News round-up: A new higher education regulator is launched and pension strikes continue

The pensions dispute rumbles on, the OfS admits to making a mistake over the Toby Young appointment, and the OU vice-chancellor faces a vote of no confidence


Universities give out unconditional offers like candy, say head teachers

The Times, 31/03/2018, Rosemary Bennett

Universities have been told to stop dishing out unconditional offers “like candy” by teachers who say they are damaging the education of thousands of teenagers.

Sixth-formers need to have targets to help them to stay focused in the final months of their A levels, the teachers say. Those who do not need specific A-level grades to get into university tend to struggle to revise over Easter and fail to consolidate their subject knowledge. They then underperform in their exams and arrive ill-prepared and poorly motivated for their degrees.


Elite universities are selling themselves – and look who’s buying

The Guardian, 30/03/2018, Grif Peterson and Yarden Katz

Last weekend, while media attention was focused on the March for Our Lives protests across America, a militarised police force blocked the road leading up to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, one of the university’s most famous laboratories, for a special guest. The guest – the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman – visited both Harvard and MIT on his first official tour of the US. Saudi officials boasted about the visit, posting photos of Bin Salman with both Harvard provost Alan Garber and MIT president Rafael Reif on social media.


Open University chief to face vote of no confidence

The Guardian, 29/03/2018, Diane Taylor

Staff at the Open University are tabling a vote of no confidence in its vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks.

Horrocks has come under fire over plans to axe staff and cut courses, which were first revealed in the Guardian last week.

The plans include reducing the number of courses, qualifications and modules by more than one-third as well as axing many lecturers – the workforce budget will be cut by £15m-20m. The university is launching a voluntary redundancy programme on 9 April.


Cambridge University says exams can be shortened due to disruption caused by lecturers’ strike

Daily Telegraph, 29/03/2018, Camilla Turner

Cambridge University has announced that exams and finals can be shortened because of disruption caused by the lecturers’ strike.

The university has sanctioned the removal of questions on material that has not been taught due to cancelled classes, and decreasing the number of questions set.


Academics feel besieged and aggrieved

Times Higher Education, John Gill, 29/03/2018

The Office for Students comes into force on 1 April. This is also Easter Day and April Fool’s Day. You decide which is the most relevant.

To take the first of these, it would be a mistake to think that this is a resurrection of the Higher Education Funding Council for England – the insistence that the OfS is a different beast is not just public relations guff.


UK university staff to vote on latest pensions offer

Richard Adams, The Guardian, 28/03/2018

The bitter dispute between universities and their staff over pensions may soon be resolved, after staff were asked to vote on the latest offer to renegotiate the changes being proposed by employers.


University watchdog’s regret over Toby Young appointment

Katherine Sellgren, BBC News Online, 27/03/2018

The chairman of university watchdog, the Office for Students, says he has “learnt a lot” from the controversial appointment of Toby Young to its board.

Sir Michael Barber told MPs it was a mistake not to look more closely at the journalist’s history on social media.


‘Intolerance’ threat to university free speech

BBC News Online, 27/03/2018, Sean Coughlan

Free speech in university is under threat from “intolerant attitudes”, says a report from MPs and peers. But it warns red tape and confusion over what is permissible is as much of a problem as “no-platforming”, which bans controversial speakers. The report says universities must, within the law, be places of “open and uncensored debate”. Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has warned of a “creeping culture of censorship” on university campuses. He has promised to hold a “summit” on free speech with students. Harriet Harman, chairwoman of the joint committee on human rights, called for the defence of “freedom of expression” and warned “there is a problem of inhibition of free speech in universities”.


New university rankings ‘put nursing and social work degrees at risk’

The Guardian, 27/03/2018, Anna Fazackerley

Universities have hit out at government plans to rank their academic teaching according to how much their graduates earn. Vice-chancellors warn they may be forced to cut vital degrees including nursing, social work and policing, because of these courses’ lower earnings potential. Nursing academics say they are still “reeling” from the significant drop in applications since the government replaced nursing bursaries with loans. They are urging ministers to think hard about the impact of their education policies on the future workforce in NHS hospitals.


Universities asked to open more post-16 maths free schools

Schools week, 26/03/2018, Pippa Allen-Kinross

Universities are being sought by the government to open specialist post-16 free schools to encourage more pupils to study maths at A-level.

The government will also provide £350,000 dedicated funding every year to each existing and future maths school to support outreach work with local schools and colleges, schools minister Nick Gibb will announce today.


‘Genie out of the bottle’ on casualisation after pension strikes

Times Higher Education, 21/03/2018, Sophie Inge

The increasingly bitter dispute over university pensions marks a seminal moment for UK higher education that will lead to further demands to tackle casualisation and marketisation in the sector, academics say.

After 14 days of escalating strike action at 65 universities over plans to cut the element of the University Superannuation Scheme that guarantees members a certain level of income in retirement, debate is already widening from pensions to the state of British universities as a whole.


Open University plans major cuts to number of staff and courses
The Guardian, 21/03/2018, Diane Taylor

Open University chiefs are planning significant reductions in the number of courses the institution offers and the number of lecturers it employs, the Guardian has learned.

Last June the OU, established in 1969 and the largest university in the UK, announced it needed to cut £100m from its £420m -a-year annual budget, but specific detail of where the cuts would fall was not made public.


Universities review scheme blackhole sums

FT Adviser, 20/03/2018

Universities UK (UUK) and the University and College Union (UCU) have agreed to set up an independent panel to review the valuation that put the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) deficit at £6.1bn.

According to Alistair Jarvis, UUK chief executive, “concerns have been raised over the way the scheme has been valued, which has led some to question whether there is, in fact, a very large deficit”.


University regulator is ‘Office for State Control’, say critics

The Guardian, 20/03/2018, Anna Fazackerley

University leaders this week described the government’s new regulator, the Office for Students, as the ‘Office for State Control’, warning it would prove disastrous for higher education and was ‘dangerous for democracy’.

The OfS is already mired in controversy thanks to the short-lived appointment of Toby Young to its board, which sparked a storm of public protest. But it has emerged that Universities UK, the umbrella group for vice-chancellors, didn’t challenge Young’s suitability for the role because it feared annoying the government.

John Arnold, professor of medieval history at Cambridge University, says the OfS’s predecessor, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, was seen as a forum for discussion between government and the sector. ‘Now we are in an apparently antagonistic relationship with a market regulator. Even if you were to pretend universities were selling a commodity, I don’t see how anything people only ever buy once can possibly respond to market forces.’