Thursday, 22 December 2011

More Christmas Spirit

When a Russell Group Vice Chancellor calls for funding to be taken away from universities that teach poor people, and given instead to universities that teach science, it is easy to see that as just another example of the Christian spirit of generosity that comes over all of us (to a greater or lesser extent) at Christmas. The way David Eastwood lavishes praise on the Browne Review whilst modestly avoiding any mention of his own role in the review is also, surely, praiseworthy.

Reporting in the Higher suggests that at least some of the less posh fear he is pushing at a half-open door as Treasury wants to withdraw the Widening Participation funding as a cost-saving measure. There are a number of funding streams associated with WP. For 2011/12 they break down as follows:

  • Widening Participation £141,630,239 (allocated on the basis of postcode data to identify students from low-participation areas, and Disabled Students Allowance data to identify disabled students);
  • Teaching Enhancement and Student Success £263,856,011 (allocated primarily on the basis of students' age and entry qualifications);
  • Other targeted allocations £203,550,592 (a grab-bag not all of which is WP-related, but including support for part time, accelerated and Foundation Degree programmes).
The WP and TESS funding goes primarily to new Universities. Leeds gets £1,106,592 and £1,141,339 respectively, which are non-trivial sums even in an overall HEFCE grant of £134,237,874 (1.7% of grant), but Leeds Met gets £1,679,582 for WP and £4,437,660 for TESS out of £63,460,810 (9.6%).

You can see how it would be painful and difficult for the coalition to withdraw this funding, however, because it directly supports the supposed Government priority of fair access for all. David Eastwood is formidably well-connected, but I wouldn't bet on him having a hotline to Santa this time.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Christmas comes early

I wasn't previously aware of Choose Humanities - a project of the New College of the Humanities, but I'm glad I've come across it now when I am in a festive mood and able to enjoy it properly. There are so many things to love:
  • The Universities tab lists posh universities but excludes not just the ex-polys, but even respectable old universities like Hull. After all, the humanities are all about the shameless recreation of hierarchies of status, aren't they?
  • The Research tab takes you to a press release telling you that '60% of the UK's leaders have humanities, social science or arts degrees'. UK Leaders, for this purpose, seem to be defined as Russell Group VCs, MPs and FTSE100 chief execs. Here we handily have deference to power to go with our recreation of status hierarchies.
  • The Blog is also a treasure. I know I'm in a weak position to criticise anyone's writing, but I don't believe I've ever managed anything quite as bad as this: argue that you should not be forced to believe what is taught but allowed to openly investigate why things such as faith and science are considered by some to be so-called ‘absolutes’, and, if necessary, to use critical thinking to non-violently, and with intellectual rigour, challenge and pick holes in arguments. The question is not to be taught what to think so much as how to think. This is what a good course in a humanities subject should do.
 So there you have the Grayling vision of the humanities in all its fullness: hierarchy, deference, cliche and the run-on sentence.

Satire fails

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Replacing Sir Martin Harris

The last time the Government had to replace Sir Martin as Director of OFFA, it reached for the most reassuring candidate available: a safe pair of hands not just from inside the sector, but well-acquainted with its more prestigious institutions.

This time, apparently, a more challenging candidate is being sought. Interesting, if true.

Friday, 9 December 2011

HEFCE Announcements on the student number control

HEFCE recently published an important Circular Letter setting out some new policy on student number controls. I'm a little late to blogging about this because of the HESES deadline, which was on Friday 9 December, but now that is past I have time to catch up.

So the key points are:
  • Specialist institutions in the performing and creative arts that recruit primarily on the basis of audition or portfolio  will be able to opt out of the AAB+ and core/margin system. This is a victory for some effective lobbying.
  • Disregard. As you may well have read, institutions (mostly FECs) charging £6k or less are now going to lose core places along with everyone else, however the first 50 places will be protected, so FECs with very small HE provision won't be forced to bid for a half dozen numbers every year. FECs with substantial provision, however, will be very unhappy.
  • E&D. HEFCE will ensure each institution’s student number control limit for 2012-13 is at least 20 per cent of their limit prior to the removal of AAB+ students, so that they can continue to provide fair access to those entering with EU qualifications and to meet their access agreement targets. This is a genuine issue which I've highlighted before (as have others), but of course there is irony in the way that HEFCE have managed the E&D issue by giving rewards to those institutions with the least diverse student bodies...
  • SIVS will be protected. No surprise there: they always are.
  • Under-recruitment: HEFCE say 'Should it be desirable to reduce future student number control limits for under-recruitment in 2012-13, we would normally expect not to do so where the level of under recruitment is not more than 5 per cent of an institution’s student number control or 25 students, whichever is the greater.' so they are not yet introducing a policy of clawing back unfilled numbers, but are setting out what it is likely to be. Since many of us have been expecting such a policy, this clarity is a really welcome development.

I would also recommend Annex B of the letter if you are a fan of bureaucratic cynicism. When HEFCE do these consultations the response is usually an immense amount of special pleading, mixed in with some complete misunderstandings of the issues. I particularly enjoyed the bids for additional funding to Price Group C subjects:

many respondents were...concerned about price group C funding, taking the view that this could not be adequately supported through income from fees alone. Again, there was a concern that this might have an impact on SIVS, in this instance modern languages. Other responses named certain subjects as being more expensive to deliver than the rest of price group C. The range of subjects mentioned was extremely broad, however: the only price group C subjects not to be characterised as exceptional were archaeology, and catering and hospitality management.
It makes me feel proud to work in a sector dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of truth.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Foreign students are 'damaging' economy

I've had spit-out-the-cornflakes moments with my Metro before, but seeing this headline in my paper yesterday was certainly another. The story related to a 'study' by the think tank Civitas which found (surprise!) that there are many Overseas students in engineering and related disciplines, that (apart from those which are average or below average) engineering and related disciplines have above-average starting salaries, and overseas students are more likely to leave the UK after they graduate than the British, therefore 'damaging' the British economy by taking heir skills elsewhere.

It is surprising how often you find people speaking and writing as if there was a fixed supply of university 'places', and 'places' filled by overseas students were being denied to British applicants. That may be true of specific courses at specific institutions in any one year, but at a sector level it is self-evidently nonsense, or we wouldn't have these continuous ructions about closing departments. But Civitas take a pride in their brand of pointless contrarianism, and by their standards this was really a pretty mild bit of nonsense.

What I did find quite interesting about this piece was my own reaction to it. I actually spent some time thinking whether the Civitas report merited a response. It seems to have gained very little press exposure - I can't even find that Metro put it into the web edition, but if I have concerns that a mention on my tiny weblog is going to give undue prominence to a think tank - even one as flaky as Civitas - I think it is fair to say I am having delusions of grandeur. Does anyone know a cure for those which doesn't involve invading Russia?

Friday, 2 December 2011

The updated Access Agreements

I've already posted on the institutions which have revised their Access Agreements. OFFA have now published additional details, including the names of the institutions in question. The list isn't a very surprising one. What interests me is the mix of the changes implemented.

  • an increase of £37.4m in fee waivers;
  • a reduction of £13.8m in bursaries and scholarships;
  • a reduction of £2.1m in outreach and retention measures; and
  • a reduction of £16.3m in headline fees.
These figures show quite clearly that reducing the price to Government - fees less waivers - has been the key driver here. A £53.7 million saving for the Government has been funded partly from £15.9 million less in outreach, scholarships and bursaries. In other words nearly a third of the saving has been taken straight out of students' pockets. The rest will have to be made up of larger class sizes and the like.

It may be that the market will prefer these slightly cheaper offerings. Leeds Trinity may now seem better value than Leeds Met, likewise London South Bank may seem better value than East London. But this is sheer speculation: there is no actual market process at work here. This is a point made earlier today by William Cullerne Browne, but (and I say this entirely without false modesty) six months ago by me.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

VAT on shared services

This story in the Higher barely counts as news, given that the intention to make this change was clearly signalled in the White Paper. Pretty much from the off, though, I have felt that it was in fact big news. And I still do.

The scope for economies of scale in sharing back-office functions is large. Given the sector's mixed history of outsourcing, the scope for services to deteriorate in the process, or even for outright disasters, is also large. Without anything major necessarily changing overnight, I would expect shared services to be a big issue for those of us who work in the back offices of universities over the next few years.