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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.
Uncertainty was the dominant theme in last week's HE news, and it looks like the sector can expect more of the same into the New Year, says Ross Renton, Pro Vice-Chancellor for students at the University of Worcester, in the third of our weekly HE news reviews.
"A government that can provide certainty and lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country," proclaimed the Prime Minister back in 2017, following her victory in the general election. Sadly, uncertainty has dominated this week, for the government and its leader, the country and the higher education sector. Brexit and the no-confidence vote led the headlines, with an impossible impasse in Parliament edging the country closer to a meaningful vote for the people rather than just parliamentarians.
Universities continue to be under pressure, with ICEF Monitor and the Guardian highlighting the financial difficulties faced by UK institutions with the uncertainty over Brexit and sudden shifts in government policy. These issues are placing the diversity of the sector in jeopardy and will be putting jobs at risk. For example, as reported in the THE, the Open University is forecasting a £30 million deficit this year, while Birkbeck, University of London also returned an underlying deficit of £518,000 – both are important contributors of part-time provision.
The Office for Students this week challenged all universities to eliminate the gaps in access and student success within 20 years (see HEi-know Briefing Report 417). This follows a consultation process earlier in the year on its proposed new system for regulating access and participation in England. There is little to argue with in their aspirations. Surely, we should all be working to reduce and eventually eliminate gaps in degree outcomes between white and black students as well as disabled and non-disabled students.
The Daily Mail picked up the story emphasising the demands from Education Secretary Damian Hinds on universities to recruit more white working class students "or face sanctions". However, many institutions will welcome the new approach to the frequency of written submissions to the OfS, with those at risk of making insufficient progress experiencing greater scrutiny. There is also some good news for those working in widening participation, with the announcement that the National Collaborative Outreach Programme will continue to be funded to ensure outreach work with schools is joined up and targeted to meet local needs.
A new report, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, proposed that universities should consider commuter friendly timetables, by limiting the number of days that students are taught on campus and holding lectures and seminars at times that avoid commutes at peak periods (see HEi-know Briefing Report 418). One of the report's authors, David Morris, highlighted in his piece in the Guardian that many of these students are from disadvantaged or underrepresented groups (for example first generation in HE, mature or from an ethnic minority). These groups are also the ones identified by the OfS as often having gaps in attainment and outcomes. David Kernohan on Wonkhe makes the case that commuting is a symptom, not a cause of disadvantage, and would be alleviated by the return means-tested maintenance grants.
This week will be destined to bring further uncertainty with the ruling on Monday by the Office for National Statistics on the way student loans will appear in the national accounts, as reported by the BBC. Why should you care? The outcome will influence the options available to the post-18 education and funding review (Augar) which will arrive with the Universities Minister early in the New Year...expect further uncertainty on the future of the sector and the students it serves.
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