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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.

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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.

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.

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

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/jun/30/aaron-porter-david-willetts-vince-cable#start-of-comments

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.