Monday 22 December 2014

Seasonal thoughts

For someone who has worked in and with universities for all of their adult life, I have a real difficulty in counting academic years. If I’m told that someone started their three-year degree in 2012, I have to use my fingers to work out when they’ll graduate (July 2015, just to show that I can do this). The UK academic year doesn’t match any of the other ancient years – it isn’t related to quarter days, it doesn’t tie in with tax and government budget years; there’s no connection with the change from Julian to Gregorian calendars.

The roots seem to be more practical – the year starts after harvest. The picture I have in my head is much like Bruegel painted, with jolly/oppressed (take your pick, really) villagers bringing in the harvest, as a literal matter of life and death. Once the harvest was in the bag, other things could take place. And hence the UK academic year which starts in September/October.

This (and legacy of imperialism) seems a plausible explanation for most countries' term dates – in the Southern hemisphere, January/February starts are usual; in the Northern, September/October are the norm. But there are interesting exceptions – Japan and Pakistan begin in April, Finland in July. Russia starts in September with the wonderful Knowledge Day.

In the UK an autumn start is not universal. Several universities allow a February start (within the contact of a September norm) and the University of Buckingham, which as an entirely privately funded university sits outside of many mainstream UK practices, starts with the calendar year.

The harvest is no longer an overwhelming part of everybody’s calendar in the UK. Not many of us have actually reaped what we’re sown (at least not literally); and less than 1% of UK workers are in the agriculture and fishing industries. So does it make sense to start in September? Christmas and Easter holidays are awkward for a semester system, and a different start time could make it easier to schedule teaching, and therefore supportive of better learning. A different start to the year could also allow for post-qualification admissions to become a reality, which would help with widening participation and remove the lottery of clearing.

But be warned – it isn’t something that can be done by one institution acting alone, as Tokyo University found out in 2013:
Speaking after a meeting of the presidents of national universities on Wednesday, Todai [Tokyo University] President Junichi Hamada said there were too many hurdles to overcome and that shifting the start of the academic year could not be done by one institution alone, but required a change in Japan’s education system.
So the only rational answer is for everyone to help with the harvest, as before, and come back to university in September with a real appreciation of the opportunity to learn in comfort.

Season’s Greetings to you all!

Thursday 18 December 2014

Top of the Class

Here's the REF analysis you won't have seen yet. The results are in, and it seems that Wales has the cleverest academics, followed by Scotland, England and Northern Ireland.

Using average GPA across all submissions from universities and institutions in the four countries, the results are:

Wales - 3.035
Scotland - 3.028
England - 3.022
Northern Ireland - 2.954

Marginal, for sure, but clear at three decimal places.

Cymru am byth!

[Edit, 22 December: just to clarify, this is a bit tongue-in-cheek. The REF doesn't really prove this; at best it proves that the tactics of universities in Wales were marginally better than those in the other four UK nations. And it probably doesn't really prove this either, it simply demonstrates that with large numbers of universities there's a regression to the mean. I'll be posting more on REF, with more data and analysis, in the New Year. Once it ceases to be fashionable.]

Thursday 11 December 2014

An Alternative point of view

The National Audit Office report on Financial support for students at alternative higher education providers has generated a lot of media coverage in the past couple of weeks – both from industry and social media. Here’s links to the Guardian’s coverage; the BBC and the Times Higher; and also a brief piece by Emily Lupton on Wonkhe. The coverage ranges from £5m mis-spending to a whopping £50m potential risk in your super soar-away Guardian. So what’s really going on?

First up, what are alternative providers? An alternative provider is any college which offers higher education, but is not part of the ‘normal’ state-funded, QAA-regulated, HESA-data-submitting established universities. So the term includes established and well-recognised institutions such as the University of Buckingham or BPP University (relatively new name but a long, long heritage) as well as lots of smaller colleges, some of which have sprung up in the last few years. (I should add for clarity that there are no adverse comments about either Buckingham or BPP in the NAO report.) I blogged a while ago about which institutions use UCAS, and a lot of the entrants and exits from that marketplace are alternative providers.

Alternative providers aren’t all for-profit – the term covers colleges run as charitable trusts too. Courses lead to awards made either through powers that they have gained themselves through the recent more open procedures run by BIS; made by national awarding bodies; or lead to awards validated by universities, or franchised from universities.

The story arises from the opening up of access to Student Loans Company (SLC) funding for students at alternative providers – up to £6k fees, and also for living costs. And this is what the NAO was investigating.

There were four main findings:

“EU students at some alternative providers have claimed or attempted to claim student support they were not entitled to” – this is the £5.4 million mis-spending reported by the media. And 83% of the wrongful claims came from student at just 16 alternative providers.

“Dropout rates at 9 alternative providers were higher than 20% in 2012/13” and “20% of Higher National students recruited by alternative providers and claiming student support may not have been registered with the qualification awarding body in 2012/13”. The NAO takes this as evidence that some students aren’t really motivated to learn – that is, they may be registering as students only to access loans.

“Between 2012 and 2014, BIS suspended payments to 7 providers and their students owing to concerns that providers had enrolled students onto unapproved courses” and “a lack of clarity has existed within BIS and its partner organisations about which courses were approved for student support.” This points to procedures designed (or at least operated) by BIS and the SLC which didn’t check eligibility before lending money.

“In 3 cases, BIS suspended payments to providers or their students where it had concerns that the providers had supplied incorrect information about student attendance.” The point being that it was the SLC making payments, but without the powers necessary to assure itself of the correctness of the payments.

Does this mean that alternative providers are a Bad Thing? That was certainly the unspoken view behind a lot of the Twittersphere commentary. I don’t think that it does.

It does mean that some of the providers audited almost certainly are doing bad things, and it almost certainly means that some of the people who signed up for courses at some alternative providers were doing it for the wrong reason. But a very few students also enrol at ‘normal’ providers for the wrong reason. And they’re often caught, like these ones, and dealt with. (A quick note about the 83% at 16 providers which the NAO cited: the alternative providers market is very skewed, with a few very large providers and many very small indeed. 83% of students at alternative providers, selected on any basis at all, are mathematically almost certain to come from a small number of providers. Just saying.)

But I do think that there is a problem here, and it’s the failure of regulation which this represents. There wasn’t until September 2014 a single comprehensive list of courses at alternative providers which were approved for access to SLC funds - this makes checking very difficult. There weren’t systems which shared information at the right time between bodies to make it possible to spot and stop problems. There wasn’t the right authority to oversee new providers in a timely fashion. These are all foreseeable problems, the sort of problems which universities have been dealing with for years and which sector groups – Universities UK, the Association of Heads of University Administration (AHUA), the Academic Registrars’ Council (ARC) – are well placed to advise upon.

The reasons for this?  Too little time spent on thinking things through; a government in a hurry; a coalition government, meaning that plans had to be compromised; and a civil service which was distracted by pressure to find savings. And underlying this the great truth that higher education is a long-term process, with outcomes only known sometime after the event. The same is true for higher education policy – act in haste, repent at leisure.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Master's in Finance

Nobody could have been surprised that the Chancellor announced loans for postgraduate students in today’s autumn statement. But the details that we know deserve a bit of consideration.

1.3% of the available postgraduate loan
First, the announcement – an income-contingent loan, at real but better than market rates, of up to £10k, available to people under 30 starting a taught postgraduate course from 2016. Subject to consultation and details. The modelling suggests an interest rate of RPI+3%, which isn’t a bad rate. Repayment would be thought the existing Student Loans Company mechanisms, with repayments starting at £21k salary, with 9% of salary above £21k taken as repayment.

This has been a long time coming – the NUS and universities have been campaigning for a while, and since the introduction of the higher fees in 2012 it was clear that there would be a pressure on Master’s degree enrolments when people were graduating with substantial SLC debt.

One interesting aspect is the age limit. Prior speculation had been that the loans would be available only for STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) subjects. That they will be available for all subjects is a victory for humanities and social science lobbying, but the age cap may have been a necessary corollary: the loans are intended to be self-financing.

Also of interest is the question of possible discrimination. If it turns out that the loans are not self-financing (and we know how robust RAB calculations are in relation to student loans) where is the justification for stretching the Equality Act protection of age?

David Kernohan spotted in the Treasury’s underlying calculations that the loans are also predicated on a slowing of the rate of growth of PGT students – from 2% annually to 1%. My guess is that this is necessary to make them look self-financing over a sufficiently short timescale: if growth is larger, sooner, then the up-front cost will hurt Treasury. If there’s a cap on PGT numbers in four years’ time remember that you read it here first!

What will the repayments feel like? If we assume someone earning £24k per year, then with just an undergraduate degree and associated loans they’d be repaying £22.50 monthly on a gross monthly salary of £2000. And the same person with a Master’s degree would pay £45 monthly on the same gross salary – a marginal rate of 2.25%, and the size of a monthly contract for a flashy mobile phone. A first-degree holder earning £36k per year would pay £112.50 on a monthly gross salary of £3,000; the same person with a Master’s degree would pay £225 per month – a marginal rate of 7.5% and more like the monthly repayments on a car. So, progressive taxation, up to a point, and also noticeable by the individual.

It’s important though to bear in mind that current students are already paying: whether it’s borrowing from parents and family; saving for a couple of years; or working during study (or all of the above). It’s unquestionably a good thing that these loans will be available, but at £10k they won’t pay the full costs.  It’s an amelioration of financial problems, not a complete solution.

It’ll also be interesting to see whether this becomes an election issue: will the other parties promise to do this also, or does it become an uncertainty. My guess is that Nick Clegg will not want to talk about this: too many bad memories for him!