Friday, 21 December 2012

Applying Student Number Controls to Alternative Providers with Designated Courses

Mayan Zodiac CircleToday is supposed to be the last day in human history. I felt it would be a fitting epitaph to spend a few of my last hours on the earth writing a thousand words on the BIS consultation on alternative providers and the SNC: an exercise in existentialist policy analysis, if you like.
If the world can last that long, the deadline for responses to the BIS consultation is 23 January 2013, so there will still be a little while to reflect on this when we get back from the Christmas break.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Clearing 2012: How wrong was I, and why?

Back in July, I wrote a little blog post confidently predicting that this year’s Clearing would be less interesting than was widely expected:

Somebody, somewhere will have a bad experience in Clearing because somebody, somewhere always does, but there is no reason to expect a pattern or trend. Those who do badly this year may do well next. Life staggers on much as before.

Mark Leach was kind enough to post it on WonkHE, so it gained rather more prominence than my typical blog post. Since then, anyone watching the press will have read about the unmitigated disaster that has rolled over institutions high and low. It seems I was too sanguine.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

London Met Again

Last week’s post about London Metropolitan leaped almost instantly into my top-ten of all time, as measured by pageviews. Not that it takes a whole lot of pageviews to achieve that in my case, but it is enough to persuade me to write a follow-up post.

Most people will be aware that London Met has taken legal action against the UKBA. The form of this legal action will take is judicial review. Judicial review is a process which does exactly what it says on the tin: the decision taken by a public body (in this case the UKBA) is reviewed by a judge. There is no nonsense here with a jury. If the judge determines, on review, that the decision was wrong he (or she, but as this is an English judge we are talking about, almost certainly he) may quash it.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The business at London Met

There are so many issues in London Met’s unfortunate encounter with the UKBA that I scarcely know where to start: so much blame to be distributed, so many consequences to be guessed at. You have to eat the elephant one bite at a time.

Thursday, 16 August 2012


Clearing is here now, and Jessica Guiver’s blog about targets – and what happens if you miss them – has got me thinking about this issue. A recruitment target is a number: it seems clear, precise and very measurable; but in fact a recruitment target is also a cultural artifact that can only be understood correctly in a particular context. Let me explain what I mean.

Broadly there are two approaches to targets. Some Vice Chancellors I have worked with in the past have seen targets as an essentially rhetorical device. Their role is to encourage the troops to try even harder and therefore it isn’t important that they can necessarily be achieved. It may even be detrimental to the intended incentive effect. Dull number crunchers like me tend to see targets as part of a rational planning apparatus in which we work out a budget and resource model robustly based on a realistic target number. Now whilst these approaches to targets can be contrasted in principle, in practice they are continually held in tension. Even the coldest technocrat does not actively wish to discourage recruitment. Perhaps there are some VCs out there so ardent for growth that they genuinely don’t care if the students all wind up in one department whilst the budget to teach them is in another, but they assuredly employ many people – both academic staff and accountants – who do.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Gearing up for Clearing

We are in the final stages, now of preparing for Clearing. My direct role in this process is a fairly limited one - I had a discussion yesterday about what budget code we should assign to the bottled water that keeps the Clearing team hydrated, but actually I don't even sign off the purchase order at the end of the day. Making Clearing happen is a major undertaking: the first morning puts a strain on out telephone and IT systems that nothing else in the year comes close to matching. This post isn't mainly about the mechanics of Clearing, though, because this is a planning blog. It is mostly about more of a macro-level issue: will we all get enough students to meet our budgets whilst staying below our student number control limits? The answer, of course, is no: but not in a very interesting way.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Degree Awarding Powers: Confusion reduced

A follow up to my post from earlier today. Whilst Education Investor repeats the BBC story that two private providers have gained degree awarding powers, a colleague from BIS has responded promptly and unequivocally to my email as follows:

I can confirm that the online list of recognised bodies is complete and accurate. The BBC story is incorrect in its statement that the second institution to be granted degree awarding powers this week is a private college. The other institution is a publicly-funded institution that receives HEFCE funding.

More confusion about Degree Awarding Powers

The news in the BBC and Times Higher that Regent's College has been granted degree awarding powers will come as a surprise to nobody likely to be reading a blog like this one. What came as a very severe shock to me, though, was this language in the BBC report:

'It [i.e. Regent's] is one of two private colleges being given degree-awarding powers this week....The identity of the second college has not yet been made public, with government officials saying it is up to that institution to make its announcement.'

There is nothing like this mentioned in the Higher story, so I very much hope it is a BBC reporter's misunderstanding (The Royal Academy of Music has recently been awarded DAPs, and as far as I can see from their website hasn't made a public announcement, but the RAM is certainly not a private college). BIS maintain a list of bodies with Degree Awarding Powers here. If it is really true that BIS is allowing private colleges with degree awarding powers to stay off this list until they wish to publicise their new powers, that would strike me as a very surprising thing indeed. It would call into question the Government's commitment to a 'level playing field' between public and private providers, not to say basic standards of openness in public administration.

I tried to speak to someone at BIS to gain clarification, but when she discovered I wasn't a journalist, the operator refused to put me through so I've had to fire off an email. When I get a response, I'll post an update.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Muhammad Saleem from Online Colleges sent me this infographic about MOOCs. I don't agree with everything it says (see my post here), but I thought it was interesting enough to be worth sharing.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Cash is fungible

Dewi Knight has an interesting post on WonkHE about the developing Welsh approach to HE. As Dewi highlights, part of the mood music which Welsh politicians use to accompany their policy proposals is the decisive rejection of market (and English) models. The Welsh Government even plans to take powers so that it can fund specific universities directly.

One of my occasional themes on this blog is that developments in different parts of the UK are not as different as they appear, and this is a good example. English Ministers emphasise the language of competition and markets, whilst Welsh Ministers use different language, but both are engaged in projects to reshape their respective HE sectors to the needs (as perceived by Ministers) of students and employers. Both are seeking to enhance their regulatory control over their respective sectors.

It is inconceivable that English Ministers could seek powers to fund institutions directly (even if they dared to bring forward an HE Bill at all...), but the pound a Welsh Minister grants to a Welsh institution will have exactly the same purchasing power as the pound an English student pays in state-subsidised fees when the English funding council decides to increase an institution's Student Number Control. Cash is fungible.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Changing Universities

On Friday I attended the Association of University Administratorsopen forum Managing Change. This is the third of these annual events and interesting war stories are always exchanged. Unfortunately the Chatham House rule was in operation, so I can't discuss what I heard very freely.

What I will do is to post a link to the group's online resource Changing Universities, and encourage any readers who are involved in managing change in universities to consider getting involved in the group. If nothing else, the meetings provide a level of social support: it gives me reassurance to know that no-one else has completely resolved the issues that I can't resolve either.  

Thursday, 5 July 2012

The BPP School of Health

Yesterday's news that BPP is branching out into a new professional area by launching a School of Health provides a good example of the way our HE system continues to evolve only haltingly towards a more open market, and some of the important barriers that still exist to private providers. The specific subjects offered are Psychology, Chiropractic and a little Nursing, as well as entry-level programmes designed for healthcare workers with very limited formal qualifications.

I'll take these in reverse order. As the existing health professions continue to evolve (nurses take on jobs formerly done by doctors, and become an all-graduate profession) there has been increasing emphasis on formal training and development for health care assistants and other support workers. London South Bank, for instance, offers a range of Foundation Degrees aimed at these workers and closely aligned with local NHS Trust. You will see from the materials I linked to that students are either in NHS employment, or offered NHS training contracts before they come on the course. So there's nothing very new in what BPP are offering, and their integration with employers (the key competitive advantage they have in e.g. Accountancy or Law as compared to the established universities) is not all that strong.

Chiropractic is another interesting choice, because it is a profession not regulated by the Health Professions Council. Psychology is regulated by the BPS, but unlike most existing University programmes (including private providers like Buckingham), BPP's programme doesn't seem to have BPS accreditation. No doubt BPP will gain accreditation in time, and develop increasingly strong NHS links, but we also see how the forest of poorly-coordinated regulatory bodies that surrounds the existing HE sector (and are a royal pain from a day-to-day management perspective) make it difficult even for respected providers like BPP to break open new areas.

Why haven't BPP chosen some easier targets? This little table shows you that:

JACS2 Subject Line
Ratio of apps to accs (:1)
A1 - Pre-clinical Medicine
A2 - Pre-clinical Dentistry
B1 - Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology
B7 - Nursing
D1 - Pre-clinical Veterinary Medicine
B8 - Medical Technology
X1 - Training Teachers
B2 - Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmacy
L5 - Social Work
W4 - Drama
K1 - Architecture
Y Combs of soc studies/law with business
L1 - Economics
C3 - Zoology
B4 - Nutrition
C7 - Molecular Biology, Biophysics & Biochem
 Total all subjects

Source: UCAS

These are 2011 data on subject areas with many applications, and high application-to-acceptance ratios. In other words the market is here. Drama is in there, where the barrier to entry is capital costs rather than regulation, but for the most part the dominance of health and related subjects is clear.

From David Willetts' perspective there is very little he can do about this, of course. The HPC, the BPS and the NHS don't answer to him.

Friday, 29 June 2012


There are some significant differences between the cultures of US and UK journalism, as becomes pretty clear from even a quick scan of the headlines. Usually I think the British headline writers show more verve and humour, but sometimes the American approach wins out, as in this case where the Telegraph's story is reported in the Chronicle under the truly delicious title Foreign Students Said to Get a Leg Up in Admission to British Universities.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Gove lays a trap for the Russell Group

It has long been clear to most observers that Michael Gove is not truly a Conservative, but instead a leftist agent provocateur determined to heighten the contradictions inherent in Conservative educational policy until the whole structure collapses. If anyone had doubted this before, then his proposal to curry favour amongst the Tory grassroots by reversing the Thatcher government's key school reform surely marks the point at which he threw the mask aside.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Another post about Udacity

I posted about Udacity previously. At the time, I couldn't understand how anybody was proposing to make any money out of the project, and I see that more eminent people than me still can't. This reflects our old-economy idea that a business has to have revenue. I have since come to understand that in the internet economy it is far from unusual for businesses to have no revenue, in fact it is normal. The value of a company in this case is the group of users that it can bring to a better-established internet company, or the defensive value that the better-established company can gain by buying an upstart before it becomes a rival. In this context, Udacity (or any other learning provider) can make a fortune for its owners if it establishes a large user base and then sells out to Google or Facebook, even if no-one ever works out a way to cover the costs of the business in the meantime.

Understanding this helps me to place some other things in context too. Drop-out from these kinds of programmes is truly catastrophic if your comparator is a traditional university programme. Inside Higher Ed says that 'generally between 10 and 20 percent' of students make it to the final exam in an individual course, roughly equivalent to a UK module. In currently-existing British universities, by contrast, 86.9% of (Undergraduate) students successfully complete their (3+year) programmes and get an award. If your comparison is other internet experiences, though, getting 10-20% of your users as deeply engaged as to complete an entire course of study probably seems like an outstanding metric.

It follows from this, of course, that the learner is not the customer in this case. That may not be an issue: I don't use Facebook myself, but I do use Google and (obviously) Blogger, so perhaps my choice of illustration for this post shows a certain double standard. Besides, it isn't always clear that the learner is the customer in traditional education models either: this is sharply contested by some.

It also follows from this that Udacity is a bit less interesting than I previously thought. In my last post on the subject I was impressed by the audacity of taking both teaching and assessment out of the University offer, but now that I understand this as just one of many approaches to putting engaging content online so as to grow a significant user community it seems a lot less exciting, and a lot less relevant to my day-to-day work. If the experience is engaging, it will literally never matter if the assessment and certification 'issues' go unresolved; if the experience is not engaging it is also unlikely to matter whether assessment and certification can be resolved. 

So to go back to Paul Greatrix, I think the 'confusion' was probably more in his mind (and mine) than in the minds at Udacity, Coursera and the others. 

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

An apology to the reporting staff at THE

When I read in the Times Higher that the Campaign for Science and Engineering was explicitly calling for less democracy in our legislature so as to preserve sinecures for professional scientists, I have to confess that my instant assumption was that the THE had misunderstood, and perhaps even deliberately.

But it turns out that really is what CaSE are calling for.

I hope the editorial staff at THE, and Paul Jump in particular, will accept this post by way of an apology.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A sign of life

Things have been quiet on this blog recently. Since I changed jobs six months ago I have had less time free for blogging, and my focus at work has been less on the external issues of finance, policy, regulation, new providers and the other stuff I blog about, more on the internal day-to-day management of an institution. Amongst other things I have missed were the anniversary of my first post, which should have been an opportunity for some self-indulgent reflection on my progress.

The joy of self-indulgence is that just because you miss an opportunity it doesn't mean you can't go ahead and do it anyway. So here goes.

Although no-one could call this blog 'prominent', I've achieved the objectives that I set for myself in beginning it.

  • My most-viewed posts have been this one about KIS, this one about core/margin, and this one about HEFCE funding. Even put together they currently stand at just over 1,000 page views so they haven't set the world on fire, but they have provided a practitioner view on issues of regulation and funding, which is what I set out to do.
  • The blog has always been a vanity project, and it pleased my vanity that this post got a mention in the FT, and this post got me into Private Eye. However my all-time favourite vanity boost was when Daniel Davies felt it was worth mentioning that I respected his opinion. For a blogger, this is something like having William Stubbs seeking out your views on medieval English history.
  • And I have met a few people outside cyberspace who claimed to read my blog: three I think, but every little counts.
Having achieved my blogging ambitions, I would like to keep achieving them for a bit longer, so I will be trying to ensure that I continue to post a little more often than I have in the recent past, and trying to ensure that I make those substantive posts that are worth reading.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The College of Law: More misinformation

It is absolutely fine that the Guardian doesn't read my blog (you can supply your own peeved tone of voice for this sentence if you wish), but it is a shame they didn't read WonkHE before putting more misinformation about the sale of the College of Law in the public domain. To repeat, the degree awarding powers of the College have not been sold, and the concern identified in the piece is mostly either inaccurate or beside the point. This, in particular, is pure tosh:

These mechanisms appear to avoid many of the difficulties involved in transferring the valuable power to award degrees, which most institutions have earned over years – sometimes centuries – to new organisations, and offer for-profit companies a way into the booming higher education market.
This could be especially valuable since the higher education white paper, which had included measures to make it easier for new providers to award degrees, has been indefinitely delayed.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

New College of the Humanities Enters Clearing

Working in one of London's less-fashionable Universities, I am familiar with the kind of press releases institutions produce when they are going into Clearing. New College of the Humanities hasn't yet quite mastered the genre. There should be a reference to 'a few' places still being available, so the statement right at the end of the release

Both Scholarship and Exhibition places are still available for the College’s first cohort, and as the admission process is independent of UCAS, applications can be made until August 2012. 

is about right, but they haven't made the reference to future job prospects that we older hands would consider pretty much obligatory. 

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The College of Law: misunderstandings continue

The College of Law put out a press release on 17 April to announce the expected conclusion of the sale of their legal education business to the private equity firm Montagu. The sale of a private HE provider with degree awarding powers isn’t unprecedented, but it is unusual enough to have made the news. Unfortunately, the news reports have got some significant aspects of the story wrong because they don’t understand how degree awarding powers are regulated, and the College’s press materials on the issue were unhelpfully worded.
BBC say that Montagu has brought ‘a UK college with its own degree-awarding powers’. Times Higher Education has an even more explosive story, suggesting that the private equity firm will gain the degree awarding powers directly: ‘Montagu will hold the degree awarding powers and run the college as a for-profit entity.’ The Guardian uses vaguer language, saying that the sale ‘includes contractual commitments with law firms, as well as the College of Law brand and all its accreditations.’  So of the three, it is only The Guardian that manages not to get the story explicitly wrong.
There is no way that the College of Law can sell or transfer its degree awarding powers to anyone. This is impossible under English law. Degree awarding powers are granted by the Privy Council and cannot be transferred, exchanged or sold. When I saw the news yesterday (18 April) I spoke to colleagues at BIS and QAA to confirm my understanding, and I am glad to say that when I then spoke to the College of Law they removed the confusing phrase ‘our degree awarding powers will transfer with the sale’ from the FAQ on their press release, although you can still hear Nigel Savage, the College’s CEO, make essentially the same claim ‘our degree awarding powers will seamlessly transfer’ about 1 minute thirty seconds into this interview on the College’s site.
As the College has withdrawn the statement in their FAQ, there doesn’t seem to be any clear current statement about what they expect to happen to the degree awarding powers. This is unfortunate. It would have been helpful if the College had put up new material to clarify what they meant by their FAQ, and I hope they will do this soon. Their current students deserve reassurance about what will happen to the degree awarding powers, and those of us in the rest of the sector also have an obvious interest. As a charity with a Royal Charter, the current College of Law is constitutionally similar to many existing public-sector universities (mostly pre-92s) so the outcome of this sale has direct implications for them, their staff and their students too.
This post originally appeared at WonkHE.
What I didn't ask Mark to put on WonkHE, because it is pure and baseless speculation, is my view of what the College and Montagu may actually plan. 
The College earned its degree awarding powers in 2006. As a 'private provider', it will be due for renewal this year, 2012. Instead of the Secretary of State making the normal recommendation for renewal (see para 78 here) the powers can be allowed to lapse. A new application can then be made for the company to have degree awarding powers. Although the normal expectation is that applicants for degree awarding powers shall 'have had no fewer than four consecutive years' experience, immediately preceding the year of application, of delivering higher education programmes at a level at least equivalent to Level H of the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications' that crucial word 'normally' could allow the Privy Council to consider that the ongoing education business has this experience, even though the brand new private company formed around it clearly does not. There need be no risk to Montagu since the existing College will form the company and apply for the DAPs for it, and the sale of the company can be made conditional on successful award of these new DAPs.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The College of Law: Sale Agreed

The sale of the College of Law has been agreed. As predicted, the education business is to be spun out into a new company, and the existing charitable institution will continue to exist (helpfully changing its name to avoid potential confusion). I had previously doubted the reports that the private company was to control the degree awarding powers of the College, but the College's press statement has a bare statement that ' our degree awarding powers will transfer with the sale'. This simply cannot be true. I have spoken to both QAA and BIS today to confirm this, and whilst there were obviously limitations about what they could say to me about an active commercial negotiation, they confirmed that there is no legal mechanism by which the degree awarding powers can be transferred. It would be like Parliament transferring its law-making powers to Tesco.

I have spoken to the College's PR to ask them what this statement on their website (which was repeated by Nigel Savage in an interview here) is intended to mean, since it cannot literally be true. The PR lady naturally isn't a specialist in the ins and outs of Higher Education law. She explained that it was important to reassure current students, and that the sale is conditional on the receipt of a number of regulatory consents, which are expected to be forthcoming over the coming months.

In my view it is not very reassuring for the College's current students that the reassurance they are being offered is, in fact, literally untrue. As aspiring lawyers they may perhaps be as pedantic as I am about points like this. The College have now been back in touch with me to confirm that the FAQ on their site is potentially misleading, and will be taken down (my link may no longer work by the time you read this). It will be interesting to see what replaces it.

Monday, 19 March 2012

A welcome sign that I am not as old as I feel

Is that when Chris Bertram writes that '[n]ot long ago, higher education was free', his 'not long' is longer than my entire adult life. I'd also note that the period of charging for higher education has also been a period of massive expansion in HE attendance, especially amongst women and ethnic minorities. So as an example of the way 'enclosures' are threatening our freedoms in the UK the case of HE works poorly.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Andrew Chadwick given gardening leave

Other than early retirement, getting gardening leave has always been one of my highest ambitions. I've been able to give it to a colleague on one occasion, but never had any myself despite frequently leaving one university to work for another.

So I was delighted to see that the College of Law was giving gardening leave to Andrew Chadwick as he leaves to join BPP. Here's hoping the public sector catches on to this excellent institution.

Monday, 12 March 2012

The latest on the College of Law

The Times Higher has carried another story on the sale of College of Law. This confirms that the proposed model is for the chartered institution to continue existing:
Under the model being discussed, the College of Law would set up a company to control its assets and degree-awarding powers, then sell all the shares in that company to the private buyer.
The charity trustees would then establish a fund with the proceeds, retaining the charitable status and the Royal Charter. This fund would support the study of law through bursaries and scholarships for students at a range of institutions, thus meeting charitable objectives.
I do not think this can quite be correct. In particular, I do not believe that the company can 'control' the degree-awarding powers. The practical exercise of those powers might sit with the company but the control will have to remain with the chartered corporation. For evidence that I might be wrong, though, read Andrew McGettigan.
It is revealing that the preferred bidder was not Pearson, as widely predicted, but a private equity operation, Montagu, with no previous exposure to the education sector that I can see. Pearson should have been able to get better value from the degree awarding powers than other bidders if they had genuinely been for sale so they should have been able to afford a better bid if that were the case.
So I will give myself some points for predicting the right model for the sale. And as the reported price has come down significantly from the £175-£200 million previously reported, my original guess at the asking price doesn't seem so far off base either. Finally, I was intrigued to read that Montagu places primary importance on working with the existing CEO
Our focus on incumbent CEOs means that working in partnership with the management team is critical. We support management through each stage of the deal process and provide as much resource as required to make the investment work. We welcome early dialogue with CEOs to better understand their aspirations.
I don't believe (as I've explained here and here) that there is really any likelihood of existing institutions being forced into the hands of private equity by financial disaster in the short or medium term. This model - where the incumbent leaders of a university might turn their current control into lots of cash by an alliance with friendly financiers - seems a lot more plausible.  It will be an interesting test of the integrity of our VCs.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

HEFCE 12/04: Consultation on new funding method and Student Number Controls

The most important single issue in HEFCE's consultation on the new funding method is what it doesn't say: there is no plan whatsoever to reintroduce the contract range. The contract range principle was the old HEFCE approach explained by me here and (far better) by David Kernohan here. Under the contract range principle, HEFCE paid out the pre-agreed grant provided that the fundable student activity was within 5% of expectations. If the activity was more than expected they never paid more. If it was more than 5% less, they would hold back or claw back grant.

The benefits of this system were immense. In particular, it meant that most of the time 20 students here or there didn't matter to funding. Only institutions right at the edge of the contract range needed to worry about every last student. If my institution was not near the edge of the contract range, and I was sure that I was slightly understating my data rather than slightly overstating it, then I could simplify my data returns. So I need fewer staff. By contrast without the contract range every last student is going to count for at least a little funding so the data are going to have to be worked over much more carefully - at greater cost - and the audit standards are going to have to be higher - at greater cost. If I can put someone to work for 6 months on some obscure aspect of our Cost Centre data and they manage to get us £60,000 more grant it seems as if my institution comes out (at least a little) ahead; but HEFCE funding is a zero-sum game because HEFCE distribute the funds they have so if all institutions go to work like this then there is much more work on data returns, but not actually more money available.