Posts Tagged ‘higher education’

Higher, Further, Faster, More – an opportunity missed?

October 20, 2015

There was much chat online yesterday about the Policy Exchange’s report on improving higher level professional and technical education Higher, Further, Faster, More. Whilst the report sets out some significant challenges and is fairly wide ranging in its recommendations, the focus has, perhaps inevitably, been on the financial implications for the higher education sector. The report proposes significant cuts to central higher education funding with the funds being diverted to further education. The suggestion is that institutional reserves could be used to meet all or some of the costs of funding high cost subjects and widening participation.

The response from the higher education sector was to defend the current funding regime and to highlight errors in the financial aspects of the report. This isn’t entirely unexpected – in these financially challenging times any organisation or body whose funding is threatened is likely to react in the same way and attempt to protect what it has. The question is how that message is interpreted elsewhere. The sector has a reputation in the Treasury for being feather bedded and reference to the reserves held by the sector, whether accurate or not, will do little to refute that reputation. Further it is easy to dismiss responses suggesting maintaining the status quo and even those highlighting errors in the report (‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’) even if the arguments are strong and factually correct. There is, however, little doubt that the FE sector in England is in financial dire straits and something needs to be done. In the circumstances looking at the pot a seemingly rich relation has is natural.

It is not a matter of ‘either/or’ for the higher and further education sectors – they fulfil different needs and the country needs both. What has been missed is the opportunity to highlight the areas where universities and FE colleges are already working together, to address some of the challenges highlighted in the Policy Exchange report. At the recent HE and FE Show, Stephen Jones from BIS advocated the need for HE and FE to work more closely together and gave a strong hint that this need would be part of upcoming reforms. There is evidence of collaboration and working towards common goals. Maddalaine Ansell, the Chief Executive of the Universities Alliance, highlighted several in her presentation at the same conference – collaborative approaches supporting the local communities’ needs. And yet there was little mention of such collaboration in the responses to the report that I’ve seen.

A protectionist approach is sometimes needed but here was an opportunity to demonstrate that the higher education sector is aware of the challenges that FE faces, is aware of the need to develop skills for UK business and industry and is taking steps to meet those challenges and requirements. An opportunity to demonstrate that universities are at the heart of regional economies, working with local FE Colleges, to help meet the needs of the local communities. An opportunity to demonstrate that the sector is in tune with Government policy and thinking. An opportunity missed.


UKBA – it’s not all IT’s fault

March 27, 2013

Yesterday Theresa May announced the demise of UKBA – it is being replaced by separate agencies for immigration and visas and for immigration policing.

It was interesting to see that one reason May cited for UKBA’s failings was its ‘inadequate’ IT systems. It isn’t difficult to see why. A number of years ago I was involved in discussions with the Agency, along with colleagues at Universities UK, to work out how the new points based immigration system would work with the education sector (the ‘Tier 4’ route). UKBA’s initial premise was that those wishing to bring in migrants (ie international students) would enter the data directly into the system. It was only when the potential cost of doing that was pointed out to them, allied with the fact that universities already possessed most of the data that UKBA required, did they consider the possibility of developing a mechanism of transferring data between institutional student records systems and the points based immigration system. This was despite universities and colleges being responsible for bringing in the most migrants into the country. Clearly there had been no assessment of the potential users of the system and consequently the needs of the biggest users had not been addressed. The points based system was specified as a closed system – there was no expectation that data would be transferred in or out but just viewed on a screen.

Once the argument had been won regarding the need for a data transfer mechanism, the specifications were delivered in a reasonably quick time. But this was something that was unplanned and institutions and suppliers had to make special provision in order to develop the extracts and imports required. UCISA has recognised that there is a need to plan for such developments and consequently has agreed relatively long lead times with sector agencies such as HESA and UCAS to ensure that there is adequate time for development, testing and implementation. With the points based system, however, we did not have the luxury of time. Nor did we have the luxury of a test system. Because there had been no consideration of interfaces to the points based system, there had been no provision for a system against which the developments could be tested. In the end, testing for suppliers and institutions was largely restricted to four days for everyone. That meant in practice, half a day to carry out the initial tests followed by a further half day to test any amendments. Predictably not everyone was ready when Tier 4 went live. Even now suppliers have nothing to test against when they develop new releases or when UKBA has changed their requirements.

So there is a promise that the ‘inadequate’ IT systems will be revamped. But to focus on the IT is misguided. The Home Office needs to take the opportunity to review all the processes around the visa application process and ensure that they are fit for purpose and deliver the good and effective customer service that May said would be the focus of the new visa agency. As many have learnt to their cost, without process change the best that revamping the IT will do will make bad processes run faster. Once the processes have been refined, we can move onto the IT. It is to be hoped that, in this era of open government and transparency, the education sector will be recognised as a major stakeholder and will be fully involved in scoping the new processes and system, with efficient data transfer mechanisms between institutional and Agency systems. The development of the new system needs to be adequately resourced and the needs of those developing interfaces to and from it need to be considered. Without process review, involvement of the key stakeholders and a well-funded development, the promises of an improved service will founder.


The future of Higher Education

March 28, 2011

I attended the Guardian Future of Higher Education symposium earlier this month and heard a number of varied and interesting presentations including two from Government ministers in David Willetts and Simon Hughes.

There were a number of key points that arose during the course of the day.

  • There is an expectation that most institutions will seek to charge the maximum fee for their courses (and this is being borne out in the numerous announcements in the last fortnight). Aaron Porter, President on the NUS, noted that failure to charge £9000 for a course would almost suggest that it was of a lesser standard. This will bring some challenges to the Government who have based their calculations on an average fee of £7500 but David Willetts noted that the key factor was the cost to the Treasury, not the fee (notionally) charged. So if all institutions provide subsidies or fee waivers that reduce the average to £7500, then there is less likely to be an impact. If this is not the case then BIS will have to find savings. A number of options are under consideration including reducing student numbers and reducing the teaching grant further. The picture will be clearer once all institutions have declared their position and the White Paper (scheduled now for June or July) has been published. Simon Hughes delivered an impassioned plea for institutions to consider lower fees (and it has to be said that he has always been an opponent of higher fees) but the evidence is that few will respond to his call.
  • Early engagement with potential applicants was a recurring theme, particularly when widening participation was discussed. It was recognised that the choices school children make at 14 and 16 can have a decisive effect on making them credible candidates for leading universities so there is a need for universities to engage at a much earlier stage to provide guidance. There was much mention of a careers for life service which I understand was one of the victims of the cuts so there may be a void that universities need to fill. The value of early engagement is perhaps illustrated by an example from Europe. The Italian system had a high drop out level and they sought to rectify that by engaging with applicants and identifying the courses that were most suitable for them. The drop out rate is falling as a result.
  • Further evidence for the need for engagement was highlighted in the session on marketing courses. Both Peter Slee and Tricia King identified that a key factor in a student choosing to go to university was the opportunity to sample university life through visits and open days. King observed that engagement with applicants is an important part of retention as you are introducing the experience and managing expectations (although as one delegate pointed out, it is important to ensure that support is available throughout a student’s time at university). For all the Government’s talk about providing better information through the key information sets, the consensus was that decisions are largely made with the heart, not the head so although the KIS might provide assurance for parents, the open day or visit is more likely to be influential on the students themselves.
  • It was also recognised that there needs to be greater engagement with employers. A number of leading accountancy companies have established relationships with some institutions and will, for certain courses, pay individuals students’ fees for the duration, pay them a salary whilst they are studying and give them a job on graduation. This is perhaps evidence that the sector does provide good value for money when compared with the cost of training graduates. This will clearly be an attractive option to applicants when fees increase but not all industries are in a position to offer such incentives. Graduates in STEM subjects are unlikely to command large salaries and the high salaries available in the financial sector are leading to a drain of STEM graduates from their preferred discipline. It was recognition that the Government needs to look at ways of providing incentives for graduates to stay in STEM disciplines.
  • Finally the conference looked at the alternatives for delivering higher education. It was recognised that the Further Education sector has a role to play and the success of the 2 + 2 scheme in Scotland (where the FE college delivers the first two years of the course before students move to a HEI to complete) was cited as a good example of an effective partnership between the two sectors. It was recognised that FE Colleges have stronger links to their local community and to industry than their HE counterparts. Commercial providers have also go strong links with commerce and shape their programmes to meet companies’ needs. They have had to be lean in order to survive and live with challenges of variable student numbers and income.

Overall the event was rather more upbeat than I had been expecting. The consensus was that the sector was well placed to see through the turbulence over the next couple of years and couple look forward with a reasonable amount of optimism. That said, there is no space for complacency. It was clear that there is a need for the sector to be more efficient and also the need for greater investment in engagement with both potential applicants and employers. IT can clearly play a role in these areas but I suspect the bigger challenge will be the change in culture required.

Money matters…

September 9, 2009

First full day of the Universities UK conference. UUK is the Vice-Chancellors organisation and the V-Cs were gathering in Edinburgh with finances very much at the top of the agenda. And there was little good news to report.

The opening presentation was from Fiona Hyslop the Minister for Education and Life Long Learning in the Scottish Parliament. She outlined some of the challenges facing higher education in Scotland – falling funding was one but the decline in the number of eighteen year olds is also a factor. With redundancy a feature of the current economic climate, Scottish institutions will need to refocus on retraining adults returning to the sector or entering the sector for the first time. A natural progression is to develop courses specifically for business to ensure the graduates are appropriately trained for a given sector. The emphasis has thus far been on knowledge transfer. Fiona Hyslop was promoting knowledge exchange – a two way process where knowledge is transferred to business but where business defines the skills that it needs. Whilst this will bring more people into HE, the question is whether this can be delivered in a cost effective manner – how much effort is involved in designing the bespoke parts of courses over required to tailor an existing provision to an industry’s requirements?

The second presentation looked at the situation in the US. The recession has seen a growing number of students remaining at home when they study and a significant number of students electing to defer their study. There have been severe cuts in some states which have led to major changes in policy in public institutions – increases in fees, courses ceasing and increasing class sizes. Some believe that the sector will never recover from the impact. Private institutions which relay on endowment income are affected to a greater extent. A number of institutions have had to borrow to offset the falling income in addition to taking cost cutting measures.

The Obama administration is taking steps to prop up the education sector. A significant amount of funding is being pumped into the sector to try and maintain levels of funding, to grow research in specific areas and to grow the community colleges in general and completion in those institutions specifically. Partnerships with commerce and industry again featured prominently in the plan. The US administration has chosen to invest in the sector. It will be interesting to hear what David Lammy has to offer the UK sector when he speaks to the conference on Thursday.

HE sector in the news

July 21, 2009

There were several education related items of news today. Two in particular caught my eye.

A 10,000 increase in student numbers was announced by the Government. However, the places are only part funded; institutions will receive the fee income but no increase in grants for teaching. This perhaps leaves the institutions between a rock and a hard place – with the drive for the sector to help lead the country out of the recession and the emphasis on the increased numbers being mainly in science and engineering subjects (investing in the country’s future), institutions are not in a position to decline the increase. However, the focus subjects are also the most expensive – this can only add pressure on funding within institutions and a commensurate impact on service departments.

A Commons Select Committee reported on ‘bogus colleges’ in the UK used in order to generate fraudulent applications for visas. The report focused primarily on the system being replaced by the incoming points based immigration system. This had led to ‘thousands’ of foreign nationals entering the system illegally. The committee welcomed the tighter procedures with the new system – there were currently around 2200 ‘colleges’ that had not transferred from the old system to the new. It was, however, disappointing that the benefit of protecting the reputation of the UK education sector by rooting out sham institutions was not highlighted. With growing international competition, a reduction in the number of such institutions must benefit the sector.