Skip to content

‘A joyful experience’

On Monday 15 December, the Public Accounts Committee held an evidence session into financial controls over student funding going to students at private colleges.

You can watch the video here – all two hours of it. I wasn’t in the room, but one who was provided this post’s title.

Present as witnesses were:

Martin Donnelly, Permanent Secretary, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills,

Mick Laverty, Chief Executive, Student Loans Company,

Madeleine Atkins, Chief Executive, Higher Education Funding Council for England,

Rod Bristow, President, UK and Core Markets, Pearson.

It was really all about Donnelly as the ‘accounting officer’ responsible for the cash involved, but Pearson’s representative, Bristow manages to unite the cross-party panel in incredulity when he outlines the language ‘recommendations’ his examination board specifies for entry to an undergraduate level qualification (from 4.48pm on the video clock).

It is probably hard to get a grasp on proceedings without having some knowledge of what’s been uncovered by journalists over the last year. Much of the evidence discussed in the session was unearthed by me and an overview of the general problems can be found in this piece for Times Higher Education.

The Chair of the Committee describes the whole affair as one of the worst scandals she’s seen at PAC but we still don’t have the full picture of the amount of money being spent per HND qualification achieved.


QR funding & research council reviews

So, I wasn’t planning on writing anything about the REF as it feels opaque to outsiders and the real stories of gameplaying and awry internal managerialism are better told by insiders. [I was once an insider but was given the initial choice of looking after the RAE or doctoral students (I choose the latter but sat across from the person who did the former).]

How though does it appear to the Treasury? This line from Mark Leach’s blog hits the spot:

However, it is clear that there has been substantial grade inflation in the results – everyone knows it, but it’s not in many people’s interests to say so. But some of the inexplicably large jumps in proportion of 4* and 3* research speak for themselves and vice chancellors of every stripe will freely admit this is the case (anonymously, of course). On the face of it, this helps feed the desired narrative that we are “doing more, better” – but ultimately it undermines the sector’s credibility and bargaining power with an austerity Treasury that simply will not buy it.

We should not forget that the sector has already had its cards marked with the decision to set undergraduate tuition fees at or around the maximum. Friday’s report from KPMG for Hefce indicates that on average £8000 should be sufficient with classroom subjects perhaps needing only £6000. As I have written before on here, we should expect tuition fees to be frozen over the next parliament and for cuts to have to come from elsewhere in BIS’s budget. The switch from direct institutional grants to higher tuition fees spared the HE sector from austerity felt in other publicly funded services; that trick can only be done once. (£800million emergency cuts planned for 2015/16 were only averted because the Treasury allowed the accounting conventions for student loans to be changed this April).

In the research budget, the obvious candidate is the ‘Quality related’ funding (the distribution of which is determined by REF results). Today’s Observer reports that this budget and the ‘dual support’ system of research funding is under threat. I am not sure this is quite accurate. Yes, QR funding has always been a likely target, but the new Science, Innovation and Growth strategy (a new joint HMT/BIS document released last Wednesday) states: ‘We will maintain stability and commitment to the core principles as advocated by stakeholders this includes the dual support system.’ (p.39)

Given how hard it is to find any reference to non-STEM subjects in that new strategy, I would guess that the scrutiny is on the QR budget for those subjects. We should also chuck into the mix the announcement that Paul Nurse is to lead a review into the other side of the dual track – the research councils. His terms of reference are here. I list the first four questions:

• Is the balance between investigator-led and strategically-focused funding appropriate, and do the right mechanisms exist for making strategic choices?

• Within each Research Council is the balance of funding well-judged between support of individual investigators, support of teams and support of equipment and infrastructure?

• How should the Research Councils take account of wider national interests including regional balance and the local and national economic impact of applied research?

• Is the balance of funding between different Research Councils optimal?

My own sense, again as an outsider, is that these questions indicate a preference for  the big science, great technologies and tech transfer ‘third mission’ of the Autumn Statement and other recent Treasury announcements about ‘northern powerhouses'; they might prove more troublesome for the AHRC and the ESRC.

The Observer reports that Universities UK  ‘should now be “prepared to make a robust case in support of quality-related (QR) funding”’. I would add ‘as it stands’. The robust case is going to need to come from arts, humanities, creative disciplines and social sciences. And come as a defence of public funding of research in determined institutional settings, not – as has too often been the case recent years – as the value of reading books, general intellectual inquiry and going to plays. The philistine defence is a poor one.




Value for money report needed for Alternative Providers

I have an opinion piece in today’s Times Higher Education. It recommends that Monday’s evidence session at the Public Accounts Committee should call for a full ‘value for money’ inquiry into the funding of students at alternative providers.

Beyond the confusion about measuring student progression, the clear test ought to be how many funded students achieve an HE qualification. The fundamentals do not appear to be in place for BIS to check that at present.

Vince Cable admitted that a ‘lot of dross’ has come into funded provision since 2012 but appears to lack the appetite or legal powers to deal with matters. In particular, BIS appear to have no desire to ask basic questions about recruitment practices. Lots of private colleges used Opportunity Network or similar outfits, for instance.

There also appears to be a widespread redefinition of widening participation coming from the private sector which forgets that HE is offered on the basis that the applicant can benefit from that level of study. The coalition’s reforms skewed the incentive towards recruitment to HE, when many new students might benefit from lower levels of education first. But other post-compulsory education does not attract the maintenance support or tuition fee loans to the same level.





Measuring student progression

This letter from the head of London School of Business and Finance to the Guardian manages to conflate three separate measures of student progression.

This week’s report by the National Audit Office highlights dropout rates (Report, 2 December), which it suggests are higher in the private sector. However, when private colleges give mature students from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to return to education, a completion rate of over 80% is surely a positive outcome. This stands comparison with other publicly funded London institutions where the non-continuation rate on similar courses can be up to 24.5%, according to government figures.

This school is working to establish statistical comparisons between private and public colleges on a like-for-like basis and benchmarks similar to those developed for public colleges by the Higher Education Funding Council. Without that information, comparisons such as the NAO’s of the performance of students on private HND courses with those on public undergraduate degree courses are like comparing apples to oranges.

NAO’s ‘drop-out rates’ are constructed from SLC data – they show full-time students who received for funding but withdrew without completing a full year of study. That is, their SLC payments were stopped at some point. It is not a measure of ‘non-completion’ as the Higher National Diploma, for example, is a two-year course. So if the drop-out rate is 20 per cent that does not mean 80 per cent complete the course of their studies. Completion, of course, is different again from passing.  NAO notes that nobody is monitoring completion or success rates for qualifications.
HESA’s ‘non-continuation’ rate is different again. It scores the number of students enrolled at the beginning who do not return for the start of year 2. This will be higher than the NAO drop-out rate, because it includes students who complete a full year of academic study but choose not to come back. For example, NAO has an average drop-out rate of 4 per cent for established universities, but a non-continuation rate of nearly 8 per cent. For mature students that rises to 12 per cent on average. As can be seen from the data, many of those who do not continue at a particular institution have transferred elsewhere.
Update 11 December 2014
It again conflates HESA’s non-continuation measure with NAO’s ‘drop-out rate’ but adds further confusion by suggesting that Student Loans Company data,
‘… treats as “dropouts” students whom the SLC initially mistakenly assessed as “eligible” for loan support and then, when correcting the mistake, treated as withdrawing from the institution named in the, sometimes fraudulent, application – even though the institution had not encouraged or endorsed the application and had never enrolled or even heard of the applicant.’
This may or may not be the case. However, this should not lead readers to conclude that the 2011/12 and 2012/13 drop out rates provided by NAO include the 5 500 students in 2013/14 who were found to have made ineligible maintenance applications to SLC. We do not yet have NAO drop-out rates for 2013/14: they are likely to be much worse.
It is also worth pointing out that Open University’s part-time students do not attract maintenance support in the same way as full-time HND students.

HE Commission report on the financial sustainability of English HE

The lastest report from the HE Commission focused on the financial sustainability of the HE system in England. It was officially launched at an event in the House of Commons on Monday.

Here, I will just pull out a couple of quotes:

The current funding system represents the worst of both worlds. The government is funding HE by writing off student debt, as opposed to directly investing in teaching grants. This has created a system where the government is investing, but not getting any credit for it, damaging the perception of the public value associated with higher education. Students feel like they are paying substantially more for their higher education, but are set to have a large proportion of their debt written off by the government. Universities are perceived to be ‘rolling in money’ in the eyes of students, as their income from tuition fees has tripled, yet the cuts to the teaching grant are not well understood by students and a fixed fee cap means an annual erosion of real terms income. We have created a system where everybody feels like they are getting a bad deal. This is not sustainable. (page 10)

Respondents to the report at the event suggested that sustainability could be addressed by having graduates pay back more, but that seems to miss the philosophical point here that if a funding scheme is generally poorly understood and lacking in transparency, then it will struggle to be sustain public support and that may be more important than the level of repayment generated. It was also concerning that many present did not seem to see the promise to uprate the loan repayment threshold in line with earnings as something that needed to be honoured for current borrowers in 2017. Again, misjudging how much goodwill towards HE was squandered in 2010. In 2013, when we covered the idea that interest rates might be changed retrospectively for borrowers, hundreds of thousands of people viewed the Guardian’s site in 24 hours.

Secondly, the Commission came down firmly against funding an expansion of undergraduate places through the sale of student loans:

Witnesses to this inquiry have convinced us that a sale would be undesirable. … It will be poor value for money for the taxpayer, and this is not a sustainable method for funding higher education. The amount of student debt is set to rise dramatically over the next 10 years and continually selling off tranches of debt to fund higher education is going to be very difficult. There are few organisations that can buy this amount of debt, the market will begin to saturate, and more extreme financial engineering will be needed to sell off the debt.

Several witnesses reflected on this argument, noting the similarities to events in the run up to the financial crisis. The Commission has heard almost unanimously that the sale of the student loan book to fund HE is not a good idea. The government will find it hard to get value for money and the loan book is a valuable income stream. Holding onto it will protect students and provide future opportunities for the Government.

In the Summer, Vince Cable also reached that conclusion. This coming Wednesday, George Osborne will produce this year’s Autumn Statement where the sale of student loans may make a re-appearance. Perhaps he’ll get his sums right this time and find a way to replace the £10-12bn gap left by Cable’s volte face.

Alternative provider expansion – latest annual data from Student Loans Company

Today, the Student Loans Company published its annual ‘First Release’ on the amount of student support issued in the preceding academic year to students in English higher education. The report reveals that roughly 960 000 borrowers accessed £1.59billion in Maintenance Grants (a rise of 11% on 2012/13), £3.72bn in Maintenance Loans and £5.89bn in Tuition Fee loans giving a total of £11.2bn. Of that a proportion went to students studying at ‘alternative providers’. In 2013/14, those students received:

  • £133.3million in Maintenance Grants
  • £246m in Maintenance Loans
  • £192m in Tuition Fee Loans

To give a total outlay of £571m. That’s some rise on the equivalent figures for when the Coalition took over (£30m in 2009/10; £42m in 2010/11). And that’s despite the government intervening to suspend funded recruitment at the fastest growing colleges in November 2013. There’s also a proviso:

The 2013/14 payments are not yet final and will be revised in next year’s publication. This is partly due to the alternative provider subset being subject to significant movement due to later course start dates.

Alternative providers do not just recruit in September (or February) but throughout the year in some cases. Data for those enrolled in, say, July would not yet be included in that £571m. 2012/13 figures are a case in point. This time last year the amounts were published as:

  • £66m in Maintenance Grants
  • £119m in Maintenance Loans
  • £85m in Tuition Fee Loans

To give a total outlay of £270million. The new report revises up that total to £386m. That is, last year’s figures were ultimately out by £115m. Total outlay in 2011/12 was only £120m. The new breakdown for 2012/13 is:

  • £73m for Maintenance Grants
  • £180m for Maintenance Loans
  • £133m for Tution Fee Loan

Both loan figures were out by £50-60m.

Update – 28 Nov 2014

I neglected yesterday to include figures for numbers of students at private colleges accessing SLC funds. Here is the data for tuition fee loans.

2010/11         4,700

2011/12         9,800

2012/13       29,200

2013/14       45,000

Regulatory bodies and private providers

Times Higher Education has published an article by me on the regulation of HE’s ‘alternative providers’.

This caps the work I did with the Guardian earlier in the year by giving adding a policy dimension to those stories.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 225 other followers