Impact of the Budget on higher education

Savings needed? No need to think about it, just cut the administration.

John Denham has written to HEFCE on the impact of the Budget.

This is a significant letter from the Secretary of State but it doesn’t quite say what the Guardian is reporting. The paper’s headline states: “Universities told to cut admin costs, not teaching or research”. This isn’t precisely the message but the sentiments are there:

Ministers have calmed fears that universities will be asked to axe thousands of academic jobs and make savings on teaching and research. Denham460x276
Letters from the universities secretary, John Denham, to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) confirm that savings should be made in administration costs, rather than the core university business of teaching and research.

“I am confident that we can find efficiency savings whilst protecting the quality of teaching and research,” he wrote.

Savings should come from programmes that “do not directly contribute to the frontline delivery of teaching and research”, he added.

The important point here is that, having determined that universities have to make significant savings it really isn’t the job of the Secretary of State to tell institutions how to prioritise their spending. Of course institutions will not seek to undermine quality of teaching and research. But the idea that there is this huge unnecessary raft of administration from which savings can easily be made, that this will have no effect on quality and also that that somehow administrators are dispensable is simplistic and thoroughly misguided.

So, universities will find their own ways to make the savings required and will, it is to be hoped, aim to do so in a measured and sensible way. But this kind of advice is not hugely helpful.

New internships for graduates this summer

Government launches ‘Graduate Talent Pool’ which is intended to boost opportunities for graduates.

A new dedicated website, which will match employers with suitable graduates will be launched over the summer, although interested organisations can register their interest in becoming part of the Graduate Talent Pool today online at Businesses that have already signed up to the Talent Pool include Network Rail, the Police Service, Marks and Spencer and Microsoft. During the current economic downturn the Government is looking to support graduates seeking work. The aim is for the ‘Graduate Talent Pool’ to support 5,000 internships, building on the 2,000 already achieved through HEFCE’s Economic Challenge Investment Fund and will sit alongside other additional graduate opportunities…

Meanwhile, the University of Nottingham has won a share of the Economic Challenge Investment Fund and with match funding from the University and local businesses this will:

provide £1m for the Centre for Career Development (CCD), the Institute of Enterprise and Innovation (UNIEI) and the Graduate School to deliver the ‘Talent Builder’ project. The project will offer internships to graduates, post-graduates and unemployed professionals. It will also offer a recession proofing programme to strengthen current businesses and support new start-up companies.

So, although prospects are reported as being rather gloomy for graduates, substantial efforts are being made by DIUS and universities and these internship opportunities should make a difference.

Recession beating idea: Shut a few universities

BBC report on a new think tank publication which proposes that weak universities ‘should shut’:

Struggling universities should be allowed to close or be taken over by the private sector, says a think thank.

Policy Exchange says that the government should accept the idea that universities could go out of business.closed-sign

Universities receive £8bn in public money, but they face no threat of closure if they fail, says the report. Anna Fazackerley, head of education at the think tank, says the culture of saving universities means they are “unable to learn lessons from failure”. The report, Sink or Swim? Facing up to failing universities, says that there has been a deeply-embedded assumption that universities will always be “shored up” regardless of their difficulties.

Seems to me that if an institution has been shut down there aren’t many more lessons which it can learn. And which part of our currently less than sparkling private sector is going to be best placed to take on such challenges? Especially under a PFI deal as the report suggests. This appears to me to be a simplistic and wrong-headed approach to a complex and challenging issue.

Magical mystery tour? A new MA in the Beatles

Guardian carries some news about a new course at Liverpool Hope: The long and winding road to an MA in Beatles songs.

Just the kind of stuff to get the IUSS Select Committee going:beatles

The masters degree in The Beatles, Popular Music and Society is being billed by Liverpool Hope University as the first such course in the UK and “probably the world”. Among the topics covered on the course, which comprises four 12-week modules and a dissertation, are the postwar music industry, subcultures, and the importance of authenticity and locality.

Mike Brocken, senior lecturer in popular music at the university, said it was time the band were put under an academic microscope. “There have been over 8,000 books about the Beatles but there has never been serious academic study and that is what we are going to address,” he said. “The Beatles influenced so much of society, not just with their music, but also with fashion, from their collar-less jackets to their psychedelic clothes.”

As well as investigating different ways of studying popular music, the MA will look at the studio sound and compositions of the Beatles and examine Liverpudlian life from the 1930s to see how events helped to shape the music emerging in the city.

It’s a decent enough pitch and given that you can get a Master’s in just about anything, there’s no reason not to do the Beatles. WhiIst I think he could be a bit more confident about its unique status in the world, it is a bit misleading to suggest there has been no serious academic study. Not all of the 8,000 books are trivia.

Listening to Students (not all of them though, obviously)

DIUS has developed its ‘listening to students’ approach with a new(ish) blog:


Listening to Students

Whilst very early days and not a lot of content yet it strikes me as a fair effort to find one route to engage. How diligent the Ministers will be in recording their conversations and the issues raised will be interesting to note.

Listening to Students is the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills’ new blog for students. It will give students, and those with an interest in the student experience, an opportunity to read and see what students are saying to Ministers at these university visits.

Let’s see if it takes off.

Debating the Future of Higher Education

via The Debate on the Future of Higher Education

In a speech at the end of February, John Denham announced his intention to develop a framework for Higher Education over the next ten to fifteen years. He said:

The world is evolving very quickly and we must be able to unlock British talent and support economic growth through innovation as never before. We need to decide what a world-class HE system of the future should look like, what it should seek to achieve, and establish the current barriers to its development. As I have said previously, I want to do this before we initiate the review of undergraduate fees next year.

As part of this process I am inviting a number of individuals and organisations to make contributions. Not to write government policy but to help inform it and – equally important – to stimulate debate and discussion in the sector.

These contributions have been delivered to the Secretary of State and are now available.

Interestingly there is also a blog on the future of higher education intended to facilitate discussion on each of the themes. It is early days yet (very few comments at time of writing) but a commendable approach from DIUS to engage the community.

The contributions can be found here.

    Students “more satisfied than ever before”

    According to the Times Higher Education analysis of the latest NSS data, students are more satisfied than they’ve ever been.

    For universities in England, students’ overall satisfaction rate rose slightly from 81 per cent last year to 82 per cent, while satisfaction scores in six specific areas, including teaching, assessment and academic support, also all increased. Students are most satisfied with the teaching they receive, with 83 per cent reporting general satisfaction. But satisfaction with “assessment and feedback” remained lower than in other areas, at 64 per cent. Minister for Students Delyth Morgan said: “The continued high level of satisfaction is a welcome testament to the quality of the teaching and learning experience in this country.”

    But is this really telling us very much about the real quality of the student experience? Especially when you note the following:

    The top UK satisfaction score of 96 per cent went to the University of Buckingham, a private institution. Vice-chancellor Terence Kealey said: “This is the third year that we’ve come top because we are the only university in Britain that focuses on the student rather than on government or regulatory targets. Every other university should copy us and become independent.”

    I’m sure students at Buckingham have a distinctive experience but the reasons for this result are perhaps a bit more complicated than suggested here. Still, the NSS does at least provide much-needed fodder (or core data on the quality of the student experience) for the league table compilers.

    The full data is available from Hefce. The THE rankings are as follows:

    Most-satisfied students
    Institution 2005 2006 2007 2008
    University of Buckingham 94 93 96
    Royal Academy of Music 95 81 90 94
    The Open University 95 95 95 94
    University of St Andrews 92 94 93
    Courtauld Institute of Art 100 81 74 93
    University of Cambridge 93
    University of Oxford 92 92
    University of East Anglia 88 89 89 92
    Birkbeck, University of London 90 91 92 92
    Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln 88 89 87 92
    University of Leicester 89 89 90 92
    University of Exeter 86 85 91 91
    University of Aberdeen 88 91
    Loughborough University 88 88 89 91
    Harper Adams University College 90 86 91 90
    Aberystwyth University 87 90 90 90
    St George’s Hospital Medical School 86 80 87 90
    Institute of Education 83 80 90
    University of Kent 86 86 88 90
    University of Sheffield 86 84 87 89
    The table shows the percentage of students, full and part time, who “definitely” or “mostly” agreed with the statement: “Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my course.”

    A new vision for HE?

    A wide-ranging speech by the Minister, John Denham, seems to have been received in a rather low key way in the UK.

    It does get some coverage in the Guardian and the Chronicle is on the case.

    Denham looked to be indicating a fairly wide ranging review prior to the fees review next year:

    We need to decide what a world-class HE system of the future should look like, what it should seek to achieve, and establish the current barriers to its development. As I have said previously, I want to do this before we initiate the review of undergraduate variable fees next year. But let me suggest what, at the end of the process, the prize should be. Universities have told me two things about their success. Firstly, that success depends on our, the government’s, respect for your leadership and autonomy. But, secondly, that you exercise that autonomy within the framework of aspiration, incentives and support set by government and the Funding Council. We have to get both right – respect for your autonomy, and the framework within which we expect you to work. And we have to get it right for the long-term.

    So, at the end of this process, we should aim to produce together a 10 to 15 year framework for the expansion and development of higher education. One that sets out what universities should aspire to achieve. And one that is clear about the role of government.

    * A framework to help us ensure that Higher Education in this country meets the growing demands upon it for research, teaching, international cooperation, economic development and cultural influence in the 21st century.
    * A framework that provides a reference point for future policy decisions, including decisions about funding and other priorities.
    * And a framework that enables progress to be measured in an objective and transparent way.

    As part of this process I am inviting a number of individuals and organisations to make contributions. Not to write government policy but to help inform it and – equally important – to stimulate debate and discussion in the sector. I will be announcing several work streams today; others in the coming weeks.

    The first areas of work seem to involve IP and the economy (involving a VC), student experience and how universities are responding to changing student expectations (for some reason, not at all clear to me why, being led by the HE Academy) and internationalisation (led by Drummond Bone from Liverpool). Other areas and individuals are identified too.

    These are all important and valuable areas for further work. And, overall, it is a really positive speech about the quality of UK HE. However, it is not entirely clear to me from the speech what the new framework is into which they are intended to fit. Is this a major new development or is it just a toe in the water? Guess we will find out as other elements are launched in the next few weeks.

    An education in drinking?

    According to a recent story in The Times it is “Last orders for boozy freshers”.

    THE days of new students being initiated into binge drinking at universities may be numbered. The government is considering plans to clamp down on “freshers’ weeks”, where students are encouraged to consume vast quantities of cheap alcohol.


    The prime minister and his policy team have been impressed by experts at a Downing Street seminar who deplored the scale of drunkenness at university. Professor Oliver James, a liver disease specialist and head of the medical faculty at Newcastle University, told Gordon Brown that he was “appalled” by the quantity of drinking during freshers’ week at his university.

    There are all sorts of excellent reasons for agreeing with all of this and seeking to change the rationale of freshers’ week from being a training course in excessive drinking to one which is primarily focused on easing the transition to university life and starting the induction and orientation process to help students to get the most out of their higher education. However, it is genuinely difficult to see how this can be driven by government (other than in a general way by imposing substantial rises in duty on alcohol). But, things do have to change and it is, I think, good that government is at least aware of the issue and supportive of change.

    Two Ministries better than one?

    Mike Baker on the BBC website comments on the possibilities for a “messy divorce” following the break up of the DfES. All seems harmonious so far though, apart from a bit of confusion in the post-16 area.

    The role of the new Department which features “Universities” in its title, DIUS, is particularly of interest though:

    DIUS logo

    The Department will work to:

      – Sustain and develop a world-class research base
      – Maximise the exploitation of the research base to support innovation across all sectors of the economy
      – Raise and widen participation in Higher Education
      – Raise participation and attainment by young people and adults in post-16 education and learning
      – Tackle the skills gap amongst adults, particularly equipping people with basic literacy and numeracy
      – Increase the supply of people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)

    Mike Shattock, writing in The Higher (13 July 2007, no URL for non-subscribers so you’ll have to buy it) makes a number of interesting observations. He notes with concern the prospects for greater interference in HE whereas others seem to be applauding a Ministry with the word “universities” in the title. His line, with which I have to say I have a great deal of sympathy, is that government should let universities get on with it rather than intervening actively in each of the areas of responsibilty outlined for DIUS (above). So, which way will the new Department go?

    Really really interest-ing

    Writing about: Really interest-ing

    BBC just reported on ‘Help for poor with tuition fees’

    More students from poorer families in England and Northern Ireland are to receive full grants for university, the government has said. Students whose families earn less than £25,000 a year will get a full grant – up from the present level of £18,000. Students in families earning up to £50,000 a year will now get some help.

    But it is not clear that this will be funded from commercial interest rates. And couldn’t much more be done with this money (Guardian suggested £1.2bn but this is likely to cost only one third of that amount)?

    Really interest-ing

    According to the Guardian the Government is about to raise the level of interest on student loans to commercial levels:

    The head of the newly formed Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, John Denham, is set to make a big announcement on student support to the House of Commons today.

    The new minister’s statement is expected to be about raising the interest rate paid on student loans to more commercial levels.

    Earlier this year, Nicholas Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, and the architect of tuition fees, said the interest subsidy on student loans should be scrapped. It costs the government around £1.2bn a year, which could be better spent on widening participation.

    If true, it will be interesting to see how the additional income is channelled into new WP spend.