Monday 30 November 2015

The national interest(s)

The UK has four separate national higher education policies. It’s a devolved matter, so the governments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh set the policies in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland independently of policies determined by BIS in London for England. But it is also the case that there’s a single higher education system in the UK – at least when viewed from the perspectives of staff, students and research funders. Staff move freely between the different nations; there’s plenty of student mobility between nations, and research funders look for the best research, which often spans the UK’s internal borders. So there’s two contrary facts on the go at the same time.

Universities Wales, the local franchise of UUK in Wales, has today published a manifesto which speaks to the tension which arises because of this. The manifesto, which aims to help shape party policies in May 2016’s assembly elections, sets out six ‘fundamental commitments’ for universities in Wales. Let’s take a look.

The first of these fundamental commitments addresses access to maintenance funding for students: “Provide means-tested maintenance grants for Welsh students from foundation through to postgraduate level to ensure that everyone in Wales has access to the life changing opportunities provided through higher education.”

There’s two things going on here. Firstly, a recognition that access to money to live on whilst studying is a major factor in widening access and enabling students to succeed. Future fee repayments are much less of an inhibiting factor than cash for food, rent and clothes. Secondly, the range of the funding – undergraduates are not the only students, and with postgraduate loans available in England, Welsh universities and Welsh students are disadvantaged if similar funding is not available.

The second commitment addresses affordability: “Prioritise university funding towards the policies that both provide opportunities to access an internationally competitive, high quality university education and deliver economic and social benefits for individuals, government and businesses in Wales.”

At the moment the Welsh Government provides a direct fee subsidy for all Welsh-domiciled (ie, living in Wales before they went to university) students, no matter where they attend university. So, Welsh government HE money is being spent to pay fees at universities in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland (although in practical terms the vast majority of Welsh students who study outside Wales do so in England.) And the plain truth is that this commitment places great pressure on other Welsh HE priorities. The Diamond Commission is currently looking at HE funding issues (and is due to report after the election – where have we heard that before?), and Universities Wales is aiming to help change policy. Welsh Labour has previously made a clear anti-fee commitment, so all policy help will be important. And it’s clearly tied in with the maintenance grants point in the first ‘fundamental commitment’: give something good to students before taking something else away.

The third commitment speaks to a very real concern for the larger universities in Wales: “Maintain in real terms the quality-related (QR) research budget that underpins Wales’ world leading research.” The size of the sector in Wales means that government can be far more selective in research funding, and REF 2014 showed that the quality of research in Wales as measured by GPA was high. What is also important that scale factors aren’t used as a reason for the Welsh government to reduce QR funding as a response to financial pressures.

The fourth commitment speaks to the variety of access to higher education: “Continue investment in part-time provision both to widen access to higher education and develop crucial skills within the Welsh workforce, mindful that part-time provision requires distinct support and investment in order to deliver for Wales.” This is an area where the English funding model has hit universities hard, with significant declines in part-time study.

The fifth ‘fundamental commitment’ relates to HEFCW: “Retain a funding and oversight body for higher education in Wales to manage risk and provide stability to the sector, provide assurance to Government and enable universities to continue delivering for Wales.

The proposed changes in English HE would see the abolition of HEFCE. English universities value the buffer HEFCE provides between government and any individual university, and a removal of that buffer, with the more explicit possibility of government choosing which subjects and universities to fund, causes concerns. In Wales the issues are magnified: in a small country it’s easier for government to interfere.

And finally, Europe: “Actively support Wales remaining a member of the European Union.” Wales gets a great deal out of Europe – in terms of funding for economic regeneration, for instance – and it’s a matter of concern for Welsh universities that access to research funding, as well as staff and student mobility, should continue. In practical terms, Welsh government commitment to membership of the EU will mean little in the event of a referendum ‘out’ vote, but the ‘fundamental commitment’ helps emphasise the significance of the EU to universities.

So of the six commitments, the first five – maintenance grants, access to funding for all levels of study, research funding, part-time funding, and regulation – seek directly to counter, address, or improve upon, the changes which have or will happen in England. Welsh Universities know that if their part of the HE system isn’t finely tuned with respect to that in England, they’ll suffer the consequences.

Friday 20 November 2015

Research and Development

So the review of the Research Councils by Sir Paul Nurse has been published, and what a report it is. A much better read than many government reports – it felt like the innocent scientific positivity in some of John Wyndham’s novels, or even better, in The Black Cloud by Sir Fred Hoyle.

I studied philosophy at the LSE, and the focus was very much – unsurprisingly for a department built upon Karl Popper’s work on epistemology and scientific method – around the philosophy of science. So it isn’t every day that the reading lists given to us crop up in government policy documents. But here we are: Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations, and TS Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I was hoping for a bit of Imre Lakatos or Paul Feyerabend too, but perhaps that was asking too much.

It’s also got a lovely opening section into the whys and wherefores of research. And a historical gem: the funding of the Medical Research Council from National Insurance contributions at a rate of “a penny per working person per year” in the 1911 National Insurance Act. By my calculations – and using the historical data set available from the Bank of England – that would equate now to 3 shillings and 11 pence  per working person, or just under 18 pence per head in post-decimal coinage. By comparison, the total science budget of £2.6bn in 2014-15 equates to £68.82 per working person per year. So it’s fair to say that government investment in research has grown over time.

So, from my reading, what are the key points of the review?

  • Research in all disciplines is really important to a nation, and can be focused on discovery, on applying knowledge to a problem, or translating basic research to applied problems (translational). And a great line: “To rush into translation may result in becoming lost in translation.”
  • Research Councils waste a lot of time engaging with bureaucracy, and bringing back control of support in house rather than through the UK Shared Business Services is necessary.
  • RCUK should be given more strength as a co-ordinator of the efforts of the seven research councils, acting as the interlocutor with government and enabling the research councils to focus on research funding. It should become a new body – Research UK – with a single Accounting Officer replacing those in the individual research councils.
  • Management of the funding process needs to improve, with better arrangements for international peer review, panel discussions, diversity, transparency and speed.
  • There needs to be better collaboration with other research funders, and especially business, charities, devolved administrations, and Europe.
  • Relationships with government need to be clarified, and a new structure to work with Research UK is identified.

Sir Paul’s report contains a curious mixture of realism and optimism.

On the realist front: “Given the many and varied demands made on the public purse which Government will need to balance, it is probably more likely the funding level will be set too low rather than too high.”. You're telling me.

On the optimist front: “The changes proposed through this report are not complex and could be easily adopted without disrupting on-going research activities”. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Will it do the trick? It doesn’t actually reduce the number of BIS quangos, although it does create a single infrastructure, so costs should go down. It does reduce complexity, by having a single Accounting Officer. And it certainly makes sense about funding high quality research.

But ... Jo Johnson’s response included an ominous last paragraph:
I encourage everyone with an interest in the future of our research and innovation landscape to consider this review alongside the proposals set out in the Higher Education Green Paper we published recently.
Sounds like a watch this space to me…

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Will the green paper lead to EVEL legislation?

There’s lots written already on the HE green paper and no doubt more to come. My first two-penn’orth is on the question of scope.

David Kernohan on Wonkhe points out, rightly, that the impact of the green paper will not be restricted to England. Quite apart from Sir Paul Nurse’s research review, the impact of the green paper proposals, if enacted, would be felt in universities across the UK. For example, differentials of funding, student information, and perceived status could all increase. If the rest of the world routinely understood the nuances of the UK’s nations (and that fact that England does not equate to Britain, and vice versa) this might also impact upon international issues.

A number of the proposals in the green paper would require primary legislation. HEFCE has a statutory basis in the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, for instance, so abolishing it needs an amendment to that Act. Would any legislation be considered under the English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) procedure?

EVEL was introduced earlier this parliamentary session, and essentially gives English (and Welsh, sometimes) MPs a veto on legislation which affects only England (and Wales too, on some occasions). It was meant to answer the West Lothian question, but of course it doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer – it was hurriedly thought through to deal with politics, not governance.

It means that legislation which affects only England (or England and Wales in variant b) cannot be passed without the assent of English (and Welsh) MPs, but it doesn’t mean that legislation affecting England (and Wales) will necessarily be passed just because it has a majority of English (and Welsh, sometimes) votes. Any bill still needs to be passed by Parliament as a whole, and as the UK government is finding out at the moment in relation to Sunday trading, that isn’t a given.

The green paper has mixed messages here. Firstly, and one would think unambiguously,
46. Higher education is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so most of the proposals in this document apply to England only. However, the funding delivered through the Research Councils and some broader elements of research policy are reserved matters, so the proposals in Part D have UK-wide applicability. (pp16-17)
But then consider later on, in relation to TEF:
16. Our intention is that the TEF develops over time to be comprehensive and open to all HE providers in England, including alternative providers and further education colleges delivering HE provision. As part of this consultation, we are also discussing with Devolved Administrations, whether and how they would like to be involved in the TEF. (p21)
Let’s be blunt – they won’t really have a choice. Universities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are operating in the same environment as those in England – students are making choices between them, research funders are comparing them. It is in their interest to be in an environment which broadly mirrors that in England.

Devolved administrations will know this, and whilst in Scotland there is an attempt to follow a different path, Wales and Northern Ireland have adopted policies which recognise the connection with the English environment. Sometimes the devolved administration has done it better than England. Despite some worries about close scrutiny, for example, Wales has a simpler approach to access than England, with HEFCW signing off fee plans (the equivalent of access agreements) as a condition of funding.  The link between higher fees and the public interest, which is what OfFA was set up to ensure, is (pleasingly) clearer and easier across Offa’s dyke.

More significantly, perhaps, is that even though HE is a devolved matter, it isn’t a fragmented system in the eyes of staff and students. Cross border flows of both are real, ideas and practices are shared. I’d hope that when it comes to primary legislation, the bill isn’t regarded as EVEL.

Which isn’t to say that it won’t be evil – there’s lots to argue about in the green paper - but please, Mr Speaker, let’s make it an inclusive debate.