HE policy

1994 Group, Natural End Points, and Ongoing Plots

The 1994 Group of universities has today announced that it has come to a “natural end point“. But the end of this plot leaves many others wide open.

What will come of other mission groups? And for the universities previously under the 1994 Group umbrella, how will they choose to respond?

Dead end (photo by Scott Ableman)

Dead end (photo by Scott Ableman) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Mission groups generally set to put some kind of vocal pressure on the government and other policy shapers/makers when important issues are under discussion, or desperately need it. For that reason, I don’t think they’ll disappear any time soon. Uncertainty about the future will keep them going if nothing else will. Without wider representative voices, institutions would be in a much weaker position.

After the 1994 Group announcement, two tweets from Times Higher Education staff made interesting points:

Will the Russell Group become the ‘last one standing’? If so, what will that mean for the group and for higher education as a whole? If not, will other mission groups feel the need to alter their brand image?

With 24 universities currently in the Russell Group, I’ve mentioned before that it’s close to Michael Arthur’s comments on 25-30 institutions that should get the lion’s share of research funding.

Arthur’s comments suggest the possibility that we won’t see many more universities move over to the Russell Group.

No matter how large the membership becomes, if the group became the only one to remain, it would be all too easy to see the sector as two-tier:

1. An elite level of institutions in a powerful and vocal position;
2. All the rest.

That might be simplistic, but the danger is there. When I wrote a chapter for the Pearson book, Blue Skies, I made the following points:

“As a diverse community, we cannot all face the same direction, but we should aim to work as a collective nonetheless.”

and

“HE should benefit society as a whole. To do this, focus must rest more on achievement, and less on competition.”

The Board of the 1994 Group acknowledged this. They stated that “the sector is stronger when it works together”.

Sadly, the current system in HE, especially regarding fees, means that competition is only set to grow. How do you deal with collaborative representation then? Represent everyone and you represent no one.

It was less than a month ago when the Russell Group was being represented in the media, after calls for an increase or removal of the tuition fees cap. Does this favour all universities outside the Russell Group remit? Is it reasonable to focus on one group when it may only represent one aspect of the higher education landscape?

As Marie-Elisabeth Deroche-Miles has predicted, we could see greater competition, leading to more outspoken representatives.

From this perspective, mission groups on the whole could seek to toughen up, rather than close down.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes in terms of vision and/or membership. It may be a necessary development. So despite today’s news, the end of the 1994 Group isn’t a definitive sign that mission groups have had their day. It is more a sign of an unsettling under way. Where it will take us, we cannot yet tell.

As Phil Baty tweeted, many members of the 1994 Group had been strong players. This strength is what led a number of institutions to move to the Russell Group last year. If those universities believed mission groups no longer mattered, they would have simply left the 1994 Group, rather than move elsewhere.

Under the current system, the collaborations do matter. They help communicate the big ideas, outline the future visions, and point out oversights that make an impact on a wide scale.

No matter what scale you take representation, you will see many flaws as well as strengths. That doesn’t mean we should give up.

As my Blue Skies piece said, contradiction is (and always will be) higher education’s great strength. The community must work together, despite differences. Communities within that community must make their case heard. It would be a mistake to end up with one community in a dominant position and another community fighting for the scraps. That won’t be in the interests of society, since there is so much investment and involvement. Such an obvious two-tier setup would change opinions way beyond the universities.

Whether the end of the 1994 Group came as a shock or as an inevitable result of recent events, it marks the end of a chapter, but hardly the end of the book. The “natural end point” for the 1994 Group leaves enough characters remaining and many unanswered questions. Where will the plot turn next?

Caution. Which way to turn? (photo by tm-tm) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Caution. Which way to turn? (photo by tm-tm) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The £9k exception norm

Today’s headlines on tuition fees are promising large rises. I’m about to discuss the fees announcement. But don’t be alarmed by the numbers.

MoneySavingExpert has a guide to understanding the new fees and loans system for 2012/13 and it’s worth checking that rather than worry about the figures in isolation.

The figures sound scary, but the reality is different. Whether you agree with it or not is a different matter.

There are underlying issues that could arise due to the government selling off loans in the future, but hopefully it won’t be something we need to cover. If you do want to read more about the sale of student loans, check out Part 3 of Andrew McGettigan’s report, “False Accounting? Why the government’s Higher Education reforms don’t add up” [PDF]. It’s also worth reading McGettigan’s recent post on finances at his blog, Critical Education.

Now on to the fees announcement.

photo by Leo Reynolds

photo by Leo Reynolds

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has published details of university fees for 2013/14. The fees are even closer to the £9,000 cap than they already were for 2012/13, when the new fees come into play. FT’s data blog lists the full 2012/13 fees.

After financial support from all areas is taken into consideration, the estimated average fee for 2013/14 is set to be £7,898.

That’s once everything is taken into account. A potential difference of £1,102 between the adjusted average and the absolute maximum fee. Not exactly the suggested ‘market’ that was touted.

A yearly fee above £6,000 was supposed to be the exception. Many HE commentators weren’t convinced. In November 2010, I suggested that we should “expect to see the cap become the price“. It hasn’t taken long.

In March 2011, I acknowledged that finances and access agreements cannot be worked out in any short-term plan:

“It seems that, even without any changes to the proposed fees system in coming years, it’s going to take a couple of runs through the process before we get a true picture of what’s happening.” [Source]

The new fees regime for 2012/13 hasn’t even begun and the next year of fees has been set. Clearing doesn’t start for a couple of weeks, and that’s set to be different to previous years. Salford VC, Martin Hall, says that clearing is “no longer a mopping-up opportunity for those who didn’t get their expected grades to find a spare place”.

This is just the start.

It’s understandable that fees have long been the big talking point surrounding higher education since the changes were announced. Sadly, that’s been to the detriment of other HE discussions. Postgraduates, institutional diversity, student engagement, the loans system and its future, public perceptions and engagement with HE…There is so much to talk about. It’s as if fees talk got in the way of other conversations. Well, unless you were more directly involved or particularly keen on HE policy and wonk-talk!

For applicants, there is still little reason to limit choices based on tuition fees other than the occasional exception. In general, the slight differences are less important than other considerations. The new fees system was billed to give students greater choice. People would vote with their feet and not accept unreasonably high fees as a matter of course.

With fees set so close to the cap, where will those feet tread?

Many considerations are needed when making university choices. It depends on each person and why they wish to attend (including whether or not to attend at all). I’ve got a list of 50 things to think about for uni decisions. It’s not exhaustive, because that’s not possible.

Fees may not be so important in choices right now, but bursaries are still worth researching. Bursaries make an immediate impact, unlike fee waivers, because the money goes directly to the student. Prospective students should make sure they know what bursaries are available to them.

Some institutions may find new reasons to set very different fees once we’re a year or two into the new system. There’s no way to accurately foretell this because there are no direct comparisons. Also, any additional policy changes change the situation once more. And there’s still a lot of room for that to happen.

However, as things currently stand, it’s clear that fees are sitting firmly around that £9k cap. Who’da thunk it?