Policy to watch in 2016: an alternative view

Looking ahead to key trends in policy in 2016, Louisa Darian takes a view of some alternative issues that have not yet dominated current debates, but could well do in the coming months: consumer protection, governance and the long-awaited link between earnings data and educational outcomes.
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There have been a lot of predictions for the year ahead but, with the TEF in the forefront of peoples’ minds and the possibility of a looming Brexit, there is a set of issues that haven’t received as much attention as they should. So here is my attempt at predicting the importance of three, alternative, issues for UK universities in 2016.

Consumer protection

2015 saw the arrival of the Competition and Markets Authority on the HE landscape, taking over the work started by the (now defunct) Office of Fair Trading. The CMA’s advice, published last Spring, set out the steps that institutions should take to ensure that their information, terms and conditions, and complaints policies are compliant with the law. And the implications are significant. Research by Which? found that one in five institutions used terms that they deemed to be unlawful; and research for the QAA found that few institutions provide information on qualifications or contact time on their websites, which are among the information pieces that the CMA identified as important. Complaints to the OIA also appear to be on the up, with 15 per cent of all complaints relating to contract terms in 2014 compared to 9 per cent in the previous year.

Since the CMA’s Spring announcement things have gone fairly quiet, at least publicly. Sector-led events took place over the Summer to support institutions to take forward the reforms, and the CMA’s work has continued quietly behind the scenes as they complete their compliance check. But not for much longer. The CMA’s findings will be published in the first half of this year and institutions that have not taken their advice on board will face the consequences. There is also the potential that the CMA’s work looks more explicitly at the postgraduate experience, which has received less attention to date.

Governance

As Paul Greatrix noted in a post for Wonkhe last year, governance often falls down the list of priorities but can do so at an institution’s peril. The fact that governance is not subject to oversight, in contrast to other sectors e.g. further education, is a matter that has been raised in the past, including by authors for HEPI. Today at Wonkhe we are launching a new programme of work into governance, in association with Minerva: our aim is to better understand who governors are across the system and deepen the sector’s understanding of the best aspects of governance; how to emulate it and how to avoid common pitfalls.

Change is already underway in Scotland, where a Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill will require that chairs of all governing institutions are elected, and that representation includes trade union members representing staff, and students at the university. But change could also be afoot in England, with HEFCE’s quality assurance proposals suggesting that governors become more accountable for the quality of the student academic experience and outcomes, and a greater role for university leaders in preventing radicalisation via the UK’s Prevent Strategy.

On the one hand, placing more responsibility on boards could be argued to sit well with notions of institutional autonomy. On the other, these proposals could equate to more regulation. It is certainly an issue that the sector is divided on. The review of HEFCE’s consultation responses found that forty-one per cent of respondents agreed with the proposal to make governors more accountable for academic standards while 31 per cent disagreed. Interestingly, among those who agree, 58 per cent are further education colleges compared to 42 per cent higher education institutions.

Alongside all the changes to the sector and governor responsibilities, there have been a series of controversies in institutions where senior teams and governing bodies have been at loggerheads. And it has gone far beyond the natural creative tension you might expect from such a relationship; blood has been spilt. Although some of this is known on the gossip circuit, many of the problems remain entirely secret, making it difficult for the sector to learn from past mistakes. A key question is whether there are enough external changes and internal problems to justify reform to the system of governance itself? Expect more on the topic from our big governance project over the next few months: watch this space.

HMRC data on earnings

Last, but by no means least, is the move to replace survey data on earnings, from the Destination of Leavers of Higher Education, with actual data on earnings from HMRC. This is not a new issue, but one that has been progressing slowly. Results from academic research by Anna Vignoles and Neil Shephard, which has analysed a sample of HMRC and Student Loans Company figures, is long-awaited and the repeated publication delay highlights some of the difficulties around using such data. However, the Small Business Act which passed last year in the dying days of Coalition, gives new power to formally link education records to earnings data and evidence from HESA at the BIS Select Committee Inquiry gives the strongest indication yet that this will ultimately replace the DLHE. 

However without confirmation on the level of data that will be available, it is difficult to know what its use or impact might be. If it is available at an institutional level, with the right contextual advice, this could provide some students with extremely helpful information on earnings potential. Research finds that four in ten graduates say that their earnings fell below what they were expecting.

However, it could also be used for other, riskier, purposes. For example, the proposal to include this information in the TEF suggests the Government recognises earnings as an indication of quality – a problem that Wonkhe readers will be well acquainted with (see piece by Jonny Rich and later piece by the HEA). Even more controversially, it could lead to the introduction of institutional or departmental RAB-charges, with potentially damaging implications for the types of courses on offer and who they are open to.

2 responses to “Policy to watch in 2016: an alternative view

  1. Re: earnings. The figures aren’t difficult to obtain, as the ONS publishes very detailed and publicly available stats on median and mean earnings for all sectors. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm%3A77-337425

    (Look at Table 2)

    The problem is going to be making genuine sense of them in relation to making choices without resorting – as we always tend to do – to a simplistic league table.
    For example, mean earnings in the arts and media are (surprise, surprise) much less (and falling ) than STEM (rising). Even more problematic will be the inevitable “If you go to university ‘y’ you are likely to earn ‘x’ times as much than going to university ‘z’.

  2. Re Earnings, the SBEE Act enables the linking of HMRC, DWP and education data. HESA is conducting a review of requirements for destinations and outcomes data, to consider how DLHE might need to change once new data on salaries and benefits become available. DLHE is one of the most widely used datasets in HE.

    The HESA review offers an opportunity to reshape or replace the DLHE with something that responds to both a changed data landscape, and satisfies the wide range of data requirements about what happens to graduates.

    For more information about the HESA review, see: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/content/view/3041/209/

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