You will do what you are told, until the rights to you are sold #altc2011

An excellent #altc2011, and particularly an excellent John Naughton keynote address, was soured for me by the announcement of the themes for next year’s conference – concerning “a confrontation with reality”. That kind of language sets my teeth on edge, as the “reality” we are expected to confront is not the usual, empirical, kind of reality that we can verify with our senses or with data. There are no questions about the educational technologist’s disregard for gravity, statistical methods, or electromagnetic forces.

The reality we are expected to confront is the one that is being imposed on us. The one where there’s not enough money to actually try and improve anything, and we’d better be careful to somehow justify what we are doing. The one where we’ve all “run out of money”, “maxed out our credit card”, and need to enter an “age of austerity”. All to support the need for the continuation of the bad choices and gaping inequalities that make up the society that existed before the “mysterious” and “unforeseeable” collapse.

Nothing in the paragraph above is true, unless we accept that it is. Economic conditions are a choice, not a force of nature. The market is an aggregation of choices, not an unseen hand. In confronting this “reality”, we must first accept it, then conform to it. I don’t think we can accept it – it is a narrative, and there are other narratives to choose.

One narrative is that universities will be funded at levels at least comparable to currently, and in many cases more generously. This has the advantage of being empirically verifiable. Sure, there are a lot of issues relating to sustainability of structures, our government having for some reason decided to remove certain cost-saving continuity measures that allow for long-term planning, but there’s just as much money in the system. And there is no reason to believe that institutions will suddenly decide to spend money on different things – the “student at the heart of the system” is just as likely to want a stable and well-resourced department, or access to the latest technology, as they are now.

This is shock doctrine stuff – and our eagerness to submit to these new rules in the name of “reality” is being used as a weapon against us by those who think things would simply be better if their companies earned more money from the UK higher education system. When John Naughton talked about the dissolving value chains of information industries, it’s not universities who need to be worried – we’ve dealt in an environment with an abundance of information for more than 200 years. It’s publishers and monopolistic software companies, whose business models are predicated on scarcity.

Which leads me on to ownership, one of the key themes that I took away from the conference. I was struck in a couple of presentations that the idea of saying that we have a VLE which is “owned” by the institution, whereas the ePortfolio is “owned” by the student, is flawed. In strict financial terms, both are owned by the software companies we lease them from, or are in the public domain. If we are talking about who controls them, who administrates them, the answer is the institution. Student “ownership” of platforms (both in HE, and in social media) extends only as far as personalisation – tweaking colours, images and fonts. This would apply equally to an institutions “ownership” of an iTunesU presence. Their control only extends as far as deciding how much of their intellectual labour they want to donate freely to a computer manufacturer, and which logo to put amongst all of the shiny apple ones.

The concept of ownership is being shifted – think of what I bet you call “your” iPhone, leased from your network at a high monthly rate, tied to one approved source of software and subject to terms and conditions variable by the manufacturer. In return for this amazing deal, you give Apple access to your personal data and access to your personal reputation. Where do I sign?

Do institutions “own” their students? Have a look at your prospectus – the experiences of students are simply marketing narratives, demonstrating an institutional skill in landing graduates attractive jobs, convincing them they are satisfied with their course and the “facilities”, and filling the grassy wasteland in front of the only attractive building on campus with a handful of the blondest, thinnest ones for a front cover. We are asking them to spend thousands of pounds so that they can ensure our statistics look good enough to get more students to spend thousands of pounds…

Ethics. Every student we pump through this system with the illusion of choice is a student that never had the freedom to learn from their mistakes, to define their own reality, to consider anything other than a well-paid graduate job. And we are pumping them into a system that is so divorced from humanity that it is actually sheared from our emotional and environmental needs. And it is not as if this system is even working on it’s own terms. How can we even talk about “putting students at the heart of the system” when the system is wounded, toxic and violent. We should be taking students out of the system – a way out from the “reality” where we learn enough to be economically useful, are exploited by various non-human entities and then left to starve when we stop making them money. Pragmatism does not come in to the equation.

There is a genuine need for a space outside of confrontation and capitulation – a space of redefinition and reflection. If we can resist the need to buy in to the narrative that is being sold to us with greater and greater degrees of panic, higher education can actually offer capitalism not what it wants but what it needs.


This post represents my own views and not those of my employer. It is available under a CC-BY license.

Spinning a story: Gove, Klein, BECTA, Cameron and Murdoch

Allow me to tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a media organisation called News International. They owned a number of powerful media sources, including the Times, The Sun, The News of The World and a big chunk of BSkyB TV. And that was just in the UK. News International’s parent company was News Corporation, which was run by a chap named Rupert Murdoch and also owned important things like Fox News, 20th Century Fox, HarperCollins and the Wall Street Journal.

Such was the power of this media organisation, many former employees went on to become members of UK parliament, and many former (and current) members of parliament ended up writing columns for News International papers.

A charming young man named Michael Gove was a leader writer at the Times. He subsequently became a member of Parliament, maintaining a useful contract (valued at £5000/month) to write for News International. Happily, whilst at the Times, he met and fell in love with his wife Sarah Vine – who still writes for the Times on important international issues such as advising readers “how to be a perfect housewife“, including the delightful suggestion “As to sex, you’ll soon be down to doing it once a month while the children are at granny’s, so really he should get accustomed to the idea now.”.

Even after becoming the Secretary of State for Education, Michael – perhaps in gratitude to his former employers – found time to accept a contract from HarperCollins to write a book. His friend, David Cameron, became Prime Minister (after a troubled campaign where the greatest turning point was the accidental broadcasting of the incumbent PM’s ungarded comments on a member of the public by Sky News), a cause of great delight for his neighbour and riding partner Rebekah Brooks, now Chair of News International, and also to his director of communications, Andy Coulson – who also used to work for News International.

Meanwhile, at News Corp, things weren’t looking quite so rosy. The internet was rendering many of Mr Murdoch’s business interests less and less profitable. Information was indeed turning out to be free, and an attempt to monetise his high-cost acquisition of the once-popular MySpace demonstrated that he did not understand this brave new world. So he and his son James concentrated on lobbying for tighter controls on media “piracy”, building paywalls to hide behind (and ensuring I can’t link to the sources I want to), and searching for a new revenue stream.

Late in 2009, he found it. Educational technology. Moving quickly, he bought a number of existing companies in the area, and brought in former head of the New York Public Schools System, Joel Klein, to lead this new initiative. Joel had left his previous job under something of a cloud, having sacked Columbia University academic Rashid Khalidi from his teacher training programme because he didn’t like his views on Israel and Palestine. However Rupert (much like his friend David Cameron) believed in giving people a second chance.

Joel Klein became friends with Michael Gove, and in January 2011 Gove invited Klein to speak at his conference about “free schools” in UK education. Klein’s also found time to give an interview to News International’s “Sunday Times” during this visit – and this interview included the dynamic assertion that It’s easier to prosecute a capital-punishment case in the US than terminate an incompetent teacher.”

But speaking at the inaugral New Schools conference, he was clearer about his aims for education.

“Last, to shake up the system, we must change how we use technology to deliver instruction. (This is what I’m now seeking to do at News Corporation.)… [O]ne of the best things we could do is hire fewer teachers and pay more to the ones we hire. And, as in any other field, technology can help get us there. If you have 5,000 math teachers, many of whom are underperforming, significantly improving overall quality is nearly impossible. But if you get the best math professors in the world—who are great teachers and who deeply understand math—and match them with great software developers, they can create sophisticated interactive programs that engage kids and empower teachers.”

Happily, Michael Gove and David Cameron displayed the foresight to abolish BECTA in 2010, BECTA being the organisation charged with supporting schools in using ICT to ensure that they don’t get ripped off by unscrupulous vendors making over-egged claims about the power of educational software. This was a controversial and unexpected decision, later criticised by the Public Administration Committee, and by experts in secure IT provision.

Parallel to this, Gove had set up the facility for parents to set up “their own” schools, with the support of the fine services offered by the growing private sector. So Joel’s delightful dreams of breaking teacher union power and selling schools expensive software could come true here in the UK, and his friends David Cameron and Michael Gove had managed independently to do the exact things that he needed to move this dream forward – just like in New York!

Sadly, this is not a story with happy ending. In July 2011, it emerged that David’s friend Rebekah, and his former communications director (but still his friend) Andy, were implicated in a major scandal involving bribing police officers and intercepting the voice mail message of terrorism and murder victims. Such was the outcry that Rupert had to fly over to visit his friend David, and Rebekah had to resign. Happily Rupert (and David) knew just the man to solve this difficult problem of Rupert losing lots of money and power: Joel Klein!

Post-script: I am not an investigative journalist, I’m an education blogger. All of this I brought together over one lunch-break in front of Google. If I can do this in an hour and feel reasonably confident in it, how much more could a real journalist do?

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

“I want you to know it was I who discovered your secret -. R.A.B.”

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of current or former employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.
When a politician slips in to the dry, impenetrable terms of governmental accounting regulations, you know that he’s (and it is usually a guy, sorry chaps) trying to get something past you. Such was my reaction when I glanced over David Willetts’ article in the Times Higher a few weeks back. Specifically, this bit:

“This is just part of the Exchequer’s continuing support for higher education. This Exchequer subsidy for loans is known as the Resource Accounting and Budgeting (RAB) charge – a forecast of the amount of money that will not be repaid – and it is going to be at the core of university financing for many years.

I expect that, in the future, as the data accrue [sic], the policy debate will be about the RAB charge for individual institutions”

So what does it mean?

If you’re like me the first thing you did was to google “resource accounting and budgeting” and struggle to find a definition. The phrase in quotes is pretty unique to UK government and most of the “introduction to RAB” stuff (like this) implies you already have a serious understanding of accountancy. 

Likierman (1988, Public Money and Management [needs shibboleth]) suggests that:

“Resource accounting is a set of accruals accounting techniques for reporting on the expenditure of central government and a framework for analysing expenditure by departmental aims and objectives, relating those to outputs wherever possible. Resource budgeting is planning and controlling public expenditure on a resource accounting basis”

(If that prompted the question “what is accrual?”, Wikipedia is there for you. But I bet you can tell me all about post-structualism…)

So, fundamentally, RAB takes into account the expenditure and related income over the total life of an investment, and is a superb way of thinking about the “total cost of ownership” of something like a loan. A RAB charge would be incurred where the total expenditure is less than total income – so when Willetts says that the RAB charge of the new student loan system will be 30%, he’s suggesting that 30% of loans will not be paid back – even taking into account the extra 3% above the rate of inflation that students will be paying post 2012 and the sneaky way that interest begins to accrue before they even graduate.

Why 30% – well, quite frankly, why not? It’s just a figure he’s pulled out of the air. Sure, there’s probably complex actuarial calculations behind it, but it’s possible to do those calculations in an almost infinite number of ways. HEPI worked out that at a RAB charge of anything over 47% meant that the government ends up losing money long term, and that merely by decreasing the estimate of ongoing annual salary growth from an almost laughable 4.7% to a still optimistic 3.5% (core salary growth in the UK was 2.1% in March 2011) the RAB would be pushed over that figure.

At this point you’re thinking “Yeah, we know, the new funding model makes bad financial sense for the government, the Followers of The Apocalypse have told us this again, and again, and again … but what’s new?”

Look at the last line of my quote. RAB charges for individual institutions. Rather than pulling a figure out of the air for the whole sector, in future Willetts wants to be pulling a figure out of the air for individual institutions. So the University of Poppleton might have a RAB charge of 40%, Christminster University may have a RAB charge of 10%, the University of Bums on Seats might have 70% – all based on historical graduate first destination salary data (both incomplete and affected by numerous variables), some very dodgy work that the QAA will hopefully not have to do, and the alignment of the planets in the constellation of Capricorn. 

This is scary, market-skewing and idiotic in itself – you may wonder why anyone would want to do something like that. But take a step back. Insurable risk against the non-payment of expected dividends from anticipated income. This is hedgeable. Not content with establishing a market in higher education, the government wants to start playing with derivatives.

Remember that come the new funding model universities are essentially private, and thus the government is no longer obliged to treat them equally. Instead it attempts to treat students equally (except of course where Mummy and Daddy are so rich that they don’t need a loan). So if you run, say, an Arts College the government would be less inclined to want to lend to your students as they would see them as riskier. But they can’t be seen to be ignoring arts tuition, so they open up the risk of funding such students to the private sector.

Enter a hedge fund manager. Sure, he’ll fund a risky loan, because he can insure against it (and because the government is involved so he’s unlikely to lose out). In fact, he could load the insurance so he could bet against the repayment of the loan – and would then have a financial interest in students failing to repay their loans. You can write the rest of this dystopian novel at your leisure…

Seriously, there are scary implications to calculating investment risk on an institutional basis. That Willetts floated this idea in the middle of a dense and eminently skippable paragraph about government budgetary regulation suggests that there is something distinctly “off” about it. Hopefully we won’t be dissecting it within the forthcoming White Paper.

The student as labourer-consumer

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.
One of the odder beliefs that our culture seems to have developed about markets is the idea of market efficiency. Specifically, the idea that – given the publicly available information presented at the time of action – the actions of any given player in a market are unable to offer greater efficiency than the average of the actions of all players within that market. Or, to stick this in non-economist language, if everyone has access to the same info then no-one has an advantage.

Prices are “imagined” (there really is no better word) to reflect the sum of relevant available information. So, if we know that over the past 10 years, graduates have earned x times more than non-graduates, we would make a choice of whether or not to invest in a university course based on that knowledge – thus the price of university education (in a free market) would reflect the availability of this knowledge.

You can already spot where this falls down. Firstly, as they used to say on the radio adverts, past performance does not indicative of future returns. Secondly, I (as an uber-HE geek) would be making my decision based on a substantially greater set of information, and more importantly a substantially greater understanding of the relative value of said information, than someone with no access to that level of geekery – so I get an advantage over someone like my 17-year-old self who was the first in their family to attend university.

Government action in England has so far attempted to address the second of these issues – committing to the provision of a “key information set” (KIS). This covers vital stuff such as reported student satisfaction with teaching, course contact hours, accommodation costs and the average graduate salary. Let’s leave aside the practicalities both of collecting and comparing this information – issues that are being worked on assiduously and carefully by staff within institutions, HEFCE and the government – and ask the fundamental question of whether this is good information to base an investment decision on.

There’s a whole (and scary) field of study around the idea of “human capital“, which suggests ways of making decisions concerning precisely this kind of personal investment. Broadly speaking, you can contrast the idea of potential labour (one’s ability to do something considered useful to a person who may want to give you money to do it) with actual labour (getting on and doing stuff to get paid). Education – within this model – is an investment in potential labour, giving one the ability to achieve greater benefit from actual labour. It’s vanishingly rare that I get to write a paragraph that both Adam Smith and Karl Marx would agree with, but there we are.

Where I would depart from both is to postulate that the accumulation of potential labour is in itself actual labour. Education, I would argue, is an active process, and one of the great tragedies of the contemporary marketisation of learning is that it is widely assumed that it is passive.

Passive accumulation of benefit is easy to price – it’s like restaurant food. A price is stated, I pay the price, and (usually) get the pizza as specified. If I pay more for my pizza I get a better experience, either better quality, larger quantities or more convenient delivery. Nothing I personally do (within reason) affects the experience I pay for, or the benefits I get from it. So I can make a decision based on my needs and requirements, taking cost and other relevant information into account, and I’m happy and pizza-filled. And the pizza restaurant owner can decide what to offer me, and at what price, drawing on similar historical information.

Active processes are more difficult to conceptualise, and they are problematic to assign value to in marketised systems. You could see exercise (to exercise off all this pizza) as a potential worked example. There are a whole range of gyms I could join, using everything from price to available equipment to the relative attractiveness of the clientele as criteria. Or I could not bother. The amount of my financial investment in exercise is markedly less relevant to my success than the amount of personal effort I put in. I could join the most expensive gym in Bristol and sit around drinking smoothies and ogling, or I could pay nothing and go for a brisk walk every morning. Gym owners can tell me all kinds of stuff about the historical success of their clients and the facilities available to me, but if I only use the juice bar I don’t get any of those expected benefits.

So the best I can hope for from university education is that it gives me the tools I need to actively get myself to the place I want to be. I can’t blame the university if I don’t get there … I can only blame myself for not putting the work in, or for not choosing to buy the tools and support I needed. But what information would I need to make an informed choice regarding which tools and what support I needed?

The information set I would need would be wide-ranging, and quite possibly unique to me. I’d want to put a lot of faith in my own aptitudes (and would be interested in ways of measuring these to gain a better understanding of what these really are), and ways in which the labour I would be undertaking is matched or not to these aptitudes. This is not to trivialise the aptitudes I would gain during the course, indeed these would be brought more closely into focus by my knowledge of any disparity between the two – I would also have a clearer insight into the support I would need to be offered to support these.

But labourer-consumer also works as a passive model. Within the late-capitalist conception of higher study students are indeed paying to work – to work after graduation in  a more renumerative (or, less often, a more satisfying) role. But this higher payment is a speculation – more simply, a gamble – in that a student will have no way of knowing whether such a role will be available to them at such salaries at the point of graduation. This is also seen in other careers where candidates are expected to pay for their own training, most notably with commercial pilots. New pilots are paying to be exploited by prospective employers (little info is available online, but £50,000 seems to be a frequently quoted figure on fora), without any personal growth that would be attractive within another field (a pilot’s license is pretty useless to a bus driver, though rates of pay are fairly similar.) This is the danger of seeing education as passive, it becomes the accumulation of competencies linked to actual (or perceived) employer needs.

I’m far from convinced that paying to work is a helpful development within the history of labour relations. Whether Higher Education can make it work will be linked to how far away they can move from a passive model of education and towards something that offers active personal benefits.

#stokescroft , #nhscuts and #unifees – who’s not listening?

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

Three important news stories were sneaked out under the Mooreist Royal Wedding smokescreen.

The first concerned continuing disturbances in the Stokes Croft region of Bristol. There have been  squat clearances over the past couple of weeks, coincidentally round about the time a shiny new Tesco opened in the area to the disgust of local residences. The campaign against the Tesco has been – in the Stokes Croft manner – creative, idiosyncratic and popularly supported across the city, based around a network of small shops, communities, artists and activists. And on the other side, a multinational supermarket known for railroading planning laws and with two other shops within 10 minutes walk.

Guess who the police and government are behind. Clue – it’s not the community.

So a longstanding, peaceful squat in an otherwise unused building is raided using “anti-terror” laws with the pretext that Molotov Cocktails were being made to attack Tesco (so basically they had fuel, clothes and bottles in the building – watch your doors people!). Today they came back for the remainder of the “activists” in the same large squat, Telepathic Heights. In a police helicopter. Ending in a 2hr rooftop stand-off. This localised incident can be seen in the light of many other squat clearances and activist arrests today and armed police with shoot-to-kill orders, all to safeguard the Royal Wedding.

Yeah, today the UK saw arrests without evidence or charge, mass evictions (squatting is, of course, legal) all supported by helicopters and police with orders to kill. ‘Scuse me while I don’t put the flags out and street party like it’s 1859.

Another blink-and-you’ll miss it story came from our increasingly beleaguered University sector, where it emerged that the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) will not be requiring any of the universities that have recently been trebling their student fees to moderate their charges, even if their “access agreements” turn out to be (as with Cambridge) the same or similar to those which are currently in place. For all the “exceptional circumstance” talk, for all the “predicted £7,500 average”, for all the “tough new access requirements”, what we have here is market red in tooth and claw, and institutions out for what they can get away with. There are no safeguards, there is no moderation, this skewed and phony market in the intangible and often immeasurable personal opportunity good of education is all we have.

The students that pointed this out were kettled, beaten, and patronised by the police and government. A failure in communication by the state apparently – not a total disconnect between what the coalition are trying to sell and what young people are trying to buy…

Also trickled out today was the news that the expected 4% cuts to NHS primary care budgets will in fact be 7%, these cuts (never before achieved in any health service in the world) to be made during another unnecessary governance reorganisation (itself a direct contradiction of a manifesto promise, that will cost billions to implement) and, somehow, without cutting frontline services. The NHS reforms are currently “on hold” for a listening exercise which seems, like about student fees, to be merely another chance for us to be told what is happening (and if we don’t buy it, to be told “calm down, dear“.)

For a government that has drastically cut public sector communications budgets, this is a beautifully ironic string of communication failures. And the sting comes, like in Stokes Croft, when the state conception of reality differs so profoundly from your own that you become a terrorist yourself. 

In the UK we have a government that cannot communicate, cannot consult and cannot deal with anything other than total agreement – carrying out wave after wave of the most destructive and poorly though out policy we have ever seen. And backing this up with an increasingly visible and violent police presence.  This is not hyperbole. This is happening.

[note: the sections on Stoke Croft have been updated on 30th April, following clarifications from “StokesCrofter”, below)

We’re not in a “higher education” bubble, we’re in a “certainty” bubble

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

Peter Thiel, former CEO of Paypal, Facebook investor, and likely fan of Ayn Rand, suggests that the market value of Higher Education is far above any real value, and that we should expect a crash in demand for HE as the market restores itself to equilibrium. Anya Kamenetz has been talking about this for far longer, and I think is basing her position on a similar argument – though I’d argue that she’s saying that HE needs to self-reconfigure to survive a market correction rather than flat out predicting doom and destruction.

The real story here is that the link between higher study and higher earning is breaking down. Do download (and play with) the tables here from HESA. Between 2007-8 and 2008-9, the mean graduate salary for those who graduated from a full-time undergraduate course and found work in the same year was £19,500, whilst the national average salary was around £24,908.

A UK graduate can expect to earn an average of £100,000 more over their lifetime. Under current arrangements, you could offset £21,198 of debt against that, with £9,000-a-year fees taken into account, more like £40,000. Add loan interest on, take inflation into account, and you’re really talking about comparatively little (if any) gain.

At some point we are going to have to stop and ask ourselves whether higher education is an economic good. Whether we can justify individual educational expenditure by economic gains. We will answer no, apart from very specific job-linked training. 

And even then – given the pace of change around technology, the ways in which what we work on and how differs even from the start of the century, these gains are at best temporary. We are entering the age of ubiquitous lifelong learning, not just as a choice but as a requirement. I’d argue that this is a separate sector to traditional HE, and traditional HE may not be best placed to serve it.

Yolande Knight, from the GEES subject centre and EDOR OER project, postulates that what HE is about is uncertainty:

“At its most basic level, it was agreed that it could seem counter-intuitive for students to move from the ‘certainty of knowledge’ that seemed
to be taught at schools to the idea of ‘uncertainty’ that was introduced at university. However, it is important that this perceived ‘lack’ of understanding at school level is not assumed: it seems an easy scapegoat.”
(Knight, Yolande “Knowledge, evidence, complexity and uncertainty: a summary” (Planet no. 17, December 2006)

The recently fashionable Neo-Classical model of economic thought is lead by ideas of certainty and “know-ability” – the idea that all information is available and all risks are calculable (and insurable). I can’t really bring this up without mentioning that this might not have worked very well in recent times, though this feels a bit like a cheap shot. The education market is suffering from this same malaise at the moment – we’re teaching certainty – we’re teaching (or claiming to teach) based on “full and relevant information” (after Weintraub). 

But (and I’m with Keynes here): the world isn’t like that, and neither is education. Especially as we reach the higher levels of education, we (as academic and quasi-academic staff) do not know what it is our students will need to know. Keynes builds uncertainty (and thus flexibility and contingency) into his economic model, not via the management and “measurement” of risk, but via the acceptance of the existence of an unknowable future.   Mark Johnson has been writing about Illych’s idea of “useful underemployment” which seems to be a very relevant model if resilience in this interpretation of education.

What do students need to know? We don’t know. In such a situation, the only rational behaviour is to teach them how to find out for themselves.

And the next stage is to work out how to convince everybody else.

MarginCore and the dumb hand of the market.

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of current or former employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

So, the hints coming out of the HEFCE annual conference regarding university funding were, firstly, the immanent appearance of the much delayed White Paper (now a running joke within the HEFCE exec), and, secondly, further tweaks to the Willetts-Browne funding model to avoid the now universal embarrassment that this model costs substantially more (we’re now up to £1bn in the mainstream press, it’s more than that as we know) than the current one.

What we seem to be groping blindly towards is something called a core/margin model, and that I’m going to call MarginCore. This should come as no surprise to readers of this blog, as we called it back in December (see about 6 paras from the bottom). We also said it wouldn’t be a very good idea.

For those of you who don’t read links in blog posts, here’s a recap:

Each course, within each institution, has a set number of students it can recruit to it (the core allocation). Depending on how lucky they feel, institutions can then bid for Additional Student Numbers (ASNs) which are extra students they are allowed to recruit that year. If they do recruit them (and keep doing so, and meet various other requirements) their core is eventually reassessed.

You may be impressed that I’ve got a whole actual acronym in there already, but this is for a very good reason. HEFCE ALREADY DOES THIS. Seriously. No word of a lie, this is how we currently do student number controls.

As a Plan B goes, doing something we are already doing is fine with me, usually. But it doesn’t work in Browne-Willets land.

Their tweak is that we allocate extra numbers to cheaper courses. As criteria go, it’s a bit rubbish. Currently, we allocate ASNs according to strategic subject priorities, and assess ASN bids based on ways in which the institution supports widening participation, meets student retention targets and generally has an ability to manage extra students. So you can see why “x is cheaper than y, therefore x should have more student numbers” is a bit rubbish. We can allocate student numbers for more sensible reasons than that, with a greater chance of successful outcomes.

A MarginCore model based on price just accentuates the dumb effects of the markets – we are completely competing on price rather than any other metric. Welcome to Tesco Value U.

The other option on the table is the Big Scary Teaching Funding Clawback, viz. the nasty Treasury takes away some of the money allocated to central (HEFCE) teaching spend under the new model. That won’t work either, mainly because all the central funding under the new model goes to band A and B subjects… courses in lab-based sciences and medicine. So – as the headline writers will clearly spin it – these cuts hits our future healthcare professionals disproportionally.

Or I suppose you could claw back money already awarded to student numbers in the current model. That’s going to be popular with a student body that already seems to be the most active and the most politically engaged in a generation.

Basically, this model of funding isn’t going to work. If the coalition wants to come out of this whole sorry episode with any shred of credibility they need to pull out now, before academics lose jobs and courses close in some idiotic “market”-led rationalisation.

Declawing OFFA

The opinions expressed within this blog post are my own, and not those of my employer, or of projects or programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a Creative Commons Zero (public domain) license.

Today sees the much trailed publication of the “guidance letter” to the Office of Fair Access regarding institutional access agreements and the right to charge amounts above the basic level of fees. In this post I am comparing this new guidance to the initial guidance offered in October 2004. I’m ignoring the draft letter of last year, and David Lammy’s letter of 2009.

Many ministers, in particular David Willets, have previously described the process of getting agreement for higher fees as becoming more arduous, with the expectation that the full £9,000 fee will be charged only in exceptional circumstances. In his ministerial statement, today, he says:

“The guidance to the Director sets out significantly increased expectations for the priority that institutions should be giving to fair access and widening participation, focusing more sharply on the outcomes of outreach and other activities, and less on the inputs and processes. In particular the government believes that progress over the last few years in securing fair access to the most selective universities has been inadequate, and that much more determined action now needs to be taken

It is important to remember that the acceptance of an Access Agreement is, and always has been, analogue not digital. By this I mean that either an institution has an approved agreement and can charge up to the higher level of fees (soon to be £9,000), or it does not and can charge only the basic amount (£6,000). There is no middle ground where an institution can only charge up to £7,500 for a less impressive agreement. It’s all or nothing.

So how are OFFA to keep fees away from the maximum?

(para 1.7, 2011) “We have consistently said that we believe graduate contributions of £9,000 should apply only in exceptional circumstances. Institutions would need to charge considerably less than this to offset reductions in HEFCE funding, and higher charges impose higher costs for the public purse because of generous subsidies in the loan system. […] It is of course not within your legal powers to impose any quota for how many institutions charge what level of graduate contribution […] But if the sector as a whole appear to be clustering their charges at the upper end of what is legally possible […] we will have to reconsider what powers are available, including changes to legislation, to ensure there is a differentiation in charges. We intend to keep this under very close review for 2012/13.”

That’s it. If every institution (as they do currently) successfully has their access agreement approved, there is no way they can be prevented from charging the maximum fee level. And the government has said nothing beyond keeping things under review. This is shameful.

(incidentally – institutions would need to charge about £8,000 to replicate their governmental income with respect to student tuition. This includes the current HEFCE grant and current fees. Lovely little slight of hand there.)

So given this, you would expect a substantially beefier set of requirements for access agreement approval.

The 2004 letter handily offers a set of minimum requirements for an access agreement:

(para 5.1, 2004)

The 2011 letter explicitly does not:

(para 5.1, 2011)
Judgements on the details of these requirements in individual circumstances are for you to make as Director of Fair Access. At this stage, and in accordance with current arrangements, we are not proposing any minimum requirement in this area”

(in accordance with current arrangements they say… hmmm….)

Okay, so maybe it’s all about the big stick. Surely this new guidance will beef up the sanctions that OFFA can make for institutions that don’t play by the rules (whatever the rules turn out to be). From a 2004 starting point:



So, we’ve got a refusal to renew (which would mean that they couldn’t, legally, charge higher fees without some comeback), suspension of the relevant part of the main HEFCE grant, and a small punative fine. For a beefed up measure you would want to maybe look at degree awarding power suspension rather than grant suspension (especially given the grant cut) and a larger fine. You’d also expect that there would be something in the 2011 letter to cover institutions no longer in receipt (or never in receipt) of HEFCE grants. 

But instead:

(2011, para 7.1) “The major sanction available to you is not to approve or renew an Access Agreement, when it is reviewed each year. This would remove the institution’s right to charge its students above the basic level. You also have available to you sanctions should an institution breach or fail to deliver its access agreement, viz:


to impose a fine (via the funding body) of a maximum of £500,000


to require restitution if students have been disadvantaged or commitments have not been honoured.”

At best, this is the same deal as currently – except that they seemingly no longer have the option to reduce a grant from HEFCE.  And the non-approval of an Access Agreement… how would this affect a HE degree-awarding institution that is not in receipt of HEFCE funding, for example an entirely private institution, or an arts college? Such a situation has not been considered in this document, surprisingly as this was one of the hopes around the expansion of the availability of degree awarding powers.

And has the maximum fine been adjusted for inflation since 2004 – no it has not. 

You’ve probably guessed by now that this isn’t the document we were hoping for, and it isn’t the document we were promised. But it is worse than that – this document has actually taken away the minimum access standards set out in 2004, and has not updated the sanctions available to OFFA to suit a new model of Higher Education funding.

Questions should be asked. 

This is not a document about widening access, it is a document about cutting state funding for Higher Education. And it doesn’t even do that very well.



An open letter to David Cameron.

The views expressed below are either my own, or exaggerated for the purpose of my argument. They are not the views of my employer, or of any projects or programmes I have responsibility for. This text is available under a CC0 (Public Domain) license.


>Dear David, 

You may wonder why I’m writing to you, why I’m not bothering Nick Clegg like every other student and academic in the country seems to be. Surely I don’t think I can appeal to your better nature, or sense of social justice? 

Well the thing is, I can kind of understand where you are coming from. Primarily, you want to save money to reduce the deficit. It’s likely you also want to bribe the vice-chancellors of famous universities to take the fee increase and not care about anything else, and let the private sector compete directly with publicly funded provision. You pretty obviously couldn’t care less about lecturers or students – I comprehend that position, even though I (obviously) disagree with you. 

>With Nick – bless him and his little hangdog face and the dead eyes – I don’t know what he wants, other than (apparently) to lose his seat in 2015. So I can’t make a cogent argument to him and have any idea of how he’ll respond to it. He’s not making any sense at the moment, so I can’t use sense to argue with him. 

Anyway, David, this reform of the funding of Higher Education thing. You’ve always been keen to link it to deficit and debt reduction. On 11 November 2010, in China, you said (during an interview on student fees where you condemned students doing to CCHQ what the Bullingdon Club have done to countless Oxfordshire restaurants): 

I think the will of the public was expressed at the time of the election when they rejected debt and deficit and putting off these difficult decisions under Labour, and they chose a new approach and we’ve got to be true to that and stick to that“ 

I want to hold you to that promise. To work to reduce the deficit. I’d like you to comment on my new proposal for higher education funding that will save you at least £5bn within this parliament on what you are currently proposing. Remembering the commitment of your Chancellor to “eliminate the bulk of the structural current budget deficit over a parliament” (24 Feb 2010). 

The proposal is this: leave things exactly how they are. Don’t change anything.

And that’s at least an extra £5bn in the coffers, helping you hit your deficit target. It also has the pleasing side effects of keeping students and academic staff happy, making the university sector more sustainable, offering them fiancial stability and ending nearly a month of civil unrest. But forget about all that hoodie-hugging liberal stuff (you already have? excellent.) – it saves the country money. Keep hold of that idea. 

You’ve linked the new proposals to the deficit so often you may be in danger of starting to believe your own spin. But in retreating from your policy you would be following the advice of the independent Office for Budgetary Responsibility, who note:


“For the November forecast the OBR has scrutinised and certified estimates of the additional loans [the loans in respect of increased student fees] that have been produced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for England. As the table shows, the impact on the CGNCR [Central Government Net Cash Requirement] is estimated to reach £5.6 billion by 2015-16, cumulatively adding £13 billion to PSND [Public Sector Net Debt] over the forecast period.” (pp123-124, in “Box 4.3”)