Searching for value for money – OfS’s new powers

The Higher Education & Research Bill creates a new regulator (OfS) who need different powers than the old regulator (HEFCE).  I think there is a realisation that a lot of regulation was done through the funding system, and where a provider isn’t funded, this breaks down.

The Bill creates the power for OfS to ask for a search warrant of a provider. It says:

A justice of the peace who is satisfied that the requirements in sub-paragraph (3) are met in relation to relevant higher education premises may issue a warrant under this paragraph (a “search warrant”) in respect of the premises.

The grounds for asking for a warrant (Sub-paragraph 3) are stated as there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that there is, or has been, a breach of a registration condition or funding condition of the provider.

HEFCE do not have this power.  Clearly, if they thought that fraud was being committed, then they could involve a body who do have this power (the police for example).  It was interesting to hear the reasons given by Lord Young (who has been Viscount Younger’s wingman in report stage) when Labour proposed limiting these powers to just fraud.

“However, narrowing the powers in the way proposed could affect our ability to investigate effectively certain cases where value for public money, quality, and the student interest was at risk, but where these might not clearly constitute fraud, or serious or wilful mismanagement of public funds at the time of the application for the warrant.

As an example, the OfS could put in place a condition to limit the number of students a provider with high drop-out and low qualification rates was able to recruit: for instance if the OfS considered that those performance issues are related to the provider recruiting more students than it can properly cater for.” Lord Young, Hansard 8 March 2017

The ‘probing’ amendment had done it’s job.  The Government wants search powers of universities when the OfS is worried about ‘value for money’.  Furthermore, the example of providers taking on too many students – one wonders which providers Government is worrying about there? Lord Young explained further:

If the OfS has grounds to suspect that the provider is in any case undertaking an aggressive student enrolment campaign, it is important that evidence can be found swiftly to confirm this, and to prevent over-recruitment. Lord Young, Hansard 8 March 2017

It seems a bit rich to complain, now that the Government is getting the powers to stop some of the things that happened in the bad old days of alternative provider growth (2011-2014), but that seems to be exactly what they’re doing.  Lord Watson, for Labour, made that point.  Lord Young agreed: the NAO had criticised the lack of these powers in their report on alternative providers – which made it harder to ‘tackle rogue providers’. Clearly these aren’t the same alternative providers that the Government wanted to give ‘probationary’ degree powers to. Those are the different class of ‘Challenger Institutions’ – the respectable ones based in Hereford or Malmsbury.

It’s likely that this power will remain, so officers from OfS will be able to get a warrant and come round with the police and check your student marketing strategy.

Bogus Colleges (6): the freedom of information

I keep returning to an aspect of the UK Government’s approach to immigration: the use of data about ‘bogus colleges’ to demonstrate that there has been abuses of the student visa system.  This is done to: (a) demonstrate the energy of the Home Office in dealing with this and (b) to justify additional measures.  I have shown, I think, in several blog posts on this topic that the way that government uses an overall number of providers who have been removed from the register is misleading.

In her speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 4 October 2016  Amber Rudd said:

The Conservative-led coalition stopped 875 bogus colleges bringing in overseas students, tackled abuse of student visas, and reformed the family system.

Now, I know that is unlikely.  It’s clear that at least 875 providers will have been removed from the register.  In October 2015 there were 890 providers on the list of those removed. In October 2014 there were 835 on the list. But the lists provided are of colleges and schools who have at any time been removed, even if they now have a new entry (because they changed name, ownership or returned after a period of suspension) or if they are an entirely reputable provider who has just stopped courses that need a tier 4 visa (schools who no longer take international students or language schools who now only offer shorter courses).

So I asked for another list of the providers who were no longer on the list.  I asked for that on 4 October 2016 and was promptly told that the Home Office would respond by 1 November 2016, 20 working days after my FOI request.

On 2 November I reminded the Home Office that they’d said they’d respond by 1 November.

On 15 November I reminded the Home Office, pointing out they were now 10 working days after 1 November.

On 29 November  I reminded the Home Office, pointing out they were now 20 working days after 1 November, double the time they should have taken.

On 5 December I asked the Home Office to undertake an internal review of their inability to meet the FOI response time.

On 6 December, the Home Office replied.  They regretted they hadn’t met the response time, and assured me that “we are dealing with your request and we will send you a full reply as soon as we can”.  They did not say that they’d undertake an internal review.

On 5 January 2017  I again asked the Home Office to undertake an internal review of their inability to meet the FOI response time as it was now three months after my request.

On 6 January, the Home Office replied, with their standard first response letter again, saying that they’d reply within 20 days.

On 13 January, the Home Office replied with their template letter for having conducted an internal review. They said:

I apologise on behalf of the department for the length of time which it is taking to provide you with a substantive response to your request.  The policy area has been informed of your concerns and I can confirm that your request is under active consideration and is being treated as a matter of priority.

As of 10 February, we’ve now had 20 working days since an internal review at the Home Office confirmed that they not met the FOI deadline, nor had they informed me that there was any reason why they could not meet the deadline.  20 working days is the standard set for responses to FOI requests, but even with the policy area treating this as a ‘priority’ they haven’t met that deadline.  I don’t know how many ‘working days’ the Home Office had over Christmas, but assuming they didn’t come in at all, they’ve now had at least 87 days.  I also know that the data they have provided me in the past has simply been a download of the names of providers who have been flagged as being removed from the register.  That should be a five minute job.  Why hasn’t that been possible in four months?

I’ve now raised this with the Information Commissioner.  But why should I need to?  Ministers are clearly very proud of the action they took to stop ‘bogus colleges’.  In the Committee Stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill, Lord Younger noted that:

I should like to make clear the Government’s position on international students generally. … I make no apology that, when we came to power in 2010, we took steps to rid the system of abuse that was then rife. No one denies now that action needed to be taken then. More than 900 institutions lost the ability to bring in international students.

In October 2016 the Home Secretary said 875 bogus colleges had been stopped by the coalition – now the number stands at over 900.  Why won’t they release the names of the providers concerned?

Raising the stakes in student accomodation

Student housing is a lucrative business.  I know that because I get emails from investment companies telling me that it is.  They promise high yields on investments; a far cry from the interest offered on bank accounts.  Meanwhile sovereign wealth funds are buying up whole developments and portfolios as UK student housing looks like a safe bet.  The economics of this are driving companies to compete, mostly by looking to justify ever higher costs, meanwhile something important is being lost.

The current ‘offer’, especially at the ‘luxury’ end of the range, is quite different from that enjoyed by many who went to university in the second half of the twentieth century.  Here the norm was for utilitarian facilities, with sharing as the dominant theme.  Students shared food, bathrooms, entertainment facilities, even a payphone (few UK students shared bedrooms as their US counterparts did).   This wasn’t just an accident; it became the official policy of British Higher Education to encourage a residential life, with students being deliberately mixed together.  The shift to a market for accommodation threatens that policy: it separates the residential life from the academic life, it runs the risk of separating students, and it is increasing the cost of higher education (with speculators gaining from that).   It’s also a process we’ve been through before – so we should be warned.

From Halls to Studio Living

The student room has transformed in 40 years.   The earliest development was away from the catered hall of residence to the self-catered flats.  Grouped into flats of differing numbers, this became the new unit of student living.  A kitchen/lounge was provided for the group, often at the expense of any social space in the wider hall.   These clusters maintained the privacy of the individual study bedroom, but created a new group focus.

This mode of building is still popular; a 175 bed building in Headington was offered for sale at £18,650,000 before building got underway or evening planning had been granted (it’s very much still under construction and the company now say they’ll keep it).  With an underwriting by Oxford Brookes of 97% of the income for the property and a management agreement in place with a third party company, the investor was promised a net initial yield of 5.75% in the first five years.

A new mode of living is coming up, though.  Some student developments started to include a few ‘studio’ flats; a larger unit incorporating the lounge option with a small kitchenette.   While universities found themselves with a variety of standards of accommodation (compare the older rooms sharing facilities with the new ensuite rooms) these are now being built into the same developments.  Savills are selling Wellgate House in Edinburgh for £6,500,000, a converted building whose 66 rooms are divided between standard and  large cluster rooms, standard, large and penthouse studios.


Assuming a 43 week let (Destiny Scotland take care of festival booking in the summer) a student in a standard cluster room would pay £7,740 – which after the operating costs would enable then to gain a net initial yield of 6% (after purchaser costs).

Now whole developments are being created with these studios.  An example is Cormorant House – part of a waterfront regeneration scheme in Huddersfield.


Cormorant House

The funding arrangements for this are different, rather than buy the whole building the individual studios are being offered for sale.  A canal-facing studio will cost an investor £58,495 and offers a 9% net rental yield.  These are being marketed by companies that will also sell you an airport car parking space as an income source.  Clearly the largest component that the student is paying for is the combination of capital and investment cost.  A young Scottish student in Edinburgh would find that standard cluster room in Wellgate House costs £115 more than their combined bursary & loan, where £5640 is going into the finance of the block.

There’s money to be made here.  There are plenty of reports of whole developments being sold, for example in Birmingham, Bournemouth and Cardiff, and Ardent (which has a portfolio of 25 student accommodation buildings) was sold to Singapore’s state investment fund Temasek .

*Update* First, Unite announced that it had bought Aston’s Student Village, with over 3000 rooms working with another Singaporean sovereign wealth fund and the next week it announced that they were selling 4175 rooms spread over 13 properties in order to balance that.  Big money is moving around student accommodation.

Why residence matters

Nick Hillman has questioned why we have moved so firmly to a boarding school model of higher education, and I think the answers are mostly historical.  The new ‘civic’ universities in the 19th century turned away from the residential university model associated with Oxford and Cambridge for good reasons.  The founders of UCL were very clear, living at home would be more affordable and parents could maintain supervision of their children (and therefore attend to their religion and morality).  The expense of the older universities was ruinous (and the morality could be too).  In their prospectus they worked out how many families lived within a commutable distance to Bloomsbury.

However, one of the main lines of assault on the ‘modern’ universities was that their students did not live the full life of a student in residence.  Clearly this was a coded reference to their difference from Oxford and Cambridge, and after the First World War a consensus was reached between the UGC and NUS that this was the preferred model.  The only university to get a charter between the wars was Reading, which had committed to a residential mode.  The UGC’s 1930 report on universities was clear:

The common life of a residential hall, with the invaluable opportunities it affords for mixing with and learning from students of different tastes and bents of mind is an advantage which we should be glad to see within the reach of as many students as possible. (UGC 1930 p42)

The 1957 Nibblet report confirmed the advantages of the residential model noting that halls had a role of great importance to play in the wider education of students.  They noted that fewer students were living at home (in 1934 44% of students lived at home, in 1956 that was 27%), but lodgings were not capable of breaking the model of a ‘nine to five’ mentality – ‘the great enemy of university education’ (UGC 1957 p9).  The UGC committed to provide capital funds to build halls for both new universities and expanding civic universities.  As halls were designed to bring students together, the UGC adhered to strict specifications – universities were not allowed to build luxury blocks.

It was well known that universities did have luxury blocks of accommodation.  Some of our most celebrated collegiate buildings come from a boom in building student accommodation.  In the eighteenth century Colleges, which had  mainly been founded to support poor students, found that recruiting gentlemen and the nobility was a successful strategy.  Although the students were not generally that interested in taking their degrees, they were able to be charged higher fees for both their course and for their board and lodging.   In order to attract these richer students, Colleges put up buildings that looked far less like the monastic quarters of their medieval predecessors and much more like the stately homes the students might be coming from.  The expense of university living went up, not least as students were expected to provide their own furnishings (including the panelling) – or at least buy it from the previous occupant.


New Building, Magdalen College Oxford

The increase in richer students was matched with a decline in poorer students.  Universities recorded the students’ status, and matriculation rolls show a marked falling in the number of plebeians, even those working their way through as servitors (literally being servants to the gentlemen students).

It was this expense that UCL’s founders were trying to avoid.  As capital grants gave way to self-financing, universities sensibly opted to band their accommodation by price; why should a student with a bigger room or an en suite bathroom pay the same as someone in a standard room. It is clear the availability of private accommodation has accentuated this (and not just the absurdity of student accommodation on Park Lane).  While not every development is aiming at luxury, it is clear that the justification for a higher rent is an increased focus on facilities; gyms, cinemas etc. In some developments, only richer students will be able to afford this, creating our own gated communities in universities.   That sense of all students together in a hall will be lost, both as there’s greater physical separation into studios but also on affordability, segmenting our student communities.  Meanwhile a large amount of money flows from student maintenance loans into the hands of property developers and institutional investors.

For Harold Silver, these things were interlinked.  Before private companies came to dominate, he saw that self-funding (including through PFI) meant that universities were abandoning a tradition of residence,  such that universities ‘need no longer see accommodation in an educational context, only as an essential for competitive recruitment’ (Silver, 2007, p99).   Outsourcing has led to cost inflation and, while facilities might be as good as they’ve ever been, maybe something important has been lost.


UGC, 1930, Report including returns from Universities and University Colleges in receipt of Treasury Grant Academic Year 1928-29, London, HMSO

UGC, 1957 Report of the sub-committee on Halls of Residence, London, HMSO

Silver, H, 2007, Tradition and Higher Education, Winchester, Winchester University Press

Conservative Peers mock Government’s stance on international students

Watching the long sessions of the committee stage in the House of Lords can be painful.  The Lords try to propose ‘probing’ amendments, teasing out the issue and suggesting a solution.  After the excitement of a division on the first amendment on the first day,  the Government has settled into a pattern of either saying that they’ll write to the proposer, or that they’re just not minded to include the amendment.  There are over 500 on the latest list of amendments, very few of the non-government ones will make it on.

What might be worrying the government is that an amendment requiring them to exclude international students might get passed.  It’s clear how few supporters of their approach they can find in the Lords. A debate before Christmas saw only Lord Green (of migration watch) supportive of their stance, and in the committee stage even Conservative peers have taken to mocking them.

Take Lord Patten, he’s added his name to an amendment to prohibit students being included in migration targets.  He said:

My Lords, my default position is always to try to be helpful. That is one reason why I was so pleased to support this very important amendment to this legislation. How can I be helpful? First, we know that having now shaken off the chains of membership of the European Union, and having turned our back on a millennium of introverted, insular history, we have become “global Britain”. It would be extraordinary if, having become “global Britain”, we were to prevent the huge numbers more of international students coming to study here. It has been said again and again in this debate that our higher education system is one of the jewels in our crown. It is not surprising, therefore, that so many other people want to enjoy its benefits.

The House of Lords doesn’t go for humour very much, but it’s clear that Lord Patten was teasing his front-bench colleague.

Lord Willetts wasn’t adverse to teasing either.  He has been pretty staunch in defending the HE Bill, but not here. He said:

As my noble friend Lord Patten displays such a close familiarity with Conservative slogans, let me add a second—one of the great Brexit slogans, “Take back control”. I do not see why our migration policy should be determined by the United Nations. No other country says its policy should be determined by how the United Nations has chosen to define immigration. If we want to take back control, I do not see why we should allow our policy to be determined by the United Nations. We should take back control of our migration policy and set it in accordance with our national requirements, rather than allowing this dangerous, global institution to decide who we should or should not count as migrants. As well as being about global Britain, the excellent proposition from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, is about taking back control.

Viscount Younger, as is his way, repeated all the Government’s assurances – that there was no cap and no plan to limit the number of genuine students (note how ministers now always stress ‘genuine’).

Lord Lucas, who has been very engaged on this bill, intervened to ask about Amber Rudd’s speech from October:

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm, as I gather from his speech, that the proposals made by the Home Secretary in her speech to the Conservative Party conference in relation to students are no longer being proceeded with?

But, sadly, the answer is no – we still await the ‘consultation’ – including those worrying ‘tougher rules for students on lower quality courses’.

My understanding is that during that speech she undertook to go ahead with the consultation, as I have made clear.

The Lords are likely to back an amendment to the bill, and there’s a slim chance there are enough Tory MPs who oppose students being counted as migrants that it might pass there. But the Government should be more positive. As maniacal executive orders issue forth from the White House, here is an opportunity to expand one of our more successful export industries – tge education of a globally engaged cohort of students.  This will prove we are ‘global Britain’, not ‘little Britain’.

The Vice-Chancellors who came to tea

Records reveal the arrangements for vice-chancellors to have private dinners with the Prime Minister in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Viewed as an opportunity for an exchange of views, papers show the careful preparation by civil servants for these encounters.

Occasioned by student unrest, Harold Wilson met with vice-chancellors.  In March 1970 the prospects of further student trouble led to another dinner invitation.  Vice-chancellors would be invited to take a more robust attitude towards their responsibilities although the government might offer to shoulder some responsibility.  The cabinet secretary (Sir Burke Trend) suggested that it could be contrived that the vice-chancellors would ask for the meeting, which would then focus on education policy but also include briefings by the Security Service and the Home Office (Trend 1970)

The student situation had settled down in 1973 when Edward Heath arranged to meet with a wider group of higher education leaders including vice-chancellors, polytechnic directors and heads of colleges of education.

The file shows the careful arrangements made, the sharing of agenda items and choice of participants.  There are even notes between civil servants agreeing that the cost of the dinner should be met by the government.  The briefing for the PM includes the key issues for each group.  For the universities, he is told:

More generally, the Vice-Chancellors are concerned about the role and standing of the universities. They suspect that the Government underprize them and do not consider them “relevant” enough. (Anon, 1973)

Whereas, on the other side of the binary line:

The polytechnics are generally in good heart. They have their preoccupations. Chief among these is the need for greater clarification of their role (particularly their place in the LEA higher education sector and their relationship to the universities) and the massive expansion (trebling) of their student numbers following the White Paper.

The briefing also contains the following biographical notes with character assessments. For example, Bullock is ‘very much the Oxford Yorkshireman, plain-spoken, witty and humane’, Armitage a ‘very resourceful man with excellent judgement which he chooses to conceal under a bumbling manner’.

The record of the meeting, circulated to key ministers, records the informal discussion after dinner.  They had discussed links with industry, the impact of Europe on higher education and the following discussion, which must have been uncomfortable for some.

Thinkers versus Doers

Some representatives of the polytechnics argued that a major mistake made by the universities was to value knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The great majority of graduates would pursue their careers in the world of action, not of reflection: and this basic fact should be reflected in university entrance requirements and in final examinations. At present, however, the universities’ approach was too scholastic, and as evidence of this one could point to the low status of engineers, the academic approach to the training of lawyers and the low standards of linguistic ability in this country. As a society we tended to place a lower value on doing than on thinking, whereas those responsible for higher education should always remember that the vast majority of young people would be actors, not thinkers.  (Roberts 1973)

Heath’s thanks to his visitors were noted, but he continued the theme

Universities too often failed to teach their students to think straight and to recognise quality: and without a thorough training in these basic intellectual processes the next generation would find themselves unable to compete effectively with their contemporaries in other countries. To argue the British case successfully in, for example Paris or Brussels would call for the highest standards of intellect and ability. At the same time the educational system had a major part in creating a more flexible social structure in this country, so that ability, wherever it might be found, could be developed and exploited to the full. (Roberts 1973)

Heath only had another year as Prime Minister, but his Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher, was also at that dinner and would take up these issues as Prime Minister.



Trend, 1970, Minute to Prime Minister 12 March 1970 National Archives PREM 13/3426

Anon, 1973, Briefing Note Prime Minister’s meeting with representatives of universities, polytechnics and colleges of education National Archives PREM 15/1477

Roberts C, 1973, Record of a discussion held after Dinner at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday 6 March 1973 National Archives PREM 15/1477




Serial Vice-Chancellors

Who’d be a Vice-Chancellor?  Today Graham Upton starts on his fourth VC’s job.  This is his third interim role, taking over at Birmingham City.  He’s not the first experienced VC to take on the task as acting as an interim leader: Sir William Taylor took on two interim roles having been director of the Institute of Education, Principal of the University of London and Vice-Chancellor at Hull.

We have certainly seen the rise of the serial Vice-Chancellor.  The role is more fraught than in previous times, and it is clear that governing bodies are looking out for people who can demonstrate that they’ve got the skills and experience to do the job.  With an existing VC there’s a track record to check, and so there’s a growing number of people who are onto their second job.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it gives some indication of some of those who have done this.

5 Sir William Taylor Institute of Education, London, Hull, Huddersfield, TVU
4 Professor Graham Upton Oxford Brookes, Cumbria, Glyndwr, Birmingham City
3 Sir Graham Davies* Liverpool, Glasgow, London
Sir Hector Hetherington Exeter, Liverpool, Glasgow
Sir Howard Newby* Southampton, UWE, Liverpool
2 Professor Cara Aitchison St Mark & St John, Cardiff Metropolitan
Professor Michael Arthur Leeds, UCL
Dr Robin Baker Chichester, Canterbury Christ Church
Professor Janet Beer Oxford Brookes, Liverpool
Sir Drummond Bone Royal Holloway, Liverpool
Professor Brian Cantor York, Bradford
Sir Paul Curran Bournemouth, City
Sir David Eastwood* UEA, Birmingham
Professor Malcolm Gilles City, London Metropolitan
Sir Peter Gregson Queens, Cranfield
Sir Martin Harris Essex, Manchester
Sir Alan Langlands* Dundee, Leeds
Sir David Melville* Middlesex, Kent
Anton Muscatelli Herriot Watt, Glasgow
Sir Edward Parkes* City, Leeds
Professor Louise Richardson St Andrews, Oxford
Professor Colin Riordan Essex, Cardiff
Sir Christopher Snowdon Surrey, Southampton
Professor David Tidmarsh Anglia, Birmingham City
Sir Rick Trainor Greenwich, Kings
Professor David VandeLinde Bath, Warwick

I have not included people who were heads of institutions and vice-chancellors of federal universities (London, Wales or Victoria) under rotational systems where the VC was a part-time role.  Four of these (marked*) intercalated a term at UGC, HEFCE or FEFC into their career; requiring them to leave a VC role, but being snapped up when they left the funding body.  It doesn’t include the international transfer market, where both Oxford and Cambridge have recruited VCs who have led universities elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

This isn’t a foolproof scheme, however.  Robin Baker followed his short stay at Chichester with a short stay at Canterbury.   Bowen & McPherson (2016) point to potential problems when it’s clear that a leader will be looking to move on after a few years; that they won’t make necessary changes, preferring to manage the day-to-day business and then move on.  Part of that process is they might also focus on quick wins, the things that might achieve a league table boost, and again not make long-term difficult decisions.    It must also be a feature in the rise in VC salaries – tempting an established leader to move may involve a pay rise. Keeping an established leader  (who may or may not be getting offers) may also involve a pay rise.

Cursiter, Stanley, 1887-1976; Sir Hector Hetherington (1888-1965)

But, it’s still probably a good bet.  Among the many good leaders who’ve lead more than one university is Sir Hector Hetherington.  A professor at 27, he became Principal of the University College of the South West aged 32.  He subsequently led Liverpool and Glasgow. Twice chair of CVCP, this is the account of his last meeting there:

 He made his last appearance at the Vice-Chancellor’s Committee shortly before he retired… in 1961.  As he was about to leave to keep another engagement, the Chairman gave a short valedictory speech.  Then as Hetherington rose and walked slowly towards the door the whole Committee rose spontaneously and stood in silence until he had gone. No other Vice Chancellor had ever received from his peers such a tribute of affectionate regard. He had been the executive head of a College or University almost continuously for over forty years and attained unprecedented supremacy of respect.   (Illingworth 1971 p105)

I’m sure this will continue, although it’s important to note that every serial Vice-Chancellor has to have a first appointment somewhere.  Maybe governors somewhere will advertise for a training vice-chancellorship, one that’s good for a first role…

[updated after being reminded of more distinguished names – but there may be more…] 

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?