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In a week when the government reshuffled its cabinet, HE issues that made headlines gave the newly-appointed universities minister a taste of things to come, says Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive of the Institute of Student Employers .
The past week’s events and news are a sign of turbulent times for UK universities, warns Nicola Owen, Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) at Lancaster University.
Mike Ratcliffe, academic registrar at Nottingham Trent University, reflects on issues emerging from a packed week of higher education news.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education has reported almost a 21 per cent rise in the number of complaints it received from students last year – rising to their highest ever level at 2,371.
The fair access watchdog OFFA has published its latest guidelines for universities on access agreements and told universities they will have to make faster progress on widening participation to meet new government targets.
Universities in England need to draw up such agreements and have them approved by OFFA to be allowed to charge higher tuition fees up to a maximum of £9,000 a year.
The latest guidelines cover agreements for the academic year 2017-18.
In them, OFFA sets out the government’s priorities as well as progress made on widening access to universities for disadvantaged and under-represented groups.
OFFA says there has been progress, but that to meet the Prime Minister’s new goals for social mobility “it is important to accelerate the rate of progress”.
By 2020, the government wants to double the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education from 2009 levels and increase by 20 per cent the number from black and minority ethnic communities from 2014 levels.
The watchdog highlights the recent call from ministers for universities to tackle the under-representation of white, working-class boys and also urges institutions to consider how “to support students with mental health problems and specific learning difficulties”.
It also tells universities to encourage more people to study flexibly, part-time and as mature students, saying the slump in numbers doing this has implications for equality because “part-time learners are more likely to be from a disadvantaged background, to be women, and to be mature learners”.
It identifies some low-participation areas as “coastal areas, former industrial towns in the Midlands and the North; rural areas of the South West and East of England” and east London.
The watchdog tells universities to “maintain or increase expenditure” on widening access, but acknowledges the possible impact of planned cuts to the teaching grant and student opportunity funding.
Universities, it says, should focus on evidence and the outcomes of their activities and “consider moving resources away from financial support” for students if there is not “strong evidence” that it is having an impact.
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