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Week in news: 13 January 2017

13 January 2017

UCU survey shows little support for HE Bill amid Brexit brain drain fears

A YouGov survey, commissioned by UCU, revealed that academics believe Brexit and government reforms to higher education will have a negative impact on UK higher education. Released ahead of peers debating the controversial Higher Education and Research Bill, it showed that 81% of the 1,000 plus academics surveyed believed plans to give new providers easier access to degree-awarding powers and a university title would damage higher education.

Writing for the Huffington Post, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said that in order to protect the UK's global reputation, we must have more rigorous quality measures applied before any new provider is allowed to access either degree awarding powers or state funding via the student loans system.

Considering the impact of the vote to leave the EU, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed (90%) said they think Brexit will have a negative impact. The Telegraph picked up on fears of a brain drain as two-fifths (42%) of academics overall said they were more likely to consider leaving UK higher education, with three-quarters (76%) of non-UK EU academics saying they were considering moving.

Writing for Times Higher Education, Sally Hunt said the survey was "a sobering indication that staff are already feeling the fallout from Brexit, and the situation for many academics seems much less certain than this time last year."


Lords attack and amend HE Bill

There was considerable opposition to the HE Bill in Monday's debate with over 500 peers tabling amendments. While talk of the bill's death was somewhat exaggerated in the Guardian, the Financial Times noted that peers struck an early note of opposition to the government's plans to open higher education up to competition voting by 248 to 221 in favour of a Labour amendment demanding that universities remain "autonomous" bodies and free to criticise the government.

The amendment requires that universities "must provide an extensive range of high-quality academic subjects delivered by excellent teaching", as well as make "a contribution to society" — both of which would prove challenging to new private providers.

Sally Hunt said: 'This amendment sends a clear message to government that universities have a key public role to play in our society. It ensures that any institution calling itself a university must meet important standards of academic freedom and intellectual endeavour.'


Skills minister's warm words for FE not enough

Sally Hunt wrote to members this week asking them to put their names to a letter to skills minister Robert Halfon. Speaking recently, Halfon said he had been impressed by the stories that UCU are sharing which "demonstrate the transformative role FE can have." The minister was referring to UCU's FE transforming  lives campaign which uses testimony from students to show what an enormous difference further education can make to people's lives.

The TES reported that Sally's letter to members highlights how further education needs "action as well as words", and calls on members to sign the letter. To ensure a further 250,000 people benefit from these transformational opportunities would require government funding to recruit an additional 15,000 teachers. You can sign the letter here.


More vice-chancellor pay and perks revelations

There were more revelations about the spending habits of vice-chancellors this week. The Sunday Times looked at some of the biggest and smallest claims by Russell Group heads, who claimed for slices of cake, bottles of water and £2 train tickets, while picking up salaries in excess of £250,000 a year. The paper said that at the other end of the scale, their expense accounts revealed that tens of thousands of pounds have been spent on their foreign travel and luxury hotels.

Sally Hunt told the paper that when staff pay is falling in real terms, insecure contracts abound and students are being asked to fork out even more for their education, university leaders are "showing a worrying lack of leadership by squandering embarrassing amounts of taxpayer money."

Following on from its expose of salaries of Russell Group vice-chancellors last week, Times Higher Education this week said it expected Dame Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of Bath University to be named the UK's best paid vice-chancellor. An 11 per cent uplift took her salary, including benefits, to £451,000 - which THE says is likely to make her the highest-paid vice-chancellor in the UK. 

Picking up on the lack of transparency over pay at the top, Bath UCU president Michael Carley said that questions needed to be asked about how Dame Glynis's pay was determined. "It is difficult to understand why other universities that are much larger and have enjoyed similar success have not rewarded their vice-chancellors so amply," he said.

Speaking to the Times about the Bath revelations, Sally Hunt repeated her call for a national register for pay and perks in universities and said that for too long vice-chancellors have hidden behind the shadowy remuneration committee that sets their pay.

Last year the Bath Chronicle discovered that Dame Glynis lives in a five-bedroom apartment and the university employs a housekeeper for her property with duties such as "being responsible for the bed linen in her private apartment, including washing and ironing of all bedding and towels."


Confusion over Brexit

A wide-ranging report released on Thursday looked at what Brexit and other global changes could mean for demand at UK universities from international students. The Guardian led with the line that a tougher stance on overseas students could cost the UK £2bn a year.

Times Higher Education said there could be a possible £227m "depreciation dividend" if the value of sterling declines. The report says that a 10 per cent depreciation in sterling could bring in an extra 20,000 students and fee income of £227 million to UK universities by making them more attractive to overseas students.

Sally Hunt said: 'While the debates continue about what the impact of Brexit may be, we need to send a clear message to the rest of the world that our universities welcome international staff and students. The best and easiest way to do that is to guarantee the thousands of EU staff working in our universities the right to stay in the UK and to remove international students from net migration figures.'

Elsewhere this week, the Telegraph reported that Oxford University's new head of Brexit strategy, Professor Alastair Buchan, claimed that British universities will "establish global networks" and "recruit the world's best and brightest students" outside of the European Union.

While Times Higher Education reported that Oxford University's new head of Brexit strategy, Professor Alastair Buchan, claimed that a "hard Brexit" could damage one of the UK's "best industries" through its impact on higher education and be the "biggest disaster for the university sector in many years". Prof Buchan was giving evidence to MPs from the education select committee.


Minister's plan for £1,000 levy for skilled workers

There was confusion in government as well this week after Home Office minister Robert Goodwill appeared to outline proposals for a £1,000 levy for skilled EU workers. However, the suggestion was widely condemned, with Sally Hunt saying that "while there are many issues with Brexit and its impact, ministers really are not doing much to make things any easier. This ludicrous idea would land universities with enormous bills and drive away the enquiring minds and talented staff the country needs." Downing Street was quick to distance itself from the proposals suggesting the minister's comments had been "misinterpreted."

Last updated: 31 January 2017