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In the news: 7 July

Poorest students hit hardest by new funding regime

Students from the poorest backgrounds are leaving university with the most debt thanks to the government's decision to scrap maintenance grants, said a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies on Wednesday. The least well off students will graduate owing more than £57,000 in tuition fees and loans.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt told Sky News the current system was a complete mess. When it was suggested to her that poorer graduates would pay less back she suggested that it was absurd to encourage people to get to university only to then warn them against being successful when they graduate because of the debt.

UCU said that the time had come for business to make a substantial contribution towards the cost of higher education and Sally told Huffington Post that successive governments' efforts to transfer the bill for higher education teaching onto graduates have created unsustainable levels of debt, with students from low and middle income backgrounds being hit the hardest by the repayment burden. 


Tory turmoil over tuition fees continues

As the debate about the future of university tuition fees continues to rumble on, the Conservatives' position is unclear and changes on an almost daily basis. The latest internal Tory row kicked off over the weekend when unofficial deputy prime minister Damian Green said there should be a debate about the future of tuition fees.

Michael Gove attempted to clarify Green's remarks on Sunday morning by saying that he [Green] was not saying we should get rid of fees. Confusingly, Gove said that Green was saying that students should pay something back when they graduate, as they do under the current system.

Universities minister Jo Johnson then wrote a piece for the Guardian on Tuesday saying the government was not planning to abandon its "successful higher education funding framework". He defended the current system for ensuring fair access for everyone, providing stable funding for universities and making sure students pay for any benefits they receive by gaining a degree.

His staunch defence was somewhat undone by failed leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom saying yesterday that the mood on fees "had been heard". In a debate around plans to hike up the interest on student loans to 6.1% in September, Leadsom told fellow Tory MP Richard Graham "the mood of many colleagues [on fees] has been heard and I am quite sure the department for education are considering this."

While the Tories row about who contributes and whether or not that is fair, John Elledge wrote a rather sensible piece for the New Statesman on the issue suggesting that fees had become a talisman for the "pretty shitty" way politics has treated the younger generation recently and maybe that should stop.


Labour fleshes out National Education Service plans

The Labour party yesterday promised free further education courses at any stage of life as the centrepiece of a plan to avoid another "lost decade" for the economy. In a speech to the British Chamber of Commerce, Jeremy Corbyn fleshed out his manifesto promise of a National Education Service to deliver "fairness and prosperity for the 21st century".

Responding, Sally Hunt said: 'We can continue to featherbed big business with a corporate tax regime which is more generous than countries like France, Germany and the US, or we can change direction and ask the most profitable companies to pay a bit more in order to fund access to education.'

Speaking on Question Time last night, Green party leader Caroline Lucas finished the programme with an answer to a question about student debt by name-checking UCU's plans to increase corporation tax to fund education.


UCU slams teaching rankings system

Writing in the Morning Star about the controversial new university ranking system, the teaching excellence framework (Tef), Sally Hunt said the Tef is a flawed system with no credibility that failed to garner support either from students or teachers. She says it does not do what it says on the tin as it is not a direct measure of teaching quality. At best, she says, it is a measure of student experience.
She concludes that the crude medal system has been designed to prop up a false market in higher education. She says it will open the door for universities to charge higher fees leaving unwitting students paying through the nose based on a judgement that is far from a reliable indicator of the quality of teaching they'll receive.


Government diverting funds to "failed UTC project"

UCU has hit out at the government for diverting funds to the "failed UTC project". In a letter seen by TES, the Department for Education (DfE) has agreed to provide additional funding to help university technical colleges (UTCs) attract more students.

In the letter, the DfE states that the funding - worth £200,000 in each of the current and next two academic years - will ensure that each UTC has "enough resource to carry out the vital marketing and pupil recruitment activity, as well as implementing a fully integrated broad and balanced technical and academic curriculum."

Sally Hunt told TES: 'Seven UTCs have already been forced to close, yet this significant scale of failure is being swept under the carpet as the government carries on investing in UTCs as if they are the future. Further education colleges already provide technical education for young people but instead of investing in colleges, the government is diverting funds to the failed UTC project.'


Prevent strategy criticised again

The government's controversial anti-terrorism strategy Prevent found itself under scrutiny again this week. The Guardian reported that teachers fear Muslim pupils are being increasingly stigmatised as a result of the government's strategy, potentially making them reluctant to share concerns about extremism.

The report, which surveyed school and college staff, also raised concerns about the effectiveness of the strategy, warning that genuine cases of students being drawn into terrorism were unlikely to be picked up.

Commenting on the findings, Sally Hunt said: 'This report again raises the issue of increased stigmatisation of Muslim students and the bizarre focus on "British values". There is a risk that closing down debate drives a subject underground, and makes people less likely to speak up or out. '


Zero-hours contracts bad for young people's health

Young people employed on zero-hours contracts are more likely to have worse mental and physical health than peers with more stable positions, reported the Guardian this week. The study, conducted found 25-year-olds employed on contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of work hours were 41% less likely to report having good physical health compared with those with secure contracts.

Young people on zero-hours contracts were also one-and-a-half times more likely to report having a mental health problem compared with someone on a more secure employment contract.  The research, part of wider work looking at young people's experiences of the labour market, has prompted concern among unions and MPs, who are calling for the government to crack down on exploitative employment arrangements.


Teesside University tells all research professors to reapply for jobs

Teesside University is under fire for "bizarre" plans to make all its research professors reapply for their jobs over the summer. UCU said the university has not explained the rationale behind its decision, nor why it decided to drop the bombshell as the 27 members of staff were about to start preparing for a summer break and the new academic year. 

UCU regional official, Jon Bryan, told the BBC: 'There is no reason whatsoever for this bizarre summer audit of professors. As term draws to a close staff will be taking stock of their research and making preparations for the new academic year. They shouldn't be hauled in to some make or break assessment exercise.'

Last updated: 7 July 2017