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Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.
Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.
Higher education consultant Jon Scott reviews a week in which the hearts of those working in HE may have been set racing for all the wrong reasons.
In the week culminating in Valentine’s day, the barrage of news stories about the higher education sector continued apace, though there was little by way of romance in the air. The news was fuelled by the periodic resurgence of issues that rumble on, as well as the new issues that arose, particularly in the form of yet more governmental and Office for Students pronouncements.
By way of ‘old’ stories, the Universities’ Superannuation Scheme (USS) has never been far from the headlines for a number of years. That it is a highly emotive issue is evidenced by the acrimonious strikes that took place in 2018, 2019 and 2020 when the form of benefits and the levels of contributions were altered.
This week, Nick Hillman from the Higher Education Policy Institute stirred the wasps nest again with a series of blogs summarising the key issues, the main one being that, despite the reductions in benefits and increased employer and employee contributions, the scheme’s deficit reportedly sits at a staggering £24 billion. Hillman’s inevitable observation is that ‘there are two options: put more money in or take less money out’.
The scale of the deficit, and the appropriate action to take have continually been challenged by the University and College Union (UCU) and on Friday, Jo Grady the General Secretary responded robustly, reiterating the arguments that the valuation is misleadingly pessimistic. In her blog Grady cited a number of reports supporting that view, including that published by the Joint Expert Panel, comprising UCU and Universities UK membership, which concluded that changes to the scheme’s valuation governance and methodology were critical.
What is clear is that the issue of pensions has definitely not gone away. Over the last month things have been quiet while university staff have been working exceptionally hard delivering their teaching and trying to keep researching under the remarkably difficult conditions resulting from COVID-19. All of that will only serve to reinforce the strength of their feelings if pensions are further eroded, or cost more, or indeed if salaries don’t reflect the increased workload that has been required of them. Add on top of that the increasing disquiet over job losses in many universities and the disruption of COVID-19 could well be followed by a summer of industrial action.
Meanwhile, combining something new and blue, the confirmation of Lord Wharton of Yarm as the new Chair of the Office for Students, to replace Sir Michael Barber, has done more than raise eyebrows across the sector. Paul Blomfield, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Students observed that: “Wharton is going to have to do an awful lot to justify [his appointment] because he seems spectacularly unqualified for the job.” The Department for Education made the expected statement that the appointment was ‘in line with the Governance Code on Public Appointments’ and that ‘to suggest otherwise is a wilful distortion of the facts’. But the appointment of such a close colleague of the Prime Minister’s to this role along with Wharton’s confirmation that he will retain the Tory Whip must raise questions about his capacity for independent decision-making. Kate Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, stated ‘It’s ridiculous to think James Wharton could make independent decisions while continuing to sit as a Conservative peer. He must resign the whip without delay’. Meanwhile, Gavin Williamson has already set a marker for yet tighter government control with his letter to the incoming Chair of OfS regarding free speech and graduate outcomes.
Borrowing, in its loosest sense, also re-appeared in the news in relation to plagiarism with more evidence, this time from Imperial College London, that increasing numbers of students are accessing essay mills and cheat sites. There has been a significant increase in the sophistication of the sites and, with much more on-line assessment, greater temptation to turn to them for assistance. Chris Skidmore, who served briefly as universities minister (2019-20), put forward a 10-minute rule bill to outlaw such sites. This is an issue about which many academics have been campaigning for several years, including running a national petition in 2019, and a letter from Vice-Chancellors to previous Secretary of State, Damien Hinds. These sites significantly damage the integrity of academic qualifications and their operation has been made illegal in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and some US states but given all its other pronouncements about quality, the Government seems surprisingly reluctant to follow suit.
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