Guardian letter

Tuition fee ‘gold rush’ behind Coventry crisis

(The Guardian, 29 September 2016)

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The decision by the Government in 2014 to remove caps on student numbers created a gold rush in the English university sector.

Unscrupulous university managers are adopting some of the worst private sector tactics to chase £9,000 tuition fees and pay staff as little as they can.

Aditya Chakrabortty reports on the abuse of outsourcing, zero-hour contracts and agency worker tricks at Coventry University to deny staff basic employment rights – never mind the academic freedom that the University was established to defend.

Coventry University management must be exposed and stopped. But it is not alone. London Metropolitan University is sacking a third of its lecturers and hiring staff to replace them on zero-hour contracts. Meanwhile Leicester and Hull are engaging in targeted redundancies. In the case of Hull one of the targets is the UCU National President, Rob Goodfellow. In the Russell Group, research-active professors are ‘encouraged’ to retire early – scientific research brings in a fifth of the return on investment that a low-paid teacher can.

There is a crisis in the English HE sector, and it is set to get worse. The Government’s Higher Education and Research Bill does what TTIP has so far failed to do: to permit new private for-profit providers to enter the sector with little real scrutiny. It will intensify competition in a race to the bottom that Coventry shows has already begun.

Universities are far more than degree factories. They must also be where the future is forged, places of critique and imagination. They must be accessible to all who can benefit.

It is time that all who care about our sector united for a Higher Education worthy of the name. We are organising the Third Convention for Higher Education at University College London on 15 October.

If you care about the future of Higher Education in the UK, join us.

Sean Wallis (University College London, joint editor of the Alternative White Paper for HE)
Prof John Holmwood (Nottingham University and Campaign for the Public University, joint editor of the AWP)
Tom Hickey (Brighton University and Council for the Defence of British Universities, joint editor of the AWP)
Rachel Cohen (City, University of London and UCU NEC, joint editor of the AWP)
Mark Campbell (Former London Metropolitan University UCU rep)
Sherrill Stroschein (UCL and CDBU)
Lee Jones (Queen Mary, University of London and CPU)
Prof Des Freedman (Goldsmiths UCU president)
Saladin Meckled-Garcia (UCL UCU president)
Carlo Morelli (Dundee University)
Prof Howard Hotson (Oxford University)
Adrian Budd (London South Bank University)
Sam Marsh (Sheffield University)
Prof James Ladyman (University of Bristol)
Prof Warwick Gould (Institute of English Studies, University of London (retd.))
Kevin McSorley (University of Portsmouth)
Prof Adam Gearey (Birkbeck)
Christina Paine (London Metropolitan University UCU secretary)
Eugene Nulman (Birmingham City University)
Ina Friesen (University of Kent)
Kehinde Andrews (Birmingham City University)
Julie Hearn (Lancaster University and UCU NEC)
Ioana Cerasella Chis (University of Birmingham)
Prof Pauline Foster (St. Mary’s University)
Prof Kevin Clements (University of Otago)
Robert Webber (De Montfort University)
Kerry Harman (Birkbeck)
Stacy Gillis (Newcastle University)
Jacqui Rodgers (Newcastle University)
Felix Robin Schulz (Newcastle University)
Dr Ian Thompson (Newcastle University)
Ian Hunt (Goldsmiths)
Prof Karen Corrigan (Newcastle University)
Nadia Edmond (University of Brighton, Falmer UCU branch chair)
Ben Davies (University of Portsmouth)
Prof Thomas Docherty (Warwick University)
Dr Carol Azumah Dennis (University of Hull)
Luke Martell (University of Sussex)
Xanthe Whittaker (University of Leicester and UCU NEC)
Simon Cross (Nottingham Trent University)
Stephen Bates (University of Birmingham)
Michael Rosie (University of Edinburgh)
Gabriel Newfield (University of Hertfordshire (ex Pro-Director, Hertfordshire Polytechnic, retd.))
David Brewster (University of the West of England)
Prof Willy Maley (University of Glasgow)
Mirna Solic (University of Glasgow)
Jerry Goodenough (UEA)
Prof Richard Hall (De Montfort University)
Prof Maggie Humm (University of East London (retd.))
Prof Chris Jones (Liverpool John Moores)
Prof Bob Brecher (University of Brighton)
Prof Barry Smart (University of Portsmouth)
Marian Mayer (Bournemouth University, UCU vice chair)
Lucy Pearson (Newcastle University)
Martin Farr (Newcastle University)
Billie Loebner (Middlesex University)
Prof Judith Suissa (UCL Institute of Education)
Gayle Selby (Coventry University)
Dr Philip Morgan (Keele University)
Liz Morrish (Independent scholar)
James Sumner (University of Manchester)
Sophie Coulombeau (Cardiff University)
Elizabeth Edwards (University of Wales)
Sheila McTighe (Courtauld Institute of Art, Univ. of London)
John Bates (University of Glasgow)
Kyran Joughin (University of the Arts London, UCU secretary)
Anne-Marie Kramer (University of Nottingham)
Jeremy Titman (University of Nottingham)
Dr Maria Ryan (University of Nottingham)
Martin Findell (University of Nottingham)
Richard Field (University of Nottingham)
Prof Stephen Hodkinson (University of Nottingham)
Daria Davitti (University of Nottingham)
Dermot Lynott (Lancaster University)
Pauline Jas (University of Nottingham)
Nick Mount (University of Nottingham)

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Parliamentary Submission – HE Bill Third Reading briefing – Lee Jones et al.


This briefing was prepared by the Convention for Higher Education (CHE), a non-partisan group of academics drawn from across the university sector. The CHE is deeply concerned by the damage that this bill would do to Higher Education across the UK. We appeal to all members of the Committee actively to seek, and forcefully to support, appropriate amendments to the Bill for the reasons laid out below.

1. The ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF) Will Reduce, not Improve, the Quality of Education and Graduates

The Bill says little about TEF, but one of its central purposes is to create the enabling institutions for it. Given its centrality, it is alarming that the TEF is not being subjected to properly parliamentary scrutiny or ongoing oversight, but is instead being developed via a separate technical consultation. The TEF would involve measuring and grading university teaching in a similar way to university research (the Research Excellence Framework, REF), with higher TEF scores driving higher fees, though capped at inflation. Since decades of educational research has failed to develop any reliable measurement of teaching quality, there will be a heavy reliance on crude metrics.

Whatever metrics are eventually used, TEF will inevitably incentivise not excellent higher learning but rather ‘teaching to the test’. For example, the government is currently trialling examinations to measure students’ overall ‘learning gain’. If this becomes the metric for teaching excellence, universities will inevitably start coaching students on how to ace ‘learning gain’ tests. The metric will cease to measure real learning outcomes and existing subject curricula will be hollowed out, as academics are forced to turn over class time for this purpose. Students will thus learn less, not more.

Other proposed TEF metrics – notably student satisfaction – have similar pitfalls. Student ‘satisfaction’ is affected as much by the quality of student accommodation, sports clubs and bars as by teaching. Incentivising universities to boost ‘satisfaction’ will likely compel the redirection of resources away from teaching to these peripheral facilities. Moreover, academics will be discouraged from designing difficult, challenging courses or grading fairly, for fear of making students ‘dissatisfied’. Course content will be dumbed down and grade inflation – already endemic – will escalate sharply, devaluing degrees. Again, introducing TEF will mean students learn less at university.

Moreover, as academics are increasingly held accountable for students’ learning outcomes, students’ sense of responsibility for their own learning – historically a core aspect of higher education – will diminish. We are already seeing students dissatisfied with their grades suing their universities. If the TEF is introduced, an ancient system of independent student, guided by subject experts, will be supplanted by spoon-feeding – as seen in our secondary schools thanks to the rise of metrics and league tables. The result will be less independent, less resilient and less responsible graduates who are less useful employees and less capable of assuming the responsibilities of citizenship. Continue reading

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Parliamentary Submission – proposed amendments to HE Bill

Amendment proposals, HE Bill

The following proposed amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill 2016-17 were submitted to Gordon Ramsden MP by the HE Convention Steering Committee for inclusion in the Committee Stage of the Bill.

Alongside these amendments we also submitted four explanatory documents drafted by members of the Convention.

  1. Annotated copy of HE Bill (Sherrill Stroschein et al.)
  2. General points (Lee Jones et al.)
  3. Student choice (Sean Wallis and Lee Jones)
  4. CDBU paper (Tim Horder and David Midgley)

1. Problem: University autonomy is not protected in the administrative structure proposed by the Bill

Amendment 1: That a separate monitoring body (the Office for Educational Responsibility, OER) be established, charged with monitoring the quality of educational provision within HE institutions, and with safeguarding the character of universities as places of free inquiry, and which will preserve its political impartiality by operating entirely independently of the Office for Students (OfS).

Sections, Part 1, OfS powers overall. (The OfS structure outlined represents direct Government control over universities and loss of university autonomy.)
Sections, Part 3, Clauses 3, 4, 5 (influence of Secretary of State / government on plans and in meetings; unrestrained researcher commercialisation in Clause 5, Subsec 99)

2. Problem: Academic freedom is misunderstood, misrepresented, and unprotected in the Bill

Amendment 2.1: That the protection for academic freedom of inquiry in teaching and research will be explicitly defined as freedom for those engaged in its conduct, and not merely the institutions as corporate entities. (Well-defined only in Part 1, Clause 5, subsection 14).

Amendment 2.2: With regard to research, and in particular the prohibition on Secretaries of State from imposing conditions on the funding of research, protection should be strengthened by making explicit that sections 93 (2) and 94 (2) of the Bill, as taken from section 68 of the Further and Higher Education Act (1992), should be understood as reinforcing that prohibition.

Amendment 2.3: A commitment to the Haldane Principle should be explicitly stated in the Bill (it only appears in related documents).

Sections Part 1: Misunderstanding (as administrative ability) in 4 places: Part 1, Clause 2, Subsec 2; Part 1, Clause 9, Subsec 35; Part 1 Clause 17, Subsec 66; Part 1, Clause 20, Subsec 69.
Sections Part 3: Clauses 3, 4, 5 (influence of Secretary of State / government on plans and in meetings; unrestrained researcher commercialisation in Clause 5, Subsec 99)

Amendment 2.4: With regard to the revoking of the Royal Charters for Research Councils, there should be a clear statement of the objects of UKRI, and of its component Councils. At present a set of functions is given at 85(1) as what UKRIO ‘may’ undertake and are more limited than current objects (for example, there is no reference to social science). These objects should also have the protection of the Haldane Principle (as was the case with the Royal Charter of the Medical Research Council when founded in 1919). The Secretary of State should not have power ‘by regulations’ to add or omit a component Council or vary its field (87.5). Continue reading

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Parliamentary Submission on Student Choice – Sean Wallis and Lee Jones

Will the Higher Education and Research Bill increase student choice?

This text was submitted to the Committee stage of the HE Bill ahead of the first meeting on 6 September. Thank you to colleagues who commented.

Colleagues are also encouraged to make their own submissions. The deadline for submissions is 18 September, with the first meeting of the Committee on 6 September.

There are two publicly stated professed aims of the HE Bill. These are to increase social mobility and to increase student choice.

The HE Bill proposes to increase student choice by making it easier for students to move between institutions during their course of study, and by permitting private providers to enter the sector.

This briefing attempts to identify whether the net effect of the HE Bill, in the current context of HE funding policy and the actual behaviour of universities in the face of current funding and legislative frameworks, will be to increase student choice.

Note that it is not a given that markets always operate to increase the diversification of offerings, nor is it a given that deregulation increases choice.

1. Student transfers between universities

Currently very few students exercise this option. The Higher Education Statistics Agency recently reported figures available for 2013-14 (the most recent figures available). Out of some 400,000 UK undergraduates, fewer than 7,000 students – below 2% – transferred to another university mid-degree.

There are a number of connected reasons why this figure is low and is likely to remain low, irrespective of the intentions of the Government.

  • Academic coherence. Many university courses, by their very nature, are unique to the institution. They are developed by academics working at the frontier of a particular field. An architecture student transferring between one university and another may have been taught in a different way according to different principles. Mathematics curricula differ in the order of presentation of material, and a student who missed precursor modules may require remedial teaching. There is no national curriculum for Higher Education, nor can or should there be. Continue reading
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Letter: beware market failure

After the HE Bill 2nd Reading, beware market failure

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Despite the threats Higher Education faces from Brexit, and opposition from across the sector, the Government appears to be committed to pushing ahead with its disastrous Higher Education and Research Bill.

This can only be explained by the Government’s desire to expand the role of ‘alternative providers’ – i.e. private education companies – into the sector, which is clearly the Bill’s main purpose. To this end, quality assurance bodies and regulations will be abolished and the hurdle for attaining university status drastically lowered, allowing private firms – whether existing ones or new ones backed by venture capital – to receive government-backed fees and loans. Meanwhile, provisions are made for the ‘market exit’ of universities, either because they will be undercut as private firms cherry-pick cheap-to-provide courses and provide second-rate student experiences, or because private ventures will themselves collapse. Continue reading

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Parliamentary call for evidence: Have your say on the Higher Education and Research Bill

Parliament has opened its call for evidence for the Committee stage of the HE Bill, with a deadline of 18 September 2016 for submission of evidence. Early submission prior to Tuesday 6 September is ideal, as this date will be the first date the Public Bill Committee meets. See below for how to submit this evidence.

Do you have relevant expertise and experience or an interest in the Higher Education and Research Bill which is currently passing through Parliament? If so, you can submit your views in writing to the House of Commons Public Bill Committee which is going to consider this Bill.

Higher Education and Research Bill 2016

Summary of the Higher Education and Research Bill

The Higher Education and Research Bill 2016 implements the legislative proposals in the White Paper and seeks to bring forward a range of measures with the aim of increasing competition and choice in the higher education sector, raising standards and strengthening capabilities in UK research and innovation.
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Example letters for lobbying your MP – Second Reading

In order to help colleagues lobby their MPs for the Second Reading of the HE Bill, we have collated some example letters below.

Please do write/rewrite in your own words! Letters that are written in this way are more likely to be read. We have also highlighted parts of the text you should change.

These are written by/for Higher Education staff. But you should be able to adapt them, whether you are a student, a parent, or a school or FE teacher.

Note that due to devolution, the impacts – and the perceived impacts – are likely to differ across the four nations. So we have drafted different letters.

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