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Is another tuition fee hike on the horizon? May 11, 2015

Posted by AaronPorter in Uncategorized.
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Originally posted on Progress website:

http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2015/05/11/is-another-tuition-fee-hike-on-the-horizon/

Is another tuition fee hike on the horizon?

In 2010, the first big flashpoint for the coalition government was the very public and very brutal, at least for the Liberal Democrats, clash over whether to increase tuition fees. The independent Browne review suggested no fee cap whatsoever. The Liberal Democrat manifesto had promised their abolition, the National Union of Students campaign pledge signed by all Liberal Democrat candidates opted for a freeze on fees and the Tories had not really said anything at all. Eventually the coalition opted for a fee cap of £9,000 a year, the Liberal Democrats broke their promise and the rest, as they say, is history, a bit like most of the Liberal Democrats members of parliament who broke the pledge.

But as soon as the vote to increase fees squeezed through parliament, passed by 21 votes, it became clear that issues of sustainability were coming to the fore. The resource accounting and budgeting charge for the new fee regime continued to rise steadily, and well beyond projections from BIS. By the end of the parliament, the latest figures suggested that for every £1 loaned to a student, 48p would never be paid back. Figures from the public accounts committee suggest that by 2042, the tuition fee black hole could be as big as £90bn, a system which critics described as costing students and the taxpayer more money than the previous regime, while part-time enrolments fell by 40 per cent during the last five years and universities are, privately at least, very concerned about the first generation of £9k students and their willingness to stump up yet more fees for postgraduate courses.

Labour’s policy on tuition fees in the last parliament was always unclear. In their respective leadership campaigns, both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls suggested they preferred a graduate tax. During the fees debate in parliament the Labour position was simply that it opposed what the coalition was proposing and then after months and months of uncertainty and internal wrangling over the feasibility of a graduate tax, the manifesto finally opted for a reduction to £6,000. In opposition, Labour should have had an easy time criticising the coalition on tuition fees, but without a clear and compelling alternative it always felt like they did not exploit that advantage. Liam Byrne was impressive as the shadow minister for higher and further education. He engaged thoughtfully with the sector and seemed prepared to think about the wider challenges for universities beyond the headlines generated by tuition fees. When the Times Higher Education magazine polled academics just before the 2015 election, nearly 46 per cent cited they would back the Labour party. Byrne’s robust and evidence based approach will have been a large contributor to that. However, it was not clear that the thoughtfulness demonstrated by the shadow minister made its way into the Labour manifesto on higher education.

So against this backdrop, and with a strong body of opinion that higher education funding is already unsustainable and wider questions about regulation of the university system there will be some pressure to look at the question of tuition fees once again. Speaking at a post-election briefing hosted by Pearson and the Financial Times this morning, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA and formerly head of the Number 10 policy unit in the Blair years, suggested that a further increase in the fee cap would be likely this parliament. He went on to say, that it appeared the government really only listens to the Russell Group of universities and a number of their vice-chancellors have already gone on record as saying that the cap should increase further.

Whatever the new government might be thinking, Labour needs to be more thoughtful than simply arguing against whatever might be proposed. Labour’s approach needs to consider the interplay between schools, further and higher education policy, and the contribution that employers can make toward both funding and appropriately contributing to curriculum and assessment. There needs to be a credible position on funding, but that should not just focus solely on full time undergraduates. There is a crisis in part-time funding, and the postgraduate system is also under pressure and shows signs of being woefully underrepresented by those from non-traditional and working-class backgrounds, these all need to be taken into account.

The Labour party has much to be proud of for the way it oversaw a significant rise in students from the poorest background going to university and the development of a sustainable footing for British universities to compete with the best of the world during their time in government. But with new pressures ahead to find a sustainable funding model, the same level of thought needs to be given to universities once again.

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OpinionPanel – It’s time to challenge university league tables April 19, 2012

Posted by AaronPorter in Higher Education.
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http://www.opinionpanel.co.uk/community/2012/04/10/its-time-to-challenge-university-league-tables/

The world of information, advice and guidance for prospective students entering higher education is a complex one. Some students are born into environments where access to both information and, crucially, to advice and guidance is abundant. Others are fortunate to have schools or supporters to guide them through. However, many are still left to navigate an often unfamiliar environment alone and without crucial context to help inform and shape their decision making. Many of those students may well end up making decisions they could later regret, with an accompanying price tag that won’t exactly cushion the blow. The axing of AimHigher and the hands-off approach from the Department of Education towards career guidance in schools is only likely to make the problem worse.

Photo by Procsilas Moscas

Central to the information landscape are league tables. Yet, as I see it, very little is done to challenge their obviously gaping flaws. Practically all of the broadsheet newspapers turn their hand to league tables at some point in the calendar year, with universities quick to pounce on the table which places them highest as the “most authoritative”. Yet I’d argue that for many students, perhaps even the majority, all newspaper league tables are largely redundant, and frankly don’t give any indication of many of the crucial elements that students are really interested in; such as the quality of teaching, access to work experience and curriculum content.

Of course the simplicity of league tables, the fact that universities can be boiled down to a single digit, then placed in a rank order, is on the surface at least quite appealing. Prospective students can be duped into thinking that the university ranked 43rd is somehow better than the university ranked 51st, but in reality of course there is a very good chance that the ‘lower’ ranked university may well be more suitable for huge swathes of students.

So my major problem with university league tables boils down to two central arguments. The first is that the methodology which underpins most league tables is horridly out of sync with what undergraduate students in particular care about. The second is that whilst university league tables continue to be published with a simple rank order the ability for students to determine which factors are most important to them (e.g. employability scores, staff-student ratios etc.) are usually overlooked, which means that students are forced to judge universities on the factors which The Guardian or Sunday Times considers to be important, and not what the student her/himself cares about.

At the heart of the concerns about methodology, I am of the opinion that most league table compilers feel restrained by pulling together a methodology which ensures the same universities finish in roughly the same positions every year. The prospect that Cambridge or Oxford Universities wouldn’t finish in the top 2 positions is too horrific a thought for league table compilers to contemplate, so the metrics end up being heavily weighted toward ensuring this just ends up happening year after year. Convention suggests that they are the top two universities, and the Russell Group (24 of the most research intensive universities) are somehow the best universities, so rather than worry about having their own methodology questioned, it seems to me that newspapers retreat to a convenient set of metrics which mean that Oxbridge occupy the top 2 spots, and most of the Russell Groups universities are somewhere in the top 35. Employers also fuel the vicious cycle by largely focussing their recruitment efforts on the same narrow group of universities, whilst simultaneously complaining that many graduates don’t arrive with the skills they want. But whilst many of the big employers still confine themselves to a narrow group of universities it will continue to mean those are the universities which will continue to benefit from inflated employment scores. Employers might actually find that there are graduates from other universities which are just as adept, perhaps even more so given the more business-focussed curriculum that often exists in those institutions. But whilst many employers continue to screen out graduates from outside certain universities, they won’t ever know whether they are better or worse than what they are getting at present.

But in my criticism of the methodology of league tables I want to question why such a weighting is placed on the research output of universities. The role of research in universities is crucial, but frankly it doesn’t have the disproportionate bearing on the undergraduate experience that most league tables lend it in their weightings. In fact you could argue that the more research intensive a university, the less emphasis is placed on the undergraduate experience and teaching. However, could it simply be that newspapers know that by playing the research funding game, the 24 Russell Group universities who scoop around 75% of the total research income will comfortably take slots in the top 30? Our newspapers can then breathe a sigh of relief, knowing their rank order ‘looks about right’. It surely can’t be because these institutions provide the best teaching, the most work experience opportunities, the opportunities to participate in a range of assessment methods or add most educational value to their students – because in the main these are not the universities that do that.

So do most undergraduate students really agree that Oxbridge, or indeed the Russell Group more generally, are really the best universities? According to lots of measures that exist, the majority of students actually have concerns about our so-called ‘top ranking’ universities. From student satisfaction (many Russell Group universities are ranked in the bottom quartile on this measure) to value added (the extent to which a university adds to your educational performance during your years of study) these universities actually perform very poorly.

So rather than newspapers seeking to dictate what they consider to be the most important facets of a university, I’d like to see more effort placed into providing personalised advice and guidance to individual applicants to work out which university is best for them. There is nothing wrong with saying that a post-92 university is better for some students, and a research intensive environment better for others – but let’s get comfortable with that, and stop the pretence that we should be judging all universities along the same lines. For those actively wishing to benefit from a research environment it may well be Oxbridge or the Russell Group, but for a more employer-focussed curriculum or educational value added it is likely to be somewhere else, and I don’t think that summing up a university as a simple digit does anyone any favours!

University admissions need to look beyond grades March 13, 2012

Posted by AaronPorter in Higher Education.
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University admissions need to look beyond grades

http://www.opinionpanel.co.uk/community/2012/03/13/university-admissions-need-to-look-beyond-grades/

March, 13, 2012

 

We’ve all heard the headlines; over 100,000 qualified applicants have missed out on university places in the summers of 2010 and 2011, that pupils from private and selective schools still dominate the most selective universities and perhaps most shockingly that there are more Afro-Caribbean male students at London Metropolitan University compared with the entirety of all Russell Group universities put together.

Whilst few would dispute that universities perform a vital role in changing lives and stimulating social mobility, I want to argue that many of our most selective universities haven’t done enough to get students from non-traditional backgrounds through their doors. But crucially it means they are also missing out on students who have the potential to out-perform counterparts from more traditional backgrounds.

I want to stress that prior academic attainment should still be seen as central to the university application process. The ability of a student to perform in assessment is critical to giving any university an assurance that they will also be able to perform at university too. But without taking into account the context of the performance of a student, our universities are missing out on talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

At the moment, the overwhelming majority of universities only consider previous grades, predicted A levels (or equivalent) and a personal statement when deciding who to offer a place. Some universities also include an interview, and done in the right way this can be helpful, but for many it also acts as a barrier to many prospective students. So an applicant with AAB generally stands a better chance of getting offered a place at the most selective universities compared to someone holding just ABB, and at face value that just seems common sense.

However take a not so hypothetical situation. Is it really more of an achievement to attain AAB in a private school, with a staff-student ratio of 15:1 and a private tutor outside of school in the run up to A levels compared with another pupil securing ABB in a difficult comprehensive where the average in the school in CCC and the staff student ratio is 30:1? It’s surely at least arguable that the second is more of an achievement, and certainly an indication of greater potential in the second case. But more importantly put both those pupils in the same university and then think who might end up performing best after 3 years?

A study attempting to look at this very issue demonstrated that taking university applicants with the same grades but one from an independent school and the other from state schools in the bottom quartile, showed that if you then put those same pupils into the same university course the student from a state school would on average out-perform their previously independent schooled counterpart by as many as 7 degree points. Therefore you could quite easily make the case that students from particularly disadvantaged background could actually be offered a place with 1 or 2 lower A level grades (BBB instead of AAB for instance), and they would still on average at least match the performance of an independently schooled equivalent.

Now critics will scream that this is unfair social engineering and an affront to university admissions. But I would argue that this is the only way universities will actually get the very best students at the point of exit from university, and not simply at the point of admissions. Context matters, and the circumstances in which an applicant has secured their previous attainment should be taken into consideration.

I don’t doubt that there are huge complexities, but universities must start seriously considering how they can consider the context of their applicants to better judge what they are capable of achieving. Perhaps then we might start to see a more diverse range of students fortunate enough to study at the most selective universities who undoubtedly play such a crucial role in changing lives and setting graduates up for the world beyond formal education.

Thu 22 Sep: Guardian HE Network – First or Fail: University Alliance and post-qualification applications September 22, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
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First or fail: University Alliance and post-qualification applications

University Alliance’s report into universities’ role in stimulating economic growth is worth a read but a second attempt at driving PQA is already losing steam, says Aaron Porter

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/2011/sep/22/first-fail-university-alliance-pqa

signs of spring

UA’s report sets out an agenda for stimulating growth in economy through higher education
Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Heading for a first … University Alliance

Higher education is infamous for producing reports that, while very worthy, end up only acting as doorstops or decoration on a bookshelf. So when a report is produced of real value and of important contemporary relevance to the key debate in politics right now – how to stimulate economic growth – it should be celebrated. This week, the publication of the University Alliance report, Growing the future: universities leading, changing and creating the regional economy was a welcome contribution to both the higher education and economic debates being had right now.

Unashamedly, the report set out the role which universities already do, and need to continue to play in contributing to the regional economy. At a time when the coalition is obsessed with deficit reduction, which is unquestionably choking off growth, it has never been more important for universities to demonstrate their value in helping to stimulate growth. In the immediate term, they are a vital source for jobs and an important link with local businesses; in the medium term their research and knowledge transfer will equip the future workforce with the skills required to ensure the UK can remain internationally competitive.

With contributions from leading figures in higher education, industry, politics and even a chapter from the chancellor of Huddersfield University, Sir Patrick Stewart, the report is well worth reading. Hopefully the kind words in the foreword from Vince Cable will translate into real support and crucially adequate funding for universities from government to be able to deliver on the promise they undoubtedly have.

Heading for a fail … post-qualification applications

The pros and cons of a post-qualification application system have long been debated within higher education. Bill Rammell, during his time as higher education minister put forward the idea for consideration, but a mixture of resistance from the sector and political timing meant it wasn’t realised.

So when the idea of moving A-level results forward and the university application process back was re-introduced by the coalition in the higher education white paper it was met with a mixed reaction once again. Instinctively, I continue to be drawn to the idea. Surely it makes more sense for university places to be awarded on the basis of your actual results, rather than on prediction. And while I accept that this may mean some shifting around of the school exam timetable and the university application process, it seems a price worth paying.

However, this week the Russell Group started to go public with their criticism of the idea, claiming that it’s not clear how the benefits outweigh the disadvantages and raising concerns that a PQA system could hamper their efforts to recruit disadvantaged students. A public statement like this means the Russell Group will be lobbying behind the scenes to see the idea thrown out by the time the white paper comes back from parliamentary scrutiny.

I still wait to be ultimately convinced by the arguments on either side, but I can’t help remain uncomfortable with an admissions system that relies so heavily on predictions, rather than a genuine attempt to measure attainment and more crucially potential.

Thur 15 Sep: Guardian HE Network – First or Fail: Vince Cable and the UK economy September 15, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
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First or Fail: Vince Cable and the UK economy

This week, Vince Cable manages not to upset every vice-chancellor at the Universities UK conference but elsewhere it’s revealed the UK spends just 1.2% of its GDP on HE

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/sep/15/vince-cable-vice-chancellors-uk-gdp

Vince Cable Speaks At The Liberal Democrat Party Conference

Speaking out: Vince Cable didn’t upset everyone at the Universities UK conference this week, says Aaron Porter. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Who has had a good week (heading for a first) and who has had a bad week (heading for a fail)?

Heading for a First … Vince Cable

It’s been a rare week for Vince Cable: he hasn’t broken a pledge or reneged on another manifesto promise. But this week, he actually managed to get through Universities UK conference without upsetting every single vice-chancellor in the room – a feat he has sadly managed in previous public speeches to vice-chancellors, most notably at the HEFCE conference in Birmingham where he turned up over an hour late, delivered a withering, finger-wagging speech before refusing to take questions (which had previously been agreed) and was then left to eat his sandwiches alone as the conference full of vice-chancellors either politely ignored him or simply didn’t realise he’d stomped off alone.

But in a minor turnaround, the secretary of state managed to have a constructive dialogue with VCs at their annual conference at Royal Holloway. He will have been heartened further by news that, following the publication of the higher education white paper, a dozen or so as yet unnamed institutions have asked the Office for Fair Access about lowering their tuition fee. Although it still leaves the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills a long way short of its Treasury target – which erroneously predicted and budgeted for an average fee of £7,500 – it does at least provide the secretary of state with a shred of good news before the Liberal Democrat party conference in Birmingham later this month. Who knows, the Lib Dems could still reach double digits in the polls once again – but I’m not holding my breath.

Heading for a Fail … the UK economy

This week we heard news that the UK had slipped down yet another international league table. No, it wasn’t George Osborne having to revise our growth figures down again, or further bad news that youth unemployment has risen once more – both of which also happened – but it was news from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its latest publication, Education at a Glance, showed that the UK has spent just 1.2% of its GDP on higher education, falling further behind the OCED average (1.5%).

Higher education spending may not have secured the same media coverage or political scrutiny as the growth figures or rising unemployment, but its link to both is significant. For a government so patently lacking a credible growth strategy, spending in higher education delivers more than £6 for every single £1 spent – but the problem for the coalition is the time lag before the return is realised. So, faced with long term growth, or the more immediate challenge of eliminating the deficit by the end of this Parliament, short-termism has triumphed once again.

It’s not often you get Wendy Piatt and Sally Hunt singing the same tune, but the reaction to this news from the OECD was one of those rare occasions where the Russell Group and the University and College Union were united. The Russell Group rightly pointed out that such diminishing public investment in higher education risks jeopardising the international reputation of our leading, and I would argue our entire, higher education system. Sally Hunt rightly pointed out that we need to re-emphasise the relationship between education and skills and our economy.

David Cameron is increasingly being accused of making the same mistakes as the Thatcher government of the 1980s. Given we saw a decade of cuts to our universities under the Iron Lady, it appears, when it comes to higher education spending, that accusation certainly holds true.