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Contemplating a Brexit for UK HE

Getting ahead of the EU referendum debates to come, Emran Mian picks apart four main arguments from the HE sector’s campaign to stay in the EU.

Expanding the debate

Cheered on by the right-wing press, it is a widely-held belief that there are “too many graduates”. So what does HE expansion look like in that context and what form should it take? Not pulling the ladder up, but moving and positioning it, ensuring that the expansion of the future offers transformation and returns appropriate to the age, not build on outdated ideas and prejudices. Jim Dickinson reflects on the wider debate and the ideologies and politics that drive it.

Learning to love the student loan book

There are two ways to argue for more student places in higher education. The first is easy, just remove the word ‘higher’. So the question is: shall we have some more education? The second is harder – we have to explain why the cost-benefit ratio for more public spending on higher education is greater than competing spending pressures. While higher education detractors from both pick over the government’s recent move to expand higher education, Emran Mian attempts to reframe the debate.

Placing Borrowing at the Heart of the System

A few days after the Autumn Statement, Martin McQuillan considers the Osborne plan to expand student numbers based on questionable finances that the IFS have labelled ‘economic nonsense’ and have slowly started to unravel. This short-termist policy may have big implications in years to come as BIS will have to make up any further shortfall in the HE budget – a budget already under extreme pressure. With so many risks ahead, the HE sector needs to take a long and detailed look at this scheme.

An innovation and efficiencies pot?

The Government doesn’t quite know what it wants to do with the core and margin policy next year. At the moment their instinct is to run it again on more or less the same terms. Ministers don’t see either AAB or core and margin as permanent features of the system but they are mightily constrained by the short and longer term costs of the student loan book. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that the places top sliced and allocated through the core and margin will definitely be filled – UCAS application data shows that the biggest falls have been from older population groups and those perhaps already in work – both more common in the FE sector that has won most of the places.

Off-quota places – another unforced HE policy error?

This morning David Willetts took the airwaves to float the idea of ‘off-quota’ places at university. Not a new idea by any means, but an interesting indication of the direction of travel for the HE White Paper which most now expect in the first half of June. On the one hand, there is a sound political argument for leaking out policy initiatives in this way; it can have the effect of softening up the ground for when the big one drops later on.

But David Willetts has underestimated the toxicity of a policy like this which touches a very raw nerve indeed. Still wounded by the fees and funding settlement, this policy will feel like a kick in the teeth to those still clinging on to the idea that access to HE should never depend on the ability to pay. The ‘free at the point of use’ principle, still hanging on by its finger-nails, ensured that there was always going to be the greatest strength of feeling against the deep cuts to the teaching grant. The ensuing high fees for many felt like the sad, but necessary consequence of this – softened by continued commitment not to charge up-front fees.

MarginCore and the dumb hand of the market

So, the hints coming out of the HEFCE annual conference regarding university funding were, firstly, the imminent appearance of the much delayed White Paper, and, secondly, further tweaks to the Willetts-Browne funding model to avoid the now universal embarrassment that this model costs substantially more than the current one.

What we seem to be blindly heading towards is something called a core/margin model, and that I’m going to call MarginCore. This should come as no surprise to readers of my blog, as we called it back in December. We also said it wouldn’t be a very good idea.