Variations in HE participation

Some big differences across the country

HEFCE has just published its latest research on participation in HE for 14 cohorts of young people aged 18 in the academic years from 1998-99 to 2011-12:

In October 2013 we published a report on the latest trends in young participation. This report builds on earlier reports to include cohorts up to and including those who entered HE aged 18 in the academic year 2011-12, or aged 19 in the academic year 2012-13.

This means it covers young people who entered HE aged 18 the year before the new funding and finance arrangements for HE came into effect. So it provides a baseline from which to measure participation rates in the new funding environment.

An interactive map shows the variations across the country.

map1 particpation

But as the report notes significant differences in participation remain – in particular between:

  • young people from advantaged and disadvantaged groups
  • young people living in different parts of the country
  • young men and women.

While it seems that some of these differences have reduced slightly others have become larger. The variations across different regions are most striking on the maps, particularly in North Nottingham where the participation rate, at 16%, is the lowest in the country. We have a long way to go but this is one of the reasons for the importance of Nottingham Potential, the University of Nottingham initiative to increase participation in this region.

Advertisements

Working with Young Carers

New activities to support young and young adult carers.

The University of Nottingham’s Impact Campaign is supporting a range of activities involving work with young and young adult carers.

Britain’s ‘invisible army’ of young carers and young adult carers provide unpaid care to family members.

As well as caring for loved ones who are ill, disabled or have mental health issues or other needs, these young carers face their own challenges, such as education, employment and developing adult relationships. We want them to get the support they need.

As part of a recent university event we heard a bit more detail about this terrific project which covers a huge number children and young adults acting as carers:

The numbers:

There are 11m children under 18 in the UK. A quarter of these live in families where there is chronic physical or mental health problems, illness and disability.

Of these, as many as 700,000 children (eight per cent of all children) and 250,000 young adults (aged 18-24) have unpaid caring roles within their own families.

Many provide more than 20 hours of care per week; some, including very young children, care for more than 50 hours a week.

Our solution

The University is working with young carers and young adult carers to improve their quality of life. Thanks to our research, ­their role in UK society and internationally is increasingly being recognised. We will investigate the barriers that restrict their health, well-being, development and education, and identify policies and services that empower them and work best for them and their families.

It’s great work and this brief video (it is brief) shows just what can be done – it has highlights from a recent Young Carers Open Day at the University of Nottingham which was all about showing young carers the possibilities offered by higher education. This should be part of every institution’s widening participation programme.

All of this work is winning greater recognition for young carers, increasing their support networks and helping reduce the amount of caring they do, thereby giving them greater life opportunities. It really is hugely impressive.

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.

Widening participation in the USA


Preparing for study: a new approach to WP in the US

The Chronicle carries a story on a new report about student readiness for higher education in the US.

The proposition contained in a new report from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities is that institutions have to be more involved in earlier stages of education if they want to improve students’ preparedness for higher education.

The report, written by a dozen college presidents and released here at the association’s annual meeting, calls on its member campuses to begin preparing students as early as preschool, helping children to acquire the building blocks of a successful academic career. And to have the greatest impact, the report says, colleges should focus on areas with high concentrations of poverty, where children have the greatest disadvantages in academic preparation.
Specifically, the report recommends four approaches that every member campus should be involved in: improving teacher-preparation programs, increasing the availability of dual-credit classes, aligning elementary and secondary curricula with college expectations, and giving high schools reports on how their graduates are performing in college.

This approach shares a number of features with the programmes for widening participation undertaken by all UK universities but goes some way further and indeed bears a strong resemblance to the recent introduction of Nottingham Potential at the University of Nottingham.

Working with education charity IntoUniversity, Nottingham Potential is expanding the University’s work with children from as young as Year 2 (age 7) and supporting the transition to secondary school and beyond, by providing a pathway that helps to raise attainment and aspirations.

Two of three new IntoUniversity Centres have now opened in local communities and are providing vital after-school Academic Support sessions for years 2 – 13, as well as theme-based study days for partner schools. In addition, local secondary and post-16 teachers are being offered access to funds and support to lead projects designed to improve life in their communities.

The University is also supporting pupils’ attainment through programmes in primary schools for literacy, numeracy and English as an additional language. Beyond this the programme is extending secondary and post-16 outreach work by delivering more school and college activities, as well as additional on-campus masterclasses and summer schools.

The commonalities are interesting but the AASC report does go further. Aligning school and university curricula is, of course, a live issue in England at the moment with the Secretary of State’s strong desire for HE to become more involved in A Level syllabi. Moreover, I’m not sure how good universities are at providing updates for secondary schools on the progress of their students.

Nottingham Potential – a launch and an opening

Helping young people to reach their true potential

I was delighted to be at an excellent event to mark the launch of Nottingham Potential and the formal opening of the IntoUniversity Nottingham West centre. It’s a major programme and a central component of the University’s widening participation strategy which has the aim of helping young people to reach their true potential. A full statement on the launch is here but in summary:

An ambitious new programme will help some of the most deprived young people in the East Midlands to reach university.

Nottingham Potential represents a major investment in the future of the primary and secondary-age school pupils — a multimillion pound commitment to help break down the barriers to higher education.

Delivered by The University of Nottingham in partnership with education charity IntoUniversity, Nottingham Potential will provide new learning centres in the community to support pupils from the ages of 7-18, including one-to-one support with homework, literacy and numeracy, coursework, exams, GCSE options and A-levels, careers advice and applications to university.

Nottingham Potential, as reported by the Nottingham Post, is supported by a major donation from Nottingham alumnus, David Ross, seen here at the launch:

The Post notes that Nottingham Potential aims to break down the barriers to higher education in some of the most deprived parts of the City.

Mr Ross, who is the co-founder of phone firm Carphone Warehouse, has his own charity, the David Ross Foundation, which works with children in schools in deprived areas.

He said: “The David Ross Foundation’s partnerships with schools in deprived areas has shown us that in order to raise young people’s aspirations then the earlier we start, the better.

“Our focus is on working with children at an early age to show them that a university education is a door very much open to them.

“Talent and ability is abundant in these schools, and in many different fields – academic, artistic, sporting and many more.

“However, without the right kind of encouragement and support young people may not appreciate the opportunities that they can seize.”

In addition to Mr Ross’ donation, the university is spending £16 million a year on the project by 2015-16.

It’s a really exciting programme and the collaboration with IntoUniversity, the charity’s first outside London, will make a real difference to educational opportunities in Nottingham.

The initial base opened in the Hope Centre, Broxtowe Estate, yesterday.

Advice for prospective students – quantity and quality

High quality advice and guidance is key for delivering access

An interesting piece by Tessa Stone in the Times Higher Education on the importance of clear, impartial and high quality advice for potential university students. I’d agree with a lot of what Tessa says:

So, the schools that already do this well will continue to give their students the advantage that sound advice and guidance makes. For those without access to such advice, the gulf will widen further. Universities provide masses of advice already, yet coverage is not universal and the market imperative risks seeing focused recruitment trump broader outreach work. This is a risk we must guard against.

You would expect someone like me, running a charity that seeks to connect, inform and inspire more people to achieve their potential through education, to argue strongly in favour of maintaining the broadest possible approach. But in my experience, most of the staff who have tirelessly delivered outreach over the past decade, much of it altruistic, also share my concern.

Silver bullets there are none, but one smart approach that some of Brightside’s university partners are taking is to provide initiatives that are relevant to a number of priorities. We provide an e-mentoring service that universities (and others) can embed into their outreach activities – making ongoing mentoring support available beyond the summer school or shadowing scheme, and generally being the thread that binds intermittent, face-to-face activities. Our university partners also see this as a way to aid retention and success and promote employability (recent graduates and local employers mentor second and third years).

This is just one example, but whatever form such collaboration takes – and however much universities may rail against yet again having to make up for problems for which they are not responsible – it is crucial that it happens. We must respond to the serious and growing need for clear, impartial information and advice about the system. If we do not, it is not clear who will.

Unfortunately, the Government’s approach seems to be largely pinned on simply providing additional information for potential students, primarily via the Key Information Set or KIS:

The problem with KIS is that is just provides more information in what is already a very crowded bazaar- it will not necessarily help applicants make sensible informed decisions (and it inevitably adds to the regulatory burden on universities, but that’s another story). The latest addition to this very busy picture was recently reported in the Observer, which noted that Which? Magazine intended to enter the market for provision of information to students. In order for applicants to make properly informed decisions there really is a need for human intervention.

Nottingham Potential, part of the University of Nottingham’s Impact Campaign, will, working in partnership with Into University, address just the issue identified by Tessa:

The University has a long tradition of working with young people, teachers, schools and colleges across Nottingham and the East Midlands to raise aspirations and support achievements.

Despite changes in funding and fee structures for the higher education sector, the University is clear about the direction and commitment needed to improve access for those who aspire, and have the ability, to pursue higher education.

Excellence in education and equality of access and opportunity are guiding principles in our strategic plan. These principles are also central to Nottingham Potential. Through it, we will create a distinct and high-profile pathway to higher education for the most deprived young people of our region.

Nottingham Potential will expand the University’s work with children of primary age, from as young as Year 2 (age 7), through the transition to secondary school and beyond, by providing a pathway that will support achievement and raise aspirations.

Nottingham Potential is unique in providing long-term support tailored to young people with educational ambitions. This can only be achieved in partnership with families, schools, teachers, community groups, and by drawing upon the extraordinary commitment and expertise shown by the University’s students and staff.

The University will deliver Nottingham Potential on our campuses and in satellite centres within three of the region’s most deprived communities. With 24 new staff strengthening teams, the number of opportunities for contact will almost double in five years, from 28,000 in 2011 to almost 50,000. This will make the University a positive and accessible presence in the lives of the region’s most deprived young people.

Nottingham Potential will make a real and lasting difference in our region. But the fundamental problem in advancing this agenda further is one of scale – there are around 3.25m secondary students in 4,500 secondary schools (non-private) in England – our universities, no matter how hard we try, are not going to reach all of them – it requires something more joined up and government-led to do that. There are no silver bullets and just providing more information is not the answer. It’s about quality AND quantity.

Charity Commission rules and universities’ charitable status

Possible threat to universities’ charitable status

Interesting opinion piece from Pinsent Masons on how Charity Commission rules could threaten universities’ charitable status.

Universities are not like schools, for any number of reasons. One reason, though, will be vital in universities’ coming battle to retain their charitable status: you don’t need to go to university to benefit from university education.

Every time a doctor heals a sick person, an architect designs a building that does not fall down or an artist makes something beautiful, society benefits. Universities make society a better place. And if we all benefit, they should be allowed to keep their charitable status.

Someone should tell the Charity Commission this. It claims that a change in the law aimed at fee paying schools should apply to universities that increase their fees.

UK universities are charities and a recent change in charity law in England and Wales means that in order to qualify as a charity an organisation must demonstrate the public benefit it delivers, rather than operate under a presumption of that benefit.

The Charity Commission has produced guidance which says that organisations will pass the public benefit test if the opportunity for people to benefit is not restricted by an ability to pay and if the organisation does not exclude people in poverty.

Following the changes to fee arrangements and the increase in the cap of up to £9,000 where additional widening participation activities and spend are offered there is a concern that if the Charity Commission Guidance is followed there could be a problem. By charging a fee above £6,000 it is suggested in the article that universities risk preventing poorer students attending and might therefore could lose vital charitable status.

It’s not clear how an increase in the cap would make such a difference to the current position. Especially given that universities wishing to charge more will have to make significant new widening participation commitments and have a new access agreement with the Office for Fair Access. Nevertheless, concern remains.

Oxbridge Access: Private school v Free School Meals

New Sutton Trust report on access has some rather staggering data

The Sutton Trust report suggests that private school students are 55 times more likely to win a place at Oxbridge and 22 times more likely to go to a top-ranked university than students at state schools who qualify for Free School Meals (FSM). The Trust is proposing, quite reasonably, given the evidence, that the Government’s new £150m per year National Scholarship programme should be used to expand proven outreach work and pilot new approaches – rather than being solely directed to financial support for students. In terms of participation, the report makes a number of telling points:

The latest research from the Sutton Trust calculates that less than one student in a hundred admitted to Oxbridge between 2005 and 2007 had been an FSM pupil. There were only 130 FSM pupils out of 16,110 students in total – whereas nearly half the intake came from independent schools.

These stark university participation gaps are driven by significant gaps in attainment at GCSE level and before: pupils at fee-paying schools were three-and-a-half times more likely to attain five GCSE with grades A*-C including English and maths than the pupils from the poorest homes.

The position is not much better for the 25 most academically selective universities in England according the figures which are based on official statistics covering just under 2 million students enrolled at university over three years.

Only 2% (approximately 1,300 pupils each year) of the intake to these universities was made up of Free School Meal pupils, compared with 72.2% from other state school pupils and just over a quarter (25.8%) from independent schools. That means that independent school pupils were six times as likely to attend a highly selective university as those in state schools (the majority) not entitled to Free School Meals.

Whilst some of the recommendations in the report are, arguably, over-directive, the strength of the case here is undeniable.

Browne report: the end of the QAA (and OFFA and OIA)

Beyond changes to higher education funding

Naturally, all of the attention today will be on the funding elements of the Browne report. However, one significant change which is unlikely to attract much comment will nevertheless carry major implications for universities. It is proposed to merge four agencies into one:

The higher education system is currently overseen by four bodies: HEFCE, QAA, OFFA and OIA. These will be replaced by a single Higher Education (HE) Council. It will take a more targeted approach to regulation, with greater autonomy for institutions.

The Council will be independent from Government and institutions. It will have five areas of responsibility:
• Investment – identifying and investing in high priority courses; evaluating value for money; dealing with the unexpected, with the primary aim of protecting students’ interests
• Quality – setting and enforcing minimum quality levels across the whole sector
• Equity of access – making sure that individual institutions and the sector as a whole make measurable progress on admitting qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds
• Competition – ensuring that students get the benefits of more competition, by publishing an annual survey of charges, and looking after the interests of students when an institution is at risk
• Dispute resolution – students can ask the Council to adjudicate on a dispute that cannot be resolved within their institution and provide a decision which binds both sides
The HE Council will explain how it is investing taxpayers’ money, and safeguarding students’ investment in higher education, through an annual report to Parliament.

So, it looks like the end of the road for the QAA, OFFA and OIA.

Higher education funding letters: 14 years of joy

On government HE funding letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a private university in Winchester?

Auriol Stevens: ‘We should think about creating a private university in Winchester’

In a recent article in the Independent Auriol Stevens offered a novel proposal for the establishment of a different kind of university:

Should top independent schools set up a new private university on the lines of American liberal arts colleges, providing high-quality teaching, a broad curriculum and charging full fees? The proposal, floated by Terence Kealey, Vice-Chancellor of the private University of Buckingham, may delight a possible incoming Tory government. It may attract parents who are used to paying high school fees as well as those who are afraid that their offspring are being squeezed out of university by poorer applicants.

These are of course the same parents and students who benefit disproportionately from the current student finance set up. And I think we are still rather a long way from the level of social equity which would disadvantage this group. However, Stevens’ suggestion is not about creating a new bastion of privilege:

So, let’s suppose two or three of the most famous fee-charging schools – perhaps those with the biggest endowments and the highest prestige – became universities. They could do so by merging with existing universities to provide new opportunities not for the rich but for poorer students. Take Winchester. The university in Winchester is pioneering a broader undergraduate curriculum. Winchester College is an ancient and distinguished school. Its beautiful buildings would make a fine university campus. The school has a high academic reputation and expertise in post-16 teaching.

This would, undoubtedly, be a new kind of institution. And it’s an interesting proposition. But would it really work? And is any university, in Winchester or elsewhere, going to be willing to make the kind of changes required to deliver such an outcome?

Some good news on widening participation

“Substantial increases in entry to higher education for disadvantaged young people”

Widening Participation is working according to a new report from HEFCE:

The study, conducted by Dr Mark Corver of HEFCE’s Analytical Services Group, finds that there has been a substantial and sustained increase in the HE participation rate of young people living in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods since the mid-2000s. The participation rate of young people living in the most disadvantaged areas has increased every year since the mid-2000s. Young people from those areas are now 30 per cent more likely to enter HE than they were five years ago. Participation rates have also increased in advantaged neighbourhoods over this period, but less rapidly.

These recent trends mean that more of the additional entrants to HE since the mid-2000s have come from disadvantaged neighbourhoods than advantaged neighbourhoods. This has reduced the participation difference between advantaged and disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The study places these changes in the context of the large differences in entry to HE that are found by where young people live. In the mid-1990s, one in eight young people from the most disadvantaged areas entered HE. That figure has increased to around one in five today but remains far lower than for the most advantaged areas, where well over half of young people now enter higher education.

So, this really does look like good news and a welcome relief to government given other recent reports highlighting the growth in inequality in Britain since 1980. However, there is still a long way to go. And the concern will be that in seeking to make savings universities will reduce spend on both widening participation activities and bursary schemes for those students most in need of additional financial support.

On Student fees (from Mark Harrison’s Blog)

From Mark Harrison’s blog – Student Fees: Four Myths and a Certainty

Professor Mark Harrison (economist) offers an intelligent, well-argued, timely and rather pithy contribution to the fees debate:

Student fees are in the news again. These are the top-up fees paid by British and EU students to take degree courses at British universities, presently capped at £3,225 a year. They're called “top-ups” because they help to bridge the gap between the public money that goes to universities and the actual cost of degree programmes — which is considerably more. So, should our universities be allowed to raise their fees? The government has announced a review. The lobbies are brushing up their arguments. Everyone has their opinions about the justice or injustice of student fees. As it turns out, fairness and economics are closely connected, but not always in the way that the lobbies think.

He observes that low (or no) fees benefit primarily the middle-classes:

Hundreds of thousands of middle class families know they can benefit to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds from no fees or low fees for their children. In contrast, the gain to society from higher fees will be spread more thinly over millions of citizens, none of whom may feel confident of reaping a personal gain — particularly if they have children that may become students in due course.

It’s going to be an interesting review.

via Mark Harrison’s blog, University of Warwick.

Government needs to help league table compilers

The IUSS Committee’s recent report on students and universities is a most extraordinary document in all sorts of ways. One of the more entertaining propositions relates to university league tables where the Committee accepts the existence (wisely, you might argue) of league tables and acknowledges the work that HEFCE has recently published. However, its take on such tables is somewhat different from many, in that it suggests that as much data as possible is published in a way which facilitates the creation of league tables:

In our view, it is a case of acknowledging that league tables are a fact of life and we welcome the interest that HEFCE has taken in league tables and their impact on the higher education sector. We have not carried out an exhaustive examination of league tables but on the basis of the evidence we received we offer the following views, conclusions and recommendations as a contribution to the debate on league tables which HEFCE has sought to stimulate and to improve the value of the tables to, and usefulness for, students. We conclude that league tables are a permanent fixture and recommend that the Government seek to ensure that as much information is available as possible from bodies such as HEFCE and HESA, to make the data they contain meaningful, accurate and comparable. Where there are shortcomings in the material available we consider that the Government should explore filling the gap. We give two examples. First, the results from the National Student Survey are produced in a format which can be, and is, incorporated into league tables. It appears to us therefore that additional information or factors taken into account in the National Student Survey would flow through to, and assist those consulting, league tables. To assist people applying to higher education we recommend that the Government seek to expand the National Student Survey to incorporate factors which play a significant part in prospective applicants’ decisions— for example, the extent to which institutions encourage students to engage in non-curricula activities and work experience and offer careers advice. [Para 104]

Not only therefore is it proposed that current data be modified to make the league table compilers’ work easier, but that they should be provided with additional information where it is lacking. Thus:

Second, Professor Driscoll from Middlesex University considered that league tables neglected “the contribution that universities that have focused on widening participation, like Middlesex, make to raising skills and educational levels in this country”. In other words, the National Student Survey as presently constituted does not assess the “value added” offered by individual institutions. We recommend that the Government produce a metric to measure higher education institutions’ contribution to widening participation, use the metric to measure the contribution made by institutions and publish the results in a form which could be incorporated into university league tables. [para 105]

League table compilers have struggled with this one for some time and will therefore appreciate such kind assistance from government.

Scandals of Higher Education

Is this the future for UK HE?
Scandals of Higher Education – The New York Review of Books

A really interesting and hard-hitting review article from the New York Review of Books of a set of recent publications on US higher education. Two fundamental questions here: what is higher education actually for? And who is it for?

As Harvard’s former dean Harry Lewis sums up the matter:

Universities affect horror when students attend college in the hope of becoming financially successful, but they offer students neither a coherent view of the point of college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.

It is certainly a good thing that fresh attention is being paid in books such as Bowen’s, Golden’s, and Michaels’s to the question of whom education is for. But there remains the fundamental question of what it is for and what it should consist of. One way to bring these questions together would be to ask how well our colleges reflect our best democratic traditions, in which individuals are not assessed by any group affiliation but are treated, regardless of their origins, as independent beings capable of responsible freedom. Opening wider the admissions doors is a necessary step toward furthering that end, but it is by no means a sufficient one. Colleges will fulfill their responsibilities only when they confront the question of what students should learn—a question that most administrators, compilers of rank lists, and authors of books on higher education prefer to avoid.

Challenging stuff.