Archive for Higher Education

The Higher Education Green Paper – Expert Commentary

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on November 6, 2015 by telescoper

Hot news in Higher Education today is that the long-awaited Higher Education Green Paper is now published. A summary of this discussion document which is called Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice can be found here. I haven’t got time to provide a detailed response this morning, so I will defer to an acknowledged expert on the subject of “fulfilling potential”, Dylan Moran:

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.

How Labour’s Tuition Fee Proposals Should Be Implemented

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , , , on February 27, 2015 by telescoper

The big news today is Ed Milliband’s announcement that, if elected, the Labour Party would cut the maximum tuition fee payable by students in English universities from £9K to £6K. That will of course be broadly welcomed by prospective students (and indeed current ones, whose fees will be reduced from 2016 onwards). There is however considerable nervousness around the university sector about whether and how the cut of 33% in fee income will be made good. The proposal seems to be that the shortfall of around £3bn will be made up by grants from government to universities, funded by a reduction in tax relief on pension contributions made by high earners.  I have yet to see any concrete proposals on how these grants would be allocated.

I would like here to make a proposal on how this allocation should be done, in such a way that it corrects a serious anomaly in how the current funding arrangements from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) affect Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For the record, I’ll declare my interest in this: I work in a STEM area and am therefore biased.

I’ll explain my reasoning by going back a few years. Before the introduction  of the £9K tuition fees in 2012  (i.e. in the `old regime’), a University would receive income from tuition fees of up to £3375 per student and from a `unit of resource’ or `teaching grant’ that depends on the subject. As shown in the upper part of Table C below which is taken from a HEFCE document:


In the old regime, the  maximum income per student in Physics was thus £8,269 whereas for a typical Arts/Humanities student the maximum was £5,700. That means there was a 45% difference in funding between these two types of subject. The reason for this difference is that subjects such as physics are much more expensive to teach. Not only do disciplines like physics require expensive laboratory facilities (and associated support staff), they also involve many more contact hours between students and academic staff than in, e.g. an Arts subject.  However, the differential is not as large as you might think: there’s only a factor two difference in teaching grant between the lowest band (D, including Sociology, Economics, Business Studies, Law and Education) and the STEM band B (including my own subject, Physics). The real difference in cost is much larger than that, and not just because science subjects need laboratories and the like.

To give an example, I was talking recently to a student from a Humanities department at a leading University (not my employer). Each week she gets 3 lectures and one two-hour seminar, the latter  usually run by a research student. That’s it for her contact with the department. That meagre level of contact is by no means unusual, and some universities offer even less tuition than that. A recent report states that the real cost of teaching for Law and Sociology is less than £6000 per student, consistent with the level of funding under the “old” fee regime; teaching in STEM disciplines on the other hand actually costs over £11k. What this means, in effect, is that Arts and Humanities students are cross-subsidising STEM students. That’s neither fair nor transparent.

In my School, the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, a typical student can expect around 20 contact hours per week including lectures, exercise classes, laboratory sessions, and a tutorial (usually in a group of four). The vast majority of these sessions are done by full-time academic staff, not PDRAs or PhD students, although we do employ such folks in laboratory sessions and for a very small number of lectures. It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to work out that 20 hours of staff time costs a lot more than 3, and that’s even before you include the cost of the laboratories and equipment needed to teach physics.

Now look at what happens in the `new regime’, as displayed in the lower table in the figure. In the current system, students still pay the same fee for STEM and non-STEM subjects (£9K in most HEIs) but the teaching grant is now £1483 for Physics and nothing at all for Bands C and D. The difference in income is thus just £1,483, a percentage difference of just 16.4%. Worse than this, there’s no requirement that this extra resource be spent on the disciplines with which it is associated. In most universities, though gladly not mine, all the tuition income goes into central coffers and is dispersed to Schools and Departments according to the whims of the University Management.

Of course the higher  fee levels have led to an increase in income to Universities across all disciplines, which is welcome because it should allow institutions to improve the quality of their teaching bu purchasing better equipment, etc. But the current arrangements as a powerful disincentive for a university to invest in expensive subjects, such as Physics, relative to Arts & Humanities subjects such as English or History. It also rips off  staff and students in those disciplines, the students because they are given very little teaching in return for their fee, and the staff because we have to work far harder than our colleagues in other disciplines, who  fob off  most of what little teaching their supposed to do onto PhD students badged as Teaching Assistants. It is fortunate for this country that scientists working in its universities show such immense dedication to teaching as well as research that they’re prepared to carry on working in a University environment that is so clearly biased against STEM disciplines.

To get another angle on this argument, consider the comments made by senior members of the legal profession who are concerned about the drastic overproduction of law graduates. Only about half those doing the Bar Professional Training Course after a law degree stand any chance of getting a job as a lawyer in the UK. Contrast this with the situation in science subjects, where we don’t even produce enough graduates to ensure that schools have an adequate supply of science teachers. The system is completely out of balance. Here at Sussex, only about a quarter of students take courses in STEM subjects; nationally the figure is even lower, around 20%.

Now there’s a chance to reverse this bias and provide an incentive for universities to support STEM subjects. My proposal is simple: the government grants proposed to offset the loss of tuition fee income should be focussed on STEM disciplines. Income to universities from students in, especially laboratory-based subjects, could then be raised to about £12K, adequate to cover the real cost of teaching, whereas that in the less onerous Arts and Humanities could be fixed at about about £6K, again sufficient to cover the actual cost of teaching but funded by fees only.

I want to make it very clear that I am not saying that non-STEM subjects are of lower value, just that they cost less to teach.

Anyway, I thought I’d add a totally unscientific poll to see what readers of this blog make of the Labour proposals:

The Welsh University Funding Debacle Continues…

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , on February 24, 2015 by telescoper

Although I no longer work in Wales, I still try to keep up with developments in the Welsh Higher Education sector as they might affect friends and former colleagues who do. I noticed yet another news item on the BBC a week or so ago as a kind of update to another one published a few years ago about the effect of the Welsh Government’s policy of giving Welsh students bursaries to study at English universities. The gist of the argument is that:

For every Welsh student that goes to university across the border the fee subsidy costs the Welsh government around £4,500.

It means this year’s 7,370 first-year students from Wales who study in other parts of the UK could take more than £33m with them. Including last year’s students, the total figure is over £50m.

According to the latest news story on this, the initial estimate of £50M estimate grew first to £77M and is now put at a figure closer to £90M.

I did in fact make exactly the same point about five years ago on this blog, when former Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews announced that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from then (then) impending tuition fee rises by a new system of grants. In effect the Welsh Assembly Government would pick up the tab for Welsh students; they would still have to pay the existing fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG would pay the extra £6K. I wrote in May 2010:

This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for Welsh universities but wherever they choose to study. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (at least 16,000 × £3000 = £48 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. It’s a very strange thing to do when the WAG is constantly complaining that the Barnett formula doesn’t give them enough money in the first place.

What’s more, the Welsh Assembly grants for Welsh students will be paid for by top-slicing the teaching grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So further funding cuts for universities in Wales are going to be imposed precisely in order to subsidise English universities. This is hardly in the spirit of devolution either!

English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay full whack, but will be paying to attend universities whose overall level of state funding is even lower than in England (at least for STEM subjects whose subsidy is protected in England). Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England. If the new measures go ahead I can see fewer English students coming to Wales, and more Welsh students going to England. This will have deeply damaging consequences for the Welsh Higher Education system.

It’s very surprising that the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, who form part of the governing coalition in the Welsh Assembly, have gone along with this strange move. It’s good for Welsh students, but not good for Welsh universities. I would have thought that the best plan for Welsh students would be to keep up the bursaries but apply them only for study in Wales. That way both students and institutions will benefit and the Welsh Assembly’s budget will actually be spent in Wales, which is surely what is supposed to happen…

Well, the changes did go ahead, and now the consequences are becoming clearer. The Chief Executive of Welsh university funding agency HEFCW, Dr David Blaney, is quoted as saying

“…in England, English students have to get a loan, so the top universities there have £9,000 coming from each student and also funding from the funding council.

In Wales, a lot of the funding council funding is now spent on the tuition fee grant and that means there’s less money available to invest in the Welsh sector than is the case in England,” he told BBC Wales in an exclusive interview.”

This also mirrors a concern I’ve also discussed in a blog post, which is that the Welsh Government policy might actually increase the number of Welsh students deciding to study in England, while also decreasing the number of other students deciding to study in Wales. Why would this happen? Well, it’s because, at least in STEM subjects, the tuition fee paid in England attracts additional central funding from HEFCE. This additional resource is nowhere near as much as it should be, but is still better than in Wales. Indeed it was precisely by cutting the central teaching grant that the Welsh Government was able to fund its bursaries in the first place. So why should an English student decide to forego additional government support by choosing to study in Wales, and why should a Welsh student decide to do likewise by not going to England?

I really hope the Welsh Government decides to change its policy, though whether an imminent General Election makes that more or less likely is hard to say.

Athena SWAN Bronze for Physics & Astronomy at Sussex

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on September 25, 2014 by telescoper

Athena Swan

Only  time for the quickest of quickies today, but I have some very good news to pass on so, without further ado, here we go. Today we learned that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex has received a the Athena SWAN Bronze Award in recognition of our commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research. The Athena SWAN charter has been running since 2005, recognising the commitment of the higher education sector to address gender inequalities, tackle the unequal representation of women in science and to improve career progression for female academics.

This award has been the result of a huge effort led by Dr Kathy Romer but also involving many other members of staff in the Department and across entire  the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences generally. The Department scored at or above the national average in all key areas: student intake (UG, PGT, PGR), research staff, academic staff, REF submissions and so on. That said, the Athena SWAN process has highlighted several areas where improvements can be made, such as in the mentoring of female postdoctoral researchers, and enhanced levels of training in equality and diversity matters such as the influence of unconscious bias. We are very pleased to have received the bronze award, but there is still a very great deal to do. Many other institutions and departments have already progressed to the Silver or even Gold award, but our Bronze is at least a start!



Higher Education Funding: A Modest Proposal

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , , on August 8, 2014 by telescoper

With next year’s general election already looming there are signs that the higher education funding system is likely to be a hot topic. The Conservatives, for example, are reportedly considering removing the cap on tuition fees (currently set at £9K per annum) while Labour is talking about reducing the figure to £6K. Labour’s idea is likely to prove popular among potential students, it will result in a reduction of fee income to English universities of a third, potentially leading to wholesale redundancies and closures unless it is offset by an increased contribution from the taxpayer to offset this cut. Responsibility for higher education funding in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is devolved, so Westminster policy does not apply directly there although the knock-on effect of changes in England would be considerable given the number of students who choose to study away from home.

The backdrop to these suggested policy changes is the obvious fact that the current system is unsustainable. Although there has not been a marked reduction in numbers of students applying to university since the introduction of tuition fees, it has become increasingly clear that the system of loans and deferred fees is actually costing the Exchequer more in terms of short-term borrowing than the old system. Moreover, there is a growing realization that the fraction of this cost that will actually be recouped in future is going to be much smaller than its advocates would like to admit. Recent estimates, likely to be revised upwards, suggest that 45% of student loans will never be repaid.

On top of this there is the problem that the so-called “elite” universities have not succeeded in “widening participation” (as the phrase goes). Oxford and Cambridge both continue to take about 40% of their pupils from private schools; many other institutions. My own institution, the University of Sussex, takes about 86% of its intake from state schools, which is about the average across the sector.

Although only a small fraction of pupils (about 7%) attend (private) independent schools, about 65% of those go on to University; only 24% from the state sector do. In my opinion, not all universities take widening participation seriously but even if they do (like we do at Sussex) it is difficult for higher education institutions to repair the divisions that arise much earlier in the education system.

The average fee per term for a day pupil at a private school in the UK is about £3400; this rises to about £7800 per term for boarding schools. Since there are three school terms per year this means that the average cost per year for day pupils is £10,200, well above the £9000 per year maximum fee for university tuition. That says a lot for how poorly funded UK universities really are, even with increased tuition fees, especially in STEM subjects which require expensive laboratories and other facilities. Moreover, private school fees are payable upfront while tuition fees for students in higher education are funded by heavily subsidized loans which do not need to be repaid until the student is earning more than a certain minimum salary (currently £21K pa).

When funding is tight it is particularly important that it should be targetted where it is needed most. For me that means to encourage more students from state schools to go to university. The principle I’d adopt here (and indeed in many other contexts) is encapsulated in the phrase “to each according to their need, from each according to their ability”.

Parents who have decided to send their offspring to private schools have, in my view, already demonstrated that they can afford to contribute to their education at a level considerably higher than the current tuition fee for university students. In such cases there is no need for a means test to determine whether they need support from the taxpayer; they have already done that calculation for themselves.

My proposal, therefore, is that students whose parents have decided to take their children out of the state school system should be deemed to be ineligible for state support for higher education. They should therefore pay the full fees upfront. I think there’s a case even for making such students pay for the full cost of their education which is not the £9K fee payable by Home/EU but the much higher fee charged to students from outside the EU, which is currently £17K at the University of Sussex. The money saved in this way should be used to provide better fee waivers and and maintenance grants for students from the state school system (on a means-tested basis). This could be accomplished by, e.g., a system of vouchers available to students from state schools in England; the rest of the UK could adopt a similar system if they wish. This would also be a step towards reducing the incentive for families to increase social divisions by taking their children out of the state system.

As well as driving greater equality and stimulating social mobility, my suggestion would also correct a number of anomalies in the existing system. One is that students attending English universities who went to Schools elsewhere in Europe (including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) are entitled to the same financial support as English students. However, most students from outside the UK will return home after graduation and there is no effective means of making them pay back their fees and loans because these are currently recovered through the UK tax system. In effect, therefore, the taxpayer is providing free higher education for these students and it is one of the reason why the default rate on student loans is likely to be very high. In my proposal this loophole would be sealed; unless a student went to an English state school they would not have the means to access HEFCE support.

I have heard it said that this idea would remove choice. I don’t agree. Parents will still have the choice of sending their sons and daughters to private school if they wish. What it will do is remove part of the incentive for them to do that.

Across the UK over 80% of university students are from state schools, so the measure I suggest will not on its own solve the University funding crisis. On the other hand, I think it would at least be fairer than the current system. On the other hand, I’m not sure fairness counts for very much these days…