Sunday 29 March 2015

A capital week

I write at the end of a long week which saw me in each of the three capital cities on the UK mainland: Cardiff on Monday and Thursday; London on Tuesday and Friday; and Edinburgh on Wednesday. Plenty of opportunity for reflection.
Cardiff, London, Edinburgh: and some other places too

One strand of this reflection was about the changes which are occurring in the UK through devolution, and the unequal parts into which the UK is divided. Universities’ behaviour is being affected by this.

Firstly, with respect to students. Each of the nations has its own policy around student support and student tuition fees, but England, as the largest in volume and wealth, is clearly setting a tone. With each student paying £9k per year, funded through the SLC; and now without any cap on student numbers, English universities can seek to recruit (they might not succeed) as many as they like, from wherever they like.

In Wales, the government subsidises students’ fees, so that they pay only about £3,600 per year, wherever in the UK they study. Welsh universities have a financial cap on how many Welsh-domiciled students they can admit (although I understand that in practice this doesn’t constrain recruitment of Welsh students) and the net effect of this is that Welsh universities do best, financially, when they recruit plenty of students from England, creating a net inwards flow of state funding for universities.

In Scotland, universities cannot charge fees for home (or non-UK EU students), but can charge for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. They are grant funded in respect of the costs of educating Scottish students. This means that for Scottish universities, students from the rest of the UK are valuable, bringing fee income. But, universities are not funded at the same fee per student basis as in England and Wales, so competing with their counterparts elsewhere in the UK is tricky.

In research things are different (for now): the principal of dual support (through the block grant and, in competition, from Research Councils) is so far safe. This means that every university will get some funds for research, dependent upon their baseline quality assessed through REF. But how long will this last? As national governments (ie Scotland, Wales, NI) gain more power, will they wish to include their ‘share’ of research council funding in their allocations? Will experiments in devolution in England, like that in Manchester, lead to regional university funding?

It is an uncertain time, and each university is also having to plot its own sustainability, with uncertainties about future state/fee funding arrangements, the prospect of further cuts in the coming years, and no real confidence that post-election things will be any clearer.

There’s no moral to this reflection. But there is an obvious truth that the future for university funding and system behaviour won’t be stable for a while yet.

Friday 13 March 2015

Chwarae teg (fair play)

One of the many wonderful things about Wales (where I'm based) is the language, and chwarae teg – or fair play – is a phrase you’ll see a lot (in both languages!). And it’s apposite this week as the Competition and Markets Authority has published extensive guidance to universities on how they must play fair with applicants.

Undoubtedly fair play is about to take place
This has been coming for a while: back in April 2014 I blogged about the Office of Fair Trading’s review of universities terms and conditions. The basic finding of the first review was that universities have much more power than applicants and students, and need to be careful about how that power is expressed through regulations and practices, if they are not to fall foul of consumer protection law.

It was a balanced report, recognising that universities were not typically cavalier about this, and that the student-university relationship is more complex than that of customer-provider. But it did presage a greater concern with the contractual relationship, and the CMA’s new guidance fulfils that promise.

It’s a lot of advice – 69 pages of it, carefully worded. Not to be skimmed. The summary has 38 separate paragraphs, or sub-paragraphs, detailing specific things that universities must do to comply.

There's one other things that universities must obviously do – take it seriously. The Open Letter to HE Providers from the CMA makes clear that universities are expected now to:
  • Review publications, policies, rules and regulations
  • Make and necessary changes promptly, including clearing any internal hurdles, and if material is already published, make amendments clear
  • Think about how you ensure that all the different faculties and departments within the university are aware of the requirements and the guidance
  • Make sure that relevant staff know, and act upon that knowledge, as the HE institution is liable for actions carried out by its staff

And this is to be followed by a review – starting in October 2015 – to
"Assess compliance with consumer protection law. As part of that review we will analyse any information which has been submitted, including via our compliance reporting mechanism. Where necessary, we may also request certain information from some HE providers and ask them to demonstrate their compliance with the law. 
Should serious infringements be identified, either through monitoring or during the course of the compliance review, the CMA or another consumer enforcement partner may decide to take action, including before the compliance review has concluded."
So that’s universities put on notice: a clear list of things to check; a timetable for implementation (and quite a demanding one, given how long the recruitment cycle is and the need in many universities to get Senate or Academic Board approval for changes to regulations); a steer that actions in faculties and departments will be checked; a statement that staff ignorance will not be an excuse; and a warning that action may be taken.

The CMA guidance is a long read, but it is important that someone in every university is doing that reading, and taking action. And fair play to the CMA, at least they’ve been transparent.