Changes afoot in higher education…

Posted on February 28, 2011 by

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Last week, David Willetts, minister for universities and science, spoke at the Universities UK conference about the government’s thinking on universities and higher education for the future. This included a few things that are particularly interesting for research; in particular, Adrian Smith is going to look at how ongoing changes to funding will affect postgraduate study.

Willetts touched on how all the changes afoot to the NHS will effect higher education (there was a white paper last summer proposing changes to the NHS and the health & social care bill is currently on its way through parliament putting these proposals into action – see my post here for more background). He was mainly talking here about the provision of healthcare courses – indicating that the Department of Health is planning to have more clarity on the impacts for higher education by the summer – but, as the NHS is involved in a lot of medical research as a huge resource and key factor in the UK’s strength in medical research, changes to how the NHS funds and commissions are going to have broader impacts on research too.

Many HEIs receive considerable funding in relation to healthcare courses and the proposed NHS reforms will affect the contracts and funding for these courses. The Department of Health is currently consulting on the detail of the changes and will be able to provide clarity in the summer. The Department’s education and training budget will see a small increase of 2 per cent in 2011/12. Strategic Health Authorities are responsible for investing the budget, commissioning training places from their local HEIs. The Strategic Health Authorities will remain responsible for commissioning pre-registration courses until April 2012 and will be responsible for the safe transfer of contracts to new organisations after this date. BIS will continue to work with the Department of Health so that the impact on universities is addressed as proposals are developed.

On the funding of research by HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England – the non-departmental public body responsible for distributing public money for teaching and research to universities and colleges) Willetts confirmed that it will be allocating funding to individual institutions for 2011/12 on March 16.

HEFCE announced its provisional allocations in February so institutions already know how the money is going to be allocated (see my previous post with details and numbers here). The consultation and the other announcements that Willetts mentions are in line with HEFCE’s announcement in February. From a medical research perspective it’s good to see it emphasised that subjects that are “more costly/strategically important and vulnerable” will be protected.

For institutions, HEFCE will be allocating funding for 2011/12 on March 16th – and it will be changing the way it allocates funding from 2012/13. In May, HEFCE will begin a consultation on how the remaining teaching grant should be allocated and will have final proposals by the Autumn. As we set out in the HEFCE grant letter, our priorities for funding are to support more costly subjects, institutions and students; and to protect those subjects that are strategically important and vulnerable.

…On research funding, HEFCE has a four-year allocation and should announce institutional allocations for the 2011/12 QR Grant, indicative allocations for HEIF, and teaching allocations on March 16th. Together with other funding bodies, HEFCE will also announce shortly the way forward on the Research Excellence Framework and impact assessment.

On immigration – Scientists and funders are concerned about changes to immigration rules as lots of international scientists from outside of the EU come to the UK to study and work – Willetts reaffirmed that changes to the immigration system should not restrict movement of skilled individuals who are a key part of our education system. (See more on the changes to the immigration system and the government’s plan to reduce the impact on scientists here)

In another area, the Government recognises university concerns about the outcome of the recent consultation on the student migration system. I am working closely with Damian Green at the Home Office; and I am very clear that our commitment to reduce net migration has to be implemented without putting at risk our higher education exports – a business which Vince Cable and I regard as a major British success story and testament to the international reputation of our institutions.

A key objective of this review is to get rid of abuse in the student migration system – dealing with those organisations that bring in individuals who are not genuine students but are only interested in getting into the UK. We want to ensure that in dealing with that abuse, we don’t inadvertently make the UK less attractive to genuine students wanting to come and study at reputable institutions.

And on postgraduate study, Willetts has asked Adrian Smith (Director General, Science & Research in BIS) to look closely at how this will be impacted by changes to funding.

AMRC members invest approximately 80% of their research funds in UK universities; over a fifth of this expenditure directly supports individual researchers. Many of our members, including the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation, play a major role in the funding of postgraduate training in the medical sciences. In 2009/10 AMRC members spent £32.7M on 1,274 PhD studentships. So AMRC members have a big concern that postgraduate study, a key part of our strong science base, is not damaged.

There’s another issue too. We are looking within BIS – in light of changes to undergraduate funding and finance – at how we support postgraduate study in future. We have a successful postgraduate sector that has grown substantially over recent years and has done so with comparatively little Government funding or regulation. Many people have raised concerns about the impact that higher graduate contributions could have on participation in postgraduate study – and it would be clearly detrimental to this country if we saw a big fall in postgraduate numbers.

So I have asked Professor Sir Adrian Smith – who, as you know, produced a comprehensive report on postgraduate study in March of last year – to reconvene his review panel and consider this issue in light of the new funding environment.

And looking into the crystal ball for the future... Willetts outlines plans for how the higher education sector might welcome new providers, similar to models currently changing healthcare and schools…

I have worked on many different areas of the public sector over the past 30 years. The biggest lesson I have learned is that the most powerful driver of reform is to let new providers into the system. They do things differently in ways none can predict. They drive reform across the sector. Research by Caroline Hoxby shows that admitting new schools causes existing schools to raise their game. It’s the rising tide that lifts all boats – an insight which lies behind Michael Gove’s recent school reforms. It also lies behind Andrew Lansley’s proposals to empower GPs so they can choose providers in the best interests of patients.

What next?

A white paper outlining the government’s plans for higher education was planned for March, but on the day of this speech, we heard that it has been delayed and we can expect it sometime before June.

William Cullerne-Brown from Research Fortnight has done a detailed analysis of this speech and what it means on his blog here.

Posted in: Policy