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Public Policy|Southampton

Higher Education Digest November 2018


Highlights from November 2018

New Universities and Science Minister

1. Sam Gyimah resigned his position as Minister for Universities and Science on 30 November, in order to vote against the Government on Brexit. He has been replaced by Chris Skidmore. Skidmore is a South Gloucestershire MP first elected in 2010, and is a previous minister in the Cabinet Office. He has been a part-time lecturer at the University of Bristol.

Brexit Withdrawal Agreement

2. The biggest non-HE news story of the month saw the Government agree with the EU a draft withdrawal agreement and political declaration on the future UK/EU relationship. There is little detail specifically relating to higher education. There is confirmation in the withdrawal agreement that student support arrangements will remain the same during the transition period. Future arrangements for EU staff and students, and for UK participation in EU science and research programmes beyond 2020, remain part of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, although the political declaration mentions such potential involvement in the vaguest of terms.

USS Pension Scheme

3. Universities have responded to the recommendations of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP), who presented their first report in September. The consultation shows that employers representing more than 90% of USS members would be prepared to consider more risk and higher levels of contribution as set out in the JEP report. That support would be conditional on acceptance by the USS trustees, and also that this increase was seen as a short term measure, with further work being undertaken on a long term solution.

4. Partly as a result, the USS trustees have announced that they will carry out a new valuation of the USS funding position as of 31 March 2018 (the previous industrial action and subsequent work of the JEP was based on recommendations following an evaluation based on the March 2017 value). They will consult employers over their funding assumptions for this valuation in December and January, and then consider the JEP proposals, the financial risks and the willingness of employers to fund those risks. This will be finalised in February, before going to the Joint Negotiating Committee. The April 2019 increase to contributions (from both employers and employees) will still go ahead, but a new way forward should be in place before the larger, currently planned, increases in October 2019.

Universities in financial difficulties

5. At the beginning of November, the Chair of the Office for Students, Michael Barber, said in a newspaper article that the OfS would not step in to bail out HE institutions who were in financial difficulties. This followed a report in news that three institutions were on the brink of bankruptcy. It emerged later in the month that the OfS had given a bridging loan of around £900,000 to one provider, although under “legacy arrangements” from HEFCE. 

2 Year Accelerated Degrees

6. On 18 November, the previous Universities Minister Sam Gyimah announced that the Government would proceed with 2-year accelerated degrees. Under these plans, universities would be able to charge a maximum of £11,100 per year for a two year accelerated degree, compared with the current £9,250 per year for three years - a 20% saving for students. Those fees are subject to Parliamentary approval. The Government also published the response to their consultation on accelerated degrees, which showed that a significant majority of respondents did not think that the additional fee level would be sufficient to encourage additional provision of accelerated degrees, and a smaller majority thought that the fee level would also not be enough of an incentive to increase demand from potential students.

UCAS data - Unconditional Offers

7. On 29 November, UCAS published 2018 End of Cycle data showing that 7.1% of all offers to 18 year old applicants from England, Northern Ireland and Wales were unconditional, and that 22.9% of those applicants received at least one fully unconditional offer. When adding in a new category of “conditional unconditional offers” (where an offer which is conditional is made unconditional if the student chooses that university as their firm choice), the percentage of offers made with an unconditional element rises to 12.2%, and 34.4% of applicants in the three countries received at least one such offer. There were strong variations among subjects (creative arts and design having the highest numbers of unconditional offers; medicine and dentistry the lowest). The data also show a higher proportion of unconditional offers to those applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

IFS Report – impact of degrees on early-career earnings

8. On 27 November, the Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report, commissioned by the DfE, on the impact on earnings at age 29 of attending higher education in the UK. Findings included:

Independent Review of TEF

9. At the time that the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 was passing through Parliament, an amendment was passed which required the Government to carry out an independent review of the TEF. The Government has appointed Dame Shirley Pearce to carry out this review, and published the Terms of Reference. The review is due to report in summer 2019.

HEPI Report  - Where do student fees really go?

10. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) have published a paper entitled Where so student fees really go? The report looks at where fees are spent, how that is communicated, and what information students want to know. The report shows that around 45% of tuition fee income is spent on teaching, with most of the rest spent on areas which directly benefit students, such as maintaining buildings, IT and student support. Recommendations include:

WomenCount – Leaders in Higher Education 2018

11. WomenCount have published a report on female leadership in higher education in the UK. Findings included: 

Postgraduate Experience Taught Experience survey

12. AdvanceHE have published the results of the 2018 Postgraduate Experience Taught Experience survey. The data included:

Delays to Post-18 review and treatment of student loans

13. The review of post-18 education, led by Philip Augar, is now not expected to be published until February 2019. One thing which may affect its recommendations is the treatment of student loans in Government accounts. The Office for National Statistics is due to publish an assessment on this on 17th December, which could affect the projection of the affordability of student loans going forward.

Matthew Hedges

14. There was considerable news attention in November over Matthew Hedges, a Durham PhD student who was found guilty of spying in the UAE, following research he was carrying out there. He was sentenced, to life imprisonment, then subsequently pardoned and released. Concern has been raised in various universities about carrying out research in the UAE, and University of Birmingham UCU members voted for staff to refuse to engage with their Dubai campus.


Gavin Costigan


Director of Public Policy|Southampton

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