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News headlines finally reflect the concerns of universities

This week’s news for once truly mirrors the issues focusing minds in HE, finds Rachel Hewitt, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute.

 

We often say that the media coverage of the higher education sector does not reflect what is actually going on within UK universities. However, aside from the seemingly unavoidable free speech stories, this week has been the exception to that rule. The headlines on higher education have been dominated by the themes that are being felt most strongly within universities and have come up in every conversation I’ve had this week: fees, Brexit, TEF and widening participation.

After a period of relative quiet in terms of leaks from the post-18 review, fees were back on the agenda this week. It seems that the outcomes of the Augar review are likely to be delayed until at least May due to the political and economic uncertainty surrounding Brexit. While many are keen to know what will come from Augar and remove the uncertainty, there is an argument that we shouldn’t be in too much of a rush to get the results published. It seems as well as Brexit uncertainty, the delay is a consequence of cross- government disagreement on the recommendations. Therefore, delay could lead to a softening of some of the previously rumoured recommendations. It seems this has already happened in some areas, such as the headline reduction shifting from £6,500 to £7,500.

Any delay also gives the sector the opportunity to argue the case for the outcomes which we as want to see. There were a number of examples of this this week, including Martin Lewis partnering with the Russell Group to tackle the issue of ‘misleading’ loan statements and the CBI speaking out about the ‘profound harm’ cuts to tuition fees could cause.

Brexit concerns remain firmly on the higher education agenda and this week’s headlines reflected this. While UK universities had their best performance in the annual QS subject rankings, the league table compilers raised concerns about the impact of leaving the EU on the strength of UK research. The European Temporary Leave to Remain (ETLR) scheme has also been slammed by the Russell Group for failing to take into account four year courses in Scotland and longer courses such as medicine and engineering.

Much focus has also been placed on the Teaching Excellence Framework this week, largely due to the consultation closing on Friday focusing minds. The independent review seems to be encouraging more nuanced discussion of the TEF, with UUK acknowledging that it is having an impact on teaching and learning strategies. However, one of the most startling facts from their report was the overall cost: estimated to be £4 million for those taking part in year two. Does this diverting of resources lead to less money to spend on the teaching it is supposed to be evaluating?

Another questions the review is also going to have to tackle is whether the purpose of the TEF remains suitable.  As David Morris wrote this week, students are largely unaware of the existence of the TEF and aren’t using it in their decision making (although I think it may be too soon to take a view on that). It is clear that there was and remains a desire to make universities more accountable to government in their teaching practices. Perhaps the most useful outcome of the review for universities would be for all parties to acknowledge this as the driver.

The well discussed, but perhaps not yet well tackled issue of widening participation was also catching headlines this week. Shakira Martin, Chris Millward and James Kirkup have all called this week for more radical steps to be taken to address the issues of stalling progress in access to HE.  Francesca Roe called for a focus on breaking down the systematic barriers, rather than misplaced emphasis on aspiration. These messages were echoed by Shakira and Chris as speakers at the HEPI/AdvanceHE House of Commons breakfast seminar this week, which focused on this topic. It is clear that the intentions are good, but more action needs to be taken to make the changes.

It’s still to be seen about whether the trend of headlines reflecting what is going on in HE providers remains beyond this week, but we should certainly welcome the refreshing focus.

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