Tag Archives: regulation

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