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Higher Education Briefing – Policy Documents, a White Paper and OfS letters

  • United Kingdom
  • Education

04-02-2021

The last two weeks have seen a flurry of papers and briefings from the government affecting the HE and FE sectors:

• Interim Conclusion of the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, published by the Department for Education January 2021.

• Government response to Dame Shirley Pearce’s Independent Review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), published by the DfE in January 2021.

• Office for Students’ response to Department for Education’s announcement on Funding and the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, published by the OfS on 21 January 2021.

• Office for Students’ Letter on regulation during the current phase of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic 14 January 2021.

• The FE White Paper: Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth, published by the Department for Education on 21 January 2021.

• House of Commons Public Accounts Committee: Managing colleges’ financial sustainability, published by the House of Commons on 27 January 2021.

This briefing does not summarise each of the policy documents, but instead highlights issues which we think are of importance from a legal and governance perspective.

This briefing is aimed primarily at higher education institutions. It will be of interest to further education. We have separately published a briefing for further education institutions HERE.

Review of Post-18 Education and Funding

This paper is an interim conclusion of the review of post 18 education and funding that was launched by the Government in 2018, a full conclusion only being published alongside the next Comprehensive Funding Review.

It is interesting that most HE reforms have been largely delayed whilst the FE reforms have been largely implemented in the White Paper. Along with the contents of the reports, this shows a continued rebalancing of focus from HE to FE.

The emphasis in this paper is around technical, rather than academic, higher education, which ties in with the emphasis on technical education in the FE White Paper, with the Lifelong Loan Entitlement perhaps making technical HE more attractive, as will the intention to bring more modularisation into HE.

As in FE, there is an emphasis on technical qualifications being employer led. This should be more familiar to colleges than it is to universities.

We expect this review to further blur the lines between HE and FE. If there is to be more investment in FE, along with potential cuts to HE funding, we expect the trend of HE-FE group structures and collaborations such as Institutes of Technology to become increasingly popular and commonplace.

Government response to Dame Shirley Pearce’s Independent Review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework

The Government has finally published its response to the Independent Review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework.

The Government has largely accepted the results of the Pearce Review. The scheme will continue to be known as the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), with its primary purpose being the enhancement of quality and a secondary purpose being to inform student choice, helping prospective students to select the best provision for them. The Pearce Review had recommended a structure based on four aspects of quality: teaching and learning environment, student satisfaction, educational gains and graduate outcomes. The Government has agreed with all of these bar student satisfaction, instead preferring “student academic experience” as a better mechanism for measuring quality, on the basis that student satisfaction can “too easily be obtained via a reduction in quality or academic rigour.”

The three current categories of Gold, Silver and Bronze will be replaced with four categories, with the top three being signifiers of excellence and the bottom category for providers failing to show sufficient evidence of excellence. The names of the new ratings are to be confirmed in due course.

The Government is also clear that TEF exercises should be proportionate, given the Government’s priority of reducing unnecessary bureaucracy in the sector. The current approach of the TEF running each year will end, with the expectation that it will be a periodic exercise, taking place every 4 or 5 years. In this vein, subject level TEF ratings are not being implemented “at this time.”

Given TEF’s primary purpose being the enhancement of quality, the Government wants TEF to be more clearly part of the Office for Students’ regulatory framework. The OfS is being tasked with consulting and developing proposals for an “invigorated provider level TEF, that contributes to driving improvements in all higher education provision and supports excellent outcomes for all our students, as part of the OfS’s wider reforms for raising quality across the sector.” Consultation is due to take place in Spring 2021, with the aim is for the new framework to be in place by September 2022.

Office for Students’ (OfS) response to Department for Education’s announcement on Funding

The OfS has responded to the White Paper, stating the areas on which it is going to consult (in February 2021) in respect of funding changes. These include:

• 50% reduction to high cost subjects which it has not identified as strategically important (e.g. performing arts, creative arts, media studies and archaeology). Those high cost subjects that are deemed strategically important will see an increase in funding;

• London targeted allocation and London weightings being removed entirely from 2021-2022;

• Capital funding for providers should be distributed through a bidding competition rather than through a formula method; and

• £20 million of funding for student mental health and hardship.

Whilst increased funding for student mental health mirrors one of the recurrent themes in these documents, there are a number of colleges, especially in London, who will be disproportionately affected by some of these proposals, perhaps even to the extent that it risks their financial viability.

Office for Students’ Letter on regulation during the current phase of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic 14 January 2021.

We have covered the consumer law implications of this letter here.

FE White Paper

Whilst the White Paper is predominantly of relevance for FE it will be of interest to higher education institutions, especially those who already collaborate with colleges or are considering collaborations or mergers with colleges.

The White Paper sets out how the government intends to reform further education to support people to obtain the skills the economy needs and how it will deliver the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, originally announced in September 2020. The emphasis is therefore on technical education and the role of employers within that. It has been generally well received by the FE sector.

The White Paper sets out a five point plan, one of which revisits the concept of putting employers at the heart of the system so that education and training leads to jobs that can improve productivity and fill skills gaps. Proposals include colleges, other providers and local stakeholders developing new Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) to be piloted in Trailblazer local areas (to be announced early 2021) with the aim of making technical skills training more responsive to employers’ skills need.

Another emphasis within the White Paper is the FE sector’s role in providing the advanced technical and higher technical skills that the nation needs. The Government aims to align the substantial majority of post-16 technical and higher technical education and training to employer-led standards set by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and it will use the £2.5 billion National Skills Fund to enhance the funding to support adults to upskill and reskill. The Government says it will work with the Office for Students and Ofsted to develop long-term quality assurance arrangements for Higher Technical Qualifications which will be introduced from 2023.

A third priority for Government within the White Paper is around accountability and funding. The Government has concluded that the complexity of the adult funding system has led to a focus on processes, rather than outcomes. Therefore, it proposes to (with a consultation to take place in Spring 2021):

• ensure that providers have more autonomy to use funding how they see fit in order to meet the needs of learners and the skills needs of local employers, including those articulated in LSIPs;

• reform the accountability system to focus less on process and more on the effectiveness of provider performance and the outcomes they achieve; and

• create a simpler funding system

The Government will refresh the Register of Apprentice Training Providers, including new stricter standards around quality and finance. This will affect those higher education institutions delivering apprenticeships.

Further restrictions on subcontracted apprenticeship delivery will be another hurdle for HE providers in what is already a very complex area.

Finally it is worth highlighting that further investment of £1.3 billion will be made available over the next five years through the Further Education Capital Transformation Programme.

Public Accounts Committee: Managing colleges’ financial sustainability

The PAC report recognises what many in the FE sector have stressed for years, that “financial pressures are having a detrimental impact on aspects of college provisions for students.”

The PAC report stresses the need for the Government to develop a proper plan for further education given the essential role the FE sector is to play in addressing the national skills gap and to make clear the funding commitments it intends to make to support that reform. The FE White Paper is intended to be that strategy.

More information on the PAC report’s recommendations can be found in our briefing for further education institutions HERE.