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Emerging HE policies highlight new political landscape

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.

Rethinking universities from the outside in

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.

Evidence of teaching quality missing from new student recruitment policies

Rhiannon Birch, Director of Strategic Insights and Planning at the University of Derby, considers the implications of new government policy on student number controls and apprenticeships announced in a week when institutions prepared plans to re-open their campuses.


By a quirk of fate, I last reviewed the HE news in late March when the potential for a Student Number Control (SNC) had reappeared. This week the SNC became a reality for 2020 entry with VCs being notified of the DfE-generated recruitment limit and, for Planning Departments, whatever was planned for Tuesday morning was put on hold to analyse the SNC and understand the guidance.

Immediate questions could only be answered in liaison with student recruitment and admissions colleagues: How did the DfE generate that number? Is it right? Is it really all full-time undergraduates? What about apprenticeships? How will it be measured? How close will we recruit to that number in the summer? Do we bid for Additional Student Numbers (ASNs)?

During the week, the focus moved from the SNC population and penalties, through the tensions the policy has created with devolved administrations, into questioning the selection of disciplines and criteria set for ASN bids. By the end of the week the SNC was evidence of the DfE using the crisis to push through the Conservative agenda against perceived “low quality” courses with reports of Russell Group institutions planning to lower tariffs to fill places left by under-recruitment from overseas and anticipated deferrals. Sadly, the opportunity to consider the interplay between evidence of teaching quality over reputational prestige has not been taken, and the power of decision making by applicants looking for the right course and institution is missing from the discussion of SNCs and ASNs to date.

Looking beyond SNCs for 2020, the Prime Minister announced that all young people would be offered an apprenticeship to help the economy bounce-back and deliver employment post-Covid. What’s interesting about this announcement is that it was couched in the narrative of a more interventionist government and, since the establishment of the OfS, this has been a government more interested in intervening in HE. Delivering on this promise would require massive expansion of apprenticeships and a solid plan for where and how they would be delivered. It’s a small part of a wider narrative and could be the most telling comment on possible future thinking from this week’s news.

In the short term, universities are focussed on responding to the financial implications of Covid-19, planning for getting back on campus while maintaining social distancing and communicating with current students and applicants on how any return to normality is likely to happen. Two HEPI blogs on ensuring online quality and giving students confidence in returning to study in the new academic year, provide a welcome student focus. Meanwhile, UUK has provided principles on teaching approaches from the autumn and is calling for assurances to be made to international students that they can still have confidence in studying in the UK. While it’s clear that teaching quality needs to be ensured as the sector navigates into next year, how quality and value for money are communicated in terms of a very different student experience remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the league tables treadmill is one aspect of the HE landscape which has continued despite the crisis with nothing but a slight change in some publication schedules. This week saw the publication of the THE’s Asia rankings, an overview of rankings based on estates data and concluded with arrival of the Complete University Guide’s preview prior to publication next week. More analysis and insight will be required from University Planners: best clear some time on Tuesday!