Posts Tagged ‘legislation’

The current environment

March 11, 2016

I write a briefing for exhibitors at the two biggest UCISA events – UCISA16 is taking place next week so here’s my take on the current political factors affecting the sector…

The run up to the General Election in 2015 saw very little in the form of legislation and little change in the sector. The year since has been far busier with the publication of the Green Paper Teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice, the introduction of the Counter Terrorism duty on higher and further education institutions (the PREVENT duty), the drafting of the Investigatory Powers Bill and consultations on the information provided to students and the HESA Data Futures programme. The proposals within the Green Paper require refinement – it is not clear what the impact will be on institutions and it is anticipated that there will be further consultation during 2016. Although the Paper only applies to higher education in England, it is probable that a number of the measures proposed will also be introduced in time in the other countries of the UK.

The publication of the Green Paper in November demonstrated that the Westminster Government is looking to shape the English Higher Education sector rather more than it has in the past with emphasis on teaching excellence, better information for students and widening participation. The Green Paper contained little detail and it is not clear how soon detailed proposals will be presented. The BIS Select Committee, whilst welcoming the approach in principle in its recent report, urged caution over the pace of implementation, noting that the second stage of the Teaching Excellence Framework “should only be introduced once Government can demonstrate that the metrics to be used have the confidence of students and universities”. The Green Paper also noted that universities needed to be more accountable for how student fees are spent. This reflects a theme first visited in a Private Members Bill tabled by Heidi Allen, Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire so it is perhaps not surprising to see elements of her proposals feature in the Green Paper.

Despite the emphasis on a light touch approach, it is evident that universities and colleges will need to make effective use of data in order to meet the anticipated requirements of the Green Paper. There are a number of other developments that will place similar demands on our institutions. The HESA Data Futures programme is seeking to redesign and transform the collection of student related data. The programme is in its early stages with a recent procurement to appoint an organisation to design and deliver the future business process, technology and application architecture. UCISA will continue to ensure that suppliers of student records systems are engaged with this initiative. Further, the Higher Education Commission’s report From Bricks to Clicks notes that data analytics has the potential to transform the higher education sector, but cautions that UK institutions are currently not making the most of the opportunities in this area.

There continues to be funding pressure on all UK higher education institutions. In Northern Ireland funding has reduced by 28% in real terms since 2010/11 leading to downsizing by the universities in the province. In Wales, a cross-party review of higher education funding and student finance arrangements is due to report in the autumn. Although funding cuts proposed by the Welsh Government have been rescinded, it is likely that there will be some rationalisation within the sector over the coming year. The Scottish Funding Council has also cut the level of funding with some institutions noting that continued cuts put “pressure on institutional viability”. In England, the introduction of competition has resulted in some big winners and losers – those institutions which have seen a fall in student numbers are now having to cut their cloth accordingly. In the Further Education sector, the outcome of the Area Reviews is expected to be mergers between further education colleges.

There may be a lull in the development of policy as elections for new administrations in Scotland and Wales take place in May followed by the referendum on the UK’s EU membership in June. It remains to be seen if changes in the constituency of those Governments are reflected in changes in education policy. It goes without saying that a vote to leave the EU will also have a significant impact on universities and governmental policies. 2016 promises to be an interesting year.

Horses and water…

June 30, 2015

Every year a certain amount of Parliamentary time is dedicated to Private Members’ Bills. These are opportunities for individual MPs to present legislation on practically any topic. This year’s crop illustrates the wide variety – we have bills on riot compensation, exemption from hospital parking charges for carers, and Highways (Improvement, Traffic Regulation and Traffic Management). Amongst the list is the Higher Education (Information) Bill being presented by the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, Heidi Allen.

The summary of the Bill indicates that it is “to require information to be made available to prospective undergraduate students about what is provided to students for the tuition fees charged, how tuition fee resources are expended and what is expected of students; to establish transparency in how tuition fees are spent; and for connected purposes”.

There are a number of potential issues here and I’ll say now that I am not privy to what will be included in the Bill so all of this is guesswork. We’ll hopefully know more when the Bill gets its second reading on 23 October. Firstly, there is the level of detail required – are universities going to be expected to provide such detail on a course by course basis? There would seem little value in the Bill if it didn’t and so the assumption is that it will be expected that there will be different costs for different courses. So costs such as Estates, IT, the Library and indeed academic time will need to be apportioned across different courses. The cost to universities in calculating and providing this information will increase depending on the level of accuracy required.

If, on the other hand, all that is required are aggregate costs then there seems to be little value to the applicant. There will still need to be some apportioning of costs (how much academic time is spent on teaching activities compared with research for example) and as such institutions will need to justify how they have split such costs if they are to avoid accusations of top loading the tuition fee spend.
Regardless of the level of detail, there will be a cost to the universities of putting this information together. However, I would question how much use applicants make of the information that is already available to them. I know of several 18 year olds that are (hopefully) heading to university in September and none have made use of the Key Information Set in making their choices. I realise there is an element of horses and water here but is there any evidence that providing this information will really lead to a significant number of applicants being influenced by how their money is spent?

I am not against transparency and I do believe that there is value in demonstrating how income from course fees is spent. However, I am not convinced that there is a strong business case for providing such information, nor do I believe that it will radically change the way that applicants make their choices. Regardless of the level of detail provided, there will be a cost to provide it, as there is a cost of meeting the requirements of other legislation. How many institutions will be open enough to include a line detailing the cost of providing the information required?

Another day – another consultation

July 16, 2010

I have just submitted the UCISA response to the latest in a series of consultations on the implementation of the measures for dealing with online copyright infringement referred to in the Digital Economy Act. The consultation, issued by Ofcom, is on the Initial Obligations Code which defines how the process will operate. Further consultations will follow on the appeals process and the fees/charges to be implemented.

The consultation states that in the first instance the Code will apply to the seven biggest providers of domestic broadband connections initially but includes provision for widening the scope to other ISPs. What still isn’t clear is what ISPs or subscribers actually are. The Initial Obligations Code makes an attempt to add clarity, but it is not possible in my view for a university or college to determine its status. This has been a recurring theme throughout our responses to consultations on the Digital Economy Bill and the Digital Britain paper before it.

Regardless of what the Code says and the extent of its scope, the Digital Economy Act is not exclusive and rights holders will still have the right to submit complaints of copyright breach to universities and colleges with the expectation that they will be handled appropriately. It has been recognised that universities and colleges already have effective processes in place for handling complaints about breach of copyright. However, it was stated during the passage of the Bill through Parliament that universities, colleges and libraries would not be regarded as beyond the scope of the Act. We have, in the UCISA response, offered to work with Ofcom to establish a code of conduct encapsulates the existent good practice, adheres to the spirit of the Digital Economy Act and is acceptable to rights holders, Ofcom and the sector.

It is hoped that Ofcom will take us up on our offer. I believe that it offers a chance to add some much needed clarity in terms of how the higher and further education sectors are expected to respond to the requirements of the Act as well as being a pragmatic, low cost solution to the difficult problem Ofcom have been handed.

Digital Economy Act – the next steps

May 17, 2010

I attended a meeting today of representatives from various sectors to discuss the next steps in tackling the implementation of the Digital Economy Act. The Act was rushed through Parliament as part of the wrap up process that sees what the Government determines as key legislation pass though the Parliamentary process largely on the nod. UCISA, along with a number of organisations, has lobbied on various aspects of the Act, most notably the need for clarity in the definitions of Internet Service Provider and Subscriber and the provisions for dealing with breaches of copyright by internet users.

Although one part of the coalition, the Liberal Democrats, included repealing the Act in their manifesto, it is not a priority item and so the sector needs to prepare to manage the fall out from the Act. The timetable for implementation is short. The initial part of the Act, to introduce a Code of Conduct which determines the process by which rights holders may complain to ISPs about alleged infringements, is scheduled to be introduced in January 2011. This means that, in order to allow time for approval by both the UK Parliament and the European Commission, the first draft of the Code will be presented for public consultation in the very near future.

There is much work to be done particularly as there are so many questions that are left open by what is poorly worded legislation. The first area that needs clarifying is those definitions. If institutions are classed as subscribers then there is still a risk, albeit a very small one, of an institution being disconnected from the network (and even this is not clear at the moment). If they are classed as ISPs then there will be a requirement to log usage but again it is not clear what is required. Regardless of the classification, the level of infringement in the higher and further education sectors is so low compared with commercial ISPs that it may be agreed to allow the sectors to self regulate, particularly as the sector already has good mechanisms in place for dealing effectively with infringements.

There is currently a consultation ongoing on the costs of implementing the Act. These relate to the initial costs of setting up the required monitoring, the costs of investigating allegations and the appeals process. If I have understood the process correctly as outlined at the meeting it seems a logistical nightmare. Rights holders will be required to pay ISPs and Ofcom a sum based on an estimate of the number of likely allegations. There is no central pot – each rights holder will have to pay each ISP that they are likely to submit a complaint to. As complaints are received the ISP will call off against the sum held until the funds are exhausted. This perhaps makes sense when considering large rights holder and large ISPs but if institutions are classed as ISPs then rights holders will have pay each institution (in advance) if expect that they will want to submit allegations of copyright breach. Currently they get the service for free. The volume of complaints in the sector is so low it is to be hoped that common sense will prevail, that the good practice that exists in the sector will be recognised and an administrative burden will not be placed on the sector. However given the timescales for implementation there remains a risk that this will not be the case. The message is still “don’t panic” though as there is still a lot to sort out. UCISA will certainly be responding to consultations and working with our partners to try to ensure a sensible outcome.

Peer to peer – close to legislation?

September 30, 2009

Yesterday UCISA submitted its response to the Government’s latest proposals on the legislative options for dealing with illicit peer to peer filesharing. The issue has been around for some time – it was first raised in the initial paper on Digital Britain – but the initial drafts were not clear as to what was meant by the term ISP. Although the term is in common enough use that it is usually perceived as referring to a commercial provider of internet services, there is a risk that without a clear definition other providers of internet services, whether commercial or private, could be caught by any subsequent legislation. Given that universities and colleges provide internet access for their staff and students, we needed to ensure that the proposals were clear if the sector was not going to be saddled with an additional legislative burden. Thankfully the latest draft was far clearer – the legislation will only apply to commercial service providers.

The latest consultation included the proposal to include the option for suspending internet access for repeat offenders. The paper made it clear that this would only be used as a last resort and recognised that in such an event it was possible that other innocent members of a household could be punished as a result. Clearly there’s a risk that, in some student houses in the private sector where institutional regulations do not apply, access may be cut off due to an errant resident. That said, similar legislation has proved difficult to introduce and implement in other countries so it may prove a step too far in the UK.

Inside institutions there are regulations for computer use that specifically highlight the illegality of breach of copyright (UCISA has drafted model regulations for institutions to use). Universities and colleges link such regulations with disciplinary measures so any breaches of copyright or illicit filesharing are usually dealt with quickly. However the sector may need to demonstrate that it continues to keep on top of the problem and to deal with any breaches in a timely and effective manner. The rights holders lobby is strong and seem to have the current Government’s ear – there is a risk that if they are not satisfied that the proposed legislation meets their needs then they will seek to extend it to private networks.

A step too far on file-sharing?

July 27, 2009

There was an interesting story on Friday which I picked up on Rory Cellan-Jones’s Twitter feed (@ruskin147 for Tweeters) – Karoo, who provide broadband services in Hull, had been disconnecting people without warning for offences such as downloading films.

I’ve been following the debate on the options for dealing with illegal file-sharing for some time. Indeed I’ve responded (on behalf of UCISA) to the previous two consultations on the issue that were embedded in the Digital Britain reports, and have started to work on a response to the latest edition. The debate has been between the rights owners who want strong action taken against illegal file-sharers and the internet service providers who have preferred to continue to operate within a voluntary code. So it was something of a surprise that Karoo, as a member of the latter community, opted to introduce such a draconian measure. The “one strike and you’re out” policy went way beyond the Government proposals and was even more draconian than the “three strikes” policy introduced in France. The firm have now moved to a milder “three strikes” approach with file-sharers receiving three written warnings before action is taken. In a statement on the matter, Karoo noted that “It is evident that we have been exceeding the expectations of copyright owners, the media and internet users. So, we have changed our policy to move in more line with the industry standard approach.”

Whilst Karoo cited a taking a firm line on the alleged abuse of our internet connections as the reason for their initial stance, it struck me that being relatively small they are probably better able to monitor their customers’ activities than the national providers. Their acceptable use policy makes several references to copyright – there are similar references within both the UCISA model regulations and those of universities and colleges throughout the country. But copyright isn’t a concept that is well understood, particularly in the internet age where many believe that “if it’s on the ‘net, it’s free”. Indeed services like BBC’s iPlayer may add to the confusion. In universities and colleges the common approach is to speak to the individual and explain why their actions are unacceptable. In general this is sufficient to deter second offences; educating the user has the desired effect. Perhaps Karoo need to add examples of breaches of copyright like downloading and sharing to their FAQs to help educate their own customers.