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Conceptions of what is excellent in higher education are starting to change

Professor Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, outlines strategies adopted by NTU that are boosting social mobility and which helped it win the inaugural Guardian University of the Year award, a gong he believes shows how notions of excellence in HE are changing.

A house divided? Growing divisions and inequalities in HE

Mike Boxall, who has thirty years' experience as a consultant and commentator on strategic developments in higher and further education, finds evidence in recent news of growing and worrying divisions within UK higher education.

UK HE must put its house in order to maintain global excellence

News on higher education over the past week highlights an urgent need for the sector to get to grips with ethical issues that have a bearing on the way it is managed and governed, argues Sandra Booth, Director of Policy and External Relations at Council for Higher Education in Art and Design (CHEAD).

Rising staff costs putting universities under greater pressure, warns Moody's

UK universities will face greater financial pressure over the next three years due to rising staff costs as they accommodate more students, retain talent and negotiate pay rises,  Moody's has warned.

Higher vocational STEM education can lead to better earnings than degrees, study finds

Earnings of people achieving higher-level vocational qualifications in STEM subjects can exceed those of people who pursued the same subjects at a university level, a study has concluded.

Graduate earnings probed, unconditional offers questioned, a business levy proposed, and a minister resigned … another news-packed week in HE

Graduate earnings dominated a busy HE news week

Professor Mark Smith, Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University, and Nicola Owen, Lancaster’s Chief Administrative Officer and Secretary, kick off a new series of HEi-know weekly higher education news reviews, highlighting and commenting on some of the most significant and interesting HE stories and opinions of the past week.

 

Being asked to kick off a new series of blogs commenting on the significant pieces of news in the past week for HE, the first worry is would we get one of those quiet weeks where in fact there is nothing really interesting? However given the last 18 months this of course was never likely to be the case and we look forward to the time when it can be announced that nothing of any real import happened last week in the HE sector - now that would be a story!

So what to choose - there was the end of cycle UCAS report revealing that the number of applicants fell in line with the demographic dip, but numbers admitted held up -- suggesting that despite the relentless knocking of universities and questions of value for money, 18-19 year olds still see this as an attractive option, including those from under-represented groups.

The survey also revealed that around one third of offers were unconditional, which is an astonishing increase since 2013 when it was only 2 per cent. It should be noted this translates to 22.9 per cent of applicants receiving at least one such offer. The controversy around this is not going away. The provider level data to be released in January 2019 will likely make interesting reading. However, there needs to be a real understanding of the 7 per cent difference on subsequent performance of missing predicted grades by two or more, (including better analysis of e.g. socioeconomic and school impact) as there could be several explanations.

A second story was the interesting call for a business levy in a HEPI report as an example of ways of spreading the cost of Higher Education. All avenues should be explored for underpinning the HE sector with sustainable funding.

However, probably the big story of the week was the DFE-commissioned IFS report examining graduate earnings by discipline and provider. The use of LEO data to measure the value of a course related to the Teaching Excellence Framework and the concept of ‘return on investment’ to the student have become increasingly high profile.

The report generated a lot of column inches, but what did it tell us? Some courses provide better premiums than others and some institutions provide better premiums than others. We would have been very surprised if economics and medicine had not been at the top and creative arts at the bottom. What is not clear in both the discipline data, but especially the institutional data, is what overlay has there been of the raw earnings data with the social background profile of the students?

We are no defenders of poor courses that produce poor outcomes, but being clear on the earnings data about what one can really define as ‘poor’ is important. What can reasonably be expected and what actual added value is there for a particular student given their individual circumstances needs to be understood. However as the, now former, universities minister Sam Gyimah said, the data shows that on average the graduate premium is ‘holding up’ as it remains real, significant and robust. There are also the intangible aspects to value, including improved health, quality of life, engagement with societal issues and intellectual satisfaction. They’re more difficult to quantify, but very important.

Data was also in the news with the publication of the OfS Data Strategy 2018-2021 which sets out their approach to use of data for regulatory purposes. Their focus on only requesting data that supports their functions will reduce the amount of data required from providers. Reducing burden should be welcomed, but some datasets which are no longer required have been a very useful source for institutions to benchmark their performance and cost base, particularly to assess value for money of professional services and estates costs. Institutions may increasingly look at other ways to benchmark at a time when there is heightened interest on how fees are spent.

The question of how value for money is defined remained central to the sector news last week and is likely to remain in the headlines for the foreseeable future.

Then to cap it all, just as we wrote this review, our universities and science minister resigned!

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