Prizes for the elite: gold medals and mission groups

The latest rumour from the May government’s efforts to square the circle on international students takes an unexpected turn. It is a proposal to deal with the long-running bickering over post-study employment rights of international students.

According to The Sunday Times, ‘the government is considering allowing overseas students who attend one of the 24 universities in the elite Russell Group to work in Britain after graduating. Those at other universities might be required to return home.’ This would allow the government to claim it is doing something to support universities and international relationships, while still maintaining control of immigration.

According to The Sunday Times, this was all foreshadowed by Amber Rudd’s Conservative party conference speech, in which she referred to possible preferential treatment for ‘our best universities’. At which point we all thought, ‘Ah yes, the Russell Group.’ Or maybe we thought nothing of the sort.

Actually, many of us probably thought this was code for the judgements we’re expecting from the TEF. A strong TEF result – ‘gold’, according to the current proposal – might quite logically lead to preferential treatments of this kind. The possibility that the Russell Group might be used instead as a proxy definition of the UK’s ‘best’ universities poses some interesting questions.


Do they know what they’re doing?

This is the year when the irrational has become the norm. But it’s also – to add a little perspective – been a year of lots of talk and not a lot of resolution. It’s a year when we’ve learned to be prepared for anything, but not really to believe it until we see it.

But one common thread in the Conservatives’ stance towards universities has been a determination to draw lines through the sector. The wisdom of this is an open question. It’s not hard to find countries that give preferential treatment, usually in terms of research funding, to selected groups of universities. Concentration of resources in this way can support elite groups to compete internationally in research, while a mass education system is sustained in parallel. The counter-argument would be that the UK’s strength has been built on the back of a broad and fiercely competitive structure, that has produced excellence, in different shapes and sizes, across the board.

If, however, we take the desire to draw lines of demarcation as a given, what would it mean to do so by accepting the Russell Group as the privileged elite? The Russell Group is a mission group that maintains control over its own membership. Traditionally entry was determined overwhelmingly by volume of grant income; however, the defining supremacy of that criterion was frayed somewhat by the last round of entry in 2012, which arguably signalled a commitment to a more rounded model of excellence. It’s possible to join the Russell Group, but almost impossible to be asked to leave.

In recent years the Russell Group has done one thing astonishingly well: branding itself as the ‘elite’ group of UK universities. This is understated in its public mission statement, but a huge part of its public relations and marketing operation. At government level, among busy people, often with only superficial knowledge of their briefs, the idea of an accepted elite group must feel comfortingly easy to grasp.

Russell Group universities have never (to my knowledge, anyway) been given special favours by government, simply by virtue of their membership of the mission group. Hence the elaborate mechanisms of the REF, TEF and QAA, which apply equally to all. The present suggestion therefore feels, potentially, like a pivotal moment.


What about the TEF?

One question I’ve been asking since the TEF was first proposed goes roughly along the lines: what happens when people at the highest levels of government realize that some of the universities most likely to lose from the exercise are some of the country’s biggest higher-education brands?

If we follow the proposed logic of the TEF, some universities currently low on the national league tables, though doing very well on teaching metrics, could end up with the right to charge higher fees than some that are very high in the international tables. Existing education metrics, such as the NSS, certainly point in this direction. At that point, it seems to me, the commitment of policy-makers to objective tests of teaching quality, with rewards to match, will be sorely tested.

I wonder whether this scenario is only just dawning on people at the top of government: people conditioned into thinking that there is an ‘elite’ group of universities, bound to rise to the top on any measure of performance. While a decision on work-study visas is only one issue – something, indeed, that may seem peripheral to many people in the sector – it would be hard not to see it as something of a test-case. If Russell Group universities were to get special treatment on this matter – sidelining, in the process, the objective measures of the TEF – what next?

Of course, some might argue that the TEF was never going to do what it claimed anyway. It will not be a reliable measure of teaching quality. Maybe, but that feels to me like a different argument. It’s one thing to debate whether teaching quality can be measured; it would be another thing altogether to abandon objective measures in favour of ‘distinction by mission group’.


This particular suggestion, about work-study visas, feels to me a bit like a political advisor flying a kite. It’s not been picked up by other media outlets, and I’m not betting on it happening. But it’s an interesting moment nonetheless: one that indicates the power and potential of elitism in a sector that has been built on more egalitarian foundations, but is creaking under the political and financial strains of the moment.

The international student debate: we’re talking different languages

My impression of the debate over international students, which has risen to the boil in international-students-uukrecent months, has been of two sides speaking different languages. The universities repeatedly present the same arguments, and the government takes no notice whatsoever.

What’s at stake, roughly speaking, is government support for universities in their recruitment of international students. Numbers boomed for a while, and the fees became an important part of many institutional budgets; however, tougher visa regulations and a tightening of post-study work opportunities have led more recently to declines in numbers. While governments of other Western countries are doing all they can to attract international students, the UK government has spent several years sending out contrary signals.

The response of universities boils down to two arguments. The first is economic: pages and pages of facts and figues have been produced to demonstrate the importance of international students to regional and national economies. The second is one of definition: that students are not migrants, and therefore should be exempt from the government’s efforts to restrict immigration. Reclassify international students and they can, at a stroke, become good rather than bad.

So why aren’t these arguments working?


  1. This country’s had enough of experts

Michael Gove’s infamous trashing of expert opinion might arguably be set aside as part of the prevailing lunacy of the referendum campaign. But it might also be seen as a glimpse into a mind-set that is deeply sceptical of so much of what academics value so highly: evidence, research, reason. This, after all, is a government that tried to ban academics from ‘lobbying’ it on matters of public interest.

An IPPR report published last week has demonstrated how flawed evidence has been used to exaggerate the problems posed on the one hand by ‘bogus’ colleges, and on the other hand by students over-staying on student-visas. Indeed there are suggestions that senior figures, including the prime minister, may have been overly swayed by dated, impressionistic and anecdotal evidence. Nor has there been much acknowledgement that, to the extent that there was a problem, it may now have been addressed.

I note, in passing, that Mrs May’s press release on grammar schools (et al.) last week made just one reference to research: the banal statement, ‘Research shows that prior attainment is one of the biggest factors determining access to university’. Relying on a statement of the obvious as ‘research’ while ignoring the real stuff that stacks up against their policies speaks volumes about this government’s treatment of experts. It doesn’t matter how well we make the case, they’re just not that bothered.


  1. You don’t know how lucky you are

It’s deceptively easy to assume that the Tories – traditionally the party of big business – will obviously be swayed by economic logic. Yet, as we’ve learned this year, the Tories are also prepared to sacrifice economic stability and prosperity for the sake of various ill-defined ideals. This government is perfectly – staggeringly – capable of looking at irrefutable economic data, shrugging its collective shoulders and turning away.

What we’re told instead is that universities should ‘develop sustainable funding models that are not so dependent on international students’. While the income from international student fees has unquestionably become a major part of university budgets, this position is to apply the economic modelling of cod-fishing to the market for education. There is no effort to demonstrate unsustainability – let alone any acknowledgement that educating students might be kind of a valuable thing to do – just a vague hunch that it’s time to repurpose the fleet.

And I sense something more. There’s perhaps a feeling in government circles that universities have dodged austerity – in part because of international students – and that a dose of it would do us good. Hence the symbolic significance attached in many statements to the pay of vice-chancellors, positioned as fat cats riding high on the back of an unsustainable resources boom. Why not teach them a thing or two?


  1. Education, education, education

Finally – and most importantly of all – I detect a fundamental divergence of views on the role of universities. The argument in favour of recruiting international students positions universities as both key parts of the national economy, and participants within global systems.

But we’re dealing with a government that, in one of its first acts, shifted higher education from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, to the Department of Education. It’s also a government that – again, on the basis of flimsy evidence – seems determined to believe that universities care too little about the quality of education.

So a view that seems to me to have gained traction is that universities need to concentrate more on their roles within the domestic education system and less on their positions within global networks and markets. At the end of a summer in which Britain has turned decisively inwards, this is one almost inevitable manifestation of what the Tories are perceiving as the national mood. In this climate, will Mrs May really lose any sleep over the fact that UK universities are already starting to slide in global rankings? I wouldn’t bet on it.


We have to keep making the arguments. We also have to keep demonstrating how education in British universities – for home and international students alike – is changing lives and transforming the world. But, judged by the standards of evidence-based argument that any researcher would accept as essential, this is no ordinary argument.

International students: an apology

According to a report in The Daily Telegraph, the government is planning a ‘new immigration crackdown on student visas’. This is Telegraph imagebased on the premise – loopy as it is – that students are migrants. And the Tories remain as committed as ever to reducing migration – even while they merrily jettison many the other planks of their platform.

This, it’s worth stressing, is unrelated to Brexit. Indeed many people had hoped that, since Brexit is likely to cause pain in terms of EU students and the precarious state of the Erasmus student-exchange scheme, the government might see the light and finally decouple international students from immigration statistics. That would not only be logical – they’re coming to study, not to stay – it would help just about everybody.

Instead we’re told that ‘The Prime Minister has backed calls to restrict student visas so that only the brightest and best can come to study at reputable universities in Britain’. At a time when tens of thousands of international students are graduating, many of whom have worked desperately hard in an alien system just to pass, that’s a lovely little piece of elitism. Their younger siblings have options.


An apology: I was an international student

I was an international student in this country, spending just over three years in Cambridge, 1988-92. I came here because of the reputation of British universities, the quality of the research resources, and the critical mass of like-minded researchers. The experience wasn’t perfect, by any means, but on the whole it set me up for life.

According to The Telegraph, Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, ‘believes assessments of the economic impact of foreign students should not overlook the added strain they place on housing and public services.’ Well, Mr Timothy, all I can do is apologize. I went to the doctor three or four times, I cycled on the roads of Cambridge, I drank its limey water. I even – and I’m desperately sorry, but what could I do? – yes, I even shat in its toilets. But I went home again, honest; for my immigration seven years later, I can only apologize again.

But Cambridge was paid for the education and resources it provided, and I paid for the BSE-laden beef and ropey East Anglian beer I consumed. Even in my day, international students were clearly contributing a huge amount to the economy of Cambridge. And I contributed, to the best of my antipodean abilities, to the cultural and intellectual life of the university. The people with whom I lived and studied form, today, an impressive global network in terms of success and influence.


This is serious: the benefits of internationalised campuses

Today, the benefits of international students in the UK are huge. The UK stands as an academic superpower, with sixteen of our universities ranked in the global top 100. That’s not simply a product of international students, by any means, but it says a lot about the global outlook and ambition of British universities. And there’s nothing natural or preordained about that list, just as there’s nothing natural today about the UK’s status as the world’s fifth biggest economy. These things take an awful lot of figs

In economic terms, the value of international students was measured by a  Universities UK Report published last month. The benefits, in terms of revenues to universities and expenditure off-campus, are clear. In my own town, our taxi-drivers benefit, my hairdresser benefits; the whole economy of Exeter has been boosted by the growth of international students in recent years. Yes, international students use ‘housing and public services’, but it is absurd to present them as a drain on the country’s resources. Precisely the contrary is true.

And it’s not just about the economy, stupid. Universities have grown intellectually as a result of the contributions of international students. They bring expertise and endeavour to research labs, and fresh perspectives to seminar rooms. They stretch and challenge home students. In cultural terms, their influence is also positive, helping to make our campuses more outward-looking, globally-engaged environments.

After they graduate, the vast majority of international students return to their homelands, and flourish. They may not all be – with apologies to Mrs May – ‘the best and the brightest’, but they will benefit from their education, maintain the networks they established as students, and remember their formative experiences in the UK. And many will, in due course, move into positions of authority: in business, government, the arts, academia, and so forth.

This is ‘soft power’ at work. The UK is undeniably good at soft power; indeed it topped a recent global soft-power league-table, measuring indices across areas of government, culture, education, global engagement, enterprise, and ‘digital’. There’s nothing natural about this list, either, and our reputation will doubtless take a hit post-Brexit, regardless of how well those negotiations are managed. So it seems to me extraordinary that, at the end of a week in which the UK parliament committed to spending about £40 billion on the hardest of redundant hard-power accessories – the Trident nuclear defence capability – we should choose to shoot ourselves in the feet on soft power.


In the post-Brexit weeks, the non-British financial centres have been busy courting companies currently based in London. The mayor of Frankfurt described himself as ‘weeping and laughing’ simultaneously. And so it will be, now, in the field of higher education. University leaders in Australia and the Netherlands, among other ambitious globally-engaged countries, will regret the damage the UK threatens to do to itself. They respect us; many of them were educated here. But nor will they waste time attracting the students our government seems so desperate to make feel unwelcome in the UK.

So, from one head of department, an apology, for these unfortunate signals from above. In our universities and towns, international students: we value you.

Mind the Sustainability Gap: a short guide to university finances

Be warned: this blog-post consists simply of passages from HEFCE’s Financial health of the higher education sector: financial results and TRAC outcomes 2013-14, accompanied by the commentary of your averagely financially-literate English professor. The principle being: I’ve read it, so you don’t have to; or, I’ve got nothing better to do on a Saturday night, so you can get out more.

On our addiction to international students

One of the sector’s most significant risks is that overseas recruitment will be lower than projected in the sector’s financial forecasts, particularly as reliance on this source of income continues to grow. While dependence on overseas fee income varies between institutions…the latest financial results show that the number of institutions reporting a greater reliance on this source of income grew again in 2013-14.[para. 31]

Or: the surpluses from international fees help to underwrite other activity. See below re the sustainability gap.

On staff pay

While the sector reported an overall increase in staff costs in 2013-14, the rise in staff numbers (up 3.7 per cent compared with 2012-13) caused average staff costs per employee to fall by 0.3 per cent (real terms). [para. 35]

Or: staff pay is not (yet) causing problems. Or: pay rises are happening but they’re quite selective, so pay for many is actually falling in real terms.

On capital expenditure

Buildings and related infrastructure represent the ‘public face’ of a university, and help it to attract and recruit new students, as well as having a direct impact on the student experience. With rising student expectations (resulting from higher fees) and increasing competition in the home and international markets, the sector needs to increase investment in infrastructure.


In an era where capital funding from Government is high there is less need for institutions to generate cash to re-invest in their infrastructure. The more government funding for capital reduces, the more institutions need to generate themselves, either through increased surpluses or by levering additional funding from other sources, including borrowing…This places greater pressure on HEIs to generate higher surpluses to provide the positive cash flow needed to fund investment and meet finance costs.


Although the sector has invested significantly in infrastructure over recent years, data…indicates that on 31 July 2013 many institutions still had large amounts of non-residential space in poor condition, with an associated cost to upgrade the estate of £3,327 million…However, this only reflects the cost required to upgrade this portion of the estate to a sound and operationally safe condition, and does not take into account the additional investment needed to bring the estate up to the standard required to satisfy rising student expectations. [paras. 45, 47, 50]

Or: all the ambitious building projects are putting strains on finances, but we seem to be stuck in an inflationary spiral of expectation and competition. The more we build, the more the students want; the more they want, the more we build.


As important as the absolute level of borrowing is the ability of the borrower to service the cost of borrowing. In 2013-14, the sector reported interest payments of £359 million…The cost of increased borrowing has to date largely been mitigated by the exceptionally low interest rates. However, a rise in interest rates could add significant costs to the sector, placing increasing financial burden on individual institutions’ sustainability. [para. 54]

Or: is your university sensibly locked into long-term interest rates? There might be an economic recovery one day. Really.

The sustainability gap

TRAC data from HEFCE-funded HEIs for 2013-14 indicates that the sector reported a sustainability gap (the difference between the level of surplus achieved by the sector and the level required to cover the full economic costs of its activities) of £883 million, a deterioration against the position in 2012-13, when the sustainability gap was £870 million.


These figures show a pattern which has been broadly constant for some years, the main features being that:

  •  publicly funded teaching shows a position just slightly above break-even (compared with break-even in previous years)
  •  non-publicly funded teaching makes a significant surplus
  •  research is significantly in deficit.

When comparing income with costs, the TRAC data for 2013-14 shows that the sector recovered 96.6 per cent of the full costs across all of its activities; a marginal increase from the recovery rate reported in 2012-13, which was 96.5 per cent. However, the TRAC results for 2013-14 show that the sector’s research activities continue to report a significant deficit across all sponsor categories, with the deficit for research activities totalling £2,412 million (equivalent to a deficit of 35.5 per cent when compared with research income). [paras. 61, 64-5]

Actually this is pretty clear, though a breakdown between STEM and HASS research would be helpful. The serious funding challenges are in the latter. Big science is a hungry beast; and, paradoxically, the universities with the biggest grant income figures may consequently face the biggest challenges.

Overall, the data shows that surpluses on non-publicly funded teaching and other activities are insufficient to support the shortfall on research, and the increasing sustainability gap for 2013-14 reflects the fact that the sector is not generating enough income to finance all of its activities and investment. On a single-year basis this might not matter, but over the medium term this means that in the absence of some other source of income that can be used at their discretion, some institutions are likely to face difficult decisions about their capacity to invest in and sustain their current portfolio of activities. [para. 67]

Or: research intensive universities are playing a tricky game. They’re losing money on what brings them their greatest prestige. Since Lord Browne’s promise of differential fees never materialized, they’re getting no more income per student than other universities from home and EU students. Hence the precarious dependence on international students. And hence, by the way, the absurdity of the current visa rules, which do so much to deter international students.


Got all that? Now let’s see if the Tories shake it all up again.