go further and faster. My advice to these credulous souls is that they should be careful what they wish for.

He worries that the market in HE that the coalition government has sought to create does not exist – indeed capping numbers, setting a limit on fees and tinkering with core and margin numbers has had little effect in creating a free market.

At first, the coalition government introduced a pseudo-market, involving competition around “highly qualified students”, but that has had a dysfunctional and erratic impact. The complete relaxation of student number controls appears to be a final and desperate attempt to create a market in higher education where there has been none so far.

It is an experiment that is unlikely to succeed. The additional student numbers will have to be paid for. Given that the sale of the student loan book is unlikely to cover the cost, either the funds will be found by the government itself, which is improbable, or students will pay even more, which is possible. Otherwise the additional students will have to be accommodated without a commensurate increase in funding and with negative consequences for quality and standards.

This last point is worth noting – as costs in universities rise, and while the top end of fees is capped then gradually the money available to support teaching and learning will reduce.

For the financially secure institutions which easily recruit their self-identified quota of undergraduate numbers, removing the student number ca may not be a problem: they will have no new entrants into the “market” to compete against, and will  be able to campaign to remove the cap on fees and tackle that contradiction in market philosophy.

Removing the cap on recruitment creates a challenge for those universities who might struggle to recruit in future One outcome might be a further increase in private provision, particularly for low delivery costs subjects, or more delivery of HE through FE and commercial partners. Both of these will create a challenge for some universities. These lower ranked institutions, or those who find to harder to recruit undergraduate numbers, will find themselves more exposed to a market environment, with aggressive competitors who will be prepared to differentiate on price.

In terms of what my university can do to address this challenge, well I’ll return to that in my “we can be better than this” series of blog posts.


Shifts and Trends in UK Higher Education

A new publication from HEFCE, ‘Higher education in England 2014: Analysis of latest shifts and trends’, is an overview of recent shifts and longer-term trends, building a picture of publicly-funded higher education in England in 2014 and a sense of how it got to where it is. It also considers possible further changes and continuities in the year ahead.

Available to download are the main report and key facts sheet, together with the data-set used.

This blog post will not consider the sections in the report on research and knowledge exchange, nor on financial health of institutions, but will focus on student enrolments, subjects and growth and decline of parts of the market. I will also ask why we are not following the trends.

Full Time Student Numbers

The information presented shows a recovery in full time undergraduate numbers in the sector with an 8% increase in 2013-14 compared with 2012-13, however there are significant drops in the numbers of part time entrants and also entrants to undergraduate programmes other than first degrees, with a 38% decline in students on foundation degrees.


Interestingly, there has been growth in students  registered on full time HE qualifications delivered in FE colleges.

Part Time Student Numbers

Unsurprisingly, the number of entrants to part time undergraduate awards has fallen significantly, with the biggest decline in awards other than first degrees.


Entry to Postgraduate provision

There has been little significant change in UK/EU entrants to postgraduate provision, as seen in the  graph below, but as the report highlights, in 2015, we will have the first potential entry to these awards by students who have gone through their undergraduate programmes under the current fee regime. Since a high percentage of current postgraduate students have no financial support and are funding their own studies, it will be interesting to see how the next generation will view the benefits of postgraduate study. They could be averse to taking on even more debt, or alternatively may be happy to do so, having made an assessment of the benefit of further study balanced against the increased level of indebtedness, much of which may never be paid back.


When considering entry to postgraduate provision, this university needs to be very aware of international recruitment – recent visa changes have potentially had a negative effect on how HE in the UK is perceived. To quote the report:

International students have contributed a great deal to the growth of postgraduate education. They make up over a quarter of all postgraduate numbers, but in certain subject areas they are more than half of the cohort, which makes parts of the sector vulnerable to volatility in this market.

A quick look at the growth and decline of international markets is instructive:


Recent news around visas has potentially had a major effect on recruitment from India and Pakistan, whereas demand from China is booming.

Student Characteristics

The report shows that entry rate has increased for all students, and that for those who are the most disadvantaged, there has been a greater increase. However, there is still a large gap in participation between students from the most advantaged and most disadvantaged neighborhoods, and that students from the most advantaged areas were more likely to enter high-tariff institutions.

Interestingly, the number of facilitating subjects studied at A-Level  (where the Russell Group de?nes ‘facilitating subjects’ as subjects that are required more often than others for entry to undergraduate courses. They note that mathematics and further mathematics, English literature, physics,biology, chemistry, geography, history, and classical and modern languages can all be seen as facilitating subjects.) have an effect on likelihood of acceptance to university, and this is exaggerated fro those with lower A-level grades – study of facilitating subjects seems to be of more significance:


So the message here seems to be – choose “traditional” A-level subjects, particularly if you are a “weaker” student.


HEFCE clearly supports STEM subjects and others of strategic importance such as modern foreign languages. This report makes comments on both of these, and for us the section on STEM is important.

94. In 2013-14, positive trends in STEM applications translated to 98,000 acceptances via UCAS, the highest level recorded. Engineering and technology acceptances bounced back by 6 per cent (2,000) after a decline, returning to 2010-11 peak levels. Acceptances to computer sciences in 2013-14 were higher than at any point since 2003-04, having increased by 12 per cent (2,000) compared with the previous year.

95. UCAS applications data for the 2014 cycle suggest continued growth in engineering and technology subjects, with applications rising by 11 per cent compared with the previous cycle. Computer sciences have seen the biggest increase in applications, of 13 per cent.

96. Increased entries to STEM subjects at A-level suggest that there is scope for further growth in higher education in the coming years. Although total numbers of A-level entries remained ?at between 2011-12 and 2012-13, the numbers of entries to STEM subjects increased by 6,000 (2 per cent)

As we look to reviewing our portfolio, for me this is a strong message that we need to ensure we are ready to grow in our areas of strength such as computer sciences, and recognise the potential in other science and engineering subjects.

Recruitment by location and tariff

Again, interestingly, this report shows that the West Midlands one of the areas of highest growth (3%) for full time undergraduate entrants to HE, but at the same time saw a significant drop (48%) in part time entrants.

The HEIs which saw significant growth in entrants  tended to be specialist institutions or those whose students have high average tariff scores. Declines of more than 10 per cent took place at 28 HEIs and 17 further education colleges. The majority of the HEIs seeing these levels of decline were those where entrants had low or medium average tariff scores.


There is a lesson for us here maybe, as raised in the VC’s Blog this week – do we need to do more work to raise our entry tariff, to compete against the HEIs we think of as our natural competitors, and to have a potential benefit to our league table position?


A detailed and comprehensive picture of higher education in England, which provide some useful points for reflection. My key points (and these are entirely personal, not the views of the institution) would be:

  • international recruitment – which markets are we operating in?
  • portfolio review  – emphasis on STEM provision?
  • entry tariff – can we raise this?