The mysterious letters in the library

Opinion Piece

by G. R. Evans

The Higher Education and Research Bill has now had seven sessions before the Lords in Committee, ending on 30 January. As Lord Willetts acknowledged, it has become ‘famous’ for the sheer number of ‘letters’ promised to various Peers at the Committee stage, by those tasked with undertaking the role of the Minister in the Commons: Lord Younger (Spokesperson on Higher Education in the Lords), Baroness Goldie (who stood in for him from time to time) or Lord Prior. Lord Prior was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy only on 21 December 2016 and he too found himself unable to provide answers on 30 January when the Lords were discussing UKRI, which is to be the responsibility of his own Department of State. (‘Rather than ad lib on this, I had better consult officials and write to the noble Lord’).

These ‘letters’ occupy an anomalous place in the legislative process. The steps by which a Bill passes into an Act of Parliament ready for Royal Assent are fully transparent in every respect but this. First the Commons then the Lords have their First and Second Readings and their Committee stages, the debates are now broadcast live and a verbatim account may be read in Hansard the next morning. But when a Minister cannot give an adequate response to a question raised in debate he may simply offer to write one of these clarificatory ‘letters’ which, unlike Written Answers to Questions put by MPs or peers, do not appear in Hansard.

The assiduous reader of Hansard may want to know what the promised letter says. Even Lord MacKay of Clashfern, who has been a member of the House of Lords since 1979, declared himself not sure in the debate on 30 January:

My noble friend mentioned a letter. I was at a meeting last week with a number of people interested in the Bill and its progress [the CDBU Annual Lecture given by Martin Wolf]. They mentioned the letters referred to in Hansard. They asked where they could see them. I was not certain, but I assume they are in the Library.

It is possible to find out. Such letters may indeed be deposited in the Library of the House of Commons or the House of Lords by a Minister or by the Speaker. However, the online search for a deposited letter is a slow business because one may search under only limited fixed headings. There seems no systematic linkage of a given letter with the exact passage in the debate to which it refers, though it would surely be easy enough to provide that link.

It all looks rather a muddle. In the case of the letters so far written to Lords during the Committee stage some appear in duplicate with more than one number; some with the same text are written separately to different Lords by name. Appendices said in a letter to be attached to it are often not there.

There seems no easy way for Lords to discover what has been deposited, no routine notification of deposit of a particular letter, no listing of letters outstanding and not yet written (as there is for Questions requiring Written Answers). Deposited papers are not ‘presented or laid formally before Parliament’ though the public may access them and members of either House may now ask to have a particular letter by email. So there is some degree of transparency and orderliness. But at the crucial final stages of the Bill it will be hard work for Commons, Lords or general public to be confident that all the Government’s arguments including those in the letters are marshalled together for detailed review. The ‘all Bill documents’ link on the Bill’s website does not include them. It should.

These letters on points which baffled Government spokesmen in debate are surely too important to be treated so casually in the legislative process. If as appears to be acknowledged, the number promised in the committee stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill is quite exceptional, the need to examine the role of such letters in an otherwise transparent legislative process seems clear.

It is especially important in the case of the Higher Education and Research Bill, of which Baroness Deech said at the end of the final Committee session that it ‘is not much more than a framework, albeit a very heavy framework, on which later policy is to be hung’:

Now that we have reached the end of the Committee with so many gaps in the Bill, can the Minister assure us that there will be some process of post-legislative scrutiny to ensure that this experiment is working?

Those gaps might indeed be filled by the promised letters, of which comparatively few appear yet to be available, but where they are so numerous and extensive they should surely be provided, online, in a consolidated set. Lord Watson put his fear frankly:

the Minister sought to reassure noble Lords that he will reflect on all amendments. That will be of very limited value if, at a later date, he simply comes back on Report or in letters to say that, having reflected, he is not minded to accept the amendments’ (Lord Watson, 11 January).

Those letters surely ought to set out the process of ‘reflection’ in giving their promised answers or Government will have failed shamefully to explain itself.

 

Uses and Abuses of Economics in the Debate on Universities

Report on CDBU Annual Lecture 2017

by Dorothy Bishop

Last night, Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, delivered a splendid lecture with the title “Uses and Abuses of Economics in the Debate on Universities”. It is not possible to do this justice in a brief report, but I aim here to give a synopsis of the main arguments, which are highly relevant to our concerns over the Higher Education and Research Bill, currently under discussion in the House of Lords.

Wolf drew a distinction between three aspects of economics relevant to higher education:

  • The ends to be served by higher education
  • The means used to serve these ends
  • The resources that the government should invest in higher education

The principal point he made about the ends concerned the government’s conceptualisation of what higher education is for. A stated goal of the Higher Education and Research Bill is to achieve a successful ‘knowledge-driven economy’. This, said Wolf, is entirely reasonable, insofar as we need highly-skilled citizens to maintain our prosperity. The problem, however, is that the government’s plans appear to see this as the predominant goal of Higher Education. A point that was clearly understood by the CDBU members in the audience, but by few in government, was that higher education also serves the goal of creating enlightened citizens, capable of rational argument and evaluation of evidence, who will influence society not only in the UK but in the wider world. Yes, government as a funder has a right to ensure its money is properly spent, but our universities are threatened if this is taken to mean that the sole criterion for success is an economic one.

The means proposed to achieve the government’s ends is market competition. Wolf noted that the word ‘competition’ occurred in the White Paper introducing the Bill fifty times. Yet he pointed out that the notion of a market for higher education was deeply flawed on several counts: one simply cannot treat universities like businesses selling goods, because what they provide cannot be evaluated in advance. Failure of universities has dire consequences for students, for example, as would encouraging for-profit providers to enter the sector without adequate scrutiny or a substantial track record. Perhaps even more important, a profit-seeking institution cannot be a university in the full meaning of the term: if incentives for providers are solely financial, then we risk losing the very quality that makes our universities so well-respected internationally: the focus on innovative research and intellectual inquiry for its own sake.

Of course, the government is aware of some of these difficulties, but their attempt to deal with them, by creating the Office for Students, creates more problems than it solves. Wolf expressed concern about the sweeping powers proposed for the OfS, in what he termed ‘a fully-fledged government takeover of the UK’s university sector’. He added that ‘Anybody who thinks this will end with more diverse, more innovative, more courageous and more independent institutions is surely a fool.’

Wolf then turned to consider the financial resources available for Higher Education, noting that although the UK spends a slightly higher proportion of GDP on tertiary education than other European countries, a relatively high proportion of this now comes from private sources.  However, UK universities have been remarkably successful producers of high-quality research, and Wolf linked this to the way in which government has funded research. Without this public funding, we would not be able to continue as a global superpower in higher education. Wolf did not discuss student loans in any detail, but he agreed with the view that it was more equitable to rely partly on loans than entirely on tax-funding, although it is certain that a part of this debt, possibly a substantial part, will ultimately be picked up by the taxpayer because not all fees will be repaid.

Given his criticisms of the Higher Education and Research Bill, it is interesting to consider what alternative approach Wolf would like to adopt. Here, he argued, the problem was that the government’s proposals were not radical enough. They persist with the traditional approach of equating higher education with the university sector and ignoring the rest of tertiary education. What about the high proportion of the population for whom university is not a desirable goal? They have long been neglected, both in terms of funding and in terms of post-school educational options. Wolf argued that we should extend the loans system, so that people could access different types of education throughout adult life, and that a much wider range of tertiary education options should be made available.

Wolf started his lecture with a quote from H. L. Mencken “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. He made a compelling case that the funding and organisation of our system of higher education system is a complex problem that requires a complex solution. By seeking to frame the issue in terms of simple-minded market economics, the government had got it badly wrong. They need, he concluded, to think again.

 

 

 

 

 

The definition of a university: how many new providers fit the bill?

Rapid reaction to the House of Lords debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill

by

G.R. Evans

The headline-grabbing result of the first session of the House of Lords in Committee on 9 January was a vote which defeated the Government. By a majority of 248-221 the Lords approved Amendment 1, which was to provide a first Clause defining ‘university’. The Amendment assumes that higher education teaching must have the support of scholarship and research. This is high stakes: many of those wanting to enter the market would not meet these criteria.

The Amendment by the House of Lords: functions of a University

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 18.00.16Were the Lords wise to seek a definition? In a blogpost in Times Higher Education, Nick Hillman thought not. Agreeing with some of those in the debate, he argued that there never had been a definition of university in English law, and that to have one would tend to prevent improvement and innovation.

However, Lord Krebs was voicing the majority opinion when he called on the Government two days later when debate resumed, to ‘define your terms’. More defining of terms was already in prospect when on Wednesday, the Lords tackled Clause 2.

What is a regulator?

There was a call to define ‘regulator’. Lord Stevenson of Balcamara said ‘it would be useful and comforting if the Minister could write to us explaining exactly what the term regulator implies. That would give reassurance to some of us who have been worrying about this issue’. Baroness Wolf noted a particular difficulty:

we are not quite clear whether [OfS] is a regulator or not, and we also have the Competition and Markets Authority. One question that I have is whether there are incipient conflicts between these two important and powerful bodies.

What is the meaning of higher education?

In framing Amendment 72, Lords called for another definition. This was to be a new Clause headed ‘Meaning of higher education’. It would come at the end of Clause 2, setting out the ‘general duties’ of the OFS, and say:

For the purposes of this Act, the provision of higher education by English higher education providers comprises higher education provision by—

(a) universities,

(b) colleges of further education, and

(c ) other higher education providers, both registered and unregistered.

It was in the list of Amendments (34-59 )‘not moved’ that evening.

The importance of research for universities

Where does this leave the definition of a university as approved by the Lords on 9 January? On 11 January, discussing the importance of ensuring that the new Office for Students (OfS) and the new UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) bodies would work together, speaker after speaker stressed the importance of the research element in higher education teaching, the stimulus it offered to students, the edge it gave to have the content of what was taught visibly touching the boundaries where knowledge was being expanded.

But two days earlier, Lord Younger, responding to the debate so far, took a different view:

while I agree that teaching should be informed and supported by scholarship and research, I have to agree with the changes made under the Labour Government in 2004. As my noble friend Lord Willetts explained, those changes to the criteria for university title removed the requirement for universities to need to award research degrees …. The amendment would be a regressive step. The changes were rightly made … and recognised that teaching is a legitimate primary activity for a university. If we place barriers in the way of new and innovative universities, we risk diminishing the relevance and value of our higher education sector to changing student and employer needs—becoming a relic of the 20th century while the rest of the world moves on.

This is a significant speech, whose implications should not be lost sight of. It contrasts ‘must’ and ‘may’, a distinction which was made much of on 11 January in the attempts of peers to persuade the Government to make OfS’s duties expressly into ‘musts’. While the Lords’ Amendment speaks of UK universities, Lord Younger defended a change which applies only to those in England and Wales. There have been calls for more attention to be paid to ‘national differences’. This was the decision of 2004 to allow providers with only taught-degree-awarding powers to gain university title. This, he argued on 9 January, meant that teaching was recognised as ‘a legitimate primary activity for a university’. In reality it amounted to something more, a recognition that teaching might be the only defining activity of a university.

Neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland has so far seen advantage in moving in the same direction and removing the requirement for a provider to obtain powers to award research degrees before becoming eligible to call itself a university.

Teaching-only ‘universities’

In England university or ‘university college’ title has been bestowed on seven alternative providers, all – except the longstanding University of Buckingham which had gained its title decades earlier and before this change – with only taught degree-awarding powers. Arden University; BPP University Ltd.; University College of Estate Management; the University of Law Ltd; the London Institute of Banking and Finance’; Regent’s University, London.

Several of these fulfil another desideratum expressed by Lord Younger in the same speech, that ‘specialist’ universities should be encouraged. The Bill envisages even single-subject universities. Yet none of them can be said to be strikingly ‘innovative’. Apart from the long established College of Estate Management, which does what its name suggests, they all concentrate mainly on business and management, law, accounting and finance, sometimes with tourism, health and social care. This is exactly the range of subjects mainly offered at Level 4 and 5 in the hundreds of alternative providers which run Pearson-Edexcel courses.

Where do we draw the line?

The Minister’s claim that that the Lords’ Amendment represents merely the vested interest of a ‘cartel’ of publicly-funded research-active universities should not be taken seriously until the Government can provide a coherent and evidence-based account of the present reality and the acceptable range of future inclusion of novelties.

Where does Jo Johnson think the boundaries of higher education diversity should be set? Hamburger University is real enough, and McDonalds offers a Foundation Degree in the UK, ‘certified by Manchester Metropolitan University’, but that presumably counts as one of the ‘cartel’ keeping innovative specialist providers from moving straight to their own probationary degree-awarding powers and then to university title. The Faculty of Astrological Studies published its examination results at the recent Winter Solstice when ‘Saturn its lord and god of the harvest, is elevated in the sky together with the Sun in the ingress chart for London’. If this provider would not be eligible to seek degree-awarding powers and university title should the Government be able to explain why not?

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 17.52.03

Universities as cartels?

Opinion piece

by James Ladyman

It is said that trust in institutions is in short supply these days. Sadly the government doesn’t trust universities. According to the Minister, the Higher Education and Research Bill is necessary to “break open a closed shop that for too long has set the rules of the game in its own interests”. He does not believe that academics who act as external examiners and universities that oversee the provision of teaching make and apply rules in the interests of academic standards and education, nor that their deliberations are informed by the wider political and social good. According to the minister, and one must presume the entire government and many MPs and peers, universities have been acting in their own interests all this time. This makes sense to them because they also insist that universities are businesses and encourage them to behave as such. Businesses’ primary interest is in maximizing their revenues. Since, universities are businesses their primary interest must be in maximising their revenues.

The new providers that are allegedly needed to drive up teaching standards – the minister is disparaging about the latter – do indeed include businesses interested only in making a profit. They contrast with universities that hitherto have hosted academics who collaborate across institutions for the good of their disciplines. Yet the minister thinks of the sector as ‘cartel-like’.

We all know how effective cartels allow prices to be kept artificially high from the way that energy market has functioned. The measures in the Bill are supposed to protect students from a similar cartel-like scam in HE. It will supposedly do this by allowing fees to be raised. Yes, that’s right folks, the market will save students from being ripped off by the existing university system, by allowing universities to raise prices.

Despite the disastrous effects of marketisation on the health service and the penal system, and with no regard to the outstanding international reputation of British higher education, the HE Bill proposes to treat the healthy patient with bad medicine.

On the subject of the closed shop, one might as well ask why we let the medical profession control who becomes a doctor rather than the market. We don’t expect patient choice to set standards in clinical care, and we should no more expect student choice to set standards in higher education.

We have not been given any explanation for why the idea of the self-critical academic community enshrined in established thinking about academic and educational standards has been set aside so completely.

Students are entitled to know that their fees are paying for a decent standard of education, but this government is determined to sacrifice them in the interests of the profits that the new providers will make out of their tax-payer funded loans.

 

House of Lords debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill

Rapid reaction to the First Amendment

by

G.R.Evans

It’s certainly a story when the House of Lords is packed, as it was on 9 January to discuss the first of well over 500 amendments to a Bill.  Several speakers noted that they were adding themselves to the long list who spoke in the Second Reading debate on 6 December because they had not been available to speak then.

When it came to a vote on this first Amendment in Committee, the sheer numbers present became clear. The Amendment was approved by 248-221. A story indeed, as the press was quick to record.

As speakers noted in stressing its importance, the result will now govern much of what follows as the remaining amendments are debated.

Lord Stevenson of Balcamara, introducing the Amendment, put it plainly. ‘The purpose of the amendment is simple. The Bill before us does not define a university, and we think it will be improved if it does so.’

Speakers on both sides had tried to find an existing definition in English law and Baroness Wolf, who had looked hard, noted that ‘the Minister had kindly confirmed, in replies to Written Questions that the term is not defined in legislation’. A couple of corners where they might have looked suggest themselves. They may be worth adding here, for future reference of all concerned.

The distinction between providing ‘higher education’ and ‘being a university’: title and substance

Baroness Wolf in a second speech, seeking to bring their Lordships back to the matter in hand, reminded them that:

Absolutely rightly, the Bill distinguishes between degree-awarding powers and the title of “university”. So it should and so it must, because we are now in a world where many institutions which are not and will never wish to be universities give degrees. Further education colleges are a very obvious and important sector.

We are also, I am delighted to say, moving into a world with degree apprenticeships.

The risk of not having a definition of ‘university’ in law, she reminded them, was that ‘we leave the decisions about what a university is to the bureaucrats of the Office for Students, who will make those decisions but will never actually have to make them public’.

This was not, as other speakers stressed, to seek to devalue other higher educaiton providers, but to clarify a difference in kind. Baroness Blackstone shared the concern to distinguish universities from a vast range of providers of higher education. For ‘many, many decades, higher education has embraced not only universities but many other kinds of institution’ she accepted approvingly.

The first existing legislative marker helps to clarify the important difference between ‘title’and ‘substance’, which worries many when they see that a company applying to Companies House to use the sensitive word ‘university’ has to do little beyond getting it accepted that its new title will not lead to its being confused with any existing university.  The law as it stands confers  university ‘substance’ as well as university ‘title’.

The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 s.77 (4)  states that:

Any educational institution whose name includes the word “university” by virtue of the exercise of any power as extended by subsection (1) above is to be treated as a university for all purposes.

Subsection (1) requires that any such entity be an ‘educational institution’ and ‘within the higher education sector’ and allows both the Privy Council and the Companies House routes to grant permission for use of the word and thus the substantive ‘being’ of ‘university’ to the title-holders.

This provision had to be adjusted in 1998 to prevent ‘university colleges’ claiming that they were substantively universities. So the clause now adds ‘unless in that name that word is immediately followed by the word “college” or “collegiate”’. (Words added by 1998 c. 30, ss.40, 46(4) (with s. 42(8)); S.I. 1998/2215, art. 2).

When Lord Younger responding to the debate on behalf of the Government, could be seen to turn to a prepared script and begin to read, but he added some reference to speeches made that afternoon. His argument was that it would be dangerous to include a definition of a university in legislation. He may now have to think again.

Teaching-only or teaching-and-research: What should a university do?

The other concern which ran through the speeches was about what a university should ‘do’.  Important here is the change of 2004 which allowed holders of only taught degree-awarding powers to gain university title, in England and Wales but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland.  Lord Younger, linking the ‘teaching-only’ policy with the objective of encouraging specialist and single-subject providers,  said:

I have  to agree with the changes made under the Labour Government in 2004. As my noble friend Lord Willetts explained, those changes to the criteria for university title removed the requirement for universities to need to award research degrees and also removed the requirement for a university to have students in five different subject areas. The amendment would be a regressive step. The changes were rightly made to allow for a greater diversity of specialist universities in higher education, and recognised that teaching is a legitimate primary activity for a university.

Here too there is another bit of lingering legislation which seems not to have been spotted. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1877 s.15 , setting up Royal Commissioners to revise the statutes of the two universities, stipulated that ‘the Commissioners, in making a statute for the University…shall have regard to the interests of education, religion, learning and research’. Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1923 applied in its Schedule various provisions of the  1877 Act including this one.  When I was admitted to a University Teaching Office in Cambridge in the 1980s  this was still the defining requirement of the job.

Statute and statutes?

It would be a pity to end without mentioning the speech of Lord Broers, who as Cambridge Vice-Chancellor rode the bucking bronco of an unsuccessful attempt to change Cambridge’s statutes. ‘I support the proposed new clause’, he said, but regretted that it ‘does not mention governance, and whether universities not only are autonomous but have the right to determine how they govern themselves’. ‘We debated it intensely in Cambridge at one time’:

Universities should be allowed to determine their own form of governance, and some words need to be included in a clause like this to say that.

The Bill is startlingly silent on the role of the Privy Council in approving changes to university statutes, and indeed on whether it is expected that a university will in future be expected to have its own statutes at all. ‘Autonomy’ means having authority to make their own laws. WithIn those can be embedded its deepest sense of self, the identity which would ensure that it fulfilled the statutory definiton of a university which can now be hoped for.

 

Perils of ignoring consultation on the Higher Education and Research Bill

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop

Earlier this week, Lord Patten, former Conservative chairman, published a searing attack on the government’s Higher Education and Research Bill in the Observer, stating:

“It seems ham-fisted to turn the academic world upside down when universities face so much turbulence and uncertainty after the Brexit vote and the rhetoric surrounding immigration.”

He was supported by a cross-party group of peers, including Labour’s shadow higher education minister Lord Stevenson, who stated:

“This bill is an attempt from the Government to run a market experiment through the bloodstream of our university system, and a classic case of understanding the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

These comments are closely aligned with the CDBU’s evaluation of the Bill, and we are pleased to see a list of 516 Amendments to the Bill has now been proposed by the Lords.

We have to ask how on earth the situation has arisen whereby a Bill is not only being comprehensively revised at this late stage in its progress, but is also receiving criticism from heavyweight Conservatives who might have been expected to support the Government.

The problem appears to be the intransigence of the Minister, Jo Johnson, who has  ignored serious arguments against his Bill, which have been flagged up many times over the last year.

Let’s start by looking at the responses to the Green Paper which outlined the main proposals in the Bill. The volume of responses to the consultation was quite remarkable: there were 618 respondees in all, including 136 Higher Education Institutions, 26 alternative providers, 22 further education colleges, 78 student unions, and a large number of individuals and organisations with a stake in the sector.

These responses were summarised in a report by BIS. In addition, many institutions posted their response on the web, including the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford: I’ve singled these out because they are our most ancient universities, and might be expected to represent an establishment view. Critical comments in their feedback anticipated the points now being raised in the House of Lords, and might have been seen as a canary in the mine by a Minister less self-assured than Jo Johnson. Consider this comment from the preamble to the response by the University of Cambridge:

“The Green Paper fails to demonstrate an understanding of the purpose of our universities and the reasons for the sector’s international standing. Universities exist to pursue knowledge for the benefit of society, through education (teaching and learning), scholarship and research.”

Are such objections restricted to the Russell Group? It would appear not. The summary of the consultation findings by BIS does not break down responses according to their origins, but it does provide quantitative data for several items where respondents were asked to state Agree/Not Sure/Disagree. These had a worrying high level of Not Sure responses, suggesting that the proposals in the Green Paper were too vague or unclear to evaluate; in addition, the rates of Disagree were higher than Agree for many items – only 6 of 24 items attracted more than 50% agreement. And where Agree outnumbered Disagree, it tended to be for questions concerning general ideals, such as the desirability of improving access for disadvantaged groups; questions about specifics of implementation of proposals received a higher rate of negative responses.  The two items marked with * concerned the link between TEF results and fees, and were among those with lowest levels of endorsement.

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-09-11-40Figure 1: Proportions of Agree/Not Sure/Disagree to items included in the Green Paper consultation (See report for details of items; number in bracket refers to consultation question number).

There was also a technical consultation on the TEF, which fared no better. The Office of National Statistics expressed concern about the suitability of the metrics to be used to evaluate teaching quality, and the Royal Statistical Society witheringly noted:

“It is concerning that Figure 4 equates student satisfaction as measured by the National Student Survey (NSS) with Teaching Quality. We are not aware that there is any evidence of a statistical association between the two concepts.”

Given this level of concern, one might have expected some radical revisions between the Green and White Papers. In fact, there were few changes, except that the TEF, which had been a major (and much-criticised) feature of the Green Paper was removed from the White Paper. Because it does not require legislation to introduce the TEF, it was possible to keep its implementation separate from the rest of the Bill, so it could be steamrollered through ready for introduction in 2017.

There were further opportunities for the Bill to be amended as it proceeded through the Committee stage in Parliament. And Jo Johnson described himself as listening to feedback, saying:

During September and October, a cross-party committee of MPs scrutinised the Bill, along with over 300 additional tabled amendments. We heard evidence from a wide range of witnesses from university vice-chancellors and the National Union of Students to the head of Research Councils UK and consumer groups such as Which? And now we’re at Report Stage, you will see that we have reflected on these views.

Except that none of the 300 tabled amendments were included! A handful of modifications were made to some statements to increase clarity and avoid ambiguity, but the core plans remained unchanged.

The House of Lords includes peers of all political stripes, but a key point is that many of them have extensive experience of the HE sector. They have run universities, sat on Councils, and they understand about all kinds of higher and further education, not just Oxbridge. Similarly, the CDBU has members covering a wide political spectrum, who are not always in agreement about issues affecting universities. The Higher Education and Research Bill has, however, created a united front: left- and right-leaning academics agree that the Bill shows little understanding of the nature and purpose of Higher Education and risks damaging the reputation and autonomy of our universities.

In future, if a Minister invites comments on a consultation document, he might be well advised to take notice of the responses, to avoid the kind of embarrassment that Johnson is now confronted with.

‘Comply or explain’ – or just ‘comply’: a regulatory shift to monitor?

Guest blog by G.R.Evans

Rudd forced to rethink work visa plans for foreign students (The Times, 23 November), ‘Vice-chancellors warn there could be a legal challenge if metrics designed to assess teaching quality were used for immigration purposes.’ The article had attracted 76 online comments by the next morning.  The Home Secretary had had the bright idea of linking student visa availability to the quality of the provider of the course and there had been an outcry.

It had, however, taken a while for the indignation to prompt any ‘rethink’. The underlying policy had been summed up succinctly by Jo Johnson in the Third Reading Debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill two days earlier when the topic stirred some impassioned exchanges.

‘High-quality institutions are compliant institutions. We want compliance to be a strong feature of our system,’ he insisted. Challenged that the Home Secretary had not mentioned compliance, he said she had ‘mentioned compliance and quality. He went further. ‘High-quality institutions are compliant institutions; they are one and the same.’  Asked to unpack this statement he assured the House that it would be possible  ‘to assess the Government’s proposals in due course when the Home Office is ready to publish them’.

The context of this exchange was the part of the Debate which dealt with student visas. ‘Compliance’ did not come up again elsewhere in the Third Reading debate. But the statement that ‘high-quality institutions are compliant institutions; they are one and the same’, can hardly be allowed to stand in the record unmodified without comment.

The principle could well be extended more widely, well beyond Amber Rudd’s controversial suggestion in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference:

We will also look for the first time at whether our student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution.

Though in fact Amber Rudd had not used the word ‘compliance’, she spoke of ‘sticking to the rules’:

our consultation will ask what more can we do to support our best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent.

In recent years the policy during HEFCE’s operation of the Financial Memorandum requirements has been to require universities to ‘comply or explain’:

The Committee of University Chairs has published detailed guidance about audit committees (HEFCE 2008/06). This reflects best governance practice, and HEFCE expects HEIs to take account of such guidance in meeting the required standards …or explain why the guidance is not being applied and good practice is not being followed.

The HEI’s arrangements for ‘risk management, control and governance’ are included in the specified ‘comply or explain’ areas, but the Memorandum of assurance and accountability between HEFCE and institutions treads extremely carefully when it speaks of requirements about ‘quality’.  It does not intrude upon academic freedom or academic autonomy and if it was felt to threaten to do so the institution would be free to ‘explain’ what it was doing.

The crude compacting together of ‘quality’ and ‘compliance’ in the Minister’s extraordinary statement to Parliament that compliance and ‘high quality’ are ‘one and the same’ clearly needs watching.

Universities ‘R’ Us

Guest blog by G. R. Evans

If you are a higher education provider, HEFCE’s Blog brings you ‘three ways to reach out with good advice’ on offer from the Higher Education Outreach Network (HEON).  The four providers in the Network have designed ‘Quick Guides’ to make the key information accessible to would-be students at school and mature students who want to understand the basics of ‘what is a university?’ As a ‘widening access’ initiative this is clear, friendly and well-designed. But does it really answer the question it poses? It offers ‘facts about each campus and its facilities, extracurricular activities and a student profile.’

Present marketing information concentrates mainly on such features, as expected to enhance the student experience.  But aren’t these just the externals?  Where and what is the inwardness of a university? What is it in itself?  It is more than or different from an ‘institution’?

Jo Johnson had an answer to that on 13 October during the  Committee stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill deliberations:

‘a university is also expected to be an institution that brings together a body of scholars to form a cohesive and self-critical academic community.’

He had not made that up on the hoof. He had taken it from the current Guidance for applicants (in England) seeking degree-awarding powers which was published in September 2015.

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Lobbying on behalf of alternative providers: what is going on?

Guest blogpost by G. R. Evans

 

Original photo by James Boyes from UK - Brighton v Spurs Amex Opening 30/7/11 Uploaded by Kafuffle, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18281683

Original photo by James Boyes from UK – Brighton v Spurs Amex Opening 30/7/11 Uploaded by Kafuffle, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18281683

 

Who ‘represents’ providers of UK higher education?

Alex Proudfoot, the CEO of an organization called Independent Higher Education, was invited as a witness to the Committee evaluating the Higher Education and Research Bill. His views were taken seriously and were quoted in prepared statements by the Minister during the discussion. So who exactly does Alex Proudfoot represent? Is Independent Higher Education the voice of the ‘alternative providers’? The evidence suggests there are reasons for doubt, not least of which is that it appears to have no significant membership among the 117 alternative providers listed on the HEFCE Register.

The Higher Education and Research Act is intended to create a single system of higher education provision in England. In the evidence session held at the Committee stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill on 6 September, witnesses appeared on behalf of three ‘interest groups’ representing existing providers, Universities UK, GuildHE and Million Plus.  In addition, there was Alex Proudfoot  its CEO and Paul Kirkham its Vice-Chair, representing a newcomer called ‘Independent Higher Education’.

The other witnesses represent well-established interest groups. Universities UK (formerly the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals) is the Vice-Chancellors’ longstanding membership organisation. The Vice-Chancellors elect a 24-person Board and a President from among themselves. UUK does not exclude alternative providers which have university title. For example, Regent’s University may be found there. GuildHE, founded in the 1970s as the Standing Conference of Principals, now has about three dozen full and associate members, some now with university title. Million Plus describes itself as the ‘association for modern universities’. It lists about 20 members, all post-1992 universities, none of them alternative providers.

A first attempt to create an interest group for alternative providers was led by Aldwyn Cooper, Vice-Chancellor of Regent’s University in January 2015, initially representing eight providers with degree-awarding powers or university title. This took the loose title of the Independent Universities Group, but has encountered difficulties in defining a common cause. IfS did not join it and it became uncomfortable about including the University of Law after that was taken over by Global University Systems. It was not invited to give evidence to the Committee in September 2016.

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