Good Schools and Access Agreements

The news* that Cambridge UTC might have been given an ‘inadequate’ rating by Ofsted, highlighted a major problem with the Government’s plan that Universities must sponsor ‘good or outstanding’ schools.

The DfE consultation document says:

We believe all universities could and should play a direct role in raising attainment in schools to widen access, and for this to be made a condition of their fair access requirements.

We want higher education institutions to meet the following requirements as a condition of charging higher fees:

  • Establish a new school in the state system, of which the capital and revenue costs will be met by the government, or;
  • Sponsor an academy in the state system.

and notes

In both cases, we would expect this school to be good or outstanding within a certain number of years, and over time we would expect universities to extend this partnership with the schools sector, to charge the higher rate of fees. For example, we would ask universities to extend their support to further schools after a certain number of years, which in turn would be required to be Good or Oustanding [sic] over time.

As I have previously noted, this could be a major risk.    The fair access requirements, that an English provider has either an Access Agreement or an Access and Participation Statement, unlock the higher rate of fees.  If Cambridge University were the sponsor of Cambridge UTC and had to forgo all the higher fee income, that could cost it over £30 million (it had 10455 UK & EU UG students in 14/15 which if all paying £9,000 would have brought in £94 million).

What we haven’t seen in this consultation is the detail of how this is expected to work.  A series of questions arise.

Timescales & Scope

Access agreements are approved annually and are their terms in force for a cohort.   If the requirement to have a ‘good or outstanding’ school in sponsorship was in place (there would have to be an extended period of implementation), a University would need to confirm that it sponsored such a school before its next agreement was approved.  This would need a definition – what is the time period the university must have sponsored the school for and long did it have to be ‘good or outstanding’ for?    A school that requires improvement is given up to 15 months to turn things around (as with Cambridge UTC) – that would mean missing two cohorts of access agreements.  Would the University be granted a leave period while the school tried to improve?

Surely the failure to have a ‘good or outstanding’ school sponsored wouldn’t suddenly cancel all the existing agreements?  It would seriously alter the terms under which the universities’ students were recruited; although fees would have to fall, so would all the support and outreach mechanisms.  OFFA have a process for dealing with a ‘serious breach’ but its never been used, and its terms are much more gentle that the loss of all the fees agreed at the higher level because of an access agreement.  So, if your sponsored school got an ‘inadequate’ rating in November, all your existing agreements ought to be honoured, and only future ones affected.

How many?

The consultation says that a university must sponsor a school and that ‘this’ school should be ‘good or outstanding’.  Many universities sponsor more than one school.  Must they all be ‘good or outstanding’ or just one of them?

What is sponsorship?

There are clearly very different models of sponsorship currently at play.  DfE will have to define which models count for satisfying the access agreement rule. As an example, Cambridge UTC isn’t sponsored by the University of Cambridge.  The members of the Trust are Cambridge Regional College and Long Road Sixth Form College with its ‘university sponsor’ being Cambridge University Health Partners – which is a joint venture between the University and the NHS trusts.   UTC Oxfordshire, by comparison, is sponsored by Activate Learning (a group including FECs, UTCs and Schools) with Reading and Royal Holloway as its ‘academic partners’.  Neither of these UTCs actually have an official university sponsor.  But Oxfordshire raises an new issue to the one above, could universities share sponsorship for the purpose of this rule?

What next?

This is another example of bits of government suggesting penalties for universities are hung on the new regulatory structure for HE.  We have suggestions that the Home Office will use the TEF to determine student visa eligibility; which kills off the elegant way that universities might progressively disengage from state support (call that privatisation if you must). Now the schools side of DfE wants to have a super-veto on the access agreement system determined by a single factor – sponsoring a ‘good’ school.

The DfE consultation doesn’t ask a direct question as to whether this will work.  It asks:

How can the academic expertise of universities be brought to bear on our schools system, to improve school-level attainment and in doing so widen access?

Are there other ways in which universities could be asked to contribute to raising school-level attainment?

I’ve suggested that supporting universities role in teacher training might be an idea.  It is also worth pointing out that in order to achieve a simple policy goal – encouraging universities to be involved with schools – DfE intend to create a regulatory monster, full of complex rules which if they actually use the sanction suggested would have a disproportional effect on universities.  Indeed, any rational university leadership would have to avoid sponsoring any school that wasn’t a cast-iron certainty of being outstanding.  Surely that’s not what DfE want, is it?

*Update: The Ofsted Inspection report was published confirming that the School was judged inadequate for management and safeguarding:

This is an inadequate school 
Leaders and governors have failed to ensure that the procedures to safeguard the most vulnerable pupils are effective.
The behaviour of pupils requires improvement because attendance, while improving, remains too low.
The management of attendance and punctuality, an aspect of the personal development and welfare of pupils, is inadequate. Daily checks to ensure the whereabouts of pupils missing from school are not swift enough to ensure that they are safe. 

Clearly this is an important issue, but one that swift action at the UTC should be able to remedy. But, would it really cost a university two years of additional fees associated with their access agreement? 

What’s the Home Office’s problem with International Students?

Clustered around International Students’ day, we have had two parliamentary debates which come back to a core question, posed by Lord Lucas opening in the Lords:

No one I have spoken to in doing research for this debate has a clue as to what the Home Office thinks the problem is. What is the problem? Why is it a problem? What are its priorities? (Lucas 2016)

So, in both Westminster Hall on 16 November and the House of Lords on 17 November, parliamentarians of all sides have been puzzling over this core question.  What does the Home Office think is a problem with international students?

Past Abuses

It is clear that when the points-based system for visa was introduced, there was a major problem left by the Home Office as people who wanted to come to the UK could pretend to be students.  Sometimes they could pretend to be students at real universities and colleges and sometimes they could pretend to be students at pretend colleges.   This is the first line of defence of a policy of vigilance in the issuing of visas to students – are they genuine?

The ‘bogus’ colleges that sponsored students have been closed, but the Home Office is left with an ambiguity as to which ones they were.  Baroness Williams noted “Some 920 institutions have had their right to sponsor overseas students removed, and the effects are clear to see”.  In September Amber Rudd had noted that “The Conservative-led coalition stopped 875 bogus colleges bringing in overseas students”.  Have 45 further ‘bogus’ colleges been identified? I have asked for the data, but sadly the Home Office hasn’t been able to supply it yet.

However, the Home Office has a problem here.  It is perfectly capable of noting that there were abuses in 2009, but does it think there are abuses now in 2016?  Has the Home Office not sorted things out?  Tricky to claim now that the last Home Secretary hadn’t done enough.

Net Migration

The Conservative party has a manifesto pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.   This was the focus of many contributions in both houses.  The target is strange, people don’t see students as immigrants, the way of calculating students in the target is illogical.  Support for the notion of removing them from this target came from Nicky Morgan, former Education Secretary, who said:

I very much hope that student numbers will be removed from the drive to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, for the reason I have given about public opinion, as well as because it is the right thing to do for our economy. (Morgan 2016)

However, Home Office ministers are not moving on this.  This is impossible, apparently, because the statistics produced by the ONS cannot be tampered with.   That may be, there may be an international standard to uphold, but the target could easily be changed and a subsidiary number produced by the ONS.

The other aspect is inability of the Home Office to know who has gone home.  Lord Green of Migration Watch clung to the validity of the International Passenger Survey, but no one else does.

The value of International Students

The good thing about both sessions is that all speakers talked of the value of international students.  Although the financial case can be made, many went beyond that to the wider value.  The experience of the Lords is particularly wide, with contributions from the Bishop of Winchester and the Duke of Wellington.   Here’s what a new member, Baroness Chakrabarti, said in her maiden speech:

International students are visitors, not migrants. They do not take places from young people in the UK, but rather enrich their learning and their lives. When they leave, they often—not always, of course—become instinctive ambassadors for Britain and the democratic values we seek to preserve and promote around the globe. Further, if some go on to live and work here in the future, that is also, I would argue, to the good of academy, economy and society alike. (Chakrabarti 2016)


Baroness Chakrabarti giving her well-received maiden speech

Where next?

Neither Home Office minister was particularly forthcoming about the plans for the future. There was sustained pressure about the current pilot scheme – which the Government claims will help ‘our best institutions attract the best international talent’.  Why does the pilot not include any northern English, Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish universities, why is the data secret and where is this going?

Amber Rudd’s conference speech had gone further; not just selective support for the ‘best’ but a threat against those of ‘lesser quality’.  Paul Blomfield pressed the Immigration Minister twice on whether they would be using the TEF to make any judgements, he said:

I think that the hon. Gentleman will understand from his time here that when one is in consultation, one listens to views and then comes to a conclusion. At this stage we are listening to points, including the ones that he has made. (Goodwill, 2016)

Confirming, I think, that the Home Office is in a pre-consultation consultation phase. Hopefully that will be clear that there is an opportunity for the UK to engage with a diverse group of students taking diverse courses at diverse institutions.  Sadly, the mood continues to reflect the best and brightest or brightest and best formula (see my complaint about that here) .

It’s good to have these debates, but you have to agree a bit with Lord Lucas’s summing up:

I have also listened to Home Office Ministers’ speeches on many occasions, so I had low expectations. I was pretty certain that the Minister would be issued with a stick of candy-floss—sweet but very little substance—and so it turned out. It was comforting that she said such nice things about welcoming international students, but she absolutely did not say, “We, the Home Office, will be putting our backs into making sure we get lots more of them”. I am sad that she did not. (Lucas 2016)

I think we should all be a little sad, and still quite apprehensive.

The Home Office’s Paradox

In order to reduce net migration, the Home Office wants to curtail the number of international students coming to the UK.  Amber Rudd told the Tory Party conference that:

We will also look for the first time at whether our student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution.

I’m passionately committed to making sure our world-leading institutions can attract the brightest and the best.  But a student immigration system that treats every student and university as equal only punishes those we should want to help.

So our consultation will ask what more can we do to support our best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent … while looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses. (Rudd, 2016) 

This is a strange argument; we know that very few students overstay – we even know that the Home Office knows that.  Automatic post-study visas have been removed, and the granting of such remaining visas under tiers 1 and 2 is difficult.  Students come, and the majority go back, with the UK controlling (in the most part) those that stay.

The Home Secretary introduced the notion that there might be a category of lower quality courses and providers that might not be eligible to sponsor international students.  We have seen a pilot scheme launched by the Home Office to allow an easing of parts of the procedure – limited to Bath, Cambridge, Imperial and Oxford universities.  The Sunday Times carried a story that hinted this scheme might be expanded to all the Russell Group:

The government is considering allowing overseas students who attend one of the 24 universities in the elite Russell Group to work in Britain after graduating.  Those at other universities might be required to return home.

But here’s the Home Office’s problem.  They cannot justify limiting aspects of sponsoring students on the basis of membership of a mission group.  Although the Russell Group has done a tremendous job in tying the notions of ‘elite’ and ‘leading’ to their membership, this cannot stack up.  Better research is done in some depts outside the RG than inside, there are more selective courses outside, there are better employment outcomes etc etc. The differences between what David Watson called the ‘Bottom Russellers’ and other universities may be slight.  Just look at the inclusion of Bath in the Home Office’s pilot.

We know that the Home Office has used metrics to determine whether a provider can sponsor students.  Originally they had wanted to differentiate providers into Highly Trusted, A and B sponsors – but this fell apart, both as their data couldn’t really separate sponsors, and they lost confidence in all the sponsors who weren’t highly trusted.  The Sponsors also adapted to meet the HTS requirements, although they continue to live in fear of these metrics.  Importantly, they don’t reflect whether a university is good, but whether it runs the sponsorship system well.   Amber Rudd says she wants tougher rules for ‘lower quality courses’.

Here’s the Home Office’s problem; where they will hit my favourite paradox.   The Home Office needs a way of deciding what is a good course (or a good university), which if is to have any impact on student numbers cannot simply be every course in the UK.  The DfE have inherited the course designation system from BIS – a system that determines whether a course is good enough for the government to pay its fees (through loans in England).   The Home Office could use the TEF – but as David Morris’ analysis shows  this could have some major problems – what if LSE or Kings didn’t get Silver?  Can they really use the English TEF to drive UK-wide immigration policy?  What about specialist PG institutions? etc etc

This will leave the Home Office with their own special version of the Sorites Paradox.   Here’s Simon Blackburn’s explanation of it:

One grain of sand is not a heap. And for any number n, if n grains of sand are not a heap, then the addition of one more grain of sand does not make them a heap. But in that case you can never get a heap, for each grain you add leaves you just as much without a heap as before. (Blackburn 1994)

Any number that the Home Office uses in its metrics will be a grain of sand in the definition of a good university.  Adding one grain could move a university from lower quality to higher quality, 1% on a NSS scale or a DLHE return.  That grain would tip a university from having post-study opportunities or, maybe if they really want to cut numbers, from sponsoring students at all.  Any single line cut through the UK’s providers will be arbitrary and unfair in the judgement it makes.  The only way out of Sorites is to accept vagueness; that there is no sensible way of defining a heap with an exact number of grains of sand, or that a good university has exactly 217 points on some Home Office metric table.

We must wait for the Home Office’s consultation on what they want to do and how they intend to do it.  But if it involves a judgement on the quality of courses or universities, then that will have to tackle the paradox.

Ref: Blackburn, S, 1994, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Oxford, Oxford University Press

New Providers, Another New Analogy

Jo Johnson’s quest to explain the need for higher education has included some exciting analogies.  Today we move from burgers to bouncers.  Trouble is, that analogy is just as unhelpful as the burger one was.

We have the announcement of the Dyson Institute of Technology.  This is welcome; the involvement of industry in higher education is an entirely sensible thing.   Excitingly it might be the first time in the UK an industrialist has set up a higher education provider under their own name since Thomas Holloway had his vision for a women’s college.

Jo Johnson tells Times readers:

At a time when students are crying out for new ways of studying, the market share of the traditional three-year degree programme has increased from 65 per cent to 78 per cent over the past five years. Our reforms will change that. We will strip existing universities of the power to act like bouncers, deciding who should and should not be let into the club.

We shouldn’t let the first part of the quote pass us by.  There’s a reason why the market share of ‘traditional three-year degree programmes’ has increased – much of that is because of the catastrophic effect of this government’s reforms.   Removing teaching funding and a ham-fisted support package for part-time students wrecked the diversity of the sector, crashing their numbers.

But, let’s focus on the new analogy: bouncers.


The minister wants to conjure the image of bouncers refusing entry to a club on an arbitrary basis.   No trainers allowed in here, mate.  (Here’s a handy piece of student journalism on trainers in clubs)   Now, just as there’s nothing wrong with a franchise holder enforcing standards in the use of their brand (the whole Bryon vs McDonalds fallacy), what’s wrong with a club having rules?  After all, entry to the HE club confers the right to award degrees, something that most people can’t go back and do another time if they don’t like the first one  (with burgers, you can keep trying them till you find one you like).

But ‘door supervision’ is a regulated industry, it has a British Standard (BS 7960) just recently updated.  As you’d expect, most of it is focused not on how dress codes, but on the kind of organisation that can be accredited to offer door supervision.  It specifies that it has to be properly run, do comprehensive risk assessments, offer vetting and training of its staff etc. A key role of door supervision is to keep out people who might do harm to those inside; people selling drugs or carrying weapons.

Why would the minister want to remove door supervision from higher education?   Are universities using their power to keep out the kinds of company that ought to be offering innovative higher education?  Who are these companies?  One company that’s not been prevented from offering higher education is Dyson – the whole point of this announcement is that Dyson is having a degree validated by Warwick University.

It’s good that ministers are striving to explain their policies, but they should lay off the analogies.  Taking away regulation of who can offer degrees is potentially a very bad idea. We benefit from a controlled reputational range in the UK; the measures planned for the English part of this may harm it.