Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

To understand the scale and ambition of the change in strategy embodied in the appointment of a new director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS), it is worth noting an email that slipped out from Nicholson House two days later.

Thanking participants for registering for an event that was scheduled to happen tomorrow both on monitoring outcomes and planning for the future, OfS said that the receipt of new guidance from the government to accompany John Blake’s appointment meant it had decided to “pause” both the event and the publication of its monitoring guidance for 2020-21 access and participation plans.

An orderly handover this is not.

In her big access and participation pivot speech, further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan took what we used to call widening participation on a stage.

In the “Aim Higher” days, the framing was all around aspiration. I remember being sent around schools as an SU officer to be “inspiring”, because you’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?

Things moved on as that strategy was replaced with a recognition that it wasn’t a lack of aspiration that was stopping students from getting into higher education – it was attainment.

Hence an almost decade-long debate about “standards”, offer making and contextual admissions. The schools may have failed them, but universities should sniff out the potential and fix the issues later – partly via foundation years.

As such, I think it is a decent bet that a move away from what ministers have latterly called “lowering standards” when making offers towards being asked directly to raise attainment in schools is one way to lay the ground for the abolition of those foundation years in the response to the Augar review, coupled with the introduction of minimum entry criteria at Level 2 or 3.

For those passionate about a “fixing students” approach with a focus on what happens in schools, the change in direction is a triumph. For those passionate about “fixing higher education” on the basis that not everyone is “ready” for HE, the direction of travel here represents at least a partial u-turn.

Debates about whether toughening up entry standards would be wise have been staged on the site before. But there’s another aspect to this. On our podcast this week, Brilliant Club boss Anne-Marie Canning and incoming University of Birmingham VC Adam Tickell discuss the geography problem.

Cold cold spots

When Michelle Donelan says that universities need to “actively work with and support your local schools” to raise attainment so that local students who arrive every year “have the abilities, the skills and the confidence they need to excel in your courses”, the truth is that the University of Oxford has a lot of money for a small task in comparison to the University of Sunderland where both opposites apply.

One option would be to voluntarily convene some kind of geography swap, and another would be to contribute to some kind of national fund. But the danger is that you do end up with a version of the charity sector’s “Donkey Sanctuary” problem – where the voluntary donations of time and money don’t end up in the bits of the country that the evidence would have have strategically prioritised.

Back in the days of the Office for Fair Access there was always an issue with Sunderland having more “OfFA countable” students to support with less money to do so than Oxford. This is another version of that redistribution problem – and in the end, wouldn’t it just be simpler to slice the money off the top of the tuition fee and give it directly to schools?

But let’s imagine that that’s not the strategy, and that the plan remains to argue that “universities must do more”. Redistributing tuition fee income between students within a university is one thing. Redistributing tuition fee income between universities but still to current students would be another. But redistributing tuition fee income from universities to the schools system? Really?

Just passing through

I think that’s important partly because we have to be honest and realistic about all the things that the state expects universities to do with the subsidy given to them through the tuition fee system. Let’s consider some of the longer-term trends:

  • Student premium funding – aimed at topping up university budgets based on the continuation risks presented by the characteristics of the student body – has been cut absolutely repeatedly over the past decade yet student numbers have grown.
  • “T” funding – now known as the “strategic priorities fund” – has also been cut absolutely repeatedly while student numbers have grown.
  • To help sweeten the tippling of tuition fees pill, the coalition introduced a National Scholarship Programme with £50m 2012, £100m in 2013 and £150m in 2014. Universities had to at least match the government allocated funding in order to receive it. In late 2013, the government cut NSP funding in 2014 from £150m to £50m and from 2015 abolished it.
  • The subsidy transferred to research activity from tuition fees continue to grow.
  • Capital funding has all but evaporated, with the assumption that tuition fee revenue will be enough to pay back loans in the long term.
  • The “Access to Learning” fund was first scaled back, then abolished.
  • The cost of the regulatory apparatus (HEFCE/OfS, QAA, HESA etc) has largely been transferred to the sector.
  • The government reduced direct public support for disabled students in the middle of the last decade, requiring universities to pay for the bulk of provision.
  • We also now expect universities to plug failures in the policing and justice system when it comes to harassment and sexual assault, in the NHS over student mental health and in the benefits system over the soaring cost of housing and the inadequacy of the maintenance loan.

It may well be – as has been argued over almost all of these measures each time – that while the sector grows it can afford it, and that local and tailored solutions are better than national programmes designed by civil servants in an office in London (or Darlington).

It may well also be that this is a terrible, inequitable and chaotic way to distribute funding – and that not only do vice chancellors make terrible health bosses or disability service heads, there are plenty of examples of structures across Europe where these functions are run (better) (separately) alongside but not by universities, cooperatively; regionally or nationally.

But in any event, the fact that we haven’t really properly costed all of these expectations on the subsidy from the state means that we can’t really say to students what the “deal” is that they are signing up to collectively. That matters, because some of their money – either upfront or for the rest of their life – is funding all of this, all supposedly on the basis of their “private” benefit. And that gets us to a different problem.

Hard done by you

One of the reactions to HEPI’s terrific new report on the psychological impact of student debt has been to re-invoke a call to “frame” the system in a different way. The argument is that if a student is never going to pay off in full, and there’s a 30 year write-off period, why worry them with massive sounding numbers in the amount still owed, or with things like a punitive sounding “graduate tax”?

You might be able to change the fonts and maybe some of the language, but unless you make actual changes to the actual system, you do need to tell graduates how close they are to being able to not make any payments any more – so you have to show calculations of total debt and interest somewhere. You also for the time being need to allow people to pay fees partially upfront and to make extra payments – both of which will require you to state, and show your workings on, how close they are to stopping paying.

The alternative is to say “you’ll pay for 30 years, and if you do well we’ll just surprise you with a letter saying you can stop paying now” which I would suggest would be sub-optimal.

But let’s imagine there are no fees, or there’s a graduate tax, or that you’ve paid upfront, or that you’re an international student. Just as what the state funds and what the university must provide is an issue, for students what is provided by the university versus what you have to pay for separately really matters. And that’s become much more complex over the decade too.

More means less

On his blog, Nottingham Trent Academic Registrar Mike Ratcliffe raises the interesting history of the debate over “top up fees”. As he notes:

25 Years ago the Dearing Committee was hard at work: one of their key tasks was to avoid HE falling into an unregulated system of “top-up fees”. The unit of resource had fallen to such an extent that universities were threatening to charge additional tuition fees for undergraduate students. The residual fee was paid to universities by local authorities, but it wasn’t clear that a university couldn’t charge more.

He also then notes the solution – the legislation that followed included requirements that the fee level could not exceed a maximum set by parliament. The wording in the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 – which survived largely intact into the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 – first defines what has to be included and can’t be charged for:

Tuition fees” in relation to a course means fees in respect of, or otherwise in connection with the course, including admission, registration, tuition and graduation fees”

It then describes what cannot be subject to a further charge by a university:

Fees payable for board or lodging, fees payable for field trips (including any tuition element of such fees), fees payable for attending any graduation or other ceremony, and such other fees as may be prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State.”

That all might have made sense in 1998, but here in 2021 it looks like a three-dimensional problem.

  • First there’s nailing down what a university offers within the parameters and then having ways to ensure that universities keep those promises. I’ll not repeat several other blogs I’ve written on that subject here, suffice to say OfS is still planning to find ways to tighten that up;
  • Then there’s nailing down what counts as “in connection with the course”. Where a Drama School says that it’s charging more than £9,250 with the compulsory extra to pay for “a range of vocational hours to enhance opportunities for your career”, is that still in connection? Can a student refuse to pay it? And can they reasonably succeed if they don’t?
  • And then there’s nailing down what counts as “tuition”. If there’s not enough books in the Library and you’ve taken out a sub to Perlego, not enough seating on campus and so you’ve rented a bigger room in an HMO, not enough PCs on campus so you’ve shelled out for a laptop, and your hard-up tutor is offering extra support if you pay, by the hour, off-book, like when your Dentist does private work – should the tuition fee (whether paid by you or the SLC) have covered that, or not?

And while we haven’t (yet) seen a university go full-on Ryanair and start charging students to sit on nice(r) chairs on campus, we’re surely not far away.

For me, the root of both sides of the bind we’ve ended up in here is the idea that the “institution” is the right vehicle for the delivery of all of the things I’ve mentioned here and the many I’ve not.

For at least a decade, we’ve had a funding system where the way to cope with efficiency has been to grow the size and scope of the institution – both because volume delivers efficiency, and because promising to fulfil some extra function or other prevents the alternative – which would be to cut the subsidy in the tuition fee.

But for geographical reasons, accountability reasons, complexity reasons and redistribution reasons, we’ve both hit the limits of the approach and gone well beyond the point at which we should have said no.

The incentives now are to promise the government we can do it all, promise students we can do it all, pile the pressure onto our people to be superhuman – and then hope that there’s a way to explain our way out of it when promises on both sides of the equation necessarily have to be broken and staff collapse.

It’s a profoundly unhealthy and dysfunctional way of operating, and the sooner we start saying “no” and having a proper conversation about what it is that’s being funded and how much it costs, the better.

2 responses to “Are universities the right vehicle for schools improvement?

  1. I cannot see this working well if at all, why should a University expend time and money in the vain hope of lifting school/F.E. college achievement (I’ve been a Secondary School Governor and it takes YEARS of focused effort to turn a school round, and yet more YEARS to achieve significant academic outcome improvements, IF the local social situation allows) only to loose those who might have attended ‘your’ University to another institution. More shuffling of the Titanic’s deck chairs, and student fee’s, comes to mind.

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