Posts Tagged ‘policy’

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.

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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.

Where’s Mr Willetts?

March 27, 2012

I attended the Guardian HE Summit last week. The first session focussed on internationalisation and predictably attention turned to the Government’s immigration policy. The visa rules are seen as a barrier to the UK competing globally and more than one delegate stated that they are damaging both reputation and recruitment. The perception is that the UK is seen as unwelcoming and this has been bolstered by some of the media reporting overseas. A number of institutions have seen applications from international students fall – a worrying trend given the dependency of some institutions on overseas student fees. Whilst there was general discontent about the policy, the withdrawal of the option for post-qualification work was seen as a particular challenge and it looks like the UK is in danger of repeating others’ mistakes. Australia are reversing the similar policy they had as they saw a fall in applications from international students as, without the ability to work after graduating, studying in Australia became less attractive. The Australian Government recognised the risk to the education sector but until the Home Office do likewise there is a chance of damage to the UK sector.

Today brought the publication of the National Audit Office report into the implementation of Tier 4 of the points based immigration system. The report was critical of UKBA for implementing Tier 4 before key controls were in place. This doesn’t come as a complete surprise to me. The implementation date was fixed and it was clear from my engagement with the implementation team that they were working to a tight budget. In such circumstances it is unlikely that all the required processes and systems will be ready, let alone fully tested. It is an error that is at risk of being repeated. It is policy that grabs the headlines for the politicians and politically expedient deadlines are likely to leave UKBA with short implementation times.

The report notes that universities have a low rate of non-attendance compared with other types of colleges. Again there is little surprise here. International students are key to the university sector and as such universities have invested in additional staff and systems (both IT and procedural) to ensure they comply. So it was disappointing that the coverage on BBC radio this morning made the assumption that students equated to those attending universities. This message is likely to be picked up by others and there will be demands to do something about it. The tough new rules are already being cited in the Government’s response to the report. So again the suggestion is that the UK is unwelcoming to international students. As Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, noted “We must continue to be sensitive to the language we use around immigration and international students. We must ensure that legitimate concerns about immigration do not end up causing irreversible damage to a profoundly successful British export.” However there is little sign that there is the willingness within Government to counter the adverse publicity and protect the successful export business that is UK higher education.

Cross sector standards – a challenge too far?

March 15, 2012

I attended the first meeting of the Supplier Special Interest Group (SIG) of the Information Standards Board (ISB) last month. The ISB has been established as the overarching authority and governing body for the management and assurance of information standards across the ESCS (education, skills and children’s services) sector. Establishing standards across such a broad sector will be a challenge. For a start there are already established standards in a number of areas within the ESCS sector. This is reflected in differences in the coding for some common entities such as ethnicity. Secondly terminology varies – what higher education calls students, others in the sector might call learners or (in schools) pupils. So some effort will be needed to achieve a common vocabulary. Where there are common terms, the processes may vary. For example the admissions process in schools is to admit pupils to the school whereas in universities it is to admit a student onto a programme of study. The terminology is the same but the process is different. Add in the differences across the 4 home nations and it becomes clear that this is not going to be a trivial exercise.

The speed of Implementation is also likely to vary between the sectors. This in itself will raise some issues as the relevance of any given entity to a sector might not be immediately apparent. It will be necessary to identify potential uses in order to ensure that all sectors engage in the discussion on each entity. Also all sectors will have to see the business benefit of implementing the standard. Without it, as some initiatives have found, take up will be negligible. Further there will be costs associated with the change to a new standard and these have to be matched by a business benefit.

It is likely that the various sector agencies that have signed up to the Information Standards Board will be the ones that define the speed of implementation. They define the format of the data they receive or transmit and this will lead the implementation. However this does not necessarily mean that the standard will be adopted across entire systems. We have already seen that the adoption of Unicode for various aspects of UCAS data has not led to widespread deployment of Unicode in fields in all the systems where UCAS data is transferred during the student lifecycle. The impact of changes need to be assessed and understood to inform the implementation.

The difficulty suppliers have is deciding where to focus their resources and which initiatives to get involved in. At the moment it is not clear what the timescale is for implementing the standards defined by the ISB. The schedule for defining the standards is very aggressive but until the sector agencies give an indication as to when they might comply with those standards, they will always remain a low priority.

Network resilience – tough choices ahead

February 15, 2011

The JANET Stakeholder Panel meeting yesterday touched on the issue of resilience in terms of network connectivity to the institution. JANET suggest that 110 higher education institutions have at least two connections to the JANET network. This confirms the study that UCISA carried out last year into network resilience but does not tell the whole story. Many of those institutions that do not have dual connectivity to JANET have secondary connections provided by commercial suppliers. The main reason for this is resilience although some have purchased commercial links for their own commercial or business and community engagement activities. The number of these connections may diminish as the revised JANET Connection and Acceptable Use Policies come into force.

The network has, however, only been funded centrally to provide a single connection to each HEI. The additional connections have been funded in a variety of ways through subscription the regional network operator, through funding council grants or in by the institutions themselves. The process to procure the next instance of the JANET network (SIX) has begun and the initial meetings with stakeholder groups have identified resilience, particularly resilience in terms of institutional network connectivity, as one of the main criteria. The premise for the current procurement is that a single connection to each institution is funded. If the procurement goes ahead on this basis then HEIs will need to pay separately for secondary connections (which largely they have done already although some of this was achieved with central grant funding) and so IT directors will need to make the business case within their own institutions. There have been various discussions on the future funding model for JANET. One suggestion was that there could be a core level of service that is provided to all HEIs with the option to then buy enhanced services. Secondary connections could be regarded as an enhanced service but with there being growing uncertainty over the funding of JISC and its services and the level of institutional contribution, there may be some institutions that are unable to afford the additional cost.

The higher education environment is changing and changing rapidly. More institutions are adopting cloud based services, students expect to access institutional resources from where ever they are and the shared services agenda continues to be promoted. All of which may suggest that a network that only provides a single connection to institutions is not fit for purpose; the expectation is that services and the network are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. What isn’t clear is how much it costs to add secondary connections for HEIs, or whether dual connectivity can be delivered cost effectively within the current procurement funding. The HEFCE review of JISC highlighted the need to review the governance of the JISC, to ensure that the Board has greater overall strategic responsibility for JISC and the companies that form it, including JANET(UK). One driver for this is to improve the relationship between JISC and its customers and to be more responsive to the needs of those customers. The JANET network is highly regarded and is a vital component of the national infrastructure. If secondary connections cannot be funded in the current model but the HEIs believe that having dual connections to JANET is essential to their businesses and is a criteria for a network being fit for purpose, will the JISC Board transfer the funds from other areas of JISC activity to pay for secondary connections and so meet the requirements of its major customers?

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.

The future of higher education – and IT services

April 17, 2009

I had a busy day yesterday, preparing for the Executive planning meeting next week. Although it did not rate at all in the UCISA Top Concerns, Governmental policy can have a significant impact on the mission of higher education institutions run and consequently on the demands made of their information/IT services. So I spent most of the day reviewing the contributions to the review of HE by the Secretary of State, John Denham.

The paper with the greatest technological focus was the submission by Sir Ron Cooke, World leader in e-learning. UCISA contributed to the paper and I expect that many of the actions recommended will be taken up by the JISC in the coming year. UCISA, having just signed a strategic relationship with JISC, will be working with them to help deliver on some of these actions. However there are two potential stumbling blocks. The paper talks about a number of development areas, particularly relating to research and innovation. Development invariably requires investment and I doubt that there will be any new funding to move things forward, in spite of the Government suggesting that the sector should be to the fore in leading the UK out of the recession. Secondly some of the actions will require a change in the way that academics work. Many initiatives to share teaching resources have failed over the years as a result of the ‘not invented here’ syndrome, going right back to the national development programme in computer assisted learning in the 70s. Academics have generally shown a lack of willingness to use others material so will the availability of open learning resources have a great impact? Further, although the value of research data has been recognised, there is no recognition for publishing it. Without this academic staff may deem the amount of effort required to learn how to tag and document data effectively as being too great.

Recommendations from a number of the other papers have the potential to have an impact on information/IT services. Drummond Bone’s paper on international issues suggests a move towards greater collaboration with overseas partners, greater mobility of staff and students and increased distance learning as likely future trends to develop sustainable international policies for the sector. These will bring a number of technological and support challenges.

It is unlikely that the recommendations in many of the papers will be implemented this side of the general election since they advocate a change in Government policy. The Executive’s role next week will be to identify those that are likely to come to fruition as a consequence of the recession or trends in the sector and look to ensure that UCISA is in a position to assist its members meet the new challenges that arise.

Another Home Office own goal?

February 14, 2009

I have blogged a number of times about the risk I feel that the introduction of the points based immigration system poses to the higher education sector. The risk in my opinion is that overseas students are deterred from attending UK institutions because too many obstacles are put in their way. There are an increasing number of overseas institutions offering courses taught in English and so international students have alternatives to studying in the UK. So it is disappointing that the Home Office have chosen this time to increase the fees for visas which may further deter potential students from studying in the UK. The press release from Universities UK puts it succinctly: “The increase in fees will come at the same time as a number of other changes in the UK’s immigration system and the UK Government is in serious danger of sending out a message that it does not welcome international students.”

It doesn’t look as if there is a great deal of jointed up thinking between the Home Office and DIUS…