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In the news: 10 March 2017

10 March 2017

UCU attacks vice-chancellors after Lords amend higher education bill

UCU this week thanked peers for making a series of amendments to the government's Higher Education and Research Bill and launched an attack on university vice-chancellors for signing up to the government's proposals.

The union said it believed university leaders had failed to stand up for the higher education sector when they released a letter last Friday, through their representative bodies GuildHE and Universities UK (UUK), which said no more amendments were necessary and urged peers to back the bill.

Ahead of this week's debate, Sally Hunt wrote in the Huffington Post that peers should further amend the bill and they made a string of amendments blocking plans for a crude rating of teaching quality, removing the link between teaching excellence and tuition fees, and ensuring any organisation awarding degrees must meet improved quality standards. Former education secretary Lord Blunkett even accused UUK and GuildHE of having reached a Faustian deal with the government in their support of the bill.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'These amendments are a tribute to the independence of peers and have followed much hard work from UCU, students and others. Given that staff and students overwhelmingly oppose the bill we have been disappointed that UUK and GuildHE signed up to support plans which would so damage our sector.

'UCU has consistently warned that introducing teaching quality ratings based on dodgy metrics, or letting for-profit providers offer low-quality degrees with little oversight could cause chaos in our higher education sector. We will continue to work hard with students and politicians to ensure that these valuable amendments are not undone when the bill returns to the House of Commons.'


UCU says budget funding plans needed now, not at end of decade

Responding to Wednesday's budget, UCU said we needed proper funding for further education now and not at the end of the decade. The union said that if the chancellor was serious about his much-trailed comments about a Britain match-fit for Brexit then he needed to deliver a rounded funding package.

Sally Hunt said: 'Our colleges have been cut to the bone in recent years and we urgently need proper investment to give people of all ages looking to improve their skills the best chance to succeed. If the chancellor wants a country that is match-fit for Brexit he needs to look at a rounded funding package that covers young people and adults and introduce it now, not at the end of the decade, so that colleges aren't at a standing start when the new technical routes kick in.

'Plans for technical education to have parity of esteem with degrees are not new, but we need more detail on these plans, not simply news that the government have earmarked technical courses as a way for more students to pay higher fees.'


Two-year degrees and a two-tier university system

In a piece for Prospect magazine, Sally Hunt explains the many problems behind two-year degrees. She says the fact there are currently so few on offer is because of the huge changes they would require in order for teaching to take place the year round. She worries that the government's proposals are merely another attempt to allow alternative for-profit education providers easy access to the UK student market and state-backed tuition fees.

She cites a recent report from Higher Education Policy Institute report that warned that: 'Experience in the USA and Australia shows overly generous rules for alternative providers are a magnet for questionable business practices. The end results can include stranded students, a bill for taxpayers and regulatory intervention.'

Elsewhere this week, Times Higher Education reported warnings that two-year degrees would lead to a two-tier system with more academics be pushed into stressful teaching-only contracts. While the National Union of Students said that a switch to two-year degrees may "compromise the student experience" as those on accelerated courses may miss out on extracurricular activities now demanded by many employers.


John McDonnell says scrapping tuition fees "will become Labour policy"

Scrapping tuition fees in England is a "majority position" in the Labour party and "will become policy", shadow chancellor John McDonnell told Times Higher Education. Speaking to the magazine at UCU's Cradle to Grave conference, John McDonnell said: 'Jeremy Corbyn's been elected twice now as leader on the basis of scrapping tuition fees.

'Obviously we'll be consulting about how we do that and the mechanism for doing that; we'll be looking at how we can fund it. And that will happen over the next six months or so. But it's a clear commitment and we want to deliver. It's still a big issue for large numbers of young people right across the country.'


UCU says staff must have a say in development of degree apprenticeships

Responding to Universities UK's report predicting a huge increase in degree apprenticeships released yesterday, UCU said staff must have a voice in any new standards for degree apprenticeships and that workloads must not be increased further.

Sally Hunt said: 'It is encouraging to see from this report that so many universities are already working with employers to deliver degree apprenticeships, but it's important that quality is not sacrificed in a rush to expand them further.

'UCU and others have raised concerns about some employer-led apprenticeship standards being narrowly drawn, so it's vital that educators have a voice in developing new standards and qualifications. Universities must also support staff to ensure that workloads are not increased further as a result of growing the number of these qualifications.'


Government to rule on future as BPP as boss quits after private equity buy out

Times Higher Education reported that government will decide whether BPP University should continue to be eligible for university title and degree-awarding powers, after its US owner was sold to a private equity consortium for $1.1 billion (£899 million) last month. The new owners are a consortium which includes "funds affiliated" with private equity firm Apollo Global Management, according to the Washington Post.

An independent review of BPP will now be submitted to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, including checks on whether the institution continues to meet student number and governance requirements. Hefce will, in turn, advise the Department for Education on the institution's future status.

Sally Hunt said: 'It is no secret that private equity firms are circling UK higher education, and they are doing so at the behest of ministers who seem determined to expand for-profit education. We have serious concerns about UK universities being bought and sold amongst private equity firms whose first concern will always be shareholders, rather than students.'

BPP's long-standing vice-chancellor Carl Lygo resigned on Wednesday just a month after the takeover was completed having spent 20 years with the company.


Guardian warns that sexual harassment at universities is at "epidemic" levels

The Guardian has been looking at the problem of sexual harassment at universities this week with a series of special reports in which it says the problem is at "epidemic" levels. It says that it is difficult to properly estimate how serious the problem is because of the many reasons people do not speak out or that cases are hushed up. It says that the universities that are listed with the most incidences are by no means the worst offenders as the fact they are dealing with their cases means they are actually engaging with the problem.

Sally Hunt told the paper that there was a lack of consistent policies in universities for dealing with sexual harassment and that institutions needed to actively promote their policies so staff and students know what they can do.


Heriot-Watt blames Brexit for job cuts

Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh has blamed a "Brexit effect" for its decision to cut around 100 jobs in an attempt to save £14m. UCU said the university currently spent less than the sector average on staffing and should be finding ways to invest in staff, especially with healthy reserves.

Sally Hunt told Times Higher Education that, while Brexit is clearly generating uncertainty for universities, we don't yet know what the long-term impact will be. Sally urged universities not to "rush into decisions about the future that could result in losing valuable expertise".

UCU Scotland official Mary Senior said: 'This is a deeply worrying time for staff and students at Heriot-Watt University. Staff are vital to the continued learning, teaching and research at the university, and the employer should be investing in staff rather than cutting them. Heriot-Watt University has healthy reserves and already spends proportionately less of its overall budget on staffing than other universities. We want the university to look at other options to make savings, rather than cutting jobs.'


Protests at Ealing college over axing of A-levels

UCU members at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College will be protesting today at the college's decision to stop delivering A-levels. Students were informed in a letter last week of the college's decision to stop teaching A-levels this summer. 

UCU branch secretary and A-level English teacher Matthew Cookson said: 'The decision to stop A-levels in the summer will leave around 50 students halfway through their studies stranded if they cannot find somewhere else to study. We believe the college has a moral obligation to allow these students to complete their A-levels at Ealing.'



Last updated: 10 March 2017