Friday 27 February 2015

Here we go again ...

As expected, Labour have now announced their policy of reducing home/EU undergraduate tuition fees in England to £6k per year, from the current £9k. (The policy only affects England, as higher education is a devolved responsibility).

There’s already much argument about the merits of the plan. To summarise, in the Pro camp, you’ll find the observation that the system is broken and something needs to be done, or public debt will spiral out of control; that the perception of debt is a fear as much as the actual debt; and that an increase in the maintenance grant is a good thing. On the Anti side you’ll see the observation that this puts long term university funding at risk; that it benefits only better off graduates; and that there isn’t a long-term problem that needs fixing.

November 2010, 30 Millbank ...
Here’s my take on this.

Firstly, the system is broken. Although forecasts about the RAB charge and the amount of debt that will not be repaid are only forecasts, it is unarguable that the average level of tuition fee actually charged is substantially greater than the £7,500 on which the policy was based. £9,000 was meant to be charged only in exceptional circumstances; it has instead become the universal norm. In these circumstances, it’s hard to believe that there’s no effect on public finances. And as the coalition’s plans for reducing the public deficit have not borne fruit (despite what George Gideon Oliver Osborne says) this must be a problem for the future.

Secondly, it is correct that the money benefit will go to higher earning graduates. This is straightforward mathematics. What is also true is that the perception of debt will reduce, and that will, I think, remove some disincentive to potential students and their families. How much? We won’t ever know, so that’s a matter of faith.

Will it reduce university funding? It all depends on the nature of politics and public funding, and the effectiveness of future HE ministers versus chancellors. So that’ll likely be a ‘yes’, then, but at some unknown and unspecified date. A government response will be that it serves universities right for being greedy in fee setting in the first place, but as the whole £9k fees policy was a dog’s breakfast from the outset this is just name calling.

So let’s speculate that Labour get into government with a working majority. How would this be implemented?

The framework within which fees are charged is that laid out in the 2004 Higher Education Act – there’s a basic amount and a higher amount. The basic fee level was set – after the 2010 discussions – at £6,000 per year; the higher amount is £9,000 per year. These are in the precisely named Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2010 and the Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2010.

The way it works is that any approved provider can charge fees up to the basic amount (£6,000); to charge at the higher amount (£9,000) you need to have an access agreement approved by OFFA.

So far, so good. The rub is that the basic fee amount is what private providers (eg BPP University, University of Law etc) can charge; the higher amount applies to HEFCE funded universities. On the World at One this lunchtime Chuka Umunna – Labour’s BIS frontman – said that the intention was to continue to require universities to pay bursaries and support access, implying that the basic/higher levels, and the requirement to submit an Access Agreement to OFFA, will continue to apply.

This suggests that the Basic Amount will be reduced to £3k, and the Higher Amount to £6k. If this is the case, then private providers won’t, without further legislation or specific regulation, be able to charge the £6k they are at present.

If this was part of Labour’s plan I’d have expected it to be talked about: you can make good political capital about “clamping down on dodgy profiteering colleges”, even if this is probably unfair when applied to the larger and more reputable ones.

An unanticipated consequence, perhaps?

Friday 13 February 2015

Wake up!

Higher Education is becoming more and more of an election issue, and universities don’t seem to be waking up to the seriousness of this.

I blogged last week on Labour’s supposed £6,000 fee plan, UUK’s response, and the numbers behind this. Martin McQuillian blogged persuasively on wonkhe arguing that UUK had scored an own goal. And now a private members’ bill in the House of Commons seems set to keep the issue live.

The Bill was introduced by Oliver Colvile – MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport – on 10 February, and seeks to require university Vice-Chancellors and governing bodies to write annually to students setting out in detail what their tuition fees are spent on. The text of the bill is not yet published, and in any case there’s no chance that it will become law before the election, so it’s the politics which are interesting here.

Let’s have a look at the introductory speech made by Oliver Colvile.
The aim is that letters should be sent by vice-chancellors and governors explaining in detail how they spend their students’ tuition fees. We have to remember that students are the universities’ clients and customers. They are paying a significant amount of money to receive a service. I firmly believe that students deserve accountability from their institutions.
This argument is a straightforward value-for-money argument. The key point: £9k per year seem like an awful lot of money to many people, and if a family has no prior experience of university it isn’t obvious what they get for the money. And, conversely, for universities any individual student’s £9k fee is a relative drop in the ocean. There’s a clear mismatch between the cost felt by the customer/client and the benefit felt by the provider.
In last year’s annual grant letter, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), who was then Minister for Universities and Science, expressed concern about the substantial upward drift of the salaries of some top managements at our universities. I believe that if universities were more accountable to their students, they would ensure that they could justify that expenditure.
Now we can see the politics. And it gets stronger:
According to Times Higher Education, the best-paid 10 vice-chancellors of English universities earned between £365,432 and £480,000 in 2012-13. … Members may wish to compare those academic fat cats’ salaries with the £142,500—including his parliamentary salary—that I understand the Prime Minister earns for running the whole country, rather than just one university.
Not comfortable reading for Vice-Chancellors. Although universities consider themselves to be autonomous and charitable organisations, the public funds spent on universities mean that this debate is fairly and squarely regarded as being about public spending. And Vice-Chancellors’ salaries make them amongst the highest paid public servants in the country.

There is a local dimension to this., The travails of Plymouth University, with suspensions, resignations and very expensive furniture, contribute towards this.  But the bigger picture betrays a different narrative to that pursued by universities, and the politics behind this – about shared pain, austerity and standing up for the rights of the individual – are a long way from serious discussion about the benefits and mechanisms to fund a world class university system. At election time universities must realise that the political arguments will always hold sway, and there’s a real danger that hard questions will be answered in glib ways, with damaging consequences.

Will the sector wake up to this in time?

Monday 9 February 2015


The online magazine Spiked published recently its ranking of freedom of speech on campus: an addition to the plethora of league tables relating to universities and one which deserves a closer look.

The Spiked ranking judges institutions on a traffic light system, and its judgements meld the policies and practices of universities with those of their associated Students’ Union. Each partner – the university and the students’ union – is individually scored; the two overall scores are then aggregated, with a ‘better’ score in some circumstances mitigating a worse score. (It’s a pessimist’s approach: the outcomes seem to me to drive scores down not up. But maybe that was Spiked’s intention…)

Universities are scored on policies such as Codes of Practice on freedom of speech, and on email and behaviour policies. Students’ Unions are additionally scored on any specific ‘bans’ that they have in place (for instance, decisions not to stock ‘lads mags’ in Students’ Union shops); any instances of speakers or societies being banned, and any general ‘no platform’ policies. Spiked assert that they are only judging instances where action is taken beyond what the law requires.

The law in this area is complicated and contradictory. (Normal disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and the following is for discussion, not to be relied upon in any specific legal action.)

Three areas are particularly relevant.

Freedom of Speech: universities have obligations set out in section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986:
"(1) Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.
(2) The duty imposed by subsection (1) above includes (in particular) the duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with —
(a) the beliefs or views of that individual or of any member of that body; or
(b) the policy or objectives of that body..."
The Act covers Students’ Union premises, whether or not these are owned by the university and whether or not the Students Union has a substantial affiliation to the University. Existing Codes of Practice for Freedom of Speech stem from this legislative requirement.

The Human Rights Act 1998 additionally contains provisions relating to the freedom of thought and expression.

Equalities: The Equality Act 2012, and in particular the Public Sector Equality Duty which came into force in April 2011 (s149 of the Act), requires that universities, in carrying out their functions,
"… have due regard to the need to:
(a) eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under this Act;
(b) advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it;
(c) foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it."
The relevant protected characteristics are: age; disability; gender reassignment; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation.

Eliminating discrimination means making sure that possessing one or more protected characteristics does not become the basis for less favourable treatment.

Advancing equality of opportunity means removing or minimising disadvantages which arise from and are connected to a protected characteristic; pro-actively meeting the distinct needs of people with a protected characteristic; and encouraging participation in public life or any other activity by people who share a protected characteristic where participation in public life or that activity is disproportionately low.

Fostering good relations means tackling prejudice and promoting understanding.

These are positive duties: universities must actively take steps to promote them, not simply ensure that they are not breached.

Security: Legislation relating to crimes against people and property are not specifically focused on universities, but activities within universities have caused particular interest, in relation to animal rights; political extremism and campaigning of many persuasions; and radicalism inspired by religion, again of many different persuasions. The most relevant legislation is s1 of the Terrorism Act 2006:
"(1) This section applies to a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to them to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism or Convention offences.
(2) A person commits an offence if—
(a) he publishes a statement to which this section applies or causes another to publish such a statement; and
(b) at the time he publishes it or causes it to be published, he—
(i) intends members of the public to be directly or indirectly encouraged or otherwise induced by the statement to commit, prepare or instigate acts of terrorism or Convention offences; or
(ii) is reckless as to whether members of the public will be directly or indirectly encouraged or otherwise induced by the statement to commit, prepare or instigate such acts or offences.
(3) For the purposes of this section, the statements that are likely to be understood by members of the public as indirectly encouraging the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism or Convention offences include every statement which —
(a) glorifies the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of such acts or offences; and
(b) is a statement from which those members of the public could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated by them in existing circumstances."
The Public Order Act 1986 also has relevant sections relating to behaviour which threatens individuals and which could give rise to violence or disorder.

Additionally, many universities have clauses in their charter or statues, or instrument and articles of government, which provide for academic staff to have academic freedom within the law.

Enough of the law lesson!  What this shows is that universities have a duty to ensure freedom of speech, and simultaneously a positive duty to foster good relations, which in the real world means watching what is said. I’m not sure that when Spiked say they only score when institutions go beyond the law, they are really being fair.

This, I think, is one of the problems with the Spiked ranking: universities are balancing conflicting legislative requirements. This means, inevitably, rules and policies which allow for individual judgment to be exercised (treating each case on its own merits is one of the hallmarks of good administration). And this can look very like arbitrariness. So university rules which allow for the exercise of discretion in, for example, disciplinary codes, may have a positive aspect.

It’s also the case that some of the issues that Spiked flagged – email policies which contained penalties for offensive language or behaviour – seem to me more like sensible rules which help manage the use of such systems. Universities, don’t forget, are communities, and even though the autonomy in judicial matters which was enjoyed by medieval universities is a thing of the past, a lot of community problems are mediated by university authorities. A few rules help no end in this task.

And then moving on to Students’ Unions. It’s necessary to look at the specifics. When one reads that a university has “banned the Sun” what has really happened tends to be more like, the students’ union shop has decided not to stock it. Now, last time I looked, a retailer was at liberty to choose what they sold. And if a shopkeeper (which is what students’ unions are in this case) decides not to sell something, well, so be it. Those who want to buy will go elsewhere. If a bookshop doesn’t have the book I want it isn’t censorship.

Finally, Spiked identify cases where Students’ Unions refuse a platform for speakers. This is where there begins to be some substance to their critique. It’s a perfectly legitimate debate to argue that only by exposing ‘bad’ ideas to criticism can they be defeated. It’s also perfectly legitimate to argue that by denying ‘bad’ ideas the oxygen of publicity, they are more quickly suppressed, and that no matter how much one argues, there will always be cussed folk who want to hold and promote a discredited view.

Which of these is right? I’m not going to get drawn into that. But the key point is that it is clearly a political argument. Nothing wrong with that, but the Spiked rankings need to be understood not as evidence of the need for moral panic, but as a position (and a pretty thorough libertarian position at that) in a political discourse. And in the current environment, where there are big issues at stake around surveillance in universities, I’m not sure it’s the most productive line to take.

But that’s just what I think, and I’m entitled to say it too!

Monday 2 February 2015

A pre-emptive strike

University tuition fees on the BBC from 6am today – there must be an election coming!

The story, of course, is the letter to The Times from UUK’s Board members representing English universities, protesting pre-emptively about Labour’s rumoured plan to reduce the tuition fee cap in England to £6,000 per year. (It's behind a pay-wall so I, haven't linked to the letter, but Wonkhe below gives a link to the UUK press release.)

Wonkhe blogs knowledgeably about the politics behind this, and the key point seems to be that there isn’t really a Labour HE policy yet. So what we’re seeing is an attempt to shape policy, or at the very least make the £6k cap untenable politically. Let’s take a look at that.

Firstly, what is the universities’ case? Deeply flawed though the current English fees regime is, it is possible to say a couple of good things about it.

Firstly, it has increased the money available to universities – and better-funded universities ought to be able to deliver better teaching and research. Plus, and this is a biggie for universities, it is money which comes without many strings attached, thus increasing university autonomy.

Secondly, it hasn’t caused a reduction in participation in higher education. Much like the 2006 increase to £3k, an early dip has been compensated for and the upward march of participation continues.

But, as I said, it is also deeply flawed: it’s very expensive for the country. The repayment rate is capped at 9% above a £21k threshold, and repayments stop after twenty years. Thus there is almost bound to be a built-in default, and the state picks up the tab. It is, of course, a long-term issue (July 2035 will be the twentieth anniversary of the first graduates graduating with higher fee debt) and no-one knows exactly what the default rate will be, but the forecasts on which the policy were introduced look brave at the moment. And, critically, estimates on default rates have an impact on government budgets in the here and now: meaning that real money needs to be found as estimates of default rates go up.

The problem universities have is that reducing the fee cap sounds like a good idea. If students pay less – and £6,000 is definitely less than £9,000, no matter what you think of Ed Balls – then surely it must be better for them? And many people outside HE (and quite a few inside HE) think a £9,000 flat rate is simply too much.

Clement Attlee: £6k fees weren't his policy
It isn’t that simple, of course. Because repayments are capped, graduates on low-ish salaries might still find themselves paying for twenty years, and still owing at the end of it (to be picked up by the state); the ones who would benefit are graduates who go into more highly paying jobs, and so can pay the £6k off within the time limit. And as the graduate social mobility work led by Alan Milburn showed, access to high paying professional jobs is biased towards those from more advantaged backgrounds. So, with a £6k fees policy, the ones who benefit will be disproportionately from richer families. Reducing fees from £9k to £6k doesn’t seem very progressive to me.

But it sounds it. And here’s the problem universities face. The current regime is unsustainable for the state, but is actually pretty good for universities. Any move - eg to a graduate tax – makes things worse for universities, in the sense that they become beholden to the state for money. Remember that the whole fees thing happened because the state wouldn’t pay the cost of expanding higher education whilst maintaining levels of university funding. For universities, a graduate tax is a step backwards.

And as I blogged last week, young people in Labour MPs' constituencies are disproportionately more likely to go to less prestigious universities. And the lower down the league table you go, the more plausible the argument, that £9k is too much, can feel. This is about the heart not the head.

There’s a lot at stake here. If we’re headed for coalition, then the best outcome might be a cross-party consensus not to make HE policy a haggling point. That leads to policy making on the fly, and bad outcomes. So perhaps the real message from universities needs to be “We know the current arrangements can’t hold, but let’s this time think it thought properly”. Not much of a manifesto slogan, but better for policy, I suspect.