VC Bulletin – 7 October 2015

Vice-Chancellor Graham Galbraith

Vice-Chancellor Graham Galbraith

It is great once again to see Portsmouth come alive as students return to their studies, with this time of year a reminder of the important contribution the University makes to the life and economy of the city.

I trust that colleagues managed a relaxing break at some point during the summer and it already seems an eternity since we held our very successful graduation ceremonies in July. Time passes so quickly and I find it hard to believe that I am now entering my third year at Portsmouth.

I will be experimenting this year with a revised format for my bulletin, the intent being to focus on a smaller number of key themes each month with occasional input from members of the University Executive Board as appropriate.

This month I will focus on our recruitment of students for 2015/16, the outlook for University funding, my annual address and the debates around students at the heart of Higher Education including the proposal for a Teaching Excellence Framework. I will also provide some observations on the impending investigations by the Consumer and Markets Commission on the protection of students’ rights as consumers.

New students arriving for a new academic year

I would like to start by thanking all those who were involved in managing student recruitment this year, as it was our first experience of a free market with no student number cap. It was also a year when we had to try to balance our student numbers carefully against available housing.

I am very pleased to report our position at the moment is predicted to be very positive with home and EU students around 2% above target, and international numbers just on or below target. Of course, numbers will not be properly confirmed until the census date in December, but early indications are good.

I am also delighted that our own students have taken advantage of our Postgraduate Support Scheme, which was available for this year only. 181 students took advantage of the generous funding package, of which 177 are undergraduate students of our University.

This success would simply not be possible if it wasn’t for the dedication of staff across the University, during Clearing itself but also throughout the year. This includes all those staff in Planning, International Office, Academic Registry, faculties and of course our Student Housing team who do a fantastic job supporting and settling our students into accommodation.

I also want to mention our Students’ Union and I do hope you had a chance to see the excellent work they did this year in putting on an even bigger and better Freshers’ Fayre, which is so important in helping students settle into student life. What a variety and number of clubs and societies are run by students of our University! I even tried my hand at netball but on the time trial I have to admit that Nick Johnson, the President of our Students’ Union, did beat me by netting one more ball than me!

It is of course the nature of university life that we are only just welcoming new students as we begin our Open Days to support recruitment for next year. The first, on Saturday 3 October, was a great success, and thank you to all staff who make these events happen. They are of crucial importance to showcase our University and so maintain our popularity.

Future funding of universities

Upon re-election, the government announced immediate cuts to the Department of Business and Innovation (BIS) under which universities are funded. There was real concern about the size and speed of these cuts, reducing both 2014/15 income as well as future years. In the end they were much less severe than expected, with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) achieving savings through unspent funds, cuts to special funding streams such as the catalyst fund, as well as removing the transitional research funding designed to smooth funding to individual institutions as a result of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). What was left was a small 2.4% cut to all teaching funds, including Student Opportunity Funding (SOF) in 2014/15.

This was very good news for us as our improved REF performance meant that our cut to research funding was only £88,000 related to the transitional funding in 2015/16 for post-graduate research student supervision. The total reduction to budgets is estimated at £382,000 for 2014/15 and this will be confirmed in October with a further announcement on the level of in-year cuts for 2015/16 expected around March 2016. This will be covered by contingencies and savings elsewhere in our budgets and has no material impact on the financial health of our University either for last year or this current year. Our future plans for investment are therefore at this stage secure and unaffected by these changes.

This of course was only the first phase of the government’s further austerity programme, with the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) due to report at the end of November in which departmental spending over the next five years will be announced. Unfortunately the expected funding reduction to BIS as a result of the CSR is still being reported at between 25% and 40% which means we should expect higher education to be significantly affected. This level of uncertainty makes planning difficult, but we are in a strong position to manage this due to good overall performance in student recruitment and as a result of our plans to grow our external non-HEFCE income. However, any significant loss of funding from SOF, research or Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) would not be good news for us with all of these remaining funding streams being currently considered within the Treasury.

Our future resilience is very much dependant on having a balance of income and we still have a great deal to do to reduce our dependency on home and EU student loan income, which is subject to the uncertainty of government policy. This is an important feature of our new University strategy.

Annual Address – moving from strategy to implementation

I am pleased that the Board of Governors has now approved our new University strategy and the associated key performance indicators that will help to monitor our progress over the next five years. I will be formally launching our strategy at my annual address this month, along with the early implementation projects now underway.

I would very much welcome your attendance at my Annual Address which this year has been opened to all staff of the University and which will be presented on 14 and 21 October.

University Executive Board members will be joining me to assist in answering any questions that you have. This will be an important opportunity to discuss the issues that will be important to University success.

Students at the heart of higher education – the Teaching Excellence Framework

It seems a long time since the government published in 2011 their higher education paper ‘Students at the heart of the system’ and with a majority conservative government now in place they have been revitalised in their determination to increase the level of competition and effectiveness of the sector.

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities and Science, in his address to Universities UK (UUK), was clear that the time was right for a new green paper to drive up the quality of teaching and ensure all students can aspire to a fulfilling graduate career. He also reiterated the importance of widening participation as well as the need to have a regulatory framework that reduces burden and creates a level playing field for new competitors entering the higher education market.

The introduction of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) was confirmed, the strong message being that universities need to pay as much attention to excellent teaching as they do to excellent research. I am sure we would all agree that this is important, but the concern is around how this assessment of teaching excellence will be carried out. What was very worrying was the notion that our funding level, including the right to increase fee levels in line with inflation, would be dependant on good TEF results. There have been many rumours around this, the latest being that the government intends using TEF to select only a small number of the top performing universities to be eligible to increase fees, which would create a two-tier system of funding and effectively introduce a new government ranking of universities.

There is also much confusion on how this can be introduced quickly, as seems to be the intent, and how it will relate to the new Quality Assurance proposals. There have been suggestions that a ‘TEF Lite’ will be introduced, relying on published data such as National Student Survey results, continuation rates, employment data, degree outcomes etc.

In terms of the future, the notion of measuring student ‘learning gain’ as a result of attending university is also being explored, but this is something that will take time to establish. I am delighted that we are one of 12 universities who have bid successfully to run a learning gain pilot project to explore a new approach. This is being led by Sherria Hoskins, Head of the Department of Psychology. This is great news as it means we will be at the centre of such debates and discussions.

It is also clear that there will be a further drive to encourage competition within HE by introducing new providers, with the controls around this likely to be developed as part of a new HE bill. Jo Johnson MP made it clear that if new providers enter the market, then poor performing providers must be able to leave the market, with a need for some form of system in place to protect students should this happen.

What is certain is that providing the very best educational experience for our students with measurably good outcomes will be essential for us in the future. The development of our education strategy supported by our estates master plan, both of which are currently underway, become central to our future success. There are so many changes taking place around us that doing things as we have always done them and standing still will not be an option if we are to compete effectively and grow in standing as a university.

The Consumer and Markets Authority and its focus on Higher Education

In February 2015, Which? published a report ‘Higher education: a review of providers’ rights to change courses’. Which? made Freedom of Information requests to HE providers requesting information on changes they make to courses once students have enrolled, and subsequently a Which? consumer lawyer judged that over half of respondents used contract terms that allow an unacceptably wide level of discretion for institutions to change courses or fees after enrolment. Which? wants a standard consumer-friendly student contract.

Unfortunately reports like this, alongside the marketisation of the sector, have led to significant debates around the rights of students and their protection in law as ‘consumers’. This is a very difficult area as we don’t regard our students as consumers of goods in the normal sense, but what is clear now is that consumer protection law explicitly includes universities as ‘traders’ and students as ‘consumers’ for the purposes of the varying consumer protection legislation.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), formerly known as the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), has set out guidance on minimum standards for UK Higher Education relating to information provision, fairness of terms and conditions and complaint handling. This has implications for us in the way we market our courses through all forms of media and how we manage expectations. It also has implications for the way we may manage course changes for existing students and the need to honour any promises made to students not just in writing, but also verbally in our discussions with students.

The new Consumer Rights Act comes into force this month and the CMA will start conducting compliance checks of universities looking to identify areas of non-compliance. Though we may have our own views on the notion of students as ‘consumers’, the fact remains that we can’t ignore this new legislation, especially as Which? and others are very interested in exposing non-compliance, which of course can also result in enforcement action by the CMA.

The University Executive Board has considered carefully the implications and, while we believe that we are prepared for this change, we must not be complacent and must avoid making individual promises to students that cannot be kept.

The sector is facing turbulent times and it is important we do not become distracted but focus on implementing the changes that will be necessary to implement our new strategy and so secure our future.

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