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Exclusive: Hefce’s margin panels

February 27, 2012

Thanks to an FoI request, Hefce have released to me the membership of the panels overseeing the decisions on ‘bids to the margin’.  Tenders for the extra 20 000 places were to be assessed on ‘quality, demand and price’. Hefce received applications for 35 811 additional places from 201 institutions (34 of which were higher education institutions, the rest were from FE colleges).

On the initial decisions made at the end of January, around half of those places went to the FE colleges.

I understand there are appeals in process by affected universities.  Most appeals succeed by querying the process by which decisions were made.  Here’s how Hefce did conducted the exercise.

An internal panel comprising a handful of Hefce officers made the initial sift of applications.  Each bid was read by two assessors who operated a ‘triage’ system recommending ‘approve’, ‘reject’ or ‘further consideration by expert panel needed’.

An external met once on 16 December 2011, to review a ‘sample’ of the approvals and rejections “for validation purposes”. They also assessed the thirty-five applications that were considered borderline.  The external panel split into two groups with one taking 18 and the other 17 of those cases.  (Though all panel members received copies of all borderline bids.)

The two groups then convened to make final recommendations which were sent up to the Hefce board for approval.  It is not clear from the document I have received how actual numbers were allocated against bids, but perhaps Hefce divided the places available amongst the bids approved?

Anyway, here’s what you are probably after: the names of those serving on the external panel.

Rob Douglas (Chair), Business Advisor, Douglas Associates Ltd, Hefce board member & Chair of Hefce audit committee

Sir Martin Harris, Director of Office for Fair Access

Stephen Jackson, Director of Reviews, Quality Assurance Agency

Craig Mahoney, Chief Executive of Higher Education Academy

Sir David Melville, Former vice-chancellor, University of Kent

Dominic Passfield, Student Engagement CO-ordinator, Quality Assurance Agency

Kim Thorneywork, Executive Director of Delivery, Skills Funding Agency, BIS

A lot of quangocrats. As such, are they really ‘external’?  Or are they firmly in orbit around BIS and Hefce?

Moreover, there’s no input from active academics and so one might query their ability to assess ‘quality’.

If I were an institution unhappy with the outcome, I would have plenty of grounds to contest this exercise. Not least the implication that some of those rejected were only viewed by the internal panel.

Recently, there’s been a lot of hoo-ha over the appointment of Les Ebdon to lead Offa and warnings of the threat to the ‘excellence’ of our universities.  But the margin and its tender process represent the kind of technocratic solution which is likely to be more pernicious: an attempt to execute the government’s hasty and ill-conceived schemes to drive down the cost of English higher education.

Updated 7 March 2012

Hefce have today announced the ‘margin’ results.

The big winners amongst universities are Anglia Ruskin (569 places), London Metropolitan (564), Nottingham Trent (558), Staffordshire (549).  Amongst FE colleges Hartpury (352), Newham (294), Newcastle (260), Norwich (249) and  Mid Kent (214) picked up more than some universities.  Hefce has not yet published a break-down by subject.

Overall: “The 20,000 places have been divided between 190 universities and colleges: 9,643 places have been distributed between 35 higher education institutions (HEIs), and 10,354 places between 155 further education colleges (FECs).”

What appears to have happened is that bids were approved, the numbers in those bids tallied and then pro rata-ed to bring the numbers down to 20 000. Those who put in larger bids, got more places.

The 20 000 places were largely created by cutting places from universities.

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