Archive for HEFCE

Do you have Confidence in the Teaching Excellence Framework?

Posted in Bad Statistics with tags , , , , on January 4, 2017 by telescoper

The  Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is, along with a number of other measures in the 2016 Higher Education and Research Bill, causing a lot of concern in academic circles (see, e.g., this piece by Stephen Curry). One of the intentions of the TEF is to use relatively simple metrics to gauge “teaching quality” in higher education institutions. On top of the fundamental questions of exactly what “teaching quality” means and how it might be measured in any reliable way, there is now another worry: the whole TEF system is to be run by people who are statistically illiterate.

To demonstrate this assertion I refer you to this excerpt from the official TEF documentation:


The highlighted “explanation” of what a confidence interval means is false. It’s not slightly misleading. It’s not poorly worded. It’s just false.

I don’t know who from HEFCE wrote the piece above, but it’s clearly someone who does not understand the basic concepts of statistics.

I can’t imagine what kind of garbled nonsense will come out of the TEF if this is the level of understanding displayed by the people running it.  That garbage will also be fed into the university league tables with potentially devastating effects on individuals, departments and institutions, so my gripe is not just about semantics – this level of statistical illiteracy could have very serious consequences for Higher Education in the UK.

Perhaps HEFCE should call in some experts in statistics to help? Oh, no. I forgot. This country has had enough of experts…





Autumn Statement – Summary for Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on November 25, 2015 by telescoper

I’ve been in meetings all afternoon so far so I missed the live broadcast of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

Now that I’ve caught up a little it seems that there’s much to be relieved about. Yet again it seems the Government has deployed the tactic of allowing scare stories of dire cuts to spread in order that the actual announcement  appears much better than people feared, even if it is mediocre.

You can find the overall key results of the spending review and autumn statement here, but along with many colleagues who work in research and higher education I went straight to the outcome for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) which you can find here.

The main results for me – from the narrow perspective of a scientist working in a university –  are:

  1. The overall budget for BIS will be cut by 17% in cash terms between now and 2020.
  2. Most of the above cut will happens from 2018 onwards by, among other things, “asking universities to take more responsibility for student access”.
  3. In more detail (quoted from here) “In this context, the government will reduce the teaching grant by £120 million in cash terms by 2019 to 2020, but allow funding for high cost subjects to be protected in real terms. The government will work with the Director of Fair Access to ensure universities take more responsibility for widening access and social mobility, and ask the Higher Education Funding Council for England to retarget and reduce by up to half the student opportunity fund, focusing funding on institutions with the most effective outcomes. The government will also make savings in other areas of the teaching grant.”
  4. My current employer, the University of Sussex, has done extremely well on widening participation so this is good news locally. Many big universities have achieved nothing in this area so, frankly, deserve this funding to be withdrawn.
  5. It is also to be welcomed that the premium for high cost subjects (i.e. STEM disciplines) is to be protected in real terms, although it still does not affect the actual cost of teaching these subjects.
  6. Contrary to many expectations it seems that HEFCE will not be scrapped immediately. That is significant in itself.
  7. The level of science funding will increase from £4.6 billion to £4.7 billion next year, and will thereafter be protected in real terms over the Parliament.
  8. The real terms protection sounds good but of course we currently have a very low rate of inflation, so this is basically five more years of almost flat cash.
  9. There is supposed to be an additional £500m by 2020 which George Osborne didn’t mention in his speech. I don’t know whether this is extra money or just the cash increase estimated by inflation-proofing the £4.7bn.
  10. The above two points sound like good news….
  11. …but the total budget  will include a £1.5 billion new “Global Challenges Fund” which will build up over this period. This suggests that there may be a significant transfer of funds into this from existing programmes. There could be big losers in this process, as it amounts to a sizeable fraction of the total research expenditure.
  12. In any event the fraction of GDP the UK spends on science is not going to increase, leaving us well behind our main economic competitors.
  13. The Government is committed to implementing the Nurse Review, which will give it more direct leverage to reprioritise science spending.
  14. It isn’t clear to me how  “pure” science research will fare as a result of all this. We will have to wait and see….

The Autumn Statement includes only a very high level summary of allocations so we don’t know anything much about how these decisions will filter down to specific programmes at this stage. The Devil is indeed in the Detail. Having said that, the overall settlement for HE and Research looks much better than many of us had feared so I’d give it a cautious welcome. For now.

If anyone has spotted anything I’ve missed or wishes to comment in any other way please use the box below!


Research Funding – A Modest Proposal

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on September 9, 2015 by telescoper

This morning, the Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson, made a speech in which, among other things, he called for research funding to be made simpler. Under the current “dual funding” system, university researchers receive money through two main routes: one is the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which leads to so-called “QR” funding allocations made via the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE); and the other is through research grants which have to be applied for competitively from various sources, including the Seven Research Councils.

Part of the argument why this system needs to be simplified is the enormous expense and administrative burden of the Research Excellence Framework.  Many people have commented to me that although they hate the REF and accept that it’s ridiculously expensive and time-consuming, they didn’t see any alternative. I’ve been thinking about it and thought I’d make a suggestion. Feel free to shoot it down in flames through the box at the end, but I’ll begin with a short introduction.

Those of you old enough to remember will know that before 1992 (when the old `polytechnics’ were given the go-ahead to call themselves `universities’) the University Funding Council – the forerunner of HEFCE – allocated research funding to universities by a simple formula related to the number of undergraduate students. When the number of universities suddenly increased this was no longer sustainable, so the funding agency began a series of Research Assessment Exercises to assign research funds (now called QR funding) based on the outcome. This prevented research money going to departments that weren’t active in research, most (but not all) of which were in the ex-Polytechnics. Over the years the apparatus of research assessment has become larger, more burdensome, and incomprehensibly obsessed with short-term impact of the research. Like most bureaucracies it has lost sight of its original purpose and has now become something that exists purely for its own sake.

It is especially indefensible at this time of deep cuts to university core funding that we are being forced to waste an increasingly large fraction of our decreasing budgets on staff-time that accomplishes nothing useful except pandering to the bean counters.

My proposal is to abandon the latest manifestation of research assessment mania, i.e. the REF, and return to a simple formula, much like the pre-1992 system,  except that QR funding should be based on research student (i.e. PhD student) rather than undergraduate numbers. There’s an obvious risk of game-playing, and this idea would only stand a chance of working at all if the formula involved the number of successfully completed research degrees over a given period .

I can also see an argument  that four-year undergraduate students (e.g. MPhys or MSci students) also be included in the formula, as most of these involve a project that requires a strong research environment.

Among the advantages of this scheme are that it’s simple, easy to administer, would not spread QR funding in non-research departments, and would not waste hundreds of millions of pounds on bureaucracy that would be better spent actually doing research. It would also maintain the current “dual support” system for research, if that’s  a benefit.

I’m sure you’ll point out disadvantages through the comments box!

The Renewed Threat to STEM

Posted in Education, Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on July 26, 2015 by telescoper

A couple of years ago, soon after taking over as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) at the University of Sussex, I wrote a blog post called The Threat to STEM from HEFCE’s Funding Policies about how the funding policies of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) were extremely biased against STEM disciplines. The main complaint I raised then was that the income per student for science subjects does not adequately reflect the huge expense of teaching these subjects compared to disciplines in the arts and humanities. The point is that universities now charge the same tuition fee for all subjects (usually £9K per annum) while the cost varies hugely across disciplines: science disciplines can cost as much as £16K per annum per student whereas arts subjects can cost as little as £6K. HEFCE makes a small gesture towards addressing this imbalance by providing an additional grant for “high cost” subjects, but that is only just over £1K per annum per student, not enough to make such courses financially viable on their own. And even that paltry contribution has been steadily dwindling.  In effect, fees paid by arts students are heavily subsidising the sciences across the Higher Education sector.

The situation was bad enough before last week’s announcement of an immediate £150M cut in HEFCE’s budget. Once again the axe has fallen hardest on STEM disciplines. Worst of all, a large part of the savings will be made retrospectively, i.e. by clawing back money that had already been allocated and which institutions had assumed in order to plan their budgets. To be fair, HEFCE had warned institutions that cuts were coming in 2015/16:

This means that any subsequent changes to the funding available to us from Government for 2015-16, or that we have assumed for 2016-17, are likely to affect the funding we are able to distribute to institutions in the 2015-16 academic year. This may include revising allocations after they have already been announced. Accordingly, institutions should plan their budgets prudently.

However, this warning does not mention the possibility of cuts to the current year (i.e. 2014-15). No amount of prudent planning of budgets will help when funding is taken away retrospectively, as it is now to the case. I should perhaps explain that funding allocations are made by HEFCE in a lagged fashion, based on actual student numbers, so that income for the academic year 2014-15 is received by institutions during 15/16. In fact my institution, in common with most others, operates a financial year that runs from August 1st to July 31st and I’ve just been through a lengthy process of setting the budget from August 1st 2015 onward; budgets are what I do most of the time these days, if I’m honest. I thought I had finished that job for the time being, but look:

In October 2015, we will notify institutions of changes to the adjusted 2014-15 teaching grants we announced in March 20158. These revised grant tables will incorporate the pro rata reduction of 2.4 per cent. This reduction, and any other changes for individual institutions to 2014-15 grant, will be implemented through our grant payments from November 2015. We do not intend to reissue 2014-15 grant tables to institutions before October 2015, but institutions will need to reflect any changes relating to 2014-15 in their accounts for that year (i.e. the current academic year). Any cash repayments due will be confirmed as part of the October announcements.

On top of this, any extra students recruited as as  result of the government scrapping student number controls won’t attract any support at all from HEFCE, so we wll only get the tuition fee.And the government says it wants the number of STEM students to increase? Someone tell me how that makes sense.

What a mess! It’s going to be back to the drawing board for me and my budget. And if a 2.4 per cent cut doesn’t sound much to you then you need to understand it in terms of how University budgets work. It is my job – as the budget holder for MPS – to ensure that the funding that comes in to my School is spent as efficiently and effectively on what the School is meant to do, i.e. teaching and research. To that end I have to match income and expenditure as closely as possible. It is emphatically not the job of the School to make a profit: the target I am given is to return a small surplus (actually 4 per cent of our turnover) to contribute to longer-term investments. I’ve set a budget that does this, but now I’ll have to wait until October to find out how much I have to find in terms of savings to absorb the grant cut. It’s exasperating when people keep moving the goalposts like this. One would almost think the government doesn’t care about the consequences of its decisions, as long as it satisfies its fixation with cuts.

And it’s not only teaching that is going to suffer. Another big slice of savings (£52M) is coming from scrapping the so-called “transitional relief” for STEM departments who lost out as a result of the last Research Excellence Framework. This again is a policy that singles out STEM disciplines for cuts. You can find the previous allocations of transitional relief in an excel spreadsheet here. The cash cuts are largest in large universities with big activities in STEM disciplines – e.g. Imperial College will lose £10.9M previous allocated, UCL about £4.3M, and Cambridge about £4M. These are quite wealthy institutions of course, and they will no doubt cope, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable for HEFCE to break a promise.

This cut in fact won’t alter my School’s budget either. Although we were disappointed with the REF outcome in terms of league table position, we actually increased our QR income. As an institution the University of Sussex only attracted £237,174 in transitional relief so this cut is small potatoes for us, but that doesn’t make this clawback any more palatable from the point of view of the general state of health of STEM disciplines in the United Kingdom.

These cuts are also directly contrary to the claim that the UK research budget is “ring-fenced”. It clearly isn’t, and with a Comprehensive Spending Review coming up many of us are nervous that these cuts are just a foretaste of much worse things to come. Research Councils are being asked to come up with plans based on a 40% cut in cash.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Funding for Masters in Science

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2015 by telescoper

My recent post about postgraduate scholarships at the University of Sussex has generated quite a lot of interest so I thought I’d spend a few moments today trying to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked recently, by current and prospective students (or parents thereof).

I’ll start by explaining what the difference is between the different forms of Masters degrees in science that you can get in the United Kingdom, chiefly the distinction between an MSc  and one of the variations on the MPhys or MMath we have here in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences here at the University of Sussex. I have to admit that it’s all very confusing so here’s my attempt to explain.

The main distinction is that the MSc “Master of Science” is a (taught) postgraduate (PG) degree, usually of one (calendar) year’s duration, whereas the MPhys etc are undergraduate (UG) degrees usually lasting 4 years. This means that students wanting to do an MSc must already have completed a degree programme (and usually have been awarded at least Second Class Honours)  before starting an MSc whereas those doing the MPhys do not.

Undergraduate students wanting to do Physics in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex, for example, can opt for either the 3-year BSc or the 4-year MPhys programmes. However, choosing the 4-year option does not lead to the award of a BSc degree and then a subsequent Masters qualification;  graduating students get a single qualification usually termed an “integrated Masters”.

It is possible for a student to take a BSc and then do a taught MSc programme afterwards, perhaps at a different university, but there are relatively few MSC programmes for Physics  in the UK because the vast majority of students who are interested in postgraduate study will already have registered for 4-year undergraduate programmes. That’s not to say there are none, however. There are notable MSc programmes dotted around, but they tend to be rather specialist; examples related to my own area include Astronomy and Cosmology at Sussex and Astrophysics at Queen Mary. Our own MSc in Frontiers in Quantum Technology is the only such course in the United Kingdom.

To a large extent these courses survive by recruiting students from outside the UK because the market from home students is so small. No department can afford to put on an entire MSc programme for the benefit of just one or two students. Often these stand-alone courses share modules with the final year of the undergraduate Masters, which also helps keep them afloat.

So why does it matter whether one Masters is PG while the other is UG? One difference is that the MSc lasts a calendar year (rather than an academic year). In terms of material covered, this means it contains 180 credits compared to the 120 credits of an undergraduate programme. Typically the MSc will have 120 credits of taught courses, examined in June as with UG programmes, followed by 60 credits worth of project work over the summer, handed in in September, though at Sussex some of our programmes are split 90 credits coursework and 90 credits of project.

The reason why this question comes up so frequently nowadays is that the current generation of applicants to university (and their parents) are facing fees of £9K per annum. The cost of doing a 3-year BSc is then about £27K compared to £36K for an MPhys. When rushing through the legislation to allow universities to charge this amount, the Powers That Be completely forgot about PG programmes, which have accordingly maintained their fees at a relatively low level, despite the fact that these are not controlled by government. For example, the MSc Astronomy at Sussex attracts a fee of about £6K for home students and £17K for overseas students. These levels are roughly consistent with the UG fees paid by  home students on the previous fee regime (approx £3.5K per annum, bearing in mind that you get 1.5 times as much teaching on an MSc compared to a year of an MPhys).

Being intelligent people, prospective physicists look at the extra £9K they have to pay for the 4th year of an MPhys and compare it with the current rate for an entire MSc and come to the conclusion that they should just do a BSc then switch. This seems to be not an unreasonable calculation to make.

However, there are some important things to bear in mind. Firstly, unlike UG programmes, the fee for PG programmes is basically unregulated. Universities can charge whatever they like and can increase them in the future if they decide to. See, for example, the list at Sussex University which shows that MSc fees already vary by more than a factor of four from one school to another. Incidentally, that in itself shows the absurdity of charging the same fee for UG degrees regardless of subject…

Now the point is that if one academic year of UG teaching costs £9K for future students, there is no way any department can justify putting on an entire calendar of advanced courses (i.e. at least 50% more teaching at an extremely specialist level) for less than half the  income per student. Moreover undergraduate courses in laboratory-based sciences attract an additional contribution of around £1.4K (“the unit of resource”) paid by the government to the University concerned via HEFCE.  The logical fee level for MSc programmes is mininum of about 1.5 times the UG fee, plus the unit of resource applied to full calendar year, which is a whopping £15.6K (similar to the current whopping amount already paid by overseas students for these programmes). It’s therefore clear that you cannot take the current MSc fee levels as a guide to what they will be in three years’ time, when you will qualify to enter a taught PG programme. Prices will certainly have risen by then. I doubt if there will be a sudden step-change, but they will rise.

The picture has changed significantly since the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Autumn Statement last year that loans of up to £10,000 would be made available to students on postgraduate (Masters) courses from 2016/17 onwards.  Welcome though this scheme may be it does not apply to students wanting to start a Masters programme this September (i.e. for Academic Year 2015/16).

I’d say that, contrary to what many people seem to think,  if you take into the full up-front fee and the lack of student loans etc, the cost of a BSc + MSc is  already significantly greater than doing an MPhys, and in future the cost of the former route will inevitably increase. I therefore don’t think this is a wise path for most Physics undergraduates to take, assuming that they want their MSc to qualify them for a career in Physics research, either in a university or a commercial organization, perhaps via the PhD degree, and they’re not so immensely rich that money is no consideration.

The exception to this conclusion is for the student who wishes to switch to another field at Masters level,  to do a specialist MSc in a more applied discipline such as medical physics or engineering. Then it might make sense, as long as you can find a way to deal with the need to pay up-front for such courses.

Now comes the plug for Sussex. Last week the University of Sussex unveiled a huge  boost to the University’s flagship Chancellor’s Masters Scholarships means that 100 students graduating this summer with a first-class degree from any UK university will be eligible to receive a £10,000 package (non-repayable)  to study for a Masters degree at Sussex. There are also specific schemes to support students who are already at Sussex; see here.

I’m drawing this to the attention of readers of this blog primarily to point out that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex is one of relatively few UK universities to have a significant and well-established programme of Masters (MSc) courses, including courses in Physics, Particle Physics,  Cosmology, and Astronomy. In particular, as I mentioned above, we are the only Department in the United Kingdom to have an MSc in Quantum Technology, an area which has just benefitted from a substantial cash investment from the UK government.

Wisely, the University of Sussex has introduced special measures to encourage current Integrated Masters students to stay on their degree rather than bailing out into a BSc and taking a Masters. However, this scheme is a great opportunity for high-flying physics graduates from other universities to get a funded place on any of our MSc programmes to start later this year. Indeed, the deal that is being offered is so good that I would recommend students who are currently in the third year of 4-year MPhys or MSci integrated Masters programmes, perhaps at a dreary University in the Midlands, to consider ditching  your current course, switching to a BSc and graduating in June in order to take up this opportunity. The last year of an integrated Masters consists of 120 credits of material for which you will have to be a further £9K of fees; a standalone Masters at Sussex would involve 180 credits and be essentially free if you get a scholarship.

Think about it, especially if you are interested in specializing in Quantum Technology. Sussex is the only university in the UK where you can take an MSc in this subject! This is a one-off opportunity, since (a) this scheme will be replaced by loans from 2016/17 and (b) the fees will almost certainly have risen by next year for the reasons I outlined above.

In conclusion, though, I have to say that, like many other aspects of Higher Education in the Disunited Kingdom, this system is a mess. I’d prefer to see the unified system of 3 year UG Bachelor degrees, 2-year Masters, and 3-year PhD that pertains throughout most of continental Europe.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out an even worse anomaly. I did a 3-year Honours degree in Natural Science at Cambridge University for which I was awarded not a BSc but a BA (Bachelor of Arts). A year or so later this – miraculously and with no effort on my part – turned into an MA. Work that one out if you can.

Your Chance to Influence UK Government Investment in Science

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 4, 2014 by telescoper

A recent piece of bloggery by esteemed Professor Jon Butterworth 0f the Grauniad reminded me that an important government consultation has just opened. In fact it opened on 25th April, but I neglected to post about it then as I was on my Easter break. I’m now passing it on to you via this blog, by way of a sort of community service.

Anyway, the consultation, which is being adminstered through the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, can be found here; there’s a large (110 page) document as well as information on how to respond. Basically about £5.8 billion in capital expenditure has been set aside for science research, and the government is asking how it should be divvied up. Such funds could be used to build big ticket items such as new telescopes, particle accelerators, lasers or other infrastructure including new laboratory buildings. It has to be capital, though, which means it can’t be used on staffing for such facilities that are funded. You might argue that this is a weakness (because ultimately science is done by people not by facilities) but, on the other hand if the government stumps up additional money for capital that might free up funds for more people to be employed.

Anyway, do read the consultation document and submit your responses. You could do a lot worse than reading Jon Butterworth’s commentary on it too. The deadline is some way off, July 4th to be exact, but this is very important so you should all get your thinking caps on right away.

One thing I’ll be including in my response concerns funding for university laboratories. The funding body responsible for English universities, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), is currently underfunding STEM subjects across the country. I’ve blogged about this before so I won’t repeat the argument in detail, but severe reductions in the unit of resource applied to laboratory-based subjects have meant that the new tuition fee regime does not provide anything like sufficient income to cover the costs of, say, physics undergraduate teaching. All students pay a flat-rate fee of £9K across all disciplines (including arts, humanities and science subjects) but science subjects only get £1.4K per student on top of this. The withdrawal of capital allowances has also made it very difficult for universities to invest in teaching laboratory space.

The cost of educating a physics student is actually about twice that of educating a student of, say, English, so this differential acts as a deterrent for universities to expand  STEM disciplines. Shortage of teaching laboratory space is a major factor limiting the intake of students in these areas, whereas other disciplines are able to grow without restriction.

So my vote will go for a sizeable chunk of the £5.8 billion capital  to be allocated to improving, refurbishing, expanding and building new teaching laboratories across all STEM disciplines to train the next generation of scientists and engineers that will be vital to sustain the UK’s economic recovery.

I’d be interested in people’s views about other aspects of the consultation (e.g. what big new facilities should be prioritized). Please therefore feel free to use the comment box, but not as a substitute for participating in the actual consultation.

Over to you!


Tuition Fees, Ponzi Schemes and University Funding

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , on March 30, 2014 by telescoper

Last week the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) finally released information on allocations for 2014/15. As expected, there are large cuts in recurrent grants pretty much across the board (a full table can be found here).  These cuts reflect the fact that government funding for teaching in many subjects is being progressively replaced by tuition fee income in most disciplines, the prominent exception being STEM subjects, which continue to attract a (small) element of grant support in addition to the £9K fees.  Grants for research are largely unchanged for the time being; the big upheaval there will happen when the outcome of the Research Excellence Framework is applied, from 2015/16 onwards.

If you look at the table you will see that some big research universities have relatively small cuts, especially if they focus on STEM disciplines; the obviously example is Imperial College which has a cut of only 3%. Typical Russell Group universities seem to be getting cuts of around 15%. My own institution, the University of Sussex, has been handed a cut of 24%, which reflects the fact that a large majority (greater than 75%) of students here are doing non-science subjects. Universities with less research income and a higher concentration on Arts & Humanities subjects are having to bear cuts of up to 60%.  These reductions are larger than anticipated as a result of the government’s decision to increase the total number of places by about 30,000 this year.

These numbers look alarming, but in most cases, including Sussex, the net income (FEES+GRANT) will actually go up next year, as long as the institution manages to recruit a sufficient number of students. The ability of a university to generate sufficient income to cover its costs has always depended on its ability to attract students, but this has previously been managed using a student number control, effectively applying a cap on recruitment to institutions that might otherwise corner the market.   This year some institutions who failed to recruit strongly have had their cap lowered, but worse is in store from 2015/16 as the cap will be lifted entirely, so that there will effectively be a free market in student recruitment. I sure I’m not the only person who thinks the likely outcome of this change will be a period of chaos during which a relatively small number of institutions will experience a bonanza while many others will struggle to survive.

As if this weren’t bad enough, there is also the growing consensus that the current fee regime is unsustainable. Revised estimates now suggest that about 45% of graduates will never pay back their tuition fees anyway. If this percentage grows to about 50% – and I am very confident that it will – then the new tuition fee system will end up costing the Treasury (i.e. the taxpayer) even more than the old regime, while also saddling generations of graduates with huge debts and also effectively removing the sector from public control.

Apparently, the response of the government to the level of default on repayments is to consider increasing fees to a level even higher than the current £9K per annum. It seems to me that the likely consequence of this would simply be to increase the default rate still further, largely by driving UK graduates abroad to avoid liability for paying back their loans, and thus drive the system into runaway instability.

The more one looks at the fees and loans debacle the more it resembles  a Ponzi scheme that’s destined to unravel with potentially catastrophic consequences for England’s universities; note that Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are not covered by HEFCE arrangements.

So what can be done?

I’ll assume at the outset that the only really sensible plan – taking the entire system back under public control – is, by the very nature of the British political system, unthinkable.

My first suggestion reflects the fact that I am a scientist and that I think  science education and research properly should be a very high priority for any system of university funding. Whatever is done therefore must address the point I made a post about the threat to STEM subjects presented by HEFCE’s policies the essence of which is that the £9K flat-rate fee across all disciplines does not reflect the true difference in cost of teaching between, say, English and Physics. Differential fees would have a disastrous effect on recruitment into science subjects while the current system underfunds STEM disciplines so severely that it offers a perverse incentive for universities to focus on non-science areas. Under the current system, fees from Arts disciplines are effectively subsidizing science subjects rather than providing education to those paying the fees; in other words, Arts students are being ripped off.

Second, if the taxpayer is going to foot a significant part of the bill for higher education then HEFCE (or whatever organization replaces it in future) must have sufficient clout to manage the sector for the public interest, rather than allow it to be pulled apart by the unfettered application of market forces.

Third, any new system must be designed to reduce the level of graduate debt which, as I’ve mentioned already, simply encourages our brightest graduates to emigrate once they’ve obtained their degree.

I’ve actually never really been opposed to the principle that students who can afford to should contribute at some level to the cost of their education; I have, on the other hand, always been opposed to fees being set at the level of £9K per year. The Labour Party’s suggestion that fees should be cut to £6K would go some of the way to satisfying the third requirement, but would be disastrous unless the cut were offset by increased state funding through recurrent grants. I think a better suggestion would be to cut fees by a greater amount than that if possible, but to have a much bigger differentiation in the unit of resource paid to different subjects. I’d say that the net income per student should be about £15K per annum in STEM subjects, whereas for Arts and Social Sciences £6K probably covers the full cost of tuition.  So if the fee is set at £X across the board, STEM disciplines should receive £(15-X) from HEFCE while Arts subjects get a subsidy of £(6-X).