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The HE Bill & the Future of Higher Education (Cambridge, 10 March)

Now with filmed video

Critical Education

cambridge-talkA video of this event is now available.

Venue: Room 5, Lecture Block, Sidgwick site, University of Cambridge

NB! Time: 12.30 to 2pm.  Not 12 as in original poster.

Point of information: I have hourly paid contracts with Central Saint Martins & CityLit to run Fine Art Maths Centre at the former and to teach the history and philosophy of maths at the latter. I write about English HE as a freelancer.

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Talk: The New HE Settlement – Keele (27 April)

Keele have kindly rearranged my October talk for the end of April.

Title: The New HE Settlement: standards, excellence, value-add and finance

Date: Thursday 27 April

Time: 1-2pm (with refreshments from 12.30)

Venue: The Salvin Room, Keele Hall, Keele University.

The talk is free and a place can be booked here.


This summer’s White Paper for Higher Education, Success as a Knowledge Economy (backed up where needed by the Higher Education and Research Bill now passing through parliament) represents a new settlement for English universities and colleges; a settlement to replace that of 1992/93 when the binary divide was dissolved and the polytechnics were brought into the university funding fold.

This new settlement might be best characterised as a response to a breakdown in trust between the government (as funder) and universities as providers of undergraduate education.

The expansion of undergraduate places over the last two to three decades has not been accompanied by the predicted increase in British productivity. Government, most pertinently Treasury, faith in the generic value of a degree in human capital terms has been undermined in the last ten years. The White Paper therefore heralds an intervention in settled notions of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. In particular, Hefce, its planned replacement the Office for Students and the government have reinterpreted their powers and remit to extend to standards, not just ‘quality’.

The four-pronged justification for this reorientation would be characterised by degree inflation, student dissatisfaction, graduates in non-graduate jobs and employer complaints about graduate abilities. Lurking in the background a further dimension has become clearer – the government as investor has not seen the expected return: an increase in graduate salaries. The latest data from the new Longitudinal Education Outcomes project (LEO) indicates that one quarter of those in work ten years after graduating are earning £20,000 pa or less.

These results, opinions and findings have led to new government-commissioned research into the ‘value add’ of particular degrees and institutions, which will dovetail with the development of new metrics and measures for the later phases of the teaching excellence framework, including tests for generic learning gain.

This talk will outline these developments and the contours of the next decade of HE policy as it is motivated by the government’s economic and financial considerations and what the resulting new ‘financialised’ framework will mean for the sector.


Universities, neo-liberalisation & (in)equality – Goldsmiths (28 April)

Goldsmiths’s Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy is hosting a day-long event on Friday 28 April on “Universities, neo-liberalisation and (in)equality”.

I’ll be giving the keynote at 10am and other speakers include Des Freedman, David Graeber, Jo Littler and Vik Loveday.

Time: 10am-6pm

Venue: LG01, Professor Stuart Hall Building, Goldsmiths, London. MAP

The event is free but booking is required.

More details here.



Yesterday’s loan announcements

As part of his Budget announcements, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, provided more detail on maintenance loans for part-time students and doctoral study.

Part-time maintenance loans for degrees will arrive in 2018/19 with an age cap (you must be under 60), while the government has delayed loans for Level 4 and 5 qualifications, such as HNCs and HNDs, until the following year. It is also planning to review what support will be made available for part-time distance learning. The OBR states that the government intends to offer lower levels of maintenance support to those students, but has yet to finalise a figure.

The Open University has expressed its ‘alarm and concern’ over the announcement and is seeking urgent clarification on this change of heart regarding distance learners.

“The decision will affect one third of all part-time learners and seems to undermine the whole premise of the Government’s policy of arresting the decline in part-time study to help boost growth and close the productivity gap.”

From 2018/19, Doctoral loans will offer students without full funding a one-off loan of £25,000 towards fees and the costs of study. Doctoral loans will be wrapped up with taught postgraduate loans (£10,000) to create a single balance. The repayment threshold will be £21,000 and the repayment rate 6%, meaning that those with undergraduate and postgraduate loans will see 15% taken from gross earnings over £21,000. (With income tax at 20% at the lowest band and Class 1 NI at 12% that indicates a marginal take of 47% over the repayment threshold. The government appears to have very little (no?) impact modelling here to assess affordability and the knock- on effects for e.g. participation in employer pension schemes).

In light of the recent discussion of undergraduate maintenance support, the impact analysis for doctoral loans indicates that

The cost of living during doctoral study is strongly dependent on the location of the university. Forexample, Oxford and London are at the top end of living cost, at around £14,000 per year. The cost of living in cities such as York, Sheffield or Aberystwyth is lower, at around £11,000 per year.

Government put loan sale hopes in securitisation

Today’s Budget contained little new on the loan sale but the OBR confirmed that the Office for National Statistics will make a decision on whether the securitisation has achieve full risk transfer.

Critical Education

This morning, Jo Johnson set a written statement before parliament in which he confirmed that the government is ‘starting the process to sell part of the English student loan book’. (A sale will not affect borrowers from the rest of the UK).

Although the intention to sell has been announced several times in recent years, what today marks is the start of a formal process through which government tries to woo purchasers with a specific set of products. It may now take months before a final decision on a sale is made and any proceeds are announced. This decision is subject to a value for money test being passed, but this test can be passed if even the sale makes a significant loss for government (more on this below).

What is most significant about today’s announcement is that the government has shifted its position regarding the sale structure.

In 2014…

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What’s still wrong with HERB?

Universities UK and GuildHE wrote to the House of Lords last week stating that they now support the Higher Education and Research Bill following a series of amendments tabled by Jo Johnson at the end of February.

… we are very pleased to be able to write to you today to indicate that our major concerns about the bill have been addressed with welcome, sensible and workable safeguards. We believe that the amended bill represents a good outcome, and one to which we are happy to give our support.

While it’s unarguable that new legislation is needed is surprising to see the Bill endorsed in this way when there are clear problems for the sector. You have to wonder whether UniversitiesUK and GuildHe have read this far into the accompanying policy documents. The letter-writers seem happy that their autonomy is not directly threatened but haven’t really given much consideration to the shape, health and reputational standing of the sector to come.

Firstly, there’s no public value for money test outlined in these reforms – the granting of provisional degree awarding powers to startups does not involve  assessing where the loan subsidies on those degrees – or grants for those seeking Approved (fee cap) status – end up. Not only are there no restrictions on for-profits, there’s no requirement that ultimate beneficiaries be based in the UK for tax purposes. And with grant pots not expected to grow significantly, you might expect universities not to want to see more entities accessing what’s left of capital and high-cost teaching grants.

Secondly, the acceleration of the process leading to full, permanent degree awarding powers and university title is underspecified (with the detail being left for a promised DfE consultation that will follow ‘in due course’).

In January, the Department for Education published three factsheets on its proposed reforms. One on degree awarding powers and university title contains the following flowchart.

dap flowchart.png

This shows a startup achieving full degree awarding powers within 4 years and university title within 6 years.

By year 3, the provider should be able to demonstrate that it has reached a sufficient level of maturity to meet the overarching requirement of a cohesive self-critical academic community.

UUK and GuildHE seem satisfied that ‘independent expert scrutiny’ is now a required input into the various processes. But the Factsheet shows no awareness of the problem that hits at Year 4: how do you have enough data on an institution at that point, when it might only just have got one cohort of students through a full-time degree?

More pointedly, what happens ‘Prior to Year 1’ to assure the relevant bodies that probationary degree awarding powers are appropriate? (Since probationary degree awarding powers are going to be offered to those with no UK track record).

The Factsheet offers some assurance by outlining its vision of three, high quality  case studies.

  1. A world-renowned US provider decides to set up in UK system.
  2. A world-leading research company with cutting edge facilities wants to enter the taught degree market.
  3. “A group of leading academics from a top-ten University seek to break away from their existing institutions …”

This is a markedly different vision for alternative providers from the one we saw under the Coalition: having 1000 flowers bloom and letting market forces determine quality. This current legislation is largely needed to clean up the expensive mess that resulted.

Setting aside the potential conflation of researcher and academic in number 2 (weren’t we meant to be concerned with teaching excellence?), we can see that this reform is about attracting large amounts of investment to English HE. The acceleration of the processes leading to university title are about aligning those processes with the typical 5-7 year investment cycle seen in the private sector.

Vice-chancellors may believe they can thrive on this competition. I can imagine them being less sanguine once the way is open for money funds to poach the cream of their business schools. (The cross-subsidy from business undergraduates being a particularly important factor of a fair few university accounts and that outflow being a common gripe from the Association of Business Schools).

This has the potential to be much more disruptive for the sector and is worrying given how low the bar seems to be set in places. (There will be no minimum size limit for the university title – even a 6th Form College needs to have 200 students).

The government may seek the high quality interventions outlined above, but the Office for Students may be willing to accept far less in pursuit of competition.(Can I also add that it is not at all clear how OfStud can be responsible for promoting competition and acting as the charity regulator for English HE?)

A good example of this variable bar is the criteria outlined for startups that may only seek probationary degree awarding powers in a single subject. Since subject specific degree awarding powerss need less scrutiny.

For single subjects the specific requirements could be:

  • Staff recruitment and selection policies.
  • Curricula vitae (to a standard format) of the teaching staff for the single subject.

This would seem to imply that probationary DAPs would here be awarded without  a full complement of staff already in place. ‘Prior to Year 1’ means prior to having implemented much of the business plan at all.

The current overarching principle for having  the power to award degrees is that
‘an institution needs to be a self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to quality assurance supported by effective quality and enhancement systems’.

Although the government insists that this would still be the case following its reforms it seems clear that the Bill doesn’t yet ensure that an academic community need be in existence in the early years of the startup and on top of that it’s not really clear that the crucial ‘checkpoints’ will have enough to work on to establish that a community has come in to being.

I don’t think it’s good enough to await the DfE’s new guidance here – this really needs to be assessed as part of the Bill package. As it stands, it looks like OfStud will have far too much leeway here.

As an aside, this is clearly a charter for spinoffs of all kinds and the liberalise may invigorate the free university and co-operative movements as well as those fed up of senior and middle management.

What’s proposed is not though a recipe for the kind of stability that large institutions like universities need if they are to pursue the public good activities sought by policy.


The HE Bill & the Future of Higher Education (Cambridge, 10 March)


A video of this event is now available.


Venue: Room 5, Lecture Block, Sidgwick site, University of Cambridge

NB! Time: 12.30 to 2pm.  Not 12 as in original poster.

Point of information: I have hourly paid contracts with Central Saint Martins & CityLit to run Fine Art Maths Centre at the former and to teach the history and philosophy of maths at the latter. I write about English HE as a freelancer.