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

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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.

Left Foot Forward, Sun 16th October: Why are the coalition so ageist? October 16, 2011

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Why are the coalition so ageist?

http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/10/why-are-the-coalition-so-ageist/

With the backdrop of the compulsory retirement age being removed, a move many support although it may well make entry into the labour market for the under-30s tougher, the contrast between the treatment of young and old couldn’t be more stark, writes former NUS president Aaron Porter

As public spending is reined in under the guise of deficit reduction, choking off growth and forcing up unemployment, the government have boxed themselves into a corner forced to make even tougher decisions than they otherwise would need to.

Old-person-and-young-person

And when it comes to difficult decisions, comparing the fate of young and old makes for painful analysis.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the trebling of tuition fees, youth unemployment on the verge of breaking one million and the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance which was a vital lifeline of up to £30 per week for the poorest students in college.

Less attention has been given to the cutting of Connexions, the abolition of the Future Jobs Fund or the removal of funding for over-25s wanting to get GCSEs and A levels. All of which are still disgraceful decisions on the part of government, largely self-defeating in terms of the cost to the economy and almost entirely an attack on the poorest groups and the much talked about ‘squeezed middle’.

The removal of funding for over-25s wanting to take GCSEs and A levels is particularly pernicious, as it is predominantly a lifeline for those failed by the school system, and often seeking a second chance to pick up vital qualifications in maths, English, IT and science to give them a chance of either going onto college or attempting to get a foothold on the jobs market. It is rarely a course in flower arranging or fine art, as the government would like to make out.

Yet as young people are coming under a sustained attack from this government, with little sign of improvement in the foreseeable future, I can’t help contrast this with the political choices the government have frankly ignored elsewhere.

As one means tested benefit is removed in the form of the EMA on the dodgy and frankly manipulated evidence on the part of government, similar benefits for the over 65s remain completely untouched, whether that’s free bus passes, the winter fuel allowance or TV licences.

Let me make it clear, I am not advocating that the mass removal of these vital lifelines for many pensioners: that really would give credibility to baseless accusations that I’m a “Tory”. But I do think it’s both right and sensible to look at whether it is fair that over-65s on incomes of say £50,000 a year, to still receive state support – that’s not being a Tory, that’s looking at how to direct money to those who need it most.

I will continue to make the case for certain universal benefits such as the National Health Service and child benefit, but at a time of financial belt-tightening, it doesn’t sit comfortably with me that certain benefits given to the wealthiest over-65s hasn’t been given more attention,in the same way that student support is rightly targeted toward those who need it most.

The money saved from over 65s with such a suggestion would probably only run into the tens of millions, but when £250m can be found for another round of bin collections, incidentally a very similar amount that was taken away from the EMA, I am certain that the amount of money saved from over 65s could be put to better use elsewhere in the economy.

 

Questions will rightly be asked about whether the cost of means testing benefits such as the winter fuel allowance aren’t more expensive than simply distributing it to everyone in a particular age-range. But if this is really the case, I would ask why the same argument wasn’t afforded to the very same people advocating the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance.

I have chosen to pick this question, although difficult, because it is a serious one.

Of course, the political reality that underpins this is actually a question of political arithmetic. It doesn’t take a great deal of electoral analysis to show that saving £50m from under 25s comes at a much smaller political cost than a similar saving from over 65s. But there comes a point, when the cumulative impact of a series of unfair and regressive decisions toward one age group just becomes too destabilising.

I remain convinced that this coalition give young people very little reason to be optimistic about the future.

So we need to make our arguments in a variety of ways. Recent moves to expose tax evasion by major corporations is long overdue and welcome, as is questioning the appropriateness of significant one-off investments such as Trident, particularly as solutions to these problems are actually a great deal more complex than the narrow debate that is often played out in the press, or indeed as I have been used to in student meetings.

I realise this debate is an uncomfortable one, but seen in a broader context of Generation Y failing to get onto the housing ladder, leaving university with spiralling debt, facing questions about the sustainability of energy and the climate more generally, and probably not entitled to retire until our 70s with pensions increasingly under threat.

It isn’t just a case that the coalition are ageist, but their consistent attacks on young people destabilise the economy and society.

Guardian HE Network, Thu 13 Oct: First or Fail – Chuka Umunna & University of Wales October 16, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
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Chuka Umunna and the University of Wales: first or fail?

A fresh face on the Labour front bench makes a good impression – but it’s more bad news in Wales, says Aaron Porter

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/oct/13/chuka-umunna-university-of-wales

Chuka Umunna

Chuka Umunna, who has replaced John Denham as the shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, has enjoyed a meteoric rise, says Aaron Porter. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

Heading for a First… Chuka Umunna

Almost as soon as conference season was over, Ed Miliband wasted no time in shuffling his pack, bringing some fresh faces to the Labour front bench. Perhaps the most meteoric rise was granted to the impressive Chuka Umunna, part of the 2010 intake and MP for Streatham, who replaced John Denham as the shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills. Given that jobs and economic growth are going to be vital between now and the next general election, this is a sizeable job to give to a relative novice. But Umunna has received notable plaudits both inside and out of the Labour party since his selection as the candidate to fight for Streatham in March 2008, and should provide added energy and vigour as Labour look to step up the competition with the coalition government.

While most of the political interest in his department will inevitably concentrate on economic growth and job creation, the role of higher education, also in his department, should not be overlooked. The OECD evidence is compelling; where there is state investment in a strong higher education system this more than pays itself back through growth, innovation and job creation. Given the absence of any obvious growth strategy from the coalition, Umunna would do well to look to the universities section of his shadow department when preparing to take the case to Cable, Osborne et al.

In the more medium term, he will also need to consider the broader position Labour will take on higher education funding before the next general election. The stopgap announcement just before party conference, for a fee level of £6,000, was met with a mixed reaction. Some party members, and the National Union of Students, are still holding out for a graduate tax – but the results of the Liam Byrne’s policyreview will be instrumental in determining whether the party will stick with the policy Ed Miliband pushed so hard on in his leadership campaign or not.

The job of helping to rebuild Labour’s reputation on the economy, and further exposing the government’s increasingly desperate recovery plan, is a considerable challengeand responsibility. My gut reaction is that Umunna has the essential ingredients to make a real success of it.

Heading for a Fail… University of Wales

No, it’s not just a repeat of last week, but sadly in the past seven days things appear to have become even more desperate for the University of the Wales. After the public concerns about their external degrees outside of Wales were aired just over a week ago, the past few days have seen yet more bad news.

Now, a European-funded scholarship programme, the Prince of Wales Innovation Scheme (Powis) has been withdrawn. According to the Welsh Assembly Enterprise Minister, Edwina Hart AM, a review into the programme found that it was not in fact eligible for EU funding. Although the overall budget for the programme was due to be £11m, with £5m coming from the European funding and the rest from universities and business, up to this point only £0.4m of the EU funding had been put in.

In separate news, it was also reported that the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC) was to change its name to distance itself from the University of Wales. The new name will be Cardiff Metropolitan University, and it will utilise its own awarding powers, rather than awarding degrees from the University of Wales.

So another tough seven days for the University of Wales. I sincerely hope I can write about something else next week.

Thu 8 Sep – Guardian HE – First or fail: BPP University College and Edinburgh University fees September 10, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
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First or fail: BPP University College and Edinburgh University fees

A private provider charging £5,000 a year compares well with the £36,000 over four years being charged by a Scottish university

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/sep/08/first-fail-bpp-edinburgh-university

The McEwan Hall and Bristo Square, Edinburgh University

The McEwan Hall and Bristo Square, Edinburgh University: four-year degrees at Edinburgh University come with a £36,000 price tag for some students. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

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: BPP University College

With shrewd timing, as Scottish universities prepare to charge £9,000 a year to non-Scottish UK students from 2012, BPP University College – the UK’s only for-profit private provider with degree awarding powers – has announced it will set fees at £5,000 a year for its three-year programmes, and £6,000 a year for two-year programmes.

The announcement wasn’t only significant for the contrast with the Scottish universities, but more pertinently because it has deliberately moved to undercut all English universities with the exception of the Open University, which has set its fees at £5,000 for 120 credits (equivalent to a full year of study in a traditional university).

So with BPP aggressively positioning itself to undercut mainstream provision, and with a confident pitch of career-focused courses to deliver on the employability agenda, the foundations are surely set for an aggressive growth strategy to start snapping up increasing numbers of undergraduate students.

Of course critics will be quick to question how quality provision can really be provided at just £5,000 a year, suggesting that the for-profit sector must obviously be offering some kind of sub-standard qualification. But the truth is, I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest these accusations have any substance. It’s probably fair to say that BPP doesn’t offer the rounded student experience of many other institutions – you won’t find too many clubs or societies or even anything resembling a students’ union – but they don’t pretend otherwise and seem pretty confident there will be lots of students signing up come next September.

Heading for a fail: Edinburgh University

When the Scottish Nationalist party pledged, along with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, that they wouldn’t introduce fees for Scottish students choosing to study in Scotland at the last Scottish election, it was a clever ploy. And it provided a noticeable contrast with the deeply unpopular tuition fee trebling that the Westminster coalition government squeezed through parliament in the face of unprecedented opposition.

But while pledging not to introduce fees for Scottish students was a vote winner in Scotland, or at least not a vote loser for any parties who didn’t break ranks – only the Conservatives made it clear they would look to bring in fees – it was always going to cause a funding problem somewhere, unless an unpalatable solution was afforded to universities. But few had realised quite how unpalatable the solution would end up being.

A minor quirk in European law means that while a government can’t legislate to discriminate between citizens of EU countries, they can discriminate within a country. And while the interpretation of this is being challenged, for the meanwhile at least it has opened the door for the poor souls from the rest of the UK, ie England, Wales and Northern Ireland, to be saddled with the unenviable task of trying to fill the funding shortfall Scottish universities feel that is opening up.

While Aberdeen and Heriot-Watt universities showed a modicum of restraint by limiting their £9,000-a-year fee to an overall of maximum of £27,000 even for those on four year courses, Edinburgh University showed no such restraint, unleashing the quite preposterous standard fee of £36,000 for a four-year course.

I’m not alone in being disgusted by the size of the fee that Edinburgh University has decided to charge. But I’m equally disgusted by a Scottish Nationalist party administration in Holyrood abusing the fact that Scotland is a part of the UK, and allowing the clear discrimination against students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland to prop up the finances of Scottish universities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thur 1 Sep: Guardian HE: First or fail: Campaign for Financial Education and 2012 university applicants September 2, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
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First or fail: Campaign for Financial Education and 2012 university applicants

Deserving recognition this week: a campaign to add financial education to the school curriculum; falling from favour, the students who can’t afford higher tuition fees

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/sep/01/first-or-fail-campaign-for-financial-edcation

 

abacus

Money Saving Expert, Martin Lewis has launched a campaign to get compulsory financial education into the school curriculum. Photograph: Toru Hanai/REUTERS

Aaron’s verdict on 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: campaign for financial education

With all the furore surrounding tuition fees, debt, loans and interest rates, very little thought has been given to the support, and crucially the education given to school pupils about finance and money. So with higher education funding rarely out of the headlines, Martin Lewis of the Money Saving Expert website has launched a campaign to get compulsory financial education into the school curriculum.

While higher education funding may have been the catalyst for the campaign, it’s evident that financial education wouldn’t be limited to information about that, in fact the plan would be to cover the basics of personal finance and consumer rights. Launching a petition on the government’s new e-petition website, Martin Lewis describes the current state of affairs as “a national disgrace that in the 20 years since introducing student loans, we’ve educated our youth into debt when they go to university, but never about debt. We’re a financially illiterate nation.” Strong words, but then again a comprehensive understanding of basic finance is an important issue. A wrong decision, or unchallenged misinformation can cost thousands.

Since launching the campaign, the e-petition has quickly passed more than 50,000 signatures. And with parliament giving consideration to a full debate on any petition that passes 100,000 sign ups, it’s already over half-way there.

In an economy that already requires an increasingly sophisticated understanding as to how to make the right financial decisions, this seems like a no-brainer to me. To add your name to the petition, you can sign up here.

Heading for a fail: 2012 university applicants

The government likes to claim they don’t understand the system and perhaps the financial education they receive isn’t up to scratch, but it doesn’t take a degree to realise that lots of potential university applicants for 2012 are going to be deterred from applying due to the hike in fees. The big question for universities, but also the government, is how many? Up until now, it’s been almost impossible to say with any authority how many fewer applicants we could see for the 2012 intake. Lessons from history show us that after the previous tuition fee rise, from £1,000 a year to £3,000, we saw a 5% drop for the 2006 intake. But that was quite a different reform that met with quite a different reaction and crucially was done at a time when there was record investment in the outreach infrastructure such as AimHigher. With that infrastructure gone and a hostile reaction on the streets and in the press, initial predictions have been for a drop of anywhere between 5% to 20% through university doors come 2012.

Anything approaching a double digit fall would be catastrophic for the coalition, and for the Liberal Democrats in particular, who are desperately hoping that their tuition fee car crash won’t cause them any more political damage. If the decrease is negligible, they will at least claim it hasn’t had the damaging impact many feared it would. However, it will do little to allay the concerns of thousands of students and their parents who still feel betrayed after their very public pledge signing, and then discarding. Anything approaching a 10% fall or more, will simply give more ammunition to the long-standing critics of the tuition fee trebling.

So this week, findings from the first major study into the applicant intentions from the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER), which surveyed over 1,000 secondary school pupils aged between 14 an 17, will make uncomfortable reading for the coalition. NFER’s headline was that 15% of pupils in school years 10 to 12 in England who were originally planning to go to university have now decided not to, 19% of school pupils have decided to only apply to universities charging less than the £9000 a year, and 26% said they will only apply to universities where they can live at home. But perhaps most shocking of all, was that 79% of respondents said that the tuition fee increase was forcing them to change their plans about future study in some form or another. It’s going to take more than a Simon Hughes sized sticking plaster to remedy this.

So the clock is ticking to see whether the findings from this research project will be translated into the real decline many predicted when the government first announced their plans, but if this is anything to go by, it does not look encouraging.

Thur 25 Aug: First or fail: university admissions tutors and the Scottish government August 25, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education.
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First or fail: university admissions tutors and the Scottish government

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/aug/25/first-or-fail-university-admissions

Praise for those dealing with the clearing frenzy, but criticism of the SNP for excluding students from the rest of the UK

clearing advisers

Admissions tutors did a great job of dealing with prospective students this year, but Aaron Porter wants to see a move to a post-qualification application. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

The verdict on 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: university admissions tutors

It’s probably been a busy week, but it’s also been a record week for university admissions tutors. As expected, there was a late scramble for university places once A-level results were announced. With greater demand than ever before, pressure for clearing was unprecedented, with many students desperate to secure a place in the September 2011 entry before tuition fees treble next year. Places were getting snapped up more quickly than bargains in a Christmas sale, and by the start of this week 17,878 had already been allocated, a jump of 31% on last year. With places getting filled in record time, and pressure from university management to get bums on seats in order to balance the books, the pressure was on admissions tutors to deal with thousands of frantic prospective students hoping to secure a university place. So this week admissions tutors definitely deserve a first.

But for all my admiration of what admissions tutors do, particularly in the busy week that follows A-level results, I can’t help but think it simply papers over the crack of a much bigger problem. The fact that in 2011 we still have a system of university admissions based on predictions and followed by an annual frenzied clearing auction can not be right. I agree with my predecessor as NUS president, Wes Streeting (now chief executive of the Helena Kennedy Foundation), writing for the Huffington Post last week who said that “it’s time to consign this university bargain basement to the dustbin of history.” The sooner we can move to a post-qualification application (PQA) system, the better. The government has signalled its intent to investigate PQA in the recent higher education white paper, and this is one pledge I’d like to see the government keep.

Heading for a fail: Scottish government

We saw the commencement of a legal challenge against the Scottish government this week, for what critics believe is their contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. While the cast-iron guarantee from the Scottish National party government in Holyrood to stick to their pledge for free education in Scotland is laudable, there is a horrid whiff of hypocrisy about it. Despite offering a free education to Scottish students studying in Scotland, an entitlement extended to other students coming from the rest of the EU, students from the rest of the UK are charged between £1,820 and £2,895 per year, set to rise to £9000 next year. Paul Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers believes this contravenes not only the European Convention on Human Rights, but also Britain’s Equality Act.

The implications of this legal challenge will be significant. Scottish universities are already claiming a funding shortfall somewhere in the region of £200m, and with students from the rest of the UK footing much of the bill already, the funding black hole will get bigger if the SNP government loses the case.

Thur 21st July: Guardian HE Network – First or Fail: Robert Gordon University graduates and Charlie Gilmour July 21, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
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First or Fail: Robert Gordon University graduates and Charlie Gilmour

Aaron Porter discusses measures for graduate employability and the consequences of student protests

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/jul/21/robert-gordon-university-charlie-gilmour

Aberdeen

Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University has the highest success rate in the UK for finding graduates jobs.
Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Heading for a First … Robert Gordon University graduates

This week saw the publication of the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s destination survey of first-time full-time graduates (for 2009-10), with the not so snappy acronym DLHE. Somewhat to my surprise, the mainstream university with the best rate of graduate employment wasn’t Oxford or Cambridge, but actually Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, with a whopping 95.9% of its cohort headed into employment.

It’s less surprising when you consider that the university has worked hard to secure research partnerships in engineering, computer science and the sub-sea industry, all of which have a real need for highly talented graduates.

Although I still have deep reservations about the quality and robustness of data collected just six months after graduation – I was deeply disappointed that the government didn’t use the recent higher education white paper as an opportunity to commit to a more longitudinal survey of graduate destinations – this is still great news from for the students and alumni in Aberdeen.

Other mainstream universities that figured highly in the survey include the University of Surrey (94.8%), University of Edinburgh (94.8%) and Aberdeen University (94.4%).

Heading for a Fail … Charlie Gilmour

It was one of the images that defined the student protests at the end of last year. Charlie Gilmour, the adopted son of Pink Floyd guitarist David, swinging from a Union Jack hanging from the Cenotaph. A Cambridge University student, from a wealthy home, who appeared to be high on drugs running amok on the streets of London. It was right that this was criticised and, in my opinion, his actions and others like him did nothing to help the student cause and probably hindered it significantly – certainly in terms of trying to build broader public support through the media.

But whatever your opinion about the student protests, and the actions of a tiny minority which went beyond the law, the news this week that Charlie Gilmour has been sentenced to 16 months for jumping on the bonnet of a car which was part of the escort for the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall seems disproportionate, unfair and an attempt from the judicial system to make a scapegoat of him.

Probably the most controversial decision of my time as NUS president was to describe the scenes of violence and criminal damage on the students protests as “despicable”. Now out of the eye of the storm and with the benefit of hindsight, I think the language I used was strong. And while I will never defend law- breaking, coupled with the belief that such actions were likely to lose our campaign support, I can’t help feel that the courts need to take a wider perspective. Gilmour was in the wrong, few would contest that. But context is important, and an angry 21-year-old, who had been rejected by his biological father, had been subject to quite disgusting personal attacks on him and his family and had already volunteered to seek help from a psychotherapist has surely paid a hefty price already.

If the courts needed to punish him, on top of the punishment he has faced already, then prison seems like the least appropriate sanction, as far as I’m concerned. What Gilmour will face both in prison and beyond is a great deal more profound than a “fail”. The real failure here is the verdict from our judicial system.

“Blue Skies” book contribution: ‘The students of tomorrow’ July 17, 2011

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“Blue Skies”: ‘The students of tomorrow’

By Aaron Porter –

http://pearsonblueskies.com/the-students-of-tomorrow/

 

Video contribution:

For those of you watching the recent debate on English higher education funding on our TV screens and on the front pages of our newspapers, you could be forgiven for thinking that higher education was predominantly made up of full-time undergraduates, largely aged between 18-22. Of course that is not the case, and is increasingly less likely to be the case as we start to get under the skin of an ever-changing and diverse higher education population.

Already the picture presented to us by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows us that around 4 in 10 students are part-time, 1 in 5 are postgraduates, and just under 1 in 10 are studying in a further education (FE) college. Putting to one side your opinion on the recent finance reforms – the debate is well-rehearsed – and making an educated guess about what may be in the Government’s higher education White Paper, we can be sure that the reforms are almost certainly going to lead to less traditional provision, and even more diversity.

As greater power is put in the hands of the future student, they are likely to choose to learn in different ways and at different times, and are almost certainly going to have different expectations to the students of today. In a speech just before the vote in Parliament on raising the tuition fee cap, I warned that students would likely bring about a “consumer revolution”, and whilst I feel incredibly uncomfortable about the idea of ‘students as consumers’, they will undoubtedly be more demanding about the experience they are likely to receive in the future.

So I suspect as the recent reforms take root, we might start to see an increasingly challenge to the current provision of higher education. The introduction of loans for around two thirds of part-time students is long overdue and welcome, and I hope that it will allow for more part-time students to study alongside part-time work. The pressure to enter full-time higher education at 18 years old will hopefully lessen, as the opportunity to study part-time later in life or even at 18 will now be more viable. And whilst both Browne and the Government missed the opportunity to really seize the mantle and deliver a funding system built on credit, the White Paper will have to address the issue of allowing students to move between and within institutions. The current system has been far too inflexible, in allowing a student to pick up credits over time, a system genuinely based on lifelong learning. Whilst I do not think Lord Browne nor the Government addressed this seriously enough, students will start to demand this in their actions. The idea of students increasingly spending time in different institutions, a period as a work-based learner, and switching between full and part-time study can no longer be prevented, as the student of tomorrow will be increasingly flexible and nimble to respond to the ever-changing demands of the labour market.

It will be the demands of the labour market that will increasingly mean students will want to re-enter higher education later in their working life. As the number of jobs an adult can expect to undertake in their working life continues to spiral upwards, so will the need to re-skill becoming increasingly important. Whilst the traditional campus experience will be important for lots of young adults, access to knowledge and skills will be the greater priority for older learners wanting to upskill or change careers later in life. At present the Open University stands out as the provider of education and qualifications to help the older learner change direction or reskill, but this will need to become the preserve of many more providers, as the UK seeks to keep its adult population with the required skills, and the UK economy competitive with our global competition.

And with an increasingly diverse pattern of provision demanded by future students, they will also have increased expectations of what they will receive too. In our own research NUS/HSBC Student Experience Research 2010;

65% of students said that they would have higher expectations if they were being asked to pay considerably more for their education.

Students, then as graduates, are not only being asked to pay considerably more for their higher education, whilst the government savagely cuts the teaching grant, the disastrously handled debate by Vince Cable and the government means that prospective students will be weighing up their options with real scrutiny, but also with concern about what the returns on their investment may be. With the jobs market still so bleak, and so many of the jobs that graduates went into employment with, such as the public sector, being savagely trimmed back, many students will be exerting their consumer traits onto universities with greater force than before.

The gauntlet has been well and truly laid down. In a new environment, with power in the ‘hands of students’ as David Willetts is so keen to remind us, then universities will need to respond. It can no longer be acceptable that student complaints are left to swill around the system for more than 60 days, at present some are still left unresolved for more than a year. The role of the personal tutor will become more important, as students will want and expect more personalised support to guide them through their learning. The quantity and quality of contact time, which has increasingly come under the spotlight will be an issue of even greater focus. The days when high profile academics are splashed around the university prospectus material, but then hidden away in a research lab away from undergraduate students will no longer be tolerated. Student-led protests against their perceived poor contact time, notably at Bristol and Manchester Universities will happen with increasing frequency unless institutions can respond, and meet rising expectations.

I have no doubts that improved information will be important both for the prospective and current student. The chance to make a more informed choice about what, where and how to study will be important, and then the chance to measure that against their expectations on arrival will be critical. But to ensure the greatest protection for students, we can not simply allow for market forces to run riot alone. The role of the students’ union will become even more important in holding the institution to account, and for the National Union of Students (NUS) to do the same with Government and the sector as a whole. With rights comes responsibility, and in the same way I know that students’ unions will be afforded greater powers as a result of the new flow of money through the student, I fully expect and welcome the need for Student Unions (SUs) and the NUS to increasingly base what we say on evidence, to back up our arguments with fact, but also to be more accountable and transparent to students too. The system will need to have greater regulation too in order to protect the student, and this will need to be forthcoming in the White Paper too.

The period ahead for higher education will undoubtedly be one of change. Whether we see a “consumer revolution” time will tell, and if it happens whether it will be for better or worse. But what is for sure is that talking about higher education and its students through the narrow lens of full-time 18-22 undergraduates enjoying the traditional campus experience will be less and less relevant, and it’s time we all started to get our heads around the landscape and demography of the new world.

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

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/jul/13/office-for-fair-access-treasury

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.

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!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00x79s9/HARDtalk_Aaron_Porter_President_UK_National_Union_of_Students/