Why the NSS is garbage

A note by Lord Lipsey    

The National Students Survey results matter. First, they are used by students to evaluate institutions by comparison with rival institutions. Secondly, they are one of the metrics to be used in the TEF, in awarding gold, silver or bronze markings to institutions which apply to take part. These ratings will decide if an institution can or cannot raise its fees beyond £9K.

The idea that student satisfaction should play a major role in the rating of universities is controversial. Research shows that there is no correlation between student satisfaction and student results in terms of degree grade . However the government has opted to increase the importance of student choice, competition and satisfaction in the higher education landscape; and this short note does not seek to address the rights and wrongs of that.

Rather it focusses on a narrow point: whether the National Student Survey (NSS), the chosen instrument to measure student satisfaction, is fit for purpose or not.  Here the evidence is unequivocal, The NSS is statistical garbage, The reasons are widely understood by the statistical community and were set out inter alia by the Royal Statistical Society in its response to the government’s technical consultation about the TEF http://www.rss.org.uk/Images/PDF/influencing-change/2016/RSS-response-to-BIS-Technical Consultation-on-Teaching-Excellence-Framework-year-2.pdf.

  1. The NSS is not based on a random or representative sample of students. It is more akin to a census, which includes everyone who chooses to complete the form but not those who don’t. Some groups eg ethnic minorities are seriously underrepresented. As the final report of the ONS Review of Data Sources for the TEF 2016 said: “under-reporting of certain groups and over-coverage of others …could lead to bias in use of the data.” https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/556352/Teaching-Excellence-Framework-review-of-data-sources.pdf

I chair Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, a leading London Conservatoire. This year Trinity Laban’s response rate to the NSS rose from about 60% to about 80%. This makes any comparison between last year’s results and this year’s results invalid. We know nothing about the 20%; so a 50% satisfaction rate amongst respondents could perfectly well be a 70% satisfaction rate amongst students as whole.

  1. Even if the responses are treated as a random or representative sample, making calculations of statistical significance possible, the margins of error in the NSS figures are large. The ONS concluded that “differences between institutions at the overall level are small and are not significant” https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/556352/Teaching-Excellence-Framework-review-of-data-sources.pdf Yet on that are being based student decisions on where to go, and the level of fees institutions can charge.

So for example Trinity Laban’s  music results – and music is our biggest group of students -are based on 112 students. To take an example only 49% of these students say that marking on their course has been fair. Statistically however and treating the returns as if they were a sample, this means that there is a 95% chance that between 34% and 64% of students think it is fair. This perhaps exaggerates the unreliability of the NSS insofar as. if response rates are high, then the results may be less unreliable that they would be for a sample. But the point still applies. And.in cases of smaller sub-samples the low response renders the results vacuous. For example for Trinity Laban Musical Theatre the poor results were based on response from just 23 students.

The small sample size is a particular problem for small institutions. It is also a grave problem in that the most valid comparisons are not between institutions, but between particular departments in institutions teaching the same or similar courses. For individual courses, there will tend to be only a fraction of the responses obtained for institutions as a whole.

  1. The results can be greatly affected by happenstance. Results in the TL musical theatre department in the past have been good which suggests that there was some peculiar chemistry about this year (and also there is some suggestion that students coordinated their responses to make a point). A survey of dance satisfaction for Trinity Laban was completed the day after a one-off cock-up about room bookings; had it been done two days earlier the results might have been much better.
  1. There is scope for “gaming” the results and encouraging students to give positive results,. Trinity Laban does not do this. Anecdotal evidence, as cited by the RSS paper above suggests that less scrupulous institutions do, and the incentive to do so will be greatly increased now that the NSS has new significance as a metric for the TEF.
  1. Less concrete but not less important, an emphasis on the student experience may lead to undesirable effects on what they are taught. Institutions focussed on a high NSS score will tend to dumb down degrees or go for safe options on content. ]

Here is an example from Trinity Laban. TL exists due to an amalgamation of Trinity College of Music and Laban dance. A few years ago, the Principal introduced a compulsory two-week course called CoLab which was a creative programme involving dance and music working together. At first students were furious at being deprived of these two weeks off from the focus of their studies – and no doubt this would have been reflected in their satisfaction ratings. However time has passed; familiarity has grown; and CoLab is now one of the most popular things we offer with our students.

In addition, during the ONS review of the NSS,  respondents expressed reservations about wider issues related to the use of information from the NSS and the DLHE. Concerns included:

  • limited variation between institutions of the raw scores from the student responses
  • difficulty in trying to compare widely differing institutions
  • difficulty in capturing the wider benefits beyond academic results of attending a higher education institution

The government has already downgraded the importance of the NSS in TEF – the so-called LSE amendment made when it was pointed out that NSS suggested that LSE and a number of other prestigious institutions were rated low by students. The metric should be subject to intense scrutiny when the House of Lords debates the Higher Education and Research Bill in committee; and I am tabling amendments to make sure it is.

The spurious precision of the NSS has the capacity to damage staff morale, to put students off certain institutions and affect the validity of the TEF. I know of at least once case where a head of department at a major institution came close to resigning because of a disappointing NSS result. I know of another where a Principal was dismissed inter alia because of the failure of that institution’s NSS results to improve. This is terrifying.

Lord Lipsey is joint Chair of the All Party Statistics Group, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Science, a Board member of Full Fact the fact checking charity, a former member of the advisory council of the National Centre for Social Research,  founder of Straight Statistics and a former adviser on opinion polling to James Callaghan as prime minister. In other words, though he may talk nonsense on many subjects, this is not one of them!

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


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



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.


Consequences for institutional autonomy and academic freedom

No 4 in a series of Guest posts by G. R. Evans

The problem-areas flagged up here are technical but they are also of fundamental importance to academics because they affect academic freedom and the institutional autonomy of providers of higher education. These are topics which have repeatedly engaged Members of Parliament and peers in heated debate in the framing of previous higher education legislation and are likely to do so again.

It has taken determined resistance over many decades to protect these two things which academics discover to be immensely important when they find them threatened. One is independence from state control for universities. The other is the freedom of individual academics to determine what to teach and how to teach it, and on what to do research.

The history of these protections

When universities first accepted public funding it was with the protection that they should have freedom from Government interference when they chose how to spend it. A ‘Haldane buffer’ was set up, to advise Government, receive the state’s funding in response, and deliver it in the form of a ‘block grant’ to each institution. This protection was maintained for nearly a century, with the University Grants Committee acting as ‘buffer’ from 1919-1989, the Universities Funding Council 1989-1992 and then the four funding councils set up under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 [FHEA]. Each institution has remained free to spend its grant as it chooses, subject to the requirements of FHEA s.65 (2).

It was taken for granted in 1992 that the block grant would cover both teaching and research and the provision of the infrastructure of laboratories and libraries needed for both purposes. The same principle ensured that the ‘teaching and research’ needs of research students would be provided within the infrastructure the grant was to fund.

The tripling of tuition fees for undergraduate students in English universities England from 2012 made a de facto a policy-change designed to transfer the burden of paying for their teaching to the undergraduate students receiving it. The block grant continues to cover both teaching and research in the devolved administrations, but in England only the ‘research’ element of direct public funding and a decreasingly small sum for teaching survives .

Consequence 1: The introduction of new-style ‘regulation’ and the risk to institutional autonomy

The FHEA s.65(4) provided the four UK funding councils with a sanction if an institution was found to be mis-spending its block grant. The funding council could ‘require the repayment, in whole or in part, of sums paid by the council if any of the terms and conditions subject to which the sums were paid is not complied with’, and charge interest if the repayment was not made promptly. This ‘conditions of grant’ sanction was used when it was found in 2008 that London Metropolitan University had been in receipt of funding for more students than it actually had, and it was eventually required to repay £30m.

The change from direct public ‘block grant’ funding to tuition-fee funding for teaching made the ‘conditions of grant’ sanction no longer applicable.

Then came talk of the need to make HEFCE into a ‘regulator’. This first appeared as a proposal in the White Paper of June 2011, Students at the heart of the system. Chapter 6 of this document described ‘a new fit-for-purpose regulatory framework’ for England only, including the statement that:

As the balance of public investment shifts from grants to loans, the Government must maintain control of its financial exposure [emphasis added].

This is in itself a perfectly proper objective for a Government. But in this instance it was taken to be achieved best by ceasing direct public funding of higher education teaching and moving the responsibility for payment to students through their tuition fees. This had the disadvantage of requiring Government to fund those fees through student loans, which might not be repaid for many years, or at all.

Since that time, HEFCE has begun to describe itself on its website as ‘the lead regulator for higher education in England’, and to define its ‘powers’ more fully, extending them to the furthest limits of its statutory duty as in FHEA ss.62-70.

Meeting the need for regulation for ‘alternative’ providers

Bringing the alternative providers into the regulatory system is one of the principal changes proposed in the Higher Education and Research Bill. Meeting this need seems to have had a disproportionate effect on its framing. No direct ‘regulatory’ powers or responsibilities can lie with HEFCE under the FHEA in the case of ‘alternative’ providers, because they are defined as providers not in receipt of direct public funding. The ‘conditions of grant’ sanction therefore cannot apply.

HEFCE has a role in the process by which alternative providers may apply for course ‘designation’. Students on a Designated Course are able to access Student Loan Company funding, though the providers of these courses are not deemed to be in receipt of the direct public funding to which conditions of grant apply. Regulation of alternative providers lies with Government and HEFCE can only, as it puts it, ‘assist’.

The Higher Education and Research Bill proposes to replace HEFCE (though not the other UK funding councils) by an Office for Students (OfS). This is to have extensive regulatory powers, including the de-registration of established higher education providers.

Consequence 2: Awareness of perceived ‘regulatory’ threats to institutional autonomy and academic freedom

In the Second Reading debate the Secretary of State offered a broad reassurance:

Academic autonomy is the bedrock of success for our higher education sector. The Bill introduces measures to safeguard the interests of students and taxpayers, while protecting academic freedom and institutional autonomy. It enables the OfS to be independent of Government and the sector, as a regulator should be. It will be an arm’s length non-departmental public body, just as the Higher Education Funding Council for England is now.

This seems to confuse the new ‘regulator’s’ independence of Government with protection of institutional independence or autonomy.

The limited definitions of ‘academic freedom’ available in current legislation are re-used in the Higher Education and Research Bill without reference to the intention of the legislation in which they were first included.

The Bill includes at s.2 a duty to protect academic freedom of ‘providers’ and at s.35 a duty to protect academic freedom. Both need careful review in Committee.

Institutional autonomy: course design

At s.2 (2) of the new legislation, OfS will be required to have regard to guidance given it by the Secretary of State. He or she is in turn required to have regard to the need to ‘protect academic freedom’. The specifics which follow all relate to institutional ‘academic freedom’, which would be more conveniently and less confusingly described as ‘institutional autonomy’.

The Secretary of State is not to interfere with a provider’s freedom ‘to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed’; the appointment of academic staff or the admission of students. The Robbins Report of 1963 identified as fundamental the right of a university to determine on academic grounds who may teach, who may be taught, what may be taught and how it should be taught’ (Report of the Committee on Higher Education (1963), 702.). These four essentials have been respected ever since.

At the time of the passing of the FHEA there was significant Parliamentary challenge to the inclusion of powers for a Secretary of State to set conditions of grant framed by reference to particular courses of study. The result was FHEA s.68(3) which states that such terms and conditions:

may not be framed by reference to particular courses of study or programmes of research (including the contents of such courses or programmes and the manner in which they are taught, supervised or assessed) or to the criteria for the selection and appointment of academic staff and for the admission of students.

However, the Higher Education and Research Bill s.2 (4) enlarges the powers of a Secretary of State to offer ‘guidance’ ‘framed by reference to particular courses of study’. If the Bill is to modify this protection there must be a clear statement of the justification for doing so and the intention of the change.

Assessing degree ‘standards’ and the protection of institutional autonomy                                                      

In the Second Reading debate, Andrew Smith drew attention to Clause 23 of the Bill, which provides for the assessment of ‘standards’ as well as ‘quality’. This, he pointed out, ‘is an extension of regulatory power that infringes institutional autonomy. The Government need to tell us what its purpose is and how it will be used.’ That purpose, it emerges, is connected with the new OfS powers to register or deregister providers.

The Bill’s s.23 states that ‘“Standards” has the same meaning as in section 13(1)(a)’. That section occurs among the provisions about provider registration. Initial or ongoing registration conditions ‘may, in particular include:

a condition relating to the quality of, or the standards applied to, the higher education provided by the provider (including requiring the quality to be of a particular level or particular standards to be applied).

  1. 23 continues on the ‘registration’ theme by requiring the OfS to:

assess, or make arrangements for the assessment of, the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education provided by—

(a) institutions who have applied to be registered in the register for the purposes of determining whether they satisfy any initial registration condition applicable to them relating to the quality of, or standards applied to, higher education provided by them (see section 13(1)(a)),


(b) registered higher education providers for the purposes of determining whether they satisfy any ongoing registration condition of theirs relating to the quality of, or standards applied to, higher education provided by them (see section 13(1)(a)).

Academic freedom: the need for better wording

The Bill includes a separate clause 35 importing a ‘duty to protect academic freedom’. This repeats in different wording points made in s.2 and seems to refer to institutional autonomy. ‘Academic freedom’ insofar as it applies to individual academics appears only in s.14 (7) of the Bill among the ‘public interest governance conditions’ with which a provider’s governing documents must be ‘consistent’ , ‘so far as applicable to the provider’. S. 14 (7) contains the provision that the list must include the principle that:

academic staff at an English higher education provider have freedom within the law:

(a) to question and test received wisdom, and

(b) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at the provider.

This wording is taken from Education Reform Act 1988 s.202 and has hitherto applied only to academic staff at universities then existing.

Its original purpose was to provide a protection against dismissal of academic staff for ‘managerial’ reasons when academic tenure was removed by the same Act. This, like the provision that the Secretary of State must not seek directly to control particular courses, was hard fought for in Parliamentary debate.

It seems clear that much more careful review of definitions and legislative provisions and their purposes is now needed in the case of both ‘institutional autonomy’ and ‘academic freeom’.  This is a part of the Bill which bears the marks of drafting in haste. These matters are too important to be left unrevised.

The Public Bills Committee has requested submissions on the Bill, which can be emailed to: scrutiny@parliament.uk

Points to raise:

  • Drafting review seems to be a main need, to ensure that it is as clear as possible what is protected under the headings of ‘institutional autonomy’ and ‘academic freedom’.
  • The proposed admission to the higher education sector of a variety of alternative providers, the vast majority without even taught degree-awarding powers, demands review and definition of the characteristics of a provider entitled to the protection of its institutional autonomy.

The man who sighed too much

Opinion piece by Howard Hotson, October 29th 2014

docherty photo JS49180226 Professor Thomas Docherty

‘Professor suspended from top university for giving off “negative vibes”.’ Thus read the headline in The Telegraph on Friday 24 October.  ‘Professor at top university was suspended for nine months after he was accused of sighing and being sarcastic during job interviews’: this was the Daily Mail’s take on the same story. Other charges against the culprit, Warwick’s Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Thomas Docherty, The Mirror revealed, included ‘making ironic comments’ and ‘projecting negative body language’. By Monday, London commuters could read about the ‘Professor suspended for nine months for “inappropriate sighing”’ in Metro, the free newspaper ubiquitous on the Underground. Readers of the Birmingham Mail had been informed of the story on Thursday the 23rd, two days after it broke in the Times Higher Education magazine. Together these stories have provoked hundreds of comments, thousands of ‘shares’, and innumerable tweets.

Over the weekend, news of the grounds for Docherty’s nine-month suspension began to go global. Inside Higher Education picked up the story under the headline, ‘Suspended for Irony and Sighing’. So did Higher Education Faculty News, an organ of the American Association of University Professors, together with academic blogs like Education Watch International, The Research Whisperer, and College Misery. University blogs in Oregon and Michigan are beginning to relay the tale, as are news outlets as far afield as Kansas, Zimbabwe and Singapore.

Even the risk of suspension cannot disguise the irony of the situation. In late September, Warwick was trumpeting its selection as ‘University of the Year’, in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide for 2015. One month later, this national publicity bonanza has been overtaken by an international publicity disaster of its own making.

Warwick officials took on one of the most outspoken critics of the new authoritarianism of UK university management; yet they did so on a trumped-up charge of ‘insubordination’. In doing so they have made themselves a textbook case of precisely the kind of autocratic managerialism Docherty has been describing.

While refusing to discuss the grounds of the suspension, the University insisted that Docherty was not suspended in order to silence his outspoken criticism; yet it turns out that the issue of free expression – verbal and non-verbal – was part of the case against him.  In a genuinely liberal intellectual environment, the attitude any individual takes with regard to a speaker – whether a student in tutorial, a seminar speaker, or a candidate – is a matter for individual judgment, and so (within broad limits) is the question of how they choose to express that attitude. If others find a colleague’s behaviour discourteous, they are free to tell him so. Instead, Warwick’s senior management hired corporate lawyers to argue that behaviour of this kind was grounds for dismissal.

Moreover, Warwick’s management showed their hand even more clearly when they forbade Docherty from attending a conference devoted to the republication of E.P. Thompson’s Warwick University Ltd., or to address the conference by Skype, or initially even to have a letter from him read out to the gathering – although on this point the University eventually relented. Given that Thompson’s book was a prescient discussion of the legal battles waged by Warwick in 1970 to prevent the publication of evidence that it was spying on its own staff and students and curbing academic freedom on behalf of business interests, these proceedings were bound to be interpreted by many as thinly disguised censorship, plain and simple.

Justice for Thomas Docherty is good news for higher education in general. Reputation managers in other universities might have been tempted to emulate these tactics if Warwick had been successful. Now they will  think twice. But serious damage has also been done – how much remains to be seen.

We now know, for starters, that the ban on Docherty inflicted considerable damage on his students. As well as being banned from campus, from the library, and from email contact with his colleagues, Docherty was prohibited from supervising his graduate students and from writing references. Indiscriminate, disproportionate, and unjust measures against the professor were also deeply unfair to his students.

At one further remove, how much will the mishandling of this situation damage the reputation of an entire institution, its staff, its students, its alumni? And how much collateral damage will be inflicted on UK universities generally in the court of international opinion? If the UK’s ‘University of the Year’ in 2015 becomes an international by-word for authoritarianism and censorship, then foreign readers are entitled to ask what goes on in less celebrated institutions. One reader of Inside Higher Education has already articulated the question as follows: ‘Is it just me, or do British universities just not treat their faculty so well these days? Low pay in an expensive country, no more tenure, and now junk like this.’

Reputational damage cashes out directly in international rankings. Yet when UK universities, individually or collectively, slide in the rankings, will policymakers conclude that they are being badly managed? Or will they respond by prescribing another wave of still more radical ‘reform’?

This brings us to a final irony: although academics are liable to read the Docherty case as a parable of academic mismanagement, at least some of the readers of the newspaper articles listed above clearly read it as a parable about academia itself. For one thing, the censorship even of non-verbal communication strikes some readers as a paradigmatic example of politically-correct thought police running amok. ‘Only academics could be so pea-brained as this,’ one Telegraph reader colourfully opines. ‘They deserve the rough edge of nanny’s tongue and early to bed without supper for behaving in such an infantile way.’ ‘Remind me again’, another comments: ‘Why are we, the British public, still being made to fund these dictatorial Marxist cabals, and why has the government not taken a hint from the private sector and outsourced all higher education abroad?’ So when university governance is wrested from academic control and remodelled along corporate lines, the resulting authoritarianism is to be explained by reference to the perennial Marxism of academics generally? And once the funding burden has been removed from the shoulders of current taxpayers and loaded squarely onto future graduates and taxpayers, current taxpayers should nevertheless insist that privatization be followed by outsourcing?

It would be easier to dismiss this kind of thing as puerile polemic, were it not for the fact that similar logic is evident in the recent opinion piece by Jamie Martin, advisor to former educational secretary Michael Gove, on how UK universities ‘Must Do Better’.  ‘[U]niversities and government,’ he argues, for instance, ‘are engaging in sub-prime lending, encouraging students to borrow about £40,000 for a degree that will not return that investment …. Taxpayers, the majority of whom have not been to university, pick up the tab when this cruel lie is exposed.’

So when it turns out that student-customers are not the perfectly well-informed and purely rational agents whose collective decisions can ‘drive up standards’ and ‘drive down prices’ across the university sector, when it turns out instead that they are vulnerable to being duped by the new breed of corporate university which regards them essentially as units of income and output, who is to take the blame? Evidently, anyone but the policymakers who imposed the marketized conception on the university in the first place.

It appears that we are entering a new phase in the debate over British higher education, in which the failures of the botched ‘reforms’ of 2010-12 are recycled as justification for a further round of even more radical measures.  For further analysis along these lines, the reader can turn with profit to Dorothy Bishop’s recent comments on Martin’s piece.


Howard Hotson will deliver the CDBU lecture at Royal Holloway on Tuesday 25 November 2014 on ‘Big Business at the Heart of the System:  Understanding the Global University Crisis’.  It will be at 6 p.m. on 25 November, in room MX001 in the Management Building Annexe at Royal Holloway.  For further details contact: A.Sheppard@rhul.ac.uk.

Tuition fees must be high on the agenda before the election

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop, 22nd October 2014

Suppose that the government were to announce that post-16 years education were no longer free. If you wanted to stay on to do A-levels, your parents would have to pay a fee, which could vary with the popularity of the school. One can just imagine the arguments from an outraged public: the policy would be unfair to poorer families, would deter children from continuing their education, would damage the nation’s businesses – who would have to look abroad for qualified workers – and would ultimately increase the gulf between rich and poor, because the less well-educated children from poorer families would have reduced earning potential. Suppose, further, that expensive schools started recruiting sixth-formers from abroad to make up the numbers of fee-paying students in their classrooms. The idea seems so absurd that it’s hard to imagine any government proposing it, yet it has much in common with the move to charge university students increasing levels of tuition fees.

The introduction of fees started gently enough in 1998, when the undergraduate rate was set at £1,000 per annum. By 2004, this had trebled, but after the Browne review, universities were able to charge up to £9,000 per annum. Last year, the vice-chancellor of University of Oxford was quoted as saying that the top universities should be able to charge up to £16,000 per annum.  Despite initial protests, many people seem to have lost the will to resist, and come to believe that the world economic situation demands that education should be paid for by those who benefit from it, rather than by the state.

The counter-evidence, however, comes from international comparisons. Last February, Howard Hotson analyzed the situation in Germany, where local governments had done a U-turn, and instead of increasing tuition fees had decided to end them. Lower Saxony, which had been the last German state to retain tuition fees, abolished them in early October, leading commentators to ask, if Germany can do it, why can’t we?

You may wonder if Germany is an exception, and will come to regret its decision, but, as shown in this map of fees in the EU, it’s actually England who is the outlier, with substantially higher fees than other countries. euromap

Source: http://one-europe.info/in-brief/how-much-does-your-education-cost

The country we are emulating, of course, is the USA, where one report in 2012 estimated the average cost of studying at a four-year private (non-profit) university was  $28,500 per year.

A notable point about the fees debate is that both sides defend their argument in terms of fairness. Those who want to deregulate fees and create a free market claim that it is fair to make the cost of higher education the responsibility of those who benefit from it, rather than expecting taxpayers to shoulder the burden. Nobody, though, has suggested that this concept should extend to older generations such as mine, who benefited from free university education. Why is the burden of debt placed squarely on the shoulders of the younger generation and not shared with those who could better afford to contribute? Furthermore, many graduates fail to get the anticipated good jobs, creating problems for the loan companies, who don’t get repaid, and enduring debt for themselves. This is especially notable in the US, where graduate poverty is a growing problem.

An alternative position on fairness – advanced in Germany –  is that that fees are unfair because they deter poorer students from engaging in higher education, and so increase the gulf between rich and poor. My own university, Oxford, already recruits a disproportionate number of students from private schools: putting the fees up to £16,000 p.a. is hardly likely to improve the situation. Yes, it’s possible to have bursaries for the poorest, but there will be many whose parental incomes are above the cut-off for such assistance, but still not adequate to cover the costs. And in those from wealthy families, it’s the parents who pay the fees, not the students. Thus the poor who do not go to university remain as poor as ever. The rich who go to university have their fees paid by parents and so start adult life with an educational advantage and no debt. Those between these extremes may benefit from education, but will be saddled with debt.

The problem is exacerbated at the postgraduate level. The prospect of further study will be daunting to those who end a first degree with thousands of pounds worth of debt. It is already difficult even for an exceptionally bright UK graduate to get a funded PhD place: there are few grants and stiff competition for them. Increasingly, those studying for doctorates are self-funded, with a high proportion of overseas students.  I’d be the first to argue that an international mix in a student body is a thoroughly good thing: everyone benefits from interacting with people from other cultures and our overseas postgraduates contribute greatly to academic life. But where do we draw the line? Is it satisfactory if our great universities, largely paid for by the state, are accessible for postgraduate study only to those whose parents can afford to support them, and are off-limits to bright English students of more modest means? This issue forces questions about what the point of a state-funded university is. Is it to educate our citizens, or to sell education to those who will pay the most, so as to make as much money as possible?

If we really want fairness, it would be better to create a system of higher education that gave everyone a bursary for further education, which could cover less academic options such as apprenticeships. This could be used to pay for a university education, or deferred until later in life for those who preferred to leave formal education immediately after school. To help pay for this we could increase taxation on those members of the older generation who have already benefited from a free university education.

There is no democratic mandate for increased tuition fees: quite the contrary. Just as in Germany, we had large-scale public protests at the prospect of fees, but governments pressed on with the changes regardless, aided and abetted by vice-chancellors who seemed totally sold on the idea. As one of the commentators on this Guardian piece noted: “…those who should be the guardians of Universities as institutions of public good, and higher education as a tool of enlightenment, i.e. the vice-chancellors, have been captured either through choice or circumstances into playing the market game…..It makes me very angry, but I feel utterly impotent to do anything about it as the most major electoral party promising change is the Greens. I did vote LD last time solely on their fees policy. That turned out well.”

There is a danger that a new government will simply continue with the marketization of universities, regardless of political persuasion. It is vital that we put this issue on the agenda and emphasize to political candidates that if they want our votes they need realistic and costed plans to reverse the marketization of our universities.

P.S. 25th October 2014. For further thoughts on marketization of our universities, see this blogpost by Dorothy Bishop

News on current funding debate — March 2014

Parliamentary Questions regarding University fees and student loans

PQ No. : 2013/3264:  THURSDAY 20 MARCH 2014

Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, what recent estimate he has made of the RAB charge on student loans. (192816)

Rt Hon David Willetts: This Department has been reviewing our modelling of the RAB charge on student loans. We currently estimate the RAB charge on student loans to be around 45%, which reflects our current estimate of the costs to Government of the higher education subsidy to students.  By its nature an estimate is subject to change as it is highly dependent on macroeconomic circumstances, and the growth of graduate earnings over the next 30 years.

We will continue to review our estimates in line with the latest data and advice from experts and stakeholders.


 And here’s Liam Byrne’s response:

This is fresh evidence that our university finance system is turning into a money pit. The system is now haemorrhaging cash that will never be repaid and reinvested in the next generation. It’s high time David Willetts came out and told us exactly how much this strung together system is costing the taxpayer, rather than dress it up with clever accounting tricks. First, he tells us that the RAB charge is 35%, then 40% and now it hits 45%. It’s time to call a halt to this descent into chaos. Their funding model fails the sector, it fails our students and it fails those whose hard earned wages continue to prop it up.

Commenting on the HEFCE grant letter published today, Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills Liam Byrne MP said:

 “Today’s announcement lays bare the black hole ministers have created in student funding. Ministers’ dogma in giving students at private colleges complete access to the student loan system has resulted in an unsustainable system and now they are hitting poorer students to make up the shortfall. The fact that cuts are being targeted at support for the poorest students at university and the skills budget tells you everything you need to know about this government’s values and their ambitions for Britain’s future.

 “I’m glad that months of campaigning and pressure by Labour and others have prevented the government axing the student opportunity fund – but cuts to the lifeline that keeps the poorest students at work and a huge 20% cut to the skills budget risk throwing social mobility in our country into reverse at the very time we need to earn our way out of the cost of living crisis.”


 Editor’s notes

1. Total cuts to the HE budget look like over £100M. The Access to Learning Fund will now be merged with Student Opportunities and cut by £37m. Funding per student is set to fall as the government has refused to set out how many of the forecast extra 30,000 students will start next year.

 2. Minister for Higher Education and Science David Willetts admitted to Liam Byrne that giving students at private colleges unfettered access to the Student Loan System is set to cost over £600 million next year (2014/15). http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2014-01-29a.185071.h&s=speaker%3A11360#g185071.q0

 Ed Miliband talks of ‘radical offer’ on fees

Times Higher Education online, 25/03/2014, David Matthews

Ed Miliband has said that Labour wants to give voters a “radical offer” on tuition fees at the next election, a possible hint that the party could replace tuition fees with a graduate tax.

“Young people feel they have no control because they are going to get into mountains of debt if they go to university,” he said during an appearance on ITV1’s The Agenda programme. “We do want a radical offer on tuition fees because the future of our young people – something totally absent from [last week’s] Budget – is a massive issue that our country faces,” he added. In December last year, Liam Byrne, the shadow universities, science and skills minister, said that Labour’s election manifesto for 2015 could include a “long-term shift to a graduate tax”.  Currently, Labour policy is to cut tuition fees from a maximum of £9,000 a year to £6,000, although Mr Byrne said at the time that this “is what we would do if we were in government today”.


 Ed Miliband speaks out (by George Eaton New Statesman,  

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/03/milibands-promise-radical-offer-tuition-fees-major-policy-hint   Published 25 March, 2014)

Faced with the most significant period of Labour discontent since last summer, Ed Miliband retained his preternatural calm on ITV’s The Agenda last night. “I took this job on three and half years ago and always knew this was going to be a close election,” he said in response to the narrowing opinion polls.

To a degree under-appreciated in Westminster, Miliband’s strategy has been shaped by the constitutional novelty of a fixed-term parliament. As one shadow cabinet member put it to me, “We know the date of the next election. There’s no danger of the government cutting and running . . . So we can work backwards. We know when we need our pledge cards by, our manifesto by and our party candidates selected by.” With major policy work on the economy (The Adonis Review), low wages (The Buckle Review), social policy (IPPR’s Condition of Britain) and devolution (Local Government Innovation Taskforce) due to be completed before the National Policy Forum in July, Labour strategists are confident that the detailed agenda craved by activists will begin to emerge.

In this regard, the most notable remarks made by Miliband last night were on tuition fees. After businesswoman Laura Tenison raised the plight of the young, he replied:

Young people feel they have no control because they are going to get into mountains of debt if they go to university. We do want a radical offer on tuition fees because the future of our young people – something totally absent from this Budget – is a massive issue that our country faces.

The promise of a “radical offer” on tuition fees was flagged up by Labour sources as “significant” and “worth listening to”.

Miliband has previously promised to reduce the cap on tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000, but it has long been clear that his ultimate ambition is to replace fees with a graduate tax, the policy he argued for in the 2010 leadership contest. In an interview with Labour List last year, he said: “We’re definitely looking at [a graduate tax]. I think there’s been some work going on at IPPR looking at the options too. We’ve said £6,000 [as a cap] before, and we’re looking at all of these issues for the manifesto, and what can be done.”

The report on higher education published by IPPR (one of the most influential sources of Labour policy) last year, modelled an option under which tuition fees and student loans would be abolished and replaced with a higher rate of tax for graduates. This would consist of levying an additional 2 per cent of tax on all income over £10,000 for a period of 40 years (Labour may wish to adopt a graduated version).

The policy enjoys the support of the NUS and other higher education organisations and, as the report noted, “is one of the most progressive forms of repayment system, since high-earning graduates will continue to pay the tax for 40 years, meaning they will contribute a greater share of the total cost than under the current system (when their contribution stops once they have repaid their loan)”.

One of the most common complaints made by Labour figures about the current system is that it allows the rich to contribute less than others by paying off their loan at a faster rate (thus avoiding interest on the debt). As well as ending this unfairness, the introduction of a graduate tax would also eliminate the fear of debt that deters some from applying to university.

And it would enable Miliband to make the politically potent pledge to “abolish fees”, the policy proposed but not delivered by the Lib Dems. With Labour reliant on the support of Lib Dem defectors and the young (it leads the Tories by 42-28 per cent among 18-24-year-olds) to maintain its slight poll lead, a radical offer in this area is rightly viewed as crucial to election victory. Miliband’s comments last night suggest it may be coming soon.

Universities need to look beyond higher tuition fees  Vice-Chancellors should join the discussion about alternatives to the current model.  by John Denham MP  

New Statesman, The Staggers blog, 25/03/2014,  Labour MP and former universities secretary John Denham says universities need to start discussing alternative ways of funding higher education.


Ed Miliband’s promise of “radical” policies for higher education funding is welcome. It reflects the reality of an unsustainable system that will have to be changed whatever happens. As Labour develops its new approach, are England’s universities are up to the challenge they face?Last week the rate of debt cancellation reached 45 per cent. Of every £1,000 lent to students for fees and maintenance, £450 will never be repaid. The bill for this write off falls on the taxpayer. In round terms, each year the government will borrow £14.8bn, knowing it will never see £6.6bn again.Many in the university sector don’t seem to see a problem with this level of waste. High fees have done them well for three years, letting higher education escape the worst of the pressures felt by the NHS or local government. That boost is slowly petering out as research funding falls and the fee is eroded by inflation. But many vice chancellors seem quietly confident that, sooner or later, government will crack and let fees go up again. David Willetts has certainly not ruled it out.

As loan write-offs hit 45 per cent, that confidence is surely misplaced. Even if politicians had the stomach for higher fees in what is already the world’s most expensive public HE system, the maths is against them. If fees rise further, even fewer graduates will pay back in full and the cancellation rate will rise steadily until it is over 50 per cent. What responsible government is really going to fund universities through a route that wastes one pound in two? More trouble is looming from George Osborne’s decision to fund further expansion from the sale of the student loan book. As the Public Accounts Committee has warned, selling the loan book may only be possible at a huge loss to the taxpayer. Selling an underperforming capital asset to pay your running costs is never a good idea, and no one knows what happens when the money runs out.

After three good years, the financial underpinning of universities is looking increasingly shaky. Vice chancellors who told themselves that high fees would bring independence are now more exposed to government decisions on public funding than for a long time. Something has got to give. Maybe, if the coalition won again, a few universities would be allowed to break ranks (giving us Ivy League fees but none of the Ivy League’s social responsibility) while the rest would have funding remorsely screwed down or undercut by private institutions. The alternative is to recognise that higher education will always have to be a public and private partnership, and this partnership should be as clear and transparent as possible. Scrap the ideology of high fees and put every penny of public funding you can into teaching. Fees will fall, public debt will fall, the cost of debt cancellation will fall, and more graduates will actually repay what they borrow.

We could take the opportunity to bring about much-needed change, giving employers financial support to co-sponsor degrees and promoting more routes for older and part-time students. Do this and, according to Commons Library modelling, we could see fees at around £3,500 a year for a three year degree and give universities an additional £1bn of usable finance every year.  The vice chancellors’ confidence in further fee hikes looks misplaced. It will be interesting to see when they join the discussion about alternatives.

John Denham is Labour MP for Southampton Itchen and former universities secretary 

Clegg insists there is no need to raise tuition fees level again

The Guardian, p.7, 26/04/2014, Rowena Mason

Nick Clegg has insisted there is “absolutely no need” to raise tuition fees, although he sidestepped a question on whether he would rule out such a move out altogether. The deputy prime minister made his comments in the Commons as Labour taunted him over reports that the government’s tripling of tuition fees to £9,000 was “on course to end up costing the taxpayer more than the system it replaced”.


Scottish independence: Universities Scotland call for clarity over post-Yes tuition fees

BBC News online, 25/03/2014

The body that represents Scottish universities has called for more details on charging tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK after independence. Prof Pete Downes, from Universities Scotland, was giving evidence to Holyrood’s education committee. He said he would like to see how the Scottish government would ensure it complied with European law. Students from other EU countries are entitled to free tuition in Scotland. The Scottish government has said it could continue to charge students from the rest of the UK if there was a “Yes” vote in September’s referendum.


Universities warned over ‘sleepwalking’ into Ofsted-style regime

Times Higher Education online, 25/03/2014, Jack Grove

Writing on a new blog launched by the Higher Education Policy Institute, Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, has warned tht universities may be ‘sleepwalking’ away from their current system of self-regulation via independent peer review towards a new external quality control system based on Ofsted-style inspections.