What’s Wrong with a Student Number Cap?

One the criticisms of plans to cut tuition fees is that it must lead to a cap on student numbers.  This is because any funding that supports teaching students would need to be estimated and agreed in a budget – too many students is an overspend.  Of course, there’s no cap on primary or secondary school places, the Government just funds all the places that are taken up.  It’s possible to agree that you could have a higher education funding system that works like sixth form places – the provider gets funded for the people they teach.

But, let’s assume there would be a cap.  What’s wrong with that?  Student number planning has been a feature through most of the post-war period.  UGC Quinquennial Plans or NAB agreements had shaped the size of institutions by 1992.  HEFCE did not have a planning function, it was a funding body.  It’s two immediate predecessor bodies (PCFC and UFC) had struggled with the issue of promoting growth in student numbers at a reduced unit of resource.   The universities had, in general, resisted growth on the reduced resources, whereas the polytechnics and colleges had embraced it.  In 1993 that period of growth ended, Government insisted that student numbers should remain as planned for.

HEFCE introduced a student number control; the Maximum Aggregate Students Number (MASN).   Institutions were now tied to their MASN; 1% over the target would result in a penalty, any shortfall would lead to holdback of funding.  Funding was now firmly tied to student numbers and the Higher Education Students Early Statistics (HESES) return a major event in the university’s year.  Each year could bring variations to the way the number was calculated, or, especially, the way that holdback was calculated or redistributed.

Looking at MASNs for 1996-1998, shows there was still a large amount of volatility with student numbers.  Particularly affected by mergers; universities were still growing and contracting despite student number controls, as the following examples of MASNs show.





De Montfort University




Imperial College




King’s College London




Lancaster University




Leeds Metropolitan University




Liverpool John Moores University




Sheffield Hallam University




University College London




University of Greenwich




University of Leeds




University of Lincolnshire & Humberside




University of Southampton




If student number planning was a control, it was also an incentive.  New Labour brought new priorities and institutions could formally bid for Additional Student Numbers (ASNs).   In October 1997 ASNs were offered, with the criteria:

Bids should address at least one of the following:
widening access for groups under-represented in higher education
regional needs
expanding sub-degree provision.

(HEFCE, 1997, 20/97 Additional Student Numbers and Funds 1998-99: Invitation to Bid)

ASNs became one of HEFCE’s chief incentives.  Problems could be addressed by the allocation of ASNs, mergers facilitated by ASNs, government policy delivered by ASNs.  From 1998, ASNs were linked to good teaching (as measured in TQA/Subject Review).  Growth in part-time numbers was particularly encouraged – with more PT numbers than FT being offered in both 1998 and 1999.     There was strong encouragement for FECs to bid, linking to a need for local provision.  After the development of foundation degrees, focused switched there, requiring HEIs to work with FECs:

Bids for sub-degree, degree or postgraduate places, including support for Graduate Apprenticeships, should refer to the institutions’ records on employability of their students, on student demand and on quality,

(HEFCE, 2000, 00/39 Additional student places and funds 2001-02: Invitation to bid)

The move to the new regime of a £9000 fee cap did not immediately remove student number controls.  It would be good to be able to evaluate who were the beneficiaries of the AAB+ and ABB+ rounds.  It did not produce some of the student number swings that some might have thought would have happened, but it certainly gave the impression that liberalising student number controls was to benefit well qualified candidates who were unable to get into the university of their choice.

It’s hard to reconcile the system of student number planning with the description that Vince Cable gave to the BIS Select Committee in 2014:

Indeed. It is no longer a Gosplan institution—the higher education system. We had what we called free universities, but the higher education system operated like the former Soviet Union. Universities were told exactly what they could do, exactly how many students they could have and exactly what they should study. We do not think that is appropriate in our kind of world. We want students to be able to choose; we want universities to have freedom to adapt their courses, so inevitably HEFCE, which is the intermediate body between Government and the sector, does not have the degree of control that Stalin would have liked under that kind of system. We are moving into a different world and it does involve loss of control.

This is silly.  Universities had the opportunity to determine how many students they wanted, or which subjects they would teach them in.   At times there were schemes to cap the numbers in a particular fee band (later the price group) or ASNs tied to particular bids, but these were not long-term constraints on institutional behaviour.

As an example, some of the 1960s universities (both the ‘new’ universities and the former CATS) were comparatively small when their MASNs were first set.  It is hard to make exact comparisons, but HESA data shows how many have more than doubled in size, mostly through the period of ‘Stalinist’ student number control.




Aston University




City University




Keele University




University of Bath




University of Essex




University of Surrey




University of York




Other universities made different choices – Oxford had 10025 UK & EU UG students in 2015/16, just over 150 students higher than its 1996 MASN.


Justine Greening Conservative Party Conference 2017

It’s clear that student number caps will feature in the battle over tuition fee policy.   The Conservatives have a clear line of criticism by comparing England to Scotland.  Justine Greening noted at the party’s conference that the Scots have no tuition fees but do have a cap on funded places.  She said ‘It leads to a cap on university places. Which is a cap on opportunity’.

As we are now having a review, then it would do well to make a proper comparison as there are many more differences between England and Scotland to ascribe a difference in participation in universities than to a student number cap.  Similarly, the relaxation of student number caps is unlikely to be the main cause of increased participation in England.

HEFCE has been a funding body, but student number controls gave it a way into planning.  Bidding for student numbers meant it could entice universities to deliver government priorities, say on foundation degrees, which would apply to those who wanted to engage but weren’t compulsory.   The Office for Students (OfS) won’t have that lever, all it can do is heap more and more requirements on registration.   Although MASN was a headache, it managed growth in the sector.  Opponents of reducing tuition fees need to find a better argument than student number controls.


Variable Tuition Fees: why the English don’t have them

The £9000 question is coming back to bite the sector.  There’s something about the uniformity of English undergraduate tuition fees being nearly universally set at £9250 that upsets people, particularly policy makers.   Is this because it shows the failure of a market on the basis of price?  Or simply because it offends an English sense of hierarchy that the fees are so similar?

The costs of higher education certainly used to be variable – the founding of the 19th century civic universities was very much about making affordable education available (although it was the costs outside tuition that dominated).  This continued into the 20th century, with Oxbridge being considerably more expensive than provincial universities.

Undergraduate education, especially in its full-time mode, has become highly regulated.  In England, the funding council evolved a series of measures to fund courses on a similar basis.  Any additional cost could not be passed onto the student and would not be met by HEFCE.  Some universities have sufficient endowments to allow them to spend more, but these are rare.  As graduate contributions have been introduced, the ‘fee’ has been highly regulated.  In effect the state funds university teaching by sending a sum of up to £9250 for each student, with premiums and top-ups for some subjects.  This is unlike other forms of fee, more like a voucher, but it would be sophistry to try and state that it’s not actually a fee.

I remember well the discussions had in universities when the government allowed a variable fee cap; at first £3000 but later £9000.  Each university worked out its own position (no cartel) and applied the same logic.  No doubt each went through the same logical steps, and it’s worth noting that a large number of different positions were reached – especially in the first year.  Although variation on the ‘sticker price’ was limited, there was, and still is, a huge variation in the actual price with bursaries and fee waivers.

When the cap was raised to £3000, not all universities went to the maximum.  Leeds Metropolitan opted for £2000 – Simon Lee announcing:

“This university has never been afraid to stand out from the crowd. We are now pioneering low fees.”

Times Higher Education 17/12/04

When the fee cap rose to £3070, the bulk of Universities charged that as their fee.  For Leeds Met, the ‘low charging, high impact’ approach survived for four intakes, but fee went to the maximum  very soon after Lee’s departure.

With £9000, there seemed more scope for variation, and the Government imagined that universities would settle for the lower £6000 cap.  Vince Cable answered Simon Hughes on this in the Commons:

That is a highly pertinent question in the light of the experience of the last Government, who had a two-tier system. There was a migration of all universities to the top of the range. They operated, in effect, like a cartel, and that must be stopped. It must not happen again, and there are several means by which that will happen. First, any university that wants to go beyond £6,000 will have to satisfy very demanding tests of access for low-income families, including through the introduction of the scholarship scheme. Newer institutions, particularly further education colleges providing accredited courses, will drive down the cost of high quality basic teaching. If universities defy the principle of operating on a competitive cost basis, it may well be necessary to introduce additional measures …

Hansard 10 December 2010

But Vince was wrong.  It was not a cartel that drove fees to £9000, but the logic of the system.

Helpfully David Willetts understands this. At the fees debate held at the Resolution Foundation, he summed up the arguments that each university went through in 2010/11 before emerging with their fee proposals.  Fees don’t vary because it is illogical to do so.  Why turn away funds for courses? That makes no sense and it additionally looks bad to applicants (who really wants a cheap degree?).

As Leeds Met tried with the £3000 cap, London Met tried with £9000, with a range of variable fees, from £4500 upwards, but anticipated to average at £6850.  This approach last for three cohorts, but for 2015 the university concluded it would raise fees to £9000.  Perhaps a university in a more robust state might have held out longer.  But, you can’t say they didn’t try; even down to the advertising campaign on ‘affordable quality education’.

What logical basis could there be for varying fees inside the regulated system?  Universities tend to vary fees for non-regulated students on cost; Oxford, for example, has banding for international students.  Here are the first four undergraduate courses:

Ancient & Modern History £15,755
Archaeology & Anthropology £15,755
Biological Sciences £23,190
Biomedical Sciences £18,080

There’s much focus on whether ‘cheap’ courses should attract a lower fee.  Complex (especially with combined courses) this comes back to trying to cost the course as opposed to funding the university.  No one likes overheads, but a degree doesn’t just cost what it takes to put a lecturer in a classroom.

No doubt there will be more focus on the return on investment argument, but past averaged earnings is a lousy way of guesstimating what the initial charge should be.  The repayment system takes that into account – why try take the average of recent English graduates, say, and turn that into an up-front price?  It’s highly arbitrary and within the regulated fee system hard to justify.  Should a subject such as economics, whose students might, on average, earn more than those in biological sciences, charge more? Should the fees from economics then be used in part to pay for higher cost courses?  The biggest concern, of course, is causation.  His degree in Countryside Management is not the cause of the wealth of the Duke of Westminster.  Should all fees in the North East be lower because graduates who stay there are paid lower on average than those in London?

The week that the idea of forcing variability of fees was floated in the Sunday Times, they had a MBA guide among the many sections.  This shows that universities are very happy to vary fees outside the regulated system.  MBAs come in all sorts of varieties and all sorts of prices.  No doubt there are all sorts of differences between the 12 month FT MBA at Kingston and the 21 month FT MBA at London Business School – but the difference in price is £64,450.

Conformity in fee level is the result of the regulated fee system.  If the goal is really to have variable fees, then government and parliament would need to let go.  This is highly unlikely – the basis of undergraduate fees is written into primary and secondary legislation.  Even a measure such as relaxing the rules for accelerated degrees has been put into statute (which will constrain options for universities).  Moving the ‘sticker price’ will have to be matched by those fee waivers and bursaries – will bursaries for poor students go down if the fee is forced down?

As we hear more of plans for any forced variation, remember that it’s the regulation that diminishes variation – not a cartel.

More shocking ‘research’ on ‘pointless’ university degrees

There’s a narrative that university is all a bit expensive and a bit pointless.  It’s not a new narrative, but it’s been wound through this summer’s fun and games about fees, long holidays, shorter degrees, fat cats etc.  I noted last year that the More Means Worse narrative – for that’s what it is – had jumped into the summer, a period that had previously left for stories about glamorous twins getting identical A level grades and going off to university.   I’ve also noted that companies like to generate news stories with spurious surveys and research about university life.

So, here’s an outfit that has manage to combine these two trends – a mysterious survey that shows that university is a bit pointless, and maybe you’d be better off doing something like an apprenticeship. An outfit that’s an apprenticeship provider, no less.


News items appeared on 5 September 2017 reporting a survey done by Qube Learning . This was covered in both the Sun and the Mirror and a few other outlets.  They picked up on the same details, details that were covered in a ‘News Post’ that Qube put on their website on 13 September 2017.  Now, I understand how embargos work – but why delay putting up the press release that you’ve clearly sent to the press a week earlier?  The only reason I can think of is it does give the ‘journalists’ some cover as they effectively copy out the press release.

As an example, the opening paragraph of the Qube press-release says:

A survey we conducted found the most common reasons to rue time spent in further education are paying too much for their degree, wasting their time and making bad choices such as not choosing subject or institution more carefully.

And the Mirror’s second paragraph says:

A survey found the most common reasons to rue time spent in further education are paying too much for their degree, wasting their time and making bad choices such as not choosing subject or institution more carefully.

The Sun’s second paragraph took a similar line:

A survey found the most common reasons to rue time spent in further education are paying too much for their degree, wasting their time and making bad choices such as not choosing subject or institution more carefully.

Of course, as this is a piece of research, you’d not expect journalists to muck about with the findings of this survey, but to report it honestly.  But both websites repeat each key point, with a very mild amount of paraphrasing (hardly enough to escape Turnitin).

There are scant details about the survey in the press release, it says its was of 2000 graduates, but we don’t know anything about the sample, response rate or methodology.  The results always described in the text as a number agreeing with a statement ‘93%’, ‘nearly half’, ‘more than four in five’, ‘nearly two-thirds’ etc.  The press release is heading towards a list (always the favourite way of getting news space) of pointless degrees:


1. Acting
2. Outdoor adventure and environment
3. Office skills
4. Film studies
5. Dance / choreography
6. Drama studies
7. Celtic and Anglo Saxon Studies
8. Fashion merchandising
9. Media studies
10. Religious Studies

*Source: One Poll Survey

We’re told that the study found this list of degrees were those thought of as a ‘waste of time’ and that ‘two thirds of respondents who graduated with qualifications considered ‘pointless’ admitted their degree didn’t help them to secure their current job’ which is hardly surprising.  These are interesting categories of degrees for those surveyed to have chosen.  Did they chose the from a list, or did they write them in?  Who does a degree in ‘office skills’?  Do people understand the difference between ‘acting’ (normally associated with a conservatoire-based professional course) and drama studies?  I imagine that most Outdoor adventure and environment and Fashion merchandising courses are highly vocational, and that Celtic and Anglo Saxon Studies isn’t.

Sadly, Qube Learning haven’t published their report [UPDATE: Qube have told me: ‘unfortunately, we cannot release the report as it’s paid for content and the property of Qube Learning’ – see below].  Assuming it does actually exist, we can’t interrogate its findings.  But those findings are now out there, read by readers of the Sun and Mirror websites, and now referred to in other media as if it’s a real report with validated findings.  Qube have helpfully tweeted those occasions – so we know it’s been quoted on the One Show on BBC1.    This is highly disappointing; I’m happy for anyone to do ‘research’ and publicise their findings, but they should publish properly.

This matters.  The demographic of people reading the Sun and the Mirror and watching the One Show will include communities under-represented in higher education.  Being told that a quarter of graduates regret going to university may affect their life choices.  I’m very happy that people should take informed decisions – I agree with Joe Crossely of Qube who says in the press release:

‘It’s imperative that people from as young as 16 years old should be made aware of the educational choices that are out there for them’

What I don’t agree with is that in order to stress the value of apprenticeships, you need to put out press releases about ‘pointless’ degrees.  There have been issues with apprenticeships, I expect that apprenticeship providers would be furious with any university marketing departments that put out press releases on the back of opaque surveys saying that there were ‘pointless’ apprenticeships.  Make people aware of choices, but don’t pander to the More Means Worse argument to do so.


I’ve been in correspondence with Qube Learning and OnePoll (the organisation that did the survey).  They won’t release the report but have given some sense of the methodology – 2000 responses were gained from a survey pool and were given multiple choice responses to questions such as ‘do you ever regret going to university?’.  The list of pointless degrees list was generated by the respondents going through a list of titles and saying whether they were useful or useless (but not, I think, pointless – which is a different thing).

OnePoll’s web page explains how they run these ‘PR surveys’ – all properly done according to MRS code of conduct – to help create stories to support brands.  I’m perfectly happy that the media will lap up stories as to how many smoothies students consume – but this piece has both public policy outcomes and potential outcomes on peoples’ life choices.  So  I disagree with Qube – I think they should publish their report so it can be engaged with.


The Galactic University Rankings

I’m not a fan of rankings.  I’ve been grumpy about them since 1993, but I recognise that, in the UK, in order to have a trade paper, and a pretty good one, they need to earn a buck. They’ve had their big launch this week and all very well choreographed it was too (spoilt only by the Independent whose basic journalistic competence is so badly compromised they can’t understand the concept of an embargo any more).

I’m enjoying the big glossy booklet with the rankings in it – but perhaps not for the reasons intended.  In 2017 it is now officially twice as big as the magazine (154 pages vs 72 pages).  There’s lots of lovely content in the rankings guide, I’m sure, but I’ve been captivated by the advertising.  I’ve always wondered about the very general advertising that some universities place in THE; it’s often positioning statements, rather than actually advertising courses or jobs.  I wonder if they think that the people who fill in the reputation surveys will remember Manipal University next time, or that we’ll be beating a path to East China Normal University next time we want a partner in Shanghai.

I first spotted the galactic theme.  There are several universities who’ve put their messaging against a star-filled sky.  The imagery is obvious, CUHK sum it up nicely – ‘Reach for the Stars – a galaxy of leading scholars and educators – soar with us’ We might be a global university (CUHK is 58th this year) but go beyond this to the stars.

FullSizeRender (24)

But, even dull sublunary types, you start reading the slogans.  There have been some great pieces done with slogans – for example Liz Morrish on the Russell Group or the American version. I can’t offer poetry, just replication.  These are all in large font size in the advertising featured in the THE World University Rankings Booklet

Asian insight. Global outlook.
A World-class university in an incredible city
Asia’s Global University
A different gaze
The Chinese University for Global Leadership
The World needs New
Not just another university
From here, you could go anywhere
Challenging convention, saying ahead of the curve
Seeking Truth and Pursuing Innovation
Transforming Lives
Passionately inspiring the minds of tomorrow
Learn today Lead Tomorrow
Knowledge Pioneers at the heart of Europe
The University for a Changing World
Your Global Future Starts Here
Thinking works
Make a world of difference in a world of differences
Start Here. Go Anywhere
A university for the real world
Where innovation is a mantra and collaboration, an art
Progress doesn’t accept answers. It questions them.
Critical Edge
Never Stop Advancing
We think in terms of possibilities instead of limitations
Gold Award for Outstanding Teaching

Note that the English university who’ve gone with their TEF award rather than something inspirational come towards the end of the booklet.  Although it’s easy to scoff, actually the litany of aspirations does capture something of the extraordinary nature of our universities.  Under attack all summer, maybe we should be proud of what we do, not just focused on two universities, but how the thousand universities that Phil Baty has plonked in his ranking do so much, and how the thousands of universities beyond the glossy booklet do so much too.

Bogus Colleges (9) the Home Office’s big claim

The release of the ONS update on International student migration research came wrapped by two Home Office announcements; first the review by the Migration Advisory Committee and then their own report confirming Tier 4 were the most likely to leave on time.

Away from the very good news that Tier 4 has the best record of migrants returning home (we really do need to have longitudinal data on how many convert to Tier 1 or 2, retaining their skills in the UK) both the ONS and Home Office data showed how student migration has changed over 10 years.

The Home Office report goes into more detail on that trend, charting the ‘abuses’ it had dealt with, including:

From 2010 onwards a new sponsorship scheme was introduced, which required sponsors to apply for accreditation on an annual basis. This was originally through receipt of Highly Trusted Sponsor status, which was replaced with the Basic Compliance Assessment in 2015. Following this or as a result of subsequent enforcement action, licences were not renewed for over 900 FE colleges which were then not able to sponsor international students. In many cases these were colleges where there were concerns over compliance.

Here is the area that appears to have made the biggest difference to the overall numbers.  They include charts which show student numbers in universities stay level, but those in Language Schools and especially ‘Further Education’ decline sharply.

The Home Office has the data on students’ sponsorship and there’s a very clear picture that the sharp rise and fall in ‘Further Education’ was in places that subsequently left the Tier 4 register.

This was reiterated in the Home Office’s press release about the MAC review:

Since 2010, this has included taking away the ability of more than 900 – often bogus or low quality – colleges to bring in international students.

And it featured in their messaging about the reports:

My attempts to understand the data on providers who have had their licences revoked means I’m interested in the number used.  In the three documents it’s stated as ‘more than 900’ providers, ‘over 900 FE colleges’ and ‘over 920 low quality or bogus institutions’.

I know any of these aren’t true.  The data the Home Office has sent me shows that while there are over 900 providers who have left the register, many of the names on the list are duplicates, or places that returned to the register, or perfectly reputable providers that either gave up or were turfed off the list because of the onerous requirements.  It is good that the Home Office has stopped using the blanket label of ‘bogus’ for everyone, but ‘low quality’ won’t wash for places like Hereford Cathedral School or Magdalen College School – examples of the kind of places that have been temporarily dropped from the register.

Further more, the Home Office must be perfectly capable of drilling down into the ‘Further Education’ sector it describes.  How much of the decline in sponsorship comes from small privately owned colleges that offered ‘diploma’ courses through accredited arrangements, but who stayed outside the standard FE or HE frameworks.  If these were the targets – ‘low quality or bogus’ – then they should stop publicly doing down those providers who operate reputably.  These include FE Colleges, whose ability to recruit international students arbitrarily curtailed because of a category they’ve been dropped into.

The Home Office should properly review the impact of removing providers in the 2010-2015 period.  It should stop using an inflated number of ‘bogus’ colleges – especially to avoid it seeming they are doing so to distract from the discovery they’d been using an inflated number of over-staying students.

Remuneration Committees and Vice-Chancellors’ Pay.

Lord Adonis has successfully drawn attention away from the student finance ‘debate’ with the issue of Vice Chancellors’ pay.  In effect, he’s thrown that ‘dead cat’ into a fees debate that he himself has done well to keep going after the election.  As the Newsnight segment about fees on results day showed, the debate keep coming back to VCs’ pay (whether that’s egregious or a fraction of a footballer’s wage).

As autonomous bodies, Universities have got to engage with this issue – OfS can’t tell them what to do, or how much to pay, but they can impose conditions as part of registration – so they need to engage now.  There is an existing means of supporting Councils and Boards of Governors, who are additionally autonomous, through the Council of University Chairs (CUC).  They have a helpful guide to remuneration Committees, which (a) each university should check it has engaged with and (b) should use as a thorough overhaul.

CUC Illustrative Practice Guide to Remuneration Committees 2015

The guide gets straight to the point:

It is probably fair to say that in the eyes of wider society the reputation of Higher Education (HE) can be significantly damaged by pay packages for senior staff that are perceived as out of kilter with pay and conditions elsewhere. The Remuneration Committee faces a difficult challenge in responding to the global market for talent while ensuring that pay is clearly linked to performance and that increases are sustainable. This is very much a reputational issue and therefore an issue for the governing body.

The duties of the committee are set out and the guide notes that ‘processes by which it reaches its decisions need to be clearly available to and understood by all stakeholders’.

The guide explains how a Remuneration Committee should work; it takes performance and benchmarking information.

In its deliberations the Remuneration Committee will need to take account of a range of information. In the case of the head of institution and senior managers this will include evidence of performance against agreed objectives measured by appraisal. It is important for the Committee to differentiate between personal and institutional performance. This is especially relevant where pay rises above the average or performance bonuses are being awarded.

I wonder how many senior managers will have had getting ‘Gold’ in the TEF in their performance objectives?

The other key information is benchmarks; perhaps the key to wage inflation.  Here the guide says:

The Committee should also have a range of benchmark information allowing it to make comparisons with other institutions in the sector. The main sources of such information are the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) Vice-Chancellors’ salaries survey, data provided by the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) and the annual survey undertaken by the Times Higher Education (THE). It should be noted that the CUC survey (which provides to the Chair detailed comparative information) and the UCEA Senior Staff Remuneration Survey (published every February based on salary data as at 1 November the previous year) are current whereas the THE report is based on data from the previous year. The usual caveats apply to the use of benchmark data, namely that benchmark data gives indications and a framework for the exercise of judgement and should not be used in a mechanistic or formulaic manner.
It is also important for benchmarks selected to be regularly reviewed by the Remuneration Committee.

The problem comes from defining policies based around a combination of performance and benchmarks. Here’s an example of how they combine:

Remuneration Policy aims to provide ‘median’ reward compared to comparator groups when acceptable levels of performance have been delivered. For the achievement of outstanding performance, it aims to deliver ‘upper quartile’ remuneration compared to comparator groups

Admittedly this isn’t actually a university remuneration policy (it’s from RM) but it shows how performance and benchmarks can act as an escalator for wages.  Inside the comparator group, any awards at the ‘upper quartile’ level will shift the whole group up, so even the median will increase.  A committee benchmarking the VC against, say, 23 others will find upward drift.  Of course each year there will be new arrivals to the benchmarking pool – perhaps a new VC getting less than the one before, but often not.  Up goes the median and the upper quartile.

The Guide encourages Universities to publish their policies in an annual report, citing UWE’s as an example.

Since 2012/13 the Committee has defined the Vice-Chancellor’s performance targets in relation to the financial performance of the institution and National Student Survey results. In order for the maximum bonus to be payable the stretch targets for both performance targets must be achieved. The achievement of one of the targets triggers a proportion of the allowable bonus subject to their being no deterioration in the other metrics

UWE July 2014

This is transparent – stakeholders at UWE can see the basis on which the VC is assessed, even if the analysis or the amounts aren’t included.  No doubt some of those stakeholders might have views on the causes of an uplift in the NSS.

There may be other examples of published remuneration committee reports, but they are rare.  Indeed, having been cited by the CUC for good practice, UWE appear not to have published another report since.

I’m comfortable with independent governors running the remuneration process, but I worry that the reliance on benchmarking, coupled with a performance target culture is leading to this inflation of salaries.  Governors have been given good cause to worry about the future of individual Universities, worrying about avalanches and market exits.  The recruiting and retaining of a good vice-chancellor has become crucial for governors, and it’s no wonder that the remuneration committee is at the sharp end of this.

The CUC guide, even as illustrative practice, should be dusted off by every university and reviewed.  Hopefully a flood of committee reports will follow, explaining their policies, perhaps linked to a potential duty to explain exceptional pay to OfS.  Transparency would be a good first step – hopefully paving the way for a greater culture of restraint.

State Funding – a deputation

On 23 November 1918 the President of the Board of Education and the Chancellor of the Excequer received a deputation from Universities in Britain and Ireland to make the case for increased state funding.

The meeting was 12 days after the signing of the armistice, and the War was a theme to the presentations made.  There were 67 people on the university side; lay members of council, vice-chancellors and principals (including Miss Tuke of Bedford College, the only woman present) and committee members of the Universities Bureau of the British Empire.  Cases were made for different disciplines, citing their usefulness and issues for Scottish and Irish Universities were outlined, although their relevant secretaries of state were not present.

The minutes of the proceedings set out the arguments made.  A note from Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, a former education minister, set the tone – a nation that had been spending £6-7 million a day on fighting the war could afford £2 million a year to support higher education.

Sir Oliver Lodge spoke first, representing the ‘Modern Universities’. He concentrated on professorial salaries, noting that a large increase was needed for them.

You may be starving the source of the golden eggs by not dealing with this matter in a liberal fashion. Professorships must be established on a better footing.

He then described how the basis of University education must be enlarged, ‘throwing it open to a wider class of the community’, and describing how more activity would require more funding.  He also recounted how Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Secretary, had encouraged the universities ‘to get American students over here and to send our men over there’.  He explained how universities were establishing a new degree ‘having as its object a training in research’ for both home and American students.  But, he noted, these new PhDs would be expensive to teach.

His pitch was for the 1915 review of the grant (which had been planned to double expenditure but didn’t happen because of the war) to be added to a 1920 review (another doubling) but noting that ‘we cannot wait; we want these two doublings put together, we want a quadrupling at once’

Following a statement on Scotland,  Sir Bertram Windle, Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, spoke of the special needs of Ireland, but also turned to the special contribution of the humanities.

May I emphasise the truth that we have won the War and the Victory on which civilisation depends, not less by moral than by material forces, and that the humanities, as taught in the schools and Universities, have had their own high and necessary contribution to make both to the national appreciation of the issues for which we went to war, and the good conscience with which we fought and endured our sacrifices.

He then turned on German education…

The perverted mentality of our foes which rendered possible their criminal assault upon civilisation was due to the predominant reliance in their systems of education upon material force, to their extremely narrow ideas of intellectual discipline, to the false philosophy of the State taught in their Universities for the last forty years and to their disregard of those moral influences in education of which the humanities are the record and enforcement.

Sir William Bragg, attending for the Universities Bureau, covered the immense contribution of University science to the war effort. In 2017 we might find some ambivalence towards perfecting explosives, targeting artillery or creating new gases, but this was 1918.  He spoke particularly about the struggle against submarines, how applied science had used an idea from pure science to detect them, and how the work would continue such that the submarine could be neutralised.  He said:

What time means in fighting the submarine it does not need any more words of mine to explain. The whole of the grants that we have been asking for to-day might be swallowed up in the sums you can think of in questions like that. The attitude that understands just what science can do and what it cannot do, and how to set it to work in England, and its function, the natural function of a University, to do it; the fruits of a University are seen in the attitude of the people towards knowledge.

Moreover, we must provide men filled with a desire to learn.  We must provide laboratories to teach them in and the staff to teach them.  And so I say that, when we think of the problems of this war and put them together in our minds, we recognise that to a very great extent it is to the development of the University that we must look for the solution to the problems of the future.

The Chancellor, Andrew Bonar Law, was cautious in response, not able to pledge any money there and then. He was sympathetic to the ‘desire that the University should extend right down to the very bottom of our social system’ – here the minutes record ‘(Hear, hear)’.  When he concluded that proposals put to Government would be considered at least sympathetically – the record notes ‘(Cheers)’.

The President of the Board of Education, H A L Fisher, the former Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield, reiterated that the Government would consider their proposal carefully.

I am convinced – and my conviction has been deepened by the impressive mass of testimony which I have heard to-day – of the necessity of a very much more liberal assistance from the State to the higher learning in this country. (Cheers.) And I am equally convinced, from my long connexion  with Universities, of the great value of preserving University autonomy. (Cheers.)

The mechanism for distributing funds, keeping the notion of a quinquennial grant, was entrusted to the University Grants Committee who reported to the Treasury and not to the Board of Education.    The evolution of state support for British Universities could now quicken pace.  The war has slowed down the development of state support, but it demonstrated, as the Deputation showed, how valuable Universities could be to the country.
It should be noted, as Fisher did, that although the Universities were united in wanting more funds, they were divided on the issue of how to handle different costs of degree courses and the fees associated with them.