While you were away – Summer 2015 HE news catch up Part II

Part II of the digest of HE news, since the UK General Election. This is selective, and there is much I have left out. Below – research, quality assurance, student loans and a glimpse into the post-spending review future.

Research

On the research front, we anticipate the Nurse Review of funding of research. This is being done in the context of an a government spending review, and, BIS has hired McKinsey management consultants. Most pundits suspect this will result in severe cuts to the department’s budget, and it seems likely that all the research funding councils will join together in one body, with the goal of simplifying the system.

This makes everybody nervous – science, because they fear constant chipping away at research funding; humanities and social sciences who fear that they will lose out when funding bids are pitted against the greater claim to economic value attributed to science. Bets are off whether the system of ‘dual funding’ will continue – money from the REF AND money from the research councils. Jo Johnson seems to be suggesting it will in his speech earlier in September 2015. We will know the results on 25th November, after the government’s spending review has reported.

One piece of unexpected news came with publication in July of the Wilsdon report which came out against a ‘metric tide’ to replace the current REF methodology. Wilsdon’s team found that metrics such as impact factors of journals and citation counts, may easily be gamed, while, by contrast, peer review continues to hold the trust of academics. And David Sweeney, in charge of the REF at HEFCE, seems to agree.

Quality Assurance

Another messy field at the moment. QAA is nearing the end of its contract with HEFCE as regulator of the HE sector. That means it must enter into competition with another two rivals for the task –HEFCE itself who may seek to bring the work in-house, since they no longer have much say in parcelling out funding, except REF (QR) money. However, the latest intel is that both HEFCE and the REF might be axed by BIS

The other candidate for regulator is the HEA whose shaky future might be sustained by a role in quality assurance. It has been rather enfeebled lately, after a series of funding cuts, and is looking for another role besides dispensing credentials to HE practitioners. If it is looking to take a role in the TEF, though, you’d have thought it might have more information about it (and learning gain) on its website.

As the emphasis shifts from process to outcomes (see previous post on TEF and learning gain), it is difficult to predict how this might end up. Jo Johnson has indicated that he would like QA to be ‘light touch’. In saying this, he is probably mindful of the £5M it costs each year, and a diminishing BIS budget. On the other hand, there is an ideological function that underpins QA, the TEF and the REF, and that is to create winners and losers, and perhaps, to provide a means to ‘exit the market’ for unsuccessful ‘providers’, all camouflaged as ‘valuing teaching’ and ‘putting students at the heart of the system’. A re-vamped regulatory framework offers new ways of realising a more Darwinian platform for competition between universities, as does the removal of student number controls (SNC).

And just to stir the hornets’ nest of competition, the government is keen to encourage more private providers to enter the higher education scene. Indeed their access to degree awarding powers may be speeded up, and their Quality Assurance credentials facilitated. “We are a deregulatory government”, Johnson is quoted as saying.

HEFCE, though,  has been consulting on the future approaches to quality assessment in HE.  One thing is clear – neither HEFCE nor Jo Johnson wish to see an increase in grade inflation (see para79) in order for universities to secure student satisfaction or, through crude output measures, to scale university rankings. There may be a new breed of ‘professionalized’ external examiners in order to curb these tendencies.

Student debt

Student debt is still with us, despite calls to follow Germany in abolishing tuition fees. Additionally, the last budget signalled an end to maintenance loans for students from September 2016, and the threshold for repayment has been frozen, rather than hitched to inflation.

If you need to inform yourself about how student loans work – here is the most authoritative voice on the issue, Andrew McGettigan

Headlines from this piece:

  • New student loans are not covered by the Consumer Credit Act and interest rates can be set at the discretion of the relevant Secretary of State without the need for new legislation.
  • The rate of interest can be at market rates, not at RPI minus 1 percentage point as for the earliest tranche of 1990s student loans (which were protected by the Consumer Credit Act).
  • The repayment threshold can also be varied, even after the loan terms have been agreed by the student borrower. The legislation states as follows

“You must agree to repay your loan in line with the regulations that apply at the time the repayments are due and as they are amended. The regulations may be replaced by later regulations.” (p. 8) [http://andrewmcgettigan.org/student-loans-campaign/]

I find it extraordinary, and unethical, to burden 18 year olds with large debts under such uncertain terms.

And the future?

There is a Spending Review in the offing, and George Osborne has already said that austerity is likely to continue for four more years. Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for BIS, the department which deals with universities, is very keen to implement the full 40% cut, which will have a likely impact on HE funding in view of the fact that this spend dominates the department. Not the least of these worries is the RAB charge (the portion of student borrowing that will not be paid back), which has now escalated to a projected figure of 45% of loans.  Fear of that shortfall is evidently what lies behind government attempts to prod universities into channelling their graduates into high-paying jobs. And universities will be happy to comply if they think there’s a league table position at stake.

Additionally, the release of an evaluation of the REF2014 has been put on hold until after the spending review. 77 HEIs offered feedback on their experience of the REF, ‘impact’, cost and interdisciplinarity. You can find your institutional response archived here.

It is a world of financial insecurity, shifting targets and capricious measures of success. I’m having a hard time planning the next 6 months, never mind a curriculum or a research career. Happy new academic year, everybody.

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