Guidance or directive?

Easy finance

A new statement from HEFCE advises universities how to make financial information more visible to students. But is it advice, guidance, assistance or in fact a clear directive?

New guidance aims to help universities and colleges in England present information about income and expenditure on their web-sites in a way that is transparent and accessible to current students and the general public.

The guidance has been developed by the British Universities Finance Directors Group (BUFDG), GuildHE, HEFCE, NUS and Universities UK. It follows a request from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to HEFCE for universities and colleges to publish financial information more effectively.

It draws on findings from recent research, including a survey of 2,400 current students which found that there is interest in this type of information but that it was often difficult to find and understand.

The research identifies priorities for improving the presentation of financial information such as accessibility, clear signposting and ensuring technical language is clearly explained, as well as keeping information up to date.

Clear enough for you?

In summary, it seems that all this finance stuff is a bit difficult to find and understand and therefore needs to be provided in accessible and easily digestible form. In other words we need to ensure that this aspect of university management can be represented by infographic. Perhaps it would be better if every dimension of university life were to be represented in pictures?

This just adds, as previously posted, to the excess of information already made available to students. And, if it does turn out to be a requirement rather than just encouragement, then isn’t this yet another piece of unwelcome regulation to add to an already excessive burden?

Note that Hugh Jones has a slightly different take on this, favouring transparency and openness with students. He has a similar line on fancy pictures though…

 

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.

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.

Agent power and international student recruitment

Are agents too powerful?

A recent Times Higher Education story on the use of agents by UK universities in international student recruitment noted:

UK universities recruited more than 50,000 international students through commission payments to overseas agents last year, spending close to £60 million on the practice in 2010-11.

Using data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, THE found that 100 universities enrolled 51,027 students in 2011, or the nearest recorded period, via a process involving agents paid on a commission basis.

This is a lot of money but arguably a reasonable proportion of the income derived from international students and therefore could be seen as a sensible investment. However, the role of agents is not always entirely transparent and there is a danger that, given the high stakes here for UK universities and the money to be made by agents, things could become a bit murky.

My colleague Vincenzo Raimo, Director of the University of Nottingham’s International Office, has recently written a piece for the Professionals in International Education blog on the power of agents in the recruitment process. He has some concerns:

“In an ever more competitive international student recruitment market, UK universities are increasingly relying on the use of student recruitment agents to meet targets. Not only are universities failing to appreciate the full costs of international student recruitment but some are also in danger of failing to meet ethical standards in their work overseas.

Valuable visa

Despite the significant increase in international students coming to the UK in recent years I am concerned that as a result of increasing competition and the more difficult environment resulting from the UK government’s changes to visa requirements, recruitment agents have become too powerful and the balance of power between universities and agents has shifted increasingly towards agents.

One would have expected that with the volume increases our institutions have experienced the margin on international students would also have increased. I think the opposite is the case. One of the reasons for this is that in our competitive fervour we’ve let agents become too powerful.

So, agents really are a challenge. There are those who believe we should dispense with them altogether and there are a few universities in the UK and many in the US which refuse to have anything to do with agents. I do think that agents, provided that there are sufficient controls over their behaviour (and fees), can play a valuable role in international student recruitment. But they do require better management and, as Raimo says, we need to shift the balance of power back to the universities.

Is this the future for UK university sport?

Some US universities spend a LOT on sport

A recent Bloomberg report on US universities expenditure on sport highlights the huge amounts spent by Rutgers, which tops the list of spending:

Like most of Rutgers University’s almost 30,000 undergraduates, Matt Cordeiro has never put on shoulder pads and played football on a Saturday before a sea of scarlet-clad fans.

Yet Rutgers athletic teams cost him almost $1,000 this year, the most among schools competing in the top category of college football. The total includes mandatory student fees and university funding of the money-losing sports program, both of which rose more than 40 percent in five years. That’s enough to buy meals for more than a month, or books for a semester, or student health insurance for almost a year.

Rutgers funneled $28.5 million from the university budget and student fees into sports, the most among 54 U.S. public universities in the biggest football conferences, based on data compiled by Bloomberg for the fiscal year ended last June. It was at least the second straight year at the top of the list for the state university of New Jersey, despite cost-cutting after lawmakers and faculty protested that academics were losing out.

These really are frighteningly large figures. Indeed the scale of sport in general in US universities is just so much grander than in the UK it really is difficult to comprehend. How long though before we see this kind of calculation and league table appearing in the UK?

The Imperfect University: More and more regulation

More Regulatory Woes

A recent speech by the Universities Minister focused on his apparent desire to reduce regulation for institutions: “We are in a government that understands the value of autonomy,” Mr Willetts said.

Mr Willetts talked about the possibility of reducing data collection requirements as well as the likelihood of universities escaping some EU regulation following the shift to majority private funding as a result of the new fees regime.

Both of these would be welcome steps. The burden of excessive regulation is a significant problem for universities. It might be thought that as the size of the public contribution to higher education funding declined this would be reflected in a reduction in red tape. Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric, universities are left with the feeling that the weight of regulation tends to keep growing rather than reducing.

So will the reduction in public funding really mean less government involvement in university affairs? Sadly, no. Rather than cuts in government funding to HE resulting in a bonfire of red tape, there is a whole host of new or augmented regulations, including:

  • The new fee arrangements which institutions are all deeply engaged in preparing for the implementation of at present
  • Changed student number controls, with the uncertainties of AAB+ and bidding for the 20,000 students at the margin
  • The move to more comprehensive annual access agreements with OFFA
  • The changed financial memorandum between institutions and HEFCE
  • New visa arrangements for Tier 2, staff, and Tier 4, students, together with monitoring arrangements for the latter
  • The Key Information Set (KIS) which will require all universities to provide more information to prospective students
  • The proposed introduction of a Student Charter
  • The idea of extended transcript information for all graduates through the Higher Education Achievement Record
  • The revised Quality Assurance Agency institutional review method
  • The increased burden of Freedom of Information requests
  • Developments in the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator
  • Charities regulation.

This is only part of the picture. The cost to the sector of compliance with this regulatory framework is significant. And this really is not what universities need right now. Part of the burden is data collection and the Information Landscape Project, announced by the Minister in the same speech, is intended to address this:

The BIS White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ discusses a new regulatory framework for HE in England and explicitly tasks HESA, working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Better Regulation Group and the Information Standards Board for education and skills, to redesign the information landscape in order to arrive at a new system that meets the needs of a wider group of users; reduces the duplication that currently exists and results in timelier and more relevant data.

Will this make a difference? We will see. Universities have been here before though and have yet to see a real impact on regulation.

Policy, Regulation and Lies?

So, how big is the accountability ‘burden’ on institutions? Looking back over the past dozen years there are several attempts to measure and to reduce or improve regulation. In 2004 PA Consulting, following up an earlier report on accountability costs, investigated changes in accountability costs as perceived by the universities they contacted. The study cited a number of changes since 2000 including the introduction of a revised QAA framework and reduced requirements from HEFCE in terms of bidding, tendering and consultations. The paper concluded, on the basis of its survey, that the accountability cost to the sector had declined over the four year period to the equivalent of £188m (at 2000 prices), a reduction of 25%. However, it is also noted that this was the equivalent to the ‘annual income of two large universities’ (at that time) and therefore ‘a cause for continued attention’. Something of an understatement, especially given the ‘slightly disconcerting’ range of additional accountability requirements identified in the report. These findings were commented on favourably by the (then) Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education in his presentation of the Government response to the Interim Report of the Better Regulation Review Group (in 2004).

The Better Regulation Review Group was succeeded by the Higher Education Regulation Review Group (HERRG). HERRG was established to ‘introduce a stage of informed scrutiny into the policy making process’. The impact of both groups was, arguably, negligible. It is difficult to muster much confidence that the latest incarnations of this kind of task force will be any more beneficial in terms of reducing the bureaucratic burden.

There is always a gap between policy as formulated and as implemented. The simplistic nature of the instrumental interpretation of relationship between policy and evaluation is rational but disconnected from reality. Unfortunately though, evaluation is often seen in this way, as the provision of information to policy makers or stakeholders who prefer simply described and preferably numerical outcomes. The disappointment at the lack of measurable output inevitably leads to a desire for further regulation in order to deliver greater confidence in the results of policy. The consequences of this though can be inimical to the intended ends of the original policy and corrosive of trust.

Victims of our own success

The role of HE in creating the professional labour force of the UK public sector is one example of how successful universities have been and how vital is their role in contemporary society. Given the importance of universities then the desire for intervention should not come as a surprise but the interventionist approach which characterises regulation in HE is also part of wider trends and a diminution of an historical trust which no longer appears to offer adequate reassurance of the quality and standard of HE provision. This decline in trust results in heavy transaction costs and, associated with the move towards controlling institutions via contract and regulation, matters have to become more explicit rather than implicit. It is difficult though to see this reduction in trust in institutions as anything other than a long term and irreversible trend. The very nature of the national quality assurance framework, for example, would seem to reinforce this and it is difficult to imagine that the historical basis of trust can be reconstructed.

Regulations - lots of them

Other angles

Some other interesting views: Martin Wolf [1] has argued that universities are, in effect, a nationalised industry which accepted their financial dependence on the state with the foundation of the UGC in 1919. The government has asked institutions to assure quality without providing the funds needed to ensure it and the less generously the government funds, the more it interferes with the universities. That has certainly been the experience in the last few years. Salter and Tapper [2] suggest that, whereas Robbins saw total institutional freedom as necessary for the efficient operation of universities, in the 1980s the principle of HE regulation was established to ensure the efficient use of public funds and then, having developed this far, specific accountability arrangements were needed.

The costs of regulation of HE outweigh the extremely limited benefits. Indeed the Better Regulation Task Force report says that the HE sector has ‘earned the right to more autonomy’ and that multiple audits, excessive data requirements and over-restrictive funding are ‘symptomatic of a lack of trust between government and the HE sector’.[3] The Chairman of the Task Force observes that ‘there is no evidence that the sector is particularly prone to management or financial failings or failures to deliver on academic performance’. The statement suggests that earned autonomy is a key theme for government which wants to see it applied more in HE. The report refers to the PA Consulting study (quoted above) which estimates the accountability burden for HE to be £250m per annum and notes that the National Audit Office regards HE as a low risk sector in terms of fraud and malpractice.

The changes made in HE regulation in the first decade or so of the 21st Century have not resulted in the reduction in burden and cost which is called for. The claimed 25% reduction in the burden of regulation between 2000 and 2004 seems extremely modest in the light of the above (incomplete) list of regulatory interventions which includes a number of new requirements replacing the eliminated accountability demands.

Private HE institutions, which are expected to increase in number under the new fee regime, will benefit from significantly lighter regulation. However, for everyone else there remains the seemingly iron law that as government funding declines the volume and range of government regulation inevitably increases. So, less money and ever greater constraints on how it can be spent. No matter what the Minister may say.

It could be worse?

Things may be difficult in universities but they could be an awful lot worse according to a recent story in the TES about the appearance of Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), before the Public Accounts Committee which was considering how bureaucracy should be reduced in the FE sector:

Mr Russell’s retirement may be imminent but, as the hearing made clear, few expect the red tape that has stifled the sector for so long to be untangled any time soon. The committee was informed that, for every £5 that goes to FE, £1 is swallowed up by bureaucracy. The biggest difficulties, MPs heard, are caused by colleges having to deal with very different data obligations and regulations from several agencies simultaneously. A general FE college offering higher education provision, Mr Lang explained, has to accommodate the requirements of four different funding bodies – the Department for Education, the Young People’s Learning Agency, the SFA and the Higher Education Funding Council for England – as well as policy directives from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

That’s pretty expensive and works out at more than £150 per student according to the National Audit Office. Things may be bad for the universities but at least they aren’t this bad. So, should we feel lucky?


What is to be done?

There has been only one substantive change in the last decade to the mass of regulation loaded onto institutions: the ending of subject-based inspection of universities (Subject Review or TQA as it was originally known). Whilst undoubtedly welcome and beneficial, the gain the ending of such inspections represented has more than been replaced by other forms of regulation. So the burden continues to grow. One step forward, two steps back.

What then are universities to do? In order to respond to the ever increasing burden of regulation I would suggest that the following steps are worthy of consideration:

  • Don’t put too much faith in Ministerial rhetoric when it comes to reducing bureaucracy;
  • When working out how to deal with all of the different regulatory demands try to sort what really matters from what is less important – assuring quality and standards, and complying with the demands of the QAA is pretty important as is legal compliance with health and safety, employment and equality legislation but other regulations may be less significant;
  • Protect core activities, ie teaching and research, from the impact of regulation as far as is possible;
  • In most cases, go for minimal compliance rather than ‘gold-plating’ of procedures to respond to regulation – this often means steering away from what may be seen as ‘best practice';
  • Object to new regulations wherever possible – work with others for greater effect;
  • Don’t be deflected from delivering the agreed university strategy by regulation.

Will we see a reduction in the regulatory burden as Mr Willetts claims? We might, but it is unlikely to make a big difference. My advice? Don’t hold your breath.

________________________________________

[1] Wolf, M (2002), ‘How to save the British Universities’, Singer and Friedlander Lecture, delivered on September 26 2002 at Magdalen College, Oxford

[2] Salter, B and Tapper, T (2000), ‘The politics of Governance in Higher Education: the Case of Quality Assurance’, Political Studies, 48(1), pp66-87.

[3] Better Regulation Task Force (22 July 2002), Press release for Higher Education: Easing the burden, London: Cabinet Office.

Firsts and fees, plagiarism and pay hikes (and the rest)

No dumbing down here – is this the most comprehensive HE piece ever?

Daily Mail online has a terrific piece which manages to conflate a host of different higher education issues within a single kick ass column. On the back of recent HESA data which shows an increase in the number of students achieving first and upper second class degrees the article moves on to plagiarism, league table corruption, commercialisation (not clear if good or bad), the optionality of HEAR (bad?), an ‘expert’ view of classifications, coercion of external examiners, VC pay increases and fee rises in the context of declining HE funding. Unbelievable? Perhaps it would be fairer to let the piece speak for itself:

The number of students awarded first-class degrees has more than doubled over the last decade.

A record one in six graduates obtained the top qualification last year, prompting fresh concerns about grade inflation and the value of degrees.

One expert says that degree classifications are now ‘almost meaningless’.

The trend has fuelled demands for a major overhaul of the system, with the introduction of a ‘starred first’ degree for the brightest graduates.

According to figures released yesterday by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 53,215 graduates gained firsts in 2010/11 compared with 23,700 in 2000/01.

A decade ago, nine per cent of graduates gained the top classification. By 2010/11 the proportion getting firsts had risen to 15.5 per cent.

HESA also provided detailed data covering the period between 2006/7 and 2010/11, when there was a 45 per cent increase in the number of students gaining firsts.

A feast of higher education comments

Sixty-six per cent of degrees obtained by women were firsts or 2.1s in 2010/11 compared with 61 per cent of those achieved  by males.

High scores: More students are graduating and with better grades than in the past, despite accusations of commercialism and anti-intellectualism

Demands for reform of degree classification have increased over recent years amid claims that some lecturers turn a blind eye to plagiarism to help their institutions climb official league tables.

University whistle-blowers have also alleged that external examiners have been ‘leaned on’ to boost grades.

Universities have been asked to adopt a new graduate ‘report card’, providing a detailed breakdown of students’ academic achievements plus information about extra-curricular activities. However, they cannot be forced to.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, said: ‘The inflation in degree classes is rendering them almost meaningless.

‘Employers have to look at A-level results and the university at which the degree is being obtained.’

The heads of elite universities are raking in average pay packages of almost £318,000 ahead of the tripling of tuition fees.

Many vice chancellors are enjoying salary rises when higher education has seen its funding slashed and students are being forced to pay up to £9,000 a year in fees.

A veritable smorgasbord of entertaining higher education observations. All in one short piece. Truly the Mail is spoiling us. We may never see the like again.

Freshers’ week: just a drunken scam?

An interesting view on freshers’ week

Libby Purves, writing in The Times, argues that freshers’ week is not quite what it seems and has to stop. The new fees regime, she suggests, may put an end to this “ghastly scam”.

These festivals are now in progress or revving up at most British universities; a weird, patronising blend of nannying and temptation, peer pressure and naked marketing. In the past 20 years they have grown into a mini industry aimed with increasing skill and cynicism at teenagers far from home, often for the first time, with unaccustomed money in their pockets.

Of course a “soft” launch to university has its uses. There have always been a few days when new students could find their way around, meet tutors and get passes and information. Without the academic pressure of full term it was a gently social time too. You would probably go to a ramshackle “freshers fair” where clubs and societies set out their stalls; with luck you’d have teamed up over Nescafé with someone from your corridor and giggled together about the hard-sell of stall holders pushing karate, Communism or the Christian Union (I joined the Anarchists’ Society, but gave up because they couldn’t organise meetings. Two quid down the drain).

Pretty much routine observations from someone recalling their own experience but then there are some really interesting comments on attempts to rein in some of the wilder excesses, to respond to the OTT bravado and tackle the “faint bullying tone” from older students. Recognition too that not everyone is the same:

Thus, a good proportion of ambitious, earnest, financially anxious 18-year-olds dislike it, but are made to feel inadequate and boring for doing so. They’d prefer something simpler; quiet, unpressured sociability and useful information. They have worked out that university is not a holiday camp. Foreign students are baffled: most European universities don’t have any such Saturnalia at the start of term. Perceptive spirits may also notice that the expansion of freshers week is fuelled not only by the enthusiasm of existing students, but by hard-nosed commercial exploitation.

A similar line was taken last year in a Guardian article by Patrick Collinson:

But freshers’ fairs have come a long way from the commercial innocence of earlier years. They offer Britain’s businesses “the perfect opportunity for you to enlighten students to your products and services”, according to BAM Student Marketing. “Get face to face with your potential customers … student spending habits have not been developed at this stage, which is why the freshers’ fairs provide excellent potential for forming new customer relationships,” it adds. BAM even provides the websites for scores of student unions (from Aston to York St John) through which it aims to offer “high traffic … to our clients”. Typical clients include insurance, ticketing and travel companies.

 

It is very difficult to argue for a more sober, academically focused transition to university life without looking like a dull, out of touch killjoy. But it’s not entirely fair to suggest it is the fault of “timid” universities for failing to tackle this. There is a real need to address the freshers’ week excess and to ensure a stronger academic and pastoral focus to this induction period. There are a lot of different interests at play here though, not just the external nightclubs and travel companies. Persuading the students’ union, student societies and academic staff that timetabled classes (if not teaching proper) should start as soon as new students arrive is a tall order. But something does need to happen, for all of the reasons Ms Purves suggests and then some. Training students to get used to the feeling of studying with a hangover and to being the target of those looking to form new customer relationships is hardly the ideal induction into university life.

Students as consumers? Or not?

University isn’t just a business – and the student isn’t always right

In his review of higher education funding, Lord Browne made the student as consumer the centrepiece of his rationale for change. The Government’s White Paper last June also claimed it was putting students “at the heart of the system”. The Guardian Higher Education Network is running a live Q&A on students as consumers today:

Driven by the government’s HE reforms, the words ‘consumer’ and market’ are an increasingly central part of the British academic lexicon. Speaking at the HEFCE annual conference in April – ahead of the publication of the HE white paper – Vince Cable, the secretary of state said: “Making the higher education system more responsive to students, your consumers…is one of the central purposes of our reforms.” He later added: “The biggest mistake a university could make is to underestimate its consumers.”

And, as a helpful primer, they have reminded people of a piece I wrote for them on this topic some months ago:

Unfortunately things aren’t quite as straightforward as they first appear. Higher education is not just like any other business and there are real issues with the information available to assist prospective students. However, student behaviour is changing and there is some evidence that they are becoming rather more demanding.

We are all consumers. We are all customers. In every aspect of our lives we are treated more than ever before like this. In choosing schools for our children, in hospital selection and which bus company to use we are expected to behave as consumers. And these are public services. Not to mention the bewildering choice we face when making a more straightforward product choice, for example for a vacuum cleaner or a tin of beans.

However, higher education is a slightly unusual kind of business and differs from other businesses in a number of ways.

Obviously that’s not all of it, just the opening. The full piece is available via the Guardian Higher Education Network.

So, students as consumers? Or not?

“For-Profits Eye the British Market”

New opportunities for private providers

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a good piece on the interest for-profit providers are taking in the UK market. Robert Lytle of the Parthenon Group, management consultants with an interest in education, seems a bit sceptical:

“It’s a very expensive market to operate in, and the profitability is not there,” says Mr. Lytle, noting that, along with the rest of Europe, Britain is “relatively stagnant” and “just not as attractive” as countries like Malaysia and Singapore, which are experiencing rapid growth. Britain and continental Europe also lag in the development of an online higher-education market, which has been a major growth area for American for-profit companies.

I don’t think this was quite the response the authors of the White Paper were expecting to the bold reforms proposed. Stagnant? Us?

There is also an interesting comment on the value or otherwise of degree awarding powers:

Mr. Lytle, of Parthenon, says there are differing views about how important degree-awarding powers will prove to be for companies seeking to expand their presence in Britain. “One school of thought says they are very overvalued,” he says, while others contend that having such autonomy is “terrifically important because it means you can’t be held hostage by the degree-awarding university.”

Ms. Noone, of Kaplan, says that once tuition at public universities is allowed to rise next year to as much as £9,000, or $14,700, from its current cap of about £3,000, pricing pressure from universities may prove to be the greatest barrier to entry into the marketplace for private providers. Most universities “won’t want a partner who is offering the same degree at a lower price,” she says. Now that students at for-profit institutions will have access to government-backed loans, universities will be facing the prospect of direct competition with partners offering the university’s own degrees at potentially significant discounts.

I’m not at all certain that degree awarding powers are over-valued. They are rightly prized and should be extremely difficult to secure. The White Paper is likely to change that though. Unfortunately.

Certainly whether or not American for-profits seek new markets in Britain will be influenced by their struggles at home. The Apollo Group, parent company of the for-profit giant University of Phoenix, saw its U.S. enrollments decline more than 16 percent in the past year, while Kaplan saw U.S. enrollments plummet 30 percent.

Whatever the eventual new contours of the higher-education landscape, opportunities are likely to be created, not just for the for-profit sector but for mainstream American universities seeking new avenues of expansion, says Mr. Lytle. “You could imagine someone like a Johns Hopkins saying, ‘We have a terrific brand of health care, there are lots of smart students in the U.K. Let’s go get them.'”

This final point is a particularly interesting one. The idea of leading US universities setting up in the UK, whilst intriguing, is perhaps though unlikely to take off in a major way given that all of the opportunities are likely to be at the discount end of the market.

British students flocking to the US Ivy League. Or not?

An untrained brain drain?

In a recent post I commented on the press reports on the modest flow of English students to universities in continental Europe and the reverse flow of other EU students to the UK. The media seems extremely keen to report any international movement by students from the UK as evidence of a flight from the 2012 fee regime (at least for students from England). So, the Telegraph has a feature on British students turning to US Ivy League universities:

According to figures, Harvard had around 500 British applications to start courses this autumn, up from around 370 for last year – a 35 per cent increase.

Yale enrolled 36 British students onto undergraduate courses last year, up from 25 in 2009 – a 44 per cent rise. Five years ago, in 2006, just 15 students enrolled.

Some 197 students from England and Wales alone have applied to start courses at Cornell this autumn, up from 176 last year.

Information from Columbia University shows that 178 British students enrolled in 2009, up from 164 in 2008 and 151 in 2003.

Berkeley University, which is not an Ivy League college, has had 166 British applications for this autumn, compared with 130 last year.

To put this into perspective, there were over 630,000 applications through UCAS for 2011 entry to UK universities. And there were over 14,300 US students studying in the UK in 2008/09. This is, therefore, a drop in the ocean.

White Paper inspiration from the US?

A somewhat different approach to cost savings in the new fees regime

Not sure if this was a source of inspiration for the White Paper. It looks like something of a blue print for efficient management at the bargain basement end of the new private providers (but perhaps not for the New College of the Humanities). The model presented here from Professor Vance Fried and published by the American Enterprise Insititute for Public Policy Research has a number of what look like helpful pointers for the new private providers:

“Higher education insiders sometimes point to the increasing cost of auxiliary services like student housing and big-time athletics as a major cause of large tuition increases. This is a red herring,” notes Fried. “Football, good food, and hot tubs are not the reason for runaway college spending. Rather, the root cause is the high cost of performing the instructional, research, and public-service missions of the undergraduate university.”

To identify areas ripe for cost savings, Fried creates a provocative experiment: what would it cost to educate undergraduates at a hypothetical college built from scratch? Fried concludes that undergraduate colleges should consider five major cost-cutting strategies:

1. Eliminate or separately fund research and public service

2. Optimize class size

3. Eliminate or consolidate low-enrollment programs

4. Eliminate administrator bloat

5. Downsize extracurricular student activity programs

“Rather than focusing only on the big-ticket items that tend to dominate debates about college costs, Fried argues that the real levers for increasing efficiency include rethinking student-faculty ratios, eliminating under-enrolled programs, and trimming unnecessary administrative positions,” explains Andrew P. Kelly, AEI research fellow and editor of the Future of American Education Project. “His recommendations are a must-read as states look to rein in college costs.”

There is clearly a strong ideological undercurrent here. And the points about ‘administrator bloat’ and drastically reducing student activities appear particularly narrow-sighted and significantly at odds with the White Paper notion of putting students at the heart of things. So perhaps extremely cheap and not very cheerful is not the way forward after all.

New university ‘to rival Oxbridge’

Exciting news – it’s fantasy uni time

The Telegraph and Sunday Times both carry this most interesting of stories about the establishment of the ‘New College of the Humanities’. The Guardian also has the story but includes reactions from those expressing some consternation at the proposition as well as the key piece of information that the degrees will be awarded by the University of London.

The Telegraph reports that the College will charge £18,000 a year and that for this princely sum students will enjoy a range of benefits:

”Our priorities at the College will be excellent teaching quality, excellent ratios of teachers to students, and a strongly supportive and responsive learning environment.

”Our students will be challenged to develop as skilled, informed and reflective thinkers, and will receive an education to match that aspiration.”

The college claims to offer a ”new model of higher education for the humanities in the UK” and will prepare undergraduates for degrees in Law, Economics and humanities subjects including History, Philosophy and English literature.

Students will also take three ”intellectual skills” modules in science literacy, logic and critical thinking and applied ethics.

Practical professional skills to prepare them for the world of work including financial literacy, teamwork, presentation and strategy will also be taught.

And the staff will largely be star academics (Grayling, Ferguson, Dawkins, Pinker to name just the back four), motivated it seems by the desire to bring more high quality education to the UK HE sector and to improve society.

College chiefs say students will receive a ”best in class education”, with one-to-one tutorials, more than 12 contact hours a week and a 10/1 student to teacher ratio.

Prof Grayling said that budget cuts and dwindling resources are likely to limit both quantity and quality of teaching in the UK, leaving the fabric of society poorer as a result.

But there are a few questions here:

  • Will anyone sign up at these prices?
  • Will students be eligible for any public financial support?
  • Who are the “College chiefs” quoted above?
  • What does the logo look like?
  • Will a ‘BA Hons (London) DNC’ award be embraced by employers?
  • Did they test out the model using Virtual-U (it really does exist) before launching?
  • And, most importantly, who is doing all the administration here? Or are they dividing it up amongst themselves?

Whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly a different approach to the challenges facing UK higher education. And it does create an entirely new game – fantasy uni league – where you too can put together your own team of top academics to deliver an Oxbridge-rivalling student experience (but perhaps best to do the dry run using Virtual-U beforehand).

“Doubling foreign enrolments is ‘unbelievable’ aim”

So, are international student numbers set to double?

According to Times Higher Education:

English universities are relying on “unbelievable” plans to increase international student numbers by up to 100 per cent in four years as government policy leads to fears of volatility in home student numbers.

Durham University plans for a 97 per cent increase in non-European Union undergraduates between now and 2014-15, while the University of Exeter is planning for a 73 per cent rise in certain areas in the same period.

Senior figures in the sector warn that universities are relying too heavily on unrealistic targets for overseas income in their financial planning.

For 2010-11, English higher education institutions aimed to increase their non-EU student fee income from £2.1 billion (9.6 per cent of total income) to £2.3 billion, according to figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

But in a statement to Times Higher Education, the funding body highlights increased competition for international students between UK universities, and fiercer recruitment battles with other nations.

A Hefce spokesman said this “implies optimism in some of the current growth forecasts”.

Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group of new universities, said Hefce had used stronger words in informal discussions about future projections.

“Every (institution’s) strategic plan includes losses of money on home students and a massive increase in international students. (Hefce) says it is unbelievable. It is unlikely the numbers would increase by the amount people are predicting.”

Are HEIs’ targets ‘unbelievable’? There will undoubtedly be optimism here. There may even be a little desperation in some quarters. But no university can ‘rely’ on targets. It’s the delivery that counts. And sustained delivery of recruitment targets depends in large part on delivery of a high quality student experience. It’s about an awful lot more than just clever marketing and a large dose of optimism.

Of course there will be institutions which fail to deliver fully on over-optimistic targets but many more will be able to grow in a sensible and managed way. This is despite the likely negative impact of Tier 4 visa changes. Unfortunately though this line of argument does rather take us into Daily Mail ‘foreign students steal our degree places’ territory.

Regulation, Regulation, Regulation

More Regulatory Woes

In University Governance: Questions for a New Era, Professor Malcolm Gillies looks at a whole set of issues around university governance. A previous post noted his suggestion about a greater involvement of alumni but he suggests that they will become more important than the state, at least in governance terms, because of the change in balance of funding from public to private, ie from government to graduate:

42. State denial:  The withdrawal of the state as chief funding agent of higher education creates new balances in governance authority.  The body which can be most expected to fill that space is the alumni, as they now become the chief funding agent of most English universities in direct replacement of that state interest, through their decades-long repayment of state-provided loans.  The alumni also have the greatest, life-long stake in the institution’s reputation and its protection.  They understand the institution’s symbolic value.

But will the reduction in public funding really mean less government involvement in university affairs? Sadly, no. Rather than cuts in government funding to HE resulting in a bonfire of red tape, there is a whole host of new or augmented regulations, including:

  • The new fee arrangements which institutions are all deeply engaged in considering at present
  • Student number controls, which may well change in the light of fee developments
  • The move to more comprehensive annual access agreements with OFFA
  • The changed financial memorandum between institutions and HEFCE
  • New visa arrangements for Tier 2, staff, and Tier 4, students, together with monitoring arrangements for the latter
  • The Key Information Set (KIS) which will require all universities to provide more information to prospective students
  • The proposed introduction of a Student Charter
  • The idea of extended transcript information for all graduates through the Higher Education Achievement Record
  • The revised Quality Assurance Agency institutional review method
  • The increased burden of Freedom of Information requests
  • Developments in the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator

Private HE institutions, which are expected to increase in number under the new fee regime, benefit from significantly lighter  regulation. However, for everyone else there remains the seemingly iron law that as government funding declines the volume and range of government regulation inevitably increases. So, less money and ever greater constraints on how it can be spent.