Live: GuildHE Annual Conference 2016



  • Institutional failure and risk: protecting students’ interests?

    We’re now into a discussion on institutional failure. One view is that it is nearly impossible to protect students when institutions fail, as having been taught at a failed institution will harm their interests, let alone simply ‘teaching out’ at another institution. Another view is that the sector has survived many institution’s failing, being merged into other institutions, and other aspects of risk.

    Another delegate suggests that the traditional sector will have a lot to learn from alternative providers who are very used to managing risk and have done for many years. But, as Smita points out, almost all of the traditional sector has based its strategic approach upon growth, and this suggests that it hasn’t woken up to the new realities. Change will come, and traditional universities will have to learn from alternative providers – they have more in common than they typically like to think.

    Ruth argues that “the impact of private providers is very important in showing the sector what opportunities are out there”.

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  • Questions for Ruth and Smita: markets, compliance, and quality

    “I’m quite worried about all the quality and standards stuff in the Bill”, says Smita. Ministers, and perhaps few others, really understand quality and standards in higher education. How exactly will quality equate with compliance? There is a lot of room for interpretation, and the sector can’t guarantee that it’s interpretation of these matters will be understood.

    Ruth points out that “the government is always looking for a way out” when it comes to difficult matters such as the bind over international students.

    Joy Carter points out in her own question that “choice does not always lead to diversity” – a point for reflection perhaps.

    We’ve talked a lot about the negatives or market reform; what about the positives? Ruth argues that there are a few: universities need more money; students need to be enabled to make choices etc. Smita looks at her experience of advising universities on CMA compliance, and says she has been “horrified at what some higher education institutions think they can get away with” when it comes to making promises to students.

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  • Panel: Higher Education and Research Bill

    And we’re back after a short break, with views on the HE Bill from Smita Jamdar, Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau, and Ruth Kelly, PVC at St Mary’s but of course also former Secretary of State for Education and Skills back in the heady days of New Labour.

    Smita begins with her own views on the Bill, starting with her concerns. Firstly, she asks whether having two completely separate regulatory bodies and frameworks for teaching and research will work. Secondly, on institutional autonomy, particularly given HE “is effectively moving towards a licensing scheme”, where degree awarding powers can be given and taken away. Thirdly, “the Bill will herald a far more volatile environment” – market and institutional failure is a specific design of the Bill and not an accidental offshoot. All the financial sustainability amendment appears to do “is ensure that someone keeps an eye on how bust you’re going…”.

    Smita asks how geared up the sector really is for introducing a much more centralised regulatory system, particularly in dealing with staff who may feel used to greater freedoms.

    From a legal point of view, Smita suggests that the worst case scenarios that the Bill could allow for really could be bad. What, if for instance, “we get a Prime Minister Trump?”. The language of ‘compliance’ once again makes an appearance – Smita suggests it implies “listening when you are told”. Are the sector ready for this? Are the minister’s assurances about the Bill’s intentions really enough?


    We move onto Ruth Kelly, who suggests that many of the proposals in the Bill are a logical follow on from the 2004 Higher Education Act introduced when she was in government. She welcomes the introduction of new providers and new vehicles for facilitating student choice, but is wary about the volatile context in which universities are operating and in which the Bill will be passed. Many university business models are premised on two things: low interest rates, and continued international student growth. Neither are guaranteed any longer.

    Ruth welcomes the TEF as “an alternative to how many of our current league tables are set up”, suggesting it is more relevant than many of the most high profile ones currently are.

    On institutional autonomy, it is “a much more profound good” than perhaps the government understands, and Ruth argues that perhaps Jo Johnson has taken a “rather utilitarian” view of universities’ autonomy; she argues it must be strengthened in the Bill going forward, along with academic standards.

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  • On international students: what did the minister mean?

    Before our break, we have an interesting discussion following Jo Johnson’s departure, with Gordon McKenzie citing Mark Leach’s blog for Wonkhe this morning: Quality, compliance and international students doublespeak

    Image: IKON
    Image: IKON

    Two pieces of speculation from the room on this matter. One suggests that there is still a battle being fought between the Home Office and No.10 one side and DfE and the Treasury on the other. Another picks up on Johnson’s comment that the sector should support a regime based on “quality of compliance” when the consultation comes out – might this be the way the government backs down and still saves face? Has the minister given a wink and a nod to universities?

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  • Questions for the minister

    The first question is from the students’ union president here at St Mary’s, asking about the quasi-student representative on the OfS Board. Johnson says that it is not his intention to be prescriptive in any way about how “experience of representing students” will be defined, and will leave that interpretation to the Board itself.

    The next question is about social and civic responsibility of universities. Johnson argues that the HE Bill will ensure that widening participation and social mobility are central to the Bill, particularly by putting new duties on the sector for transparency in admissions, and also by introducing non-interest bearing loans. Johnson frames universities’ civic uses in terms of regional economic and social growth, and argues that the Bill will enable regional ‘cold spots’ to be addressed.

    The ‘Dyson Institute’ that made the news a few weeks ago has been raised, and Johnson says he is excited about the new model of single-subject and specialist higher education institutions that can address particular skills shortages.

    We have a question about the Secretary of State’s powers in the Bill to attach conditions for funding tied to certain courses. Johnson states that post-amendment, the intention behind the current wording of the Bill is to ensure that the government can direct funding towards those subjects which are high cost and require funding from the shrinking teaching grant. He is clear that the amendment is intended to ensure that no minister can force providers to open up or close down particular courses as a condition of grant funding.

    We move to international students and the recent India trip. There is a suggestion that there were “mixed messages” about openness to international students, but Johnson his adamant that he was completely clear in his own messaging. One particular challenge for India, suggests Johnson, is that the Indian government does not recognise the UK one-year masters as a qualification, and this is a substantial part of our international offering.

    Joy Carter asks about the ever thorny issue of the Home Secretary’s recent speech… Johnson: “No decision has yet been taken” on whether to “differentiate on the basis of compliance or differentiate on the basis of quality”, but he hopes that the sector might “get behind” an approach based on compliance. There is a knowing nod between Jo and others in the room – make what you wish of that.

    Gordon McKenzie asks about “a recognition” in the Bill of specialist or denominational institutions such as St Mary’s (and many other GuildHE members). Johnson says he is open to the idea but would have to be convinced of what this might achieve, and that the Bill seeks to create “a level playing field”.

    Joy has another question, this time on universities and schools. She wonders aloud whether universities are “loosing a bit of their research and reflection input into schools, and are becoming more hands on”, and asks for the minister’s response to that. Again says “the government hasn’t been prescriptive” beyond sponsorship about how universities might develop that relationship.

    Gordon gives his thanks to Jo Johnson and is grateful for his entire approach to his role as universities minister.

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  • Jo Johnson: HE is “the linchpin of so much of what we want to achieve as a government”

    Johnson moves onto his latest amendments of the Bill, which he says reflect two principles: institutional autonomy, and ensuring that students are at the centre of his reforms. He argues that institutional autonomy is “enshrined” in the Bill, and that his amendment to the Secretary of State’s powers regarding grant funding confirm just that. He states that requiring someone on the OfS Board with experience of representing students was brought about in response to the points raised by student groups and the opposition.

    Johnson “looks forward to the further scrutiny that we will definitely get” in the House of Lords, and doesn’t rule out the possibility of future tweaks and changes.

    The minister wishes to finish by turning to international students. “There are few subjects about which I care so passionately… as that of international students”. He reiterates his statement in Parliament last night that there will be no hard cap on Tier 4 visas that can be issued. “We are certainly not… closing down our international student offer” he states, and he endeavoured to make this message at the heart of his recent trip to India. Nonetheless, the message that the UK is open to international students can be more effectively communicated worldwide, he states. He cites the ‘Education is Great’ campaign currently being run by DfE.

    Brexit negotiations will be significant for higher education, and Johnson offers his assurances that he will be doing his best to secure the best for GuildHE members and the wider sector.

    Higher education is “the linchpin of so much of what we want to achieve as a government”, says Johnson.



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  • Jo Johnson enters

    The minister has arrived and begins by mentioning the ‘downpayment’ announcement by the Prime Minister on Monday of £2bn extra for research and innovation – a real 20% increase in overall spending in this area, though as he states “we have to wait for the details on Wednesday”.

    This announcement “puts science and research right at the heart of our industrial strategy”, says Johnson, and he reiterates the Prime Minister’s wish to make the UK a “go to place” for scientists.

    “GuildHE’s members represent some of the very best in UK higher education”, and he thanks the organisation’s input into the Bill. img_1441

    Johnson also mentions last week’s paper setting out how UKRI and OfS will work together to make teaching and research “a virtuous circle” that work in sync and together.


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  • The ‘awkward slot’

    Gordon McKenzie, Chief Executive of GuildHE, is now up in the ‘awkward’ slot as he calls it – that whilst we wait for a minister to show-up. It is notoriously difficult to predict exactly when they might show up, and thus how long one should speak for.

    Gordon chooses to focus his remarks on the Autumn Statement, leaving the minister to speak to the TEF and the HE Bill.

    We know that the forecast for tomorrow’s announcement is not great: growth will be slow and spending will be limited. We are told that there have been many fraught discussions between No. 10 and No. 11, with the latter wanting a more cautious approach, but the Prime Minister demanding a package of policies to help the ‘Just About Managing’ – ‘JAMs’. Plenty of the Autumn Statement has so far been trailed, perhaps in order to downplay expectations as much as possible, but we should expect another couple of big news stories tomorrow, and they could relate to investment, infrastructure, research and development.

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  • And we’re off

    And so we begin today’s #GuildHE16 Conference. Joy Carter, chair of GuildHE, gives the initial welcome, and passes over to Francis Campbell, Vice Chancellor of St Mary’s University, to give us the formal welcome to this lovely setting.

    Over the course of the conference we will be hearing from Jo Johnson, Vince Cable, Madeleine Atkins, and Ruth Kelly.

    St Mary’s resides within Strawberry Hill House, which was once owned by relations of former Prime Minister Robert Walpole, the Waldergrave Family. The room we are inside was home to regular soirees and balls visited by the creme-de-la-creme of Victorian society.

    St Mary’s itself was founded as a Catholic teacher training college based upon the ideas of Cardinal Newman, author of the influential ‘The Idea of the University’.


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  • Welcome

    Good morning. Updates from GuildHE’s annual conference will begin at approximately 2pm.

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