Widening participation in the Four Nations

New Picture (2)

The Higher Education Statistics Agency has just released its latest set of performance indicators for widening participation, covering 2014-15. They are far from perfect, but they do give us some idea of how university systems in the four nations compare with one another.

First, they tell us the proportion of young first degree entrants who come from state schools. These are as follows: Northern Ireland remains out in first place at 99.3%, Wales is second at 92.2%, then England at 89.6% and Scotland at 86.6%.

Then HESA provides the proportion coming from socio-economic classes 4, 5, 6 and 7. These are based on the Office for National Statistics’ classifications of parental status, calculated by their occupation, and classes 4-7 comprise technical and ‘routine’ occupations. Northern Ireland again tops the nations at 38.5%, followed by England at 33.4%, Wales 32.6%, and Scotland 27.2%.

These are overall figures, of course. HESA break the English results down by region, showing huge variations depending on where you live. As so often, London turns out to be a special case, with 38.1% of its young entrants coming from SECs 4-7, against only 28.4% of new students from the rest of South-east England.

Northern England’s students come overwhelmingly from state schools (94% in the case of the North-west), while the highest proportion from private schools are those from the South-east (84.3%).

So it looks as though Northern Ireland is far and away the most socially inclusive of the four nations, when judged on these figures for university entrants. This is probably best explained in terms of Northern Ireland’s history and its school structures, as well as the high cultural value that almost all parents place on education as a way of getting ahead.

Conversely, Scotland appears to do rather badly. I say “appears” deliberately, because the HESA figures do not include people who are taking short-cycle higher education in non-university institutions, and Scotland has a lot of young people who are doing exactly that.

So one conclusion might be that Scots don’t need to worry, as their wider higher education system is meeting the needs of disadvantaged young people by offering a wide range of Higher National courses, taught in colleges. Another conclusion, though, is that an HNC or HND does not carry the same currency as a university degree, and attending a college does not convey the same cultural and social capital. If this is so, then social mobility in Scotland is being constrained, and universities are being let off the hook.



The crisis in part-time higher education: its impact in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales

UK part-time undergraduate enrolments by location of HEI (OU excluded)

UK part-time undergraduate enrolments by location of HEI (OU excluded)

Part-time undergraduate study in England is collapsing. Most people shrug, and put this down to the impact of fees. I’m convinced that England’s sudden shift to a high fee system has had some impact on part-time study, in spite of some fairly generous bursaries and fee waiver policies. But is this the only factor at work?

A quick look at the other UK nations suggests that this is far too simple a view. Much of the recent debate about part-time higher education was based on newly-published HESA data. These figures might suggest that part-time study is thriving elsewhere in the UK – but we need to bear in mind that for the first time, HESA now attributes Open University students to the nation in which they study; previously, HESA attributed all OU students to England, which is where the OU has its campus.

For this one year only, HESA has also made its figures available on the old basis – ie, allocating all OU students to England. The new system gives us a better picture of part-time study as a whole, but the old basis allows us to look more closely at part-time study in face-to-face universities. As the table shows, the pattern is very clear indeed.

First, it shows that part-time higher education is in decline in all four UK nations. But it also shows a particularly steep decline in Scotland. In the years 2009-10 to 2011-12, the number of part-time higher education in Scottish universities fell by a quarter, and albeit at a slower pace, the collapse has continued since then.

Why should this be so? Well, we don’t really know, as the only part of the UK to commission serious research into the issue has been in England, though how much notice the Government took of Claire Callender’s findings is debateable. Elsewhere in the UK, the funding bodies and national governments have preferred not to be troubled by inconvenient evidence in the first place.

So I am speculating – though I am speculating on the basis of experience as well as research into related issues. Fees may well be part of the equation. Initially, the Scottish Government abolished fees for full-time home undergraduates only. When it introduced waivers for part-timers, they were complicated, poorly understood and means-tested, so I would expect them to have deterred some part-timers.

And maybe demand for part-time higher education is falling generally. We might expect this to be the case, given that the massive expansion of full-time study since the 1990s means that most school-leavers with suitable qualifications now find it easy to enter higher education, though perhaps not at the university of their first choice.

But institutions also carry part of the responsibility. Some have never allowed part-time undergraduate study; but others have reduced the number of part-time opportunities because they are attracting more full-time candidates than in the past, and only have a fixed number of funded places. Put simply, part-time students fail the ‘convenience’ test, and institutions have therefore replaced them with full-timers.

So thank goodness, you might say, for the OU. Sadly, although the OU continues to make a massive contribution to part-time higher education across the UK, the OU’s undergraduate numbers are falling in all four nations.

In short, our governments have made a right old mess of part-time higher education, and this in turn is further eroding our already battered lifelong learning system across the UK. This will have far-reaching consequences in terms of equality, with opportunities denied to those who were failed by the system first time around, and in terms of long term and sustainable economic recoveryt.

Research policy and Scottish independence: two bald men fighting over a comb?

Old College, Edinburgh University (from www.geograph.org.uk)

Old College, Edinburgh University (from http://www.geograph.org.uk)

As the date for Scotland’s referendum draws nearer, so the battlefields become wider, and the two sides are now debating the future of research funding. The higher education researcher Jim Gallacher has published his view that academic research is more strongly supported within the Union than it would be in an independent Scotland. For the ‘Yes’ camp, Bryan MacGregor has argued that independence will allow Scottish institutions to develop closer business relations and pursue distinctively Scottish priorities.

Like much of the referendum debate, this sounds like two parties with completely opposing views of the world. But a closer look at the argument suggests to me that there isn’t much prospect of significant changes in the funding of university research, regardless of the outcome on 18 September.

Much public spending on university research is already decided in Scotland. The Scottish Funding Council allocates research funding through the block grant mechanism (next year’s total will be just shy of £300 bn). The allocation within Scotland is based on a formula that takes into account the outcomes of the Research Evaluation Framework (REF), a UK-wide process that the Scottish sector chooses to – but does not have to – support.

Next, the Scottish Government and its agencies are significant contractors. Of course, the Government could increase or reduce its allocation to SFC after independence, but this is a devolved decision that is made in Scotland.

Research policy is, though, an area of shared sovereignty, with part being allocated at UK level. Most of this is channelled through the Research Councils, and Scottish universities are relatively successful at bidding competitively for these funds. Currently, the Scottish Government says that it would like to see the Research Councils continue on a UK basis; obviously, this means negotiating with the rest of the UK, but it hardly suggests radical change. Devolved administrations already contribute to decisions on RC priorities, and the Scottish Government is essentially suggesting that this stays unchanged.

Then there is the element of research funding that is passed on to the European Commission. The EC funds research through the European Research Council, the European Framework Programmes, and through specific programmes administered by its departments and agencies. Again, Scottish universities do reasonably well in the competitive process.

In the event of a ‘Yes’ majority next month, then Scotland will become the 29th member state and will therefore join the European research schemes (I think we can entirely discount suggestions that Scotland will be required to join the queue of candidate states). It will have to pay money into the shared pot, and it will be represented in the decision-making process, though as a small member state its voice will not be a loud one. So this does mark a change, but I see it as a relatively minor one.

Finally, other bodies also fund academic research. This includes charities and corporations, the largest of which – such as big pharma or the energy industry – have a very questionable influence on higher education institutions. No one really knows how this will change if there is a ‘Yes’, but my own guess is that the factors that already make Scottish researchers attractive or unattractive to these funders will continue to determine where the funding goes. However, no one can pretend that the decisions of big pharma or the oil giants are based on ‘distinctive Scottish priorities’.

Overall, then, the machinery of academic research should largely rumble on as before, uninfluenced by the referendum outcome. There is, though, one further factor, which would be on my ‘worry list’ if I were running a Scottish university. Currently, Scottish institutions do very well from recruiting students from the rest of the UK, and charging them a sizeable fee. When Scotland becomes a separate member of the EU, that will stop, removing a very significant source of income from the sector, but that is a separate issue.

Declaration of interest: Jim Gallacher is a friend and he holds an honorary post at the University of Stirling – as do I

HE tuition fees and EU membership: a Scottish dilemma

Today I read a short report in the Scotsman on the future of higher education tuition fees should an independent Scotland join the EU. This is a pretty trivial topic, unless you are directly affected yourself; in importance, it barely compares with the massive socio-economic inequalities of access to university education in Scotland. So it seemed a good topic for a summer blog.

The issue itself is fairly simple. Currently, the Scottish Government will not allow universities to charge fees for home full-time undergraduates. As the UK is a member of the EU, Scotland’s public universities must offer undergraduate degrees on the same bases to all citizens of the EU, and therefore cannot charge them fees. Unless, that is, they come from elsewhere in the UK.

This seems an anomalous position, and a hardy Edinburgh student promptly challenged it in the courts. She lost her case. The reason that the Scottish Government can treat students from the rest of the UK differently is that, under current EU law, Scotland’s is a regional government, and not a national one. And this position has now been upheld by the courts.

The question addressed in the Scotsman was what happens if an independent Scotland should join the EU. The obvious answer is that English, Welsh and Northern Irish applicants will be treated as foreigners from another EU state, and will be treated on the same terms as Scottish – or Bavarian or Basque – candidates.

If this comes about, then it will cause considerable turbulence within the Scottish higher education system. At present, the number of fundable student places is limited; they are free to Scots and other EU students, but the universities can only admit a specified number. There are also rules about how many students must be studying certain subjects, which are judged of national importance. But universities can top up these numbers with fee-paying students from the rest of the UK.

In an independent Scotland within the EU, then English, Welsh and Northern Irish students would be competing for the fixed number of student places. And if there are no tuition fees, then we can expect very large numbers of people from the rest of the UK to fancy taking a degree in Scotland.

But according to the Scottish Government, independence will change nothing. The Scotsman quoted the First Minister as saying that ““We believe we can maintain the current arrangement and we’ve got legal advice to that effect”. The Scottish Conservative spokesperson promptly demanded that Mr Salmond publish this advice.

And here is where I give licence to any Über-Nationalist reader to dismiss anything else I say, ever. Because I think the Conservatives are right. Not on everything, but right on this.

If there is any such legal advice, then I would be very surprised. It’s some years since my knowledge of this was fresh (I published a study of the EU and its educational policies in the late 1990s), but the principle of free movement of labour – and the consequent insistence of equal access to training – is one of the founding objectives of the EU.

Why on earth would the EU make an exception for a candidate country, when all other candidate countries have had to take the entire body of EU law as a given? So this advice would transform our existing understanding of EU law on education, and on higher education in particular (which, for technical reasons, has been treated in EU law as a form of vocational training). I suspect that the Government will have to publish the advice eventually, and it may as well come clean now, rather than wait until it is forced to do so reluctantly.

Modernising Scottish higher education or a dog’s breakfast?

This afternoon, the Scottish Parliament will debate the Post-16 Education Bill. This is a controversial measure, labelled by its opponents as a ‘dog’s breakfast’, and by its supporters as the salvation of a broken system. It has enraged vice chancellors, governing bodies and college principals, and it has been savaged in the press. Everyone expects it to pass, though, because the government has a majority and because the Cabinet Secretary for Education is fiercely committed to its success.

The Bill covers three main issues, each of which has in itself defeated earlier generations of politicians. First, it sets out proposals for merging Scotland’s colleges into 13 college regions. This process is already under way, with strong encouragement from the Scottish Funding Council.

Here, the government’s main problem – and the stumbling block that defeated past attempts to ‘rationalise’ college structures – is that Scotland’s regions are very diverse. It is relatively easy to merge the larger colleges in the urban areas, particularly in the central belt around Glasgow and Edinburgh. It is extremely difficult to merge the smaller colleges that serve the more rural and isolated communities of the north and the borders – and local politicians will fight tooth and nail to preserve the identity and autonomy of their community’s local college.

Second, the Bill includes statutory powers to secure wider access in higher education. Again, the Scottish Funding Council has effectively started this process moving through what are called ‘single outcome agreements’ which lay out the terms under which SFC agrees to fund each institution.

Again, previous administrations have attempted to secure wider access to Scotland’s universities, with limited success. Indeed, the intake in Scottish universities is rather more selective than in other UK nations and regions, as regular readers of this blog will know. So it is understandable that a confident minister, with a parliamentary majority, has decided that enough is enough. What is not clear is how the government intends to use the new powers, nor how it will enforce them. Nor is it clear how it will affect the large higher education programmes that take place inside colleges rather than universities.

Third, the Bill outlines new powers for the government to regulate university governance and management. The key proposal here is that the government will ensure that there is compliance with good practice in governance or management, which may include intervening in the appointment of governing boards.

Once more, proposals for the reform of university governance in Scotland have been around for some time. Current structures are inherited from the past, ranging from reserved places on governing bodies for representatives of the Kirk to the often tumultuous elections for a student rector, as well as the more sober lay domination of the boards of former central institutions.

The higher education sector has lobbied ferociously against this part of the Bill, which it sees as the thin end of the state intervention wedge. The problem is that the sector has patently failed to clean up its act. Most vice chancellors – and most chairs of governors – have trundled along, appointing ‘more of the same’ to their governing bodies and senior academic teams, as though the suffragettes and civil rights movements had never happened.

Much as I understand why this section is included, I’d love to see it amended. The Bill does not say what the ‘good practice’ in governance and management is that the government will secure, nor how it relates to the code of good governance that the university chairs have drafted at the government’s request. And the government has departed from the recommendations of the Prondzynski review of university governance in failing to enshrine academic freedom in law.

Much of the bill is, it seems to me, deeply democratic and egalitarian in intent. The three main proposals are all easy to justify in general terms. The problems lie, as so often, partly in the detail, which here is often poorly defined or simply ignored; and partly in the assumption that all future governments will use these new powers wisely, and not abuse them. And by passing up the opportunity to enshrine academic freedom in law, the Scottish Government has missed a trick. Nevertheless, I expect the Parliament to pass the Bill by a clear majority, with major long term consequences for Scottish further and higher education.