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Local and national student issue round-up

We base our campaigning and representation work on evidence we gather here at Sussex and by following national developments affecting students here.

Our staff team collate a report every two weeks of relevant information including statistics from our support & advocacy team to show which issues are having an impact on our members.

This report is circulated to staff and officers and now we’re sharing it so you can follow things here at Sussex and nationally.

Content note for this edition: sexual harassment, domestic abuse, r*pe, homophobia, ableism



  1. Local developments and trends

    1. Sussex University Freedom of Information (FoI) requests

  1. National developments and trends

    1. New Universities Minister announced in cabinet reshuffle

    2. Toby Young resigns after being appointed to the board of the Office for Students (OfS) and other OfS updates

    3. Jo Johnson’s talk ‘free speech in the liberal university’

    4. Another consultation on the Office for Students

    5. UCAS end of year report for 2017 shows decline in mature applicants

    6. New guide to university league tables published

    7. Government green paper on transforming young people’s mental health provision

    8. Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) launch report on the costs and benefits of international students

    9. National Union of Students (NUS) response to phase 1 Brexit negotiations agreement

    10. Disadvantaged students predicted lower grades and less likely to get into university

    11. UK universities accused of complacency over sexual misconduct

    12. Comment and opinion pieces

1.1. Sussex University Freedom of Information (FoI) requests

We track publicly submitted requests for information from the University as they may reveal information we want to respond to.

An FoI request on library fines has come back showing that the total amount of fines paid to the University for overdue items during the 2016/17 academic year was £12,442.75.

An FoI request on various staff and student ethnicity statistics was deemed more expensive than considered appropriate by the Act.

New FoI requests which have not been responded to yet

  1. Admissions statistics for LLB Law broken down by entry tariff

  2. Number of international students who have sublet their accommodation out of term time

  3. What procedures do the University follow to evict students, squatters or subletting tenants?

2.1. New Universities Minister announced in cabinet reshuffle

Yesterday, Jo Johnson lost his position as Universities Minister in the government’s cabinet reshuffle, being replaced by Sam Gyimah, the former Prisons Minister. Some commentators had suggested Johnson was at risk for this reshuffle, having caused some havoc last week regarding the Toby Young appointment (see 2b) and after continually dismissing the Prime Minister’s suggestion of a ‘major review’ of Higher Education funding in recent months. Johnson, who has been in the role since 2015, lead of the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the UK’s 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, which is the first HE legislation approved since 2010. Recently, Johnson had focused his efforts on speaking out against what he claimed to be ‘no platforming’ and affronts to free speech in universities (see 2c), as well as on excessive salaries for university vice chancellors.

Gyimah, who has been the MP for East Surrey since 2010, worked in the Department for Education between 2015 and 2016 as a parliamentary under-secretary of state. He is a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, and formerly was the President of Oxford University Students’ Union. While he back Remain in the EU referendum, he has consistently voted against protecting EU nationals’ right to remain in the UK, which may have implications for our current international students and alumni. He also voted in favour of increasing tuition fees for UK students to £9,000 in 2010. See Gyimah’s voting record.

Justine Greening has resigned from her role as Secretary of State for the Department for Education, while Greg Clark holds his position as Business Secretary. Damian Hinds, formerly the Work and Pensions Minister, has been appointed as Education Secretary.

Sam Gyimah replaces Jo Johnson as universities minister, Times Higher Education


2.2. Toby Young resigns after being appointed to the board of the Office for Students

On New Year’s Day, it was announced that Toby Young, the controversial Top Chef judge, champion of free schools and author of ‘How to Lose Friends & Alienate People’, would be one of the fifteen new board members offering strategic direction to the government’s new regulatory body, the Office for Students (OfS). The appointment has caused a stir on social media, with many commentators angry that someone with a history of misogynist, ableist, classist and homophobic comments. Others have claimed that he is not qualified for the role, with very little experience of higher education sector.

Nazir Afzal OBE tweeted to say he had applied for the role, but despite his extensive qualifications hadn’t even been shortlisted for an interview, saying on Twitter:

I applied for this role. Thought as pro-chancellor of one university, governor of another, two honorary doctorates from others, honorary fellowship and visiting lecturer at three more, I might get an interview. I didn’t. Clearly I wasn’t what they were looking for! He was.

Labour MP David Lammy said on social media on Monday:

Is that Toby Young who said I was wrong to criticise Oxbridge for failing to improve access? The Toby Young who only got into Oxford University because his Dad rang the tutor up?

Toby Young himself has responded to the criticisms in a statement posted on Facebook, arguing that his work on free schools makes him qualified for the role, and has said he regrets some of the ‘politically incorrect’ things he has said in the past, while also stating that he is a ‘defender of free speech’. However, Young handed in his resignation from the post on Tuesday (9th) morning, despite (former) Universities minister Jo Johnson supporting the decision in the Commons the day before. This comes just eight days after his initial appointment. Young states he has decided to do this as his appointment had ‘become a distraction from its vital work of broadening access to higher education and defending academic freedom’, claiming that social media has created a ‘caricature’ of him. His full resignation was published by The Spectator.

The overall composition of the board shows a move away from a body representing sector interests, introducing a regulator that clearly breaks with the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) role as a ‘buffer body’ between the sector and government. Young’s appointment, among others, shows a move towards a clear political role of the body. Young in particular has been vocal about free speech and critical of the role of ‘safe spaces’ in universities.

Monday (8th January), will also see the launch of the OfS student panel, which includes NUS President Shakira Martin and other current and former students’ union officers. After the recruitment process for the student place on the board failed to find a suitable candidate, one member of the student panel – Ruth Carlson, an undergraduate at the University of Surrey – will take up a year-long interim board position to strengthen links between the two advisory functions.

Currently, HEFCE/future OfS staff are working through the responses to the ‘new regulatory framework’ consultation, which are assumed to be in the low hundreds.

Read the Students’ Union response to the government consultation.

Backlash over appointment of ‘Tory cheerleader’ Toby Young to university watchdog, Metro

Toby Young is ideal man for university watchdog, says Boris Johnson, The Guardian

Labour demands Theresa May reverse Toby Young appointment due to his 'misogyny and homophobia', The Independent

Toby Young's appointment to board of higher education watchdog sparks criticism, The Independent

University job backlash because I'm a Tory - Toby Young, BBC News
Toby Young resigns from university regulator, BBC News


2.3. Jo Johnson’s talk on ‘free speech in the liberal university’

Jo Johnson delivered a speech in Birmingham on Boxing Day in which he claimed that free speech was under threat because some students are denying speaking slots to campaigners who have expressed controversial views, calling for books to be removed from libraries and demanding extensive ‘trigger lists’ of words not to be used. The National Union of Students (NUS) and other students’ unions have been critical of the speech, claiming it exaggerated the issue and arguing that Johnson had failed to listen to student concerns. NUS defended their no platform policy, saying it only denied a platform to a small number of extremist groups: Al-Muhajiroun, the British National party, the English Defence League, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK and National Action.

When asked about cases where students had tried to deny speaking slots to Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer over their views on trans people, he said ‘the OfS will have a range of remedies at its disposal which do include fines at the more extreme end of the spectrum’, as well as the possibility of de-registration. He argued that students who felt uncomfortable with views that did not come within that definition had to become ‘resilient and learn to deal with controversial opinions’.

However, it is still unclear how the Department for Education would measure whether universities’ governance is consistent with the principles of free speech.

Free speech in the liberal university, gov.uk

Student leaders criticise Jo Johnson after threat over no-platforming policies, The Guardian

Burning books on Boxing Day, WonkHE


2.4. Another consultation on the OfS

The Department for Education (DfE) yesterday launched another consultation (deadline 9th February), this time on the financial penalties to be imposed by the Office for Students. The proposals suggest that there should be a limit on the size of penalty that the OfS can impose on providers for breaching ongoing registration conditions. The consultation asks for views on what the limit should be, but suggests a maximum fine of the higher of either £500,000 or a percentage of income (2% or 5%).

DfE proposes financial penalties for late payment of OfS registration and other fees. There is also a list of proposed mandatory factors the OfS should take into account when imposing penalties including: the seriousness, nature and impact of the breach; impact of the penalty on students; financial gains made by the provider as a result of the breach; and the OfS’s assessment of the risk of a provider failing to comply with regulation in future.


2.5. UCAS end of year report for 2017 shows decline in mature applicants

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) - the organisation which manages applications of British students to UK universities - reported that university applications across the UK had decreased by 3.1% since last year, with acceptances also down by 0.5%. Both the numbers and proportions of 18-year-olds accessing higher education in the 2017 admissions cycle were the highest they’ve ever been. The overall decline in UK acceptances comes from a drop in older age groups entering HE. The number of 19 year-olds applying fell 5.2% on last year, while numbers for those aged 21-25, and over 25, fell 7% and 9.8% respectively.

The report was covered by the Mail Online, the Guardian, the Times and the Herald.


2.6. New guide to university league tables published

Last week, the Higher Education Strategic Planners Association (HESPA) and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) jointly published A Guide to UK League Tables in Higher Education to help the sector (cautiously) use the biggest and most high-profile university rankings.

It recommends the following for different stakeholders:

  • Prospective students - continue to visit as many higher education providers as possible to inform their opinions about institutions and recognise that league tables are just one tool among many that they can use to help them create a shortlist of institutions.

  • Policymakers - continue to engage in conversations with relevant sector bodies and a range of providers to give significant additional insights to help make strategic decisions.

  • Higher education providers - avoid chasing a higher league table position at the expense of a broader strategic consideration of emerging trends, as an institution’s unique position in the sector should not be underestimated and cannot always be effectively conveyed by a league table.

The author of the report also wrote an article for The Guardian last week, using their findings in the report to put forward a case against basing Vice-Chancellors’ salaries on league table performance.

They stated:

I want more from my vice-chancellor than the ability to follow the rules for success set by league table compilers. A good vice-chancellor should provide strong leadership, good governance and clarity on strategic positioning for the longer term. League tables are not a good proxy for these.


2.7. Government green paper on transforming young people’s mental health provision

In December, the government published a green paper which recommends ‘more coordinated action’ on mental health support across the university, and encourages ‘whole-organisation’ approaches to tackling mental health, embedding it across all policies, cultures, curricula and practice. It also echoes the call of Universities UK to adopt mental health as a ‘strategic priority’.

The green paper announces a new national strategic partnership with key stakeholders focused on improving the mental health of 16-25 year olds by encouraging more coordinated action, experimentation and robust evaluation.

Its focus will be on the following areas:

  • Leadership – to ensure that schools, colleges and universities adopt whole-organisation approaches to mental health;  

  • Data – to provide a systematic strategy to improve what we know about student mental health. This means encouraging innovation in data linkage and analytics;  

  • Prevention – to embed understanding throughout student populations of the importance of mental health through exploring and testing psychosocial education;  

  • Awareness and early intervention - to test and promote training for staff and students on how to help those experiencing mental health difficulties;  

  • Wider transitions – to address the key issue of moving between services – from children’s mental health services into adults’ services, and from inpatient treatment to community support – and geographies – from home to campus - making it easier for young people to make these moves;  

  • Integrated support services – to reduce the variations in care for young people and to encourage local coalitions between tertiary education providers, local authorities, and health and care commissioners and providers;  

  • Effective join-up – to better link student welfare, accommodation and security services within institutions so students with mental health conditions are less likely to go unnoticed

The consultation can be completed online until 2 March 2018.

In response to this announcement, an opinion piece in The Guardian written by a member of a UK university’s security team claims that university staff don’t have the skills or training to recognise and detect signs of mental ill health in students, and often when they do it is too late.


2.8. Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) launch report on the costs and benefits of international students

This week, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) will be launching a report uncovering ‘the costs and benefits of international students in the UK’. The results will also be broken down by parliamentary constituency. Offering brand new figures to contribute to the debate, the report is ‘set to end the impasse between advocates for the free movement of international students and the UK Government, which continues to include international students in net migration targets’.

Get ready for the launch: New HEPI report on the costs/benefits of international students, HEPI


2.9. National Union of Students (NUS) response to phase 1 Brexit negotiations agreement

Amatey Doku, National Union of Students (NUS) VP Higher Education, provided a response to phase one of the Brexit negotiations. He says that ‘the resulting agreement on citizen rights will offer some assurances to the academics and students currently living and working in the UK that their rights as citizens will be guaranteed’. He also says that students will be grateful that they are able to participate in the Erasmus+ programme until the year 2020, but says that we need commitment to participation beyond this date. Additionally, the need to secure ‘student mobility’ across Europe is the next important part of the deal.

This comes along with recent polling by HEPI and Youthsight found that most students (62%) want a second referendum on the Brexit deal. Support for Labour among students has also grown since the election and now stands at 68%.

Joint report on progress during phase 1 of negotiations under Article 50 TEU on the UK’s orderly withdrawal from the EU, gov.uk


2.10. Disadvantaged students predicted lower grades and less likely to get into university

A report from the Sutton Trust found that ‘bright students from poorer backgrounds are more likely than their wealthier peers to be given predicted A-level grades lower than they actually achieve, putting them at a disadvantage in their university applications’. The report claims that every year as many as a thousand high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds are given under-predicted grades, which can have a significant impact on the university and course they choose as well as their future employment prospects. It also claimed that the use of personal statements in the admissions process was likely to reinforce this effect, with disadvantaged students less likely to have support in writing them.

Recent figures published by UCAS also found that the most advantaged applicants are still six times more likely to attend “high tariff” or selective universities compared with the most disadvantaged.

Another article reported that school-leavers in England from the most deprived backgrounds (namely free school meals pupils) were the least likely to attend university, with the gap widening for the second year in a row. This summer’s UCAS admissions data showed that the entry rate for pupils on free school meals was nearly 17%, while the entry rate for other pupils was close to 34%.

Poorest school-leavers half as likely to attend university as their peers, The Guardian

Disadvantaged students given lower predicted A-level grades, report says, The Guardian


2.11. UK universities accused of complacency over sexual misconduct

A report following a Freedom Of Information request to over 100 universities found the following:

  • More than one-third (39%) of universities provide no staff training on misconduct, including harassment and rape.

  • Only 27 universities reported that training on sexual misconduct was mandatory, representing just under half of universities that do provide some level of training.

  • Only 21% of the universities surveyed said they had a designated point of contact with training on sexual misconduct. More than half of universities said there was a member of staff students could approach, with some citing workers who might have no specialist training, such as head bar managers and personal tutors, deans and porters, as possible first points of contact.

  • Nearly a quarter of the universities (23%) reported that they had no clearly designated point of contact for victims of sexual misconduct at all.

  • Just under a quarter (24%) of the universities said their student advisers, who provide help and support to students with welfare and academic issues, had no training on sexual misconduct.

  • Almost two-thirds (63%) of universities said they did not have harassment advisers or sexual violence liaison officers who had in-depth training on responding to sexual misconduct. Some other universities reported that they would be training staff to take on such roles later this academic year, while others said they liaised with external specialist services such as the local Rape Crisis centre.

  • The findings also raise concern about the fairness of investigations into student complaints of sexual misconduct by staff, with almost half of the respondent universities stating that they allowed staff to investigate departmental colleagues. 20% said students had no right to request an investigator be replaced if there were concerns about a potential conflict of interest.

  • Only 10 universities require staff who investigate complaints of sexual misconduct to have had training on how to handle such cases.

The article also noted that Universities UK (UUK) will not be releasing guidance on tackling staff-student harassment until late 2018.

A number of other articles on sexual harassment and violence at universities have been published over the past month. New research by academics from the University of Exeter found that understanding the myths that new students hold about sexual violence and domestic abuse is key for prevention, with around 20% of new undergraduates in the study agreeing or strongly agreeing with statements that suggested women claim they’ve been raped if they regret sex or desire revenge. The findings, summarised here, are consistent with other research on university students attitudes towards rape and domestic violence.

Sussex lecturer, Alison Phipps, writes in the Guardian that sexual harassment approaches have focused too heavily on ‘zero tolerance’, punitive measures, rather than changing the culture.


2.12. Comment and opinion pieces


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