News and analysis of higher education from our leading team of wonks.

We’ll be clear about our new prime minister later today. And that’s the least of our troubles.

She’ll have her own priorities and her own approach, far from the “continuity Boris” that she is sometimes painted as.

Some Johnson-era policies and approaches will continue; others that once seemed certain will be unceremoniously dropped as the new administration throws everything at getting through the first 100 days.

Runners and riders

Truss will, over the early part of this week, appoint new advisors and a new cabinet. Rumours have swirled all summer, but the idea that the current Secretary of State for Education – James Cleverly – will move to the Foreign Office appears to have taken root. Early in the summer, former leadership candidate Kemi Badenoch was hotly tipped for the education role – more recent reports see her at the Department of Transport, with DfE as something of an insurance choice.

Which leaves a gap at DfE. There have been a few suggestions that Michelle Donelan could get another run at the job, but other than that, the field does seem to be curiously open. It will be a couple of days before we get junior ministers – current higher and further education incumbent Andrea Jenkyns has not been popular at DfE and has done very little over the summer (a sum total, in fact, of one announcement) that suggests any enthusiasm for the role. The fact that she is (nominally at least) in post means the path of least resistance would be to keep her there. But the role is a popular one, and a fair few MPs are expecting to see their support rewarded.

Whoever we do get will be the minister for skills, further, and higher education – DfE staff have been told that the wider role will be permanent, matching changes in the structure of the department that has brought all tertiary policymaking under a single directorate. This is very much a trend to keep an eye on as England finally starts seeing post-18 education policy in the round, rather than distinct areas of policy.

And don’t forget we are short of a science minister at BEIS – with Horizon Europe affiliation hanging by the thinnest of threads, this would need a minister of rare talent and subtlety, and honestly, if there were anyone like that around, they’d be looking for a bigger cabinet role. However, it is likely they will be working under Jacob Rees-Mogg as secretary of state.

The costs

Some ambitious MPs may see the HE/FE/skills ministerial role as a tame stepping stone to greater things – a quiet berth in a stormy end of year that could see them develop a manifestly undeserved reputation for competence. But the penny will very soon drop that the role is something of a poisoned chalice, with little chance of additional money to spend and a wild assortment of wicked problems.

Like every household and business in Europe, universities will struggle to cope with huge rises in the cost of energy – and as prices rise elsewhere to compensate, this will just add to the cost of pretty much everything. Though after a bumpy start to the year, we’ve seen issues with logistics begin to resolve, energy costs are a factor here too.

These rising costs, coupled with income (especially English fee income) that is falling sharply in real terms as inflation continues to soar, mean universities will have less money available to support struggling students and staff as they manage their own cost of living crises. Unions are already planning industrial action in an attempt to force the hand of employers – the way that the USS valuation has been handled means that relations with staff are already at a low ebb, and the sector-wide reset of terms and conditions failed to happen while the (comparative) macroeconomic sun was shining.

Student support

Accommodation is another one of those perennial issues that should and did not receive attention in happier times – energy cost rises leave landlords (including universities for halls they own) facing a need to cover incurred costs and only one revenue stream – rent – to tap. After years of gluts we are starting to see a shortage of accommodation in some larger cities – a state of affairs that could drive prices up and quality down.

Thus far, students have been excluded from even the inadequate support measures that are on offer to others – a point flagged by Universities UK over the weekend. The cost of living while studying could prompt many to defer or abandon their course, and although this would be most visible among undergraduates, we also need to be paying attention to other students. Postgraduate study is often a discretionary spend – with household budgets under pressure, it may not still be a priority, and student satisfaction with PGT (especially) is anecdotally low and falling.

In the absence of home undergraduate fees that cover costs, PGTs have been one source of additional income we’ve seen expand rapidly. The ongoing concern over PGR stipends is something that at least UKRI is starting to consider – moving the dial on PGT costs is likely to take far longer. The other shoe waiting to drop is on international recruitment, and UK universities heavily exposed to the Chinese market will be watching economic indicators from the East with some trepidation – China is on the brink of a recession that would have a huge global impact, and we can no longer rely on the steady stream of undergraduate applications.

And of course, Covid-19 isn’t finished with us yet either. Expect an autumn peak – alongside other respiratory infections – that will increase staff absences and knock a fair few out for the long term. At least, that’s the way Australia’s winter has played out.

Machinery of regulation

At the start of the summer, I don’t think many of us had “abolish the OfS” on our leadership policy bingo cards, but briefings emanating from the Truss camp suggest the idea is very much on the table. Wonkhe has already been over the arguments, but in a nutshell, OfS was designed as a hands-off regulator designed for an expanding, market-driven sector and for an environment with growing student numbers – two maxims now directly opposed to the way government now sees higher education.

Sunk cost fallacy aside, moving higher education policy and regulation into an emerging holistic tertiary worldview squares some policy circles while giving the impression of a bonfire of the quangos (many of the same staff would perform most of the same roles, most likely at the same desks in the same building) without adding appreciably to headcount. The appointment of the caretaker chief executive as the permanent incumbent does play into a “managed decline” interpretation – though Susan Lapworth is very much her own person with her own ideas.

Quality and standards

All of which makes the QAA decision to demit from the designated quality body role look prescient. QAA needed to conform to international standards in order to keep work in the rest of the UK and overseas, and the English approach has now firmly broken with those expectations. We were expecting a bumpy triennial review – in practice, this never even got as far as submission to the Secretary of State despite person-years of OfS committee and board time on the issue.

The DQB role includes stuff on initial registration, university title, and – notably – end point assessment for apprenticeships. It is hard to imagine DfE not drawing on QAA’s expertise on the latter point in a moment when apprenticeships can seemingly do no wrong – and discussions around this happening alongside the design a new world of in-house sector regulation could result in an independent Ofqual/Ofsted style role in quality and standards for higher education being on the table. Quite the turnaround from being forced out of the regulatory framework at the start of 2022.

Data

Meanwhile, in Cheltenham, 2022-23 is a landmark year for HESA as Designated Data Body. On 1 August, we surged bravely forth into the new world of Data Futures – which, contra the noble original aims of HEDIIP, looks very similar to the processes and concepts introduced in the late 1990s. Not that this ends the constant change that data specialists have put up with, there’s still changes OfS is pondering, and the data burden project (currently stalled at DfE) is still lingering.

Of course, Jisc is heading towards a benign absorption of HESA – there was an OfS consultation about this that we are still waiting for a response for, and it is the new Secretary of State that will pull the trigger on de- and re-designation as DDB. Unless, of course, data burden reduction means centralising tertiary data collection and analysis too.

The events

The first term of the 2022-23 academic year is not just a blank canvas we can spin apocalyptic narratives on – there are things that we know are underway and will most likely happen without a concerted effort to make it not happen.

Legislation pending

Most Damoclean is the one-two sucker punch of the twin DfE consultations on the lifelong loan entitlement and the higher education reform consultation. Widely expected before the summer, Johnson’s resignation pushed the timetable back – bear in mind that both responses were slated to feed into a fresh new Higher Education Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech (that’s also where you’d abolish OfS and replumb regulation, should you be minded to). The last major higher education legislation, the Higher Education and Research Act 2018 (HERA) is up for post-legislative scrutiny at the House of Commons Education Committee in the autumn, too – in an ideal world, this would feed into the grand redesign as well.

There’s also the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill awaiting the House of Lords Grand Committee stage – pretty much the definition of fan service for a dwindling band of career contrarians. Perhaps imagined issues are not something that a government would want to be seen focusing on given the bleak immediate future facing the UK population, though these things do sometimes have a momentum of their own. In contrast, the lifelong loan entitlement still feels like it is on the way, with the summer seeing the appointment of a new programme director within DfE. The Higher Education Reform programme is, frankly, anyone’s guess – though it is a revenue-generating exercise, and Kwasi Kwarteng is going to be looking for any of those he can find down the back of the Number 11 sofa.

Regulation

From Nicholson House comes the promise of a decision on the publication of information (a consultation closed in June, with results due to feed into to everything from NSS to TEF to outcomes regulation) and Susan Orr’s report into blended learning. The former could unlock the impetus for the “investigations” that are often announced but seldom documented. And the latter could see fireworks – supplementing in-person seminars with online lectures got a bad press last academic year, but a notably independent chair and a talented panel are going to produce something more thoughtful and nuanced than the “universities are terrible” hit piece the old regime in DfE were clearly hoping for.

The big OfS news could, of course, be a massive dump of TEF and regulatory data dashboards due in early October. These are the indicators and thresholds that underpin the workings of the revised regulatory framework – an approach that takes every pain to look instrumentalist while still retaining a larger-than-expected level of interpretive work. The data will likely be used to justify more “boots on the ground” headline-grubbing to follow the now suspiciously quiet attack on the scourge of business schools in larger providers.

What now for research?

The review of research bureaucracy sits on the minister’s desk with nobody to enact it. The independent review of UKRI is finished, but who knows how a new minister will expect UKRI to contribute to national science policy. And while ARIA has a leader and REF was broadly positive for the sector, the uncertainty of the past year has bred instability in funding, collaborations, and business engagement. All the while the issues of pay, fairness, and equality, still need urgent attention.

Back in June, then science minister George Freeman told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that a transition to plan B would begin in September if no agreement was reached over Horizon Europe. There are no new signs of moving toward plan B or of any agreement. Elsewhere on the global stage, it is unlikely there will be any cessation of news stories around research security.

Closer to home, the whole sector awaits the Nurse review into the research ecosystem, the Future Research Assessment Programme, the review of REF metrics, and whether levelling up will mean freeports or proper funding for devolved innovation.

And those are just some of the things we know about. Recent events have shown there’s every chance we’ll also be surprised.

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