Can Higher Education be depoliticised in 2018?

This piece was first published on *HE Research (09.01.18)

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At a conference in December of last year, Professor Clare Callender called for debates around student funding to be depoliticised. Such is the extent to which tuition fees have become an ideological and partisan issues, many of us in attendance found it difficult to conceive of discourses that were not politicised. Subsequent appointments did not help this situation. So, at the start of a new year, this blog considers some of the steps that might be taken – and the basic principles that might be followed – if funding issues are to be discussed in less divisive ways.

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  1. Loan repayment terms should be set in stone, not subject to change at a political whim. When higher fees were introduced in 2012, borrowers were told that their repayment threshold would rise with inflation. In 2015, as part of an austerity agenda, this promise was broken. And in 2017, as part of a wheeze to win back young voters, it was announced that the threshold would increase to above its initial level. This adjustment will bring welcome relief to many recent graduates, but that’s not the point – whether the changes are generous or ungenerous makes no difference. Once a loan is agreed, students have a right to expect that their repayment terms won’t be meddled with to meet political agenda.

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  1. Funding models should be analysed independently, according pre-determined long-range indicators. An unedifying aspect of the funding system introduced in 2012 was how quickly and unproblematically it was hailed a success. Jo Johnson characterised the model as a “great success story,” citing the OECD’s description of England as “one of the few countries to have figured out a sustainable approach to higher education finance.” Of course, the often-repeated claim that ‘more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds attend university than ever before’ is entirely true. The problem is that the relentless focus on the ‘young’ conceals a sharp fall in mature students and a 56% collapse in part-time numbers. And then there’s question of which type of institution these additional young students are attending. Evidence suggests it’s twice as likely to be a university outside the top ten as one inside the top ten. While a high ranking institution is no guarantee of high quality teaching, we know that the top jobs tend to get hoovered up by alumni of elite universities. And with the most recent UCAS figures noting that the participation gap – the difference in likelihood of attending university between those in the most and least disadvantaged quintiles – has widened for a third consecutive year, it’s worth asking whether ‘young’ participation is the only indicator in town? A more forward-thinking system would surely set a range of goals – across demographic groups, university types and modes of engagement – and assess outcomes strictly on a long-term basis.

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  1. Students should have enough to live on. Given the levels of debt that students are now expected to enter into, one would reasonably assume that enough money would be provided to cover day-to-day expenses. But the current maintenance system for students offers no such guarantee. According to one study, 10% of students say they may have to drop out of university because they can’t afford to continue. Since maintenance grants were most recently abolished, the NUS claim that 46% of students worry about being unable to afford basics such as bread and milk. It’s not only an implicit deterrent to wider access, it’s a practical impediment to healthy living and good mental health.

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  1. Universities should be more upfront about what they spend their money on. The sector has for too long obscured the way in which it manages its own budgets. Despite calls for greater transparency when fees rose, institutions have largely shrouded themselves in secrecy. But this position is not only unsustainable, it’s counter-productive. The recent furore over VC pay will not be the last of its kind; politicians, students and wider society will continue to probe the sector’s finances, asking why universities are complaining about real-term cuts in student income while sitting on often substantial Humanities students, in particular, will ask why they’re paying the same fees as students elsewhere when their degree usually costs less. By no means are such questions unanswerable. Indeed, I’m quite happy to explain to my Education undergrads why some of their fees may be used to subsidise the Medical School across the road. But the sector’s reticence is itself political.

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  1. The sector should reclaim language that’s consistent with the role of university as an educational institution. It’s remarkably how quickly the language of politics and business have replaced the language of learning in Higher Education. This is partly justifiable on the grounds that the sector now, thankfully, serves a wider function in society. No longer are universities the finishing schools of the elites and ivory towers for uninterrupted contemplation. The emergent language – ‘employability’, ‘impact’, etc. – is mostly a reflection of necessary evolution. But the new vocabulary isn’t politically neutral. If you frame students as under-protected consumers, and degrees as potentially mis-sold, then you are reducing education to a private good. If you talk relentlessly about students’ ‘value-for-money‘ then you are changing the nature of students’ engagement with their learning. A depoliticised funding model would remind society that the university experience is potentially life-changing, with new intellectual itches to be scratched and new kinds of knowledge in which to become absorbed.

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  1. Higher Education should be reintegrated with earlier forms of education. No-one has ever been sure quite where universities should sit within government. Are we there to educate, in parallel with FE colleges and adult learning centres, as part of a pedagogical pipeline that stretches from primary, through secondary, to its final destination? Or are we more about business, a supplier of highly productive graduates to feed the needs of high-skills labour markets? Whatever your preference, there’s a mismatch. Schools’ curricula have reverted to rote learning and long exams, while universities cling to ideas around independent learning, critical thinking and the co-production of scholarly knowledge. But the students we receive, though often brilliant at remembering and recalling facts, don’t always associate education with the development of informed opinions. A more joined-up, inclusive and progressive education system would recognise disadvantage and seek to compensate at all levels. A provision based on pedagogy rather than politics would better serve the needs of all young people.

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Perhaps by talking about Higher Education – and the options for funding it – in less nakedly politicised terms, its status as a public good might begin to be reclaimed. As we move into a new year, the need for educational policy to be underpinned by some basic principles is arguably greater than ever before.

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Who gains from the grumbles?

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Note: this piece was originally published by WonkHE on January 11th 2016.

“My students have paid £9,000 and now they think they own me” runs the headline. It’s one of those anonymous pieces, so the wider context is difficult to figure out, but the author seems troubled by a message that reads “all I’m asking for is a little respect seeing as I pay you £9,000 a year”.

It’s the “blunt, consumerist language” that offends the author, and a number of anecdotes follow, each reinforcing this interpretation. “If you ask me,” quips a colleague in the car park, “all universities are going to need a customer services department before long”. Another claims a student once told them: “I pay you to teach me what’s in the article, not the other way around”. The author recalls how very different they had “acted and spoke” when at university – assignments were completed punctually, guidelines followed diligently, etc. How they wish they could say the same of their students now.

passengers.jpgSuch rhetoric is becoming familiar on English campuses, and the points about unfair workload allocation, expectations of across-the-board excellence, and often counter-productive management culture all deserve to be made forcibly and repeatedly to policy-makers, sector representatives and intuitional leadership teams. But venting at students about how universities are funded is like confronting fellow passengers because your train is running late.

Remember, the student’s plea is not for higher grades, quicker feedback or the guarantee of a graduate job, but for “a little respect”. Is this really a case of neoliberal higher education policy coming home to roost? Or is it something altogether more localised and petty?

images22Perhaps the student was wrong to mention fee levels at all. But let’s not forget the extent to which the 2012 funding system has driven higher education to “hurl the cost of itself at graduates”, as Jim Dickinson recently noted on this site. According to the Sutton Trust, only one in twenty will now repay their debt in full by the age of 40, compared to almost 50% under the previous system. An average teacher will still owe £25,000 by their early 50s. The freezing of the repayment threshold will make an undergraduate degree more costly still and, last year, we saw maintenance grants turned into loans and student nurses stripped of their bursaries.

It’s naïve to believe that such wholesale reconfiguration of the way in which our sector is funded won’t disrupt the nature of undergraduates’ engagement with their university or change academics’ working conditions. That’s exactly why our students were placed at the heart of the system – so they’d behave like consumers and enact the marketisation agenda.

Teaching-Excellence-Framework2However, in many respects, they’ve refused to play ball. Take the proposal to link success in the Teaching Excellence Framework to higher fees. The National Union of Students objected immediately, taking a position of principled disengagement long before the rest of the sector began to follow suit. Yes, there are some individual undergrads who’ll seize their rights as newly-empowered service users to make unreasonable demands on staff as they seek to maximise their return-on-investment. But there are millions of others who don’t measure their experience in solely utilitarian terms and want their time at university to be inspiring, cordial and enlightening.

The nameless author of the piece fantasises about replying with: “Hey student – all I’m asking for is a little respect, seeing as how much you pay makes no difference to my wages, yet the level of support I am forced to offer you takes up 80% of my time despite the fact that teaching still only equates to 33% of my workload.”

Is support for students really something that academics are “forced” to offer? And if we must gripe about our salaries, might it be judicious to acknowledge the inter-generational unfairness that the current funding model precipitates?

arguing.pngBut the bigger question here is who gains from such grumbles. A frostier relationship between students and academics doesn’t benefit those who yearn for campuses of old. Rather, it benefits those who seek to marketise and instrumentalise the sector further. Undergraduates can be framed as dissatisfied customers, then as budding agents of change, while academics can be positioned as ivory-towered and over-protected. Many of the 4,000+ comments beneath the original piece offer precisely this reading.

But the student-academic relationship at English universities is surely stronger than such simplistic polarisations allow. Is a little respect really too much to ask for?

Willetts’ Legacy? Too soon to say…

This piece was originally published on LSE’s Impact of Social Science blog as “Higher Education community responds to cabinet reshuffle, but it is too soon to foretell David Willetts’ legacy” (July 15th 2014)

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Last night, @timeshighered initiated a Twitter hashtag to gather users’ thoughts about how posterity might record the outgoing Universities minister’s contribution to the sector. It was fascinating to watch #WillettsLegacy develop, with initial ire that “Higher Education has never been so deep in the shit” (@dolbontboy) slowly giving way to “real admiration” (@mikegalsworthy) for a “thoughtful and respected” (@keith_herrmann) minister with “passion” and “enthusiasm” (@Suzanne_Wilson) for his brief.

For some, the legacy was “crippling debt” (@tmyoungman), “accelerated marketization” (@DrLeeJones) and a “black hole in funding” (@cmsdengl).  For others, Willetts was “a visionary” (@LE_Aerospace), “brilliant” and “outstanding” (@ProfRWinston). Often mentioned was “the value of having a universities minister who understands science” (@AlanHeavens).

At the time of writing, about 30% of the #WillettsLegacy tweets were positive, 45% were negative and 25% were mixed.

The success or otherwise of Willetts’ reforms won’t be known for some time yet, of course. The 2012 funding model places graduates in hitherto unknown levels of debt. Indeed, the Institute of Fiscal Studies recently noted that where under the previous student loans system 50% of graduates would complete their repayment by the age of forty, only 5% will do so under the new system. The 2012 model may be more progressive during the period immediately after graduation, but future generations of middle-earners are likely to pay more for longer.

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If the reforms were an attempt to introduce competition to the sector, they were largely unsuccessful. Predictably, raising fees to £9k per year didn’t result in universities ruthlessly undercutting one another in the market place. What it did create was a plethora of “Cashpoint Colleges” teaching nothing much at all, at eye-watering expense to the taxpayer.

Indeed, early predictions of how costly the government’s underwriting of the new system would be proved wildly optimistic. RAB estimates have now risen from 30% to 45%, making the system more expensive than that which it replaced. Some call for the fee cap to be lifted; others suggest some kind of Graduate Tax may be a fairer option.

Though the widening participation agenda seems not to have taken a hit from the introduction of higher fees, UCAS report that applications from mature students and part-time students are down substantially since 2012. Even when young people from state schools get the grades for a top university, evidence shows that they’re less likely to apply and less likely to be offered a place than their equal-attainment peers from the independent sector.

Findings also indicate that some applicants are much more favoured by the applications process than others. Willetts supported the use of contextual data in admissions (“if they’ve come from a school that doesn’t get many good A-level grades,  getting a grade at that school is even more of an achievement”), but missed key opportunities to level the playing field further.

On the other hand, Willetts did much to raise the profile of teaching in Higher Education. For all of its faults, the National Student Survey shows student satisfaction rising every year. Open access for journal articles (triggered by Willetts’ own frustrations at being charged to read scholarly publications when researching his most recent book, The Pinch: How Baby-Boomers Took Their Children’s Future, and Why They Should Give it Back) is a step in the right direction.

Indeed, in Willetts, we had a minister who was willing to engage directly and openly with academic research. At a Sutton Trust event last year, I recall Willetts taking issue with an academic report authored by John Jerrim of the Institute of Education. The debate was heated, and Willetts repudiation of the evidence wasn’t entirely convincing, but it was heartening to see a policy-maker engage directly with educational research (rather than, say, dismiss its authors as blobbish ‘enemies of promise’).

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With four years’ service as the Minister of State for Universities and Science, Willetts is entitled to the odd blunder. Among his most cringe-worthy was citing feminism as the “single biggest factor” for the UK’s social mobility problem, although selling off old student loan books smacked of fiscal desperation and the proposed cuts to the Disability Student Allowance are particularly offensive.

With no student having yet graduated under the 2012 system, Willetts’ legacy can be no more than a matter of speculation. Hasty measures to open up the Higher Education sector to alternative providers may yet take their toll both on universities and on the taxpayer. Those of us who received our degrees for free may wince at the levels of debt new generations of graduates face.

However, the consensus from social media, and beyond, is that Willetts shielded the Higher Educations from the worst excesses of austerity and neoliberalism. He’s generally remembered as a minister committed to his brief and ready to engage with dissenting voices; as “one of government’s genuinely nice blokes” (@tnewtondunn).

Manchester Asks… Prof Les Ebdon

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a University of Manchester public event at which the Director of the Office for Fair Access, Prof Les Ebdon, responded to pre-recorded questions from staff, students and alumni.

One of Prof Ebdon’s key points was about the under-performance of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students. According to Prof Ebdon, the issue is now “bigger than access into university” for such students.

Prof Ebdon was responding to a question asked by undergraduate student, Aasia Hanif, in which she cited HEFCE research showing that the likelihood of students from some minority ethnic backgrounds being awarded a good degree was lower than that for other students with the same entry qualifications.

“It happens at nearly every university,” said Prof Ebdon. “The expectation for those students is lower than the expectation for white students.”

Prof Ebdon described university as “the best investment you can make”. However, when pressed on the complexity of student loan model, he conceded that “the advantages of the system take a lot of explaining to people who just see the headline £9,000 per year”.

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In response to a question from Diana Khasa about the lack of encouragement received by some would-be applicants, Prof Ebdon urged universities to address the “myth” that young people from non-traditional backgrounds don’t fit in.

However, he also acknowledged important differences in the quality of advice, information and guidance received by students from different educational backgrounds.

“When I go into a fee-paying school, they’re usually very hot about university admissions,” said Prof Ebdon, before recalling his own difficulties navigating the university admissions system, which he described as “a complete lottery”.

“But lotteries are usually random,” I said.

“You’re absolutely right,” Prof Ebdon replied. “It isn’t a lottery. It’s a loaded dice.”

Prof Ebdon talked about “continued improvement” in the young participation rate of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. However, in response to a question about mature students from Student Union Campaigns Officer, Clifford Fleming, he accepted that participation rates for some other groups had fallen since the introduction of higher fees in 2012.

For mature students, Prof Ebdon advocated a “more flexible provision” noting that “ministers believe there are big opportunities in Distance Learning.”

“The picture is changing all the time,” added Prof Ebdon, pointing to “remarkable success” in admissions with minority ethnic groups, but noting that the increasing under-representation of ‘working class boys’ was “building up quite a significant social problem.”

When asked about access to postgraduate study by Clive Agnew, my University’s Associate Vice-President for Teaching and Learning, Prof Ebdon agreed that this was a growing area of concern. “Postgraduate admissions is the new glass ceiling for Widening Participation and we’ve got a problem with double glazing.”

Prof Ebdon also maintained that the Widening Participation agenda should not stop at the point of admissions, noting that non-traditional students “are likely to need extra support” once at university.

Finally, responding to a question about employability skills posed by Director of the Student Experience, Tim Westlake, Prof Ebdon said: “Students with professional parents very often have access to networks which enable them to understand what goes on in particular professions. They have a much wider range of professions that they know about. But students from non-traditional backgrounds may not have experienced that.”

Are counter-arguments to a Graduate Tax wearing thinner with every new RAB estimate?

Last week’s news that the 2012 student fee system is likely to cost more than the one it replaced was met with silence by those who previously blamed public opposition to it on “a failure of presentation”.

For some, the solution involves lifting the cap on fees further. So when Channel 4 newscaster Cathy Newman suggested to David Willetts that another rise was on the way, his response was that it “could be“.

For others, like John Denham, the answer is to introduce shorter degrees and to cut fees by having employers part-fund students.

Somewhere between the two, advocates of a Graduate Tax point out that, if levied at the right thresholds and subject to appropriate limits, such a contribution has the potential to raise more revenue in a way that’s more progressive.

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Often, the very idea of a Graduate Tax is shot down in flames, and today it was the Social Market Foundation’s Director, Emran Mian, who smeared it as “a terrible policy at a terrible time“. “If Labour does adopt a graduate tax policy,” he said, “it will be making a grave mistake.”

But are the counter-arguments to a Graduate Tax wearing thinner with every new RAB estimate?

According to Mr Mian, “everyone earning over £10,500 would have to make a contribution” and repayments would be “unlimited, both in terms of the total amount due and the period over which it is to be paid”.

Really?

Could repayments not be levied on earnings over, say, £21k, as the current system does? And could a Graduate Tax not cease 30 years after the degree is completed, as loan repayments now do?

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The underlying objections of Mr Mian, who headed up the supporting civil service team for the 2010 Browne Review, seem to channel those of Nicholas Barr, who rejected a Graduate Tax on the grounds that universities should “face a system that encourages competition“.

The problem is, changes to the funding model made in the name of “austerity” begin to look ill-conceived when the tax-payer is left footing an even bigger bill.

And Mr Mian’s piece doesn’t acknowledge one of the main problems with the £9k system – that high-earning graduates end up getting their degree for substantially less than their middle-earning counterparts.

That’s not to say a Graduate Tax is without any problems of its own, of course. Hypothecated revenues would need tightly ring-fencing to stop future governments dipping their hands into the till, and the Russell Group are right to point out that “the prospect of incurring a punitive tax liability would create incentives for those who anticipate higher earnings to avoid paying“.

Some wealthier graduates may indeed drift overseas to dodge their contribution.

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The SMF’s Chair, Mary Ann Sieghart, described Mr Mian’s piece as a “great demolition of the Graduate Tax“. And John Rentoul went further, arguing that the Graduate Tax has a “mythical quality of otherness shared in the old days by communism and in the new days by Swedish social democracy“.

But rather than dismiss the idea with a sweep of rhetorical flourish, wouldn’t it be better to commission some detailed economic modelling and make long-term comparisons with a £9k system that increasingly seems unfit for purpose?

Who knows? Maybe bigger loans and cheaper degrees aren’t the only two options?

Why lowering tuition fees may not be the answer

Last month, former Universities Minister John Denham addressed the Royal Society of Arts, saying:

“I don’t know of any progressive principle [in] which it is a good idea to induce people, generally from lower income backgrounds, to take on huge loans, demand big payments and then to tell them they don’t have to pay after all.”

On first reading, the argument seems a persuasive one. It’s consistent with Higher Education being a public as well as a private good. It acknowledges the significant additional debt we’re asking younger generations to take on. And it points towards broader cost-sharing mechanisms being more equitable.

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The problems raised by Denham’s position aren’t to do with hypocritical fiscal policy, as Conservative Home lamely claim. But there may be some unintended consequences to an otherwise refreshing intervention.

First, Denham talks about “turn[ing] our backs on the ideology behind the high fees system.” He wants to reduce the average total fee for a three-year degree to under £10k (“the same as when Labour left office”). Let’s spend more on teaching and less on debt cancellation, he says.

This will come as a blow to those at elite universities looking to ramp up their charges further and may strike the ‘squeezed middle’ as a step in the right direction.

However, those graduates who’d benefit most from the proposed cut would arguably be those who on the highest salaries. Fewer non-repayment concessions would kick in for lower-earning graduates, and an important progressive feature of the current system would be lost.

Second, Denham moots the idea of two-year courses (£5k in total) and encouraging more students to attend university while living at home. The UK HE sector increasingly accommodates both, and this flexibility is welcomed by many undergraduates.

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However, the danger is a two-tier system, in which three-year degrees in arts and humanities subjects become the preserve of a wealthier élite and cheap n’ dirty degrees are rolled out for the masses.

That’s fine if you’re a fan of price discrimination and a heavily marketised HE system, but not so great for long-term social mobility and equity of opportunity.

Denham wisely notes that university finances are “sliding off a cliff”, a point that needs to be made more forcibly (and acknowledged more openly) by politicians on all sides. “Despite steady progress in widening participation,” he says, “we are still miles away from a genuinely meritocratic, lifelong higher education system.”

I agree.

A strong case is also made for further partnership between universities and employers, and the point that £6 will be spent on debt cancellation for every £1 spent on teaching, though contested by some, is a powerful one.

However, the most obvious solution – cutting fees – isn’t necessarily the best. The headline £9,000 figure seems not to be deterring lower-income applicants and the long-term issue is probably more with an unsustainable repayment structure.

The current system is often described as a graduate tax even though the very highest earners actually repay less than middle-income graduates. Denham does allow for the option of a genuine graduate tax, but this seems more a concessionary afterthought than a firm policy recommendation.

Perhaps the most progressive principle of all would be to have those who gain most from HE cough up a little more.

2013: the year in HE

In 2012, following a near-trebling of student fees in England, recruitment fell by 9%.

However, 2013’s headline is that normal service has now been resumed. Indeed, entry levels are close to a record high.

This is good news for all. That HE brings both individual and societal gains is well established. Rumours persist that participation may even offer the odd cultural benefit, though ‘public good‘ remains a phrase conspicuously absent from most wider discussions of HE.

History will also record 2013 as the year in which the mature student began heading towards extinction. Application rates for those aged 21 or over have fallen 14% since the fees hike, and there’s little real hope of recovery. (Note that the graph below covers only 18-year-old applicants.) Prospects look similarly bleak for would-be UK postgraduates.

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On a more positive note, the 2013 National Student Survey found undergraduates to be happier with their lot than ever before. A blunt instrument though the NSS is, it would be churlish to argue that the ‘student experience’ hasn’t improved since its launch in 2005. 85% of graduating students are satisfied with their degree programme.

With universities now all REF‘d out, the pendulum is likely to swing back towards teaching. For England’s 1.5 million £9k-a-year paying undergrads, this can only be good news.

Private universities continued to be welcomed into the English HE market, though the New College of the Humanities fell short of its very modest recruitment targets once again. Three-quarters of its £18k-a-year paying students attended an independent school.

Such was demand elsewhere, however, the government was left with a black hole in its budget. With plans to sell off the student loan books being likened to a Ponzi scheme, some wonder why we seem intent on following the US down the path of bubbling, unsustainable student debt at a time when Germany are abandoning their fees experiment altogether.

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Sadly, 2013 saw the demise of the 1994 Group. Meanwhile, the University Alliance’s end-of-year message raised eyebrows by commending the government for courageously taking the “economic and moral high ground” (my italics). It also raised questions about what exactly HE mission groups and consortia are for.

Politically, Willetts and Cable continue to pull the strings, while Graduate Tax advocate Liam Byrne replaced Shabana Mahmood as Labour’s Shadow HE minister.

Universities UK got told off by Polly Toynbee for suggesting it’s okay to segregate female and male students, and Sussex Uni quickly reversed its decision to suspend five students for protesting peacefully.

In terms of WP, the proportion of poorer students applying for university held firm, though ‘top’ universities continue to recruit at much lower levels than other institutions.

According to a Sutton Trust report issued in November, at least one quarter of this “access gap” can’t be attributed to academic achievement, further evidence that there may be more to Russell Group under-representation than A-level performance.

And what to expect from 2014?

Well, English universities will soon be able to take as many students as they like. That’s good news for many, but it could increase the pressure on struggling institutions to maintain market share as their sought-after WP students are lured elsewhere.

Universities free from recruitment anxieties will continue to press for the £9k cap to rise.

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Meanwhile, early applications figures for 2014 are down 3% on the same time last year.

Long-term, it may not be the headline £9,000 figure that’s most damaging to the HE sector.

Rather – as I’ve argued elsewhere this year – a bigger problem could be continued uncertainty about the security, fairness and expense of the student loan system itself.