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In the news 18 January 2019

18 January 2019

Students should apply to university after they get results

Students would apply to university after getting their results, under proposals from UCU released on Monday. The report co-authored with the National Education Opportunities Network details how the admissions system could be overhauled after recent criticisms over the explosion in unconditional offers.

The report received widespread media coverage including the Today programme and the front pages of the Guardian and Times. Under the plans, students would apply to university once their results were known, and start the first year of their higher education course in November. UCU said transforming the admissions process would be fairer for students, bring the UK into line with the rest of the world and eliminate the use of unconditional offers and the chaotic clearing process.

UCU head of policy, Matt Waddup, said: 'The current admissions process based on predicted grades is failing students and there is growing support for a shift to a system where students apply to university after they have received their results. This report sets out how that could work in practice.'


Strike dates announced at 16 English colleges in pay row

UCU members at 16 English colleges will be taking two days' strike action at the end of January in their fight for fair pay. The strikes are part of a second wave of action after members at six colleges took action in November. The dispute centres on the failure of colleges to make a decent pay offer to staff who have seen the value of their pay decline by 25% over the last decade.

FE Week reported that UCU has written to education secretary Damian Hinds urging the government to provide extra funding for staff who feel "undervalued and severely underpaid".

Matt Waddup told Tes: 'UCU members are being forced to take strike action to secure fair pay because they have had enough of watching their pay being eroded while their workloads increase. The government must take the blame for a failure to invest in further education, but colleges cannot hide behind these cuts to shirk responsibility for their staff. UCU will continue to campaign for more investment from the government but, whether this is forthcoming or not, strikes will continue until colleges show that they are at last prioritising their staff.'


Strike ballot opens at 143 universities

Around 70,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU) in 143 UK universities are being balloted for strike action in a row over pay and conditions. The ballot opened on Tuesday and closes on Friday 22 February.

UCU said that a 2% pay offer from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) did nothing to address the falling value of higher education pay, which has declined in real terms by 21% since 2009. UCU also wants guarantees that universities will tackle the gender pay gap, insecure contracts and excessive workloads.

Matt Waddup said: 'Staff have concerns about spiralling workloads, pay inequality and the continued casualisation of the workforce. Yet universities have failed to engage with us in these negotiations which has undermined the credibility of national bargaining and left us in a situation where we have no alternative but to ballot our members.'


MPs to debate college funding on Monday

MPs will debate calls for an urgent increase in college funding on Monday. FE Week reported that a petition was launched by a group of Brockenhurst College students in October as part of the Love Our Colleges campaign, and has gathered nearly 70,000 signatures to date.

The petition says that a decade of cuts and reforms have led to a significant reduction in the resources available for colleges, restricted course choice and increased pressures on staff pay and workload. It urges the government to increase funding and deliver immediate parity with recent increases to schools funding.


Rise in number of firsts and decline in number of part-time students

Figures released yesterday by the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed the share of graduates leaving UK universities with a first-class degree has jumped again, with 28 per cent now achieving top marks. Times Higher Education reported that there was a continuation of the decline in part-time enrolments, with overall numbers now falling below 500,000.

There were 498,545 part-time students enrolled in 2017-18, down 4 per cent from 519,825 the year before. Part-time numbers have now dropped by more than 100,000 since 2013-14, although there was an increase last year of about 4,000 in the number of part-time students starting bachelor's degrees. 

Speaking to the Times, Matt Waddup said: 'The figures show a continuing decline in the number of people undertaking part-time study. There is much talk about the need for people to retrain and learn new skills, yet one of the key routes of study is being closed off because of higher costs and less financial support.'

Across all forms of study, the data showed that there were 2.34 million students studying at UK universities in 2017-18, an increase of 1 per cent on the year before. The number of first-year students from other European Union countries fell by 1 per cent, while those from outside the EU rose by 8 per cent, with more than two-fifths of these students coming from China.


Why working people cannot afford to retrain

Looking at adult education and part-time study routes, while reflecting on her time as a careers advisor in the Guardian on Tuesday, Laura McInerney said we have thrown away opportunities for people to retrain or learn new skills. She said part-time university study has become outrageously expensive, night schools have dried up and apprenticeship wages are held at £3.70 an hour, less than she was paid in McDonald's 20 years ago.

She warned that 40-year-olds with a sky-high mortgage, the threat of a robot taking their job and a pension that won't kick in until at least 68 means they aren't just stuck in their lives, they are knee-capped from escaping.


More leaks from government funding review

Another week, another shake of the government's Augar funding review sieve. Following suggestions of fees being cut to £6,500 in some subjects and up to £13,500 in others and students not being allowed to access loans if they did not achieve DDD at A-level, this week the Financial Times said further education students might be able to access loans on similar terms to those at university.

The paper said that the panel is scheduled to unveil its conclusions next month and is expected to call for additional maintenance loans and greater access to low-interest funding for students. Putting its leak at odds with the early one on a fee cut, the FT said the review is also likely to recommend maintaining the £9,250 currently paid to universities for each student, while reducing the proportion paid for through loans.

Elsewhere this week, the Guardian said the impact of the plan to limit loans to students with A-levels better than DDD could lead to some modern universities losing about a third of their students and taking a huge hit in income.


Queen Margaret University staff overwhelmingly back industrial action in row over job losses

UCU members at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret University this week backed strike action in a dispute over plans to axe 40 jobs. The university is proposing to cut 40 jobs and has refused to rule out compulsory redundancies. The union says the university has not fully explored other options such as sharing resources, seeking savings elsewhere - particularly amongst the management team - and extending the period of restructuring.

UCU Scotland official Mary Senior told the BBC: 'UCU members at Queen Margaret University have made it absolutely clear today that they have no confidence in the university's plans. The ballot result is a clear mandate for industrial action and to oppose plans for compulsory redundancies. Axing 10% of the workforce would have a huge impact on the student experience and on the university's reputation. Strike action is always a last resort but unless the university is prepared to reconsider its approach, disruption is a real possibility.'


Highbury College demonstrates how not to bury bad news

Highbury College has blocked the FE Week website from its college computers in what looks like a misguided attempt to supress a story about its £1.4 million legal battle with the Nigerian state. Last week the paper reported how a secretive technical education project in the country went "pear-shaped".

Bizarrely though, the college has tried to both supress the story and draw attention to it. As well as blocking FE Week on its servers this week, the college emailed staff to tell them the story was inaccurate. Dominic Ponsford, editor-in-chief at Press Gazette, said he had never heard of any organisation reacting in such a way to negative press coverage. He described the college's approach as "staggeringly incompetent" and said presumably nobody there had ever heard of the Streisand effect whereby attempting to hide or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicising it far more widely.

Minister Anne Milton described the college's actions as "absolutely shocking". While Ofsted's chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, said that the move sounded "astonishing and concerning".

Last updated: 18 January 2019