Immigration Bill: Unaccompanied Children and Universities

Should the UK do more for unaccompanied children?  The Immigration Bill is currently in ‘Ping Pong’ stage, where the most important issue today is whether the country should accept more unaccompanied children.  There is also a higher education aspect to this, clearly minor compared to the main issue, but still important.

After the Bill had originally been published, the Government let it be known that they wanted to include an amendment to prevent unaccompanied children having ‘their entire university education paid for by the taxpayer’.  The problem is this.  Unaccompanied children may often fall foul of the rules of the higher education student support regime; some do not meet the criteria for support and so are assessed as needing to pay international fees and not be supported by loans.  It has been established by the Courts that councils who are caring for these children should be paying their fees at university; at full international rate.

This was announced in the Sunday Times with support from David Simmonds of the LGA (but also, importantly of Hillingdon Borough – the home of Heathrow) who said:

“You get a lot of people from war zones who are [children] of highly educated middle-class people”

Whether these children are the offspring of highly educated or middle-class people or not, they are unaccompanied children.  Councils such as Hillingdon or Kent bear a disproportional cost because they are looking after more unaccompanied children as that is where they arrive (although the Bill also has clauses to ‘disperse’ them to other councils).   The Government’s impact assessment does not say how many people are in this situation, given how under-represented care leavers are in HE – it’s probably very small.  but it does note the maximum fee they might pay (say £30k pa for a clinical medicine course).

The Government wants to simply remove the need for Councils to pay the international fees.  But surely that would leave these children, on leaving care, with an impossible task if they wanted to go to university.  If ineligible for the student support regime, they would need to find the full international fee, plus fund their own maintenance or, the government suggests, wait to become eligible. This seems very unlikely in the first instance, and perverse in the second.  (Clearly the Government must avoid a loophole whereby overseas nationals can suddenly abandon and their children, say after putting them through fee-paying education, but that wouldn’t be complex to do)

Thankfully Helena Kennedy raised this issue in the Lords, bringing forward an amendment which would place these unaccompanied children leaving care into a category that would make them eligible for home fees and student support.  Therefore they could take out loans to pay those fees, remove the burden from the Councils and sort out the situation.  The unaccompanied child, now a student, would be supported.  As a graduate, they would pay back their loan – wherever they were, just like everyone else.  At report stage in the Lords this was left, the amendment withdrawn, with the prospect that BIS would meet Baroness Kennedy about the issue.

Clearly there are crucial issues within the Immigration Bill, and I’m not surprised that this has not got a lot of parliamentary time.  I also think there’s a really simple solution for the government here with a bit of nifty drafting of regulations which would enable unaccompanied children on leaving care to take up a place in higher education.   I’m hoping that we do not end up with a situation where we care for these children but when they turn 18 we cut them off from our higher education system.  Hopefully a solution is already in hand.

Academic Standards: A Human Right

What ‘rights’ do the English enjoy to a higher education? Officially, rather few, but maybe more than we thought.  The keen-eyed will have spotted an interesting argument put forward on the HEFCE blog on which raises the issue again.

The right to education is articulated in the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26 stating:

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

For Britain, we also have, for now, the Human Rights Act (1988) which repeats the European Convention on Human Rights which has, in the first protocol, article 2:

No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

Even to the layperson, there are significant differences between the more aspirational, positive, UN right, and the more succinct Euro version.  Generally, as far as higher education has been concerned, these Human Rights haven’t had much traction.  A right to education does not mean you should be admitted to a particular university, or you should not be asked to leave a particular university.  Early applications of the HRA (as detailed in Farringdon & Palfreyman) were connected with academic freedom, freedom of expression or the operation of processes.  The HRA did not require the government to give you that education for free, or to support you in any particular way (such claims as Michael Mansfield’s didn’t overturn the legislation).

But there’s a new conflict of laws (or challenge to the supremacy of British law if you want to see Human Rights like that) , and interesting that it’s HEFCE entertaining it.  Susan Lapworth writes:

Recent commentators have quoted section 70 of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act as evidence that HEFCE’s quality assessment responsibilities do not extend to matters relating to standards. And indeed, the Act says that HEFCE shall ‘secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education provided in institutions for whose activities they provide, or are considering providing, financial support’. So it’s correct to point out that there is no explicit use of the term ‘standards’ here.

We’re confident, however, that HEFCE’s responsibility for assessing the ‘quality of education’ does indeed encompass ‘standards’: the ‘right to education’, as set out in the more recent 1998 Human Rights Act, is held to include the assessment and certification of successful studies. In other words, the world has moved on since 1992, and we have updated our understanding of the statutory basis for our responsibilities accordingly.

This is an interesting argument – and one I’d not noticed before.  Mansfield noted that ‘European case law suggests that states are under an obligation to afford an effective right of access to institutions of higher education that exist’, but now HEFCE are stating that because of the right to education, they should be responsible for assessing standards at those institutions.   This seems quite a leap.  

Clearly it’s another thing that the White Paper needs to sort out, but I’d be very surprised if BIS argue that it’s the Human Rights Act that’s the basis for the TEF, but maybe that was on the page of the briefing note we didn’t see.



Student Experience in the 60s (the 1860s)

Occasionally, the longevity of our universities can fool people into thinking they have been doing the same thing for hundreds of years.   My focus is on the history of curriculum structures, and as I have been going along I have picked up stories of how students’ studies have differed in the past.    Some of these help us to understand just how much our universities have changed.


Henry Chaplin, aged 18

As an example, here’s a section from a memoir of Henry Chaplin written by his daughter Edith.   Chaplin was a landowner and MP who became a cabinet minster under Lord Salisbury, but who had a relaxed attitude to what he wanted to get out of his time at Oxford.  He’s been summoned to see the Dean via a blue slip of paper…

‘My dear Mr Chaplin” he [Dean Liddell] began austerely, “as far as I can gather you seem to regard Christ Church as a hunting box. You are hardly ever in college, and I must request you, unless you change your habits, to vacate your rooms and make may for some one who will benefits from his studies at the University”. The reply was remarkable even to one so familiar with the vagaries of youth as Dean Liddell. “But, Mr Dean, what you do expect me to do?” “Do,” replied the Dean, “you must go in for an examination”. “My dear Mr Dean” – and the undergraduate’s answer this time in spite if its suavity, was not unmixed with mild reproof – “if only you had told me before, I should have taken the necessary steps; but when is there one?” “In three weeks,” was the curt reply.

The ingenuousness of Harry Chaplin’s attitude may be partially explained by the fact that he was what was known in those days as a gentleman commoner, living out of college. In the ‘sixties it was not the custom at Christ Church, as it is today, to allot every freshman immediately he comes up to a tutor, who will arrange his scheme of work for him for the first year, and instruct him as to what examinations he is expected to take. Harry Chaplin, entirely occupied with matters which seemed to him of greater moment, was genuinely ignorant and had taken no pains to inform himself of what was academically expected of him. But throughout his life it was his habit to do with all his might whatever his hand found to do, provided it were a sufficiently reasonable or pleasurable occupation. So, on this occasion, being impressed by the Dean’s arguments, he lost no time in securing the services of a coach whom he described as “an old bottle-nosed man”, but with whom, his abilities diverted into this fresh channel being no less effective than his energy, he worked so well that he passed Mods. with distinction.

In was not long before another blue slip reached him at the breakfast table. This time the Dean addressed him with an entirely cordial, if dignified approbation. “Mr Chaplin, I must congratulate you on your excellent performance. But now I must earnestly entreat you to go in for the Honours Schools. You have shown us your abilities, and you will become a credit, not only to this house, but to the University if, and I confidently expect, you are successful.”

But the Dean was once more to meet with the unexpected from this apparently amenable undergraduate. The taking of a degree had been no part of Harry Chaplin’s programme at the University. … “Mr Dean” he replied politely, “if only you had told me before, I would have done so, but after my last interview with you, in which you intimated that I should have to vacate my rooms, I am very sorry to inform you that I have arranged to go for a trip to the Rocky Mountains.

Henry Chaplin might have confounded any Victorian attempt to link degree outcomes to earnings, he was a wealthy and successful man – but any advantage came not from his three weeks of private coaching for his moderations exam, but from the contacts cemented there.  Universities must be wary of over-claiming the causes of their graduates’ success – no doubt all the current Oxonians in the cabinet worked much harder than Henry Chaplin to both get into Oxford and then at their studies, but clearly not all of their success comes down to their courses.

Reference: Stewart E, 1926, Henry Chaplin A Memoir, London, Macmillan pp22-23

Institutional History of Oxford; another chapter

Last week saw the publication of Laurence Brockliss’ The University of Oxford: A History (Oxford University Press)


This is not a review.  I’m not equipped to review this new book.  Rather this post is a few observations about the place of this new book, very welcome that it is.

While aware of the limitations of the genre, I remain a fan of institutional history.  Although not unique to higher education, universities must be the kind of organisation most studied through this medium. These histories come in different formats: there are glossy coffee table books; there are careful attempts to capture student and alumni voices; there are scholarly works; and there are polemics.  In each case, EH Carr’s advice about studying the historian comes into play. What bee does the institutional historian have in their bonnet? As Carr said:

When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. (Carr, 1964, What is History, Harmondsworth, Penguin p 23)

With institutional histories, it can be easy to hear the buzzing. In some cases, the history of a university is described so as to demonstrate how it reached its present state of pre-eminence. These whiggish histories often involve struggles, great leaders and fine accomplishments. In other cases, the same broad approach is taken except that the pre-eminence happened at some point in the recent past, and everything has gone to pot since. As universities tend to be the sponsors of these histories, the former group are much more likely to get published!  Very famous universities (with well-off alumni) may get plenty of both.

Brockliss explains the context for his new history.  The comprehensive eight volume History of the University of Oxford will continue to stand as the authoritative work. Brockliss’ aim in covering the same period is to organise and explain the material – he pulls this into three parts – the Catholic University c1100-1534, the Anglican University 1534-1845 and the Imperial University 1845-1945 providing a broader context of HE matters in each case.  With the final part, the World University 1945-2015, he covers new ground, bringing the story of the university to the present day.  In this final part we see the university in our times; the political struggles but also the ups and downs of student life (this must be the first university history to include a picture of the one of the kebab vans around the city in action at 4am).

One of the reasons I like institutional history is the part they can play in shaping an Organisational Saga  – that concept of Burton Clark’s that he found in distinctive colleges. Oxford is distinctive but, as Brockliss explains, it changes.  He stresses this in his conclusion.  At this point some university historians really start buzzing, declaiming the QAA or the REF or the loss of collegiality.  Brockliss remains measured, assessing possible futures which the university might (or might not) explore.  Indeed, the last footnote in the book includes the university’s measured refusal to embrace MOOCs.

The good news is that Oxford University Press* has priced this 871 page book in a ‘mid-price’ range – £35 (but with a £10 alumni discount in their bookshop), clearly looking for a strong audience both among members of the university and beyond.  Institutional histories should be read: not to demonstrate that a university has, or had, reached a state of perfection, but that it is subject to change; change that will be continuing into the future.


*OUP have other excellent works on university history that they really should also try pricing competitively for a general readership



The Universities formerly known as Polytechnics

Returning to a theme, the Mail on Sunday published a piece about falling standards  (normal stuff – if numbers of successful students are going up, standards must be falling).  It did, however, link the data to HEFCE’s plans for quality assurance, noting

HEFCE insiders said it would expect to see more ‘robust judgments’ about standards after criticism that some former polytechnics, where students can gain places with E grades at A-level, are awarding as many firsts and 2:1s as Oxford or Cambridge.

This is normal More Means Worse fare – we’re not told which universities are awarding the same proportion of firsts and upper seconds as Oxford or Cambridge.  But note the clear insinuation about ‘some former polytechnics’.  Clearly someone has failed to get over the implementation of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act; whereby the Privy Council were given the power to allow the use of the word ‘University’ in the title of an educational institution.  The first beneficiaries of this new power were a group of institutions that had been designated as polytechnics or (as in Scotland) central institutions.  The name ‘polytechnic’ had been given a protected status, but it had been used for over 100 years before these institutions were designated.



Oxford Polytechnic

We have already passed the point when new students entering universities had not been born when the ‘former polytechnics’ became universities (2010).  By now  over 90% of all undergraduates have been born after 1992.  We now have cohorts of graduates all born after the last polytechnic became a university.  Why are some people still hung up on the former status of some universities from 24 years ago?

Perhaps it is because the designated polytechnics were an attempt to halt ‘academic drift’? This was the process observed by Tyrrell Burgess that locally-based colleges went onto to become nationally-focused universities.  When Tony Crosland announced the concept of the polytechnics in 1965 there were three waves of ‘new universities’ at hand: the old civic colleges who had recently got charters (some such as Hull and Leicester only in the mid-50s); new universities given charters at the outset (the likes of Sussex and Essex) and the former Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs) which were just sorting out their new charters after Robbins had recommended they become technological universities (Aston, Bath etc). Academic drift was halted – only two charters were given to very different new starts (Buckingham and Open) – there were no more promotions.

Perhaps it was the suddenness of the move?   Although the CDP had been pressing for 20 years, the ending of the binary divide came quickly.  The move came soon after John Major became Prime Minister – perhaps it really was a scheme to look for a cheap policy move to emphasise his ‘classless society’ notions (as rumours suggested).

Perhaps it’s because the polytechnics/new universities did the ‘heavy-lifting’ on access?  Although the Open University had an open access policy, in general the polytechnics had lower entry requirements and they were more open to expanding numbers (at lower costs).  Of  course, there’s no necessary link between entry standards and the standard of the qualification – just because someone wouldn’t have met the entry requirements for Oxford, does not mean their first class degree isn’t as good.

Perhaps it’s because Howard Newby was right? Newby observed, in the context of discussions about possible ways of funding differentiated by mission in 2003, that:

We are actually trying to protect the strengths that diversity brings to our higher education system. I think the English – and I do mean the English – do have a genius for turning diversity into hierarchy, and I am not sure what we can do about that to be quite honest.

Eventually the ‘former polytechnic’ tag must go, surely?  Many  of them share the same roots as the CATs, but they aren’t labeled as such.  Among the ‘former CATs’ are two (City and Surrey) who had even been called ‘polytechnics’ before (although not in the designated sense).

Finally, it is worth noting that in the long history of this group of institutions, they have all now been universities for longer than the time that they were designated as polytechnics.


B.I.G. Consultation: Staff Uniforms

This is the time of year when the media find lost memos or leaked documents.  In contrast, this is a circulation that went around my then college, probably 18 years ago (the screen shot I have has the date but not the year).     It must have been in the late-1990s, judging by the concern about a single pay spine and the colours in the official corporate branding. The gender distinctions were probably already seriously outdated back then.

The Bright Ideas Group (BIG) are pleased to announce their latest consultation on customer care initiatives: staff uniforms.

It’s increasingly important to be able to differentiate between the customers and staff, and to this end the Group are proposing to roll out staff uniforms across the College’s staff.  The existing uniforms will be integrated into a scheme, providing continuity, but differentiation between groups.  

Different working conditions will require different forms of uniform: so these will be tailored within the scheme.   Colour will be an important part of the differentiation, using the established colour palate, so that the core garments will match each other.  Further differentiation of subjects or departments will follow by the adoption of different logos that can be displayed on the core garment which will provide unit identity and lead to better customer discrimination between staff members.

Indicators of seniority can also be used, very subtly, so that customers will be able to gauge the level of the staff member they are addressing.  Staff will be pleased that the group has ruled out gold braid as the key indicator (for most staff) in favour of small badges to be affixed under the name badge (these probably to take the form of small mitres, with the number of mitres indicating position on the new single pay spine)

The basic core garment will be a shirt/blouse for office based staff, with a polo shirt option.  The shirt will feature College logo and unit logo and provide a space for the name badge to be worn.  A generic College tie will be provided for men that will pick up all the College palate colours.

Sweat shirts and jackets will be provided as well.  Each of these will have the logos – so that these can be used as over garments.  A range of options will be provided, but will be linked to the type of job: sports jackets for academic staff, for example, or a classic flying jacket for senior managers.

Trousers and skirts will be left to staff choice – but guidelines will be provided (a further specialised working party will be formed whose terms of reference will include allowable skirt and trouser options in line with existing College policies).

The Bright Ideas Group would welcome any input: however, as long consultations tend to have limited impact, staff will need to respond before 12noon today, 1 April. 

The College logo was then based on the diocesan coat of arms – hence the mitres.  There was quite a lot of excitement about the proposal, but the Bright Ideas Group seemed not to really get behind it.