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Something for something: outcomes that universities in Scotland agree to

Outcome agreements are an increasingly powerful regulatory tool for Scottish HE. Jim Dickinson weighs the burden.
This article is more than 4 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

University outcome agreements were introduced in 2012-13 to “assist” the Scottish university sector to “better demonstrate” and “enhance” its contribution to what Alex Salmond called the “something for something” funding settlement of the Scottish Government’s 2012-13 to 2014-15 spending review.

Since then, outcome agreements have come to be seen by the Scottish Government as an increasingly powerful (and, for universities, onerous) tool in demonstrating what it is that universities deliver in return for (arguably shrinking) public investment. It’s interesting because, beyond the baseline, the English regulator is explicitly an “outcomes” rather than “outputs” regulator. In Scotland, the “quality” of outputs and their enhancement is still formally co-regulated. But to get funding in the first place, “outcomes” desired by government are separately and directly negotiated in these agreements by the funding council.

The forthcoming tertiary super-body in Wales is also soon set to go down a similar path – “Regulation and Outcome Agreements” will set out core requirements (like financial sustainability, management and governance) as well as individually negotiated agreements on other issues of priority for the Welsh Government.

The idea is that outcome agreements support individual providers to demonstrate their “fulfilment” of Scottish Government priorities, to “improve” the contribution of the sector to those priorities, and act as a way of funding the sector which supports the different missions of “diverse, autonomous” institutions.

They enable what SFC calls “relationship-based engagement” to ensure funding decisions take account of the context within which universities operate, “consistent methods of reporting” through outcome agreement documents, “enhanced transparency and accountability” for public expenditure and a means by which institutions can discuss with SFC their “broader ambitions” – including “collaborative approaches” to strategic challenges.

Something for something

The guidance on what needs to be in 2021-23 outcome agreements deserves a detailed look. The first thing to note is quite how long the guidance is – much more has ended up in there at the behest of ministers (and their letters to SFC) since the first iteration in 2013.

Naturally, SFC expects “continued and rapid” progress with the implementation of the recommendations made by the Commission on Widening Access (CoWA). The process is similar to England’s Access and Participation plans, save that institutions have to have in place “access thresholds” for disadvantaged students – formally lower entry requirements that act as a kind of nationally regulated contextual admissions scheme.

Unlike in England, institutions are asked to report on their progress in implementing Mental Health Strategies, Student Mental Health Agreements and progress with implementation of the Scottish Government funded Mental Health Counsellors’ Programme. No agonising over whether Issue A or B is in the regulatory framework here. And new this year, institutions have to work with staff and Students’ Associations to ensure that there is a “common understanding” of acceptable behaviours and that “effective mechanisms” are in place to respond to allegations of harassment or behaviours that do not “meet the values of the institution”.

Universities also have to boost their efforts to tackle gender inequality at subject level – including for men. Plans must outline a set of gender related outcomes covering the timeline of the OA period and should also outline a commitment to supporting and enhancing equality for applicants, students and staff who are trans or gender diverse. They are also required to continue to work with Students’ Associations on adopting and working with Scotland’s Equally Safe in Higher Education Toolkit, explaining how they are developing and putting in place reporting systems, data capture arrangements, and support systems for survivors of gender based violence.

Providers also have to report on progress in meeting the requirements of the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Act 2018, as well as reflecting on progress with and highlight how they are proactively working towards achieving achieving gender balance at senior levels. And institutions are also asked to enhance the engagement of students’ association representatives in the development of Outcomes Agreements to ensure the “lived experience” of students informs, and is embedded in, OAs and their monitoring.

And there’s more

As well as all that, there’s a bunch of what’s called “Scottish Funding Council Continuing Priorities”. The agreement must have a target for articulation, for example, given that the funding council is committed to increasing the proportion of people with an HNC or HND entering university with full credit for their prior qualifications to 75% by 2030 – at present this sits at 51.4%. The SFC is also working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to help Scotland’s universities and colleges to improve their performance in meeting the public sector equality duty – and have to publish a “Mainstreaming Report” and “Equality Outcomes” in their OA and to ensure that ambitions for improvements are clearly articulated in their OA document, showing how they intend to use the places and funding allocated to them by SFC to advance equality.

They’re also asking institutions to work, where relevant, towards implementation of National Ambition for Care-Experienced Students recommendations, and provide an update on activities to support carers, veterans and estranged students.

Play the system

All of the above are about “the learner”, but there’s system based expectations too. Universities are asked to summarise their engagement with employers to ensure that their curricula remain “agile and responsive” to industry and learner needs, to more effectively deliver the ambitions set out in the Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board and its Strategic Plan.

They are also asked to report on progress with the development of Graduate Apprenticeships and other work-based learning opportunities; illustrate and assess their contributions to both Scotland’s public health priorities and local priorities identified through Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs); work with partners to drive delivery of the STEM Education and Training Strategy; report on how digital skills development has been improved across all subject areas to enhance industry links in response to digital skills requirements for all sectors; and share with SFC their progress in creating strategies and plans to reduce their net carbon emissions.

They also have to reference to the National Gaelic Plan for 2018-23, summarise their strategies to enhance the competitiveness and international standing of their research, maximise the impact of their research, and embed a culture where diverse researcher talent is nurtured and developed.

Funding outputs and outcomes

If it sounds like a lot to do, it’s because it is – and in a system where universities are complaining about funding, there is an understandable concern that the “somethings” being asked for are (much) more expensive than the “something” universities are getting.

But away from the funding issues, what’s just as interesting is the comparison with the emerging English mess. You’ll note that Scotland has a much looser definition of “outcomes” for its agreements – the underlying message being that we’ll use funding levers and regulation to deliver outputs because we think they link to the outcomes we’d like to see.

Beyond the regulatory baseline, most matters of quality and improvement in England are supposed to be delivered through market competition and choice metrics. But it’s not clear that makes sense or that it’s working. What does a “baseline” on mental health look like? Are universities supposed to be “competing” on sexual misconduct policies? And how do you deliver “incentives” in a “market” to compete on investment in civic, or the development of alternative provision?

What is obvious is that the separation between co-regulated quality and funded political priorities is at least much clearer north of the border. There are colleagues in Scotland that look south jealously at the unit of resource and the relative autonomy of a loan based based voucher system. But given the amount of public subsidy the English system still attracts, are we sure that that autonomy – where ministerial priorities are fatally detached from funding levers, and benefits are hidden from both ministerial and student contributor eyes – is such a good idea?

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