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Thur 14th July: Aaron Porter’s First or Fail: The Treasury and Office for Fair Access July 14, 2011

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Aaron Porter’s First or Fail: The Treasury and Office for Fair Access


This week, Aaron Porter examines Offa’s quick work on access agreements and the Treasury’s dashed hopes for average fees

Baby Black Hole

Heading for a budget black hole? Aaron Porter says rough estimates suggest the Treasury could be facing £600m shortfall. Photograph: AP/NASA

Aaron Porter gives his verdict on the good (heading for a first) and the bad (heading for a fail) this week.

Heading for a first: Office for Fair Access (Offa)

It was Mission Impossible. For what would normally take months, but had to be just weeks because of the Government’s rushed higher education funding policy, the Office for Fair Access miraculously managed to sign off the full complement of access agreements this week, for institutions wishing to charge more than £6,000 a year from September 2012, on time and on schedule.

Rather than simply getting the agreements signed off on time and constrained by their existing powers, Offa truly deserves recognition for seeking out a significantly increased outlay from institutions to support the poorest students, but for doing so in the eye of a political storm. Total access agreement funding will be £602m by 2015-16, the first year with three cohorts of the new fee regime students, compared with £407m in 2011-12.

But almost as soon as the government had announced that the upper cap would be set at £9,000 back in November, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable took to the airwaves promising it would only be “in exceptional circumstances”. Nick Clegg even went to Cambridge University to “promise” – a word he should learn to use carefully – that universities would be prevented from charging the maximum unless “they can prove that they can dramatically increase the number of people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds who presently aren’t going”.

Sadly, this was another Clegg promise which showed a complete lack of understanding for the context in which he was operating, this time misunderstanding the role and remit of the office – which is an access regulator, not a price regulator. You’d have thought that the clue was in the title, but then again the deputy prime minister doesn’t have the best track record of twigging things that seem blindingly obvious to everyone else.

However, for as well as Offa has done in the circumstances, its role and remit won’t suffice in the new fees regime. The government needs to stick to what it set out in the white paper and afford new powers to the regulator, and when the new Offa director is appointed later this year, his or her first task will be to give the organisation some teeth and start to measure institutions on their impact and results, not on self-imposed targets.

Heading for a fail: the Treasury

If Offa had a good week, then, sadly, the Treasury had a bad one. For as the ink dried on the access agreements, the dim and distant pipe dream that the average fee would be £7,500 (as Treasury figures assume) were banished once and for all. The Offa analysis shows the average fee is £8,393, which comes down to £8,161 once fee waivers are taken into account. That makes a whopping £616 off per student. It might not sound much, but rough estimates suggest this could lead to a budget black hole of as much as £600m.

This is a big headache for the Treasury, given it has already subjected the higher education budget to the biggest cut in its history over the next four years. With public teaching funds for the arts, humanities and social sciences already gone, it isn’t obvious what the Treasury will do next.

David Willetts has rightly stated his intention to see student numbers grow, and it is surely unthinkable to look at the remaining teaching budget largely concentrated on Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), or the widening participation premium which would surely be politically unpalatable to touch.

It almost borders on a conspiracy theory, but perhaps David Willetts knew all along that the average fee would be higher than £7,500, and this far down the road would now be impossible for the Treasury to cut further. Time will tell.


Guardian: First or Fail – Pearson and the University of Wales (Thur 7th July 2011) July 10, 2011

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Aaron Porter’s First or Fail: Pearson and the University of Wales

Aaron Porter puts the University of Wales and Pearson under the spotlight this week. But which gets the First and which gets a Fail?


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Heading for a First … Pearson

Following the publication of the higher education white paper, Pearson the publishing giant has acted speedily to agree a partnership with Royal Holloway, University of London, this week, which will validate a degree drawn up and designed by Pearson.

This is the first major step taken forward by the private provider, just a week after the white paper. It allows them to enter the degree-awarding ring for the first time. Pearson has not hidden its desire to gain university status itself eventually and award its own degrees, but for the time being this will be seen as a real coup. Of course, Pearson has lots of experience in offering qualifications; not only does it own the exam board EdExcel, but it also offers BTecs and HNDs already.

Of course sceptics have heralded this as private providers simply looking to earn a quick buck , but in truth this is likely to lead to more diverse offerings for students and the chance for qualifications to be studied in different ways. If successful, we are probably only a few strides away from seeing the establishing of the Pearson University.

Heading for a Fail … the University of Wales

The past seven days has gone from bad to worse for the University of Wales. Once regarded as an academic heavyweight, the last few days have seen the institution lurch from one PR crisis to the next. First, question marks were raised about the integrity, and even the legality, of links between the university and colleges in Malaysia and Thailand offering their degrees, according to the findings of a review from the Quality Assurance Agency. Many commentators described it as “the most damning report” of its kind they had seen, and a rare move away from the judgment of “confidence” which the agency has given to 99% of institutions.

Not content with a kicking from the QAA, Wales’ education minister, Leighton Andrews, also put the boot in, describing the farce as bringing Wales “into disrepute”. And then, just as things seemed like they could not get any worse, talks about the formation of a new super-university in Wales fell apart as UWIC walked away from discussions with Trinity St David and Swansea Metropolitan University as a clear consequence of the fall-out from the QAA’s judgement on the University of Wales.

And then, the final cherry on the cake was news that the chief executive of Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, Professor Philip Gummet, in a leaked letter reported by the BBC to the chair of council at the University of Wales, stated the farce was “a significant failure of central processes, and of oversight of these processes by senior management and the council”. For the higher education community, this is pretty damning stuff.

Guardian: First or Fail – David Willetts & Vince Cable (Thur 30th June 2011) July 10, 2011

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Aaron Porter: first or fail

In the first of a series of weekly blog posts, Aaron Porter gives his verdict on who has had a good week (heading for a first) and who has had a bad week (heading for a fail) in HE


Vince Cable

Heading for a First: David Willetts

Whether you agree with him or not, our minister for market forces and chaos, I mean universities and science, David Willetts has had a good week. We finally got to see the long awaited HE White Paper, which at 70 pages didn’t really surprise or shock us, but bewilderingly it wasn’t clear why such an unimpressive document was delayed for eight months. What took them so long?

The reason why I’ve awarded him a first this week, is not because I agree with the White Paper, but rather David Willetts has managed to get his way. The establishing of a freer market in higher education, routes for new providers to enter the HE arena, weaker regulation on quality, more information for consumers and greater competition between institutions is the market revolution Willetts and his Conservative colleagues have long craved.

The fact that the Minister of State has clearly won the internal war against his boss, and delivered a document that is Tory through and through, means the path toward a freer market has been established. The initial reaction from academics and students has been sceptical, bordering on the incredulous, but the debate will begin in both parliamentary and academic circles, and it will take a NHS style u-turn to stop Willetts getting his way.

Heading for a Fail: Vince Cable

The very same document which got David Willetts his first, is exactly the same reason why Vince Cable deserves to be awarded a fail. The supposed Secretary of State couldn’t have looked more disinterested in the HE White Paper announcement. Some commented how tortured he looked in the House, sat next to Willetts as the speaker first called the Secretary of State to the dispatch box, only to realise Dr Cable had abdicated that particular responsibility, and instead called the Minister of State to stand in for his boss.

In fact every time the words ‘higher education’ or ‘students’ are uttered, Vince appears to do a runner. The twitterati started to speculate why Cable was so absent from the press work and defence of the document, as unimpressively, and without precedent the man once regarded as “the most popular man in politics” has been turned into a laughing stock by students and academics alike. In April this year, Cable delivered a finger-wagging speech to a packed HEFCE Conference, the few allies he had in the sector turned their back on him, and his relationship with the sector appears all but broken.

But specifically, after the troubles over tuition fees and the infamous broken pledge, this should have been the chance for the Liberal Democrats to prove they do care about students, higher education and a chance to stamp some authority on the coalition. A chance for tough targets on widening access, missing. An opportunity to resist a worrying leap to pure consumerism, or an opening to strongly emphasise the importance of academic freedom – all missing. Rather than seizing the white paper as a chance to repair the Lib Dem’s damaged reputation on higher education, Cable went walkabouts.

Not much evidence of “muscular liberalism” here.


The Times: Universities have had carrots. Now give students sticks (Wednesday 29th June 2011) July 10, 2011

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The Times: Universities have had carrots. Now give students sticks (Wednesday 29th June 2011)

Behind the paywall

The announcement of a consumer revolution for students in the week that
I complete my term as president of the National Union of Students should
be music to my ears. It was certainly a surprise to hear David Willetts,
the Universities Minister, talking about putting power into the hands of
students. There is much potential in the Government’s plans, but there
are also worrying gaps.

The NUS has had its differences with this Government, particularly over
last year’s unleashing of a combination of fee increases and funding
cuts. Before it had even addressed improving courses, institutions or
the student experience, the Government had forced through a threefold
increase in tuition fees, prompting backbench rebellions and protests in
the streets.

This back-to-front approach means that the university authorities have
been allowed carrots but students have had no sticks with which to hold
them to account. Such powers should be given to students themselves, so
I welcome greater recognition for course representatives, students’
unions and the NUS. Providing more information for prospective students
is also long overdue. Measures to tackle this were originally announced
by Lord Mandelson in 2009, even before Lord Browne of Madingley’s review
of fees.

In the current dire jobs market, more information and a charter of
student rights have never been more necessary. Yet in themselves they
will not justify letting universities raise their fees or axe teaching

Mr Willetts says that he has put power in the hands of students but how
can students be expected to take advantage of this when they have been
hit so hard by the Government’s approach, and when little has so far
been said about fair access?

Before the Commons vote on fees, Vince Cable had championed these issues
in an attempt to promote the coalition as “progressive”. But measures to
ensure fair access and wider participation have been curiously absent
from the debate in recent days, as has Dr Cable.
Just when students need the secretary of state responsible for higher
education to signal caution over these proposals, securing concessions
and making good on long-standing Lib Dem commitments, there is silence.
While an elite group of students will continue to enjoy a safe and
secure passage to university, Dr Cable must ensure that the majority are
not exposed to chaos and uncertainty. If warm words are not backed by
action, it would be a waste of talent and what might have been music to
the ears will become a cacophony of protest.

Aaron Porter is president of the National Union of Students



Left Foot Forward: The idea £9k fees would be the exception was always a pipe-dream (March 2nd 2011) July 10, 2011

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Left Foot Forward: The idea £9k fees would be the exception was always a pipe-dream (March 2nd 2011)



As Exeter University, the first outside the Russell Group, declares its intention to charge the £9,000 top fee for its degree courses the government’s plans to change the higher education funding landscape continue to unravel at an amazing pace.

When the plans were announced they were widely and popularly dismissed as ill-thought through and unfair. The Government tried to appease doubters with an insistence that fees above £6,000 (still almost a doubling of the previous cap) would be the exception.

This was always a pipe-dream – when top up fees were introduced universities quickly raised fees up to the cap and this year every single one charged the full amount; so with no disincentives and plenty of incentives they were of course going to once again race to the cap.

Quickly it became obvious that the government expected £7,500 to be the norm rather than £6,000 and were told that the maximum fee would be the exception. If any university charges the minimum £6,000 for any course it will be the exception.

The Office for Fair Access has been given responsibility for negotiating the Access Agreements that will determine whether universities are able to charge more than £6,000. This body has made it clearthat it has no way of enforcing the conditions it suggests when allowing higher fees. OFFA is also not a market regulator, it has no way to stop bunching of fees charges at the top level as it was asked to do by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

So with 80 per cent of the teaching grant taken away and with no enforceable restrictions, most universities will of course charge the full amount.

The whole policy was rushed, trying to take advantage of good will both between the parties and from the public soon after the election. That, of course, backfired, sparking a resistance to the austerity ideology that continues to build and spread into other areas.

There is simply no excuse not to take a step back and reassess the entire scheme and find something that ensures a fair balance of funding between government, graduates and business and that no prospective student is discouraged by the threat of huge debt.


Guardian: Why I’m standing down as NUS president (21 Feb 2011) July 10, 2011

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Guardian: Why I’m standing down as NUS president (21 Feb 2011)



The last year has been an incredible one for young people and for theNational Union of Students. We have reasons to be proud and reasons to be angry, often at the same time. As a group we kick-started the resistance to the government’s cuts agenda that came from all quarters. It is a campaign I am proud to have been involved in as a student officer in Leicester, as national vice-president for higher education and more recently as NUS president.

We must not forget the betrayal of politicians who signed a pledge to vote against the rise in tuition fees and then voted for it. It is a betrayal that will see thousands of young people decide that they cannot risk the debt that going to university would load them with. The campaign to reverse that decision has already started and will need to continue both locally and nationally until we have a better outcome.

Unfortunately, attempts to discredit the movement by those who stand to gain by splitting us have threatened to do just that and the politics of personal attacks threaten to turn the campaign inward at a time when our resilience must be at its highest. The new politics and the new landscape, which will see support for students across the board slashed, mean it is more vital than ever that we are united and reinvigorated. That is why I have decided there needs to be a new president to take us forward and why I informed our members that I would not be seeking re-election at our national conference in April.

The challenge for the new national president will be great. They’ll need to support students up and down the country to ensure the continuance of quality education, while running a major national campaign to defeat damaging marketisation in education and planning to hold to account the politicians that turned their back on us. They’ll need to build activism on the ground while defending legitimate, democratic students’ unions from attacks by our enemies. Above all, they’ll need a fresh outlook – because if we are to reach out, and engage with, the full diversity of our membership, we need to move beyond the tired rhetoric and redundant tactics of certain factional groups.

I believe the NUS the world sees now is one that is engaged and articulate, and that values education not just for its current members but for those in generations to come. I believe that is why the NUS has received so much public support and why the government found it so hard to push through its damaging reforms. Young people have proved that they can hold entrenched interests and uncaring governments to account and I will always be proud of my part in that, even as I stand aside and others take on the challenge.


Guardian: Student infighting harms our cause (Jan 28, 2011) July 10, 2011

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Student infighting harms our cause (Jan 28, 2011)


A couple of pieces on Comment is free over recent weeks have suggested that the National Union of Students no longer represents the views and wishes of students, and that NUS has been inactive since calling what is still the largest student demonstration for a generation.

While I am certain that those who wrote the pieces care passionately about these issues, they represent few people other than themselves and I feel it is important to respond to the misinformation that has nonetheless been taken as fact by some.

Far from being inactive, the NUS has continued to lead the movement that was spurred into action by the government’s vicious attacks on young people in general and, more specifically, our education. Following the march on 10 November, which we organised and for which we mobilised 50,000 students, the biggest protest in the UK since those against the Iraq war, we called a series of days of campus actions and two lobbies of parliament, in which hundreds of students met their elected representatives and won us even more backing in crucial votes.

In the latest, and certainly not last, NUS-organised street protest, thousands of people from across the progressive movement will be on the streets of Manchester on Saturday demonstrating against the government’s cuts agenda and its impact on young people. This has widened our collaboration with other unions and will see us standing shoulder to shoulder with TUCUniteUCUFBUNUT and many others.

I have always said that where action is supported by students’ unions and where adequate arrangements are made for the safety of those involved that I will back that action. I do not believe this to be the case with the action planned for London on the same day and as such will not undertake to encourage our members to attend. I won’t criticise those that protest peacefully and of course I support their solidarity with the wider cause. I will not, however, risk our representative role and reputation to appease an unrepresentative, self-aggrandising minority, in pursuit of their own fringe agendas, which lack wider student and public support.

It is vital that we engage with the process, that students and those who represent them make the intellectual arguments for our cause. I believe we are right when we say that investment in higher education will drive our economic recovery and that cutting that investment and loading young people with debt risks consigning a generation to the scrapheap and will lead to economic stagnation. Modern politics will not be swayed by street protest alone and that is why I am prepared to engage with Simon Hughes in his new role as the government’s “access advocate”.

There can be no excusing the fact that he badly let down so many young people by abstaining in the tuition vote, and then voting with the government to abolish the education maintenance allowance. However, I have set out a number of key areas where Hughes would do well to start repairing the coalition’s damaged reputation: ensuring there is a comprehensive package of support for the poorest students in college, making the case for the Aimhigher programme, helping to construct a National Scholarship Programme and making the case to the Treasury for the reinstatement of the Future Jobs Fund.

I have a responsibility to the millions of students I represent not to let my own personal anger, at their betrayal by coalition politicians, stand in the way of working towards future successes for those students. I have not changed my views about the rise in tuition fees, I will retain my opposition to them, but fees of £9,000 look set to be a reality for many future students and a stubborn, principled resistance to engagement will mean that we are hostages to even higher bills and even fewer rights – we have to play the hand we are dealt and it would be remiss not to fight to ensure the best protection possible for students in the real world. The NUS exists to defend, extend and promote students’ rights, not to gamble them away.

A handful of students’ unions – less than 1% of the more than 650 students’ unions in the UK – have passed votes of no-confidence in my leadership. I have listened to their criticisms and taken them on board but I strongly believe that those involved, pushed by outside forces on the hard-left of the political spectrum, are not representative of the student movement in general. Some believe the NUS has not been radical enough, that we are wrong to criticise those whose violence distracted from political betrayal and lost us public support when we needed it most – I stand firmly by my position.

Those who rail against me believe that we should devote our entire resource to organising street protests, while others believe we have been too radical, that we should not have been involved in any protests, or even that we should have backed the rise in tuition fees. I do not believe anything I could do would appease either of these groups. The vast majority, including myself, believe a moderate approach that engages with political realities while showing our dissent and energising through direct action is the way forward.

I know that those who wish to push more of the burden of economic recovery on to the young and the vulnerable will be delighted to read these words, deliriously happy that at a time when I should be talking about the wider issues that affect young people – record youth unemployment, the shrinking of the disability living allowance, the hundreds of thousands that will miss out on university places this year – I am instead speaking to those whose misdirected energy and anger seeks to split our movement.

I would rather, and will continue to, discuss the growing breadth of our support for and solidarity with the wider anti-cuts movement and encourage anyone who believes the government is cutting too hard and too fast to join us in Manchester on Saturday or to safely and peacefully show our campaign has moved beyond London. Our generation faces a hostile future and if we respond to deceitful politicians and a hysterical media with discord and disunity, we will let ourselves, and the generations to come, down.


Interview on BBC’s Hardtalk January 9, 2011

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Link to my interview on BBC Hardtalk – which is generally regarded to be the toughest interview show on TV!



Open letter to Simon Hughes following his appointment as the Government’s ‘access advocate’ January 4, 2011

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An open letter to Simon Hughes on University Access.

5th January 2010

Dear Simon,

Congratulations on your appointment to the role of “Advocate for Access to Education”. Given the serious access problem we have in many of our elite Universities and the proposals to treble tuition fees by the Coalition it will be a challenging role – especially if it is to go beyond the kind of “window dressing” that the role has already been accused of. NUS has long called for there to be a more serious debate and attention paid to access into continued education, particularly with better information, advice and guidance given to prospective students. Alongside our member students’ unions we are fully committed to improving and widening university access and are ready and willing to assist in your efforts to ensure that university is opened up to anyone with the talent to achieve. Our 16-18 members in FE Colleges are keen to work with you on your research into the barriers to access they face.

To begin with, we have six recommendations:

First, we would recommend that the Government urgently clarifies its “National Scholarship Scheme”. On the weekend before the fees vote, the Government was claiming that pupils on free school meals would get a free first year at University. Now the Government has dropped that commitment- arguing instead that the scheme should consist of different packages, bid for by universities. Whilst we appreciate that the free school meals measure is only a narrow pool, it was precisely this kind of “postcode lottery” on student financial assistance that your manifesto commitment on bursaries was designed to scrap- so to avoid misleading students, getting the Government to come clean on its “free first year” offer would be a good start, and being clear about which students are now eligible for this support is imperative.

Second, you could hold the Government to its promise on the fee cap. You will know that ministers have repeatedly claimed that the higher limit would only apply in “exceptional” circumstances– but we are finding it hard to get the Government to explain how it will ensure that £9k rather than £6k fees will be the “exception”. Your efforts here could mean ensuring the Government doesn’t break another promise- this time one made repeatedly on the floor of the house.

Third, you could insist that universities do much more to promote access. At present universities are only routinely judged on applications from the poorest; but it is acceptances and completions (as well as achievement) that matter more. Insisting that the monitoring of access achievements gets tougher, and that the HE sector gets its act together on measures such as Post Qualifications Admissions (where students apply once they have their results) and Contextual Admissions (where applicants are judged on academic potential), could make a massive difference.

Fourth, you could insist that the Government reinstates AimHigher. Up until now the debate on access has focussed heavily on 17 and 18 year olds, but research in this area suggests intervention earlier in school is crucial. This is exactly what the AimHigher programme ensured, by funding to ensure meaningful links were built up between universities and schools. The programme has made a massive difference to aspiration to apply to university across the country and the decision to scrap it will only harm our shared cause to improve access, particularly at a time when the Coalition have trebled tuition fees.

Fifth, you would do well to suggest that the Government listens and responds to voices in the Muslim community making clear how damaging the changes to loan interest rates will be to access for this group. FOSIS (the Federation of Islamic Student Societies) have repeatedly made clear why the changes will be a problem but so far have had no contact from ministers or officials.

But sixth and most importantly, you could demand that the EMA is reinstated. Everyone agrees that the biggest factor in determining university access is achievement at Level 3- or A Level. So for Gove to axe it (having promised to keep it) on the most threadbare of evidence is astonishing, and will do more to harm university access than your role could ever fix. Officially, you only have the power to recommend how a £50m replacement for a £450m scheme is spent. Unofficially, you could make abundantly clear just how devastating for the poorest families the removal of the EMA will be to retention and achievement- and get it reinstated before it’s too late.

I fear that measures the Government have taken so far in office have been utterly counter-productive for social mobility, I hope that your appointment will start to see this reversed, and look forward to hearing back from you in relation to the role NUS can play to help you achieve this, and the six recommendations I have made above as an important start point.

Best wishes,

Aaron Porter
National President


NUS: Welcomes Hughes to uni access role but warns his appointment is “tiny plaster over gaping wound” January 2, 2011

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NUS Welcomes Hughes to uni access role but warns his appointment is “tiny plaster over gaping wound”


Commenting on the appointment by the Government of Simon Hughes to the role of “Advocate for Access to Education”, NUS President Aaron Porter said:

“We welcome any efforts to open up access to Higher Education and will work positively with Hughes to achieve it, but the role is a tiny plaster over a gaping wound. Achievement at A Level matters most, and no amount of ‘better communication’ can hide the Government’s devastating cut of the Education Maintenance Allowance. Hughes will need to hold the Government to its promise that fees of more than £6,000 will only apply in ‘exceptional’ circumstances and get uni access scheme AimHigher reinstated”