30th July 2014

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Home Office tightens Highly Trusted Status requirements Matt Sisson

The permitted student visa refusal rate for which HEIs keep their Highly Trusted Status (HTS) is to reduce from 20% to 10% from the 1st November, the Home Office has announced this week. This means that from that date, any university that has accepted international students to study will be at risk of losing their Tier 4 license if more than 1 in 10 of those prospective students have their visa applications refused.

The Home Office confirm that administrative errors will be excluded from the permitted refusal rate, and that a discretionary approach will be taken with small-scale institutions (i.e. those who offer 50 or less places a year). They also confirm that their policy on enrolment rates and course completion rates will remain unchanged.

They hope that the new measures “will incentivise all institutions to conduct basic checks on their prospective students”, but Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, warned that the policy would force a “truly savage reduction” in international student recruitment, the THE reports.

In the same THE article, Don Ingham, an immigration consultant who advises education providers, is reported as saying: “I would not be surprised to find there were some universities hovering around that [10 per cent] figure…Anything that tightens up an already tight regime would be very harsh and would have a further impact on educational institutions – and within their number there may be some universities who may fall foul of it.”

JISC VAT Cost Sharing Group Amanda Darley

After much discussion about this topic on the BUFDG discussion boards, and in relation to the session at the Tax Conference and presentations given at the FD regional meetings in June, Amanda met with Mark Wright of Jisc on 29th July to discuss aspects of the Jisc CSG and to get some clarity in some practical areas. A summary of the various pieces of information is available on the BUFDG website.

In other JISC news, The Wellcome Library and Jisc have announced that the 19th-century book collections of nine partner institutions will be digitised and added to the UK Medical Heritage Library (UK MHL), an online resource for the study of the history of medicine and related sciences. The six university libraries involved in the partnership are those of University College London, University of Leeds, University of Glasgow, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Kings College London and University of Bristol. Approximately 15 million pages of printed books and pamphlets from all ten partners will be digitised over a period of two years and will be made freely available to researchers and the public under an open licence.

Willetts proposes alternative to student loan book sale Matt Sisson

Last week the government announced that the planned sale of the student loan book had fallen through, following a veto by Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, and Skills. In an article in the FT this week, former Universities Minister David Willetts has proposed an alternative. Whilst stressing that it is “not government policy”, he suggests that universities should be able to buy a part of their own students’ debts. The policy appears, at least in part, to reduce the pressure on the government finances from the increasing student loan burden, as well as giving universities “a direct financial interest in ensuring their graduates secure well-paid jobs that enable them to pay back more of their debt sooner”. Mr Willetts also discussed the proposals on Newsnight (starting at 20.00 in the link).

However a number of commentators have concerns. In a separate FT article, Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter university, was quoted as saying that “On the plus side it could be part of placing university funding on a more sustainable footing… but the main problem is that university governing bodies would need to be able to fund this in a way that increased their resources, not risked draining them.” This concern is acknowledged by Willetts, who writes that just 10,000 students at a university could accumulate student loans of £100million a year, “which would soon dwarf all the university’s other assets”.

According to the FT, a University Alliance spokesman questioned the proposal's potential impact on efforts to widen participation. They said; “allowing a small number of the wealthiest universities to benefit from buying their loan book rewards the fact that they take the highest achieving students, from the wealthiest backgrounds that go on to be the highest earners”. There are summary articles on the story in the Times Higher and the Guardian.

EMM re-opens for data Karel Thomas

The EMM survey has reopened for input of data that will show institutions, HEFCE and BIS, and other support organisations how the English sector is improving its procurement and efficiency. HEFCE has issued a Circular Letter to Heads of Institutions explaining that “the survey to all HEIs this year is not driven by targets; rather it denotes a general imperative to evidence that the sector is operating efficiently, as set out in the grant letter to HEFCE from Government in February 2014. We will report on progress to Government using the information from the survey; note this will be anonymised.”

Last week BUFDG sent communications to Finance Directors and Heads of Procurement with instructions of how to access the system. These instructions can be downloaded from the BUFDG website, but the only way to get a username and password is to contact Matt, who will be keeping track of which HEIs are getting involved in the survey. Although we appreciate that the period of data collection is over the peak holiday period and accounts close-down, we hope that as many HEIs as possible will return data. 

Too many students? Matt Sisson

Quentin McKellar, V-C of the University of Hertfordshire has written an article for The Conversation this week, defending the government’s decision to remove the student number cap in 2015/16. The government has planned to sell the student loan book in order to finance the extra numbers, but the U-turn last week has put the sustainability of the funding system in doubt. Under the current system, the government already expects to have to underwrite over 40% of the value of student loans. Mr McKellar writes:

“A U-turn on uncapping student numbers as a result of not selling the loan book would be a huge mistake. This is the coalition’s most progressive higher education policy. Allowing universities to recruit as many students as they wish will expand opportunity and foster greater competition between institutions. It will mean more students will be able to go to their first choice university and help resolve the existing problem of tens of thousands of students who have got the grades to get a place, having to apply the following year because of a failure of the system to match supply with demand.”

The view is supported by Libby Hackett, Chief Executive of University Alliance who, in a letter to The Times, called on the government to “resist the temptation to reverse the uncapping of student numbers”, and take the “chance to examine how to put funding of the HE sector on a sustainable footing with a better student loan design”. University Alliance’s alternative proposal is their HELP (HE Loan Programme)

Comments invited on new format of HMRC’s Employment Income Manual Amanda Darley

HMRC’s Employment Income Manual is being migrated to the gov.uk website, and comments are invited on the new format, currently in a non-updating, test version.  There are a few points you’re asked to bear in mind about the test version which are listed on the HMRC Tax Agents Blog.  If this is one of the HMRC manuals you use, then have a look at the new version, and provide some feedback to have the opportunity to improve the format if needed.  The current version is on the HMRC website if you wish to compare.

OFFA - HEIs to reduce spending on bursaries and scholarships Matt Sisson

In 2015/16 universities will spend more on targeted outreach and support work and less on financial support as part of their access agreements with OFFA, according to the regulatory body. OFFA have released the key statistics and analysis of their agreements with  172 universities and colleges this week, and these show an increasing focus on outreach work, student success, and progression into employment, over funding for bursaries and scholarships.

Universities estimate that they will spend £735million under the 2015/16 access agreements – a 3.9% increase in cash terms over the agreements 2014/15, but 1% lower as a percentage of their higher fee income. £323million of this will be spent on raising aspirations, attainment, and employment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, an increase of £243 million (33%). Just 56% of the planned spend under the access agreements will go towards fee waivers, bursaries, and scholarships, down from 71% for 2014/15.

In responding to the report, HEFCE Chief Executive Madeleine Atkins said that “much of the focus to date has been on expenditure and on activity, but we need a stronger emphasis on outcomes. In constrained financial times, it is vital to demonstrate that this considerable investment is being used as effectively as possible”. She added that “In our fast-moving environment, universities and colleges are rightly innovating in the way they deliver their widening participation activity with schools, employers, and other partners. We need to keep abreast of these developments, evaluate their effectiveness alongside the more conventional approaches, and understand how best to invest in and support our sector in the future.”

The Guardian has an article analysing the report

HESA destination of leavers survey Matt Sisson

HESA has published the results of the annual Destination of Leavers in Higher Education (DLHE) survey, showing that 57.7% of 2012/13 leavers were in full-time employment 6-months after leaving university – an increase from 55.1% the year before. Just 6.2% were unemployed, compared to a national youth unemployment average of 17.8%, and down from 7.1% the year before.

The survey summary breaks the results down by gender, region, qualification obtained, and subject area, amongst others, and displays them graphically. The graph by gender and qualification level (below) shows that female postgraduates were most likely to find employment after leaving. The graph by subject area (also below) shows that leavers in medicine, dentistry, and the veterinary sciences were most likely to move straight into full-time employment.

Efficiency and asset-sharing Matt Sisson

The Efficiency Exchange recently published a summary article of sector efforts to achieve value for money. The article champions efficiency projects in a number of areas, including the HE workforce, estates, and open data. It also looks at work done on asset sharing by groups such as the N8 research partnership, and in a separate article proposes steps that universities can take to make the most of sharing assets (and evidence it).

Another significant project for equipment sharing is equipment.data, an EPSRC-funded project to improve accessibility to, and encourage the use of, UK HE research equipment. It’s a publicly accessible website that enables searching across UK research equipment databases. Universities are using it to share equipment with each other and to provide businesses with access to equipment, stimulating research collaboration between HEIs and the private sector. 

Finance teams are key stakeholders in the project, as in many institutions the HEI asset register sits in finance departments. Finance teams in participating institutions will therefore have a role to play in directly or indirectly providing asset data to the website, as well as working with departments in setting charge-out rates. Dilligent teams may also be able to use the exercise as an opportunity to gain a better picture of assets in far-flung corners of their institution, and to develop these as alternative sources of income.

The equipment.data team are happy to answer any questions or queries you might have on how you can use the system, and the issues involved. Contact Louise on 02380 598586, or drop her an email.

Other bits Matt Sisson

The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is considering bringing the final-salary element of the scheme to a close, amidst continuing concerns over the fund’s financial sustainability. The THE has articles both for, and more critical of, the proposed changes. 

This year’s VAT and Property Conference, previously run by Tolley, will be held on Thursday 6th November, at Ambassadors Bloomsbury. The event features contributions from HMRC policymakers, a commercial perspective on student accommodation from Balfour Beatty, and BUFDG regulars Andrew Hitchmough QC and Martin Scammell. BUFDG members are entitled to a 30% discount, which brings the early-bird price down to £350 (no VAT) for one delegate, or £665 for two.  For full details of the event, and to book your place, please click here. To claim your discount, simply write ‘BUFDG discount’ on the booking form or, if booking via Eventbrite, enter the promotional code OrcaBUFDG30pc. 

Every OFFA-assessed HEI (apart from two – Sunderland and University College Birmingham) will charge £9,000 fees for at least some courses for 2014/15 with a third charging £9,000 for all courses, the THE reports. The THE calls the situation one of “history’s spectacularly inaccurate predictions" after reminding readers that, at the launch of the fees policy four years ago former universities minister David Willetts said that £9,000 fees would only be charged “in exceptional circumstances”.

Following attempts to clear up the precise role of Greg Clark, the new minister for Universities (and Science, and Cities?), the THE have raised another question. The cabinet reshuffle on the 15th July saw the appointment of George Freeman MP (mid-Norfolk) to the role of Life Sciences Minister. The consensus appears to be that this is ‘just politics’, and an official confirmation of Mr Freeman’s previous role as a life sciences adviser to the prior universities minister. Kieron Flanagan, lecturer in science and technology policy at the Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, said it would be “completely bonkers” if the government actually split the research and science portfolio between Mr Freeman and the new minister for HE.

Greg Clark believes that Scottish research funding could be at risk if Scotland votes for independence in the forthcoming referendum, the THE reports. Speaking at a meeting at the University of Glasgow, Mr Clark said that “there is no international precedent for sharing or replicating a system on the scale of the current UK funding streams across international borders” and that, as a result, the disproportionately large amount of research funding that Scottish HEIs receive under the current system could be under threat. You can read more about the implications of Scottish Independence in BUFDG’s own guide

Our Jobs of the Week for this week are for two graduate trainees as part of the NEUPC graduate training programme. All the other vacancies (all 64 of them...) are on the BUFDG jobs page.