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Emerging HE policies highlight new political landscape

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UUK conference take away: Metrics announced by minister "worrying", "backward-looking", and "disappointing" says VCs

 Professor Mark Smith, Vice-Chancellor, Lancaster University

 "new regulation ... could be somewhat worrying"
ziss / 123RF

HEi-know invited three vice-chancellors to give their "take away" thoughts from last week's Universities UK annual conference, where universities minister Jo Johnson announced new measures on the Teaching Excellence Framework, degree classifications, and executive pay.

The UUK conference as ever covered a lot of ground with many issues touched on, with perhaps the biggest ones being Universities Superannuation Scheme and future benefits, the central role of universities in their local communities alongside being internationally competitive, research funding, and the current political profile of higher education.

The Minister packed a lot into his thoughtful speech – evolution of the TEF (with already new metrics proposed!), grade inflation, the suitability and sustainability of the current student finance system (with a cogent and robust defence), value for money (including senior staff pay and a more explicit annual justification of rises) and the new regulatory environment.

The most interesting new thing I took from this was the challenge the minister laid down to the sector to see if it could agree itself new ‘common’ standards around degree classifications within the next twelve months. This is a very ambitious challenge for such a complex topic, especially on such a rapid timescale.

Although not explicit in his comments the implications were that if the sector does not agree quickly this might be dealt with through new regulation - which could be somewhat worrying. If this and other soft pointers in his speech indicate a more interventionist direction of travel for the OFS, the autonomy on which the success of our sector has been built could be challenged. This is not to say we should not be transparent nor accountable, which of course we should. The sector should look to work in partnership with the Minister and the OFS to ensure this is so and the case for higher education being central to a successful UK is well made.  

 Professor Liz Barnes, Vice-Chancellor, Staffordshire University

 "disappointed" improved performance from students "now being described as 'grade inflation'"

There is no question that the intense scrutiny that universities are currently experiencing will continue. Student fees remain a challenge in that we need to ensure that we have a sustainable and fair system. We have all been conscious of how increasingly important ‘value for money’ is for students, since the introduction of the loan system and this I think underpins the current ‘hot topics’ .

The introduction of a mechanism to assess teaching quality, the TEF, has been broadly welcomed by the sector, as we have all made major investments in improving learning environments, student support and learning and teaching. Indeed the Government has been at the forefront of this focus with initiatives such as the Centre’s of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs), Subject Centres and the establishment of the Higher Education Academy. The National Student Survey (NSS) has provided information for Universities about where we need to intervene to ensure that students receive the best experience that they can. All this is focused on supporting students to achieve better outcomes.

Of course with the digital age students have access to information such that learning has been transformed leading to far better quality work. We have also ensured that our regulations are not draconian but that students are assessed fairly, that in light of the wide variety of experience on entry we can accommodate and recognise different paces through the learning journey, meaning that, for example, some flourish in their final year whereas others may perform well throughout.

Technology has also enabled both lecturers and students to use analytics to monitor progression and identify where interventions may be helpful or where study patterns need to change.

I was therefore so disappointed to hear that the improved performance that we are seeing from our students is now being described as ‘grade inflation’. This detracts from the hard work and effort of students and the staff that support them and fails to acknowledge the impact that significant investment and dedicated effort has achieved.    

 Professor Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor, Nottingham Trent University

 Proposed contact hours TEF metric "rather backward-looking"

It is hard to look beyond the speech by Jo Johnson. It started with a ringing endorsement of the HE sector as being one of the best things about the UK and went on to outline why the current fees regime is a fair deal for students, universities and taxpayers. UUK had already trailed its own proposals for a review of how student maintenance is funded for those from poorer backgrounds and this has very wide support in the sector, as do changes to interest rates and the level of salary that triggers repayments. He then returned to a number of familiar themes such as accelerated degrees – where there is continued scepticism about demand - and the rather backward looking introduction notion of contact hours appearing as a metric in the TEF.

But most of the talk was about the “crackdown on University pay”, as the headline in The Times had termed it. Clearly, the Minister was trying to rein back a policy issue which had rather galloped away from him over the summer, spurred on by some of the least media savvy contributions that I have seen by VCs in recent years.

From my conversations with peers, I think the vast majority of us do not want to be bracketed alongside footballers and bankers. We recognise that there is genuine political and public concern to be addressed around how our pay and that of senior colleagues is agreed. The message that active oversight and potential action around VCs salaries will be part of the consultation on the regulatory powers of the OfS gives UUK - and importantly also the Committee of University Chairs – time to develop a code of practice on remuneration.

Not exactly a crackdown then, at least not yet, but an attempt to take the heat out of the debate whilst we develop together a more defensible position.