Blocking the HE Bill in wash-up; be careful what you wish for

Hooray for HE and politics nerds; we have a general election and HE will be a big feature of it. While everyone is distracted by the cranking up of party election campaigns, there will be large teams of Government and Opposition whips in both houses, working out what can be ‘wash-up’ed.

Does that mean the HE Bill is dead? I doubt it, it’s probably the most substantial Bill on the books that the Government (and especially the current Minister) would want to see through before it gets lost in the mire and the inevitable rush of post-election legislation, and I imagine the Government would prefer not to have to return to it afresh after the election.

The parliamentary wash-up period is often misreported as an opportunity for Government to ram through any final bits of legislation that it wants to sneak under the radar. It cannot work that way, because the time available is very short and the amount of legislation to get through is quite numerous, the Government and Opposition must work together in both Houses of Parliament. If a Government were to try to ram through a controversial piece of legislation, then the opposition would be able to block it through delaying tactics that eat up all the parliamentary time left and deny progress on anything at all. Given this, it is actually surprising how much legislation gets through (an average of 16 Bills at the end of each parliament since 1987).

So, it is not in the gift of Conservative MPs to just hold the line and defy Labour opposition in the Commons; opposition parties wield an effective veto during this period.

So, before you even get on to the Lords amendments, the Government need to satisfy Labour MPs by stripping out points of major concern to them. I think this is achievable, many of the issues raised by Labour in the Commons were related to Government policies on HE but not with the fundamentals of the Bill.

Then you get to the Lords, they also have an effective veto. So what about their amendments? I imagine the Lords will give up on a large number (including the one insisting that fees are not linked to the TEF), but insist on some of the more significant constitutional issues related to institutional autonomy, raising the bar for degree awarding powers and research funding.

We might be excited by the prospect of the Lords digging their heels in on TEF-linked fees, or any other matter, and refusing to allow the Bill to pass, but all that does is give the Government an opportunity to lay out its plans in the manifesto, after which the Lords will have no influence and the Bill will be passed in whatever form the Government wants. Be careful what you wish for!

New NSS questions will grow our focus on student voice

HEFCE published the consultation outcomes for the review of the NSS yesterday. It’s only an analysis of the responses at this stage, not a definitive outcome; we’ll have to wait for the 2016 pilot to be completed before we get that. It does look as though the sector has reached a broad consensus on what the NSS should look like.

There will be a few more questions (possibly 26). They’ll look something like this:

The teaching on my course

  1. Staff are good at explaining things.
  2. Staff have made the subject interesting.
  3. The course is intellectually stimulating.

Assessment and feedback

  1. The criteria used in marking have been clear in advance.
  2. Assessment arrangements and marking have been fair.
  3. Feedback on my work has been timely
  4. I have received helpful comments on my work.

Academic support

  1. I have received sufficient advice and support with my studies.
  2. I have been able to contact staff when I needed to.
  3. Good advice was available when I needed to make study choices.

 Organisation and management

  1. The timetable works efficiently as far as my activities are concerned.
  2. Any changes in the course or teaching have been communicated effectively.
  3. The course is well organised and is running smoothly.

 Learning resources

  1. The library resources (e.g. books, online services) have supported my learning well
  2. The University/College’s IT resources and facilities have supported my learning well
  3. I have been able to access subject specific resources (e.g. equipment, facilities, software) when I needed to

 Academic Challenge and integrative Learning

  1. My course has challenged me to achieve my best work
  2. My course has provided me with opportunities to explore ideas or concepts in depth
  3. My course has provided me with opportunities to bring information and ideas together from different topics
  4. My course has provided me with opportunities to apply what I have learnt

 The Student Voice

  1. I have had the right opportunities to provide feedback on my course
  2. Staff value students’ views and opinions about the course
  3. It is clear how students’ feedback on the course has been acted on

 The Learning Community and Collaborative Learning

  1. I have had the right opportunities to work with other students as part of my course
  2. I feel part of a community of staff and students

 Overall Satisfaction

  1. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course.

There is scope for these to be tweaked before they are finally agreed.

My overall impression is positive. 26 questions is ok, but it would be good if this could be thinned down a little. The sections on academic challenge and the learning community are overlapping a bit and I suspect some of those questions will draw out the perception issues that existed with the old personal development section. It will be interesting to see the results of the pilot and cognitive testing on this.

I am pleased to see that the funding councils are planning to keep question 4 (the old question 5) on clarity of marking criteria. I thought it was a bit strange that this would be dropped but the question of fairness would be kept. Asking about clarity of marking criteria is more objective where students can provide a clear response and departments can take definitive action to address problems. Fairness is far more subjective and can be influenced by a range of perceptions and ‘one-off’ events.

Student Voice

The questions on student voice are an excellent development and it is great to see such strong support from the sector. These scores will be immensely helpful to institutions to understand where the relationship between students and staff is working well and where it needs attention. It will also bring some very valuable context to all the other questions, I suspect that we will see strong correlation between the responses to this section and the responses to others, because a healthy academic environment will be one in which students feel valued and that their ideas about what can be improved are taken seriously.

I was disappointed to read that a lot of responses still seem to think that the NSS questions have consumerist or customer focus. I just can’t see that, the old questions and the new proposed ones all focus on specific aspects of the student experience. I’ve written about this before, so won’t go on about it again.

I suppose I’m pleased that plans for the students’ union question are evolving too. I found it quite funny how students’ unions had spent years insisting that institutions take student NSS feedback seriously, but the moment the question was turned to them and the scores didn’t look so healthy, they instant fell back on glib criticism of the phrasing of the question. A suggestion buried in paragraph 97 is a very good one I think:

we believe it is premature to make a decision on removing the survey question. Instead, we have responded to concerns about the student interest by developing a revised students’ union survey question, focused on the role of the students’ union in representing students’ academic experience. This has been agreed with NUS and was included in the 2016 pilot as part of the ‘student voice’ bank, rather than placed at the end of the survey as it is currently.

I think this focusses the attention of the question and gives students a valuable opportunity to give feedback to their SU as well as to their university. Over time, it will be interesting to analyse the correlation between the SU questions and the wider student voice ones.

Grade inflation strikes again

I was interviewed by S4C last night about some statistics showing that the number of graduates gaining first class and upper second class degrees had significantly increased over the last 5 years.

I wrote about this a year or so ago and explained what I believe are three reasons for increased student success:


  • Massification: As student numbers have grown, students have become much much more competitive and focussed on getting the best grades. The days when a Douglas Hurd (Third Class) or a Desmond Tutu (Lower second class) were acceptable because you still had a good degree, are long gone. Students know that employers won’t look at you if you don’t have a 2:1 and they aim directly for that
  • Transparency: 20 years ago, you would still find academics would base their mark on the view that “I know a good 2:1 when I read it”. Fine in the days when you only had a handful of scripts, but those days are now long gone. Clear grading criteria is now widespread, and so the ambiguity about what sits in each classification is gone. And of course, with clear criteria we did away with proportional distribution of degree classification, anyone who meets the grade, gets the grade.
  • Feedback: Universities have, to their credit, put so much effort into improving feedback on assessment, this in turn will be helping students to improve their submissions.

I haven’t changed my mind. One further point that both I and Professor Sir Deian Hopkin made in the piece was that the degree classification system has had its day. It’s time to look to the US, Australian and Chinese systems and to introduce a more granular GPA system that differentiates student achievement more explicitly.

The Prime Minister is right, we must do more to tackle inequality

I was pleased last when I saw the Sunday Times front page on Sunday 31 January.

It quotes an opinion piece (£) the Prime Minister has written for the newspaper’s comment pages “A young black man is more likely to be in prison than at a top university” with a sub heading “PM lashes education, business, armed forces and police failing minorities”. The piece is actually more polite than that sub heading suggests.

I am really pleased to see that this being picked up at the top of Government (Sajid Javid was on the Marr Show also making the case forcefully) and am gutted by the response I’ve followed on Twitter and blogs.
The responses seem to fall into two, utterly infuriating, camps:

1. “David Cameron has not done enough about this in his 5 years as Prime Minister, therefore we must assume that this is insincere and that nothing will happen now.”

OK, maybe Cameron as Prime Minister has not done enough on race relations and opportunities for young people from minority ethnic communities, I’m not expert enough to comment on that. But even if that’s the case, does that make this article wrong? Is it wrong to point out that there are no Black Generals in the army? To highlight the fact that tiny numbers of black students are admitted to top universities? Then to commit to doing something about it? No, and it’s churlish not to accept it at face value. If you are uncertain about the Government’s commitment or even think that the proposals do not go far enough then hold them to account, keep reminding David Cameron and Sajid Javid of this for the next 5 years.

2. “This is political correctness gone mad . . . there’s no problem here, please move along”. The worst of this in a blog post on the Spectator’s site “David Cameron is wrong: there’s no racism at Oxford” (since updated to “David Cameron is wrong about Oxford and race”)

This is even worse. The Spectator blog piece corrects something David Cameron never said. Not at any one point did David Cameron use the term racism, let alone accuse Oxford or any other institution of being racist. Grow up, accept the facts, and find ways to do something about this.

In 2014, HEFCE published an analysis of undergraduate student achievement across English Universities. It showed that of students entering university with grades BBB (or equivalent) 72% of white students would gain a 1st or 2:1 grade compared to 56% of asian students and 53% of black students. A gap of almost 20%. Students entering HE with exactly the same grades achieving significantly different results and the only thing that separates them is their ethnic background. So please, no bleating about it being somebody else’s fault, or that universities can only deal with what they are passed on from schools.

This is not an easy challenge. Universities are not racist, neither consciously or subconsciously. If anything, universities have done more to tackle discrimination than most other institutions; but these facts cannot be ignored and the underlying problems must be identified, understood and tackled. Attacking the Prime Minister for saying so is just daft and is what really lets these young people down.

Predictions 2016: Politics

My efforts at political prediction were dire last year, but that’s not going to stop me, here goes for 2016:

  1. There will be no leadership elections in any of the main parties.
  2. The referendum on membership of the EU will be held in the Summer.
  3. The referendum result will be decisively in favour of remaining.
  4. The vote in favour of remaining will be above 57%. Sufficient to be decisive for a generation.
  5. There will be a significant reshuffle after the EU referendum. A number of big names will depart. (I’d guess Iain Duncan Smith and Philip Hammond at least).
  6. Boris Johnson will be brought into the cabinet as Secretary of State for BIS.
  7. The SNP will win another majority in Scotland. It won’t be much bigger than their existing majority because the electoral system makes it quite hard.
  8. Labour will lose its majority in the Welsh Assembly but will retain a chokehold on the Government there as it re-enters a coalition with Plaid Cymru.
  9. UKIP will gain ground in the local election but only because they start from a low base in 2012. The party will not win any by-elections.
  10. The London Mayoral election will be thoroughly depressing! Sadiq Khan will win.
  11. Hilary Clinton will be elected President of the United States.
  12. Donald Trump will not be the Republican nominee.
  13. Angela Merkel will announce that she will not run for another term as Chancellor or Germany.
  14. There will be no Euro crisis, just slow but steady repair work.

Predictions 2016: Higher Education

This gives me something to do in the post NYE lull. Why else would I bother after such a dismal result last year! Having said that, my HE predictions were far better than my politics ones. So, here goes:

  1. There will not be an HE Bill (again).
  2. The Government will press ahead with the Teaching Excellence Framework
  3. The Degree Awarding Powers process will be compressed. Note, this is not the same as being made easier.
  4. Proposals to establish the Office for Students will evolve into something that is more akin to renaming HEFCE and merging QAA and HEA.
  5. A new taskforce of some kind will be established to review the roll out of the GPA.
  6. HEFCE will grind on with its merciless review of the Quality Assessment regime in England.
  7. The EU referendum will take place, HE will make a lot of effort contribute thoughtfully to the debate, but the campaign will get mired in nonsense so I doubt we’ll be heard.
  8. Applications to HE will grow, but only just. The narrative will shift to the figures below the headlines and who is applying from where.
  9. A consensus will emerge about the inclusion of student visas in the immigration numbers. They will be separated and reported differently.
  10. Sajid Javid will not be Secretary of State for BIS by the end of the year. Boris Johnson will be appointed to replace him.

Political Predictions 2015: How did I do?

So my HE predictions were generally rubbish, but a healthy dose of grade inflation and generous use of the marking criteria got me over the line! So what about my predictions for politics:

1 – There will be a General Election. Note the singular, not plural.

Yes, I got one!

2 – After the election, a majority coalition will be formed. There will not be a minority government; it will be Conservative/Lib Dem.

I wish I had just said majority government. I was wrong.

3 – The combined vote share of Labour and Conservative parties will be lower that 65%.

Wrong, contrary to what I expected, the combined share went up for the first time in years.

4 – The Conservatives will be the largest party in vote share and number of MPs.

Hooray. Got one.

5 – The Lib Dems will hold on to 40 (+/- 4) seats.

This is what completely threw me. I genuinely expected the Government as a whole to be judged as having done a reasonable job in the circumstances, and a better proposition that a Government led by Ed Miliband. I did not expect the Conservatives to reap the reward at the expense of the Lib Dems.

6 – The SNP will storm the election in Scotland, but not as strongly as currently predicted. I’d say they’ll take half the seats (30 +/-3).

Very wrong, they got 56!

7 – UKIP and the Greens will take a big share of the vote, but have less than 10 seats between them (6 and 1 respectively).

I’m going to give myself a point for this and ignore my bullish specificity about number of seats. Together the two parties took 16.4% of the vote (12.6% for UKIP and 3.8% for the Greens)

8 – The Conservatives will lose 25-30 seats to Labour but gain 10-15 from the Lib Dems in the South.

Wrong, the Conservatives only made a net loss of 2 seats to Labour! They basically wiped out the Lib Dems in the South, they took 27 seats from them!

9 – Labour will gain a lot of seats from Conservatives and Lib Dems, but will lose a chunk to the SNP, so will only be marginally better off.

They gained a handful from both. Only a net gain of 2 from the Conservatives and 12 from the Lib Dems. They ended up with 26 fewer seats than after the 2010 election.

10 – In the face of another Conservative led government, the SNP will go back on their pledge not to vote on England (Wales and NI) only matters, and they will make a big noise about this! They will shamelessly say that this is the will of the Scottish people after they voted to stay part of the UK.

I got this right. The SNP have played their hand perfectly so far.

11 – The SNP’s behaviour will be catnip to Conservative MPs and there will be some shambolic attempts to resolve the ‘West Lothian question’. It will end up like House of Lords reform, with a majority in favour of change, but nobody agreeing on the solution!

I was right about the catnip, right about the shambolic attempts to resolve the ‘West Lothian question’, but wrong about the majority in favour. The reform has been made to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, not sure it’s actually going to make much of a difference though because the SNP will find a way.

12 – The results of the election will demand a debate about electoral reform, because the splintering of votes across 2 large and 4 substantial ‘others’ will produce distorted results with very few MPs winning their seats with an absolute majority, I’d even say that most MPs will be elected with less than 40% of the vote.

The only demands are coming from the Labour Party, from people who believe that the way to win elections is to change how you count the votes, not develop a proposition to the electorate that they might want to vote for. Good luck with that!

13 – George Osborne becomes Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond Chancellor, Theresa May will be Cameron’s effective deputy (like Hague has been in this Parliament) not sure she stays at the Home Office though.

There was no change at the top!

14 – Nick Clegg is re-elected and remains deputy PM.

Poor Nick Clegg. I genuinely think he was a good thing in British Politics, a voice of moderation and reason, and a politician interested in actually getting in to government to do things rather than snipe from the sidelines.

15 – Ed Miliband resigns, putting the Labour Party out of its misery!

He did, but who would have though that that would have been the beginning of the misery, not the end!

16 – Jeb Bush will not be a Presidential candidate at the end of the year.

He might as well not be. He’s not coming back from his stupor at th bottom of the polls. But technically, I’m wrong.

17 – Hilary Clinton also will not be.

Extremely wrong, not only is she still in, but is looking likely to sail through to the Presidency. That’s a good thing though, so I don’t mind getting this wrong.

18 – Euro countries (after much flapping and hyperventilating in the media) elect moderate governments).

They have. We’ve yet to see what pans out in Spain, but I suspect a moderate Government will come to the fore in time.

19 – Angela Merkel will announce that she will not stand for a fourth term.

She didn’t but I think the announcement is coming. It should be remembered that Merkel first came to the fore in German politics when she exposed the corruption under Helmut Khol’s leadership. She was exasperated because she thought a leader in post for too long becomes corrupt. She will have been Chancellor for 12 years at the time of the next election and leader of the CDU for 17.

So. A dismal 8 out of 19! I blame the polls. 

Higher Education Predictions 2015: How did I do?

YEY! It’s that time of year again, and even before I pull of the list, I know it’s going to be a dismal set of scores for my 2015 predictions. Not even a hefty dose of grade inflation can rescue me this year!

So lets start with HE:

1) there will be no HE Bill (again!).

There wasn’t.

2) Labour will downgrade its £6k fee pledge to an ‘aspiration’.

They didn’t, despite the best efforts of UUK and (more interestingly Ed Balls).

3) After the General Election, higher education will remain in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills with a Lib Dem Secretary of State (I’ll take a punt on it being David Laws) and a Conservative HE minister.

Oh very dear! I’m going to give myself half a point for this, but my political antenna were seriously off about the Lib Dem influence.

4) There will be some controversy as HEFCE, under government pressure, try to manipulate the post-REF funding formula to balance the underperformance of Northern Universities.

It’s happening, but very little public controversy.

5) UCAS will report another bumper year for applications.

They did.

6) The pilot of the NSS will confirm that it will not be radically changed (hoorah – see here for my views on this), but there will be some sensible tweaking.

It did and there was.

7) HEFCE’s land grab of QAA and OIA responsibilities will be halted as the sector wakes up to the fact that institutional autonomy is under threat.

Hmmmm, I’m not entirely sure how to score this. HEFCE seem intent on pressing ahead with the reforms, but seem to facing more difficulty with the Department than from the sector. Half a point.

8) A deal will be struck to manage concerns about international student visas. The burden of the application and entry process will be lightened in exchange for more active monitoring of where students go after they graduate.

Nope. But it was nice to have that little bit of hope for a moment!

9) At least one university will have to close or merge to make ends meet.

Hasn’t happened either. I might stop predicting this!

10) MOOCs will take hold and revolutionise Higher Education around the world; nothing will ever be the same again. Oxford and Cambridge will only recruit 2 students each as all the brightest and best around the world flock to YouTube to get an unaccredited certificate of attendance for watching 10 beautifully made films on the topic ‘Advanced Learning for Clever People’ delivered by a Professor from the University of the Flaming Sword, Utah. Employers will hail this revolution in education for the outstandingly numerate, literate and team-worky students it produces. Governments across the world will sell off universities because, well, there’s just no point any more! Parents will be so delighted that they are saving all that money that they would have spent supporting their children, that they will go on a spending spree that will shore up the global economy.

Oh, beloved MOOCs, the avalanche has turned into more of a steady drip. There’s still an army of deluded enthusiasts out there who will argue that MOOCs are bringing about a revolution. They are not, they are a good and useful development, helping universities extend their reach, but nothing has fundamentally changed. (But there’s always 2016 . . .)

So, I give myself 6 out of 10! Scraped a 2:1, splendid.


Do we really need or want an HE Bill?

LegislationAccording to news reports last week, the Government might not be planning to introduce an HE Bill after all. I hate to say I told you so . . . but I did predict back in May that there would not be an HE Bill. I stand by that for all the reasons I set out there.

Since then, things have moved on a lot. The Government has made clear that the Teaching Excellence Framework is definitely to be delivered and will be here to stay. The Green Paper sets out the Government’s broad ambitions; these turned out to be more significant than originally anticipated and so there was much excitement again about the prospect of an HE Bill.

I think this is unwise. We should not want the HE sector to subject to any more legislation or regulation than it is already. As a proud, card-carrying HE policy nerd, I would thoroughly enjoy the politics, debate and intricate analysis that would follow the publication of an HE Bill and the subsequent Parliamentary scrutiny. I’m sure that the ‘we’re all going to hell in a handcart’ polemicist-nerds would have a field day too! That would all be fun, but writing Back in May, I said this:

There is only one direction in which regulation of UK Higher Education could go. That is the same direction as pretty much every other HE sector in the world, where Governments and state departments regulate and interfere far more than we have grown used to in the UK. That would be extremely unwelcome. Any cosy ideas we might have that new regulations would ‘go easy’ on established providers and focus on new/private/for profit providers is nonsense and we should not delude ourselves.

So the current legislative and regulatory landscape is messy and unkempt, but it just about covers all bases and keeps Secretaries of State at bay. We should celebrate that.

I haven’t changed my mind. Look at the suffocating way the FE and Schools sectors are regulated. We should not try to bring the same upon ourselves.

Dennis Farrington, of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies wrote an excellent and very thorough piece on WonkHE detailing the issues that could be resolved through primary legislation. I would say two things in response though.

  • The first is that everything listed in that article are things that could be resolved or clarified by the passage of primary legislation, for example defining higher education and the types of higher education provider. But, just because a piece of legislation could do these things, it does not mean we should want it to. The definition of HE has been and will be debated for as long as universities exist, is a piece of legislation really going to help the effe,tive delivery and provision of HE?
  • The second  is that almost everything in the green paper, if not all, can be delivered without changes to primary legislation. Lets remember that the key objective here is the delivery of a Teaching Excellence Framework, that is what was contained in the Conservative Manifesto. Other proposals are all up for discussion and could be amended or adapted following consultation.

This second point is important. The rise in fees in 2010 was passed as a Statutory Instrument, linking that fee level to inflation could be passed in the same way. The fact that the Government are introducing some challenge to institutions who wish to charge up to the inflation-linked fee level does not require legislation, any more than the WP and access requirements associated with the £9,000 fee rise in 2010.

As for the other changes. I suspect (and hope) that the left-field and random insertion of questions about Students’ Unions will be dropped; changes to the degree awarding powers process can be introduced by the Privy Council under existing powers; and I suspect that the proposed shuffling of sector bodies can be achieved using existing legislation.

HEFCE is a body established by the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act; it has two key responsibilities, the administration of funds and the assessment of quality of education. OFFA is not a statutory body, it is the post of Director of Fair Access to Higher Education that is established in statute, in the 2004 Higher Education Act. QAA was not established by statute, it is sector owned, commissioned and part-funded by HEFCE. UCAS was not established by statute, it is entirely sector owned and funded.

Scrapping HEFCE and the Director of Fair Access to be replaced by something new would require legislation. So my hunch is that these responsibilities will be combined, perhaps by appointing a single individual as Director of Fair Access and CEO of HEFCE. A little rebranding and shift in emphasis to focus on students and regulation . . .

The Green Paper arrives

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 22.29.21Finally, speculation is over, smart arse comments about the BIS definition of Autumn can cease! The Green paper is here.

Most of what is contained is predictable:

  • There will be a Teaching Excellence Framework: very light touch in year 1, a bit more touch in year 2 and something more comprehensive from year 3 or 4.
  • The TEF will be heavily metrics driven.
  • The TEF appears to be optional. Universities will apply to participate and gain subsequent rewards.
  • HEFCE’s days are numbered: this is significant development. 6 months ago, I’m not sure anyone would have predicted this, but the cack-handed and deeply misguided approach to reviewing the ‘quality assessment regime’ coupled with an intransigent approach to working with BIS seem to have lost HEFCE any good will there might have been left.
  • There’s a strong focus on student success, widening participation and non-traditional student groups. Thankfully though, this is not just looking at recruitment but student completion, progression and attainment too.
  • Clarifying and streamlining routes to degree awarding powers. My reading is that these proposals don’t water down the requirements for providers, just make the system a bit clearer and quicker. The devil will be in the detail.

Some less predictable or unexpected developments:

  • QAA looks set to fight another day: the agency looked doomed when HEFCE surprised everyone last year by going for the jugular, things look quite different now. Although the Green paper does not explicitly commit to QAA remaining, it is quite clear throughout that there is a role for cyclical review, co-owned regulation etc.
  • A new Office for Students (OfStud?) will be established: taking the remains of HEFCE and OFFA for sure, but perhaps some other bodies too, it’s not yet clear.
  • Return of the CNAA: well, not quite, but there is a proposal buried in the green paper that OfStud may be given authority to validate degrees, so that universities do not monopolies the sector.
  • TEF ‘phase 1’ will be decided on the basis of QAA judgements alone.
  • GPA: there’s a very strong commitment to the Grade Point Acerage in here. It will be included in TEF submissions but won’t form part of the judgement criteria. I guess this will reinject some energy into that initiative. [Update: forgot to include this at first]