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It’s all about rocks, fees and REF: Focus on Scotland’s Universities
The stone edifice of free university tuition for students from Scotland heated up last week with the release of the first Scottish Funding Council report on its review of ‘Coherent Provision and the Sustainability of Colleges and Universities’. This emerged just as the Ofqual board minutes were released in England (TEFS 23rd October 2020 ‘Ofqual lets the cat out of the bag’). A decision made by the Scottish government, in changing their minds on how they had standardised exam grades, blindsided the government in England and led to a chaotic U-turn. The review of provision in Scotland’s universities and colleges may now herald a further divergence from arrangements in the rest of the UK as the case for independence unfolds. REF is on hold for now while the UK government reviews its REF agenda. The hope is the deficit in teaching provision caused by REF is looked at more critically.
While rocks have yet to ‘melt in the sun’, there seem to be some significant cracks appearing. The SNP may be regretting the day its former leader, Alex Salmond uttered the words “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students”. Meanwhile, the COVID examinations crisis revealed what was under the rocks, and it does not look good. It seems they support a structure that largely protects the most advantaged. This was revealed on the 18th October 2020 in a report on the distribution of downgraded of exam results in Scotland this summer. It took a closer look under the weighty stone of ‘standardisation’ and found things the government would like to be left alone. Those with greater advantages seem to fare better and take the pole position in access to the elite universities without the burden of fees (see TEFS 30th October 2020 ‘A little less conversation, a little more action please’ for more on this). Just as the ‘Stone of Destiny’ has resided in Edinburgh since 1996, it seems Scotland’s fate is determined by ‘stones’ that some would prefer were left alone.
The report summarises the input from a wide range of interested people and organisations and defines ten key themes and areas of focus for phase two planned for February 2021. It is a comprehensive review of 88 pages with 8 other accompanying documents.
TEFs made a submission that was only one of over 100 submissions. However, it was interesting to find that much of the report reflected the TEFS analysis and indicates some common ideas about what should be done. There is a strong commitment to addressing widening participation by the least advantaged groups of students. Also, acknowledgement that the current access funding is concentrated in the post-92 institutions. TEFs had argued that different incentives must be offered to the older universities to enable such students to aspire to education in their universities.
The no fees policy is under scrutiny.
When former SNP leader, Alex Salmond promised “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students” in 2013 he set in place a policy that would be difficult to back out of. Indeed, it was literally carved in stone and erected on the campus of Heriot Watt university in 2014 after other universities were reluctant to accept the honour. After consultation with students, the stone has been removed in May of this year (University to remove Alex Salmond's tuition fees stone (BBC News 20th may 2020).
The assumption at the start of the current consultation was that “The Scottish Government’s stated policy is that free tuition helps remove barriers to widening access and participation, and builds a strong social contract with students”. Thus “We have not taken the issue further given government policy”.
Despite this restriction, the thorny issued of government policy on free tuition for all students from Scotland, regardless of family support, is addressed and will make for uncomfortable reading by the incumbent SNP government.
Sustaining research funding is partly addressed with a commitment to look again at the role international student fees subsidise research. However, the influence of funding determined by the Research Excellence Framework in 2021 (REF2021) was ducked at this time. But I expect it will not be left alone as the next funding cycle starts next year. It may be no coincidence that the UK Research Minister, Amanda Solloway, announced a review of REF on 20th of October 2020 ‘Science Minister on ‘The Research Landscape’. It is hardly a recipe for radical change with “Recognising the importance of protecting the current REF and valuing it” and it seems more is better with “More quality time spent on research”. The impact on teaching and the links to teaching appear to be buried out of sight.
Beyond REF2021 and a teaching deficit.
Research funding In Scotland is apportioned as a Research Excellence Grant (REG). This is derived from the Research Excellence Framework or REF which is a UK-wide system for assessing the quality of research in UK universities. It largely benefits and reinforces the larger Russell Group and pre-92 universities. TEFS replied to the review by arguing that REF should be radically reformed or abandoned to lessen the impact on teaching provision and student support.
The last exercise was in 2014 and the next one is due to be completed in 2021, despite the COVID-19 crisis (REF2021). The review in Scotland decided to avoid any controversy with “Institutions are therefore currently finalising their submissions to REF2021 and consequently it would not be appropriate for us to 55 indicate possible changes to our approach to research funding in advance of the completion of REF2021, to avoid affecting submissions to the exercise”.
Anyone who has tried to navigate their way through running a busy research laboratory whilst also teaching hundreds of students will recognise the dilemma posed by management pressure descending from government policy. Maintaining REF imperatives, while expecting staff to adjust to online teaching, shows how out of touch the government and university hierarchies have become.
Those running a research laboratory will also be well aware of being told, as the review acknowledges, “Research is a loss-making activity, and it is therefore important that universities address this through other surplus generating activity”. Of course, this means diverting fees to paying staff to spend most of their time generating research outputs, and now extra income. This becomes a vortex into which more and more time and funding is needed to fill the gaps. A cross-UK review of REF must also assess the impact it has on effective teaching in our best universities. We must do this for fairness and to compete on a world stage for generations to come.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.
UPDATE 8th August 2020 Things are moving fast today with severe criticism mounting about Ofqual and SQA, and urgent action is needed. TEFS has laid out ten points that should be considered to reverse out of the crumbling mess. Fairness should replace 'maintaining standards' as the primary objective. The government must cease trying to defend a system that acts as a barrier to the less advantaged. Since posting yesterday, things have been moving fast. Today the Guardian put the examinations issue in large print on its front page with ‘Nearly 40% of A-level result predictions to be downgraded in England’ . This conclusion came about after some great detective work by former medical statistician, Huy Duong, who analysed the data available and reconciled this with the Ofqual announcement that there could have been a 12% inflation in higher grades. It seems that Ofqual have been caught red handed and "Duong’s findings were privately confirmed to the Guardian by ex
UPDATE: Augar Speaks out Today, Friday 8th May 2020, Philip Augar broke cover and commented on the financial crisis in our universities in the Financial Times. With ' The time is ripe to reform UK university finance' he acknowledged that "Covid-19-related disruption may now mean that such a fee cut would be too destabilising" . He is looking to a new post-COVID-19 world and he must be listened to. The likelihood of the government's response to his report last year diverging far from its recommendations looms. Augar has offered alternative options for funding Universities in his article for the Financial Times today (8th May 2020). His input is welcome at this time and the government should be bringing him into the fold again. TEFS has argued for a comprehensive review of university finances that goes well beyond simply looking at students and fees with: "Therefore, a working group involving students (such as NUS), staff (such as UCU) universi
The measures taken today by the UK government mean that many small businesses will be forced to close and lay off their workers. With people voluntarily staying away from bars, restaurants and clubs, the impact will be profound. The government will be judged by how it supports people most affected and this will be their legacy. Since the majority employ students as part-time workers, it seems they will be hit especially hard. Add to this the loss of part-time work within universities rapidly shutting down many operations, and the effect will be catastrophic for those in most need. Even PhD students robbed of their pay from casual teaching that they rely upon will be affected. TEFS now calls upon universities and government to step in to help those affected. Emergency hardship funds should be urgently deployed. Having to drop out or fail courses because of lack of support is not an option. Loss of funding and rent arrears will be the ‘straws that break the camel’s back’. The measure