Bogus Colleges (2) A Letter Arrives

Previously I noted that the counting of closures of bogus colleges was something of an exact science.  Having asked the Home Office for a list of those ‘closed’ (which is the language used by ministers) I had a helpful reply explaining that they measured colleges that had come off the Tier 4 register of sponsors.  This included colleges that had subsequently gone back on the register and a number of colleges who, you could presume, had come off the Tier 4 register as it was no longer appropriate for them.

I wrote to the Home Secretary about this, as you do.  I got no response, which is what I expected.  Then, in a moment of excitement I wrote to the Immigration Minister after the new Universities Minister cited another number for closed bogus colleges. Suddenly I had a response to my first letter, only 5 months later.  And what a fine thing it is:

Home Offfice

It repeated what they’d already told me, and I’d confirmed in my letter to the Home Secretary.  My concern was that ministers were using the number of colleges who’d left the register at any point as a proxy for a number of bogus colleges they’d closed.  I’d asked that they get a better number to use in speeches.  This letter explains:

The information we previously supplied to you under the FOI Act was not provided under National Statistics protocols and had been derived from local management information is therefore provisional and subject to change.

However*, the information they provided was a list of colleges that had been removed from the register.  It’s hard to see how that can be provisional and subject to change.  Does this sentence imply that the number given in speeches by the Prime Minister, Home Secretary and others is given under national statistics protocols?  If so it seems very imprecise.

In October 2014 the Prime Minister announced

“We clamped down on bogus students and stopped nearly 800 fake colleges bringing people in.”

I had my list of places with revoked sponsors from the Home Office a week earlier, so it was likely to be pretty contemporaneous with the data supplied to the PM.  It had 835 entries on it.  44 had subsequently returned to the list.  That would accord with the ‘nearly 800’ (is ‘nearly’ a word defined under those national statistics protocols?). However*, I went through the list and found places that were clearly not ‘fake colleges’.  I sent Mrs May a list of 50 that I had found without trying very hard.  That is why I wrote to the Home Secretary.  The problem was the way that the total number was being cited.    Pedantic, I know, but removal from the sponsor list could very well because the provider didn’t want to be on it.  Tier 4 requirements changed – a private girls school (several on the revoked list are) might not need to sponsor Tier 4 students.

But old habits die hard.  In Jo Johnson’s first speech as Universities minister he said:

“It is right that we are clamping down on fraudulent applications and bogus colleges – we have stopped over 870 of these institutions from recruiting international students since 2010 and will take all steps necessary to protect international students from rogue providers and dodgy operators.”

My concern is that he’s been given data by the Home Office that means he’s lumped Dartford Grammar School for Boys, Elmfield Rudolf Steiner School, Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education, Fareham College, Haberdashers’ Aske School for Girls, Leyton Sixth Form College, Queen’s College London or South Downs College into a category of  “rogue providers and dodgy operators”.

Sadly then, the people in the Treat Official Team haven’t answered my question or addressed my point.



* I thought I’d practice starting sentences with ‘However’ for when I start writing to Michael Gove

Taking taxpayers for a ride [to a prosperous future]

Another day, another columnist in a national newspaper putting forward the More Means Worse argument.

This time, it’s the natural home of this argument – the Telegraph.  Jeremy Warner uses the publication of Alison Wolf’s report Heading for the Precipice  as his reason for his more expansive piece Booming universities take taxpayers for a ride.  Time doesn’t allow for a line by line rebuttal, but it is worth looking at some of his straw men in turn.

The far bigger winner is in fact higher education, or more particularly, university education. This might seem a better use of scarce taxpayer resource than many of the alternatives, but here’s the politically inconvenient truth. For a growing number of British students, for the taxpayer and for the economy as a whole, it is obvious that these expenditures are largely a waste of money.

Here is the central premise: for a ‘growing number’ expending money for them to get a degree is a ‘waste of money’.  The money in question is, of course, a mix of government subsidised loans and other funds (it is a vanishingly small number of students who could maintain themselves from their loans and any bursaries they got).  Why is it a waste of money though?

Warner relies on this from Wolf’s conclusion:

“In post-19 education, we are producing vanishingly small numbers of higher-technician level qualifications, while massively increasing the output of generalist bachelors degrees and low-level vocational qualifications.”

This was picked up in the media, but Warner (who surely must have read the rest of the report), would know that Wolf’s argument is not that higher education is a waste of money but that we are not funding ‘higher-technician’ qualifications properly – the type that sit between much on-the-job training and higher education.

Warner then creates a simple straw man argument: “Say all school-leavers went to university”.  Well, he argues, if that happened then people who weren’t able to benefit from a higher education would be admitted, and, guess what, they might not benefit from a higher education.  Naturally, this argument can be extended: If unfit people like me competed in the Olympics, they’d do badly, if people (like me) who can’t drive started driving cars, there would be more accidents.

From here, it is an easy step to our favourite argument:

Courses in “media studies” may be an extreme example of the essentially useless nature of much university education, but the same holds true even of some more obviously vocational courses. You might think a legal degree would automatically qualify you for a job in the law; from many of the poorer universities, it does not. Students are being sold not just a false prospectus, but false hope.

Now, who decided where media studies and law sit in a supposed continuum of vocational to academic subjects?  Is media ‘useless’ because it’s extremely vocational or extremely academic?  We used to enjoy the piece of data that showed that a higher proportion of people with media degrees worked in the media than people with law degrees worked in law.  It’s not just ‘poorer universities’ law degrees that don’t automatically qualify you for a job in law, both solicitors and barristers require further professional training.  But law is different to other degrees that lead to careers: an initial teacher education degree will equip you to be a teacher, a nursing degree to be a nurse.  But a degree should be more than that – it should by its very nature open a student to all sorts of possibilities – those holding a degree in law or nursing or media or classics have far more options because of that degree.

And a solution?

… an obvious starting point is to force universities to be much more transparent about entry qualifications, numbers achieving top-level degrees, and the employment prospects these degrees are capable of buying.

Well, all those data are available, and are very regularly made available to students.  After all, if you include the NSS results these are the main drivers for the parts of university league tables that say they measure teaching.   Increasingly we need to worry about our understanding of causation here.  We had the DLHE data yesterday and, for example, it is clear that women still have lower starting salaries.  Is that because universities teach female students less well?  No, I don’t think so.

But how can Warner top all this for an ending?

A more extreme approach would be to make loans dependent on achieving decent entry qualifications, but that might be going too far; we don’t want to upset our social mobility goals, do we.

Firstly, we have had systems in the past that have limited state support to a threshold qualification – the old 2 ‘A’ level rule for grants.  The Browne Review suggested that places (and therefore funds) would be rationed on the basis of a UCAS tariff threshold.  If government wanted to limit numbers (it doesn’t) then this could be done.  But look at the nasty second clause. Warner has assumed that the subjects of social mobility goals won’t have ‘decent entry qualifications’? Where did that come from? Has he assumed that people in the top socio-economic groups just come better qualified or that they get better preparation for taking qualifications?

Why should people go to university?  There are lots of reasons, some of which will be to do with the skills they develop which might be useful in future careers.  The Robbins Report put alongside the acquisition of skills, teaching to promote the general powers of the mind, leading to the production of “not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women” and he called for the “transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship”.  We must continue to argue for the wider personal and social benefits of a higher education

Naming of parts… of universities

Philanthropy can be a mixed blessing.  At various points in the history of our universities philanthropy has been a vital source of capital and revenue funding.  In the UK, however, it declined markedly as a proportion of funding in the period of expansion after 1945 as capital grants were made available from government to support the expansion.  Now that it has returned to be a major feature, many are uncomfortable. Peter Scott, in his column in the Guardian, complained – noting an increasing habit of naming buildings after wealthy donors, blaming this on an American influence.  But this kind of philanthropy, and the naming of buildings, is as old as the sector.


The Clarendon Building

Take a short walk through Oxford.  Start at the Martin School, cross over to the Clarendon building, go past the Sheldonian Theatre, head into the Bodleian and out again into Radcliffe Square, where you can see both the Camera and the Codrington Library at All Souls.  If you head out onto the High Street, you’ll find the Rhodes building of Oriel College in front of you.  In 400m you have an encapsulation of philanthropy over 500 years.  Some donors were very active; Sir Thomas Bodley didn’t just give, he set out to reform.  Some of those donors have complex reputations; there is now a campaign to at least critically evaluate how Christopher Codrington and Cecil Rhodes obtained their fortunes.


The Brotherton Library

Or you could visit the main libraries at the University of Leeds.  The newest is the Laidlaw library opened in 2015. It is named after the chief donor, Lord Laidlaw but also financed through trusts and individual donors whose names appear on a commemorative wall.  The Edward Boyle Library, opened in 1975, was built with UGC funds and is named after a former vice-chancellor.  Going further back, the Brotherton Library, opened in 1936, was also a product of philanthropy – funded largely by Lord Brotherton.  The Brotherton is approached through the Parkinson building, and therefore pairs up the two main acquisitions from the 1920s appeal for funds by the University.  The University of Leeds launched its appeal, judging that the post-war financial situation had stabilised, but then had to contend with the General Strike, the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. It made it in the end.  (NB Leeds’s next big appeal was launched before the financial crash of 2007-08 – we should be all wary when they launch another big appeal…)

Universities are returning to the spirit that saw them add both facilities and also endow activities that were common before 1945.  That doesn’t make the issue of naming rights any less complex.  Universities want to reserve the right to approve names of their buildings.  This is relatively simple if the building is to be named after the donor, there is an implicit assumption that the accumulation of great wealth is nearly a sufficient basis for the honour.  This isn’t always so – there were many questions about Wafic Saïd, for example.  Further complications come when the donor wants to use their ‘rights’ to honour another.  So there was further discomfort for some when Saïd provided the money for the Thatcher Business Education Centre.   This week has seen the gift of $100 million to the new Cornell Tech in New York.  This new institution was the idea of Michael Bloomberg when mayor, and now he has given funds for a residential centre at the site.   The building will be The Bloomberg Center – in honor of Emma and Georgina Bloomberg – it is named after his daughters.

Naming buildings after people brings challenges; their reputation can change, and not just through historical interpretation. Donors with buildings named after them have been jailed, leaving another decision for the university: when to remove a name from a building.  The commemoration of Edward Hyde, earl of Claredon, in the building made possible by the proceeds of his History of the Rebellion came after his impeachment and death in exile.

Universities need better facilities, and donations can make that possible – Gilbert Sheldon understood that in the 1660s when he funded a theatre for Oxford University.  In a time when capital grants are likely to be few and far between, philanthropy offers an opportunity to make a difference.

University regulation and autonomy: ‘Prevent’ as a case study

We are, I think, still waiting to see the guidelines on external speakers which should be presented to both houses of parliament before the Prevent Guidance comes into effect on 1 July.  Meanwhile, I was reflecting on the discussions on this in parliament.

The House of Lords can normally be relied upon to give a particularly close examination to legislation that applies to higher education. This was the case with the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act which, although it was been fast-tracked, had a lengthy examination at both committee and report stages in the Lords. In contrast, the Commons did not use all their alloted time for examination.

I want to highlight one exchange as a case study in the way that Britain’s famously autonomous universities are regulated. The Bill specifies bodies that will have a duty to give ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’ and gives power to the Home Secretary to ‘issue guidance to specified authorities about the exercise of their duty’ and then, if ‘satisfied that a specified authority has failed to discharge the duty’, ‘directions’ may be given. These can be enforced by a court order. A lot of attention has been given to how the Bill affects Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, but the Lords also looked at the way that the guidance had statutory force.

We saw the draft guidance for consultation in 2014. The guidance said ‘To comply with the duty we would expect universities and higher education institutions to be delivering in the following areas’. What follows are a series of exhortations, framed in slightly different ways. Sometimes it is clear that ‘Compliance with the duty will also require the institution to demonstrate…’, sometimes that ‘In order to comply with the duty all universities should…’ but the most common formulation is ‘we would expect…’ (emphasis added).

Lord Bates enjoying the 'fun' their Lordships were having at the expense of the Prevent guidance

Lord Bates enjoying the ‘fun’ their Lordships were having at the expense of the Prevent guidance

The Lords had, what the Home Office minister Lord Bates described as, ‘fun’ with the guidance. A particular example was the way that universities had to assure themselves about external speakers. The draft guidance said:

‘Universities must take seriously their responsibility to exclude those promoting extremist views that support or are conducive to terrorism. We would expect the policies and procedures on speakers and events to include at least the following:

  • Sufficient notice of booking (generally at least 14 days) to allow for checks to be made and cancellation to take place if necessary;

  • Advance notice of the content of the event, including an outline of the topics to be discussed and sight of any presentations, footage to be broadcast etc; …’ (Prevent duty guidance: a consultation)

At Committee stage, Lord Bates had accepted that the guidance wouldn’t actually require the text of an external speakers’ talk to be vetted by the university. However, in responding to the criticism of the guidance in the Report stage, he was exasperated enough to note:

The requirements such as giving advance notice on speeches are very limited compared with the much more extensive Universities UK guidance for external speakers, which requests,

a script or précis from the speaker outlining what they intend to say and requiring them to sign an undertaking acknowledging that their speech will be terminated if they deviate from it”.

This is from Universities UK’s current guidelines on having speakers on campus …

I do not recall a hue and cry from the collective colleges of our great universities to say that this was outrageous and should not be happening…” (HL Hansard 4 Feb 2015 col 706)

This brought a host of comments – all from peers with extensive higher education experience – to explain the difference between UUK guidance, which might be considered, but not complied with, and statutory guidance of the kind he was proposing. This might be particularly the case if it thought the guidance was ‘hopeless and misguided’ If, Lord Bates argued, they could ‘brush off’ UUK guidance, then there was good reason to make the Prevent guidance statutory.

Here is the tension at the heart of higher education regulation. There is advice and guidance, codes of practice, good practice guides etc which universities can draw on in framing their policies. Then there are regulations which must be adhered to. Understanding this landscape is crucial, and the decisions about navigating external rules can have major impacts. Areas such as issuing visas, calculating non-completion rates, implementing benchmark statements, managing complaints or writing terms and conditions on fee increases have all gained increased specificity over time.

There is an interesting question posed in the Prevent guidance consultation: ‘Which inspection bodies are best placed to monitor compliance with this duty?’ Higher Education in the UK has done very well so far to avoid having an ‘inspection body’, and it was noticeable that the version of the guidance produced in March 2015 removed any reference to who the government thought might be that ‘inspection body’ and deferred the section about external speakers until after the election.  However, it does need to come back otherwise the section on higher education will not come into force on 1 July – and surely that would be a major embarrassment? 


The Guardian carried a story on 30 June that the Home Office had indeed conceded that the Prevent guidelines for universities would not come into force on 1 July as they had not brought back the external speaker rules.  This does seem extraordinary: presumably there have been ongoing discussions since March when they conceded that the parts of the guidelines were not going to work.  But where have they got to? The Parliamentary recess is coming, if this is important to preventing terrorism, then how can this be acceptable?  The Prevent Guidelines were considered under a guillotine because they were deemed urgent.

A statement on Academic Freedom from Wisconsin

The universities that we have today owe a huge amount to their history, and in particular the way that they developed in North America and Europe in the 19th Century. There was a fascinating mixing of ideas across the Atlantic which particularly affected the formative moments of new universities or the reforming moments of existing universities.

One of these great moments was the fusion of ideas of Lehrfrieheit with faculty self-governance which set the tone for a series of battles in the US connected with the transformation of both the new private universities (often with major donors with specific views on aspects of business) or state universities (who had to contend with state politicians with equally robust views).

One such set of events happened at the University of Wisconsin in 1894.  A local politician took against a faculty member, Dr Ely, on account of his radical views.  The university regents (the board of governors) investigated his complaints – finding in favour of Dr Ely.  The regents not only vindicated Ely, but produced what he called a ‘Magna Charta’ for the University.

As Regents of a university with over a hundred instructors supported by nearly two millions of people who hold a vast diversity of views regarding the great questions which at present agitate the human mind, we could not for a moment think of recommending the dismissal or even the criticism of a teacher even if some of his opinions should, in some quarters, be regarded as visionary. Such a course would be equivalent to saying that no professor should teach anything which is not accepted by everybody as true. This would cut our curriculum down to very small proportions. We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. We must therefore welcome from our teachers such discussions as shall suggest the means and prepare the way by which knowledge may be extended, present evils be removed and others prevented. We feel that we would be unworthy of the position we hold if we did not believe in progress in all departments of knowledge. In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

One historian of the University wrote ‘This noble statement of principles no subsequent government has had the hardihood to retract’. (Pyre 1920 p292)  Further, the class of 1910 had the final sentence placed onto a bronze tablet and, after some resistance, had it placed in the hall of the University’s main administrative building.

The Plaque attached to the then University Hall

The Plaque attached to the then University Hall

The whole piece is a testament to the vision of the Regents.  In 2015 there is renewed concern that state politicians want to limit the hard-won freedoms.  Of us should take some time to look at the arguments raging in Wisconsin – and remember the spirit of that Magna Charta.

Ref Pyre J, 1920, Wisconsin, New York, Oxford University Press

Paxman: “Expansion of the university sector has destroyed its status”

The Financial Times brings us an excellent example of the classic More Means Worse argument today.  Jeremy Paxman writes a column that manages to tick all the boxes. Appeal to halcyon days? Yup.  Conversation with head of an Oxbridge College? Tick. Snide insinuations about ‘lesser universities’? Buckets full. What has happened to universities?

At the heart of the argument is a concern about ‘stratification’, universities ‘lower down the food chain’ where bad things happen.  We’re not treated to any evidence of this, of course, the information provided at high table will suffice.  What are the problems of expanding higher education? We are treated to the list: administrators, grade inflation, casualisation of staff contracts,  etc.  We are told that people won’t go on the record to complain about these things – which is odd, people complain about them all the time. Paxman notes that people complained in the 1950s that things had gone to pot since the 1920s (Kingsley Amis doesn’t get quoted, but his accusation of More Means Worse infuses the piece).  People complained in the 1920s that things had gone horribly wrong (universities were coping with the aftermath of war and a series of financial crashes that make our current ‘austerity’ seem very mild).  That’s not to say that those aspects haven’t got worse, but they are balanced by other things getting better.

The anecdotes build up a picture; relying on ‘evidence’ such as the accusation that Charles Clark made the “yahoo-ish observation that he couldn’t understand why the state should support medieval historians” – he didn’t, although it was widely misreported at the time. And, as a sign of where the conversation at high table went, there is this curious lament for the spending power of academics

Poverty long ago drove the professors out of the houses built for them in the Victorian suburbs of Cambridge and Oxford. North Oxford is colonised by bankers: there is a house for rent there at £300,000 a year.

While the property market in North Oxford is a special case, this is a wider phenomenon – professors at the new civic universities could afford mansions in their suburbs too – a construct of lower house prices versus pay, but also a mark of the family wealth of many of those who went to university.

Built in 1873, now on market for £9,975,000

Built in 1873, now on market for £9,975,000

Finally, in a moment of self-justification, he makes the mistake of confusing University Challenge with University education.  While it’s a jolly thing to be able to recall a mix of general and specific knowledge, that’s not what a university education is.  A university education prepares people for life, not just for pub quizzes.