Policy Briefing: The HE year ahead

Brexit’s all-dominant position in the news and political agenda will continue to be the backdrop to policy agendas. Post-18 review and access: The Augar review is due to report back later this year, and maintenance costs are one of its areas of focus. OfS galvanises from registering to regulating.

BREXIT or BREX-NOT – the impact of no deal?
The publication of no deal guidance for Horizon 2020 and other EU-funded programmes, nuclear research, clinical trials, and Erasmus+ gives some indication that pragmatism will be applied to other research areas and firming up UK commitments to pay to join collaborations. Though the “Chequers agreement” has stalled, meeting the initial October deadline (at European Council) looks increasingly unlikely, but it is in the interest of both sides to reach some form of agreement ahead of the transitional period that follows “Brexit day”. The battle between Brexiteers and Remainers continues to frame most political debates, including those around higher education.

Publication of Augar Review
Philip Augar’s review of post-18 education funding is due to release its initial report in November in a context in which the Treasury believes that the sector is essentially well off. The report itself is likely to include recommendations for change to the fees and funding system. The government may formulate its response in the form of another white paper to follow in the spring of 2019. In the intervening period, sector lobbying will intensify tuition fees could be front page news. The review overlaps with the duties of the regulator the Office for Students (OfS), Treasury classifications, the complexity of the loans system, day-to-day student costs and debates about value for money.
Party conference season is about to start. Last year’s Conservative Party Conference saw Theresa May rush out changes to HE by announcing the review. Watch this space!

The OfS business plan for 2018–19 (published in April) suggests that changes are coming as the new regulator continues to reorganise itself following the final demise of HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England). OfS are due to publish a new “outcomes-focused approach” to access and participation plans this term along with a set of targets for the OfS and the sector – all of which is set to shift away from the Office for Fair Access’s old approach of approving planned effort towards judging attainment on access and outcomes. OfS will announce new student characteristics transparency data by February, and an initial OfS analysis of unconditional offers in December, bolstered by a detailed analysis on offer-making from UCAS due this autumn, which will look at impact on student attainment.
OfS will be looking at a “more frequent” National Student Survey (NSS) that “captures views of students in different years” and will announce an approach to postgraduate surveys in early 2019. OfS will develop a “value for money” strategy and will publish “data and trends on senior staff remuneration” in December 2018. We’ll also get both a student engagement and an employer engagement strategy at some stage in the year. More broadly, as the focus shifts from getting providers onto the register to exercising their regulatory powers. We’ll start to see whether new providers entering the HE market will come to pass as more results of the OfS registration process emerge.

Other education policy due.
The Universities UK annual conference takes place in Sheffield this week. Last year Jo Johnson announced grade inflation and LEO data as supplementary metrics in the TEF along with the half-weighting of NSS-derived metrics. Sam Gyimah speaks on Wed and is expected to continue freedom of speech and mental health issues commenting on how the OfS is focussed on these agendas. However, coming late to the Higher Education and Research Act (because of criticism of TEF) was the promise of a statutory independent review of the whole exercise. We may get details of this within the minister’s speech as if it is due to take place this coming year would have to report “in time to influence the assessment framework for assessments taking place in academic year 2019/20”.

The Welsh Government will publish its plans on an integrated tertiary sector in the autumn – and this may predict system-wide changes for England.

University Partnerships Programme’s (UPP) civic university commission is due to release an initial report in October, with recommendations on universities as ‘Anchors’ serving communities while maintaining an international focus.

Detail about the KEF (Knowledge Excellence Framework) is due to emerge soon as preparation for REF 2021 intensifies.

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