LLE – what about the reductio ad absurdum consequences it might allow?

The Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) is a positive step to move our student funding system from its focus on FT bachelors degree mode. It’s probably going to be good. But, at the back of my mind through has been a worry; that I can see a set of unintended consequences that will drive the government crazy. It relies on a seemingly absurd conclusion of students behaving in a way that’s contrary to the government’s intention – not badly, but in a way that regulations and structures will be built up to stop something that might be good, because it could have consequences that they won’t like.

Modules, through the LLE, are going to meet local and national skills gaps. If you look at the courses funded in the OfS pilot, there are excellent programmes put together with employers to meet their needs. They are single offerings – say 60 credits at L4/5 which could easily fit with HTQs or form a route to a degree. A version of the future is that there’s a fixed set of LLE courses – approved in this way, validated with separate learning outcomes and notified to the SLC and students apply months in advance.

But what of the other LLE future, that it can be used for any L4/5/6 module? A student can peruse the module catalogue of any English OfS-registered provider and get a tuition fee loan to take it. It’s lifelong learning in action.

But here come our issues. There’s discussion of ELQs, but will the LLE have a notion of progression? If I have four years’ entitlement, can I take my 480 credits all at L4? Can I repeat learning? Can I take the same area of learning (say similar modules on introduction to data analysis) at different providers? Can I do that sequentially, or simultaneously? Can I take 2 30 credit modules at two different providers at the same time? What are the limits DfE imagine working on that borrowing? Let’s say I don’t fancy data analysis, but I’m into postmodernism or critical race theory. Can I borrow from the government to take 480 credits of introduction to critical race theory modules at 20 different universities? When will the SLC stop me? Will a university refuse me entry because I’ve already taken 10 similar modules? What if I arrange it so I take 150 postmodernism credits in one academic (or calendar) year? Does the accelerated degree fee loan cap still apply?

While this all seems absurd, it is worth noting there’s evidence that some people are happy to return to similar courses in adult education. Should I be able to get a loan to keep taking similar courses for years?

And then, because it’s government’s job to worry about these things, what if these return learners aren’t actually learning? The DfE are rightly worried about student outcomes, how’s it going to know that taking 480 credits of postmodernism hasn’t made me any more employable?

One thing it can make itself safe on though, and save itself repeating history from the LLA mess, is to keep courses within the OfS registration system. There are people out there selling ‘L4’ courses in all sorts of things – let’s not expand the scope further. I really would recommend DfE read chapter 9 of King & Crewe’s book on blunders regarding the ‘great training robbery’.

Let’s keep credit simple in the LLE age

The consultation on the Lifelong Loan Entitlement has some very open questions. A group of these (13-16) relate to the issue of modular funding. If the ambition of the LLE to replace the current SLC course-based funding is to be realised, it is vital that the overhead on operating modular funding does not increase. One core way that can be done is to build on current credit frameworks.

The history of credit frameworks in the UK is relatively simple (Wayne Turnbull has done an excellent job in bringing it together in his book). Modularisation became the organising principle for most universities’ courses by the mid 1990s, either through the heritage of CNAA systems or through a conscious adoption. Although there is considerable variation on matters such as credit size, term structure or final degree algorithms, the basic principle is there. Of course, some universities don’t use credit internally, but you can still find their qualifications benchmarked against notions such as 120 credits per year.

Awarding bodies are required to link to the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications, but not to any particular credit framework. There is a sector agreed credit framework, which the QAA organised, but which does not form part of the regulatory framework. The most simple thing is for OfS to ask providers participating in the LLE to use the framework.

In the early stages of the pathway process, providers may put up ‘courses’ – in the way that the OfS pilot is testing. For the LLE to run, then it will need to recognise modules, which don’t exist as separate courses. This will be complex – there’s quite an overhead attached to telling SLC about a course – telling them about every module will be a burden. However, here we’re just interested in the credit framework.

To reduce the burden, DfE should accept that providers are using the QAA sponsored framework and leave the quality assurance to the awarding body (ie the university). Make the accountable officer or governing body responsible for following the rules, and reserve the right to have the DQB part of QAA come and check – either as part of DfE’s ‘boots on the ground’ reviews or some desk-based work. DfE must guard against the blunders previously made in LLAs, but any form of national quality assurance (or grabbing of the credit framework by OfS) will lose the institutional autonomy that will make LLE work.

Ministers have decided that the correlation of free speech with successful university sectors is a driver for legislation. It is much clearer that there is a causal link between institution’s autonomy over their courses – and whether they have modules, or how big those modules are, or whether they last 10 weeks, 20 weeks or 30 weeks and how they measure successful outcomes.

Why all the silence on higher education provider information?

It’s now over a year since the OfS consultation on publishing information on providers closed.

One of the core functions of OfS as regulator is to provide information on the providers that it regulates. Publishing the Register is a statutory function of OfS, but they have also picked up a century old function of publishing official information about higher education providers who are in receipt of public funding.

This information matters – for individuals it remains the case that education is one of those services that can be offered in the wider marketplace on the basis of caveat emptor – it’s the official information that confirms that a course has official standing.

For society, as recipients of public funding providers have information published about them and they are required to publish information themselves. Potential students might be expected to make more direct use of information on accreditations or assessment methods more than solvency data, but this information should be there.

OfS knows a lot about the providers it regulates. There’s a suite of information requirements that it uses to drive its regulatory activity – financial forecasts, student data, reportable events etc. The consultation was about both which parts of the information that OfS has gathered it should publish and which parts of its own information on providers it should publish. Effective regulation requires both candour and confidentiality – the consultation was about whether the lines should be recalibrated.

We’ve not seen a response to the consultation. We know that the OfS Board had a presentation on the issue in September, but that took the form of a closed part of the meeting and was marked “legally privileged”. What we have seen is two outputs, presumably shaped by the response.

The “digital” register

For fans of the OfS register, it has been a mystery why its public version remained as a downloadable spreadsheet for so very long. OfS launched a web version in January in “beta” and are happy to take comments on it. There are some key strengths for anyone who is actually intending to use the Register as intended, say to check whether a provider was registered. It’s much easier to search on a provider’s trading name – although that adds a certain clunkiness to the entries. The first six entries which appear are:

As with any list of providers, there’s the issue of the “the”. Scrolling through you’ll find Cambridge University, The University of Cambridge and The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge but not University of Cambridge. See DK for more on this problem.

There are some unfamiliar names: You’ll find “Abundant Life” on this list and “Barn Cinema” too. These are two of the 13 trading names of Dartington Hall Trust – although it appears only two (Shumacher College and Dartington Arts School) actually offer higher education programmes.

The web version makes it easier to see the regulatory information. The condition set for Churchill College is easy to see on its entry. What needs to be resolved is how OfS mark changes to regulatory information. The spreadsheet version is chronological and you can compare versions – say to spot that conditions are no longer listed.

The scope of the OfS “Monthly Bulletin of Regulatory Activity” has fluctuated, as has whether it appears monthly. People in the sector can sign up for OfS’ helpful emails, but without that prompt you won’t know if something has changed. One complaint though – why call this web version the “Digital version” – as if the spreadsheet were analog?

No defamation

The other piece of activity is the inclusion in the Post-16 Education and Skills Bill of a clause relating to OfS publishing judgments. You could speculate that this is the enabler necessary for what OfS wants to do on publishing more information on its judgments.

We’ve seen in the registration process some issues about the publication of the OfS decision, Spurgeon’s College put out a press release protesting about a refusal before OfS published anything, it worked out in the end and the College is on the Register. It was clear that the reason GSM went into administration was that a refusal was pending, but the decision was published 11 months after.

We’ve seen the cases that have gone to the high court – but in one case a refusal to register no longer appears on the OfS website.

As DK noted, the new clause will make clear that publishing information does not breach the obligation of confidence owed by OfS, even regarding whether to conduct an investigation. There’s then statutory protection for OfS against defamation claims.

The new clause was not contested in the House of Lords consideration of amendments, perhaps it might have prompted discussion if OfS had published the response to the consultation about information, particularly if that had included the legal advice that must have underpinned the drafting. The minister said though:

There have been several instances where the OfS has acted but the circumstances and the action or sanctions proposed by the OfS have not been made public. This reduces the impact of the OfS’s regulatory activity as providers, students and the public are not aware that the OfS is in fact taking action and investigating matters. Ultimately, this amendment will serve to increase the public’s confidence in the quality and integrity of the sector.

Hansard: Baroness Barran 24 March 2022

Where next?

We seem to be making a habit of partially implementing parts of proposals contained in consultations before receiving the final response. We’ve not waited as long as we did after Augar, but neither have we had an interim response.

There’s encouraging signs – unlike earlier initial conditions of approval, the new condition placed on Churchill comes with an explanation. One concern about OfS’ approach to regulation, flagged in the NAO report, is that providers don’t always understand the requirements. At least with explanations of regulatory decisions it will be clearer – which, if nothing else, and as the minister noted, is useful if it encourages heads of providers to take the right action.

Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres

A version of this blog first appeared on Wonkhe. https://wonkhe.com/blogs/why-all-the-silence-on-higher-education-provider-information/

Where is the higher education provision in Oxford?

The famous visitor’s category-mistake question of ‘where is the university?’ when standing in Oxford, is amplified in a world of higher education provision. OfS have introduced a experimental look at the geography of higher education teaching provision. This is, in itself, an interesting exercise. Rarely has the UK used spatial planning to consider teaching provision. The UGC informally gave some consideration when choosing the sites of new universities in the 1960s and the DfE has formally used it to give some consideration to where the IoTs will be situated.

I’ve noted that people who want more provision make an appeal that their locality lacks provision. Although there’s still some confusion as to how the government will determine what ‘local’ means in the Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs), there’s a chance that this will shape local provision. But how will we know what the provision is?

I hoped that the map of the OfS geographical data would help with the question, where is the higher education provision in Oxford? But it didn’t really.

Firstly, I can’t seem to get the map part to work particularly well. You’ll have to trust me that this corner of the SE region is Oxfordshire and that the two larger yellow circles are the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University. There’s a nearby circle which the software identifies as Cambridge Ruskin International College. I think that’s the feeder for Anglia Ruskin over in Cambridge and Chelmsford, but its legal address is in Oxford. You can’t see circles for the other two OfS providers in Oxford – Ruskin College and Activate Learning (which includes the City of Oxford College).

These are just OfS registered providers, you might not expect to find Magna Carta College and Oxford Business College on the map, but these offer courses that you can take using tuition fee loans via franchises from OfS providers. It’s very welcome that OfS are trying to include franchised-in provision. The underlying data reveals more, however.

The UKVI register of sponsors shows the following are HEIs, publicly funded colleges. private providers or overseas HEIs. You only need to be on the register if your students are on longer courses. You can also find outposts for Stanford and Georgia Universities in Oxford if you know where to look.

Activate Learning
CAE Oxford Aviation Academy
Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies
Greene’s Tutorial College
Oxford Brookes University
Oxford Centre for Mission Studies
Oxford School of English
University of Oxford
Washington International Studies Council

The UK register of providers has some challenges because it doesn’t do quality assurance , but it lists 247 providers within five miles of Oxford. A lot of the provision registered here is at school level, but there are exotic names such as OXFORD EXCLUSIF TUTORIAL AGENCY LIMITED or OXFORD GRADUATE COLLEGE LTD, but it does include SAE Education Ltd – one of the larger providers which has recently announced it’s closing its Oxford base. It doesn’t include some of the language school providers (for example EF Education) which are crucially important to the ecosystem of international education.

I welcome the OfS attempt at a geography of higher education provision, but the challenge will be comprehensiveness. Looking at franchise provision, is very welcome as this might be an important part of the pattern of HE, and when LSIPs come to look at what provision they have in a locality, surely they’ll want a clear picture. There’s an issue with the underlying data, which can helpfully can be sorted by local authority, parliamentary constituency or LEP, as it relies on the campus identifier being right. Navitas is listed as being in Uxbridge, but some of its international colleges (Brunel, Cambridge & Portsmouth) are in Oxford. Multi-campus universities are also a challenge as, for the pedantic, two of Oxford Brookes’ campuses are not actually in Oxford City…

The Polytechnics before the Polytechnics

Thirty Years ago, in 1992, the Further & Higher Education Act set out a process for the Privy Council to approve degree awarding powers and to allow the use of ‘university’ in the title of institutions. The aim was to allow polytechnics to become universities. Not all the institutions that were allowed to use ‘university’ had been polytechnics, as there had been a previous process of approving the use of ‘polytechnic’ that two (Derby and Luton) had not completed. The link between the ‘post-92 universities’ and ‘former polytechnics’ was firmly made and has been hard to shake off, even if the history is more complex.

As the government developed its binary policy in the 1960s, it decide to designate a number of colleges with advanced work as ‘Polytechnics’ and criteria were introduced. However, before that point ‘polytechnic’ had a very long tradition of use for a variety of different bodies. The oldest use was by the Regent Street Polytechnic, which, in its first iteration, the Royal Polytechnic Institution, was a commercial attraction with, in effect, side shows and scientific parlour tricks. When Quintin Hogg bought the building to use for technical instruction from 1882, he kept the name (Izbicki, 1998, p200).

As London developed technical education on the back of various funding schemes (both charitable and from taxation) a network of ‘polytechnics’ providing technical education, often in evening sessions, emerged. This list is those that were being funded by the early twentieth century (Chandler, 1988, p 192)

North of the Thames:
The East London Technical College, Mile End Road, with its branch, the Bow and Bromley Institute.
The Northern Polytechnic, Holloway.
The Regent Street Polytechnic, Regent Street.
The South-West London Polytechnic, Manresa Road, Chelsea.
The John Cass Institute, Jewry Street.
The City Polytechnic, including:
The Northampton Institute, Clerkenwell
The Birkbeck College, Bream’s Building, Chancery Lane
The City of London College, White Street, Moorfields
South of the Thames:
The Battersea Polytechnic, Battersea Park Road
The Borough Polytechnic, Borough Road, with two branches, the Herold Institute, Bermondsey, and the Norwood Institute, Knight’s Hill.
The Goldsmiths’ Institute, Lewisham High Road, New Cross
The Woolwich Polytechnic, William Street, Woolwich

Although the London authorities considered these in a class of polytechnic institutes, not all then carried the name. There have been many hierarchies of institutions; one of these, was whether a institution did degree work. One of these, Birkbeck, was elevated to be a centre of ‘Evening University Education’ as ‘the provisions of technical and commercial instruction were largely taken over by Polytechnics’ (Wilson, 1923, pp75-76). The Goldsmiths’ Institute was given to the University of London in 1905. With external degrees, London supported further diffusion of higher education and recognised teachers who worked in the polytechnics, in 1904 six polytechnics were offering complete degree courses with 50 recognised teachers with 500 students (Kenyon Jones, 2008, p70).

Names changes have been common, but in addition to the above, the files of the ministry of education include entries for the following, showing that the movement continued to expand before 1939. Some of these institutions were parts of later mergers, some joining what would be HEIs and some remaining in the FE sector.

Chiswick Polytechnic
Croydon Polytechnic (with branches as South Norwood Polytechnic and Thornton Heath Polytechnic)
Kilburn Polytechnic
Isleworth Polytechnic
North-Western Polytechnic, St. Pancras
St. Marylebone: The Polytechnic Institute
Spring Grove Polytechnic
Tottenham Polytechnic Institute

The reorganisation of technical education that followed the 1945 Percy Report established a new hierarchy with ‘Colleges of Technology’ having a clear remit for doing a proportion of advanced work, including offering Higher National Certificates alongside some degrees (Battersea, Northampton and Woolwich Polytechnics were teaching London engineering degrees – along with the West Ham Institute).

Three of the London institutions, Battersea, Chelsea, and Northampton, who had used ‘polytechnic’ in their titles changed this when they were designated as Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs) in 1958. The CATs became universities after the Robbins Report, although Chelsea opted to join the University of London. For Tyrell Burgess the transformation of the CATs was the apotheosis of ‘Academic Drift’ (Pratt & Burgess, 1974, p23). The remaining sector was split between ‘regional colleges’ (of which there were 25 by 1963) and a much larger number of ‘area colleges’ (160) and then ‘local colleges’. The grouping of London polytechnics was no longer described as a discrete group (although they retained structures such as an association of polytechnic directors). There was very limited formal uses of the term around the country, for example, Brimscombe Polytechnic was a technical school in Stroud.

Crossland tried to halt ‘Academic Drift’ with the binary policy, particularly by saying that there would be no more universities and that, once designated, there would be no more polytechnics for ten years. The name was reserved for only those designated (and use of ‘polytechnic’ is still controlled by DfE guidance). No doubt there will be further examination of the polytechnic age between 1968 and 1992 (there a neat introduction by Elena Wilson on HEPI), but as well as remembering that those institutions have now all been universities for longer than they were polytechnics (in the designated sense) we had polytechnics (in the broader sense) for 90 years before then.

Chandler, A, 1988, ‘The funding of higher education in London’ in Floud & Glynn
Floud, R, & Glynn, S, 1988, London Higher, the Establishment of Higher Education in London, London, Athlone Press
Izbicki, J, 1998, ‘The London polytechnics’, in Floud & Glynn
Kenyon Jones, C, 2008, The People’s University: 150 years of the University of London and its external students, London, University of London
Pratt, J, & Burgess, T, 1974, Polytechnics: A Report, London Pitman
Wilson S, 1923, The University of London and its Colleges, London, University Tutorial Press

Biography can confirm aspects of fiction about university life

Students are often missing from the history or higher education, and biography can play a part in putting their voices back in again. Famously, the atrophy of the English universities in the Eighteenth Century is encapsulated in the accounts of former students such as Edward Gibbon who wrote that ‘I spent fourteen months at Magdalen College; they proved the fourteenth months the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life’ (Gibbon, p24)

Biographies are written for reasons, often the most teleological ones. The account of the education of great people, and in the developmental era of higher education mostly ‘great men’, sets up the story. These are fascinating vignettes, positioned by the author to show early promise, or struggles over adversity. The account by Henry Chaplin’ daughter of his education makes clear that he could achieve anything he put is mind to, it’s just that he chose not to put it to getting a degree.

The biography of Antony Lytton is unusual in several regards. It’s an account of a man killed accidentally at the age of 30 written by his father, with most of the text coming from letters to and from Antony Lytton, the majority in the family. Lytton came from an aristocratic family that had been boosted by his grandfather serving as Viceroy of India, resulting in his being elevated to an earldom; Antony had the courtesy title Viscount Knebworth. Lytton’s father had continued the imperial involvement and was governor of Bengal. Antony went from West Downs prep to Eton and was destined to attend his father’s college, Trinity, at Cambridge but chose instead to follow his friends to Oxford. This is an account of a short life, so the educational phase takes up the majority of the book and there are three whole chapters on Lytton at Oxford. Lytton seems to have been candid with his parents about what we would now regard as his mental health, but also some of his scrapes. We cannot expect full candour from a young aristocrat writing to his parents, in high Imperial office, or that if his father was in possession of anything particularly scandalous that he would have published it in his biography. We have every reason to be cautious about this as a source, but it sits alongside accounts of young aristocratic men at Oxbridge in the 1920s that we know best from the fiction of writers such as Evelyn Waugh.

Academic Life

There’s little to explain why Viscount Knebworth wanted to study history. He’s been accepted at Trinity College, Cambridge and had started to settle in, when he decided he wanted to stay with his Eton friends and attend Oxford. He knew the long-serving President of Magdalen College and arranged to attend there instead. He described the life to his sister:

This is a very queer place. You can get every type and variety of person and class you can possibly imagine. I only see the best in all of them, so that I long to know all. I feel excited in the political set, ambitious, eager. I feel much he same with the clever people. I love the sporting side – hunting and checks and dogs; am I am slightly ashamed to say I am terribly happy with the society set. The mechanics alone don’t draw me at present, not do the aesthetes! (Lytton, pp118-119)

Antony Lytton was reading history. ‘Reading’ was used as a distinction from other students who were aiming to take the standard degree (passmen), and where his letters touch on study they are mostly about reading (‘about 8 hours a day’). However, there’s plenty of indication that he was in the long tradition of aristocratic students that being at Oxford was more important than achieving success in the degree. Indeed wrote to his father asking if he was ‘very anxious for me to get a degree’ (Lytton, p143).

As for assessment, the final examination for the School of Modern History came in May 1925: writing ‘My life is Schools’ and hoping for a first, but then later gloomily announcing that he had ‘taken a second’.

The University and Colleges retained a large proportion of control over students’ lives in he early 1920s, and Antony wrote to his parents about some of these; near misses with cars (including running out of petrol and having sleep overnight in one) but also on matters such as gambling. Having informed his parents by letter of losing £5 playing bridge, the next they heard he was sent down for two weeks having been discovered at a party which had a roulette table – the College had not seen this as a ‘harmless amusement’ (Lytton p 161).


The letters are punctuated by Antony’s changing mood. At one point he compares himself with Mr Hyde, regretting an intemperate letter he had sent the day before (Lytton, p126). Mostly he is ‘bored and miserable’ but his father notes his ‘fits of depression’ were of sort duration. It can’t have helped that his parents were away in India during his time at Oxford.

Bright Young Things

There’s a lot of description of Antony’s social life, his father noting the summer of 1923 was ‘devoted to the social activities of a London season, with continual balls at night, weekend parties, lawn tennis at Wimbledon, polo at Ranelagh and Hurlingham etc. (Lytton, p 151)

… don’t think me a rotter, but I have a love of doing mad things, I have a love pf people and dancing and female society and all the sparkle of night clubs, but it is inconceivable to me that it should become my life or mean anything serious to me. I like paddling, but I have no intention of drowning … My real happiness lies in health and exercise, boxing, Scotland, Switzerland, etc – those are the amusements that really appeal to me, but a little dissipation I also like at intervals. It is my nature. (Lytton, p 205)


If there’s an archetype of the public school man, then sports must play a part. Disappointed that his college already has a scum-half with international honours, Antony throws himself into other sports, including running hurdles for is college. He keeps coming back to boxing though, for fitness, for the competition but also as the ‘best cure for depression and boredom’ (Lytton, p229).

The other chief form of exercise and competition was skiing. Taking his family pursuit further, Antony won the Roberts of Kandahar Cup and took part in some of the earliest slalom races as the sport developed in the 1920s.

Graduate Outcome

Antony was not at all happy at the prospect of a business life; noting ‘why should I go into the city when I leave Oxford, if I’d rather go and ski (Lytton, p175). He found being a stockbroker to be ‘entirely uncongenial’ (Lytton, p286) but was much happier when taken on by the Conservative Party with the ‘object of interesting the rising generation in Conservative politics’ which involved visiting universities – although this ended when the education activities were transferred to the the Bonar Law College at Ashridge.

Offers to join businesses were there though, and he obtained a role on the board of the Army and Navy stores. He also converted his links with the Conservative party being elected MP for Hitchin in October 1931. The biography ends suddenly in 1933 with a brief description of the crash of the plane he was flying which killed him and his passenger.

In many ways the biography confirms aspects of the fictional accounts of the period. The escapades are not quite of the level of Waugh, but, as relayed by his father, they match the pattern, at least for those with an income and connections to be in the social set.

Gibbon, E, 1869, The Autobiography and Correspondence of Edward Gibbon, the Historian, London, Alex Murray
Lytton, V, 1935, Antony (Viscount Knebworth) A Record of Youth, London, Peter Davies

Top-Up Fees – Is the problem coming back?

25 Years ago the Dearing Committee was hard at work: one of their key tasks was to avoid HE falling into an unregulated system of ‘top-up fees’. The unit of resource had fallen to such an extent that universities were threatening to charge additional tuition fees for undergraduate students. The residual fee was paid to universities by local authorities, but it wasn’t clear that a university couldn’t charge more.

So, a key part of the legislation that followed included requirements that the fee level could not exceed a maximum set by Parliament. We are still in a framework set by that mid-1990s turmoil, stopping universities from charging extra. Parliament was told that both the £3000 and £9000 fee limits would see providers charge less, but the sticker price for most University courses has stayed at the maximum.

The Higher Education & Research Act created a new structure for fees. It wanted to bring into the fold private providers who charged higher fees. Providers can choose whether to be ‘Approved’ or ‘Approved (Fee Cap)’, where the ‘fee cap’ designates that the provider can charge up to £9250 (if in TEF) and students may borrow this much, and the plain version allows either a ‘basic’ fee level or ‘no fee limit’. In either case, students at ‘approved’ providers cannot borrow more that £6166 (if the provider is in TEF). The idea was to reduce the burden on providers who wanted to offer a ‘no frills option’ (Willetts, 2017 p83).

Only 72 of the 418 providers are ‘approved’ – a varied group including the majority of those commonly thought of as the ‘private universities’ (BPP, Buckingham, Regents and Richmond). 59 of those have no fee limit. Of the ‘approved- fee cap’ providers 83 have the basic fee level.

One area that’s popular across all types of provider are the performing arts. It’s not immediately clear, despite the PM’s affection for the creativity that produced Peppa Pig, that these are much in favour with government. The recent % reduction of the funding from OfS caused some concern, but it was a small cash reduction – there has been a slow erosion of the high cost support in this area. But, there’s clear signs that there are still high costs for these courses.

For example; Mountview are ‘approved’ and have ‘no fee limit’. The fee for their BA Performance – Musical Theatre is £15,295 p.a. and they are very clear on their website that the student tuition fee loan will only cover £6000. ArtsEd are another with ”no fee limit’, the annual tuition fee for Musical Theatre is £15,665, with a separate £595 validation fee going off to City. There are additional things you’ll need – like dance gear – but they’re not part of the fee. The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama has a fee cap, so their BA Acting (Musical Theatre) is £9250 but if you are ineligible for the tuition fee loan (say for ELQ reasons) the fee would be £23,383. The gap in funding between the ‘fee cap’ and ‘no fee limit’ providers is far more than the OfS high-cost subject funding method provided and may be more per capita than the specialist institution funding. Put the other way, students at the ‘no fee limit’ providers are paying significantly more.

The rules are clear though, providers cannot close this funding gap with ‘top-up fees’. When the rules were written to prevent their creeping arrival, government was wise to the prospect that it wouldn’t be an upfront tuition fee that was added, but it could be other additional fees or charges. The consumer advice from the CMA is clear about how any additional costs should be presented, whether they are mandatory or optional.

Here’s another example, this provider is ‘approved (Fee Cap)’ which means that students can be charged up to £9250 and receive a tuition fee loan.

The provider is clear that there could be additional costs. Presumably there is a more detailed breakdown in the student handbook that indicates whether it is possible to take the course without incurring these additional costs.

However, a fees page for another provider, not on the OfS register who is teaching via a franchise says:

BA (Hons) Performance in Musical Theatre £10,500 per year with access to student finance towards fees and living costs.

Here the distinction has been lost. The provider has bundled up the tuition fee and the additional costs into one ‘fee’. It explains that the £9250 is paid to the OfS-registered provider, and that a fee loan for £9250 can be obtained from the SLC, but the residual £1250 must be paid to the provider. The OfS-registered provider has included the £9250 fee on their access and participation statement (presumably part of the ‘bureaucracy’ staying when these are all re-done. This looks like a very rare misunderstanding that can be quickly rectified.

One of the concerns about the registration system that DfE created was that there was a likelihood that franchised provision would be one step away from the OfS system, where such misunderstandings might be possible. Some new providers have made it fully to the register, but there’s a sense that this is an exercise for those with deep pockets. Franchise provision; with the students of a registered provider being taught at another provider, may be missing parts of the regulatory framework. OfS have made clear statements that the framework applies to all students, but ensuring that the franchised part of the sector is covered in the framework does not feature specifically in the new draft strategy. The strategy does address the need to facilitate ‘new entry to the sector’ and ‘considering whether new categories of registration would be helpful’. One aspect of the OfS’ initial scheme of work, that it might be the ‘validator of last resort’, is not in the strategy – DfE’s idea that OfS might itself have degree awarding powers has been quietly dropped.

David Willetts wasn’t the architect of the ‘approved’ and ‘approved fee-cap’ split and wondered in his 2017 book whether this division would shut new providers out of high cost courses. His concern was about ‘alternative providers’ struggling to offer STEM courses (Willetts, 2017, p 291) and that may be reflected in the areas taken forward by new providers. There’s NMITE with Integrated Engineering and TEDI-London offering Global Design Engineering, but there’s a plethora of providers in the creative arts area (potentially eligible for specialist funding depending how that consultation goes).

The top-up fees question may be coming back in another way though. In the second reading of the Skills & Post-16 Education Bill, Gavin Wiliamson asked a question about the LLE:

In the interests of students, it would be useful if the Minister could spell out from the Dispatch Box that students who take a full level 6 qualification, which is done in a modular way, would not be paying any more than £9,250, which is what someone who is taking a classic and standard degree qualification pays. That would greatly reassure many people …

Wlliamson G, Hansard Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] 15 November 2021

It wasn’t addressed by the minister, but as Mr Williamson was the sponsor of the bill two months ago, it seems likely this is on government’s the radar. A fee limit for the LLE will be needed and additional costs will need to be controlled. If keeping tabs on the fees for whole degrees is complex, then this will need some careful thought. When it reported in 1997 the Dearing Report was clear that the funding for lifelong learning should work on the same basis as full-time courses:

In future, individuals should be able to study full-time for periods of less than a year with funding to match. Ideally, this should be linked to a common national credit framework.

Dearing, 1997, p299

Dearing R (The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education) 1997, Higher Education in the learning society, London HMSO
Willetts, D, 2017, A University Education, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Why we must reply to calumnies against universities.

Universities must ‘defend’ themselves. Columnists (and bloggers) know that you need a strong opening to hook in readers. The best way is to set up a thing that’s happening, and then rage against it, With higher education, people have gone beyond setting up careful straw men to attack, in favour of hastily assembled piñata, which naturally fall apart with a few blows. There are many examples, but the anti-woke genre throws up some particular classics, like this on wokery. Assemble the out-of-context quotes from several different universities training for new students and presto – you can attack the woke orthodoxy.

If universities must defend themselves, then how should we do it? A university is the people in it, not the buildings and not just the senior management. People should step forward.

Historians differ on a key question in the history of higher education: just how bad were Oxford and Cambridge in the Eighteenth Century, and, as a supplementary question, which was the worst (Answers: awful and Oxford). Brockliss describes one of the factors that started Oxford on the road to reform.

The French Revolution moved the Hebdomadal Board to act. Fearing that students who had little incentive to study hard would fall easy prey to revolutionary agitators, the heads proposed a new examination statute in 1800 that was intended to keep adolescent noses to the grindstone’

Brockliss, L, 2016, p 236

Oxford had leapt to a conclusion about the French revolution after only 11 years. The new statute was supposed to bring rigour to the curriculum that had been codified under Archbishop Laud in the 1640s. As Brockliss notes, the BA course remained ‘too narrow for the modern world’ and a challenge was laid down in the pages of the Edinburgh Review in a pair of review articles which touched on the failings of the two English universities, particularly at one of there where

…the dictates of Aristotle are sill listened to as infallible decrees and where the infancy of science is mistaken for its maturity’

Cited in Copleston, 1810, p15

It was Edward Copleston who had stepped forward to defend his university. In the ‘advertisement’ at the start of the Reply he reports that ‘the undertaking was suggested by his own feelings, without communication or advice, and finished entirely by his own hand’. (Copleston, 1810, p iii)

The Reply deals with both the criticism of the choice of subject, the method of teaching, and who should do the teaching. These issues are at the heart of the reform movements that would occupy much of the rest of the century. Although Copleston defends much of the current situation at Oxford, he was part of a series of reforms that would see his college, Oriel, take a lead in transforming the collegiate education offered but firmly within the classical curriculum.

Copleston does not hold back in the Reply:

The object of classical education is not to fit him for any specific employment, or to increase his fortune. Such, I admit, is the object of most parents when educating their children; but it is an object not only different from that of true philosophy or enlightened policy, but frequently at variance with it. The peculiar interest of the individual is not always the same, is seldom precisely the same, with the interest of the public.

Copleston, 1810, pp104-105

In defending education in the college setting, Copleston warms to the advantage of the lecture as a teaching method;

The effort of the Lecturer in naturally greater, his matter more carefully prepared, his tone and diction more elevate and impressive. There are emotions which eloquence can raise, and which lead to loftier thoughts and noble aspirings … when the latent flam of genius has been kindled by some transient ray.

Copleston, 1810, p148

Copleston’s reply was warmly received. He received a congratulatory letter from the chancellor, the ‘university marked its gratitude by conferring upon him its highest honour, a DD by diploma’ (Nicholson, p272) and it set up him to be elected provost of Oriel. His influence on Newman is clear, his Idea of the University covers the same arguments for a classical education for an elite. But we know that this is not the argument that drives the expansion of higher education in the rest of the century..

Copleston closes the Reply by noting that the university should not be ‘placed above responsibility to public opinion’ nor ‘shielded from the fear of public censure’. He ends:

To the voice of the public we ought always to answer with respect, and to render an account, if called upon, of our proceedings. … If indeed the great purpose of national education were defeated or lightly regarded by us, if the life-blood of England, instead of being invigorated by health food, and quickened by pure patriotism, were sent back tainted and diseased, to circulate through her views disloyalty, irreligion, or fanaticism, then indeed might we hand our heads in shame … But if no such deadly mischief is suffered to lurk here if, with the allowances of candour will ever make for human frailty, we be found upon the whole to discharge our duty with discretion and fidelity; we need never scruple to meet our accusers with a clear and unabashed countenance; confident, as we well may be, that we shall continue to enjoy the protection of the government we live under, and the favour of that nation, whose best interests we serve.

Copleston, 1810, pp186-187

So, in 2021, confident that a higher education sector, transformed since Copleston’s time, is engaged with the great purpose of national education and discharging its duty with discretion and fidelity, then we should hope to enjoy the protection of the government and the favour of the nation.

Brockliss, L, 2016, The University of Oxford – A History, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Copleston, E, 1810, Reply to the Calumnies of the Edinburgh Review Against Oxford, Oxford
Nicholson, E, 2013, ‘Eveleigh and Copleston: the Pre-eminence of Oriel’, in Catto, J, 2013 Oriel College a History, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Who knows which providers are allowed to call themselves ‘University Centres’?

I’m interested in the way that the English government regulates the use of the word ‘University’ in the titles of higher education providers. Legislation protects the use of sensitive words such as ‘University’ and this year DfE have issued sensible guidance on how the various different forms of use can be approved. That won’t stop people referring to things that aren’t universities as such, but it does stop a provider putting up a sign saying ‘University’ on the side of a building when it doesn’t have authority.

But, this is only as good as the enforcement. We’ve seen that Companies House has slipped up and allowed people to call themselves universities, and that the UK register of learning providers isn’t too fussy about providers that offer education but call themselves a university. You can report bogus universities to HEDD who will coordinate action and publicise the fake names as a warning.

If having ‘University’ in your title is a big deal, controlled by government, then surely there should be some way of validating who is properly using that word. For providers regulated by the OfS there’s a ‘single, authoritative reference about a provider’s regulatory status’ – the register. Maintaining the register is one of OfS’ statutory duties. Since the OfS starting publishing the details of the providers on the register, it has been held on a spreadsheet. This has always had the feel of an interim solution; no doubt when the outcome of the consultation on public information on providers is concluded something will take its place. There are useful columns in the spreadsheet that address the question of whether the provider has the right to use ‘university’ in its title. 299 of the 418 records confirm either ‘no’ or ‘not applicable’ on the question of whether they have that right.

In this case I’m interested in ‘University Centres’ or ‘University Campuses’, the two most common names for other providers in a close relationship with one of more university offering higher education. The DfE guidance helpfully sets out what they are looking for:

18. For the use of university campus or university centre applications would normally be expected to be from a:
* constituent campus or centre which forms part of an existing, and OfS registered university

* registered higher education provider as part of a venture by an OfS registered university or universities to deliver higher education in a separate campus or centre rather than at the universities themselves – this would normally be aimed at making the universities’ programmes available to students in the students’ local area
19. For the use of university centre only, you will be expected to be a registered higher education provider delivering higher education course including some provision being awarded through partnership with a university or universities, with support for the use of the term from the universities concerned.

Although we can appreciate the ‘normally’ prefixing the expectation, it is clear that DfE are now looking for University Centres to be OfS Registered providers linked to a university or branches of universities. From the OfS register, it appears that two University Centres (Peterborough and Quayside) have a ‘Yes’ in the ‘Does the provider have the right to use ‘university’ in its title?’ column. There are a number of providers who have their trading name listed on the OfS Register as ‘University Centre’ but still have a ‘No’ in that column.

In 2016 I made a list of University Centres. I’ve updated the list – this is a dynamic sector, with mergers and re-brandings, so some are no longer on the list. It is clear that there are now more University Centres than before. I’ve tried to check where the host college is on the OfS Register (if my skills at using the search function in Excel have failed me – I apologise – but it does prove a point about its weaknesses while in a spreadsheet). Most, but not all, providers are on the OfS Register.

University Centre & partnersProvider on OfS RegisterRight to use University title on OfS Register
University Centre Askham Bryan (Harper Adams, Royal Agricultural, Leeds Trinity) Yes 
University Centre Bishop Burton (Hull)Yes 
University Centre, Blackpool (Blackpool & the Fylde College & University of Lancaster)Yes 
University Centre Blackburn (St Mary’s College & Liverpool Hope & UCLAN)Yes 
University Centre at Blackburn College (Lancaster University, South Wales, UCLAN)Yes 
University Centre, Boston (Boston College)  
University Centre Burton & South Derbyshire College (Staffordshire University)Yes 
Holy Cross University Centre (Bury) (Holy Cross College & Liverpool Hope, Edge Hill, Salford and Newman universities)Yes 
University Centre Calderdale College (Calderdale College)Yes 
Carmel University Centre (Liverpool & Liverpool Hope)   
University Centre Colchester (Colchester Institute & University of Essex)Yes 
University Centre Croydon (Croydon College & University of Sussex)Yes 
University Centre Doncaster (Doncaster College & Universities of Hull, Lincoln, Sheffield Hallam & Huddersfield) University Campus North LincolnshireYes 
New College Durham University CentreYes 
University Centre Farnborough (Farnborough College & University of Surrey)Yes 
University Centre Grimsby (Grimsby College & University of Hull)Yes 
University Centre Hastings (East Sussex College Group)  Yes 
Hereford University Centre (Herefordshire and Ludlow College & University of Worcester)Yes 
Hopwood Hall and University Centre Yes 
Hugh Baird University Centre (UCLAN, Cumbria, Liverpool John Mores)  
University Centre Leeds (Leeds City College)Yes 
University Centre (City of Liverpool College & Liverpool John Moores, Open & Huddersfield)Yes 
London and South East Colleges University Centre (Canterbury Christchurch)Yes 
University Centre Maidstone (MidKent Colege)Yes 
University Centre MyerscoughYes 
Newcastle College University CentreYes 
North Kent College University Centre (Greenwich & Canterbury Christchurch universities)  
University Centre at Nottingham (Nottingham CollegeYes 
University Campus OldhamYes
University Centre Peterborough (Peterborough Regional College & Anglia Ruskin University)YesYes
University Centre Quayside LtdYesYes
University Centre RotherhamYes 
University Centre Reaseheath (Reaseheath College)Yes 
University Centre St Helens (St Helens College & Chester, UCLAN, Liverpool John Moores & Sheffield Hallam)Yes 
University Centre at Salford City College (Bolton & Salford universities)Yes 
University Centre, Solihull (Solihull College & University of Warwick, Oxford Brookes University, Newman University, Birmingham City University and Coventry University)Yes 
University Centre Somerset (Bridgwater College)Yes 
University Centre South Devon (South Devon College)Yes 
University Centre South Essex (South East Essex College & Essex and University of the Arts) (formerly separate at Southend & Thurock)Yes 
University Centre Shrewsbury (University of Chester)Yes 
University Centre Sparsholt (Sparsholt College & University of Portsmouth)Yes 
University Centre Stockport College (Liverpool John Moores &  Manchester Met)  Yes 
University Centre Telford (Telford College of Arts and Technology & University of Wolverhampton)Yes 
University Centre at Wakefield CollegeYes 
Warwickshire College and University CentreYes
University Centre West Anglia (College of West Anglia & Anglia Ruskin) (Was formerly University Centre Kings Lynn)  
University Centre West Kent (Was University Centre Tonbridge)  
University Centre Weston (Weston College & Bath Spa & UWE)Yes 
University Centre Wigan & Leigh College (UCLAN)  
Wiltshire College and University CentreYes 
Yeovil College University Centre (Yeovil College & UWE, Bournemouth, Gloucestershire & Trinity St Davids)Yes 
York College University CentreYes 

It’s clear that the OfS register doesn’t provide an authoritive record of its providers using the university centre title. Only two have recorded their right to use ‘university’ in their title and the register does not list the trading titles of many using that form. OfS is not the body that approves these titles, so it’s understandable that it’s not collected the data. It’s the DfE that’s now responsible for allowing titles, through the mechanism of issuing a non-objection letter. So I submitted a freedom of information request:

Can you provide a list of all organisations that the department or its predecessor (BIS) has 
issued a non-objection letter for regarding the use of university ‘campus’ or ‘centre’? 

In 2019 I asked for a list of non-objection letters and a list of refusals to issue the letters. DfE refused to provide a list of the non-objection letters because:

this information could prejudice any investigations into organisations who have gone on to use the sensitive word University in a company or trading name.

Response to FOI Request DfE 3 June 2019

This time DfE have refused because:

The Department is unable to confirm whether it holds the information you have requested in the first part of your request, because it estimates that the cost of determining whether it holds the information would exceed the cost threshold applicable to central Government. 

This threshold is £600 and represents the estimated cost of one person spending 3½ working days in determining whether the Department holds the information. Your request covers a twelve-year period back to the start of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills in 2009, and would require more time than this to fulfil.

Response to FOI Request DfE 22 September 2021

In 2019 I was encourage by the refusal – DfE were likely to be investigating organisations that were using the sensitive word without permission. But in 2021 it turns out that they don’t have a list of the places with permission to use it readily to hand. The refusal letter says that checking their files would take too long. Perhaps my question was more obtuse than I thought, but I’m not encouraged any more.

‘University Centres’ are doing a great job; bringing higher education provision to communities that otherwise might not have it. This is a key part of levelling up, and the colleges that host these centres have been the beneficiaries of towns funds grants and other support. It just seems strange, although probably just pedantic, that if ‘university’ is a protected sensitive name, then someone, government or regulator, should be enforcing the guidelines and someone, government or regulator, should keep a list.

We should have a museum of higher education

From time to time, politicians, especially prime ministers, rattle off a list of the ‘crown jewels’ of Britain’s contribution to the world. Most of time universities are on the list. But while there are museums to railways, the industrial revolution, arts, sports, etc, there are none to higher education. There are museums on the history of medicine or science and technology, but they can be mixed in the stories they tell of the institutions that came to support developments, especially in the last 150 years. Our chief problem is that the universities are themselves the museums, by which we present ourselves as a collection of heritage buildings, mostly represented by a few universities that existed before the 19th century. This is mainly done by allowing access to impressive old buildings (or buildings which were built to look old) with collections of quadrangles or courtyards with chapels and dinning halls. We scream continuity at our visitors. Change happens away from the heart of the old university.

The Oxford Story

Oxford has many excellent museums and you could, by carefully looking at the corner of the Ashmolean which deals with the Tradescant Cabinet, or the displays about women’s involvement in science in the Natural History museum, or the rapidly developing re-telling of the ‘collecting’ that underpins the Pitt Rivers, gain something of a sense of the development of the university. The temporary exhibitions in the Bodleian do reflect on aspect of the university’s history, say on benefactors such as John Radcliffe. Otherwise it is left to tour guides to explain how the university developed as they weave parties mostly around the outside of the buildings in central Oxford.

There was a museum that brought this together – The Oxford Story. Made by the same people who made the Jorvick Centre, it was a tourist attraction in the centre of the city which ran for 20 years, apparently with over 2 million visitors.

This was a bit weird. You went around on moving desks, trapped in the narrative as it went up and down the building. I don’t think was was greatly mourned, but it did a job. It closed in 2007. The City Council has a Museum of Oxford, but in true town/gown style it comes across as not that keen in handing over a lot of space to the University story, even though it’s quite obvious why most tourists are in Oxford. The main antidote is the annual Open Doors weekend which allows access to other buildings, including those of departments, often with activities that highlight what really happens in them.

Plaques, Boards and Hoardings

Touring around universities (which you might be doing if you have a 17 year old child) you might find a collection of material outside buildings, either to explain the significance of the building or the research that went on inside. This is good for universities that have substantially stayed on the same site and who have generally kept a succession of buildings. On a recent trip to Leeds it was easy to explain the development of the university from the building material; brick gives way to Portland stone, then to concrete and now to modern cladding. Notions of the changing life of buildings might make this complex, its hard to put a sign on a building that’s been replaced, as does the inevitable spread of universities into pre-existing buildings.

Some universities have boards which explain developments in their history. These can be permanent, but there’s often opportunities given by building hoardings. Oxford’s Jesus College has a long frontage in Cornmarket behind which they have a major building site and the hoarding gives an account of the college. Clearly there’s an advantage that you can put these things outside, tourists don’t need to come inside.

A full picture

The problem of having museums in our best well known universities, or creating history panels on our grandest buildings, is that is accentuates the story of a higher education sector as old and grand, whereas in reality it’s is far more diverse, more spread out. We should have something that reflects that fuller story. There are celebrations of the fight that women had to gain entry (there are panels on this at Manchester, for example) but we could collate those together. We should also celebrate things that are less tangible – not every mechanics institute graduated to a grand building and I’ve been tracking the former buildings of both surviving and closed providers. We should have a museum.

We should also cover the missteps. Some of the people who need to be educated about the history of higher education are policy makers. Young wonks should be shown into a mock-up of a base room for a HEFCE teaching quality assessment, with endless box files and proformas for teaching observations. Other policy makers should go into a room with displays about dubious, sometimes properly bogus, providers. While the Burgon Society might offer a room full of gowns, someone should be collecting the ephemera of closed providers (I can provide pointers to where this stuff can be found, say in Whitechapel).

They key part of higher education missing from our focus on the history of higher education told through buildings is the people. The Oxford Story attempted to put student life into the displays and any putative museum of higher education should focus on the students and staff. For the residential life, someone should collect not only an 18th century ‘set’ from a grand Oxbridge college, but a mid-20th century UGC-funded single study bedroom and, for completeness, and a 21th century 20m2 studio, complete with plastic modular en suite (there won’t be room for visitors to walk around the studio – underlining a problem).

We should celebrate the people, talk about the exclusions in the past and the challenges still to come. Actors should read out the pamphlets and speeches made in support of the active exclusions of the majority of people attending higher education. We should celebrate where higher education took a lead, but also note where we have lagged behind. We should show the data of where our gaps remain, and the actions we are taking to close them.

The museum should cover the curriculum. What a chance to explore the variety of courses and to note there is no easy continuum of academic/vocational where university courses start and end. Interactive exhibits should showcase the kind of learning outcomes that students have to demonstrate; one of the best parts of the academic year at my university is the final year shows – let’s see those outcomes, ‘job-ready’ by anyone’s standards. We can showcase the dynamism of the curriculum, and how even the most obvious of steps, say the very concept of a Bachelor of Science degree, had to be fought for.

Finally, following the successful model of a brewery tour, the museum should end in a students’ union. But not a mock-up of a bar, but a foyer, teeming with activisms with a roll-call of all the causes championed by students down the ages that are now completely accepted parts of society.

There won’t be a museum shop. You can pick up a dodgy ‘Oxford University’ hoodie on street stalls all over London, why add to the confusion. What there should be is an admissions hub – access to UCAS of course, but also to the myriad of short courses, online courses, public lectures, outreach activities, real university museums, tours etc in higher education providers all over the country. We’d want the message to be that higher education is a living thing, relevant to today and tomorrow and open to all. I think would come better from a real experience of higher education, better than visiting my (potentially very dull) museum or from looking at some beautiful buildings.