Tuesday 19 May 2015

Shut that door!

One outcome of the election which seems very clear is the continuation of previous Home Office policy towards international students. This won’t be welcome news to universities.

Firstly, the Conservative manifesto:
We will reform the student visa system with new measures to tackle abuse and reduce the numbers of students overstaying once their visas expire. Our action will include clamping down on the number of so-called ‘satellite campuses’ opened in London by universities located elsewhere in the UK, and reviewing the highly trusted sponsor system for student visas. And as the introduction of exit checks will allow us to place more responsibility on visa sponsors for migrants who overstay, we will introduce targeted sanctions for those colleges or businesses that fail to ensure that migrants comply with the terms of their visa.(p30, We will continue to cut immigration from outside the EU)
Secondly, the ministerial team: Theresa May reappointed as Home Secretary; James Brokenshire reappointed, but with a narrower brief, covering immigration only (in the last government he had responsibility for Immigration and Security). Both have proven unresponsive to lobbying on the question of overseas student numbers and their inclusion in the net migration targets.

There are three specific actions:

  • Reviewing the highly trusted sponsor (HTS) system, under which universities are allocated the right to sponsor a certain number of students
  • ‘Clamping down’ on satellite campuses in London – that is, London campuses operated by universities outside London. Presumably the argument is that away from the main administrative operation, there’s a greater risk that students will not be ‘genuine’ students, whatever that is held to mean
  • Placing more responsibility on sponsors for students who overstay their visas – presumably requiring universities to keep tabs on where their students are, and where necessary taking direct steps to ensure that they leave the UK when their visas expire.

My guess is that the first thing to happen will be the HTS review, which will lead to more stringent criteria for achieving highly trusted status. And several universities either having their HTS status withdrawn, or choosing not to reapply. I've posted before on the dependency of UK universities on overseas student fee income, and removal of HTS is likely to have real and deleterious consequences.

Is that what the fuss is really about?
And on the same theme, but more positively for universities, London First published today a report on the benefit to the UK of London-based international students. (See also the BBC news report.) Using what looks like a pretty rigorous methodology, PwC calculate that overseas students at London universities (not at satellite campuses, mark you) generate £2.8 billion annually for the UK economy, and draw on £540 million annually of public services, a net annual benefit of £2.3 billion.

The report is well worth reading, and makes some sensible recommendations to government including, crucially, not counting overseas students within the net migration total. The problem here is that the Conservative manifesto is very specific; it’s an area where 2010 manifesto commitments weren't met, leading to pressure to deliver this time; and the narrative is tied in with the question of Europe, and the in-out referendum. I’m fairly sure that the Prime Minister doesn't want to the UK to leave the EU; but he’s calculating that to win the referendum he needs to be seen to be tough.

Difficult times ahead. It would take a brave university to plan on growth in overseas student numbers; it might be wise to work on a few contingency plans too.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Two's company

An interesting story in Inside Higher Ed raises the question of universities sharing administrative resources. Two two-year Colleges - Terra State Community College and Northwest State Community College – have agreed to establish a joint organisation which will provide:
a central administrative structure but, at least for the foreseeable future, no direct governance oversight of the community colleges themselves. The Northwest State and Terra State governing boards each will appoint two trustees to lead the new "regional council of government," as the new structure is formally known under Ohio law.
According to the press release from the two Colleges
The move does not merge the colleges themselves, rather it creates a centralized district and consolidates certain administrative positions for both colleges. The District office is expected to be housed at the University of Toledo Scott Park campus, in alignment with the recently-signed consortium agreement with the University of Toledo. Both Northwest State and Terra State are approximately 40 miles from the new central office.
And some very specific details about implementation:
The new central office is expected to be up and running by July 1, 2015. The first positions to move to the district office are the vice president of academic affairs and the chief financial officer. Terra State’s vice president of academic affairs is set to retire at the end of June, and Northwest State’s current vice president of academic affairs will move to the District office and assume the role for both schools. Similarly, Terra State’s CFO will move to the district office and will work collaboratively with Northwest State’s chief fiscal and administrative officer. Other positions will be phased in over several years through attrition, including a chief executive officer (separate position from the college presidents); chief operation officer; chief workforce development officer; and marketing and public relations, human resources, and information technology functions. No faculty positions are affected by the change.
Some faculty at the Colleges, according to Inside Higher Ed, suspect that this is a precursor to merger with the University of Toledo, and from a distance this does look like a possible outcome.

Campuses in Archbold and Fremont; a shared office in Toledo
More generally, and in the UK context, university governing bodies and vice-chancellors do on occasion wonder whether a sharing of back-office resources between universities would promote efficiency. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea, but in practice it has proven very difficult to do.

There are many reasons for this, but most boil down to the question of institutional autonomy. There’s little problem in sharing services which can be tailored to meet the needs of the partner institutions: for example, the Careers Group at the University of London is a brilliant example of universities sharing costs to get more than they could individually, but with local delivery looking and feeling different for each partner. But in many cases efficiency in delivery of services comes from common policies and procedures, which are often felt to be a component of institutional autonomy.

In addition, there’s the question of whether a partner could reasonably withdraw from a sharing once started. So, for instance, a shared Director of Finance could not effectively deliver for a partner institution which wished to have second thoughts about the arrangement: the space and time needed for the doubtful institution to think it through could not be given since the Director of Finance would have a clear duty to tell the other partner straightaway of this material change in circumstances. Once you start sharing strategic management you’re effectively merged.

Finally, there’s the issue of effectiveness. Many of the services which could be shared – that is, are transactional and routine to the extent that they don’t impact on the academic character of a university – rarely have the scale only within universities to make sharing worthwhile. Consider payroll: definitely shareable without harming autonomy, but it is done on a bigger scale beyond HE – why look to another university for payroll when the benefits of scale will come from much larger private operations?

The collaboration reported by Inside Higher Ed seems to deal with some of these issues (that is, it builds on an existing collaboration, and within a framework of law and regulation which perhaps means that autonomy is not such a pressing concern), and by working in harmony with planning retirements some of the managerial issues are dealt with. But I’d be very surprised if the governing bodies of the colleges hadn’t got at least an eye on merger down the line.

Friday 8 May 2015

The people have spoken ...

And I’m not sure that many expected exactly the result we’ve got. There’s lots of things to be said about the detailed HE policy implications of the election result, and I might well say some of them in due course. But for now I just want to set out a few thoughts about the bigger political context – a small majority, Europe, Scotland and austerity.

Nicholson St, Edinburgh. Spot the Union Jack. #indyref2 on its way.
Firstly, the small majority. It won’t take many rebellious Conservative MPs to create a problem for the government. One or two voting against something won’t make a difference – the opposition doesn’t coalesce around any obvious point of view for that to be the case – but 20-30 rebels could well defeat the government. So there’ll be careful management of parliamentary business and it may well be that more contentious issues are shelved if they can be. Some university issues definitely count as contentious – 2010 Millbank riots anybody? – so HE issues that need parliamentary discussion or votes might not be flavour of the month.

Secondly, Europe. One of the ways that the Prime Minister will keep his MPs happy is to progress EU negotiations quickly in the hope that by 2017 there’s a good deal enabling a positive referendum campaign to stay within the EU. The problem is that what counts a good deal depends very much on where you’re sitting, and the benefits of Europe that accrue to HE – student mobility, research funding – might not look so beneficial if you’re worried about public spending and migration. So there could be a bit of planning blight around things European which might be tricky.

Thirdly, Scotland. I’ve been spending some time in Edinburgh recently and it’s obvious that something has changed in how lots of people in Scotland think and feel ab out the UK, its politics and government. The post-referendum response by the UK government was a fudge, and contributed to yesterday's overwhelming SNP victory in Scotland. If the issue is taken seriously, then pro-union views might yet find a way to keep Scotland within the UK, but I wouldn’t bet on it. And as HE is a devolved matter, any discussions around constitutional change or devolution will have an impact. No matter which part of the UK you’re in, this will affect you.

And finally, money. Even before the election campaign we knew that there were substantial further cuts planned to government spending. In England, BIS will not be immune; and the consequential impact upon budgets in devolved administrations (even if we assume that the Barnett formula will be maintained) will be real too. So the question of the sustainability of student funding (fees, grants, depending on where you are) and the amount of research funding will become pressing issues. But, see above, contentious issues might have to be shelved because of parliamentary problems. So research funding is likely to get clobbered.

Some of this would be true no matter what the outcome of the election, but it does seem to me that parliamentary politics hasn’t stopped being interesting for higher education yet...