Show and Tell: The Office of Fair Trading is Looking at Universities (again)

And they are looking for a lot of information.

Back in October 2013 the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) issued a call for information on the undergraduate part of the higher education sector in England.

This follows the earlier look (outcome awaited) at terms and conditions in relation to student debts and universities’ practices in relation to withholding conferment of degrees. So what is it they want to know? Quite a lot it seems:

Universities play a crucial role in the UK economy. They contribute directly to economic growth, employment and local economic activity, delivering skilled workers into the wider economy, and contributing to export earnings. In many respects, UK universities are world leaders in research and teaching.

In launching this project, the OFT wants to understand whether universities are able to compete effectively and respond to students’ increased expectations, and whether students are able to make well-informed choices, which would help drive competition.

index

The OFT is particularly interested in receiving information about how universities compete, the impact regulation has on universities, and the student experience of the current system.

We will be engaging with higher education providers, students, employers, government and regulatory organisations and others with an interest in the higher education sector over the next 10 weeks by issuing information requests, arranging roundtable discussions and holding bilateral meetings. We will also be inviting comments from any other interested parties.

Once information has been gathered and submissions have been received, we will analyse the evidence we have collected in order to determine whether there is any evidence of  competition or consumer problems and whether any further action is warranted.

The focus on competition for undergraduate recruitment is an interesting one given the fee cap. But it will also be fascinating to see how they address the continuing growth in the regulatory burden on universities in this context. And we can only speculate what further action they may wish to take in the light of the findings…

More information on the call for information is in the OFT launch document.

Advertisements

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.

Developing higher education in Kurdistan

Vital developments in an emerging nation.

Back in 2009 one of the University of Nottingham’s senior academics took on an unusual new role. Professor Dlawer Ala’Aldeen was appointed as Higher Education Minister and began to draw up plans to improve the quality of and to internationalise higher education in Kurdistan.

The post-Saddam university system he was taking on was described by Professor Ala’Aldeen as “grossly outdated” and designed for a closed, centralised country.

The BBC News report on his reforms tells how he had tomatoes, stones and apples thrown at him in response to his attempts at changing Kurdistan’s universities. However, he did make progress:

Within a week of being appointed, Prof Ala’Aldeen had written up a radical vision document and it was quickly endorsed by the cabinet.

Higher education in Kurdistan was suffering a major crisis of quality, capacity and infrastructure.

There was a consensus in support of reform and it helped that Prof Ala’Aldeen had been very critical of the government in the past.

Flag-map of Iraqi Kurdistan

The reforms, which planned to improve the quality and accreditation of university teachers, brought considerable opposition from student and teacher organisations as well as businesses linked with the burgeoning market in private universities.

Several new private universities were threatened with closure, much to the anger of their staff and prospective students who had paid fees for their courses.

“Many teachers had been licensed prematurely. There were 11 private universities when I started with 18 more waiting to be opened. These mushrooming private colleges were relying on the same pool of resources as the public universities which lacked staff and facilities,” Prof Ala’Aldeen says.

The problem of staffing was particularly acute in medicine, pharmacy and dentistry and in postgraduate studies.

But Prof Ala’Aldeen faced protests and opposition.

He was accused of trying to transplant the UK system onto Kurdistan, something he vehemently denies since he was educated and worked in his home region, before coming to study in the UK.

There was opposition but he did make some major changes to higher education in Kurdistan. It really is a great story.

Save universities from more misguided regulation

Well-meaning but fundamentally wrong proposals for yet more regulation

hecommission-regulationreportcoversmaller

Just when you thought things couldn’t get much worse in terms of higher education regulation, another group comes along and proposes a whole load more. Brilliant. (I’ve posted before here on this issue.)

I’ve not seen the report yet (it is due to be published today) but the Guardian has and has commented at some length on its contents under the title “What universities need: regulation, regulation, regulation” which gives us a bit of a steer on the conclusions. It is suggested that there is massive risk here which only what looks like a shed load (technical term for a unit of unnecessary bureaucracy) of additional regulation can mitigate:

They warn that without proper regulation, there is little to protect students from disreputable or fly-by-night institutions. “We are concerned that there is a growing unregulated sector of higher education that may be offering insufficient provision to students,” the report states. “This has the potential to damage England’s reputation as a leading provider of higher education.” It also threatens students’ confidence that the thousands of pounds they pay in fees will secure them a top-quality education, at an institution that will not go bust.Paper_tape_table_dispenser-01

The authors argue that there is also a commercial case for better regulation: it encourages businesses to invest in the sector and banks to lend institutions money. “We believe that the current regulatory environment in higher education, and the changes that are in-train, are insufficient to achieve this,” the report says.

It is far from clear what this “unregulated sector” is. Is it the alternative private providers which have been ushered into higher education by this government? Perhaps, but whilst they are arguably under-regulated they are not exactly “fly-by-night” outfits. So where are these shady backstreet higher education providers which are necessitating all this extra red tape? Perhaps they are listed in the report but it is far from clear from this who we are talking about.

Until now, regulation of higher education institutions has been piecemeal, dictated partly by rules, such as health and safety, that govern any large organisation, partly by institutional committees responsible for setting and monitoring standards on research and course programmes, and partly by academic senates, boards of governors and sector-owned bodies, such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency, supporting effective management. Hefce and the Office for Fair Access also act as independent external regulators, monitoring respectively institutions’ financial health and efforts to be socially inclusive, while Hefce contracts the Quality Assurance Agency to monitor teaching quality.

In his review, published in 2010, which recommended lifting the cap on tuition fees, Lord Browne suggested merging all the regulatory bodies into a single, independent Higher Education Council. Earlier this year, the Institute for Public Policy Research came up with a similar proposal. The government has never acted on the idea.

Now, the commission recommends a “lead” regulator, the Council for Higher Education, incorporating Offa, the Office for Student Loans (formerly the Student Loans Company) and a new, lightly staffed Office for Competition and Institutional Diversity, each retaining individual structures and purposes. Other regulatory bodies, including QAA and Office for the Independent Adjudicator, would be linked but independent.

Whilst it is right to identify that there is a messy patchwork of legislation and regulation affecting higher education, the ideas which have been floated to tidy this up seem to have been motivated by views of a need for tidiness and convenience for those involved in regulating than what is actually in the interest of students, universities, the sector or the country/countries concerned. The government has not acted on these ideas for the very good reason that they don’t make sense. Moreover, it looks from this piece as if the report is seeking to combine UK-wide and English agencies without regard to the positions of the devolved nations.

One final point caught my eye here:

The report also proposes an insurance scheme, paid into by every institution, to safeguard students should an institution or course fail, and based on a scheme run by the Civil Aviation Authority. This may be controversial, with traditional institutions reluctant to pay into a scheme designed to bail out new, riskier operations that fail.

“May be controversial”? What delightfully amusing understatement.

To summarise. We need less regulation, not more. Higher education is already over-regulated and this impacts negatively on institutions’ ability to deliver their missions. This kind of report I fear offers only a recipe for further bureaucracy and waste in higher education and will not benefit students or the sector. So, thanks but no thanks.

Falling short: careers guidance in schools

A new Ofsted report on the parlous state of careers guidance

Ofsted has recently published a report entitled Going in the right direction? Careers guidance in schools from September 2012.

The report covers a sample of 60 schools to assess how they were addressing their legal responsibility, in place since September 2012, for securing access to independent and impartial careers guidance for all their students in Years 9 to 11  in order to enable them to make informed decisions about their future.. It doesn’t look pretty.
ofsted logo
The overall conclusion is that careers guidance in schools really isn’t working and three quarters of schools are not meeting their statutory duty. The survey also finds that guidance for schools on careers advice is not explicit, the National Careers Service is not promoted well enough and there is a lack of employer engagement in schools.

The report recommends:

  • The Government provide more explicit guidance to schools on careers advice.
  • The Government monitor students’ progress and achievement when they leave school through accurate collection of ‘destination data’ to give a better understanding of a young person’s journey to employment.
  • The National Careers Service markets its services more effectively to all young people aged 13-18 and does more to disseminate information on national skills shortages so that young people gain a greater understanding of where there are likely to be greater employment opportunities.
  • Ofsted also recommends that its own inspectors take greater account of careers guidance and students’ destinations when conducting future school inspections.

This strikes me as insufficient. It is all very well to place these responsibilities on schools and asking them to do more but more marketing of the National Careers Service really is not enough to deliver the quality and quantity of careers advice and guidance required. Schools do need to look to make better provision but they do need the resources to enable them to do so.

This is the challenge which Inspiring Futures (declaration of interest – I am a member of the board of trustees) and others are working hard to address. This report confirms the scale of the effort required.

Unbelievable excitement as website updated

Big announcements about Unistats.

As previously noted there is no shortage of information available to prospective university students. Unistats was intended to enable better decision-making by students but, whilst it is not without merit, it is no substitute for effective advice and guidance. Unfortunately this shiny website seems to be pretty much all that’s on offer. Still, the good news is it has been updated to help students make even better choices:

The updated and improved Unistats web-site includes even more course information than ever before, and will make it easier for users to search and compare courses by location, as well as on the go via a new mobile phone version.

Unistats is one of the most widely used higher education course comparison web-sites in the UK for prospective students, their parents and advisers. Over the past year, it has attracted more than 250,000 unique visitors and over 5.2 million page views, helping to match students to universities and colleges.

unistats latin

It really is this exciting

Anyway, the Universities Minister David Willetts is a big fan and credits Unistats with students getting into their first choice universities (and I thought it depended on their A level grades):

‘We are empowering people by publishing unprecedented levels of information on their options.

‘It is making a real difference and more students than ever before are now getting their first choice university place.

‘The next stage is to let people access Unistats on their mobiles, at a time and place of their choosing.’

Times Higher Education, reporting on the launch, include a quote from Rachel Wenstone, Vice-President at the National Union of Students who seems really keen on all this:

“Deciding what to study and where to go to university is a big decision and it is crucial that prospective applicants have relevant, impartial information in an easily accessible format,” she said.

“I’m really pleased that the improvements to the site have been made with students, parents and carers in mind and I hope it will contribute to helping even more students make the right application choices,” she added.

(Indeed, NUS seems surprisingly enthusiastic about many government initiatives these days.)

Anyway, it’s all very exciting news. Even if it does make it all sound a bit like a dating site…

International agents: regulation required?

Do we need to regulate universities use of international recruitment agents?

A new publication from the Leadership Foundation, called Using International Recruitment Agents: Risks and Regulation? argues that we do need more regulation in this area. It’s an interesting report on an important area of activity:

24D6E30BD32640F293AD669B8B0DD59C

The expansion of the international student market has coincided with a ‘dramatic proliferation’ of universities using agents to recruit international students. This practice is controversial due to the apparent conflict of interest between prospecting for students for a particular university, and advising students on that university’s suitability. Our paper analyses the challenges that arise from using agents. We find that there are examples of unethical practice, such as misselling and financial fraud. Yet we also explore the services that agents provide to students and universities, and find that they cannot easily be replicated by organisations that do not face the same inherent conflict of interest. The paper goes on to discuss the current picture in terms of regulation, both in the UK and further afield, and a range of other regulatory options. We conclude by recommending that the UK moves towards a sector-wide system of self-regulation to improve the quality of advice to potential students and reduce the risk of unethical practice.

This proposal though is to set up an organisation to regulate universities use of agents, linked to Highly Trusted Status (required for international student recruitment), and drawing on the sector’s experience of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (the OIA, the independent ombudsman which deals with unresolved complaints from students about their universities).

ukba_pass

According to the paper this new organisation would establish “ethical principles which institutions would have to comply with in order to recruit international students”, would licence agents and would also adjudicate on complaints made by students.

Universities need to and should behave ethically in recruiting international students. As the paper notes there aren’t any better alternatives to using agents and simply arguing for discontinuing use of them is not going to work. Institutions though should be transparent about agent arrangements and the fees they are paid (as the University of Nottingham has done) and respond properly to complaints.

However, we really do not need a new regulatory body to do this. At a time of ever more regulation plus the impositons of the UKBA and the challenging and costly bureaucracy around international student visas, the last thing universities need is self-imposed costly and restrictive regulation.

So, interesting report but no thanks.

New 2013/14 QS World University Rankings

Latest QS world league table is out

Full details of the rankings can be found at the QS website. A summary of the world top 10 follows where we find MIT retaining the top spot for a second year and four UK universities remain in the top 10:

Global top ten

2013

2012

Institution Country

  1

  1

MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY (MIT)  USA

  2

  3

HARVARD UNIVERSITY  USA

  3

  2

UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE  UK

  4

  4

UCL (UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON)  UK

  5

  6

IMPERIAL COLLEGE LONDON  UK

  6

  5

UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD  UK

  7

  15

STANFORD UNIVERSITY  USA

  8

  7

YALE UNIVERSITY  USA

  9

  8

UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO  USA

  10=

  10

CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY (CALTECH)  USA

  10=

  9

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY  USA

 

The UK also has 18 universities in the top 100:

Top UK universities

2 University of Cambridge GB
4 UCL (University College London) GB
6 Imperial College London GB
5 University of Oxford GB
17=  21 University of Edinburgh GB
19=  26 King’s College London (KCL) GB
30  28 University of Bristol GB
33  32 The University of Manchester GB
51  54 University of Glasgow GB
62  77 University of Birmingham GB
64  58 The University of Warwick GB
68  69 London School of Economics and Political Science GB
71=  66 The University of Sheffield GB
75=  72 The University of Nottingham GB
83 93 University of St Andrews GB
86=  73 University of Southampton GB
90  92 Durham University GB
97=   94 University of Leeds GB

So no huge movements here but some slight upward shifts for a few UK universities within the top 100.

Reducing University Regulation in Australia

“Red tape strangling universities must be cut”

A recently released report in Australia following a review of higher education regulation has found that an “unnecessarily heavy reporting burden” had been imposed on higher education providers by the quality agency and government.

A report in University World News notes the irony in the fact that a paper aimed at reducing red tape is 99 pages long. The piece also observes that the report’s conclusions, that the higher education sector is over-regulated and that reducing the burden on universities is sorely needed, have been widely welcomed:

The report says the quality agency had been established in an “already crowded regulatory environment”, and it proposes a reduction in its functions and the number of its commissioners. It says the minister should issue a direction to the agency’s chief executive regarding allocation of resources so that the agency can accredit courses more quickly.

Red Tape 1

The report says there should also be a reduction in duplication across the various acts that govern university regulation and a better way of improving information sharing across agencies, to reduce the need for universities to report the same information multiple times to various bodies.

In addition, the report proposes the establishment of an overarching advisory council to consult with stakeholders and advise the minister, and calls for the speedy implementation of a single national higher education data collection system.

However, it may be some time before there is progress with this agenda. With major political change underway in Australia following the recent election it is possible that reducing higher education regulation may not to top of the new government’s priorities.

The Imperfect University: rational admissions – it’s time for PQA

A brighter future for university admissions?

It will be some time before all of the results are in but it does look at this stage as if this year’s admissions round has been a little less turbulent than last year’s. The mood across many universities seems to be one of some relief after a period of significant uncertainty. More students have been admitted than at this point last year and for most institutions (and those students) this is going to be good news

The 2012 admissions round – which coincided with the move to £9k headline fees for most instutitions – heralded major changes to the system: after years of relative stability and constrained Home/EU undergraduate recruitment targets the cap was removed for students with AAB or better at A level. This caused some significant waves across the sector with everyone seeking to find their way through this uncharted territory.
image

Part of the reason for this change was, of course, ideological. The Government’s desire to create a ‘market’ in admissions at the top end of the qualifications ladder with universities competing for the ‘best’ students resulted, perhaps surprisingly, in some significant recruitment shortfalls in a number of Russell Group universities. There were fewer AAB+ students than expected and it seems likely that some universities were taken by surprise by the challenge of operating in the cut and thrust of the market place. This, combined with a dip overall in student numbers, caused problems for many.

Into the Wild West?

In this context I wrote earlier this year of concerns about this year’s admissions and my fear that the response to these challenges would lead to an ‘admissions Wild West’ with a complete free for all in terms of recruitment and an anything goes approach to securing the best qualified students:

Last year was difficult but I’m worried things are going to be a lot worse in 2013. Those universities making lower offers are sending a signal that perhaps A–level results aren’t that important, but ultimately they are at greater risk of undermining their own competitive position by reducing entry standards in what may turn out into a ‘race to the bottom’.

So where do we go from here? In the short term we all have to play by the UCAS rules (which should be made more explicit), restate our commitment to the SPA principles and aim to be fair and transparent to applicants. This is important not just so we do the right things by students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but also to prevent a fundamental undermining of the UCAS system.

We are keen to ensure that students who want to come to the University of Nottingham and have the grades are able to come here. This is what the UCAS system is all about: students making informed choices and a system supporting the holistic assessment of applicants in a fair and transparent way. The huge risk now is that more shenanigans this year will undermine this system.

The ultimate consequence if everyone decides to ignore the rules and the SPA principles is a return to the admissions Wild West. This would be costly, unhelpful and hugely inefficient as well as being massively unfair to and stressful for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This surely cannot be in the interest of students or universities. Or indeed what Willetts wants. We need a bit more honesty and some genuine transparency in order to ensure fairness for all.

image

It looked at first that there were going to be some significant issues what with the University of Birmingham’s decision to make 1,000 unconditional offers to students in some subject areas and much talk in the press of fee waivers, bursaries, subsidised accommodation and free ipads as incentives to potential students. Fortunately though my concerns seem to have been largely unfounded and the number of ABB+ students (the cap having been shifted to exclude a larger cohort) was roughly as expected. However, this has nevertheless been a period of significant uncertainty and anxiety, for both applicants and admissions officers.

This significant turbulence in the past two admissions rounds is of questionable benefit for applicants although the Minister is presumably content that the creation of this market is ultimately in their interest as providers compete to offer better products and better deals to these consumers. I suspect therefore this is not going to go away, at least for the foreseeable future, and universities will be obliged to operate in this exciting market environment.

Fit for purpose

Given this I would argue that now is the time to ensure the core elements of the system are fit for purpose – to make certain that we have a stable admissions model which works in the interest of applicants and institutions whilst acknowledging that ministers will inevitably want to play at the margins. We do though need to limit the scope for unhelpful interference, address the core principles for fair admissions as set out by SPA (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions), ensure universities can’t subvert or game the system, seek to secure proper information advice and guidance for applicants and address widening participation needs. The route to achieving this would mean change for all parties but I would suggest such change will be in the long term interests of everyone.

image

Fundamental to this is moving away from admissions based on predicted grades to a system of admission on the basis of grades achieved, ie post-qualification admissions (PQA). This has been proposed previously and historically there have been many objections – especially around exam board marking arrangements and universities’ teaching timetables. Whilst solutions to these have become feasible they have been replaced by new concerns particularly around fairness to applicants, information, advice and guidance provision and ensuring wider participation.

Back in 2011 UCAS undertook a review of admissions processes which recommended a number of modest changes to procedures but backed away from endorsing the most significant change, a move to PQA:

There was a widely held view that, in principle, a post-results system would be desirable. Aspects of the proposal for application post-results were attractive to some, but it is clear there are too many systemic problems with the post-results proposals to support implementation.

Respondents felt that applying with results would not necessarily support applicants aspiring to the most competitive courses and concerns were raised about potential negative impacts on widening participation and less well-supported applicants. Loss of teaching time, the impact on standards of achievement, the potential for a more mechanistic approach to the assessment of applicants and the lack of time and resources to provide IAG at critical points were also major concerns.
In the review many detailed objections were raised to PQA but each of these can be overcome in practice if the will is there.

Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, commented on the latest position in the Times Higher:

…Ms Curnock Cook had a “word of warning” for universities cheered by the better figures.

“This year you’ve managed to get more [students] in at 18,” she said, but added that “you might pay for it” in 2014-15 because there would therefore be fewer 19-year-olds to recruit in that cycle.

Ms Curnock Cook also remarked that the clearing process was no longer used to recruit “the dregs” any more, and speculated that it could even remove the need for an admissions system based on students’ actual, rather than predicted, grades.

“Every year I get asked: isn’t it now time to go for a post-qualifications applications [system]? My answer is that we already have PQA: it’s called clearing,” she said.

image

I disagree with this view. If we were designing a system from scratch we really would not start with the idea that students should apply to university with predicted rather than actual grades. The current set up, whilst historically understandable, is logically indefensible. Academic qualifications are the primary indicator of capability to pursue a course of study. It is logical, fair and sensible to put them at the centre of the admissions process and this should be the basis for our national application system, run by UCAS.

Time for change

The time has now come for change. The starting point should be to decide that we are going to introduce PQA from, say, 2019 entry, and the challenge then is to create the conditions within which this will happen.

Whilst I fear it is inevitable that ministers will introduce more changes – if we establish clearly now how admissions will operate in future this will bring lasting benefits and reduced the potential impact of future ministerial tinkering. Stability in the admissions system will be helpful to HEIs but will also work in the interests of applicants, ensure proper attention is paid to widening participation and be fairer.

So, let’s go for post-qualification admissions. Now is the time to decide to make the change to PQA.

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.

Reducing regulation in Australia

But will regulatory review deliver?

A story in Inside Higher Ed notes that the Australian government is considering cutting higher education regulation. A previous post noted the woeful track record of UK governments in reducing the regulatory burden on universities so it will be interesting to see if Australia makes more progress:

In a radical policy change, Australia’s Tertiary Education Minister, Craig Emerson, is this week releasing a new approach to quality control that meets university demands for a lighter regulatory burden and could gut Labor’s own creation, the Tertiary Education Quality Assurance Agency.

More or less?

More or less?


While Emerson is announcing only a regulatory review, measures included in the announcement make it clear he has heard and understood the concerns of Universities Australia and the Group of Eight, and accepts that an estimated $280 million in annual compliance costs for universities to report to government is unacceptable. “The review will ensure more of the government’s record investment is directed at student tuition than administration,” he planned to say.

In immediate measures Emerson will announce rationalizations of reports required by his department and says the departmental secretary, Don Russell, will write to the chief commissioner of the quality assurance agency, Carol Nicoll, to “seek advice about any immediate actions that can be taken to ameliorate concerns in the sector about red tape.”

It is just a review in the first instance but it does look like everyone wants to make changes. It will be interesting to see if the Australian sector is more successful in reducing the regulatory burden than we have been in the UK.

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.

Delivering better higher education data?

Another attempt to clean up HE data.

A previous post on the HE regulatory landscape noted the challenge of sorting out the massive range of data reporting required of universities – 550 different reporting requirements – which entailed a major programme of work. A year later things have moved on it seems and we now have the Higher Education Data & Information Improvement Programme. The rather infelicitously entitled HEDIIP is meant to address at least some of these issues:

The Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme (HEDIIP) is being established to enhance the arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data and information about the HE system.

This follows the challenges set out in paragraph 6.22 of the BIS White Paper Students at the Heart of the System which called for the HE information landscape to be redesigned “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.”

This work has been overseen by the Regulatory Partnership Group and HEDIIP is now being established to carry forward a programme of changes to build a more coherent, responsive and less burdensome information landscape.

There is a desperate need to sort out the regulatory landscape. Will this new initiative make a difference? Time will tell but there is really very little to go on here as yet and a solitary tweet in 10 weeks does not auger well either.

MPs with fake degrees

MPs in Pakistan convicted for faking academic qualifications

A post back in 2010 noted the planned check of over 1,000 politicians’ academic credentials. A law passed a decade ago requires all MPs to hold degrees and, according to a recent University World News report, it does seem that some have been less than totally honest about their academic records:

graduation1

Following an order from the top court in Pakistan, lower courts have started convicting former members of parliament who contested the 2008 elections using fake degrees. Several politicians have been given jail sentences, and there are numerous cases now before lower courts, with judgments due soon.

Holding a degree qualification was a precondition for contesting the 2008 poll.

The cases were lodged against the lawmakers after Pakistan’s Supreme Court on 28 March ordered the lower judiciary and the election commission to take stern action against former MPs with fraudulent degrees, and to stop them from getting elected again in polls to be held on 11 May.

The apex court’s orders were based on its earlier verdict, passed in June 2010, which ordered the Higher Education Commission and the Election Commission of Pakistan, or ECP, to verify the degrees of all 1,095 parliamentarians and members of provincial assemblies.

The remainder of the story indicates that some of those convicted have received very small fines. Others have simply absconded. It is a rather strange law which does seem to encourage such behaviour.