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.

Advertisements

Blots on the information landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should more alumni take governance roles?

A new report on governance: “University governance – questions for a new era”

This is an interesting pamphlet from HEPI written by Professor Malcolm Gillies who has clearly been on the receiving end of a fair bit of governance. One of his core suggestions which is picked up by Times Higher Education is that alumni should play a bigger part in governance.

University governance must be overhauled to address the problem of “dispassionate” independent board members who protect their own interests at times of crisis rather than those of the institutions they serve, according to a new study.

Under changes proposed by the review, alumni would be handed a central role as government reforms necessitate a move towards governors that have a direct interest in their universities’ well-being.

The Higher Education Policy Institute report on the future of governing bodies, authored by Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, says that alumni have the “greatest lifelong stake in the institution’s reputation and its protection”.

Professor Gillies argues that the old arm’s-length “common-sense” approach to governance detailed in sector guides needs to be updated, as independent board members lack the incentive to act in tough times.

One of the arguments in favour of this proposal is that student/alumni funding will, for many institutions, become the single biggest source of their income in the near future and therefore it is right that they play a greater role in the governance of their university. However, there are some possible pitfalls with this approach. Whilst the commitment of alumni to their university undoubtedly ensures they are ready and willing to contribute in all sorts of ways, they may also bring all sorts of baggage with them from their student days which might be unhelpful. In addition, their views on certain policy issues may be excessively coloured by their own student experiences or they may tend to have a slightly rose-tinted view of the past which leads them to be somewhat averse to necessary change. Alumni can though bring a distinctive perspectve and, as always with governance it’s about getting the right balance.

One other particular point in the report is the suggestion that government, because it is providing less funding, will be less interested in university governance and will have a reduced legitimacy. I’m really not sure that this will be the case as, for all of the rhtoric, government inevitably and inexorably seeks to regulate and direct higher education more and more, regardless of the level of funding it provides.

A timely report though.

HEFCE “fears government’s controlling hand”

Government control issues for HEFCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proposals for reform of student immigration

Not very welcoming

Following the fun and games with the Tier 1 and 2 changes which may yet serve to keep the best academics out of the UK, the government has now turned its attention to Tier 4, students. According to the UK Border Agency , which is launching a brief consultation on proposed changes:

The government intends to reduce annual net migration to the UK to sustainable levels, in the tens of thousands a year. It has made clear that it expects the student route to make its contribution towards reducing net migration to the UK.

Students now represent the largest proportion of non-EU net migration. We need to ensure that the number of international students coming to the UK is broadly in balance with the number leaving.

The government’s policy aim is to ensure that only genuine students who are committed to their academic study come to the UK, with a presumption that upon completion they will leave promptly. This consultation sets out our proposals for achieving this aim.

You can respond online to this consultation here. (It is not entirely reassuring that UKBA is using survey monkey for this rather important consultation. At least it’s cheap I suppose.)

Commenting on the launch of the consultation, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said:

“It is crucial that the UK continues to attract the very best academics and students from around the world if we are to maintain our global standing in higher education. There is a fierce global market for the best academic talent, and our track record in attracting international staff and students has made a very important contribution to the considerable success of UK higher education to date.

“Changes which make the visa regime stricter can severely diminish the international attractiveness of a nation’s universities. It is crucial that the immigration system continues to support the efforts of our leading universities to attract talented people who have a legitimate interest in studying, teaching, or carrying out research here.

Universities are a big export business, bringing in £5.3 billion a year to the UK economy each year (according to UUK). The consequences of this change could be disastrous. Surely we should be seeking to sustain this rather than seeking to turn off the tap?

More visa uncertainty

Position on visas still not clear

The Guardian has a story on the latest government position on changes to the visa regime.

Whilst on the face of it there does seem to be some movement in response to the concerns expressed by universities, there are still significant uncertainties:

But young scientists applying for visas may face serious difficulties because their incomes are often so low. Previously an MBA or a £150,000 salary guaranteed enough points to secure a visa, but a PhD scientist on a typical academic salary fell short. Scientists are concerned that the government will fail to address this disparity under the new scheme. A further problem is that scientists are awarded three-year visas for posts that can last much longer, forcing institutes to use two consecutive visas for each researcher.

“The average postdoc here lasts four or five years, so each consumes two slots and that is crazy. There are people here who are very nervous about whether they will be allowed to stay and finish their work,” Rigby said. “It is bound to be a disincentive for bright young things to come to this country.”
visa
Catherine Marston, policy adviser at the Universities and Colleges Union, echoed Rigby’s concerns. “It causes difficulties for people who are already here in the UK. If their visa runs out, they will use up one of your allocation if you decide to support them. If you don’t decide to support them they will have to leave the country.”

Professor Rigby said the government must revise its “one size fits all” approach to immigration. He said the rules should be changed to accommodate scientists by giving PhDs more points and awarding visas for the full duration of an academic post.

The uncertainty doesn’t help. It sends out the signal that UK HE is not open for business. The proposed changes to student visas are likely to exacerbate this. Hard times indeed.

NB, Catherine Marston is the most excellent policy advisor at Universities UK, not UCU as stated in the report.

The global higher education revolution

‘Tracking the higher education revolution’

A really good article by Philip Altbach, Liz Reisberg and Laura Rumbley in Change Magazine.

A global revolution has been taking place in higher education during the past half-century that is at least as dramatic as the one that happened when the German research model fundamentally changed the nature of the university worldwide in the 19th century. And the transformation of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is more extensive than the earlier one, due to the sheer numbers of institutions and people involved.

In our view, four fundamental and interrelated forces have impelled the current academic revolution: the “massification” of higher education, globalization, the advent of the knowledge society and the importance of research universities within it, and information technology (including distance education). These forces have presented nations with enormous funding challenges and fueled the rise of the private sector and the privatization of public colleges and universities, the accountability movement (including today’s imperative to measure the outcomes of higher education), and deep changes in the nature and role of the professoriate.

The article gives a comprehensive overview of global changes in universities across a wide range of activities before addressing some of the consequences of the financial crisis:

The crisis is likely to have the following consequences worldwide:

* In many cases, the priority will be to allocate funds to ensure that access to the higher education system is not dramatically cut. But at the same time, universities will face pressures to establish or increase tuition fees for students, and higher education is likely to become increasingly unaffordable to marginalized populations. In countries where student loan programs exist, either in the public or private sectors, they may be severely limited.
* Research universities are likely to see significant constraints on their budgets, since governments will be unable to provide the resources needed for their continued improvement.
* Cost-cutting practices at many universities will result in a deterioration of quality. More part-time faculty are likely to be hired, class sizes increased, and other savings implemented that potentially threaten the overall health and effectiveness of higher education.
* We are likely to see freezes on hiring, the construction of new facilities, improved information technology, and the purchase of books and journals.

It’s a grim prospectus but a realistic one. The piece overall is an excellent take on global changes in higher education and one of the best pieces of this kind I’ve seen recently. Well worth reading.

Student loans good. Graduate tax not so good

Good piece by Nicholas Barr in the Guardian on the reasons the current loan system is better than the NUS-preferred Graduate Tax:

The bottom line is that we have the best of both worlds. Graduates face what looks like a graduate tax, but one that does not go on for ever. And universities face a system that encourages competition and strengthens university autonomy.

Also includes a helpful reminder of the difference between a system which makes the education free for the student and a credit card debt:

Many people conflate student loans with credit card debt. This is plain wrong. A credit card debt of £20,000 rightly causes parents sleepless nights. Student Loans Company debt is very different – low interest rate, long repayment period, and no repayments when income is low. What parent has sleepless nights over their child’s future tax bills – even though a typical graduate over a full career will pay around £1m in income tax and national insurance contributions? Thus university is free to the student, and graduates face an income-related payroll deduction when they start earning. The government should be loudly cheered for bringing in this system and noisily excoriated for its complete failure to get across to the public that this is how it works.

And he is quite right about the under-promotion of the realities of the system.