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In the news: 10 November

Russell Group head's bizarre charity donations plea to avoid pay cut

Arguing against a cut in his £322,000 annual pay and pensions package, Russell Group chairman and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow Sir Anton Muscatelli told today's Times that he donates money to charity. While his defence might be straight out of a Smashie and Nicey sketch, Muscatelli is not the first vice-chancellor to demonstrate just how disconnected he is from the rest of us.

From Oxford's Louise Richardson's complaint that her salary (£350,000 a year) is not in the same league as footballers and bankers, to proud Bentley and yacht-owning George Holmes at Bolton (£222,120 a year and a £1m loan to buy a house) saying he is underpaid compared with top US institutions, university leaders have continually embarrassed the higher education sector with the arrangements for their pay.

In the past five years, vice-chancellors have enjoyed an average pay increase of 22%, despite pleading poverty every time it came to staff pay. Muscatelli hints at greater scrutiny of how senior pay in our universities is decided and not before time. Over two-thirds (71%) of vice-chancellors either sit on the committee that sets their pay or can attend its meetings. When UCU asked for minutes of those meetings 75% of universities refused to provide unredacted versions.


UCU calls for end to mock REF exercises in sackings row

UCU yesterday said the government should get rid of mock exercises for the research excellence framework (REF) after Times Higher Education reported that eight senior staff within the University of Hertfordshire's business school are at risk of redundancy "in relation to a review of research positions".

A spokesman for UCU said: 'Mock REF assessments are a waste of time as they are unlikely to produce similar results to the real thing and just add stress and unnecessary work for staff. Ofsted had the right idea when it banned mock Ofsteds in schools two years ago and the government would be doing the sector a favour if it followed suit. Staff should be allowed to concentrate on doing what they do best, not being made to jump through yet more hoops.'


Prime minister in "minority of one" wanting to keep international students in immigration target

Home secretary Amber Rudd is leading a new cabinet push to remove students from the government's immigration targets reports the Financial Times. It reports one minister as describing prime minister Theresa May as "in a minority of one" in the cabinet in believing that students must be counted in the target, and she has been implacable in her resistance to any change in policy.

However, the paper says Rudd believes that unless May changes her position in the coming weeks, the government will suffer a humiliating defeat next year when the Commons considers a bill to set up a post-Brexit immigration regime.


Crackdown on universities' marketing claims

Universities are to face a crackdown on how they advertise and market courses to students according to the BBC. Universities will be warned by the advertising watchdog that they need to prove the accuracy of their claims.

The news comes after the University of Reading had to take down its claim to be in the top 1% of the world's universities, because it could not be objectively substantiated. Next week the Advertising Standards Authority is expected to identify up to six more universities which have breached the advertising code - along with issuing tougher guidelines on what is permissible language in marketing.


Universities' income from further education routes more than doubled in two years

Tes analysis shows that higher education institutions are expanding into further education. In just two years, university income from apprenticeships, traineeships and the adult education budget has more than doubled, from £12.6 million in 2014-15 to £31.9 million in 2016-17. In the same period, the number of universities in receipt of funding for further education provision has almost trebled, from 21 to 62.

This shift can partly be attributed to the growth in higher and degree apprenticeships. According to the latest provisional government data, the number of higher-level apprenticeships has increased tenfold over the past six years - from 5,700 in 2011-12 to 61,000 in 2016-17. But Tes reports that universities are also beginning to offer more level 3 provision, and so-called "year-zero" courses - preparation programmes for degrees.


Oxbridge and USS outed as Cayman Islands investors in Paradise Papers

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and nearly half of all Oxbridge colleges, have secretly invested tens of millions of pounds in offshore funds, including in a joint venture to develop oil exploration and deep-sea drilling, leaked documents from the Guardian's Paradise Papers reveal.

The files show that both universities have committed significant funds to multibillion-dollar private equity partnerships based in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven popular with American and British hedge funds.

The fund's biggest investment, of $1bn, was with Royal Dutch Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil and gas company. A joint venture, the Shell Technology Ventures Fund, in turn invested in "production and exploration" technologies. One Shell business partner that received Oxbridge funds was Xtreme Coil. The firm specialises in "innovative and efficient drilling rigs" able to "reach hydrocarbons in deeper horizons". One of the largest contributors to the fossil-fuel-linked partnership was the UK university sector's main pension scheme, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), with $88m invested.


Tough week for Whitehall mandarins on further education funding and higher education loan system

It's been a tough week for Whitehall mandarins in front of the Economic Affairs Committee on the economics of higher, further and technical education. Treasury Public Spending Director General James Bowler was forced to concede that the current system of student loan repayments ceased to be progressive at around the £40,000 mark. A conclusion similar to that reached by London Economics in a report for UCU earlier this year.

Also giving evidence this week was director general of higher and further education at the Department for Education, Dr Philippa Lloyd. She was asked about the wide discrepancies between the two sectors in terms of funding and FE Week reported that she said the government was working to address the issue but described it as "difficult stuff". 


Just one in 20 referred under anti-terror programme end up in specialist support

Only 5% of the 7,631 people referred to the government's Prevent counter-extremism programme in 2015-16 ended up in specialist support to turn them away from terrorism, reported the Guardian yesterday.

New Home Office figures confirm that most referrals of people thought to be at risk of being drawn into terrorism are made by schools and colleges, with 2,539, or 33%, of all referrals. The police make the second highest number, with 2,377, or 31%, in 2015/16.

Two-thirds of those referred to Prevent were referred due to concerns about Islamic extremism, with 679, or 10%, referred for concerns about right-wing extremism.


Student Loans Company sacks another senior executive

The Student Loans Company has sacked its chief executive, Steve Lamey, after a long-running investigation into his conduct. The Guardian reported on Wednesday that Lamey's contract had been terminated following his suspension in July.

Since its inception, the senior leadership of the SLC has been dogged by disputes and management turnover, with the top spot in particular something of a revolving door. Previous chief executive, Ed Lester, left the organisation in 2013 in the wake of controversy over tax avoidance. In 2014, the then chair offered to resign after SLC was found to be using fake letters that threatened to take legal action against graduates who were behind in their payments.

In 2010, the then chief executive, Ralph Seymour-Jackson, resigned following a high-profile scandal involving late or failed payments to thousands of students, leaving many undergraduates without cash and forcing universities to resort to distributing emergency funds. Two other senior executives resigned in 2009 when the SLC failed to cope with more than 1m applications for loans after taking over responsibility for the payments from local authorities.

Report reveals how much students' fees fund research

A report released yesterday highlighted how much students are funding research through their fees. The report from the Higher Education Policy Institute claims that overseas students are in effect subsidising UK research through their fees to the tune of £8,000 over their course.

The study says that, despite attempts over several years to deal with the fact that research is not fully funded by grants from public funders and charities, the losses being made by research seem to be getting worse.      

As a result, the report calls for urgent action in the Budget on 22 November to close the estimated £3.3 billion deficit in research funding, which it says means that £1 in £7 spent on research comes from surpluses made from teaching.


UCU welcomes end of Open University's Cuban student ban

UCU has welcomed the news that the Open University has reversed its policy of barring Cuban students from studying at the institution. In the summer UCU wrote to both the vice-chancellor of the Open University and universities minister Jo Johnson calling for the ban to be overturned.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: 'We are pleased that the Open University has reversed its policy on banning Cuban students. However, we believe that the government's own advice made it clear that the university should have been making greater efforts made to improve relations between universities here and in Cuba.'

Last updated: 10 November 2017