Adventures of a young academic registrar 

Waiting for the ‘major review of university funding and student finances’ brings to mind the last proper review, the Dearing Review, 20 years ago. Having also spent time perusing HEFCE circulars from the 1990s looking for details of MASN, I’ve been quite nostalgic this term.  20 years ago I was in my first year as an Academic Registrar and these were exciting times.  So I’ve looked up my notebooks to try and capture what was going on in autumn term 1997.

My notebooks record a busy term. There was the normal business of King Alfred’s College (now the University of Winchester) – professorial appointments, student disciplinary hearings, committees etc.  Layered onto that was the prospect of change brought on by the Dearing Report and the impact on the college as it looked forward to gaining university status.


The scope of the Dearing review was huge.  In addition to the issue of fees, the report had implications for all parts of the sector.  In October Ron Dearing gave the Fawley Lecture at Southampton, framing the notion of the learning society and how higher education played a key role.  In all the talk of change, Dearing stressed the enduring purposes of higher education, closing his lecture with the same Masefield quote that had been in the introduction to the report.

‘It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning and will exact standards in these things.’

By December details of the structure of the QAA were emerging, with the Gloucester location settled upon and a staffing structure agreed.  Dearing set a huge agenda for the new agency though and much was still under active discussion, including the plans to create a register of external examiners.

Quality Assessment

In addition to a re-accreditation exercise by the University of Southampton, the college was dominated by the then HEFCE teaching quality assessment process.  Using the graded profile method this precursor of TEF actually visited institutions; watching teaching and sampling work.  My notes record the arrangements for the visits.  One planning meeting genuinely started with a discussion of the state of the Gents toilet and that the whole building needed washing.

Then there was the grand theatre of the feedback meeting.  The ‘scores’ for the graded profile were announced, the goal (at that stage) to ensured the provision was approved (by gaining 3 in each section) and then to maximise the reputational gain by getting as many 4 grades as possible.    Much hung on those six scores.  Notes of one feedback meeting record the mixture of criticism – especially on the lack of self-criticism (the self-assessment was ‘clear but bland’) – with praise for high quality teaching.

Looking Forward

Ron Barnett’s inaugural lecture in November started with the cheerful claim that the western university was dead.  Helpfully, out of a ‘constellation of fragility’ it could be re-born.   If the university adopted an ethos of collective self-irony, it stood a chance.  He raised the issue of supercomplexity and how the university must create uncertainty, especially in its teaching.

Issues in 1997 are very similar: in the institution it was about matching curriculum to student demand, structuring the academic year, matching staff workloads to RAE requirements etc. Outside, the issues of funding, autonomy and relevance were being shaped.  However, Ron Dearing was right, higher education endures.


Willetts on more will mean worse

David Willetts loves Universities.  He tells us that in the opening sentence of his book ‘A University Education’.  This will be an important book, I’m sure.  It’s also unusual.  Willetts is a plausible author, a minister who, despite the extraordinary rancour of the debates about higher education in his four years, left the post generally respected, if not wholly agreed with.  Imagine how Jeremy Hunt’s big book of the NHS would go down, or a Liz Truss study of the Judiciary for comparison.

There are reviews already – Nigel Thrift in the THE and Andy Westwood for HEPI for example.  This is not going to be a review.  I do want to draw people’s attention to Willett’s robust critique of the ‘more will mean worse’ argument.  A large part of the book is spent defending why it’s worth going to university, and he takes on Kingsley Amis (and his contemporary followers) firmly.  Amis had thought that academic standards were going to be harmed beyond repair as we moved to 5% of the population going to university, now we are close to 50%.  Willetts writes:

We can concede something very important to Kingsley Amis, however. Setting aside his anxieties about their effects, he was the first writer to observe one of the great educational and social changes in post-war Britain – the shift from elite to mass higher education. It is a crucial change in the character of the university which is not widely appreciated or understood.  When we see photographs of the M1 in the years immediately after it was opened we are amazed at how quiet and empty it looks and perhaps dream of being the solitary driver cruising past Luton in 1960. The M1 was expected to carry 20,000 cars per day and is now taking 140,000 – growth on a similar scale to higher education.  But we know there is no going back and that if we were such a solitary driver we would be in a country that was actually very different and deeply impoverished compared with what we all now enjoy (or we would think an epidemic had broken out and nobody had bothered to tell us).  We don’t just have more university places and more cars – we also have more TV channels, more foreign travel, more supermarkets, more information, more books, and more films – the shift from elite to mass is one of the features of modern capitalism and we cannot and should not stop it in higher education any more than anywhere else.
Willetts, D, 2017, A University Education, Oxford, Oxford University Press pp 143-144

No doubt we will debate many aspects of the book, but let’s remember that David Willetts has set out to defend the move from an elite to an universal higher education system.  That alone makes this welcome.


Student petitions – the paradox of publicity

Petitions are an ancient way of gathering support for an issue. I’ve never been that thrilled by them; it’s a particularly passive form of engagement, but they have their place.

I remember that there was always a petition to sign when I was a student – I inhabited the students union and collecting petitions was a standard activity of societies of all types (I always wondered whether it was more likely that a foreign dictatorship would release a political prisoner than the university would get a new vending machine as a result of a petition).

But the routine of students standing outside the Union at lunchtime trying to slow down progress towards the sandwich shop has been replaced by the online petition. This has two main effects; firstly the things have proliferated – it’s so easy to do, you don’t even have to find a clipboard. Secondly, it’s so easy to distribute – and here a problem begins.

Students are at the leading edge of many changes in our society. Much of the activism that I remember from university is now mainstream, but then the anti-apartheid activists or hunt saboteurs were viewed as dangerous lunatics.

Now the media can seize on ‘dangerous lunatics’ to feed its constant hunger for content. One student had gathered 50 signatures this week on a petition to take Gladstone’s name off a building before the press caught hold of it. This generates news items and columnists, fitting into a narrative of student activism that has generated so much heat (think Cecil Rhodes).

Examples abound: a vegan student at Hertfordshire worries about the welfare of reindeer at a Christmas market. This is in the local paper today, but give it a ‘students against Christmas’ theme and it could go global. She might be safe, but if she was on a JCR committee at an Oxford College it would, apparently, be obligatory to cover this.

But this leaves a problem behind. The stories left online can create a false narrative. A student petition complaining about Germaine Greer giving a lecture transmogrifies into Cardiff University banning her – such that its VC found himself at Parliament’s Human Rights Committee with the free speech activists of Spiked! See the horror here:

I think there’s more of an edge to the use of these stories today. The University feels embattled within a post-truth, anti-expert narrative, which in the US is explicitly being linked to the Alt-right movement.

Students are caught between a prurient fascination with young people’s lifestyles and a horror of their supposed ultra-censorious behaviour. Flick through a list of student societies and you’ll see that they want to end sexual harassment, racial abuse, inequality, cruelty to animals, nuclear weapons, climate change, deforestation, poverty, etc. These students represent hope, yet they are mocked. They are both ‘snowflakes’ and dangerous lunatics simultaneously.

Here’s the paradox; I want students to keep on doing what they’re doing – pushing the edges of human behaviour. Their campaigns will be many and various, wonderful and wacky. I want the media to cover that – you can’t campaign in secret – but maybe stop generalising from a small campaign to to the totality to students and, especially, the universities at which they study.

Why do the University title rules not apply to those nice former footballers?

We know the Government is keen on Alternative Providers, but why have they bestowed such a large favour on University Academy 92 by allowing it to include the word ‘University’ in its company title?

John Morgan followed up on this in the THE:

Questions have been raised about the Department for Education’s decision to allow UA92 to use the word “university” in its title (the DfE has said it did so on the grounds of Lancaster’s involvement).

UA92 does not yet formally exist (recruitment is scheduled to begin in January 2018, with courses starting in the autumn of that year) and does not have its own degree-awarding powers. So, is “university” the right word?

“It is a university,” replied Mr Neville. “We’ve got permission from the DfE to be able to use the word ‘university’…The reason we have the word ‘academy’ in there is because we’ve got a 16-18 offering as well.”

How does this work?  We know that there are currently two routes to full University title.  A higher education corporation may ask the Privy Council to use the powers it has as part of the Further & Higher Education Act (FHEA) 1992; the criteria are issued by the DfE and they gather advice through a process run by the QAA.  A company also goes through the QAA process, but the DfE’s advice culminates in a ‘non-objection’ to the use of the sensitive word ‘university’ under the terms of the 2006 Companies Act.

So, Mr Neville is wrong.  UA92 is not a university.  It does not have degree awarding powers, so it cannot be awarded university or university college title.  But DfE has given permission for the use of the word ‘university’ in the title anyway.  How?

The use of ‘University’ is prohibited for entities that are doing higher education.  In this way University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are not in breach of the FHEA, although there are criteria for their designation.  University hospitals are not universities, The University Arms Hotel is not a university etc etc.

A potentially confusing development has been the agreement that FECs can call their HE offering a ‘University Centre‘ or sometimes a ‘University Campus’.  There are some criteria for these, but it’s not clear that these are being enforced.


So if UA92 is not a university, a university college, a university centre, or a university technical college, how does it get ‘university’ in its title?  We’re told it’s because of its link to Lancaster University.  Surely that can’t stand?  Lancaster are operating as a partner to UA92 in much the same way that many universities are to their partners.  What’s to stop them applying to DfE to get a ‘non-objection’ to the inclusion of ‘university’ in their company names?   

Maybe DfE could publish their rationale for why UA92 gets to have ‘university’ in its title?  Will it feature a reasoned argument or just a special case for a bunch of former footballers? 

Can you reduce tuition fees by cutting bloated management salaries?

Andrew Adonis is right.  Through all the fun we’ve been having as he’s raised issues about higher education, there have been some key themes he’s returned to.  One is that fees are too high and that you could reduce them by cutting management salaries. As the summer has worn on we’ve had different versions of this formula, and many people have cruelly mocked his lordship’s maths.  Several of the best twitter spats were between Lord Adonis and Danny Blanchflower (Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College) who accused him of getting his sums wrong.

Here’s Lord Adonis interviewed in Cherwell:

However, Adonis argues that those who have challenged him on this point, such as economist Danny Blanchflower, “haven’t done the maths”. At Oxford, if the total pay of the 452 individuals earning over £100k was cut by 25%, every undergraduate could have their fees cut by £1000 next year. A change which would enormously benefit every student, and affect just 3% of its staff.

This is true.  Lord Adonis was right.

Oxford’s published financial statement shows the salary banding of staff above £100k (another of those OfS requirements that universities are already doing). There are 451 people listed there.


If you add up the 451 people (using an assumption for these purposes that they are all on the midpoint in these salary bands) they are paid a cool £65million.  A quarter of that would be £16.3million, which would easily be enough to reduce home & EU fees by £1000 (Oxford has a little over 10000 home & EU UG students).  There are a few caveats though.  Firstly Lord Adonis doesn’t want this trick to be done just once, he thinks they should reduce fees by £1000 for five years.  That can’t be done just by taking successive 25% slices off management salaries (in the last year they’d all have a negative salary).

Lord Adonis has also continued with his assumption that all 451 are part of a bloated management.   That can’t be right.  For a start, Oxford, as with other universities, splits out clinical staff where it makes payments on behalf of the NHS.  The Medical Sciences division is very large at Oxford – a third of those 451 are getting an NHS payment – that probably constrains the ability to cut those wages.  But, just as the 152 clinical staff highlights that there are doctors in the 451, so a large proportion of the remaining 299 are going to be professors rather than deputy directors of HR.  There’s a clue – the highest paid person in the university got £880,000.  That can only be because they got paid a royalty on some form of intellectual property in that year – why else would they get twice the pay of the VC?  Clearly this person, and many others of the 451, are highly transferable.  After all, Professor Blanchflower has been taunting Lord Adonis from his chair at an Ivy League college in New Hampshire.

So, sadly, if Lord Adonis was right about the maths, he’s hardly right about the data underlying the figures.  This is not a cadre of 451 administrators who’ll gladly take a 25% pay cut.  Even if this could be done, it’s a one-off, a windfall that could not be taken again.

But, although some policy makers and newspapers think that there are only two universities in England, this is not a game that you could easily play at other universities.  This is the version of that table from Oxford Brookes University.


A quarter of these salaries only raises £337500, which is only 0.4% of Brookes’ £77million Home & EU UG FT tuition fees.  Brookes has slightly more UG students than Oxford, so raiding its management salaries would see a fee reduction of £30 per student.  As an ex-poly, no doubt Lord Adonis has a different fate in mind for Brookes.

Here’s the problem.  ‘Doing the maths’ is superficial.  The assumptions made are staggering, especially those about the uniformity of the sector.  They also refuse to deal with the funding system as it is established.  If Oxford had a windfall £16million it would be well advised to leave its fees exactly where they are. Reducing the fee only really saves the Treasury money – if they had £1000 per student, they’d be much better advised to sink it into supporting students who need the money.

We’re promised a ‘major review’ of student finance and university funding.  It’s vital that it does not start from a naive assumption about costs, from management salaries to differential costs between courses.  Lord Adonis seems to think this Herculean task can be done quickly (he’s referencing the Augean stables now) and he’s wrong again – this won’t take a day or a month, but should take a year.  No more bodged attempts at this please.





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.