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.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Student Loans

Without endorsing - or otherwise - his petition on student loans, I would like to praise the clarity of Andrew McGettigan's summary of the new student loan deal, and encourage anyone who reads my blog but not his to follow the link.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Access to elite universities

Photo by Chris Creagh
Jonathan Portes' blog has a useful piece about Oxford admissions, picking up some data reported by the Financial Times (free, but registration required). As Jonathan points out, it is bizarre for the FT, having analysed data which shows that Oxford is very much less likely to admit applicants from the least affluent state schools than from more affluent state schools or private schools, to put the headline 'School system hinders university access' over their piece. Wendy Piatt's statement to the press 'we cannot offer places to those who do not apply' whilst - obviously - being truthful almost to the point of tautology, suggests a lack of ownership of the issue or even a desire to avoid responsibility.