There’s an election coming

If you hadn’t already noticed.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably work in a University, or are interested in higher education, so you know that there are more stories to tell than the tired UKIP one of immigration which all other mainstream parties appear to be trying to imitate.

A number of interesting publications came out in the last week or so, all about HE policy, and all worth looking at in more depth.

Firstly, Universities UK has launched its campaign “Back Universities” with three priority areas that it wants an incoming government to focus on:

  • Research and innovation – making the case for closing the gap between the UK’s investment in research and innovation and that of its major competitors
  • International students and immigration – calling on government and universities to work together to attract qualified international students and staff to the UK
  • Student funding – highlighting the need to develop a sustainable student funding system
    No surprise that once again the issue of international students is on the table –the recent decision about post-study work visas and the perceived lack of welcome are already having an impact on students from India and leading to the loss of income to a range of universities.

On student funding, another interesting publications came out recently. The Institute for Pubic Policy Research has published a report proposing that a student loan system should be extended to postgraduate study.

The paper publishes modelling of the costs and risks of a postgraduate loan scheme offering £10,000 for a taught masters course, to be repaid at 9 per cent on future earnings between £15,000 and £21,000, with other features of the scheme consistent with the existing undergraduate loans. The model assumes this is made available to roughly 47,000 full-time students and 24,000 part-time students.

Crucially, the modelling suggests a non-repayment rate (known as the RAB charge) of 6.9 per cent. This is considerably lower than the non-repayment rate of 40–45 per cent estimated for undergraduate loans.

In response a number of Russell Group universities have dismissed the idea, suggesting that scholarships would be a better approach, although Rick Muir of IPPR points out in the Guardian that a mass scholarship scheme would be unaffordable.

Finally the Institute for Fiscal Studies has written about the socio-economic differences in higher education.

Writing on the million+ website, our VC, Michael Gunn said:

“This research confirms that the support which universities provide for students when they are studying is crucial in terms of outcome. The report’s findings support the government’s decision to retain the Student Opportunity Allocation and suggest that those who say that there is no need for this funding are on the wrong side of the argument and the evidence base.

Student Opportunity funding helps widen access to higher education but it also provides universities with vital extra funds to support students once they have entered a course and plays an important role in retention and social mobility.”

From the IFS website:

“We find that the large raw differences in university outcomes between individuals from different socio-economic backgrounds can largely be explained by the fact that they arrive at university with very different levels of human capital. Comparing individuals on the same course makes relatively little difference to the remaining socio-economic gaps in university outcomes, with those from higher socio-economic backgrounds still 3.4 percentage points less likely to drop-out, 5.3 percentage points more likely to graduate and 3.7 percentage points more likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.”

But an interesting outcome was that the performance of the school that students had attended previously had an effect on outcome:

“amongst students with the same grades on entry to university, those from worse-performing schools are less likely to drop-out, more likely to complete their degree and more likely to obtain a first or 2.1 than those from better-performing schools.”

That last gem makes it even more difficult to work with contextual admissions, or even to assess the impact of WP policies when the performance of a school is probably not a piece of data that we capture.

All in all, it seems as though the various representative organisations and think tanks are putting out information to try to inform policy at the next election. Higher education is rarely one of the top door step conversations for canvassers, but as more and more people in the UK are university educated, and more and more are questioning the role and value of HE, then we should welcome the fact that some cogent and important arguments are being aired.