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Vice-Chancellor news

Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff email – November 2015

30 November 2015
Colin Riordan

Dear colleague

November 2015 has been a momentous month for higher education in the UK; especially and directly for England, but certainly also for the other home nations including Wales. It has seen the publication of the long-awaited Green Paper which turned out to be entitled ‘Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’. On 19 November the Nurse Review of the research councils was published, while on the 25th we finally heard what the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has in mind in terms of priorities for government expenditure and income over the next five years or so. I’ll briefly outline what each of these announcements might mean for Cardiff University and for higher education more generally.

As its title suggests, the Green Paper covers more than just the much-trailed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), although that is the centrepiece, representing as it does a bold attempt to apply the principles of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to teaching and learning. It’s important to note that the TEF will apply to England only. However, given that 10,000 of the 26,000 students who began studying in Wales last year are from England, it would be unwise to imagine that we can ignore it. Our own home undergraduate student body is roughly 65% English, and so if we find ourselves in a position where the quality of our teaching and learning cannot easily be compared with key competitors across the border, it could be seriously damaging. Similarly, any of the 8,000 Welsh students who last year began their studies in England might want to be able to compare between say, Cardiff and Bristol on a like-for-like basis. As you may know, success in the TEF will be linked to the ability to raise fees for English universities. I am as certain as I can be that no such system tying fee increases to TEF success (assuming we do take part) will be introduced in Wales. That is one big difference: for us, participation in the TEF is likely to be driven by reputational and not direct financial considerations.

The final form of the TEF itself is still subject to much discussion and there are many details and processes to be worked out. Granted, it would certainly be of benefit to be able to demonstrate not just that we have all the right procedures in place and are consistent in the application of them, and that our standards are high (as the QAA Institutional Review and the External Examiner system respectively ensure at present), but also that our teaching is excellent. Nevertheless, there is still more than one conundrum to be resolved. For example, the TEF is going to rely in part on a basket of metrics including retention rates, NSS responses and employability measures (for example, the proportion of graduates in employment or further study 14 months after graduation). The TEF will need to take account of the possibility of perverse incentives; students may not be inclined to give positive NSS responses in English universities if they think this might lead to higher fees, for example. Retention rates in sought-after ancient universities are likely to be higher than in institutions that focus particularly on widening participation students, irrespective of the quality of the teaching. Success in employment might depend on factors other than teaching excellence too, such as background and prior educational attainment. All these and more factors will need to be taken into account, and perhaps normalised for, if metrics are to be used to gauge the excellence of teaching and learning. Some of these issues are of critical importance if one of the other goals of the Green Paper is to be achieved, namely improved social mobility via access to a university education for underrepresented social groups.

Metrics are not the only way that teaching quality is to be measured under the TEF. The proposal is to set up independent panels made up of academic experts in teaching and learning, student representatives and employers/professionals, who will make a qualitative judgement. The aim here appears to be to emulate the REF process. The criteria used to determine excellence and the definition of teaching excellence are yet to be resolved. This appears to be a form of peer and external review, independent of government, but exactly how such a review might function will need to be determined. On that point, TEF differs radically from REF in that peer review is a well understood way of operating in research whereas it is far more nebulous in teaching, if the aim is to come to some conclusions about the excellence of the activity.

The Green Paper also provides for the replacement of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) with an Office for Students which will have oversight over widening participation in English universities (incorporating the existing Office for Fair Access) as well as for quality assurance (the assumption is that the existing Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) will be folded into the new Office for Students). None of these developments will necessarily have direct implications for Wales, although the arrangements on quality assurance as we presently understand it will be of critical importance. It is key that we in Wales remain part of a UK-wide system, given the level of cross-border flow outlined above.

A Green Paper is a consultation document, intended for public discussion and response. It is open to anybody to respond, and we as a University will certainly be doing so by the deadline of January 15. If you wish to read the Green Paper yourself (always better than relying on second-hand reports) and feel there is a particular point we should be making in our response, please do let me know.

The most important recommendations of Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the UK research councils, entitled ‘Ensuring a successful UK research endeavour’, can be summarised as follows. All seven existing research councils, plus Innovate UK, will retain their existing separate identities but will be gathered into a single umbrella body called Research UK. It would be headed by a Chief Executive who would be the Accounting Officer collectively for all the bodies subsumed within it, reporting to an oversight Board appointed by Ministers and accountable to the relevant Director General in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The aim here is to allow both the determination of research directions by the scientists on the ground and greater strategic co-ordination (of applied and translational research in particular), the sharing of resources and more efficient back office systems. In England, the distribution of quality-related (QR) research funding, at present undertaken by HEFCE (which is to be abolished under the Green Paper proposals) will become the responsibility of Research UK. There are powerful assurances given that the dual funding system under which research council funding and QR funding based on REF are kept clearly separate and distributed by separate mechanisms and bodies will be maintained, although they will, in England at least, be distributed by the same body under the Nurse proposals. Similarly Innovate UK funding is intended to be ring-fenced within the new organisation. How far all this will stand up to political change and financial exigency remains to be seen. There is to be a review of REF; how QR funding is distributed in England does not affect us in Wales. Our aim must be to ensure that any changes to REF preserve its advantages whilst as far as possible reducing the bureaucracy, and to ensure that QR funding in Wales continues to be (a) protected and (b) distributed by a body at arms length from government.

The Autumn Statement and Comprehensive Spending Review (and the outcome of the BIS consultation on postgraduate funding which has also been published) contain far too many measures affecting higher education and research for me to summarise here. I will doubtless come back to various measures in the coming months but some of the highlights are that the government is going to make postgraduate loans for English-domiciled students available to everybody under 60 rather than under 30, and applicable to anywhere in the UK rather than just in England, which is a very important shift for us. For the first time the government has said it would like international student numbers in the UK to increase by a specific number (55,000), which has the effect of making it inconceivable that net migration can be reduced to the tens of thousands while students remain in the net migration target. We also have a commitment that English language levels will remain as they are. This is extremely good news in terms of international student recruitment. The £4.7bn research budget is to be protected in real terms, which is a big improvement on the flat cash settlement of 2010, and there is to be support for various specific initiatives in health and other areas such as aerospace and automotive. There will be funding for regional initiatives including the Cardiff Capital Region, and innovation features heavily. The Nurse Review, as outlined above, is to be implemented in full.

All in all the changes outlined by the Chancellor look as if they will be positive for research, but there is still a huge amount of detail to be resolved. We will have much to do in Wales to integrate the reforms being considered by the Diamond and Hazelkorn reviews with the upheaval outlined in the Green Paper, and we will need to be as influential as we can in terms of developments in England to ensure that there are not unintended consequences for Welsh universities. It is gratifying to see that initiatives we have pushed for, especially the portability across the UK of postgraduate loans, have been adopted. We will need to continue to work as hard as we can to ensure that Cardiff not only does not lose out, but benefits as much as possible from the proposed reforms.

I will keep you informed in future emails as more details emerge.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan