What would the Liberal Democrats do for HE?

_82326854_de50-1Yesterday, I posted some thoughts about what the General Election means for HE and promised to scour (aka quick search for key terms) through the party manifestos to see how they scored against the 4 critical policy areas (as I saw them). I’m giving double weighting to Tuition Fees and Immigration because I think they are the most acute areas of impact for the HE sector.

1) Tuition Fees: I’m looking for stability here. We’ve already seen a steady stream of changes from successive governments. A change in policy would be unwelcome because the current regime appears to be working in terms of student recruitment, but we are yet to see the consequences at the other end because the students paying these fees won’t start to graduate until after the election!

So, the Liberal Democrats have gone for that old trick of not have a policy as such, but proposing to set up a cross-party panel to review the impact of the current regime and to report at some undefined point in the future. Fair play, they set the right criteria for this panel, i.e. to review the support available to students to cover the cost of living while at University.

So, they lose points for not having the courage to stick up for the fees regime they put in place and creating some uncertainty by proposing a review that would take ages and probably not satisfy anyone. They would have got 3/5 for that but, I think the toxicity of this topic for the Lib Dems means that no party will compromise with them on it, so they drop a point to 2 out of 5

2) Research Funding: A clear promise to maintain the ringfence on funding, but also accompanied by a commitment too “double research and innovation spending across the economy”. Whether this means growth in spending for the science budget or more incentives for RD&I, it’s the right message. So, a healthy 4 out of 5.

3) Immigration: The Liberal Democrats have consistently, and to their credit, continued to make a case throughout this parliament that restricting student numbers and including them in the general immigration numbers and policy framework is irresponsible. This is borne out in their manifesto. 5 out of 5.

4) Membership of the EU: The Liberal Democrats understand the value and purpose of the EU to their fingertips. Perhaps a little blind to its flaws sometimes, but that better than being the other way around. This committment is also clear in their Manifesto. If working with Labour, there would be no question of an in/out referendum, with the Conservatives they might let one through but would not allow the features of membership that benefit HE to be touched. So a perfect 5 out of 5.

Overall 23 out of 30 – Labour tomorrow.

What does the General Election mean for Higher Education?


I guess it’s fair to say that I’m a bit of nerd for higher education policy and that I have a more than normal level of interest in politics. So what could be more thrilling than a UK General Election where HE policy is on the agenda and where the outcome will lead to significant changes, whatever the final result.

I was asked this week to provide some commentary on what the implications for higher education of the manifestos, launched this week. I attempted to be objective in my contributions, so rather than read the manifestos and then decide which I prefered, I thought I would look out for the areas of policy that can and will have most impact on the sector and evaluate them against that list.

I think there are four areas where party policies would have a major impact on higher education:

1) Tuition Fees: Despite sterling efforts by Vice-Chancellors (but not those on the Board of UniversitiesUK!) to keep this off the agenda for this election, it is here; mainly because the Labour Party have maintained their committment to reduce fees from £9000 to £6000. This is the highest profile area for the parties and the media because it has such resonance with the middle classes, but for Universities it is also acutely important because this is the biggest single source of income. This is challenging for the university sector because we could be facing yet another change to the fees regime at a point when the full consequences of the existing system have not yet been borne out (the first cohort of students under the £9k regime will graduate this Summer, after the General Election!).

In my opinion, the best outcome for Universities would be a period of stability, where the impact of the existing fees regime can be measured objectively, with a modest change that would let the cap increase in line with inflation. It is clear that concerns that the system would deter potential students from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds have been proved false. The number of students from these backgrounds has continued to grow, and at a faster rate of growth than ever before. For someone like me (working class background and the first in my family to go to University), it is particularly frustrating to hear people from a different background bleating on about the fact that fees are a deterrent to students. The facts show that they are not!

2) Research Funding (Science Budget): Yet another area where Vice-Chancellors and Research Councils have been lobbying furiously. The Science Budget has been ringfenced for a number of years now, but only in cash terms. This means that when inflation is taken into account, the level of resource available to Universities has dwindled.

Obviously, the best outcome for Universities would be an increase in the science budget to start to address the huge gap in public funding for research that we see between the UK and our global competitors. A further period of ringfenced funding would be second best.

3) Immigration: In broadest terms, this is not an area of policy that is directly about higher education, but the impact of the policies of both the pre-2010 Labour Government and the Coalition Government over the past 5 years has been quite negative. The impression has been given to overseas students that they may not be welcome in the UK and that the Immigration and VISA system is too complex and hostile for them to take the risk of coming here when other countries are keen to welcome them. So the party policies on “Bogus Colleges”, Tier 4 status and post-study VISAs are critical to the sector.

I heard the other day that the number of students coming to the UK from India has declined by over 50%, at the same time as the number of Indian students studying overseas has been growing steadily. This is the consequence of a hostile approach from the Home Office to student VISAs.

I think the work done over the past few years to clamp down on so called non-traditional “bogus colleges” has been broadly beneficial. I’ve blogged about it before and I think it has brought some welcome scrutiny to a part of the sector that was previously operating behind the scenes. The tightening of the student VISA regime has been hugely costly to University, both to manage the administrative burden and red-tape involved but also the detrimental effect it has had on the numbers of bright and capable students who choose to study in the UK.

An ideal position would be for all the parties to recognise the progress made with the non-traditional providers and to consolidate that work, to recognise the depth of evidence that Universities manage international student recruitment well and with integrity and therefore to commit to reducing the bureaucratic burden on established Universities with a strong track-record. The gold standard would go to any party that committed to take the infinitely sensible step of removing students from the immigration figures altogether.

4) Membership of the European Union: This is the most indirect of all the policy areas. But, a decision to withdraw from the EU would be very bad news for Universities. Universities benefit directly from membership of the EU in four ways.

i) Research Funding, most notably through the Horizon 2020 programme, from the EU is now a significant part of the sector’s income to support our capacity for world-leading research and encouraging collaboration between European centres for excellence.

ii) This, combined with the mobility of staff within the EU means that UK Universities are able to work in partnership, and with minimum hindrance, with the very best universities on the continent. To give a very simplistic example, just imagine the impact on a German department at a UK University if the ability to of staff to ‘role swap’ between Universities, to share research projects and resources were hindered because the ease of access created by membership of the EU were to go.

iii) European students benefit from mobility too, being able to move relatively freely between countries to enrich their education, build language skills and to access EU wide grants and funds.

iv) Although sometimes slow and difficult to negotiate, a number of professions (such as Architecture, Pharmacy, Medicine and Dentistry) have been working together to build mutual recognition of the different education systems and the qualifications held by students. So when, for example, an Architect graduates with a qualification in the UK, they are more likely to get a job and build a global network and reputation because they have relative freedom to work throughout Europe.

To leave the EU would undermine all of this. Even entering into a period of uncertainty would be unwelcome as it would deter potential partner Universities from establishing new research and teaching partnerships with us.

SO, over the next few days I’m going to have a look at each of the parties and their policies in these areas and score the manifesto commitments out of 5.

I’d be keen to know if anyone thinks I’ve left something off.

Predictions 2015 – Higher Education

I was on poor form with my 2015 predictions but, what the hell, I’m going to have another go, so here’s to HE 2015

1) there will be no HE Bill (again!).
2) Labour will downgrade its £6k fee pledge to an ‘aspiration’.
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.
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.
5) UCAS will report another bumper year for applications.
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.
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.
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.
9) At least one university will have to close or merge to make ends meet.
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.

OR maybe not!! Does anybody even talk about MOOCs any more?!

Onwards . . .

Predictions 2015 (Politics)

I did a bit better on my political predictions than my HE one last year. So here goes for 2015:
1 – There will be a General Election. Note the singular, not plural.
2 – After the election, a majority coalition will be formed. There will not be a minority government; it will be Conservative/Lib Dem.
3 – The combined vote share of Labour and Conservative parties will be lower that 65%.
4 – The Conservatives will be the largest party in vote share and number of MPs.
5 – The Lib Dems will hold on to 40 (+/- 4) seats.
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).
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).
8 – The Conservatives will lose 25-30 seats to Labour but gain 10-15 from the Lib Dems in the South.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
14 – Nick Clegg is re-elected and remains deputy PM.
15 – Ed Miliband resigns, putting the Labour Party out of its misery!

Elsewhere in the world:
16 – Jeb Bush will not be a Presidential candidate at the end of the year.
17 – Hilary Clinton also will not be.
18 – Euro countries (after much flapping and hyperventilating in the media) elect moderate governments).
19 – Angela Merkel will announce that she will not stand for a fourth term.

Predictions 2014 – How did I do? (Higher Education)

After my Upper Second class performance in 2013 (61%), I’m aiming for a First Class in 2014.`So here are my predictions for higher education in 2014:

1) Neither Vince Cable or David Willetts will still be in their current posts – Sadly I was right about Willetts, also sadly I wrong about Vince Cable.

2) A consensus will emerge across three main parties that student visas should not be included as part of the total figures for immigration in the UK – Until Theresa made her announcement earlier in December, I thought we were on good ground here. Regrettably it looks as though we won’t get the public consensus that obviously exists in private.

3) There will be talk of an HE Bill to merge HEFCE, QAA and OFFA – there was, but it hasn’t materialised. I’ll put my head on the block and predict that it won’t in the next 3 years.

4) MOOCs will fizzle out. The new era will not have arrived, millions of people around the world will have watched some brilliant lectures online and we’ll all carry on regardless – has anyone read an article about how MOOCs have changed everything? Anything at all in the last 6 months? Didn’t think so . . .

5) An FE College will achieve University Title – Oh well.

6) At least one University will have to close or merge to make ends meet – I suppose I should be pleased that I got this wrong, but I think we are getting close.

7) Outcomes of the REF will confirm trend towards research concentration, the Government will start to talk about focussing on our 10 best Universities – it has confrimed research concentration. Interesting to see that the top 24 Universities, who will received the most funding as a result of REF (i.e. the measure that matters!) are the same 24 members of the Russell Group.

8) University application figures will be the highest ever – Yup.

9) My book will be a bestseller: copies available now – well . . . Maybe not on the Sunday Times bestseller list, but it’s out there and you really should buy a copy. It’s great.


4 and a half out of 9; scraping a 2:ii, no sign of grade inflation here!

Predictions 2014 – How did I do? (Politics)

I got 9 and a half out of 14 last year, not sure it’s such a strong showing this year:
1) The Coalition will not survive the year. There will be a mutually agreed parting of ways late in 2014 as the two parties run out of steam and it becomes obvious that electoral politics is getting in the way of governing (properly this time) – Oops, I’m very surprised it has done to be honest. I think it would have been better for the Government and governance if the coalition had split up, but hey-ho we’re in for the long haul!

2) There will be a serious reshuffle in the Summer with a wipe out of old faces and promotions for new. I guess that Ken Clarke, William Hague, George Young, Andrew Lansley, David Willetts, Dominic Grieve and Vince Cable will go – I’m pleased with this one, all bar Vince Cable are gone. Admittedly William Hague is still technically there, but only just.

3) UKIP will only just win the Euro elections, Labour will run them a close second –  you wouldn’t think it from the coverage, but UKIP did only just win the elections by a 2% margin, with Labour in second place. More remarkable I thought was the strength of the Conservative Party’s showing, only a few thousand votes behind Labour. 

4) UKIP will not win any parliamentary by-elections – Oh well, we can live in hope!

5) Lib Dems will start to creep up towards 15% in opinion polls – Wrong! But I am still predicting a stronger showing in the General Election.

6) Vince Cable will be appointed as the next European Commissioner from the UK – no idea why I even thought this would happen!

7) Andrew Mitchell will return to Government – oh ‘eck

8) Britain’s economy will be the fastest growing in the West – Yes, got one. I think this will continue to be true in 2015 too.

9) Scotland will vote “no” to independence, resoundingly. Although the media will insist that everything is still on a knife edge! The outcome was not close, by any measure. The No vote won by 11% (44.6% to 55.4%), it was always going to be thus imho!

10) The Romania, Bulgaria panic will amount to nothing. Government overall immigration figures will continue to fall but nowhere near David Cameron’s 100,000 target – Have we all been overrun? Are we spilling over the coastlines?

11) In the US Republicans will win the Senate as the ‘establishment wing’ starts to regain control – Happened; in West Virginia a Republican who openly calls herself a ‘moderate’ was elected!

12) House of Cards on Netflix will be AWESOME – A matter of opinion, but yes it was! But, nowhere near as good as the original.

Let’s kill meetings

A very interesting article popped onto my daily alert from LinkeIn. Jeff Deneen, a partner at Bain & Co (Mitt Romney’s ex-employer, but don’t hold that against him!) has given some tips on evaluating the needfulness of meetings. Far be it from me to suggest that the HE sector could do with some tips!!

A couple of his best suggestions:

  • Meetings should have a purpose (Heaven forfend)

Have a purpose. If you don’t know why you’re meeting, don’t meet! Most valuable meetings have one of three purposes: inform, discuss or decide. Before calling a meeting, think about whether you could inform people through a different medium, or use a tool to reach a decision. And take most standing meetings off your calendar, because they breed poor habits. If a meeting is truly the best alternative, be clear on its purpose and desired outcome.

  • Think about the length of meetings (it can’t be a proper meeting unless it’s longer than your lunch break!?)

Change the default time. Not too long ago, most companies called 30-minute meetings. Now the typical default time has grown to 60 minutes, even though every additional minute generates a higher cost. How about a rule that says if a meeting lasts more than 90 minutes, it requires approval by an executive who is two levels above the convener?

  • Do we need to invite everyone and their neighbour (and their neighbour’s best friend, just in case!)

Manage the invite list. In many companies, it’s bad form not to invite lots of people to a meeting. What people don’t realize is that every additional attendee adds cost and gets in the way. Remember the Rule of 7, which states that every attendee over a total of 7 reduces the likelihood of making a good, quick, executable decision by 10 percent. Once you hit 16 or 17 people, your potential for decision effectiveness is close to zero.

CLICK HERE for the full article, it’s worth a read, and there’s a very good anecdote about how to test who should be attending your meeting!

HEFCE flexes its muscles

HEFCE (and HEFCW in Wales/DELNI in Northern Ireland) has placed itself firmly on the front foot today by announcing a review of quality assessment in UK higher education.

It’s surprising because normally such reviews are trailed widely and come at a particular time, such as when QAA is nearing the end of a cycle of audit or review. But this comes close to some very recent changes already made to review methods in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

While it’s true that QAA already operates under a contract with the funding bodies and this was due for renewal. The process has been a little more closed than this in the past. Mark Leach has given his take on wonkhe . I’m not sure I’m quite as ready to predict a game changer as Mark, but I think the style and manner of the announcement, accompanied by QAA’s slightly defensive response , suggest that HEFCE wants a to have a wide ranging debate about this.

It will be interesting to see where this goes, a few initial thoughts:

  • Should QAA join the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education  and compete with other agencies for the funding council contract or even compete for each HEI?
  • Should the funding councils provide a shopping list of review methods and agencies to choose from? (all adhering to a broad set of common principles, of course!)
  • If QAA were not to be the agency managing reviews, what would happen to the UK Quality Code?
  • Is this the first sign of break up in the UK Higher Education Sector? Note that the Scottish Funding Council are not part of this call.

Personally, I think QAA has established itself very well in the UK sector and has a strong and well deserved international reputation. It would be rash to throw that away.

Forget the election results, the public feel sorry for Ed Miliband. It’s over.

Election results are in and it’s a heyday for UKIP. Who knows what it means for the Newark by-election or next year’s general election. We’ll have to wait and see.

In the melee over the Council and European elections, I think something has been missed. A very quick moment passed by on Friday night, one of those moments that is so quick and could have been missed just as easily as I spotted it. On Friday’s episode of Have I Got News For You, all the party leaders were lined up for a ribbing from the panel. Ed Miliband’s turn came and one of the topics was his disastrous interview with BBC Radio Wiltshire. Have a look between 3m 55s and 5m 05s:

The Radio interview has been pored over and rightly mocked for the shambles it was. But, in one of those moments of clarity that can happen in a fraction of a second, I was struck by the way the HIGNFY audience reacted at the end of the radio clip being played (about 5m in on the show). They didn’t laugh heartily, the panel didn’t pile in with a load more jokes at his expense. The audience actually pitied him, they let out a desperate wail “awwww”.

I’ve never been a fan of Ed Miliband, my gut feeling was that Labour had just handed over at least 10 years in Government to the Conservatives when they elected him. But I have some good friends who think he’s just what the country needs, so I’ve tried to lay off.

The electorate can dismiss a leader for being too mean spirited and ideological (Michael Howard), too ‘single issue’ and right-wing (William Hague), too dreadful (Gordon Brown), but to reach a stage where you just pity and feel sorry for a leader is pretty damning. How do you return to credibility from that? I fear that the HIGNFY audience reflect a wider sense in the British public; Ed Miliband is well meaning, genuine, clever and also not cut out for the top job! They will vote as such next May, unless Labour find a way out, quickly!

This Miliband/Axelrod photo shows up something that’s gone wrong with politics

David Axelrod dropped an extra ‘l’ into Ed Miliband’s surname. Easy mistake. That silly story has covered up something else that occurred to me immediately when I saw the press released photos of Axelrod in a meeting of the Labour Shadow Cabinet. Here are some:




So each one shows the Leader of Labour Party looking on in awe and admiration as the great David Axelrod holds forth. The dynamic is completely wrong. Axelrod should be supporting and looking on at the leader as he sets out the terms of how Labour is going to win. Have you ever seen a publicity photo of Barack Oboma staring adoringly at Axelrod?!

I think this betrays a well known and obvious weakness in Miliband. It’s often commented that he’s obsessed by American politics and the West Wing, and this is obvious in these photos. But their system is different to ours, and no matter how brilliant the West Wing is (and it truly is), it is a work of fiction!

It also, I think, highlights a weakness that in politics currently for the showy manipulator. Each party is doing it, the Conservatives with Lynton Crosby, the Lib Dems Ryan Coetzee and now Axelrod for Labour are the headlines, but there are others too. Every time one of these campaign organisers is announced, they are almost always from overseas where the political system is different to ours, so their insight is questionable. But worse than that, they bring a narrative of manipulation to the political debate, a sense that all you need to do is emulate Obama’s negative campaigning and ground force of activists and you’ll be able to squeak a win, or that Lynton Crosby can use his dogwhistle to help the Conservatives like he did John Howard in Australia.

Truth is, it’s not these guys that won the electorate over, it’s the candidates. Obama wowed America with his rhetoric and sense of hope in the future after a pretty bleak few years. John Howard just hit the right message at the right time for an Australia that wanted to make a mark in the world and ruthlessly exploit it’s economic advantages. The campaign managers just helped get them over the line, they did not magic up a victory. Why do the media and the political parties pretend as though they can in the UK?