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What’s still wrong with HERB?

March 6, 2017

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.



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