The 2014 Grant letter: another epistolary triumph

And the wait was finally over

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to HEFCE with the Department’s annual message on funding and helpful bag of instructions. As excitement in the sector reached near fever pitch, the contents were being live-tweeted by @TimesHigherEd while everyone else waited to get hold of a copy.

The much-delayed letter does not contain much of what you might describe as good news although there is some modest improvement on the capital front. Additional student places and the removal of student number controls altogether from 2015-16 are confirmed:

The settlement will mean reductions in funding for higher education institutions in 2014-15 and again in 2015-16 beyond those accounted for by the switch to publicly funded tuition fees. The Government has asked HEFCE to deliver the reductions in ways which protect as far as possible high-cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation (which is funded via the HEFCE Student Opportunity allocation), and small and specialist institutions.

HEFCE is asked to continue its work with the Research Councils and others to support internationally excellent research and the delivery of the impact agenda through the dual-support framework. The ring-fenced settlement for science and research means that recurrent funding is maintained at £1,573 million, the same cash levels as 2013-14.

Overall, the amount of capital funding for teaching and research will increase in 2014-15 to £440 million.

The grant letter confirms the Government’s provision of a maximum of 30,000 additional student places in academic year 2014-15 for HEFCE-funded institutions. The student number control will be removed entirely from 2015-16, and the Government has asked HEFCE to ensure that higher education institutions maintain the quality of the student experience in these circumstances.

Bur enough of the content, what about the important stuff like length? At 22 paragraphs, excluding the covering letter, or 26 if you include the substantive comments in the letter, it is shorter than any of its three predecessors from the BIS duo which have come in at 36, 35 and 28 paragraphs long. It is pleasing though that the Secretary of State’s signature remains as cheerful as ever (see below).

It is far from the shortest on record though which is the initial 10 paragraph punt from back at the start of the Coalition journey. As this utterly pointless graph (now in need of an update) shows, the long term trend is reduced grant letter length.

The length of Grant Letters to HEFCE down the years

The length of Grant Letters to HEFCE down the years

So much for this year then, what of the past?

The earlier post on this topic back in August 2010 noted:

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 15 years of funding letters.

Developing the UK’s international education strategy

But the report strikes a few wrong notes.

Back in July 2013 the Department for Business Innovation and Skills published its International education strategy: global growth and prosperity. For some reason it passed me by, despite its ambition:

This strategy sets out how the government and the whole education sector will work together to take advantage of new opportunities around the globe. It aims to build on our strengths in higher and further education, in our schools overseas, in our educational technology and products and services, and in delivering English language training. The strategy covers:

  • our warm welcome for international students: explaining that there is no cap on the number of international students who can come to the UK, and supporting students when things go wrong in their home country
  • supporting transnational education: supporting British schools and colleges operating overseas, developing ‘end-to-end’ English language training, and strengthening quality assurance
  • leading the world in education technology: actively encouraging development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and launching a design call, through the Technology Strategy Board, on commercialising education technology
  • a new relationship with emerging powers: prioritising UK engagement with key partners, doubling investment in development higher education partnerships and expanding the number of Chevening scholarships for study in the UK
  • building the UK brand and seizing opportunities: developing a new ‘Education is GREAT Britain’ campaign, and the Education UK Unit will help build consortia to take up high value opportunities overseas

This will ensure we grow both our economy and our wider links with partners around the world.

All worthy stuff. But it doesn’t seem to have had a huge impact since its publication.

BIS intl doc cover

The following passage in the report though was recently drawn to my attention by Gayle Ditchburn of Pinsent Masons:

UK education institutions have a noble history, rooted in the charitable impulses of past generations. To this day, many schools, universities and colleges have charitable status. They consider that this is an important part of their identity, and they discharge their obligations willingly and diligently. Although this model has many strengths, it does not lend itself to rapid growth. The governance structures and obligations of charities, or of bodies of similarly ancient pedigree established by Royal Charter or equivalent instruments, were not designed to grow rapidly, or to run a network across the world.

Consequently, many higher education institutions are conservative in their approach to risk, in both the size and type of funding, viewing equity finance as a last rather than optimal resort.

2.13 It is for institutions themselves to decide their own structures. Some have found ingenious ways to combine profit-making and non profit-making arms. Others, such as the recently created University of Law, have amended their governance structures, establishing models that could be of interest to others. In some circumstances the current structures could mean that international opportunities are taken by other organisations with fewer constraints.

2.14 The challenge will be to ensure that decisions are not taken by default. A positive strategic commitment to remain at a certain size is one thing. A reluctant ossification and decline, caused by an inability to see how to change a structure that is thought to have outlived its usefulness, would be quite another.

It’s a damning assessment of UK universities and also quite unfair. Also, using the newly created University of Law as a prime example of change seems somewhat inappropriate. The reality is that where UK universities do want to take international opportunities they have been able to do so. Recent press reports suggest that some of these overseas adventures may have proved rather too risky but the case of the University of Nottingham, as just one example, shows how international success can be achieved without being constrained by traditional governance structures.

Current structures and governance arrangements are therefore no impediment and there are also many examples of universities seeking creative approaches to securing additional finance. So it really is an unfair criticism of universities and a rather unhelpful one in a document intended to promote international activity in the national interest.

Go West. Or East. Plans for more student mobility

Government wants more students to travel.

There is to be a Government initiative to persuade more students to travel. The aim is that more UK students will be encouraged to broaden their horizons by travelling overseas for part of their degree courses.

The new UK Outward Student Mobility Strategy aims to boost the number of students gaining vital international experience from overseas study and work placements, allowing them to complete in the global race for jobs and skills.

B 4

Currently just one UK student studies abroad for every 15 international students in the UK – and the UK lags behind Spain, France, Germany, Italy and Poland in accessing the European Commission’s Erasmus funding for study or work placements.

The strategy, developed by the UK Higher Education International Unit, comes on the same day as the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which is providing initial funding for the strategy, publishes its International Education Strategy.

According to the International Unit the Strategy will be consulted on during summer 2013 and published at the start of the coming session. The strategic activities involved will include:

  • Research and data collection
  • Promotion and awareness-raising campaign for study and work placements overseas
  • Coordination of financial support for mobility opportunities
  • HEI services to build capacity and influence
  • An online hub for all information and resources relevant to outward student mobility.

There is some way to go it seems before we get a full strategy. It is to be hoped that it does offer some useful assistance to universities as there is undoubtedly real value in student mobility and the UK is genuinely lagging in this area. Significant improvement to the position will though require substantial and sustained activity, by Government and institutions, and will not happen overnight.

Regulation without legislation

Not a campaign slogan but the next steps in HE regulatory change from HEFCE

Something of a surprise announcement from HEFCE on new changes to HE regulation. The changes follow a written Ministerial statement from David Willetts. The changes cover a lot of ground:

The success of higher education in England is underpinned by the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and the new arrangements build on these strong foundations. The Government has asked HEFCE and the Regulatory Partnership Group (RPG) to implement them within existing legislation, while recognising that a new legislative framework will be required in the longer term.

The Operating Framework - part of the regulatory framework governing HE

The Operating Framework – part of the regulatory framework governing HE

Working in partnership with the RPG, HEFCE is asked to take on a regulatory oversight and coordination role. HEFCE is leading work on a number of strands of the new arrangements:

  • developing a register of higher education provision in England
  • consulting on proposed revisions to HEFCE’s Financial Memorandum
  • operating of a new system of specific-course designation for alternative providers
  • implementing further changes to student number controls, including extending them to alternative providers from 2014-15.

The Government has announced that it intends to delegate to HEFCE responsibility for the process of approving designation of HEFCE-funded universities and colleges, and for providing assurance that the agreed terms and conditions are met. Eligible courses at these institutions are and will continue to be designated automatically, allowing students to access student support. Institutions will not be required to undergo a separate designation process. This means that in practice there will be little change for existing institutions, and no additional administrative burden.

This last piece is a critical one. Whilst there are new requirements on alternative providers it is claimed there will be no extra burden on universities. To achieve this the changes to the Financial Memorandum will need to be modest. And it is not at all clear that any of these changes will leave us with a reduction in regulation. At some point the focus of higher regulation partnership working moved from seeking to reduce the burden on institutions to concentrating “on policy, strategic and operational issues arising from the development of the new funding and regulatory regime for higher education.” This is a matter of significant concern given the many competitive and regulatory pressures universities are under. So whatever happens in this latest iteration it is vital that the promise of no additional administrative burden is delivered. Then we can move to actually reducing the level of regulation.

Yet more support to help UK HE internationalise?

More international support for Higher Education.

A year ago HEGlobal, the new portal for helping universities develop transnational education capability, was launched:

There is a consensus across government that engaging in and promoting international education and skills is strategically important to the UK for three main reasons: firstly it presents potentially significant commercial opportunities; secondly, it is an important soft power tool which supports the UK’s image abroad; thirdly, integrally linked to the above, it is key to maintaining the reputation of the UK education sector as one of the best in the world. However, although the UK’s education and skills sector is already doing well internationally, evidence suggests that we risk not taking full advantage of growing global opportunities. Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and elsewhere want to improve coordination across government by tasking the UK Higher Education International Unit to lead on a sector-wide initiative to do more to help UK higher education institutions (HEIs) increase their transnational education (TNE) capability.

HEGlobal looked like a real sector/government joint effort, although I must admit to being a little sceptical at the time about the need for it.

One of those pictures with lots of logos on it

Leaving aside the contradiction in policy between supporting this form of internationalisation whilst at the same time imposing visa regulations which hamper international student recruitment to the UK and give the impression that we aren’t open for business, there is something amiss here. The last piece of news on the site seems to date from January 2012 and it rather looks like there hasn’t been anything of interest to update the sector on since then. That’s a bit of a worry in the fast-moving HE environment.

But now, stop press, we have another new support unit for UKHE, this time with UKTI in the driving seat on its own it seems. This new team has been established “to help UK exploit international opportunities in education exports”. Sound familiar?

Education UK will capitalise on the growth in demand for UK education abroad

A new team dedicated to capitalising on the growth of demand for UK education from abroad is being established, Skills Minister Matthew Hancock announced today.

Education UK will specifically target fast-growing markets such as India and the Middle East. The UK has an excellent reputation for education internationally, but isn’t currently exploiting this to the full.

This the approach we need to take with exports

This the approach we need to take with exports – if only we could market HE as successfully as this

So, we have another new unit dedicated to helping UKHE exploit our talents to the full (no information is yet available on the extent of the Princesses’ involvement though). You’d think we weren’t much good at it. You might also be slightly perplexed by the similarity to the British Council’s Education UK campaign which shares the same name and is intended to support international student recruitment (or education exports).

Confused? You will be.

Higher education funding letters: another bundle of joy

On government HE funding letters

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to HEFCE with the Department’s annual message on funding and helpful bag of instructions.

The letter

sets out Government funding and priorities for HEFCE and for higher education for the second year of the new financial arrangements for higher education in England. The Government’s vision for higher education, outlined in the higher education white paper ‘Students at the heart of the system’, remains, and HEFCE is asked to continue to support learning and teaching activity, quality assurance, widening participation and an enhanced student experience. HEFCE will also continue our support for postgraduate provision.

Super. More instructions.

Not only does it offer even more directions to HEFCE, at 36 paragraphs and eight pages it is the second longest of the four to date issued by the Secretary of State and the Minister and confirms a return to the sterling epistolary efforts made by the previous government.

Last January’s effort really set the standard though – although it contained 35 paragraphs was in fact nine pages long. The December 2010 was somewhat shorter at only 28 paragraphs and can be seen as the BIS duo just getting into their stride.

The earlier post on this topic back in August 2010 noted:

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 14 years of funding letters.

Blots on the information landscape

Exciting new report on redesigning the higher education data and information landscape

A previous post commented on regulatory issues and the work being undertaken on the “information landscape”. A report on part of this work, the imaginatively entitled “Project B” has recently been agreed by the Interim Regulatory Partnership Group. The report sets out a new way forward for the governance of HE data:

The project report was presented to the Interim Regulatory Partnership Group (IRPG) at its meeting on 15 June. The report envisages a new, collective approach to the governance of the data and information landscape in HE, which could be achieved in the medium term.

IRPG accepted the recommendations of the report and agreed that this work should be scoped as a part of the broader programme of activities being taken forward by the Group.

Part of the evidence considered by the Group was a survey which aimed to establish the totality of external reporting undertaken by HEIs in the UK. The survey identified 550 (550!) separate external reporting requirements and grouped them into seven main categories as follows:

The main recommendation contained in the report is that the key players should get together and agree what data and information is required:

To achieve this IRPG should task some of the key stakeholders in information flows (e.g. HESA, QAA, SLC, UCAS, AoC, Guild HE and UUK) to develop and propose the structure, resourcing and operation of a governance model for the data and information landscape.

This would enable a programme of work, using shared expertise, to create a more coherent set of arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data. These arrangements would include the identification, development and adoption of data and information standards and the review and scrutiny of data requests.

In order to fulfil this role there would need to be a series of enabling projects, including:

  • Develop a calendar and inventory of data collections across the year as a first step towards streamlining collections and improving the timeliness of information
  • Develop a data model, lexicon and thesaurus for the sector – this would be a purely administrative/reporting model that does not seek to impinge on academic practice or to impact the way business processes are carried out. It may be that this would be a series of linked models using a consistent approach and a common data language.The establishment of this collective oversight of the information landscape would require each of the organisations involved to make a real commitment to work collaboratively and openly on issues involving data and information.

Whilst these steps will be important they do seem relatively modest aims in the light of the sheer scale of the regulatory burden identified by the group. It remains to be seen how much benefit will result from the establishment of a “coherent set of arrangements” in the medium term. Let’s hope it leads to some real reductions in the data information demands placed on universities.

How small can a university be?

Size isn’t everything but does it matter for a university?

I picked up an interesting blog post from Andy Westwood, CEO of GuildHE, in which he argues that the reduction in the required number of students for the award of university title is a good decision by government and will deliver another “level playing field” (see earlier Imperfect University post on that topic) in higher education:

In last June’s Higher Education white paper (yes it really was that long ago), BIS declared their intention to reduce the qualifying threshold for university title from 4,000 to 1,000 students. All the other qualifying criteria – notably the need to hold degree awarding powers – would remain intact. Those institutions that might benefit from such a change made headlines when the precise proposals and criteria were published in the subsequent technical consultation in August 2011.

They include the Royal Agricultural College and Harper Adams – university colleges in the land based sector, Falmouth, Norwich and Bournemouth University College of the Arts and also Newman, Bishop Grosseteste, St Mary’s and Marjon university colleges in Birmingham, Lincoln, Twickenham and Plymouth. In all of these places and in the specific sectors they serve, these are familiar institutions that are both well-known and highly valued. Collectively they have been around for over 1,000 years – with most founded during the 19th century. ‘New’ universities they might become but ‘new’ institutions they most certainly are not.

Westwood suggests there are already some universities with fewer than 4,000 students, including Buckingham, but I’m not sure there are others with such modest enrolments. He goes on to argue that the new universities in the 1960s all started with small numbers and took some time to grow to have more than 4,000 students. But they were brand new and expansion was slow and steady in era of elite rather than mass participation so this is hardly a surprise and really not a compelling argument for changing university criteria nearly half a century on.

So as in many other arguments this is about a level playing field. Quality, reputation and brand are increasingly vital to institutions and to the UK as a whole and it’s in no one’s interest to let any slip. But to continue to do so we should recognise and value excellence and enable diversity and specialism to flourish. That is precisely what ministers are considering and it’s in everyone’s interest.

Of course size isn’t everything but there is something about a university which does carry a sense of range of subjects and a critical mass of students and staff. Any minimum number of students is bound to be arbitary but 4,000 seems a more realistic baseline. The logical conclusion of the level playing field argument here is that there should be no minimum number and any body which has taught degree awarding powers and is

…able to demonstrate that it has regard to the principles of good governance as are relevant to its sector

(which is the other criterion) can be awarded the university title. I’m not certain that this is a good thing. This is not to say that that these institutions aren’t good in their own way. But not every college can be a university – if every institution has the title then it inevitably becomes less meaningful. And that’s not good for anyone.

HEGlobal – helping UK higher education internationalise?

International advice for Higher Education

HEGlobal, the new portal for helping universities develop transnational education capability, has launched:

There is a consensus across government that engaging in and promoting international education and skills is strategically important to the UK for three main reasons: firstly it presents potentially significant commercial opportunities; secondly, it is an important soft power tool which supports the UK’s image abroad; thirdly, integrally linked to the above, it is key to maintaining the reputation of the UK education sector as one of the best in the world. However, although the UK’s education and skills sector is already doing well internationally, evidence suggests that we risk not taking full advantage of growing global opportunities. Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and elsewhere want to improve coordination across government by tasking the UK Higher Education International Unit to lead on a sector-wide initiative to do more to help UK higher education institutions (HEIs) increase their transnational education (TNE) capability.

An admirable initiative? Maybe. There is a useful set of links to relevant agencies together with brief profiles of a lot of countries in which universities might be interested. But this feels very much like a starter pack for institutions completely new to international activity. Nothing particularly wrong with that except that I’m not sure there are many institutions which aren’t in a significantly more advanced position than the target level of the advice. So it does raise the question about the audience for this site.

The FAQ section gives a bit more information about the intentions here:

HEGlobal has been established to act as a gateway to information sources, advice and guidance on all elements of transnational education (TNE) from finance through to in-country market intelligence and on-the-ground expertise. There is a substantial amount of support and expertise available to the sector already. HEGlobal has been designed to bring together information on all sources of available support in one place, thereby raising sector awareness, as well as signposting individual institutions to sources of further assistance on a range of relevant topics including finance, strategy, legal and quality insurance.

HEGlobal consists of a website which documents the services and information available to the sector on TNE, as well as a telephone helpline and email inquiry function.

It is not a centralised repository for all research and data on TNE, but instead brings together a range of sector stakeholders providing support to higher education institutions in developing their TNE activities. HEGlobal is a sector-led initiative and one of its greatest strengths is its intelligence-gathering function. By providing a mechanism for the sector to highlight existing needs, HEGlobal will facilitate the development of additional resources for the higher education sector to complement and enhance those already available.

Again, it is hard to see what this gateway is offering beyond what universities have already done for themselves or have the capacity to undertake. On the face of it, this all looks good and useful. In practice though it seems unlikely, in its present form, that it will offer a huge amount of value to institutions. Even those with small-scale TNE activities will probably not find a huge amount of new information here.

But what this really exposes though is the contradiction in policy between supporting this form of internationalisation whilst at the same time imposing visa regulations which hamper international student recruitment to the UK and give the impression that we aren’t open for business.

Fashion victims?

Another exciting new higher education development

The Evening Standard, along with much of the fashion press (I believe), carries this story about a new fashion and design college:

MOVE over AC Grayling, there’s a new college in town. Magazine publisher Condé Nast is launching a private college for fashion and design next year, which will be a potent rival to the London College of Fashion, Central St Martins and Chelsea, all part of the University of the Arts London.

The Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design will offer its students a year-long “Vogue” fashion foundation course, and “House & Garden” interior design and decoration, with further Masters courses to follow.

The college, which opens in September 2012, will also provide tuition on journalism, luxury brands and business skills, and will be headed by Susie Forbes, editor of Easy Living.

When AC Grayling opened the New College of the Humanities, he came under fire for commercialising education. So how will Condé Nast fare with its branded courses?

In the Independent, there are a few more details including the suggestion that the college will take 300 students a year. And all sources carry this marvellous quote:

“Condé Nast is perfectly placed to enter the world of education,” says Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Condé Nast. “The reputation and authority of our brands puts us in a strong position to teach and inspire the fashion and decorating talent of the future.”

It’s interesting that this venture really hasn’t generated anything like as much hostility as the New College of the Humanities, despite the potential for significant competition with existing long established providers in London. Perhaps it’s because the proposal isn’t really being taken seriously because no academics seem to be involved. But there is a lot of money behind this (and the former editor of “Easy Living”) and isn’t this exactly what the White Paper was envisaging in opening up higher education to entrants?

HEFCE “fears government’s controlling hand”

Government control issues for HEFCE

According to a recent report in Times Higher Education HEFCE still fears government’s controlling hand over its budget despite its status as an “arm’s-length” public body:

Newly published Hefce board papers reveal internal fears about its ability to “maintain the standard of its work” and its relative independence given the pressure from ministers to cut its running costs. Hefce is making efficiency reductions of £2 million – amounting to a real-terms cut to its administration costs of 11 per cent this year – to help the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills save £836 million in 2010-11.

During a meeting on 25 November, the body’s audit committee said it was worried that the “continued pressure” to reduce running costs would have a serious effect as it helps universities manage the changes to funding and the introduction of higher fees.

“We expressed our concern about the capacity and capability of Hefce to maintain its standard of work over the medium term when faced with continued pressure to reduce administration costs,” a report of the meeting says.

“We also noted with concern the level of control imposed by BIS over Hefce and the potential impact on its governance and management.”

Whilst it is important that the Funding Council is not protected from the cuts facing the sector, nevertheless it is a reasonably lean and efficient organisation already. So the Council’s ability to maintain its capacity is something to be watched. However, the real concern here is that government uses the opportunity of funding reductions as a lever for greater direction and control over the business of HEFCE and the sector. It would perhaps be surprising if BIS did not seek to exert greater control in the current climate with the significant changes and challenges facing the sector. However, this environment means that, perhaps more than ever, the sector needs a helpful funding council to support an intelligent approach to 2012 and beyond, whatever government thinks.

So, the fear is not misplaced but there will be big challenges ahead, for HEFCE as well as universities. Part of the response has to be to minimise the unnecessary intervention and direction from government both at HEFCE itself but also more across institutions.

Higher education funding letters: 14 years of joy

On government HE funding letters

(Arguably the dullest post ever to appear on this blog. And that’s saying something. I’ve been wanting to do this for ages but apologies in advance for any distress caused.)

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 14 years of funding letters.

Higher ambitions…

New HE Framework

Follow up to earlier post on HE as food-labelling:

Lord Mandelson has launched Higher Ambitions. There’s a lot in here and much of it yet to be fully fleshed out. And the much trailed element on improved consumer information still requires some work:

Higher ambitions

All universities should publish a standard set of information setting out what students can expect in terms of the nature and quality of their programme.

This should set out how and what students will learn, what that knowledge will qualify them to do, whether they will have access to external expertise or experience, how much direct contact there will be with academic staff, what their own study responsibilities will be, what facilities they will have access to, and any opportunities for international experience. It should also offer information about what students on individual courses have done after graduation. The Unistats website will continue to bring together information in a comparable way so that students can make well-informed informed [sic] choices, based on an understanding of the nature of the teaching programme they can expect, and the long-term employment prospects it offers. We will invite HEFCE, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and UKCES to work with the sector and advise on how these goals should be achieved.

Hmmm. Should be an interesting consultation.

Higher education as food labelling

Food labelling for university courses

From the BBC website:

School leavers applying to English universities will get more data about courses under government plans to treat them more like consumers. A food labelling-style system will flag up teaching hours, career prospects and seminar frequency, says the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

On Tuesday, it will announce a new framework for higher education. The plan aims to set out priorities for universities ahead of a review of the way students fund their education. Tuition fees were introduced in 1998 and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson believes this entitles students to act more like consumers.

He has said government and industry must scrutinise and monitor courses on behalf of students, encouraging “a greater degree of competition between institutions” to drive improvement in courses. His department already publishes statistics on employability after six months and three-and-a-half years, but the latest plans would put information in one place. This could include graduates’ typical future earnings, contact hours with tutors, assessment methods and frequency of tests.

So instead of detailed descriptions of each course in prospectuses, via ucas, on university websites and the detail of league table subject comparisons, we are going to have something like this:

fsafoodlabels

It really isn’t at all clear how this is going to be in any way an improvement or of real value to prospective students. Consolidating small pieces of information into one place in this way suggests that a much more superficial assessment of quality is the aim here. And how is it going to be decided what is red and what is green?

Let’s hope that the real proposals are a bit better than this implies.