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First Lords amendment goes to vote, government loses

January 10, 2017

The House of Lords began its scrutiny of the Higher Education & Research Bill yesterday. Over two hours was spent debating the first of over 500 amendments. Proposed by Alison Wolf the amendment sought to specify what a university is understood to be.

“UK universities: functions
(1) UK universities are autonomous institutions and must uphold the principles of
academic freedom and freedom of speech.
(2) UK universities must ensure that they promote freedom of thought and
expression, and freedom from discrimination.
(3) UK universities must provide an extensive range of high quality academic
subjects delivered by excellent teaching, supported by scholarship and
research, through courses which enhance the ability of students to learn
throughout their lives.
(4) UK universities must make a contribution to society through the pursuit,
dissemination, and application of knowledge and expertise locally, nationally
and internationally; and through partnerships with business, charitable
foundations, and other organisations, including other colleges and universities.
(5) UK universities must be free to act as critics of government and the conscience
of society.”

This amendment was to be inserted at the very front of the draft Bill and seeks to limit the government’s plans to relax conditions on the university title, while also defending universities from direct government interference (particularly around standards – of which we will hear a lot in days to come). The stress on a ‘range of high quality academic subjects’ is designed to head off a raft of entreprenerial training providers specialising in single subjects from accessing the protected title.

The government spokesman in the Lords refused to bow to the pressure coming from the benches and so a vote on the amendment was proposed. Those ‘content’ with the amendment won by 248 to 221.

While this isn’t the defeat of the Bill that the Guardian’s coverage might have you believe, it is a significant opening salvo. The next amendment – on the establishment of universities – opens with two clauses that will hurt the government further with their bar on profit.

(1) UK universities must be bodies corporate, primarily located in the United
Kingdom, and established on a not-for-profit basis.
(2) UK universities are public bodies, contributing to society through the pursuit
of education, learning, and research at high levels of excellence.

Jo Johnson has already responded with his normal rhetoric about burgers.  He cites Dyson’s new degree apprenticeship scheme as an example of what his reforms have in mind, but neglects to mention that much of the demand in that new initiative derives from the involvement of Warwick, which will be teaching and awarding the degrees. Nothing legislative or regulatory has prevented more of these ‘high quality’ initiatives from being established.

Moreover, there is nothing to stop new training providers being established. Johnson continually fudges the main issue – access to public funding. What the new providers want is subsidies for their profit-making.

For-profits have access to government funding via tuition-fee loans, though it is also now already open to them to apply to become eligible for high-cost teaching, capital and research grant funding.(Attention needs to be paid to for-profit group structures, not the status of individual legal entities. It’s a straightforward matter to siphon money out of a not-for-profit into a for-profit parent, as detailed here in the case of New College of the Humanities. At present there is nothing to stop a for-profit corporation registered overseas for tax purposes accessing loan or grant funding).

Designation for student support as a policy and process grew out of the procedures whereby universities were trusted to validate provision at small and specialist institutions that offered something not present in universities (see the various controversies around the funding of alternative health and therapy courses). Pearson’s HNCs and HNDs were added to the mix and the coalition government raised the eligible fee-loan amount to £6,000. This set in train the uncontrolled expansion of alternative provision, which resuted in the National Audit Office investigation of 2014.

Given the mess inherited from the coalition, the need for regulation here is imperative but this current government can’t be trusted on that score until:

  1. it comes clean about what happened between 2010 and 2014 – how many qualifications were achieved for the billion plus squandered on its policy experiment?
  2. it publishes its proposed consultation on new regulations for the granting of degree awarding powers and the university title. As regulations these don’t need primary legislation so aren’t in the Bill, but interpreting the Bill depends on assessing the proposals for accelerating the procedure by which DAPs and title are gained. (A sixth-form college has to have 200 students, the government plans to set no minimum size for the university title). Until it does and makes the case for those proposals, we are left with the suspicion that the driving motive is to bring the timings of that procedure into alignment with investment cycles. Two high-profile title awards created University of Law and Arden University – the owners of both (hedge funds and venture capitalists) disposed of their new universities shortly afterwards.

It is not unreasonable to demand a track record from a provider before allowing them to access public funding. Whether that should be devolved to individual validating universities is another matter and the government should probably move to the establishment of a separate validating body for new providers that wish to award degrees. Like the old CNAA, this new validating body should have a core role for seconded senior academics or professors emeritus/emerita.

In truth, universities should be barred from validating degrees in subjects they themselves don’t teach and any university making more annually from partnership contracts than research should be subject to a higher level of quality assurance scrutiny.

As for HND’s and HNC’s these should be moved into FE funding, as Vince Cable realised. Even after the post-NAO clampdown the completion rate here is terrible. It is a mistake to see these figures as a sign of positive widening participation. The only significant innovation seen from alternative providers between 2010 and 2015 was in aggressive recruitment. Students who couldn’t benefit were enrolled onto HE courses, when they would have been better off on English language classes (and indeed some of them were mis-sold funded HE places as such courses). What we got was sub-prime HE English-style. The experimental HESA data on completions in 2014/15 tells us that government attempts to deal with HNC/HND hasn’t worked.

 

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7 Comments
  1. HNCs and HNDs are at levels 4 and 5 within the Qualifications and Credit Framework and therefore at higher education level as they always have been. They are currently offered in a number of subjects by many universities and provide an important bridge into higher level work. The appalling behaviour of many of the new private providers should clearly be diferentiated from that of the university sector and, while there is a case for dealing with the private providers, there is no case for shifting the responsibility for funding to the Skills Funding Agency.

    • Alternatively, you could limit the exposure to them by making them eligible for part-time funding only. Since Pearson allows 5 years for the qualification to be achieved, that would be consistent. The problems with the qualification are directly related to the high level of funding available – the uncontrolled expansion between 2011 and 2013/14 happened after the maximum fee-loan was increased to £6000 per year (most providers are able to deliver the teaching for c. £4500 so it’s been very profitable). Students were also eligible for maintenance loans (and grants) at full-time rates.

    • The latest HESA data on qualifications achieved shows only 6150 HNDs/HNCs being awarded in 2015/16 (4110 in STEM subjects), so it’s pretty small part of established university provision.

  2. Why could those universities not simply replace any Pearson HNC/HNDs they offer with their own CertHE or DipHE (or foundation degree)? (I may have misunderstood your point, I’m not saying move all level 4 and 5 out of HE funding, just Pearson’s quals).

    • While we may agree that they should never have been sold off and it is clear that their quality has been inadequately controlled by Pearson, simply changing the funding route and level will not solve this problem (and would probably make it worse given the lack of public understanding of and interest in further education). HNC/Ds are a long-established qualification which is recognised by employers and learners and should be properly controlled and managed (in my view by a public or at least non-profit body). Cert/DipHEs and FDs are much less well understood and are generally simply sub-sets of undergraduate degrees without necessarily having a vocational element; while they are important as intermediate qualifications in a process of credit accumulation, they would need recasting to take on the role of HNC/Ds.

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  1. on the HE and Research Bill as a terrain of alienation | Richard Hall's Space
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