Scrapping Student Number Controls

In last week’s Autumn Statement, the Chancellor of he Exchequer made a surprise announcement, that student number controls would be scrapped in 2015-16. While he was still answering questions in the House, I wrote a short blog piece on why this might not be completely good news.

Let me make absolutely clear – opinions expressed in this article (and in the previous one) are personal, and in no way reflect the opinions or decisions of Staffordshire University.

Since I wrote that piece, plenty of other commentators have provided their views, across Twitter, blogs and other more established news outlets. I’ve also received comments via Twitter and even phone calls (how retro) to talk about exactly how serious this is.

Since writing my piece, all of the various mission groups have come out with their reactions, and this is reported in the THE. HEFCE welcomes the change, especially the commitment to STEM subjects; OFFA say it is “excellent news for fair access”; UUK welcomed the news, but cautions of the need for more details about long term sustainability; the Russell Group argue that quality should be prioritised over quantity; Million+ welcome the commitment to mass higher education; University Alliance said that the increase in graduates will enable the UK to meet for skilled graduates, and QAA said this presents an unprecedented opportunity for universities and colleges.

David Willetts writing in “Robbins Revisited” states “analysis suggested that the number of additional qualified applicants who could enter higher education by 2035 will be 460,000 (an increase of about 100,000 on the current level of entrants).”

There is a clear commitment to increasing the number of students in higher education, as it is recognised that there are signification benefits to the economy by having a more educated workforce. In addition, there are a large number of non-market benefits that obtain from higher education, which have an indirect effect on government spending on crime and health for instance.

So with all of that general feeling that this is a good thing (apart from the inevitable Russell Group opinion), why am I, and others still concerned?

As I wrote before, opening up the market, and removing the current controls might remove a degree of protectionism. If numbers going to university are going  to rise (and figures of 60,000 extra students are mooted initially), where will they go? Oxbridge and Russell Group universities will not be increasing their intake massively. To deliver the education that they do, requires fantastic staff student ratios that are supported by high levels of research income, and research to inform their teaching. There is a limited amount of research funding out there to bid for, and equally, there might be a limited number of staff who are capable of generation it. This group are unlikely to take up significant extra numbers

The universities in the middle of the league tables may be best placed If they have used the recent years of easy loans and cheap finance to reinvest in their campuses and facilities, and their overall market offer, They will have risen up the league tables (see Coventry a an example) and they will be desirable enough to be able to expand and take on more undergraduate students. Their greater focus on student experience could mean an attractive offer for full time undergraduate students, and so they will be able to recruit students who might otherwise have gone to the universities lower down the league tables.

And so we come to them. Fishing at the bottom of the pond, and recruiting student with low UCAS tarrifs might be  a risky place to be. Potential students will be able to trade up to the group described above. Equally, there will be a greater challenge from HE in FE provision and from private providers, both of whom can undercut on price, and for whom restrictions will also cease.

Writing in the Financial Times on 5th December 2013, Emran Mian (of the Social Market Foundation) suggests that the “flipside of changes is they will increase pressure on poor-performing universities”.

” Removing the cap on the system overall should mean that any individual university, including new entrants, can recruit without a cap on their growth as well. At the moment, numbers are controlled both at the level of the system as a whole and at each institution. If both caps are removed in 2015-16 this will mean that universities can choose to “go for growth”, providing innovation in their course offerings, improving the student experience or potentially dropping their fees to win students from their competitors.

The flipside of these changes is they are likely to increase very significantly the pressure on poor-performing universities. In a system where supply is constrained and demand exceeds supply by a comfortable margin, everyone can fill their classrooms. Lift the caps and then quality and price start to matter much more.”

And from the Social Market Foundation website:

“Expanding student places makes a lot of economic sense. A third of the increase in labour productivity between 1994 and 2005 was due to higher numbers of graduates in the workforce. By allowing universities to increase recruitment, the Chancellor is encouraging strong, middle-rank universities and new entrants to expand and put pressure on the universities at the bottom. This should mean those universities have to innovate more and offer lower fees.”

So where does this leave us?

Firstly, we need to see the detail from HEFCE on how next years extra places will be allocated in the last year of SNC, but then this university and others will need to have some hard conversations about what we really need to do now, as we could clearly be one of the universities under pressure (remember, this article is based on personal opinions).

Here’s what I would suggest doing immediately:

  • Work as hard as possible to make sure that the university is NOT at the bottom of the league tables, so that we can become a destination university.
  • Make sure that improving student attainment, satisfaction and employability is central to everything that we do.
  • Review our current recruitment planning process – for one year it won’t be worth looking at targets for ABB students an others, and centrally developed targets across faculties. Once the cap is removed there will be no need to allocate numbers to faculties, provided they are able to resource activity. Use the time to develop a recruitment strategy for 2015-16
  • Use management information on portfolio performance more rigorously – if an award produces only 29% of students with good degrees, it damages our league table performance – do we want large numbers of students in that area, or do we need to improve their experience and outcomes?
  • Quality and price are going to matter, we won’t want to reduce price, so how do we drive up quality -we need to make a significant step change?
  • Identify what we have that really is unique – some specialist courses maybe, or 2 year fast track awards?
  • Develop opportunities for recruiting students from growing markets such as the “MINTs” (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey)

This could be the time that the free market really starts to hit higher education. Changes to fees and finance are probably not far away, but there could be a feeding frenzy at the bottom of the market in a very short time. We need to make sure that we are not part of that.

The Autumn Statement and HE

Thursday 5th December saw the release of the autumn statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. With a bit of a surprise in there about student number controls.

After quoting from the 1960 Robbins report, the statement describes how there has been an increased demand of higher skilled workers, and how there is still a salary premium for graduates. Higher education is therefore considered as a good investment for those who wish to pursue it (it might be useful to look at the recent BIS document  where the benefits of HE to both the individual and society, are described as being more than just economic).

A key change then is:

“However, this strong demand for higher education significantly exceeds the supply of
places. This is in part because the numbers of students providers can accept have been tightly
controlled since 2009. This cap acts as a bar to aspiration, as people with the grades to enter
higher education are excluded from doing so. And it also prevents the UK from developing the
highly-skilled workforce demanded in modern economies.
1.202 Autumn Statement 2013 announces that the government will remove the
cap on student numbers at publicly-funded higher education institutions in England
by 2015-16. This will enable institutions to expand their provision to meet demand from an
estimated 60,000 young people a year who have the grades to enter higher education but
cannot currently secure a place. For 2014-15, the government will significantly increase
the cap for HEFCE-funded institutions by 30,000, allowing those institutions that want
to begin expanding straight away to do so, and encouraging competition. To ensure that
institutions provide places in the subjects most needed in the economy, the government will
provide extra funding for STEM students of £50 million per academic year from 2015-16.”

An early response by University Alliance said:

“The announcement of additional student places is excellent news for the students, universities and the UK. This shows that the Government are future focussed and fully recognise the role that graduates and universities play in driving the UK economy towards a more prosperous future.

“These extra places will ensure the UK can meet the need for additional highly skilled graduates helping us meet the demands of the future economy.

“Despite the difficult climate for all young people entering the job market it is still the case that a degree is by far the best route for most individuals. Universities will work hard to help with the transition into employment for all students.”

I think we can expect other similar responses from the other mission groups.

The expansion of student numbers will be funded by the sale of part of the student loan book. The statement goes on to say:

” Freeing higher education institutions from number controls will help improve quality
in the sector by increasing competition and allowing institutions who face strong demand
to expand. To maintain quality in the sector and ensure value for money, the government
will retain number controls at alternative providers in 2014-15 on the basis of their
2012-13 levels. From 2015-16, it will allow student numbers at alternative providers
to be freed in a similar manner as for HEFCE-funded provision. The higher education
sector has an internationally excellent reputation for quality. The government will continue to
closely monitor quality of provision across the sector and reserves the right to reimpose number
controls on institutions that expand their student numbers at the expense of quality”

I do think that the first sentence needs further examination. Firstly, increasing competition will not necessarily raise quality (especially when this is term is not defined). Secondly, many institutions may chose not to increase numbers of undergraduate students, despite rising demand, as they may  not be able, or indeed want to meet that demand.

The converse of course, is not reported in the statement. In encouraging competition, the situation may become more difficult for some universities, who may have relied on recruiting students who were unable to get into more  selective institutions. As the SNC is removed, so is some of the protection that the current regulated market provides. It can be well argued that this is a form of protectionism that a free market should of course not support.

The ability of alternative providers to be freed from number controls also from 2015-16 must present a risk, in terms of the number of loans that the government might need to provide for students at these providers, recognising the impact on BIS finances caused by  the rapid expansion in HNC/HND numbers at these institutions.

What will be interesting now, is how universities will choose to plan or change their student recruitment strategies, and to what extent this statement might impact on strategic plans that were not anticipating a removal of number controls.



Stefan Collini on marketisation of HE

Stefan Collini, (author of “What are Universities For?” in which he challenged the common claim that universities need to show that they help to make money in order to justify getting more money and argued that we must reflect on the different types of institution and the distinctive roles they play) has published an essay in the London Review of Books entitled “Sold Out” which is a review of “Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education” by Roger Brown, with Helen Carasso and “The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education” by Andrew McGettigan.

This is a fascinating and detailed analysis of the rushed experiment being carried out on the English higher education system, and is timely after the last week’s BIS announcements about removing designation from a number of private colleges, who were otherwise consuming more of the student support budget that originally anticipated.

Collini clearly worries about what has been done in very recent years to UK HE:

“Deep changes in the structure and dominant attitude of contemporary market democracies are everywhere putting pressure on the values that have sustained the ideals of public higher education. Unfortunately, the UK has put itself in charge of the pilot experiment in how to respond to these changes. Other countries are looking on with a mixture of regret and apprehension: regret because the university system in this country has been widely admired for so long, apprehension because they fear similar policies may soon be coming their way. In many parts of the world English higher education is, to change the metaphor, seen less as a useful pilot experiment and more as the canary in the mine.”

He writes about the change in the market, and the desire of government to create a “level playing field” to encourage competition:

“Anyone who thinks the change in 2010 was merely a rise in fees, and that things have settled down and will now carry on much as usual, simply hasn’t been paying attention. This government’s whole strategy for higher education is, in the cliché it so loves to use, to create a level playing field that will enable private providers to compete on equal terms with public universities. The crucial step was taken in the autumn of 2010 with the unprecedented (and till then unannounced) decision to abolish the block grant made to universities to support the costs of teaching – abolish it entirely for Band C and Band D subjects (roughly, arts, humanities and social sciences) and in substantial part for Band A and B subjects (roughly, medicine and the natural sciences). From the point of view of private providers, that change removed a subsidy to established universities which had hitherto rendered private undergraduate fees uncompetitive in the home market. Now that every type of institution offering these subjects is largely dependent on student fees, the way is open to rig the market to drive down the price.”

W can clearly see the effect of one of these changes this week. Reports show a huge unanticipated increased spend by BIS on loans for students of HNCs and HNDs at private providers, with a knock on effect that a numberof private colleges have just lost their designation status to prevent them recruiting further.

Collini also discusses the idea of “reform” as described originally in the Browne report, and says

 “the implication is that there is something wrong with the present arrangements that these changes will put right. And the logic of such reform is to reclassify people as consumers, thereby reducing them to economic agents in a market. The cunning of government propaganda, in higher education as elsewhere, is to pose as the champion of the consumer in order to force through the financialisation and marketisation of more and more areas of life. Who do the student-consumers need assistance against? Who is preventing them from getting what they want and therefore should have? Universities, it seems.”

An interesting analysis follows of the impact of tuition fees – and how a potential student might perceive the difference between £8000 a year and £9000 a year. In terms of paying back teh money, there is little difference that an 18 year old might plan for. However, a rational decision  might be to opt for the institution that might be investing an extra £3000 in their teaching and learning experience. Collini concludes:

Overall, therefore, the price differential is a phantom factor that says more about a university’s confidence than it does either about the value for money of particular courses or (to any great extent) the future financial burdens of the graduate.

And when he considers the rate at which graduates pay back loans, he notes the following:

It will be no surprise if, after a while, there are statistics for graduate repayment rates not just from different universities but from different courses. If a particular course shows a very low repayment rate, why not harness ‘anti-scrounger’ sentiment and cease to treat it as eligible for publicly backed loans? The joke is that a fee system is justified, in coalition rhetoric, as making universities more independent. The reality is that it may provide an alternative lever by which to force ‘market’ judgments on universities in deciding which courses to offer.

This of course is the opposite of that from the recent UUK report on UK HE finance, where it was suggested that “public funds should be used to provide support for those students and courses where investors may not see a return”.  In either scenario there has to be a worry about how some subjects and their students will be funded in a brave new world, if study and learning cannot be reduced to a set of purely economic returns.

It’s a long article, but I recommend reading it – and McGettigan’s book is now on my reading list.

The Funding Challenge for Universities

FundingChallengeForUniversitiesA new publication by Universities UK entitled”The Funding Challenge for Universities” came out last week, with the following chapters and key points.

Chapter 1 The Economic Challenge

Under economic challenge the report reviews the evidence that graduates earn more than those without a degree, and concludes that this is still the case. Although there is evidence that some graduates enter non graduate jobs initially, they rapidly move upwards through organisations to positions where a degree becomes necessary.

The report concludes that even with the growth in the number of graduates, the continuing differential in pay indicates that there is not an over supply of graduates and that with evidence of a future need for more graduate level skills, that there may be scope for the number of graduates to grow further, to support economic growth.

Chapter 2 The Funding Challenge for Universities in England

This chapter reports that between 2005-06 and 2011-12, income to universities rose by 44%, while expenditure rose by 39%. The income has changed from being dominated by HEFCE teaching grant, to being mainly from tuition fees.

At the same time, there has been an increasing reliance on organisations to fund infrastructure improvements from their own reserves, which suggest that should student number controls be lifted , resulting in any increase in enrolments, universities may not be able to fund the capital infrastructure needed to support the student experience.

Reviewing the difference between the number  applicants to university, and the number who accept places, suggests there is still unmet demand which could also support a growth in the number of enrolments.

Chapter 3 The Funding Challenge for the Government

Clearly any increase in the number of students enrolling would lead to an increase in the cost of student loans and an increase in public sector borrowing.

A number of ways to mediate against this are proposed, for instance increasing interest rates, increasing time for repayment, reducing the repayment threshold. The other changes are more macro – reducing other elements of spend by BIS, reducing spend by other government departments, or increasing government income.

Private funding is mentioned at this point.

Chapter 4 Funding Challenge Faced by Other Countries

This chapter looks at funding mechanism in other countries, where growth in tertiary education is happening at the same time as constraint on public resources.

The US, Korea and Hungary are considered in detail.

Chapter 5 Conclusions

The report concludes that there is a need to continue to increase the number of graduates, while recognising that funding challenges exist if quality and competitiveness are to be maintained. Three main factors are identified: increased government funding; reduction in RAB charges; need to acres funding for capital expenditure now to accommodate student numbers in the future.

The amount of private funding in other systems is highlighted, and the report goes on to state that UUK will now be looking at alternative student finance models for England, with the following principles:

  • student number control – that institutions should have autonomy over admissions and selection and thsi shoudl not be dictated to by the funding process
  • no student to be disadvantaged by background
  • public-private finance models – recognition that public funding should be part of the system but should be focused on providing support where the market cannot sustain investor return requirements, eg if the student or course presents an increased level of repayment risk to investors
  • alternative forms of funding – should not constrain other forms of funding or prevent insttutions developing independent models to fund their students
  • system to cover all institutions
  • tuition fees – flexibility to be retained to vary key aspects, eg level of level of fee cap, earning threshold before repayments

 My Comments

A no doubt welcome and realistic paper which is looking at the reality of how we will fund HE in the future, particularly since there is  a recognition of the need to increase further the number gaining degree level qualifications. The report certainly starts to provide some ideas to what Steve Smith described as an avalanche (from an earlier blog post)

“an avalanche really is coming in terms of the costs of student support.

I cannot see that system surviving, and expect any incoming government in 2015 to look again at the student finance system and to try to reduce its costs. Think for a moment about how it might do that, and how that might influence student demand for different types of institutions. To mention just one controversial way to reduce costs, what would be the effect of re-examining the Browne review’s notion of requiring minimum qualifications before students gain access to the loan system?”

There must be some worries here though too though. The paper suggests that extra funding could come from a realignment of BIS or other budgets, or increased government revenue. In the current climate of austerity, that seems unlikely, and the focus is more likely to be around how the student finance system will be able to operate in future.

There is acknowledgement that the fee cap should be able to rise (it cannot stay where it is anyway, as inflation will reduce the real income to universities over time). the question will be whether a raised fee cap would see all institutions again charging the maximum or close to it, or a real market in fees.

The suggestion of allowing different forms of finance is interesting – eg parental support or increased private investment. This does worry me though, particularly in terms of being able to ensure that social mobility of those who do not have access to such funding is not affected.

The suggestion that public funds should be used to provide support for those students and courses where investors may not see a return is equally worrying – will students, particularly those from lower income or risk  and debt averse households be more likely then to be channeled in to the subjects where there is a clearer economic reward, rather than the education that they want.

An area not covered is how we might actually deliver undergraduate education. The implication in the reports is that any growth in numbers needs to be matched with a growth in capital investment and infrastructure. Although this is desirable, there are other things that could be considered. For instance, how can universities use their estate more efficiently? Can fast track degrees allow growth in graduate numbers with a reduced capital requirement? Can clever use of technology reduce the reliance on the physical campus?

I look forward to the next publication in the series.





Going to University is Good for You!

A new publication from BIS, “The Benefits of Higher Education Participation for Individuals and Society: key findings and reports “The Quadrants”” is reported on in the Higher which shows that  that “People who attend university are less likely to commit crime, drink heavily or smoke, according to a new database of evidence on the social benefits of higher education and are are also more likely to vote, volunteer, have higher levels of tolerance and educate their children better than non-graduates”.

The different benefits are divided into those which help the individual, the market and society, as well as those benefits classified as non-market, with many benefits fulfilling several such functions.

T he report is based on plenty of existing social science research, but provides a useful starting point for those who want a reference to the wider benefits of HE. There are ideas in here that we can be using as part of our marketing, and in particular when explaining the rationale for a university like ours and the diverse programmes that we offer.

It also lays bare the joke I use in one of my lectures – if HE participation  makes you less likely to be obese, less likely to smoke, drink or be divorced, I am clearly a statistical outlier.

The quadrants are reproduced below from the BIS document:


A critical path: Securing the future of higher education in England

This new publication from the Institute of Public Policy and Research has been produced by their Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The commissioners were:

Professor Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor and president, University of Warwick (chair)

Thom Arnold, former president, Sheffield Students’ Union (2011/12)

Professor Janet Beer, vice-chancellor, Oxford Brookes University

Dame Jackie Fisher, chief executive, Newcastle College Group

Professor Sandra McNally, director of education and skills, LSE

Professor John Sexton, president, New York University

Professor Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor and chief executive, University of Exeter

Professor Sir Rick Trainor, principal and president, King’s College London

Hugh Morgan Williams, chairman, Broadtek Ltd

In the executive summary it states that “this Commission believes that our higher education system must continue to be shaped by five principles. We believe that higher education institutions must:

• be disinterested producers of knowledge

• nurture sceptical and informed citizens

• promote the public good

• expand opportunity for all, and

• further national economic renewal.”

The summary of recommendations is: (my comments in italics)

“1. Higher education opportunities should continue to expand. While resources are constrained in the next parliament, we should sustain the current proportion of 18–21-year olds entering higher education until 2020, while focusing additional places on locally available, flexible and low-cost courses, aimed in particular at those who seek vocational oriented learning.

A possible opportunity here for universities that have a strong record of local recruitment, and vocational courses

2. Universities and further education colleges should be able to bid to provide new £5,000 ‘fee only’ degrees, focused on vocational learning and offered to local students who would be eligible for fee loans but not maintenance support.

similar to the Coventry University College model?

3. The government should consider reforms to the approximately £5 billion that companies receive in training tax relief, with a view to better incentivising employers to invest in courses leading to accredited qualifications and continuing professional development, whether in further or higher education.

This may be interesting in light of the work that this and other universities/colleges already do in developing bespoke accredited programmes

4. We must strengthen our systems of vocational provision and in particular our provision of advanced vocational learning through further education colleges. More of these institutions should be given the ability to award degrees and granted the renewed use of the title ‘polytechnic’.

interesting to see the word polytechnic reappear. Is this likely to cause a different version of the binary divide in HE?

5. We should continue to ring-fence and sustain in cash terms the science and research budget through the next spending review period until 2017/18. Because this implies a continued real-terms decline in funding, we argue that once the structural deficit in the public finances has been eradicated we should commit to a 10-year strategy of raising public investment in research each year above inflation.

6. We should reallocate approximately £1 billion a year that is mainly spent inefficiently on R&D tax incentives to instead set up a national network of Applied Research and Innovation Centres focused on boosting applied research in the strategic industries of the future and on revitalising regions with below-average growth.

7. Universities in Britain should follow the best practice of the US Ivy League in recruiting and ‘crafting’ diverse and representative student intakes. This is to ensure that students are educated not merely for individual advancement but also to be effective and responsible leaders with an understanding of an increasingly diverse society and interconnected world.

as i understand it, the Ivy League universities are able to do this by offering scholarships to enable them to “craft” their student body. Without a history of endowments and moire importantly use of them to do this, then our “leading” universities will take a while to catch up

8. Funding should be shifted out of fee waivers and bursaries and into outreach programmes, which have a stronger track-record of recruiting applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Where possible, these should be delivered collaboratively by higher education institutions in the same city-region.

9. A student premium should be introduced of £1,000 extra per student from a low-participation area or who has received free school meals, in order to recognise the additional cost of their learning and recruitment. This would be funded by reallocating existing widening participation resources and the abolition of the national scholarship programme.

10. Institutions that currently have a small core allocation of places should be able to recruit unlimited numbers of students who are eligible for the student premium, in the same way as they are currently free to recruit students with grades ABB+. This will enable them to make contextual offers to this group.

11. More widespread use of contextual admissions data should be promoted so that lower offers can be made to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This will be enabled by exempting 10 per cent of the lowest grades from entry tariff calculations in university league tables, provided universities commit to using them for contextual offers.

This, and the two points above are important in addressing issues of low participation, and social justice. However  we need to recognise at the same time that such students would need more support in their learning, particularly in the transition to HE. In order o ensure that they remain in HE an d are able to succeed, those institutions that might do thsi would need to revise their overall learning and teaching strategies to reflect their student body.

12. Eligibility for part-time loans should be extended to tackle the crisis in part-time learning.

this really should have been sorted out after the Browne review!

13. International students should to be removed from the net migration target and the rules governing post-study work should be revised, to ensure that the UK’s HE sector can compete on a global stage.

Yet another report asks the government to act on this – but so many reports and so many select committees have already said the same. The standoff between BIS and the Home Office is potentially damaging to the UK HE business, and our reputation overseas is likely to be damaged.

14. A new postgraduate loans system should be introduced to enable fair and wider access to postgraduate courses.

15. Higher education institutions should strengthen the active participation of students in improving teaching and learning.

I think this is already happening – we see students increasingly engaged in quality processes  and we take increasing note of what is said in student surveys and understand how this affects us in league tables and Unistats. There will always be  a possible tension between “students as learners” and “students as customers” – if we use this university’s view of students as partners in learning, then we are taking steps in the right direction

16. English higher education institutions should embrace the potential of new technologies by recognising credit from low-cost online courses so that these may count, in part, towards degree programmes. To make a start down this road we recommend that the Open University should accredit MOOCs provided via the FutureLearn platform so that they can count towards degree programmes offered by the OU itself and its partner institutions.

Yes well…..FutureLearn is not likely to be offering credit initially. What could be interesting is how institutions who are not partners of the OU could reuse the materials provided (assuming tha they are “open”) and then award credit themselves. Alternatively, there are useful lessons to be learned from some of the uses of technology to improve any on-campus offer.

17. All universities should follow the example of those that have created an established career path for academics who want to focus on teaching.

I think this goes without saying, but it is important that institutions who follow this do have in place the promotion and reward mechanisms for those who wish to pursue a teaching career (and for me that isn’t about just teaching, but providing leadership and innovation in teaching and learning).

18. To enable greater transferability throughout the system:

–– HEFCE should exempt those students that transfer directly from one institution to another from student number controls.

–– Higher education institutions should be encouraged to establish transfer arrangements with other institutions, both regionally and nationally. The regulator should include accreditation of prior learning as a good practice in access agreements. It should also set benchmarks for how many transfer students institutions should aim to admit.

–– HESA should collect data on the extent to which institutions engage in transfers and accredit previous qualifications of students.

19. We recommend that HEFCE, QAA and OFFA should be merged into a single higher education regulator. This will reduce bureaucracy by simplifying the relationship between universities and government.”

every report on HE recommends this……

I’m sure there’ll be  a brief flurry of commentary over the next week, indeed there is already a review on the WonkHE site by David Kernohan, but this report may go the way of so many. Still some interesting ideas here though, particularly for a university like ours.


David Willetts’ Speech to HEFCE 2013

The Minister for Universities and Science spoke at the HEFCE annual meeting this week. I wasn’t there, but have read his speech and picked out a few points I found interesting.

He invokes the work of Robbins and the establishment of new universities in 1960s, then states that Robbins didn’t need to worry abou money in the way that the current government needs to.

On student numbers:

I have now asked HEFCE to consider the best way to deliver further flexibility for 2014/15 – in line with our white paper commitment that ‘the share of places liberated from number controls altogether rises year on year”.

For 2014/15, we will continue to increase student choice and to enable popular institutions to expand. HEFCE will soon be consulting on a flexible and dynamic way of responding to demand from students who can’t benefit from the current freedoms for those with a high tariff of ABB or above. We want greater freedoms and flexibilities for all institutions, not just those with high-tariff students. 2014-15 will be a step towards that.

Where student demand is low and institutions significantly under-recruit then unfilled places will be moved to those with stronger recruitment patterns. This will give greater flexibility to all institutions. It will remove some of the fear of penalties for over-recruitment and provide a sustainable means of matching supply with demand. Combined with the current ABB+ measure, this will allow for dynamism across the whole sector. It will allow all students more choice about where to study, not just those who achieve a certain attainment level – truly putting students at the heart of the system.

Two things- this is as usual only about full time undergraduate. But, and it is a very big but, this must be deeply worrying for a number of universities who have seen falls in their full time undergraduate applications.

On the public value of universities, Willetts explains that the benefits to the individual are not jus economic:

We fully understand that the value of universities comes in many forms. There is of course a public value to university and that is reflected in the substantial public support we still offer.

On outreach activities:

We have just had the highest rate ever of applications for university from the most disadvantaged quintile. In 2004 it was a scandalous 11 per cent application rate. Now it is up to a barely respectable 19.5 per cent compared with 54 per cent from the most advantaged quintile. I do not believe that just because you come from a poor family you are less suited to go to university. Nor do I believe that if you have had the misfortune of poor quality schooling this should ever bar you from higher education – the evidence is that university can transcend previous disadvantages.

Universities also need to be confident that they will gain credit for their outreach activity even when the young person chooses another university. With 3,000 secondary schools in England, and over a hundred universities, the number of potential links between them is very large indeed. Again, we have asked HEFCE and OFFA to advise on this. We are asking them to consider if we need some kind of simple infrastructure. It might be a small team of dedicated people to engage with schools and colleges and ensure their pupils get access to the right outreach activities for them. It could ensure some schools don’t fall between the cracks whilst others get a surfeit of attention.

Forgive me if I am wrong, but wasn’t AimHigher set up to do just this. Until it was abolished.

On A level reform where universities are being asked to help develop curricula:

We all understand the problem. Ask a group of university physicists about 18 year-olds’ knowledge of physics and they will be shocked at how limited it is and demand more. The same goes for the historians. For each specific discipline, the pressure from academics can easily be for more specialised knowledge sooner. And as universities control their own admissions in this country – quite rightly – their power can shape the way schools structure subject choices after GCSEs. But we cannot just let each subject discipline shape its own A level without looking at the wider requirement for university students with a breadth of understanding and knowledge: scientists with a knowledge of history; historians who can do some maths; mathematicians with a foreign language. I know that Michael Gove with his broad Scottish education recognises the importance of this point.

So, to everyone who believes in the civilising role of the university in this the fiftieth year of Robbins, I say that the role of universities in A levels reform is an opportunity to advance the cause of a broad liberal education.

I appreciate the call for a broad liberal education, and we should be well aware that such would mean a difference to how we might deliver the first year of degrees. Of course, this does not address the issue of all those students who come to us with alternative qualifications, and who in future might be be more tempted into apprenticeships.

On Key Information Sets:

For many people it is one of the most transformational experiences of their lives. We all need to communicate this. Many university applicants come from families with a history of attending higher education, or are at schools with successful records in sending people to a university. But other applicants are in the dark about the differences between different institutions, different courses and different options. That is why we launched the Key Information Set last year, so that people have access to comparable data on costs, courses and employability.

And in recognition of the limitations thereof, about which I have blogged previously:

A different approach has been proposed by the estimable Graham Gibbs in his work ‘Dimensions of Quality’ and the follow-up report. He argues that student engagement in learning is a good proxy for how well students are learning.

Engagement can be measured by a range of indicators including class/cohort size (which he attaches more importance to than contact hours); who does the teaching; close contact with lecturers; effective feedback on assessments; and student effort.

These are different indicators from those we have in our Key Information Set. The KIS has been constructed to reflect what current students say they want to know. Nevertheless, I hope we can continue to reform the wider information landscape to take account of Gibbs’ important findings. Of course, these are more complex factors to communicate. But I challenge the sector to develop a coherent and common presentation of these key factors so that students can easily access them on institutional websites.

So, some interesting things here. Clearly a man who really understands the benefits of HE, in particular its transformative power to the individual, and who appears to have an understanding of the breadth of HE provision (even if there might be some gaps, but hey, it’s a complex business).

Another Avalanche is Coming

After the apocalyptic prophecies of the recent IPPR report, where MOOCs were going to sweep away everything in their path, Steve Smith, formerly of Universities UK and now VC of Exeter writes in this week’s Higher about what the other  and possibly more pressing challenges are which threaten UK higher education.

He does provide a bit of criticism of the IPPR report – there’s much on it that could be criticised  but at least it provoked significant debate – and then describes what he feels are the main threats.

  • austerity
  • the student finance system
  • research
  • admissions
  • visas

Under austerity:

“The IFS estimates that there will be a further cut of about 2.8 per cent to unprotected departmental expenditure limits in the 2013 spending review, which is expected in June and will cover 2015-16. Many estimate that this will lead to a 6-8 per cent cut in the BIS budget.

But the IFS notes that the real problem will arise after this, when whoever is in government will have to reduce departmental spending by 12.7 per cent by 2017-18, which means that the likely cuts for BIS will be considerable. By 2017-18, those cuts could total 43 per cent.”

The student finance system:

“an avalanche really is coming in terms of the costs of student support.

I cannot see that system surviving, and expect any incoming government in 2015 to look again at the student finance system and to try to reduce its costs. Think for a moment about how it might do that, and how that might influence student demand for different types of institutions. To mention just one controversial way to reduce costs, what would be the effect of re-examining the Browne review’s notion of requiring minimum qualifications before students gain access to the loan system?”


“Another area facing avalanche-like upheaval is research selectivity. Even a cash ring-fenced science and research budget entails no adjustment for inflation for eight years.

That looks to me like a real-terms reduction of about 20 per cent in research funding by 2017-18. The only options for dealing with that are to reduce all funding by the same amount in real terms, or further increase research selectivity.

I suspect that the latter is the only way to balance this financial constraint with the need to compete internationally. One obvious indication of this thinking is the near universal move by the research councils to concentrate funding for PhD training into a small number of doctoral training centres.”


“the end-of-cycle report published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in January showed that a growing proportion of the higher-performing students are applying to a smaller subset of universities. There also seems to be a trend towards increased competition for the highest-performing students”

And visas:

“I remain worried about the inability of all of us to win the political battle to get student numbers removed from the net migration figures…..But if we do not win this battle, and more importantly soil the perception of UK higher education overseas (especially in India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), then we could see significant reductions in international recruitment. I think that as a sector we win all the economic arguments, but it seems that the politics of immigration trumps that.”


And for us? All of these are worrying, and considerably more of a threat than the emergence of one form of online learning. There will be less and less money available for the sector, and although we rely in student income increasingly, further changes to the student finance system could reduce the numbers wanting to attend full time courses. Research is not a huge income earner for us, but crucial for our academic reputation, to support learning and teaching at a leading edge, and to build relationships, business opportunities and change for our commercial partners.

Further polarisation of student admissions will not benefit us and as David Willets said earlier today at the HEFCE annual meeting, “We want greater freedoms and flexibilities for all institutions, not just those with high-tariff students. 2014-15 will be a step towards that. Where student demand is low and institutions significantly under-recruit then unfilled places will be moved to those with stronger recruitment patterns.” This has to be a worry for many universities in the newer part of the sector. Finally  I know that we are well aware of the importance of portraying the UK HE sector as being one which is open for business to students from India, China etc – the tension between the Home Office and BIS does nothing to help us.