Jo Johnson defends HE funding system in pre-summer speech

A day before parliament’s recess begins, in a highly partisan speech, Jo Johnson set out the next phase of his policy agenda, announcing new initiatives, including the specification for subject-level TEF.

Fees and funding

Those hoping for a radical overhaul of tuition fees in the light of the ‘national conversation’ about the system that we’ve been having over recent weeks will be bitterly disappointed. Johnson launched an extremely robust defence of the student loan system, and offered no changes to repayment terms, as some had hoped for. Describing the criticism that interest rates were excessive as a ‘misconception’.

However, there was some new policy to be had – it was confirmed that the cost for a student taking an accelerated course will never be more than the same course over a longer period. However, this will be an expectation, not a requirement (a recurring theme of many of these announcements).

After the speech, Jo Johnson confirmed to Wonkhe that the inflationary rise in fees for 2018-19 would be made later this year, and DfE later told us that when it is made it will be under the terms of the 2004 Higher Education Act. This means it will be done without a potentially messy vote in Parliament. The sector had hoped the announcement would come yesterday to give full information about fee levels in prospectuses which need to go to print.

The Competition and Markets Authority will also raise an eyebrow regarding the advertisement of fee levels which need to be visible on all university literature advertising courses in 2018-19.

A large portion of the speech was given over to criticising the confusion over Labour’s position on abolishing historical graduate debt. Johnson also laid into the broad economics of the proposal to remove tuition fees and gave short shrift to Corbyn’s continued use of the soundbite that disadvantaged students are disproportionately affected by higher fees.

Vice chancellor pay

Johnson was happy to associate himself with the general clamour of the public debate around VC pay, calling on the sector “to put an end to the accelerating upward ratchet in vice chancellor pay.” However, he doesn’t appear to be taking much action on the issue, or as much as the trails for the speech implied. He is, however, asking OfS to “examine senior pay from a value for money perspective”. He made it clear that he doesn’t want the new regulator to set any pay levels in the sector – but hopes that remuneration committees will consider more carefully the “exceptional circumstances for pay awards that exceed the pay of the PM”. Whether they do or not remains to be seen.

TEF

TEF was a big feature of the speech, particularly centred around the launch of subject level pilots. We’ve digested the specification for these in full here.

Most controversially in this section, Johnson announced that teaching intensity would become a metric in TEF – or otherwise known as combining contact hours and staff:student ratios. With courses facing intense variety in the number of hours, especially arts subjects as compared to science subjects, it will be fascinating to see how this policy is made workable. And a strong hint was given that TEF will now become compulsory for institutions.

OfS establishment being brought forward

With a Chair, Shadow Board and Chief Executive in place, very little now stands in the way of the creation of the Office for Students, and today’s announcement that this will happen at the start of next year (1st January 2018) has brought forward the establishment of the agency by three months. The statutory instrument required to do this will follow.

OfS will, therefore, live alongside HEFCE for longer than expected – staff are still expected to transfer (largely under TUPE regulations) to the new body on the previous timetable (by April 2018). Starting earlier allows OfS to begin recruitment for areas where the required skills or experience do not currently exist in the funding council it will eventually replace – and for the Board (as it will become) to being able to make some of the fundamental decisions that will come to define the new regime.

Student contracts

Criticising the current system as not useful for setting expectations, Johnson promised a consultation on the systematic use of student contracts and that OfS will have powers to address dissatisfaction over core value for money issues.

Student contracts are already fairly widespread, even the University of Oxford uses a contract for new entrants – the addition of expectations placed on the institution feels like a change that would benefit students. What these new conditions may do is reduce the flexibility that institutions have to alter and cancel courses and modules due to staffing changes or, indeed, institutional decisions to close a department. This is, of course, already a breach of consumer law – but a contractual basis would likely make more institutions look harder at their decisions.

As with everything else in Johnson’s speech, the suggestion that students will now have contracts outlining the contact time, assessment, support and resources that they can expect was simply a suggestion to institutions – the government does not appear to be planning on requiring it.

You can read the speech in full here.

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