News round-up: ‘Universities battle over a shrinking pool of applicants’: the number of students applying to university drops again

A rise in unconditional offers and arguments over student loans have dominated the higher education new in the past month


Call to rethink China branch campuses over academic freedom risks

Times Higher Education, 02/08/2018, Ellie Bothwell

Western universities have been told to rethink their collaborations in China in the wake of the latest attacks on academic freedom in the country.

In one of the most recent cases, an academic was removed from the management board of the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo campus for criticising the ruling Communist Party’s policies on freedom of thought.


Only most research-intensive UK universities ‘cover full costs’

Times Higher Education, 01/08/2018, Simon Baker

Only the most research-intensive universities in the UK tend to “break even” and recover the full costs of all their research and teaching activity, new figures have suggested.

According to data released for the first time by the Office for Students, such institutions make the biggest surpluses from teaching international students and lose the least money from conducting research.


More medicine places in clearing as providers battle for students

Times Higher Education, 01/08/2018, Anna McKie

Growing numbers of places in UK medical schools are expected to be filled via clearing this year, as universities battle over a shrinking pool of applicants.

Ahead of the release of A-level results on 16 August, sector leaders predicted that clearing will be more competitive than ever this year, driven by a 2 per cent drop in applications. Much of the decline is driven by the shrinking of the 18-year-old population, which has decreased by 2.3 per cent in England.


Education secretary: elite universities must improve access

The Guardian, 31/07/2018, Nadia Khomami

Elite universities are not instinctively biased against disadvantaged children but must do more to improve access, the UK’s education secretary has said.

In his first major speech on social mobility, Damian Hinds said there was a “very legitimate public interest” to ensure attempts to encourage children to attend the top higher education institutions reach “deep into the country” and to every group.


UK student satisfaction continues to fall amid debt and strikes

The Guardian, 27/07/2018, Richard Adams

Concerns over graduate debt and strikes on many campuses may have dented students’ satisfaction with their courses, according to the results of a national survey, with students at some of London’s most prestigious institutions among the most unhappy.


Rise in unconditional offers prompts call for university admissions overhaul

The Guardian, 26/07/2018, Richard Adams

The number of students receiving unconditional offers for university places has leapt again this year, prompting calls for an overhaul of the UK’s convoluted and unreliable university admissions process.

Ucas figures show that nearly one in four 18-year-olds applying from England, Wales and Northern Ireland have received an unconditional offer – meaning they can accept an undergraduate place without meeting the A-level or BTech grades predicted by their teachers.


Student loan repayment income ‘undervalued by £600m’

The Guardian, 20/07/2018, Richard Adams

A clash between the Department for Education and the Treasury over how to value the government’s student loans portfolio may have led to more than £600m in income from future loan repayments being overlooked, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.

The watchdog also advised that the government should take ‘a comprehensive view’ and carefully consider the potential impact on the government’s finances of future loan sales.

Examining last year’s sale of a tranche of loans to 400,000 students, the NAO was highly critical of the Treasury’s calculations and their differences over likely repayment rates from the DfE’s forecasts.


See also:

Student loan sale cost UK £604m in lost revenues, auditor finds

Financial Times, 20/07/2018, Gavin Jackson


Student loan change may wreck Brexit ‘war chest’

The Times, 18/07/2018, Philip Aldrick

Changes in the accounting treatment of student loans could cost the chancellor his £15 billion Brexit war chest and leave his fiscal rules in tatters. The Office for National Statistics and the European statistical authorities are reviewing the way that the government accounts for the student loan book, which is on track to hit £20 billion by 2023, amid concerns that the present convention is a ‘fiscal illusion’ that is creating ‘perverse incentives’.

A decision by Eurostat is expected shortly on whether a different treatment should be applied. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, a preferred option would to increase the deficit by £15 billion, ‘roughly equal to the margin by which the chancellor was meeting his fiscal target in our most recent forecast’.


Red Box: Brexit must not endanger the soft power projected by universities

The Times, 18/07/2018, Nicola Brewer

Comment piece about Brexit, universities and the UK’s ability to exercise soft power after Brexit: ‘It is true that soft power works best when it comes from a place of economic strength. And higher education is a massively successful UK services export: international students alone bring a net benefit of over £20 billion a year into the British economy. […]Worldwide, there are many hundreds of thousands of alumni from British universities — 250,000 of them from UCL alone, and growing every year. These alumni develop a special relationship with our nation that they take home with them. It is impossible to put a price tag on the value of this exchange of knowledge, expertise, values and culture.’


More than 10% of students ‘use their bodies’ to pay for university fees when facing emergency costs, study claims

The Independent, 18/07/2018, Olivia Petter

A new study of 3,167 students in the UK has revealed that 78 per cent are struggling to get by, with some even turning to sex work to make ends meet. According to data from the National Student Money Survey, conducted by money advice site Save the Student, more than one in 10 students are “using their bodies” to make money when they are unexpectedly caught short of funds.


Martin Lewis: England must swap ‘loans’ for graduate contribution

Times Higher Education, 18/07/2018, John Morgan

Consumer finance expert Martin Lewis has long argued that dropping the terminology of ‘student loans’ in favour of ‘graduate contributions’ would be a crucial change to England’s student finance system.

The Westminster government’s review of post-18 education is expected to report in the autumn, and dropping the terminology of ‘loans’ is certain to be on its agenda. Mr Lewis’ passionate views on this and other aspects of student finance could prove significant. ‘If we’re going to fix things, the first thing we need to do is actually call [the student loan] what it is: a graduate contribution,’ Mr Lewis argued. He added: ‘Most of the questions [from the public] I still get are, ‘I’m so worried about this loan; what happens if my child doesn’t get a high-earning job?’ You would never get asked that question if you called it a graduate contribution system.’


UK government ‘will call out monoculture tendency on campus’

Times Higher Education, 17/07/2018, John Morgan

The Westminster government is ‘committed to calling out [a] tendency towards a “monoculture” on campus’ and claims that some people feel ‘unsafe or threatened if they speak out’ in universities. The government made the comments in its response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ report into freedom of speech in universities.

Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, has consistently seized on the issue of free speech in universities, a popular topic for newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. The government had already announced plans to simplify existing guidance around free speech for universities and students’ unions after Mr Gyimah hosted a meeting with organisations including Universities UK, the National Union of Students and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. That new guidance will be published in the autumn, the government says.


Scale of research misconduct is unknown because of poor reporting by universities, say MPs

British Medical Journal, 10/07/2018, Gareth Iacobucci

A quarter of UK universities are failing to produce an annual report on research integrity, a parliamentary inquiry has found.

The report by the Commons Science and Technology Committee identified a “lack of consistent transparency” in reporting data on the number of misconduct investigations, and inconsistency in the way the information is recorded.

These failings have made it difficult to calculate the scale of research misconduct in the UK, it concluded.

The report examined what is known about problems arising from errors, questionable practices, and fraud in research, and what action is needed to make sure that problems are handled appropriately.


Tens of thousands of graduates have overpaid their student loan by an average £581

Daily Telegraph, 10/07/2018, Sam Meadows

Tens of thousands of graduates have made student loan repayments worth £50m despite having already paid off their entire debt.

Figures released in response to a Freedom of Information request reveal that 85,720 former students made overpayments totalling £49.8m in 2016-17, the latest year for which records are available.

The problem stems from crossed wires between the taxman and the Student Loans Company (SLC), which manages student debt. Although HM Revenue & Customs receives repayment information on a monthly basis, it only passes this on to the SLC once a