23rd July 2014

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Student loan-book sale u-turn Matt Sisson

The Guardian reported this week that government plans to sell the student loan book appear to have fallen through after Vince Cable announced his intention to scrap them.  Speaking to Liberal Democrat activists at a meeting, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said that although “the government was considering the sale of student loans on the basis that it would reduce government debt… recent evidence suggests this will no longer be the case," He then added, that “given there is no longer any public benefit, Nick Clegg and I have agreed not to proceed with the sale”. The apparent U-turn comes just a week after the junior coalition partners also vetoed the privatisation of the Land Registry.

Commentators believe that future HE student numbers could now be under threat as the Chancellor George Osborne had stated that the extra 60,000 places created for 2015/16 would be initially funded through the sale of the student loan book. Toni Pearce of the National Union of Students welcomed the announcement, saying that "Cable needs to make this decision official immediately, and recognise that we will only achieve a sustainable HE funding system if we abandon the discredited regime of sky-high fees and debts altogether", the Guardian reports.

On Tuesday the Commons’ committee on Business, Innovation and Skills cast more doubt on plans for the loan sale. It “accused ministers of having announced the loan sale without having properly assessed the “financial viability” of such a move, which could in fact raise as little as £2bn”, according to the FT. The committee also questioned the wider loans system, saying it had identified “a number of weaknesses in the management of this key financial commitment”, adding that it was “concerned that government is rapidly approaching a tipping point for the financial viability of the student loans system”. 

Inaugural HEPA conference – 9th October, London Matt Sisson

The inaugural HEPA conference will be held on Thursday 9th October, at Imperial College, London. It will be held every other year, alternating with COUP. The HEPA conference will be chaired by "provocateur with a purpose", Simon Fanshawe, and it is an opportunity for procurement managers to “think outside the box”, to network with their peers and meet some new colleagues. Finance Directors, IT Directors and Estates Directors are also welcome at this event, along with senior colleagues involved in procurement across the sector.

The Programme and Workshop Choice descriptions can be found here and it includes Liquid Thinker Damian Hughes, a speaker at this year's BUFDG conference, who people are still talking about. When making your booking you will be asked to pick your workshop choices so if someone is making the booking on your behalf, please ensure they have all the information to hand before proceeding to the booking page.

The day delegate rate is £195 (No VAT) and offers exceptional value for a programme and event of this standard. If you would like to attend, but find the delegate fee prohibitive, please contact Karel Thomas for a discussion. For full details of the event, and to book your place, please click here.

Time to review your anti-bribery procedures? Matt Sisson

With universities continuing to come under attack from fraudsters, and new legislation and areas of activity adding to fraud and reputational risks, it’s important that university managers stay on top of these challenges. One of the key areas of risk is bribery, and while it may be easier to think of it as ‘something that just happens to other people’, the severity of the issue (especially under the recent Bribery Act) means that it’s worth putting a bit of time aside to review your institution’s anti-bribery measures and processes.

A good starting-point guide is that by Transparency International, on Anti-Bribery Principles for not-for-profit organisations. Although it is generic for all non-profits, input from HEFCE has ensured it is still very relevant for HEIs. Transparency International has also recently augmented this guidance with a new report on Countering Small Bribes: Principles and good practice guidance for dealing with small bribes including facilitation payments. The report finds that “globally, more than 1 in 4 people paid a bribe in a recent 12 month period”. It providesa set of principles, discussion and advice designed to help companies operate to high ethical standards, protect their reputations and fulfil their legal obligations”.

For those looking for specific training, the first module of the upcoming HEPA e-learning course will cover the Bribery Act, and the potential corrupt practices that can impact on procurement. If there are other anti-bribery reports or resources that you’ve found useful, then please do let us know so we can share them with the group.

Scottish uncertainty Matt Sisson

As the Scottish independence referendum approaches, we’ve kept track of the commentary in our Implications of Scottish Independence document. There are a number of other articles this week that add to the picture.

The Commons Scottish Affairs committee has said that Alex Salmond needs to explore a ‘Plan B’ on the issue of a Scottish currency, after all three of the main Westminster parties ruled out a currency union between a re-formulated UK and an independent Scotland. The committee concluded that it would destroy the “political and economy credibility” of a future Chancellor to agree to share the pound, the Telegraph reports.

In a separate article, the Telegraph reports that the Law Society of Scotland believes that Scottish universities would not be able to charge Rest of UK students fees after independence, without falling foul of EU law. In a final article on the BBC website, there is concern in a report by Capital Economics that uncertainty over aspects of independence – particularly around EU membership – is holding the Scottish economy back. However Tony Banks, chair of the pro-independence Business for Scotland group said “I wonder what Capital Economics thinks was holding Scotland's economy back before the referendum campaign started, because it's doing better now than it was before 2007”. 

Graduate opportunities increase Matt Sisson

There was a 17% increase in graduate vacancies this year compared to last, according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters, the THE reports. 11 of the 13 sectors surveyed were expecting to take on more graduates in 2014, with the largest increase (of 54%) in banking and financial services. Engineering (18% increase) also showed strong demand. The consumer goods and the energy and utility sectors were the two with expected decreases.

The same survey also showed that graduate salaries have edged up again this year, with the median rising £500 to £27,000. The THE has a short summary

Universities' Minister role explained Matt Sisson

Further details are emerging of Greg Clark’s role following his appointment of Universities and Science minister last week. As well as taking the new role, Mr Clark also retains his previous briefs over cities, local growth, and political and constitutional reform. Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading and a former permanent secretary in the Department for Education, commented to the THE that it was “surprising that such an important brief will not have the dedicated focus offered by a single minister”. He believes it “confirms that there will be no major policy shifts this close to the election.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute added that he worried “about his [the minister’s] split responsibilities. Being universities and science minister is a full-time job. Some people say there’s not much to do, in the absence of HE legislation. But that underestimates the role”. 

Meanwhile, in a separate article former minister David Willetts has said that he has “few regrets” from his four years as minister for the sector. Speaking to the THE he said of the fee reforms that, “in an age of austerity, to have a surge in the amount of cash going into teaching for universities – there is no other model, no other possible policy which could have delivered that.”

Sector increases investment in widening-access Matt Sisson

Universities and Colleges have significantly increased their spend on widening access to low-income and other under-represented groups, according to a report published this week by HEFCE and OFFA. According to the report, investment in widening participation activity in 2012/13 was £743million, up from £689million the year before – an increase of 8%. According to the press release, the report finds that “just under half of this investment was HEFCE funding to support widening access, students with disabilities, and improving retention and student success. The remainder came from fee income and other funding sources”.

Other key findings include that HEIs "met, exceeded or made progress towards the great majority of their access agreement milestones and targets", and that they "worked collaboratively, particularly around outreach and evaluation".

Full details can be found on the HEFCE website

Other bits Matt Sisson

Are any universities out there doing 20 year forecasts? The latest ONS fertility figures show a 4.3% decrease in live births for 2013 - the biggest annual fall since 1975. It's not clear whether this now marks an end to the increasing trend of the last ten years, or what the reasons for the drop might be. The ONS speculates that reasons could include uncertainty over employment and career opportunities, and government changes to the welfare system affecting benefits. The BBC has a summary.

There is a handful of places left on both the 'Corporation Taxes: what you need to know' course on 9th October in Leicester, as well as for the annual TRAC conference on 30th September in London. If you'd like to attend either of these events, then please book on soon as places won't be available for much longer. 

Mercers is hosting a free webcast on the outcome of the government consultation on pension flexibility. The webcast is on Friday starting at 11am, but it's not too late to sign-up. Further details, and the link for booking, are here

This week's 'job of the week' is Commercial and Finance Manager at the University of Reading. All the other jobs can be found here