Tag Archives: policy

HERB, TEF and Brexit – a maelstrom of change

In this post to accompany the Exhibitor briefing for the UCISA17 Conference, UCISA Executive Director Peter Tinson considers the current political landscape and its impact on the education sector.

The machinations of leaving the European Union continue to feature strongly in the news headlines and this is likely to be the case at least until there is some clarity on the UK’s future relationship with the remainder of the EU (and probably for some time after that). However, the impact of Brexit is already being felt by higher education institutions. The number of EU students applying for undergraduate study through UCAS fell by 7% from last year contributing to an overall decline in applications at the January UCAS deadline. Although UCAS receives a good proportion of applications after this deadline, since most of these come from groups that have seen the steepest decline in applications (international, EU and older (19+) students), there are little grounds for optimism that the numbers will recover.

In addition to Brexit, the Government policy of placing tighter restrictions on visas for non-EU students has also had an impact. Since 2010, when the Coalition Government came to power, the number of international students has fallen by around 43,000. The fall has been concentrated in the middle and lower ranking institutions and contrasts with other higher ranked institutions that have increased their international student intake, in some cases substantially. In England, this compounds the effect of competition for undergraduate places that resulted when the cap on student numbers was withdrawn. The more successful institutions have managed (and in many cases, planned) to increase undergraduate student numbers with the lower ranked institutions failing to attract their target numbers. As a consequence, the gap between the most successful and those that depend on student recruitment will continue to grow.

There is potentially some good news for the sector with the publication of the Government’s Industrial Strategy. Although the full details have yet to emerge, universities will benefit from both investment in innovation, technology and research and from a strengthened regional development agenda. In addition, there are proposals for new Institutions of technology that will deliver vocational focused qualifications in STEM subjects. What the relationship will be between such institutions and their local universities and colleges remains to be seen – given the developments in the further education sector (see below), partnerships between institutions of technology and universities cannot be ruled out.

The Government announced a number of amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill. These may appease some of the Bill’s critics, particularly in the House of Lords, and subsequently ease its passage through Parliament. The Bill has not been watered down completely however – there remain some potential disruptors to the sector and Jo Johnson’s desire to see new entrants to the market remains strong. There is a strong push towards the provision of accelerated degrees. It will be interesting to see if those institutions that are currently suffering falling student numbers take the opportunity to develop accelerated degree programmes or whether alternative providers will see a gap in the market to develop new offerings.

There is reference to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) within the Bill with the amendments deferring implementation of a subject level TEF to 2019/20. The TEF will continue to evolve – the suggestion is that this year will be one to see the effect and impact with any lessons learned giving rise to change in subsequent years. Any changes may have to take into account the sector’s response to the new measure. The TEF can apply to any higher education provider, be it a traditional institution, a further education college providing HE, or an alternative provider. There appears to be some dissention in the ranks – WonkHE has identified six institutions, including two alternative providers, that opted out of the first stage and reported that thirty three institutions have opted out of TEF2 in spite of being eligible. Is this an indicator that an exercise that was initially badged as being light touch has now become sufficiently burdensome that the burden outweighs the value to the institution?

Finally, the reports on the further education area reviews in England have been being published since November. The reviews invited colleges, employers and other local representatives to review provision and make recommendations to “ensure employers and young people get the skills and training they need to help their local area thrive”. Most recommendations centre on mergers, consolidations and strategic collaborations. Whilst many of the proposed mergers have been between further education colleges in a given area, there have been a number of collaborations proposed between further and higher education institutions and at least one merger between an FE college and university. The proposals in England are similar to recent changes made to the further education sector in both Scotland and Wales – with both higher and further education now under the same Government department, could this be the precursor to closer collaboration and an integrated skills and higher education policy?

Sources:
Times Higher: UK’s ‘lower ranked’ universities take non-EU student hit (23 February)
WonkHE: Path clears for HE Bill as Government announces major changes (24 February)
WonkHE: TEF1, TEF2 and a complex game of snakes and ladders (20 February)

A rocky road ahead…

    “Times of unprecedented change”

    “Challenging economic climate”

Looking back at a number of the reviews of the political landscape that I’ve written over the years, the two phrases above appear with almost monotonous regularity. And they are just as appropriate today as they have been in previous years. However, what is new is that before both the direction of change and the reasons for the economic challenges were known. The big difference today is that result of the referendum on 23 June has thrown uncertainty into the mix. Uncertainty, not just in the higher education sector, but across the whole country as the process to leave the EU begins.

The Government have sought to reduce some of the uncertainty by guaranteeing that EU students that are currently studying in the UK and those that will begin their courses in the coming years will continue to receive funding for the duration of their courses. Similar guarantees have been made for Horizon 2020 research funding. However, what is not clear is what the impact of Brexit will be on the future recruitment of students from the EU or on research funding. It is unlikely to be good news.

The current analysis is that the Government appears to be favouring a hard Brexit with tighter controls on immigration. The dominance of immigration as an issue in the referendum campaign and subsequent policy has been reflected in the statements from the Home Office suggesting further clampdowns on international students. Regardless of the actual policy that emerges, the rhetoric is damaging – a fall of 10% in the numbers of Indian students is evidence of that. It was not by accident that the Indian Prime Minister linked trade agreements with relaxation of visa requirements but although Theresa May stated that talented workers would be welcome, her response regarding students was lukewarm at best. It would appear that the lady is not for turning.

This is all set against the rather gloomy background of HEFCE’s assessment of the financial health of English universities released this week. The picture is likely to be similar in universities in the other countries of the UK. The forecast, made before the referendum, suggests falling levels of surpluses (and in some cases significant deficits), more borrowing and falling levels of cash reserves. The report notes that universities were looking for an increase of fee income from overseas students (of close to 30%), and for growth in home and EU students of over ten per cent by the 2018/19 session. In the current circumstances it is unlikely that either will materialise; a period of budgetary constraint will be the consequence. This will place an even greater emphasis on efficiencies and effective use of data in planning.

The Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) is entering the Report stage before its third reading in the House of Commons. The Bill has seen a number of amendments as it has passed through the Committee stage but these have not radically changed the direction of the Bill. The Bill advocates the abolition of the English Funding Council (HEFCE) and the establishment of the Office for Students (OfS). The importance of the role HEFCE play in monitoring the financial health of the sector has been recognised in an amendment that proposes this role transfers to the OfS.

There is a great deal of focus on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), particularly the link to fee increases. Although the TEF will initially apply to English universities, similar measures in the past have been adopted by the other countries in the UK so it would not be a surprise if in future years the TEF becomes applicable to all UK institutions.

The governance arrangements for higher education are also changing. In addition to HEFCE’s transformation into the Office for Students (and universities moving under the Department for Education), there are reports of the Welsh funding council being absorbed into a new Tertiary Education Authority and of the Scottish Funding Council being merged into a ‘super-quango’ with a number of other bodies. Both add to the uncertainty in the sector.

Finally one change that we do know about is that the UK will be implementing the EU General Data Protection Regulation before we leave the EU. Although much of the focus has been on the scale of the fines for breaches, GDPR represents an opportunity for organisations to improve their data and its management. UCISA has set up a website to highlight resources and activities that inform and support our members in their implementation of the Regulation.

There are difficult and challenging times ahead. Universities will need to make good use of the data they have to try and predict the effect of changes and plan accordingly. They will need be more agile to deal with the changes that are known as well as those that are yet to emerge. The sector has been resilient at times of uncertainty in the past and many will see opportunities to reshape their offering and operating model to adapt to the new environment. IT will be at the hub of that change.

New Prevent guidance – challenges and considerations

Last month saw HEFCE issue a revision of their framework for monitoring of the Prevent duty in higher education institutions in England. The revised framework places a clear onus on institutions to evidence that they have followed due process when considering their Prevent duty. Further it is worth considering the Prevent duty and the implications of the monitoring requirements when reviewing institutional policies.

Although the HEFCE Framework has been updated, the Home Office guidance underpinning it has not altered since the initial framework was published. Paragraph 27 of Home Office guidance states the there is an “expectation that institutions will have policies around general usage […] we would expect these to contain specific reference the statutory duty”. It is pleasing to see that the Advice note (also updated) that accompanies the updated Prevent monitoring framework points to the UCISA Model Regulations and the suggested amendment to accommodate the Counter Terrorism legislation.

Paragraph 27 goes on to state that institutions “should consider the use of filters” as part of their overall strategy to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. The HEFCE framework places more emphasis on the need “to consider” by directing providers to provide specific comment on “their approach to web filtering in relation to the Prevent duty, particularly where a decision has yet to be taken at the time of the provider’s previous submission to HEFCE”. The Advice note asks “What factors were taken into account when considering whether and how to use filtering to limit access to harmful content? Has a final decision been taken on web-filtering and how has this been reflected in IT policies and communicated to staff?” (interestingly the framework doesn’t ask for evidence on how it has been communicated to students). What is important is that institutions should take a risk based approach to assessing whether or not they should implement filtering and use the conclusion from those discussions in their evidence to HEFCE.

So what are the potential impacts on policies (and in this regards, the regulations on the use of IT facilities and the network should be regarded as policy)? If there is no filtering then it needs to be clear in the regulations (for both staff and students) that the network is monitored and that any research that may access material of an extremist nature will require specific approval (for example, through a research ethics committee). That approval is still needed if filtering is in place but in that instance it will be required in order for IT service departments to have authority to turn filtering off for given individuals or research groups. There remains a concern that if there is a public statement to the effect that filtering has been turned on, those of inquisitive mind will look at ways of circumventing it and those who are at risk of being drawn into extremist activities will seek other ways of accessing such material.

Finally the Advice note suggests that HEFCE is looking for further evidence of IT policies to provide oversight of websites and social media output across the institution, asking about arrangements for managing both institution’s ‘branded’ websites and social media and for student union (and their societies) websites and social media to ensure that they are not used to promote extremist materials or activities. A blend of approaches is probably needed here. The regulations for use of institutional IT facilities should give adequate coverage for institutional websites – they are likely to be established using institutional resources and maintained by institutional staff. If not, then it may be necessary to include specific Prevent related conditions into contracts where website content is maintained externally. There need to be named individuals (or groups of individuals) with responsibility for officially sanctioned social media accounts who will be bound by the regulations (as outlined in the Social media for staff legal checklist published by Jisc and included in the UCISA Social Media Toolkit). It may be necessary to come to separate arrangements for Students’ Union – they are often separate legal entities and their services may not be hosted by the institution. In these instances, there may be reliance on clauses relating to bringing the institution into disrepute to take action against an individual (which may or may not be an IT regulation issue) or specific agreement (such as within a tenancy agreement) with the Student Union to ensure monitoring takes place.

Peter Tinson
Executive Director
UCISA

The current environment

The run up to the General Election in 2015 saw very little in the form of legislation and little change in the sector. The year since has been far busier with the publication of the Green Paper Teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice, the introduction of the Counter Terrorism duty on higher and further education institutions (the PREVENT duty), the drafting of the Investigatory Powers Bill and consultations on the information provided to students and the HESA Data Futures programme. The proposals within the Green Paper require refinement – it is not clear what the impact will be on institutions and it is anticipated that there will be further consultation during 2016. Although the Paper only applies to higher education in England, it is probable that a number of the measures proposed will also be introduced in time in the other countries of the UK.

The publication of the Green Paper in November demonstrated that the Westminster Government is looking to shape the English Higher Education sector rather more than it has in the past with emphasis on teaching excellence, better information for students and widening participation. The Green Paper contained little detail and it is not clear how soon detailed proposals will be presented. The BIS Select Committee, whilst welcoming the approach in principle in its recent report, urged caution over the pace of implementation, noting that the second stage of the Teaching Excellence Framework “should only be introduced once Government can demonstrate that the metrics to be used have the confidence of students and universities”. The Green Paper also noted that universities needed to be more accountable for how student fees are spent. This reflects a theme first visited in a Private Members Bill tabled by Heidi Allen, Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire so it is perhaps not surprising to see elements of her proposals feature in the Green Paper.

Despite the emphasis on a light touch approach, it is evident that universities and colleges will need to make effective use of data in order to meet the anticipated requirements of the Green Paper. There are a number of other developments that will place similar demands on our institutions. The HESA Data Futures programme is seeking to redesign and transform the collection of student related data. The programme is in its early stages with a recent procurement to appoint an organisation to design and deliver the future business process, technology and application architecture. UCISA will continue to ensure that suppliers of student records systems are engaged with this initiative. Further, the Higher Education Commission’s report From Bricks to Clicks notes that data analytics has the potential to transform the higher education sector, but cautions that UK institutions are currently not making the most of the opportunities in this area.

There continues to be funding pressure on all UK higher education institutions. In Northern Ireland funding has reduced by 28% in real terms since 2010/11 leading to downsizing by the universities in the province. In Wales, a cross-party review of higher education funding and student finance arrangements is due to report in the autumn. Although funding cuts proposed by the Welsh Government have been rescinded, it is likely that there will be some rationalisation within the sector over the coming year. The Scottish Funding Council has also cut the level of funding with some institutions noting that continued cuts put “pressure on institutional viability”. In England, the introduction of competition has resulted in some big winners and losers – those institutions which have seen a fall in student numbers are now having to cut their cloth accordingly. In the Further Education sector, the outcome of the Area Reviews is expected to be mergers between further education colleges.

There may be a lull in the development of policy as elections for new administrations in Scotland and Wales take place in May followed by the referendum on the UK’s EU membership in June. It remains to be seen if changes in the constituency of those Governments are reflected in changes in education policy. It goes without saying that a vote to leave the EU will also have a significant impact on universities and governmental policies. 2016 promises to be an interesting year.