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The government's announcement of a major review of the National Student Survey signals a worrying shift in the HE regulatory landscape, warns Jon Scott, higher education consultant and former Pro Vice-Chancellor (student experience) at the University of Leicester.
Statements from ministers this week have made it clear that higher education in England is facing significant reforms, re-setting its focus towards helping to plug the UK's skills gaps and rebuilding the economy. Fariba Soetan, Policy Lead for Research and Innovation at the National Centre for Universities and Business, argues that the proposed changes bring a welcome focus on graduate outcomes and supporting the careers of young people.
Sajid Javid’s increased education settlement will boost school coffers but higher education was barely mentioned in his first Spending Round.
The settlement, which the Chancellor described as ushering in a “new decade of renewal”, represents the largest increase in day-to-day spending on public services in 15 years.
The overall education resource budget will rise in real terms by 3.3 per cent from 2019-20 to 2020-21. There will be no cuts across any area but most of the extra money goes on schools to fund, among other things, increased pension costs and the ambition to pay teachers a starting salary of £30,000 by 2022-23.
Further education will also receive an extra £400 million, recognising the sector’s “vital role in delivering the skills needed in the UK”. This includes £190 million to increase core funding for 16-19 year-olds, and £210 million for more expensive courses such as science, engineering and mathematics, English and Maths resits and the new T Levels. FE is one of the sectors to have suffered the most significant public funding cuts since 2010.
The Chancellor reiterated the Government’s commitment to increasing levels of research and development to at least 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027 and said that it will set out plans in the Autumn Statement to “significantly boost public R&D funding, provide greater long-term certainty to the scientific community, and accelerate its ambition to reach 2.4 per cent of GDP”.
The Spending Round report, published by the Treasury, also outlines plans to develop a new Public Value Framework to maximise value to the taxpayer, based on Sir Michael Barber’s report Delivering better outcomes for citizens. The reforms will mean future spending decisions will be shaped by a greater focus on outcomes.
The Spending Round report provided examples of how this might work across various public sector areas. One “example outcome” given was to “improve the skills pipeline needed to support a productive economy, fit for the future – through excellent technical and higher education”.
Performance metrics to measure these outcomes given in the document included average graduate salaries from FE and HE and field-weighted citation impact.
Commenting on the spending round statement, University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said:
"Today’s rushed spending round appears more like frantic electioneering than a long-term commitment to boosting further and higher education. The funding promised to further education will do little to reverse the cuts of over £3bn in real terms that have blighted the sector over the last decade.
"The fact that an additional £2.1bn has been committed to planning for a no-deal Brexit compared to just £400m for further education shows where this government’s priorities really lie."
The University Alliance welcomed the Government’s announcement of increased investment in allied healthcare training and increased funding for schools and colleges, but warned that this must be followed by sustained investment across all forms of post-16 education.
UA CEO Vanessa Wilson said: “Today’s budget has bought little assurance for higher education. Universities are vital to improving productivity, boosting economic growth and increasing opportunities, but only when adequately funded. The Government’s lack of specific funding for universities could threaten these, should it result in a real-time cut in funding."
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